This is the first instalment of a larger project that has been growing in my mind for a long time. In all, there will be four parts.
1. Prologue by Certh
2. Chapter 1 by Certh
3. Chapter 2 by Certh
4. Chapter 3 by Certh
5. Chapter 4 by Certh
6. Chapter 5 by Certh
7. Chapter 6 by Certh
8. Chapter 7 by Certh
9. Chapter 8 by Certh
10. Chapter 9 by Certh
11. Chapter 10 by Certh
12. On Names by Certh
Daylight touched the snow-clad peak of Mount Mindolluin, painting its white helm with glinting gold. The clear hue shone down on the mountain side, bathing the great city at its foot in pale luminescence. An east breeze hummed through the busy lower levels of Minas Tirith, but it was cold and nipping, chasing away the sun's warmth. The early spring that had come wasn't yet felt in the stone fortress, save perhaps in the Houses of Healing up in the sixth circle.
There the tall trees and fragrant bushes and beds of flowers were already awakening from their winter sleep, bursting into new leaf and blossom. A most delicate, soft scent seemed to hang about them, heralding the change of season and bringing comfort amidst the breaths of persisting chill.
Going around that green tapestry was a thick hedge of shrubbery, nearly five feet tall, broken only once along the side facing the main road near the massive bastion that divided the city levels in two, and that break was the first entryway into the Houses of Healing. From it a cobbled path went straight forward, with lesser ones branching off to snake through the flowering lawns.
In the middle of garden and greensward stood the elegant buildings accommodating those grievously ill. And they were indeed fair, made of light stone and boasting lofty arches and gently sloping roofs, the detail carven into the masonry beautiful in its graceful simplicity.
Currently, a good number of the high-roofed, airy rooms were unoccupied, and an easy silence filled those empty places, fanning out beyond them to shift into the quiet voices of healers and patients.
In one sunlit corner of the herb garden, a little girl buried her nose in a patch of flowering plants and then quickly withdrew, sneezing. She laughed.
The older woman standing beside her gazed at the child fondly, a touch of good humour tracing her features. As the girl straightened, her guardian picked up something lying on the bench by them. She looked at it for a moment before turning her attention to her charge.
"This is yours, Idrin. Keep it well." She presented the child with it, her lips curving upwards at the delight in the young girl's face.
"Thank you, Mistress Inneth!" The child looked up at her with bright eyes, clutching the gift tightly to her chest.
The woman dipped her head, a dark lock escaping the veil that covered her hair. "Now, go to your mother."
With a beaming smile, the girl turned on her heel and set off. The hurried patter of small feet punctured the calmness as she weaved her way through gardens and corridors, fading when she entered a well-lit chamber.
The room was decorated in simple fashion, holding a comfortable bed, a couple of cushioned chairs, a low desk and a sizeable chest of drawers. All was made from tan wood, and the ornate carvings it was sculpted into lent a pleasingly lavish feel. A thick, many-paged book bound in dark red leather sat atop the desk, along with a finely shaped, three-branched candlestick wrought of polished brass and a small assortment of aged scrolls. On the chest of drawers was an adorned ivory comb and a hand-held mirror.
Overlooking the gardens was a tall, arched window, wide enough and unglazed but fitted with hinged shutters opening inwards. A woman sat there, clothed in a gown of embroidered midnight-blue, gazing outside at the flourishing display of spring as sunlight and cool air flooded in to lessen the coldness of stone. She relished the clear draft, but the intake of a deep breath constricted her chest, bringing about a violent cough. The fit was mercifully brief: it wore out quickly, and the stinging ache that came with it soon subsided. Regaining her ease, the woman pressed the linen handkerchief to her lips one last time and set it on her lap just as a blur of colour rushed into the chamber.
With a swish of ochre and white fabric, the young girl settled herself on the floor at her feet. Arranging the skirts of her dress about her folded legs, she looked up at the adult.
"Mistress Inneth taught me about the plants in the garden. She said she would teach me how to make infusions from them." The high voice was overflowing with unconcealed excitement, the child's face bright and lit up as if by an ardent flame.
A few lines around the eyes and mouth creased the woman's skin as she beamed affectionately down at her daughter. Sea-grey eyes accentuated her pallid complexion and lean cheeks all the more, but the sickness that wracked her body was hidden behind the smile that touched her colourless lips.
"That is wonderful, my darling," she replied to the girl's almost palpable enthusiasm in a smooth, melodious voice, her gaze warm. Her youngest child was only eight summers of age, and yet she displayed such fondness for all green things that grew as was seldom found in children of her years. Verily, it was that same liking which had drawn her to the healers and their work, for there were some among those skilled people in the Houses of Healing who were wise in the herb-lore of old, and her young daughter had grown fascinated by their art.
Idrin was very often in their company, preferring those quiet moments with them to the time she spent learning subjects and skills required for girls of her class and upbringing. Her interest was genuine and she took much delight in watching the healers and helping with whatever small tasks she could. The women were entertained by her eagerness and indulged in answering her questions, teaching her simple things when she requested it.
It brought joy to the mother to see her daughter so full of cheer and laughter then, banishing from mind her own solemn condition which had brought her to these fair houses.
The Lady Elthian had been in the care of the healers for a little over a year, suffering from a disease of the lungs that robbed her of physical strength and endurance. Her laugh was heard seldom, and the illness had taken its toll so that sometimes even breathing brought a strain upon her. But the smile she now held for her daughter was true, reminiscent of her old self.
"And she gave me this," still aflutter and with unabated fervour the little girl went on, suddenly turning her attention to where her hands lay clasped in her lap. Little fingers tightened around the healer's gift and she drew out a book of moderate size which had to that moment lain hidden in the folds of her dress. She presented it to her mother. "It has drawings and descriptions of all the healing plants in Gondor, and even some that are found in Rohan and beyond the Misty Mountains." Grey as calm waters at twilight, her eyes shone with the vividness of her delight.
Elthian raised a slender hand to brush a wavy lock of dark hair from her daughter's forehead, and the corners of her mouth were drawn upwards into the wisp of a flitting grin.
"That was very kind of Inneth," she said softly, turning her gaze to regard the book properly. Unmarred by use or wear, the cover was fallow-green in colour, embossed at the front with the flowering sprig of a slender plant, and from between the pages peeked the thin ribbon of a bound bookmark. Elthian took the volume carefully from her daughter's hands as she offered it to her and began turning the parchment leaves with gentle fingers. Lore of years uncounted was hoarded in each page, and the woman recognised that those writings as were within were precious indeed, for such wisdom of times long past was greatly diminished in their days. Without doubt it was a book to be treasured, holding valuable knowledge accumulated by healers and herbalists over many centuries.
Her gaze lingered on the page before her and her fingertips hovered above the fine parchment leaf as she began reading silently to herself. Stillness fell and Idrin, nearly lulled by the muted shuffling sound, drew herself up and sought to find what had kindled her mother's interest. That page from the book was one she had seen before, and the image of the long-leaved plant that the scribe had so artfully sketched there was familiar to her: kingsfoil it was commonly named, yet it had no virtue the healers knew of, except its invigorating scent. The letters on the page faced away from her, but her eyes found the verses near the bottom without difficulty:
When the black breath blows
and death's shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king's hand lying!*
Not for the first time trying to work out the meaning of the old rhyme, the little girl turned to her mother. "Mama, will a king ever return to Gondor?"
Elthian looked up, startled by the sudden question, and rested the book beside her on the stone window-sill. She met her daughter's gaze, filled with innocent curiosity, but did not have an answer to give. A King there had been once, verily, but he had entered the gates of Minas Morgul and was lost, leaving no heir, and for many generations since then did the Stewards govern from the High City in his name. Her brother Denethor was presently the twenty-sixth Ruling Steward,¹ and the return of Elendil's rightful heir to reclaim the throne had long before him passed into legend.
"I do not know, my love," she replied at last, "but he might return still, one day."
* From The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter VIII.
¹ '[Denethor II] was first son and third child of Ecthelion . . .' (The History of Middle-earth: The Peoples of Middle-earth, Chapter VII, The Ruling Stewards of Gondor)
It was sometime past the sunset-hour when she first heard it: a shrill cry coming from above the fields of the Pelennor, an unearthly screech that turned her blood to ice. She froze mid-step, a shuddering chill spreading through her limbs and awakening some nameless terror within her. Her breast heaved with each laboured breath, heart thudding painfully in her chest. For many endless seconds she stood as still as a statue, wide eyes staring unseeingly. Then, as the echo of the piercing shriek died away, she brought a hand to her breast to still herself and breathed deeply. Gathering her skirts, she strode forward to cross the darkening lawn, curiosity getting the better of her. She climbed the short flight of steps hewn into the stone of the wall and pressed against the parapet that ran the whole length of the paved walk-way, looking down.
Six hundred feet below the plain looked dim and bare, but to the left, near the Gate, dark shapes circled and swooped and rose again. They were winged beasts of great size, wheeling above something on the ground, hovering over tiny black specks that moved erratically. Those spots that tried to evade the flying creatures were horses, she realised. Another sharp wail made her cower and take a quick step back from the parapet, pressing her hands to her ears. A trumpet call cut suddenly through the terrifying screech, its note long and high. The young woman's heart thumped with renewed force against her chest and she choked on a sudden intake of breath, recognising the sound.
She dropped her arms to her sides and forced her rooted limbs to move forward. Hands grasping the parapet tightly, she leant over and looked out. Three of the riders were running on foot towards the Gate, thrown from their mounts, but the fourth remained in the saddle and was riding back to them. The flying beasts circled above them still, like terrible birds of prey. The young woman's wide eyes darted from one rider to the other frantically, her pulse racing.
A white light then appeared as if out of nowhere and sped towards the men, growing even more bright and dazzling. One of the fell creatures dived. A flare of blazing radiance shot into the heavens, and the woman thought she saw a figure, clad in brilliant white. The winged beast gave a shriek and veered round; its companions gained height and followed it eastward. She watched their dark bulks disappear into the vast brown cloud that dominated the East and let out a deep breath. Turning her gaze at last to the fields, she saw a dimmed white glimmer pass from sight under the outer walls: the hunted men and their saviour had entered the City.
At that hour the young woman was all at once aware of the darkness that had fallen, much deeper than the pastel shades of twilight. As though jolted awake from a dream, she felt the wrinkled fabric in her hand and opened her palm, smoothing the cloth with gentle fingers. Then she came down from the wall.
She picked her way through the flowering greenswards laid out between the buildings that made up the Houses of Healing, her brisk footsteps the only sound in the calmness of the early night. It was pleasantly cool, and in the quiet that reigned at that moment the domain of the healers seemed secluded from the rest of the City. It was as though the dread of the fell beasts had been but a fading dream. As she reached her destination, a hum went up from afar, rising steadily to a clamour and cheering. Looking over the shrubbery that was the border to the Houses in the distance, she could discern a press of people, following two horsemen to the Citadel. Her footsteps slowed to a halt, and her heart fluttered once more. For a long moment she stood staring at the crowd with bright eyes, wishing she could join them despite the obligations that called to her, but then, with a shake of her head, moved away towards the nearest wing of the Houses.
The door she pushed open led to a dark room. Taking a step inside, she reached with one hand and tended a tall oil-lamp that stood on a nearby table, illuminating the space with pale yellow light. It was a store-room: rows upon rows of shelves lined the walls above short cabinets, and a couple of low tables were placed there also, and a long, narrow bench in one corner. Jars and bottles, flasks and bowls of various shapes and sizes filled the shelves, some containing liquids and others powders or dried herbs. On the worktop that was attached to the cabinets were two bronze sets of mortar and pestle, and brass balance scales, and empty phials. A modest, still-burning hearth with a large kettle for boiling water was nearby, and sprigs of freshly culled herbs were hung from hooks in the wall to dry.
The young woman walked to the cabinet at the far side and deposited the small bundle she held on the work-surface. The light from the lamp behind her bathed her form. She was clothed in the garb of the healers: a pearl-white chemise under a sleeveless steel-blue kirtle, a thin veil of light colour covering her hair and fastened at the nape of the neck. Clear sea-grey eyes framed by dark lashes were set above high cheekbones, and her small nose turned up at the tip.
The healer unfolded the cloth before her and placed the grey-green leaves it held in a deep bowl, pouring boiling water over them and covering the container. Letting the tea steep for a few minutes, she strained the liquid into a cup, adding some drops of lemon juice and honey to temper the flavour. She produced a small tray from a cabinet drawer to hold the cup and went from the store-room with her load.
The next chamber she entered was lit brightly, the lamp casting feeble shadows here and there as it flickered.
"I apologise for my lateness, Lord Húron," the healer addressed the man standing at the window as she placed the salver on a high table.
The man had turned round at the sound of footsteps and now waved her apology off with a kind grin before taking the cup she offered. "Thank you, child." His bearing was proud, his hair and beard flecked with much grey and his smiling eyes keen.
The young woman mirrored his expression involuntarily. The lord Húron had been a captain of Gondor, permanently disabled in battle two years previously. Yielding his office to another, he had hoped for a quiet retirement, yet a recurring decline to his health currently confined him to the Houses of Healing. He and her father had been close friends, and after her sire was slain during the Nazgûl's attack on Osgiliath past June, the lord Húron had been as kind as a parent to her.
At present he sat on the bed and sipped the hot tea, savouring the subtle aroma of sage wafting from the cup. After a few moments he spoke again: "Those bone-chilling cries a while ago, what were they?"
The young healer met his serene gaze. "Winged beasts from Mordor," she replied softly, willing her voice to remain steady. "They assailed Captain Faramir and three of his company, but Mithrandir drove them away."
The Lord Húron frowned. "Then they were fortunate indeed," he said finally. "Those fell creatures sounded mighty unkind." His grave voice made the young woman shiver inwardly.
* * *
It was about two hours later that she found herself freed from duties, coming to stand beneath an arbor grown with lilac-coloured trailing plants. The veil that had covered her hair was now upon her shoulders, worn as one might a shawl, revealing the thick plait that went almost to the middle of her back, dark as rich-brown lebethron-wood. The night was quiet and black and starless, yet the moon shone white and cold in the sky. The healer allowed the latticework to support some of her weight, closing her eyes and concentrating on the simple act of breathing. Too soon, it seemed, solid footfalls punctuated the silence. Her lids fluttered open and she spun on her heel.
The dark-haired man clad in the green and brown raiment of the Rangers of Ithilien mirrored her joyous smile, and his grey eyes glinted. With a couple of long strides he reached her and tenderly took her hand in his. Tall though she was, the young woman had to tip her head backwards to meet his gaze. He was beaming at her still, yet the healer's delight was suddenly drained, and she stared up at Faramir with troubled eyes.
"Those men who were with you..."
"Arvinion and Damhir are not among them," he said quickly, guessing her mind. "And all are well," he added as an afterthought.
Her face relaxed, and she studied him, for the first time noting the signs of fatigue that traced his features. "You are weary, cousin," the healer spoke softly. "Come and sit a while." She led him to one of the benches of carven wood and iron that dotted the garden between the nearest wings of the Houses of Healing, surrounded by open passages paved with light stone.
He sat and took a deep breath of the flower-sweet air, absently following the young woman with his eyes as she bade him wait and hurried towards the adjacent building. At that moment it suddenly struck Faramir how closely she resembled her mother, who had passed away seventeen winters before. Indeed, she was no longer the child who had accompanied her sick parent to the Houses of Healing so many years previously.
His thoughts did not have the time to wander far: before long the healer had returned, bearing a cup.
"Drink this," she said quietly. "It will soothe you."
Faramir accepted the cup gratefully, giving its contents a cursory sniff. In truth, he had come to the Houses with half a mind to seek his cousin and ask for a draught to ease his jadedness. With a warm smile he conveyed his gratitude and took a long sip. Then, as he swallowed, a grimace of distaste warped his features.
"You are certain this is valerian and not hemlock, Idrin?"
The young healer started. Then, she belatedly noted the almost impish flicker in Faramir's eyes. A laugh escaped her lips: witnessing the thoughtful captain entertain such light talk had become a rarity in recent months, and it now cheered her to see him in this good mood. "Indeed. Were I trying to poison you, Faramir, I would have chosen a more subtle way." Still, she should have added more honey.
The corners of Faramir's mouth twitched, and he began to laugh with her. When his chuckle died down, he took a breath and drained the cup.
"I am glad thou art well." Idrin's voice sobered and for a while she said no more. "Now, what news from Ithilien?"
Faramir let out a heavy breath. "The Dark Lord is assembling his armies: Orcs and Easterlings and Men of Harad riding mûmakil. We ambushed a company of Southrons on the North Road, yet the great beast with them took many lives in its passage, men on both sides." As he spoke of the mûmak he saw his cousin begin to tense and then, with a private little shake of her head, relax again. The Captain of Gondor regarded her for a moment and fell quiet.
"Have you seen the Halfling who came with Mithrandir?" asked Idrin suddenly. "They say he travelled with Boromir." She paused. The riddling words in her cousins' visions came back to her once more, kindling her thought as they had done when she heard that the wizard's companion was a Halfling. "Yet, if he were the one of whom the rhyme in your dreams spoke, his fate would lie in some deed of valour, surely, and not here in serving a Lord of Men."
Faramir stirred and gazed at her long before speaking, his words slow. "I have seen him, yes. He was a companion of Boromir indeed: their fellowship set out from Imladris but their paths afterwards parted. We found two of that sundered company – two Halflings – in Ithilien, going east."
"It must be a desperate errand that would take them so far beyond the Anduin." The healer looked at her cousin thoughtfully, the crease above the bridge of her nose deepening as she sat in silence. "Our doom then lies with them, and with Isildur's Bane – whatever that may be –, or so I read the riddle."
The Captain of the Rangers shifted in his seat as Idrin gazed into the darkness. "So it would appear," he returned.
The healer was quiet for a brief spell, her eyes becoming unfocused, and the Steward Denethor's secondborn son wondered for a moment if a question was forthcoming. Then Idrin came back to herself.
"It's growing late and I should let you go to your rest."
Ease flooded Faramir's features. "I admit I would welcome sleep in a soft bed – it has been a long ten days," he said. He rose and proffered his arm to his cousin. She rested her hand lightly on his forearm, falling into step beside him as they wove their way out of the gardens and up towards the Citadel.
The sounds of the city came through the open window more and more infrequently as the day waxed towards noon. The room looking out onto the road was sparely furnished, with a long table, four chairs and a sideboard, but a crackling fire burned on the wide hearth at one end.
"It has mended well, Angdan."
Sitting across a tall, heavy-set man, Idrin had fixed her gaze on his outstretched arm, pressing firmly on the bare skin as she ran her hands from elbow to fingertips. Alert to any signs of discomfort or pain, she nodded to herself when he displayed none and looked up at him. "You can return to work, but do not tax yourself – after such a fracture, an arm needs to regain its strength at its own pace."
"It is about time I went back to my smithy," said the swarthy man with a spark in his eyes. "There is much to be done and the lad has been alone there too long." He chuckled quietly to himself, his gaze finding the bandages and splint discarded on the table. "I had never thought I would miss my hammer and anvil so."
The healer's lip curled as she began to fasten the flap of her satchel. "Just remember to mind your arm."
"I will," returned the blacksmith. "Thank you, Mistress Idrin."
* * *
The streets were quiet as the healer made her way up to the sixth circle. With most of the population of the city gone south to refuge, the emptiness felt all-engulfing. Idrin frowned at the deepening gloom – where the sun should be shining, the morning seemed to cling to twilight. She had almost passed the stables by the entrance to the Citadel when the murmur of voices speaking quietly together caught her attention. Recognising Faramir's voice among them, she slowed her pace and pushed open the gate to her right.
When she reached the large building near the towering bastion, the scent of fresh hay mingled with the distinct smell of horses rushed to fill her nostrils. Her nose crinkled and a grimace twisted her features. The healer stopped short before the doorway, snorting a breath, and looked inside.
Stablehands went hither and thither, tending to animals and boxes, and seeing to riding equipment in need of repair. The Rangers of Ithilien who had come with Faramir the previous evening busied themselves with saddling their horses while conversing softly. Of the four men, the Captain of Gondor was nearest the door, but he now kept silent, his gaze low as he adjusted his mount's girth straps with deft fingers.
Finding him, Idrin made to enter but checked herself suddenly, looking down. She contemplated the layer of mucky straw coating the floor for a long moment and then picked up her skirts. Holding the fabric well above the ground, she crossed the threshold carefully, gaze straying to her shoes every now and then. When she came near the four men, she discerned that all were clad in shining mail under their green hooded cloaks. Swords hung at their sides and helms stood on a low bench at their feet. She saw now that Faramir wore a grave expression and recalled hearing rumour of the Steward's Council that had been held earlier that morning. Idrin gazed at him in silence for a few seconds.
"Is it wise to risk so much at Osgiliath?" The healer padded closer.
The Captain of the Rangers turned and looked at her with a keen eye. When he spoke, his tone was cool: "The Lord of the City judges we should not yield the River so lightly." He watched Idrin part her lips in silent exclamation and then close her mouth without uttering a word, inclining her head in recognition. Faramir shifted his gaze.
"My men are at Osgiliath," he continued, his voice no more than a soft whisper and his eyes staring without seeing. "I cannot leave them there to face this Enemy alone." He fell quiet. When he blinked, the Captain of Gondor saw his cousin was still looking at him in silence. He held her gaze.
Idrin returned no answer, but after a moment gave a half-nod. "Be safe," she said, placing a hand lightly on his forearm.
Faramir touched her fingers. "Farewell." His voice was clear and solemn. He reached for his helm, took the horse's reins in his free hand, and led the destrier from his box. Waiting silently in the background, the three Rangers now followed him without speaking, leading their own mounts and offering curt nods of acknowledgement to the young woman.
Idrin turned to watch them as they left the stables, her gaze fixed on their retreating forms. A feeling of dread filled her at that instant, remembering the winged fell creatures and their chilling cries. She shivered and blinked. Willing the black thoughts away, her eyes traced a patch of sunlight on the floor and sought the familiar sight of her surroundings.
The stables were fair and large enough to house five scores of horses, although it had been long since such a number was accommodated. Sturdy pillars upheld the roof on either side of the gate to each box, and connected to them were arched partitions of dark wood that divided one box from the next, low enough to allow the horses a measure of interaction with their neighbours. Narrow windows were cut into the walls at equal intervals to let the light in, and fitted to them were shutters that could be closed to keep out rain and cold. Slender lanterns hung from beams in the ceiling, providing additional illumination when need arose.
Currently, the stables played host to the grey war-horses of the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth who had arrived in Minas Tirith two days earlier. In their presence, they hummed with brisk activity, becoming more busy and full of life than they had been in many a year.
Seeing the stablehands go about their work, Idrin registered the lateness of the hour. She silently berated herself, once more gathering her skirts and making her way outside.
* * *
The rest of the day was as brown and bleak as the morning that had preceded it, and the sun was veiled by muted clouds. Time and again disembodied cries could be heard from high above the seventh level: the winged beasts of Mordor had returned, circling the stone fortress like ominous harbingers of doom.
"Do you think they can hold Osgiliath?" Idrin turned from the window and the black night outside, her gaze finding the Lord Húron. Then she huffed suddenly, eyes narrowing. "'Twas madness to send them there. Surely it would be more prudent to conserve our force and man the City's walls instead?" It had not been long since the ill news came that the Enemy had sent forth a host to win the passage of Anduin, led by the dreaded Lord of Minas Morgul.
The man looked at her with a discerning eye. "We cannot afford to lose companies, true, but what was decided cannot be undone. Denethor was aware of the risk." The Steward of Gondor had never been a rash man, even if he did follow his own mind after listening to the counsel of others, yet the current consequences of his pride might prove dire.
Idrin let out a heavy breath. "I fear for him," she said finally. "He does not sleep well as of late." The young woman made to continue but held back her words. Then she sighed. "I only hope we do not pay too dearly for this decision. Enough lives were lost past June." She turned from the retired captain, gaze fixing on the blackness outside.
Húron studied the healer, taking in the hastily set jaw and crisp movements, and after a few moments of silence joined her by the window.
* * *
The next day brought no comfort. Word came that the armies of the Dark Lord had crossed the River and the company of Faramir were retreating to the Rammas Echor, greatly outnumbered.
It was one hour after sunset that Idrin found herself standing before the short cabinets in a store-room in the Houses of Healing, pouring the thick content of a pot into shallow jars. The golden-yellow preparation gave off a scent not unlike that of pine-tree sap, mild and pleasant. The healer caught herself humming softly as she worked, sealing the containers and tying small labels to the wide neck of each before placing them on the long shelf above the cabinets.
The task of cleaning and tidying up that followed left her mind free to wander – the humming ceased and her expression gradually became sober, eyes straying to the small window facing eastwards as the news from that morning returned to the forefront of her consciousness. There had been no tidings since then, no word to soothe the thought or end the hopeless waiting of those whose loved ones fought. The healer drew a long breath. When she went from the room, catching the eye of a senior healer in farewell, Idrin was quiet and her face pensive.
She walked up the sloping tunnel that led to the seventh circle, her thought turning to the small library standing near the south wall of the Citadel: books always managed to school her restlessness. Situated by the King's House and facing the White Tower, the library was built by Ecthelion II for his wife, Almiel¹ – an elegant structure of pale-coloured stone, surrounded by well-tended copses of low shrubbery, and filled with a valuable collection of reading material.
The young woman spoke words of greeting to the guard standing at the gate; he inclined his head and stepped aside, letting her pass. As the lamp-lit tunnel fell away behind her, Idrin once more turned her gaze eastward, and there, beside the great battlement that crowned the bastion behind her, saw a lone dark figure standing on a stone seat beneath an embrasure-sill nearly thirty feet away. She blinked, wondering whyever a child was in the Citadel – the few lads currently left in Minas Tirith never ventured past the seventh gate.
The voice that broke the silence was polite, and as Idrin's eyes adjusted to the low light beyond the tunnel, she saw that the small person's head was turned towards her. He was clad in the black and silver livery of the Tower, and by him was a tall helm. It was no Man-child, the healer realised, but the Halfling who had come to the City with Mithrandir.
"Good evening," she returned, walking towards the stone seat and discerning that he was gazing at her with the same curiosity with which she was looking at him. "You are Peregrin, are you not?"
"I am," replied the Halfling. "Peregrin Took, or Pippin, if you like." He looked long at the young woman as she moved closer with easy grace, taking in the garb she wore. "You are a healer?" He had caught glimpses of the women serving in the Houses of Healing while acquainting himself with the city.
"Indeed, I am," she answered. "My name is Idrin."
Pippin gazed at her, wondering at her courtly bearing. After a few moments, he caught himself and looked away, but the young woman's eyes were fixed on the eastern skyline. He spun on his heel and his spirits plummeted.
There, above the Mountains of Shadow stretched massive clouds, dark and brown and touched with crimson-red. They looked ominous, brimming with blazing flashes, but no rumbling noise issued from them and there was only a distant impact to the air, like a clap of thunder with no sound.
A sudden breath of wind ruffled Pippin's almost golden mop of hair,² and he sighed. "It's terrible to simply stand and wait for battle to come. Being idle makes everything look so bleak."
"It does," the young woman agreed, and as she turned her eyes towards the great curve of the Anduin, the Hobbit saw a shadow pass over her face. "And not knowing if your loved ones are safe makes it worse. My brothers and cousin are at Osgiliath."
"My friends are in Rohan, and I would dearly like to see them again," said Pippin. "I suppose I might, if King Théoden comes."
The healer did not speak, regarding the silent Halfling, but after a moment she shook her head. "Come, Master Peregrin, it does no good to dwell on such thoughts." She paused. "I am bound for the Citadel's library. Would you care to join me?"
Pippin blinked and gazed at her in wonder, for he had understood that the library in question was intimate to the Steward.
His companion looked at him and her lips twitched. "The Steward's family and their guests are free to use it," she said.
Understanding dawned on the Halfling's face, and he regarded her closely. "You are kin to the Lord?"
"His sister was my mother," answered Idrin. "But will you not come with me?"
Pippin looked over the fields of the Pelennor and darkness weighed on his heart again. "I would be poor company," he said. "My thought is heavy this evening, and that's why I'm out of doors – the night air might help clear my head."
The young woman nodded in understanding and took a step back from the wall. "I bid you good-night, then."
Watching her walk towards the library, Pippin knew he would find no rest that night. Gandalf was gone and the East looked more menacing than ever. He turned his gaze to Osgiliath and the Mountains of Shadow beyond, hopped down from the seat and began making his way to the sharp edge of the bastion with its wide embrasure, his thought going to Frodo and Sam.
¹ Tolkien does not give us the name of Ecthelion II's wife; naming her Almiel is my taking creative licence. The small library situated in the Citadel is also of my invention.
² '. . . and [Peregrin Took I has] got hair that's almost golden.' (The History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, Part One, Chapter XI)
Idrin started to wakefulness, her heart racing. She felt warmth around her and was calmed somewhat, remembering she lay in her bed. Her chamber was dark and no light peeked in through the shutters: the sun had not yet risen. The vague, unpleasant sensation which had woken her lingered, yet she could not recall dreaming. The young woman slid out of bed and padded across the thick rug to the window.
Opening the shutters to a crack, she saw the grey veil of dawn outside the Steward's lodgings in the Citadel had not yet lifted. The early morning seemed hazy as with a brown mist. A low, rolling boom rent the silence then, making Idrin frown: whatever caused it must be a massive contraption indeed if the sound could penetrate the thick stone walls of the Steward's House that Mardil Voronwë had built during the first years of his rule.¹ She peered outside. Her window faced south, commanding a sweeping view of the Pelennor fields and, farther off, of the glittering bend of the Anduin, yet she could see nothing that would explain the dull noise resonating from afar.
Stepping back from the wall, the young woman felt the unexpected coolness of metal against her skin and turned promptly, steadying the teetering bronze hummingbird. Carefully, she set the old gift from her aunt away from the night-table's edge and let out a slow breath.
Glancing towards the window, the young woman lit a candle and sat at her dressing-table. Her hands found the small ornate box in front of the looking-glass. Light fingers traced the designs on the lid. She opened it and as she gazed at what lay inside, a hazy film seemed to blur her vision. Silence filled the bedchamber again. Idrin did not stir for a few moments. Then, she drew the lid down and stood, turning from the dressing-table.
Finishing her morning toilet, she dressed and went down to the dining hall for the first meal of the day. There, a brazier of charcoal burned with yellow flame, the shadows it cast dancing on the finely carved cabinets and elaborate hangings on the wall.
Sitting alone at the dark-oak table, breakfast was a silent affair, but it had not always been so. Idrin could recall laughter and good cheer in that same hall, during those times when one – or both – of her cousins would break their fast with her, when no duties kept them away from the City. And it was many times when her uncle and she sat at meals together, although their talk then was quiet and they mostly ate in companionable silence. Boromir's death and the growing threat in the East weighed down on the Steward recently, however, and the young woman seldom chanced upon him at the breakfast table anymore.
As though in answer to her thoughts, the tall, unbent figure of Denethor entered the hall. He looked worn and his dark eyes were sunken.
“Uncle, good morning,” Idrin offered, studying the silent man who advanced slowly towards the table.
He turned to her and the healer thought she saw a faint twitch of lips light the pale face. Yet, a moment later the flickering expression vanished and grimness took its place. “I wonder,” the Steward murmured to himself, but the softly spoken words did not reach the young woman's ears.
She had been looking at him closely. “You have not slept well again,” she said gently. “Come, sit. I will send for another plate.”
A dull rumble coming from afar was heard, and Idrin turned to look through the large window opening north to the view of the Court of the Fountain. A small crease settled on the bridge of her nose. When her eyes met Denethor's, his gaze was steady.
“The Enemy has taken the Pelennor Wall,” he said.
* * *
The veiled sun was climbing in the sky when a great noise filled the streets of the City. The sharp sound of hooves on stone and the thud of heavy wheels, mingled with the occasional rise and fall of men's voices, ascended slowly towards the high levels of Minas Tirith. An orderly line of wains drawn by sturdy horses halted inside the gate of the Houses of Healing, flanked by a dozen grim men on horseback. At the front, riding by the second wagon, was the brilliant figure of Gandalf the White, and he alone seemed unweary.
As the men dismounted, one hurried to seek the Warden of the Houses while the others made it their task to help the less gravely injured onto solid ground.
It was not long before the soldier returned, followed closely by the grey-haired, tall man who was the head of healers and orderlies, and the old wife Ioreth. With a swift glance at the wains and their load, the Warden bade some of the men go with the elderly woman and fetch litters to carry those who had difficulty walking. He stood motionless, watching as the men returned and the wounded soldiers began to dwindle and disappear into the Houses.
"So it begins," he murmured quietly, his darkened eyes fixed upon the retreating figures of the survivors from the Causeway Forts, a hand twitching momentarily against the deep-blue fabric of his robes.
"Yes," came the wizard's even voice from his side as he too gazed after them, "and the hours to come shall be long, Master Warden." With that he turned and led Shadowfax from the gate, releasing him into the care of one of the stablehands who had come to take wains and horses away.
* * *
The air was thick with the smell of strong spirits. Idrin bent over the wounded Ranger, fingers running lightly along the crude bandage wrapped around his head. It was stained rusty brown. Carefully, she removed the long strip of fabric and took a good look at the wound. The gash running from his hairline to his left eye was deep, but no fluid leaked from it and the edges were smooth – a sign that it wouldn't need stitching.
The healer took a soft pad of cloth from the tray on the stand by the man's bed and soaked it with a clear spirit. The soldier sat up straighter, anticipating the sting. He winced as the liquid came in contact with his skin but made no complaint. A few moments later, Idrin folded the loosely woven pad and began scrubbing gently along the edges of the wound.
"'Twas terrible." After a long while of following her movements with his eyes without uttering a word, the man finally spoke. His voice was low. "Never before have I seen so large a horde. Orcs and Southrons and Easterlings. And there were wolves, those giant wolves from Wilderland. Bearlike in the face and long-muzzled with sharp fangs. Never before had we known them to come so far south. They tore at the flesh and ripped men to pieces as though they were rag dolls."
His dark eyes had become glassy while he spoke, but in the quiet that ensued he seemed to come back to himself and focus on the face of the woman tending to him. He shook his head. "Forgive me, Mistress Healer," he said. "You must have heard this ghastly tale more than enough times today."
Idrin paused in the middle of pressing a clean patch of cotton-cloth to the salve she had applied to the Ranger's wound and looked at him, absently noting the flecks of dried blood crusting his short beard.
"Do not apologise, Mablung," she said. "Speaking of it will unburden your mind." She placed a bandage over the dressing and began wrapping it around his head. "It has been many years since such accounts succeeded in frightening me,” she added: “growing up in a household of men makes one familiar with the gruesome bits of battle." Her father and brothers and cousins had always taken care to limit the grim details during talk of skirmishes in her presence, but they did not coddle her. The thought called to mind an image of cool grey eyes and the semblance of laughter, and the healer's face dimmed for a moment.
She secured the bandage carefully with a small clasping pin and looked at Mablung again, this time studying the long wound on his side which she had previously treated and sewn. Then she rose from the chair she had been sitting in. "Now, rest," she said, her tone gentle.
The Ranger closed his eyes, and Idrin turned to the tray on the night-table, picking it up and carrying it to one of the tiered shelves placed along the walls away from the beds. Once its contents were stored in their rightful place, the used bandages and dressings discarded into the nearby disposal basket, the healer took the tray to the adjacent store-room to be washed and returned to the sick hall, a cup in her hands.
She made her way to a bed near the narrow window. The young man lying on it turned to her as she stopped by him, and his eyes fixed on the cup.
"This will take the pain and bring sleep," she said and slipped a hand under his head, helping him lift it.
He drank from the cup slowly, emptying it in four long sips, and lowered his head onto the pillow once more. "Thank you." The broken whisper was drowned in a violent fit that contorted his face, and his eyes squeezed shut.
Idrin touched him gently on the shoulder in a gesture meant to comfort, watching his broken arm stiffen under the hardened bandage that held it fast. When his body relaxed, she withdrew her hand and opened her mouth to speak.
The soldier grasped at her fingers. "Please, stay." There was urgency in his weak voice and his eyes bore into hers in an unspoken plea. "Until the pain goes," he went on, attempting to gather his manners and sound more calm.
Idrin closed her mouth and sat in the chair by the bed, setting aside the cup she held. He was young, she observed, not even in his second decade, and his clean-shaven face made this more evident. This battle had probably been his first.
Long seconds passed in silence. "I had always thought that the Rammas could not be breached," the young man spoke again in a whisper and then said no more, staring far-off without seeing.
Idrin watched him quietly as his eyes drifted closed and his breathing became soft and even. Then, she turned from the peaceful face and rose, looking about the ward. Her eyes flitted from bed to door, the early touches of anxiety suddenly settling on her features.
The young voice drew her attention and she turned to see a boy looking up at her. She recognised him as the son of one of the Guards of the Citadel.
“Your brothers send word that they have returned and are well, lady,” the lad continued promptly.
The young woman beamed at him and her face was lit. “And the Lord Faramir?”
The boy took a second before answering. “He was wounded,” he said hesitatingly. “The Prince Imrahil took him to the White Tower; I am to find Master Neston. That is all I know, lady.”
Idrin's countenance darkened and she was silent. “Thank you, Bergil,” she said at last. As the lad took his leave, the healer noted the deepening evening outside, calculating the time to the end of her work hours. But the wounded come into the Houses of Healing were many and there was much to do: it had grown very late when she was finally free to go to her rest and by then she felt drained of all energy.
¹ In Tolkien's works, there is no explicit mention concerning the lodgings of the Ruling Stewards of Gondor. Given the elevation of the Stewards from chief counsellors to the King to rulers in the King's absence after the demise of Eärnur, it is plausible that lodgings were built to accommodate them and their families in the Citadel of Minas Tirith. Since the living quarters for the Kings and their families were named the King's House, it seems fitting that the living quarters for the Ruling Stewards should bear the name the Steward's House.
In the hour before dawn, Idrin left the Steward's House. Her footsteps filled the empty Court with sound as she walked, passing beyond the seventh gate and descending from the Citadel. The streets were quiet and the only signs of movement came from the watchmen on the walls. There was no light: the tall lampposts placed along the paved way and the lanterns hung beneath high arches were dark and cheerless. The emptiness was eerie, giving birth to a feeling of unease in her gut and heart.
The young woman was glad to catch sight of her destination. Her father's townhouse was located halfway between the great bastion and the gate to the fifth circle of the city, its back facing north-east. It was an elegant two-storey structure, standing back from the street and separated from it by a wide strip of garden. The well-tended flowerbeds and shrubbery extended to the rear of the building, and there the greenery stretched all the way to the narrow lane that ran along the wall circling the fifth level.
Light shone from a window on the ground floor. Idrin pushed open the gate to the garden and let herself into the house. She found her brothers in the kitchen, girt for battle and sitting quietly at breakfast.
Both looked up as she entered and stood promptly, their faces lit. They embraced her long, and she held them close.
"Good morning, sister." The elder of the pair watched her as she unfastened her cloak and draped it over a chair before sitting, the ghost of a smile on his features. As his brother resumed his seat, the eldest turned to a cupboard and drew out a pewter cup, filling it with clear liquid from a pitcher and offering it to his sister.
"I am glad both of you are well, Arvinion." Idrin's eyes shone with relief. She accepted the cup but took a moment to study her siblings. The stains of battle had been washed from their skin, yet the young woman's brow furrowed when she took a good look at her second brother: long carmine-red marks covered the back of his hands, sore and raw. "You have seen to those, I hope, Damhir?"
Her brother glanced down and then looked up at his sister with a shrug. "They are merely scratches and bruises."
"Deep and many inflamed scratches," she stressed. "You may dismiss it now, but more strenuous movement will increase the pain. Do not leave them like that."
Damhir regarded her for a moment, noting the set jaw and keen gaze. He let out a small breath. "If it shall put your mind at ease, I will."
One corner of Idrin's mouth twitched slightly. After some time her eyes darkened. "What of Faramir? I was told that he was taken to the Tower and that a healer was sent for, but there have been no news since last night." Her gaze fixed on the elder of her brothers, seeking reassurance that all was well.
"The wound was not a life-threatening one; it was cleaned and dressed when they made a bed ready for him," replied Arvinion. "We sat with him for a while, but he had yet to open his eyes when we left."
"Master Neston says his body needs time to recollect itself," said Damhir.
Idrin looked at him. The news of Faramir's not having woken was disquieting, yet perhaps what he required was time indeed. "Yes, often the body merely needs rest," the young woman spoke at last, the lines on her face smoothing. Idly, she took a sip from her cup and watched her brothers' movements as they finished their light meal.
"The Halfling in the Tower, how came he to wear the black and silver of the Guards of the Citadel?"
Arvinion's question made her turn to him.
"I understand that he has freely offered his service to the Steward, though I do not know why," she answered.
"A noble gesture," said Arvinion. "We found two of his kinsmen in Ithilien seven days ago." He paused, recalling the unlikely meeting. "Hardy folk, these Halflings," he went on. "They must be made of stern stuff indeed to manage such a journey." A spark glinted in his eyes. "Yet, I would like to know what became of their companions – one of them said there was a Dúnadan in their fellowship, a direct descendant of Isildur. If his claim is true, mayhap our fortune in this war would change."
"The Halfling Peregrin, Uncle's esquire, said his companions were with King Théoden," returned Idrin. Then she looked at her brother thoughtfully. "An heir of Isildur would be news indeed. No doubt we shall know the truth of it, should he come while Minas Tirith still stands."
"There is yet hope for that," said Damhir. "If the Red Arrow has reached Théoden without delay, the Rohirrim should be riding through eastern Anórien this day." He looked at Idrin closely, studying her face. "What of you, sister?" he asked. "How are you?"
"I am well," answered the young woman. "There has been much to do at the Houses since yesterday – such a number of wounded have never come to us before. Yet, the strange thing is that quite a few of them lie cold and murmuring as in a deep dream and do not wake though their hurts have been tended."
In the momentary silence that followed her words, Idrin glanced at the window and did not note the shadow passing over Arvinion's and Damhir's faces.
"The Warden will call a meeting this morning," she continued, "in order to appoint duties for when the injured from the field begin to come in." The healer drained her cup. "And I should be on my way or else I shall be late." She stood, fastening her cloak about her neck, and gazed at her brothers who had risen with her. "Take." Idrin fixed her eyes on each in turn, laying a hand on their mail-clad arms.
"And thou also, sister."
With a last look she turned on her heel, heading alone into the grey dawn outside.
* * *
The sky had grown lighter by the time Idrin passed the gate to the Houses of Healing. The modest, six-sided building of the library where the gathering would take place was alive with the hum of voices, and the long tables dotting the area between the bookcases were beginning to crowd.
When all were assembled, the Warden climbed the raised platform running along the north-west side of the building, a ray of early sun glinting on the silver thread embroidering the breast of his robes. Silence fell.
"Battle will soon be upon us," he began. "Strong as the Great Gate might be, the armies of the Enemy are vast, led by a terrible Captain. We must work swiftly and efficiently – for that reason groups shall be formed and each will be charged with certain tasks."
Then the Warden set about assorting his people and assigning duties. When he finished, no voice broke the quiet. He spoke again: "You shall now have one hour to see to any affairs in need of attention, or to settle into the Healers' wing. From that time onward, we must all be in constant readiness."
With those words the gathering was ended and the press of healers and orderlies dispersed.
Idrin made her way to the Citadel: she needed to collect some personal items from her chamber to facilitate that indefinite sojourn in the Houses of Healing. Coming onto the seventh level, the only sound that greeted her was the soft drizzle of waterdrops falling from the branches of the withered tree over the fountain-pool. Her footsteps turned to the Steward's House, her eyes lingering on the high-angled roofs and arched windows.
The young woman's stomach clenched at that moment and she realised she might never look upon that house again. For the first time the knowledge that the future was indeed bleak sank in in earnest. The healer's body tensed and her heart fluttered in her chest.
A long, dark cloud cast its shadow on the Citadel and Idrin looked up. Gazing at the grey mass, her thought began to shift. Battle and death might be drawing near, yet the present now held more import: the sick and injured in the Houses of Healing. She thought of Faramir lying in the Tower of Ecthelion and made her way across the Court of the Fountain.
A guard directed her to the high chamber the son of Denethor was laid in. It had been years since she last went beyond the Tower Hall, yet the bareness of white stone as she ascended the winding stair still struck her.
The room was quite as she remembered it from the few times she had been there in her early youth: large but plain, with barely a handful of furniture and no articles to make it feel comfortable. Yet, the White Tower was not built as housing, after all, and the few chambers within its walls were not meant to serve as living quarters.
Walking in, she saw the Halfling Peregrin tending to the small fire in the hearth, and the Lord of the City slumbering in a cushioned chair.
Quietly, Idrin acknowledged Pippin and looked over to where Faramir lay. "Has he woken at all?"
The Halfling sighed. "No, not yet." He got to his feet and took his position by the door, gazing sadly at the prostrate figure of Denethor's son.
Idrin went to the bed: Faramir lay motionless, his eyes closed and his face pale. For a brief instant dread gripped at her and she remembered the deeply dreaming sick in the Houses. Yet, her cousin slept more easily than they and his brow, though cool, was not icy to the touch.
Those small observations gave her comfort, and the young woman sat by him, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest.
"Why did you choose to stay here, lady? You are the Steward's niece," the Hobbit's soft voice broke the quiet, faltering when the healer's gaze found his face. "Surely the south vales are safer."
"For now, perhaps," returned Idrin. "I chose to stay because I want to help and I do not like to abandon those under my care. If I went to refuge I would merely sit in a silent house, waiting idly for all to end."
Pippin saw the glimmer in the young woman's eyes before she turned to Faramir again, and said no more.
Idrin passed a gentle hand over the man's brow and warmth stirred in her breast: his skin felt less cold. The healer rose quietly from her chair then and glanced at the sleeping form of Denethor nearby. The firelight danced on a restive face grown old before its time, and the young woman thought how worn the Lord of Minas Tirith looked.
She withdrew to the door and glanced back at Faramir once more.
Pippin looked up at her. "Maybe he will wake by the end of this day. He does not appear as deathlike as when he was brought here."
"I should be glad to see him wake before I have to return to the Houses," said Idrin, "yet I must take my leave. Fare you well, Peregrin."
The Halfling stepped back to let her through the door. "Farewell, lady."
* * *
The late hours of the night were drawing near but hollow rumbles and red flashes rent the quiet within the City. Time and again shrill cries came from high above the seventh level, disembodied and eerie. The watchers on the walls were still, waiting.
In the south part of the gardens in the Houses of Healing, Idrin crouched before a large bed of herbs, a basket beside her. A glint of silver near her fingers twinkled in the faint lamp-light, her hands moving swiftly as the blade cut stem after stem.
A noise from beyond the silent premises of the Houses made her and the healer by her side pause in their work and look up. Riding down the road leading to the gate of the sixth circle, one clothed in brilliant white and the other clad in silver armour and blue cloak, were the stately figures of Mithrandir and the Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. They halted near the arched entryway, exchanging brief words with the soldiers on the battlements and then descended to the lower level.
The sharp sound of the horses' hooves faded, and the two women resumed their task. Minutes later, a low humming noise went up, rising slowly into a lilting tune. Idrin gazed up at the man on the guard-tower near them and caught herself smiling at the familiar melody, recalling her childhood home in Lossarnach.
A second voice joined in the song then, and the young woman saw the face of the older healer beside her light up as she sang while working. Her spirits lifting, Idrin bent over the herb-bed once more, the flowing tune from the Vale of Flowers surrounding her:
Under the Sun the streams flow clear
from mountain-side to glade,
threading their way to find the Sea
through vales that never fade.
Over blooming meadows songbirds fly,
trilling with voices sweet:
their tune is borne upon the wind
and wingless tidings fleet.
A high shriek from far away made the voices falter. The rumbles from the plains below echoed forbiddingly up the stone city. On the watch-tower, the soldier cast his gaze down and fingered his bow broodingly. The two healers set their shoulders and continued their work in silence.
They returned to the healing wards not long afterwards, and within those stone walls and illuminated rooms, the brewing battle beyond seemed to lose its sway. Then as dawn approached, hollow booms echoed through the City like voiceless claps of thunder. Quiet came after the third blast and then horns, horns resounding up to the very Citadel.
With the yet unseen dawn came hope. The coming of the Rohirrim stirred the quelled flame in the hearts of the defenders of the Guarded City, fanning it to a blaze. New strength came to them and they burst like a river from the Great Gate to join the Horse-lords.
Slowly, the cold light of daybreak became golden and warm, and the muted colours of early morning turned clear and bright.
Returning from a store-room to the ward to which she had been assigned, Idrin suddenly frowned at the sight before her. She slowed her pace, her gaze fixed on the two darkly clad figures and the bier they carried.
They were not among those who fought on the Pelennor, for the stain of battle was not upon them. A closer look revealed that their livery was that of the Guards of the Tower. As they came nearer and the tall guard carrying the fore end of the bier shifted his stance, the young woman saw that his companion, who had to that moment remained hidden in his shadow, was the Halfling Peregrin.
She peered at the litter, wondering what could bring them here when not even the first wounded from the field had begun to arrive. The figure lain on the bier then took shape and Idrin drew a sharp breath. New speed came to her unhurried footsteps and she hastened towards the men.
The sombre Guard halted when he saw her. "We were told to bring him here and seek Master Neston, lady," he said.
Idrin laid the back of her hand on Faramir's forehead, feeling the hot clamminess of his skin. Sweat shone on his brow and he was as still as one dead, and the healer once again thought of the pale faces of those stricken with the Black Shadow. Yet, Faramir was not cold as they. She glanced up at the Guard.
"A sudden fever and sickness that are not understood have taken him," he said. For a moment he gazed closely at her, the muscles in his jaw working as though he was to speak again, but said no more.
Pippin cast him a sideways glance, the image of smoke and flame coming into his mind before the healer spoke once again.
"Come." She turned and led the way to a private chamber.
As the Guard and Peregrin laid Faramir in bed, Idrin threw open the shutters. Pale light shone from the eastward window, and the southern part of the garden was alive with the colours of first spring. Within, in a small vase on the bedside-table, where one of the orderlies had sought to brighten the background of stone and wood, was a single bloom of alfirin.
The healer smiled and turned to the Guard and the Halfling. Just then, a man in dark-blue robes entered the chamber, a twinkle of bright grey glimmering upon his breast.
He strode to the bed and bent over Faramir, feeling his brow and then moving his hand to his wrist. After a moment he turned to the orderly who had come with him, bidding her bring cool water and towels. As the woman left, his gaze found Idrin and their eyes met.
The young healer glanced at Faramir and drew to the door. The Guard and Pippin followed her outside, and then she turned to them.
"You have abandoned your posts to bring him here," she said, her expression soft. "You had better return to your duties before you are missed."
The Halfling looked at the floor and shifted from one foot to the other, and the tall Man dropped his gaze. Neither spoke, but both gave a curt nod of farewell before turning on their heel and walking away.
Thinking nothing of their silence, the healer gazed after their retreating forms until they rounded a corner and then made towards her assigned ward.
* * *
The fiery disk of the sun had nearly sunk behind Mindolluin and the shadows of twilight were beginning to lengthen when the door to the treatment room Idrin had been working in opened yet again.
Turning from the long row of shelves and cabinets lining one wall, she saw the young orderly who assisted her step over the threshold, followed closely by two men.
They were tall and fair-haired and their shirts of mail glinted redly where the lamp-light caught them. The taller of the two leant slightly against the other, one arm gripping his companion's shoulder as he favoured his right leg. When they halted just inside the doorway, he stood erect, glancing about the room with keen eyes.
The orderly moved off and busied herself at the hip-high table by the short cabinets as the healer walked closer to the Riders. She studied the injured man, noting various shallow cuts and the white line of a healed scar above his left eyebrow but no sign of serious hurts other than the slash across the outside of his right boot. A close look at his companion showed he was in no need of a healer's attention, and Idrin turned her gaze back to the limping Rider.
"Sit." She gestured at the high bench draped with a light cloth set to the right of the door.
The man remained standing. "It was not my wish to come here, Mistress," he said, using the Common Tongue, his speech slow and deep. "The battle on the field below is not yet over, and it is many times that I have fought bearing such injuries."
His steady gaze had found the healer, but an incredulous exclamation from the second Rider made the injured man turn and speak to him rapidly in their own tongue, his words crisp. When his companion returned no answer, the tall Rider looked back at the young woman and drew himself up to his full height.
The motion was followed by a grimace and a stifled groan, and Idrin glanced at the man's hurt limb. Then she stared up into his pale, proud face. "It seems that your leg would fail you if you were to go to the battlefield," she said.
His jaw clenching, the Rider looked at the healer with a calculating gaze. After a few seconds he shifted forward resolutely but quickly flung out an arm to clutch at his companion's shoulder as his legs gave way. With a huff he limped to the wide seat and unbuckled his belt, setting his sword against the wall before settling down on the bench.
While the man fumbled with the fastenings of his damaged boot, Idrin went to the cauldron heating near one wall and ladled water into a large bowl, taking it, along with a tinted bottle, to the cabinet-worktop where the orderly had prepared a tray with pads of soft cloth and bandages, a pair of snips and a slender knife. The healer added the bowl and bottle to the load and carried all to the oblong table by the high seat.
Drawing a stool to the bench, she sat and looked closely at the leg propped on the hard surface: dried blood stained the Rider's ankle-length breeches and fresh droplets had seeped through the fabric.
Idrin passed her fingers lightly over the rough material – it stuck firmly to the wound beneath. Taking a patch of cloth from the tray and dipping it into the water, she soaked the crusted area and then contemplated the gashed fabric that had come loose. "It will be easier if this is cut away," she said, looking up at the Rider. She found his gaze fixed on her, cool and appraising.
After a long moment the hazel eyes turned away and the man moved to study his breeches, not noticing the healer's jutting chin and flaring nostril. He fingered the slashed fabric: the crooked blade had left a mess of stray threads in its wake. He nodded to himself and looked at Idrin. "They are torn beyond repair."
The low, measured voice drove the memory of the bold appraisal from her thought, and the young woman blinked. Taking the snips, she cut the fabric around the wound and about the knee, pulling the loose pieces away carefully: the gash was deep, almost extending the length of his calf. She slid the edge of the knife carefully over the skin and then dipped a pad of cotton-cloth into the warm water, cleaning it thoroughly.
A faint shuffling noise broke the silence and the Rider standing idly by the bench spoke: "Is there anything I can do to help, Mistress Healer?"
Idrin looked up at him. "Not at the moment," she replied. "You may wait outside while I stitch the wound, if you wish, but the healers treating those severely wounded would welcome aid. Glaewen will show you."
The orderly stepped forward and waited by the door, and the man nodded, glancing at his companion. They exchanged a few words in their native tongue and then the Rider followed the woman outside, the door closing softly behind them.
Idrin rose and went to the shelves, opening two jars and adding a careful measure of the contents of each into a cup. She let the mixture steep in boiling water and then took the cooling vessel along with a phial and jar to the bench.
"This will help lessen the pain and the swelling," she said, proffering the cup to the man.
The Rider drank deeply and then tensed, fighting a cough. He wiped his mouth. "Vile, bitter stuff."
The healer took the cup from him and placed it on the oblong table. "It's willow bark for the inflammation, with elderberry and hyssop to fight off infection," she said. Uncorking the phial she held, she soaked a clean cloth with its amber contents.
The Rider watched her closely.
Idrin caught the inquisitive gaze. "This will relax the muscles and lessen the pain," she explained, pressing the cotton-cloth to the shaven skin; "extracts of peppermint and the bird-pepper plant.¹ You will feel the pressure from the needle, but there should be little else."
The man made no comment, following her movements in silence as, after several moments, she dampened a soft pad with the colourless liquid from the tinted bottle and scrubbed the wound gently. The sharp smell of clear spirits pricked his nostrils, but he merely felt a slight sting where the soaked cloth passed over his skin. His gaze continued to trail the healer when she moved to wash her hands in the basin standing against the far wall and then make her way to the hip-high table.
He caught the gleam of polished steel as she picked up the contents of a raised metal board, arranging them carefully on the small tray beside it before returning to the bench with her load. Watching her sit and lift the ivory-hued cord from the small metal bowl, the Rider tensed when the clamp-like instrument holding the threaded needle hovered over his skin.² He glanced at the dark liquid of the phial on the small table and felt his body go rigid.
The pain he had anticipated was only a twinging sensation and the hand he held stiff against the bench relaxed. He let out a long breath and looked at the young woman bent on her work. The swift, fluid movements nearly lulled him, and it was after some time that he realised that the healer's hands were empty. He peered down at the row of black stitches, evenly spaced and standing out against his skin.
In front of him, the healer had unsealed the shallow jar and began rubbing a cool salve into his leg, pressing a clean pad on the stitched wound and wrapping a long strip of bandaging linen around it, finally securing it in place with a small clasping pin.
"There." She looked up at him. "You were fortunate: the cloth and boot protected the wound from the worst of the dirt. However, the cut was deep and you will have to stay in the Houses for at least seven days, to rest your leg and allow it to heal properly. If all is well, the stitches might be removed then."
The Rider frowned. "Seven days of idleness are too many when the war is not yet over."
"Yet your injury was not an insignificant one," returned Idrin, and after a long moment the man averted his gaze.
As the young woman got up, going to the smaller washbasin placed on the cabinet-worktop, the door opened and Glaewen appeared, followed by the Rider's companion. While the two men conversed in low voices, Idrin went to the large closet and returned holding a pair of crutches. She proffered them to the injured Rider. "Glaewen will show you to your room," she said.
The man's lips pressed into a thin line as he peered at the crutches, one eyebrow arching. He rose carefully and attempted a step forward, moving away from his companion's outstretched arm. His leg buckled and he drew in a hissing breath. Managing to steady himself, the Rider stood still for an instant, the crease above the bridge of his nose smoothing before he finally took the crutches from the healer. "Thank you, Mistress." The words were a terse sigh.
Idrin's mouth twitched into a dim smile. "Take care not to let water soak it," she said, motioning at the stitched leg.
"I will." The Rider glanced at her and then turned to the door, following the orderly and his companion, who had gathered the discarded boot and sword-belt, outside the room.
Behind them, Idrin moved to clear the small oblong table and made her way to the short cabinets.
¹ Elderberry and hyssop exhibit antimicrobial, antioxidant and immune-boosting action (Sara Kunha et al, Sambucus nigra – a promising natural source for human health; Fatemeh Fathiazad & Sanaz Hamedeyazdan, A review on Hyssopus officinalis).
Peppermint contains menthol, which has topical anaesthetic effects (N Galeotti et al, Local anaesthetic activity of (+)- and (-)-menthol).
Bird-pepper, or cayenne pepper, contains capsaicin, topical formulations of which defunctionalise nociceptive nerve fibres. Cayenne peppers can be found in temperate climates, and thus in Eriador, Gondor, Rohan (P Anand & K Bley, Topical capsaicin for pain management; TG Tutin et al., Flora Europaea; Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-earth).
² Given the Gondorians' skill in healing ('[T]he leechcraft of Gondor was . . . skilled in the healing of wound and hurt, and all such sickness as east of the Sea mortal men were subject to.' [The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter VIII]), it can be assumed that they also developed the instruments to facilitate their work, similar to the ancient Greeks and Romans devising ophthalmic probes, tongue depressors, forceps with finely-toothed jaws, ointment spatulas, or pivoting surgical instruments, to name a few (John Stewart Milne, Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times).
A drizzling rain came from the West as the night deepened. Ringing with the clash of arms no more, the scarred field of the Pelennor breathed again, and beyond it the waters of the Anduin began to clear of red foam. In the Guarded City lights sprang forth in every circle, twinkling like a host of yellow stars. Up in the sixth level, the Houses of Healing had grown quiet, no longer filled with the cries of the wounded rushed in from battle.
With no more soldiers requiring immediate care, Idrin now left the ward to which she had been appointed, making towards the southern part of the Houses. A door swung open somewhere to her left and the Halfling Peregrin emerged into the corridor. Just before the door shut behind him, the healer made out a small figure lying on the bed and a mop of brown curls splayed on the pillow.
It was Pippin's kinsman, she knew. Long hours ago, in a moment of respite, she remembered catching a glimpse of the wizard Mithrandir carrying him past the treatment room in which she had been working, and recalled noting his closed eyes and the grey tint to his face.
"How is your friend?"
Her voice made Pippin look up at her. He sighed.
"The same," came his reply. "He has neither stirred nor opened his eyes. His skin is deathly cold and his right arm even more so. At first he spoke much in his dreaming, murmuring many things. Gandalf – Mithrandir, that is – said that he had dealt a great blow to the Witch-king on the battlefield, and that the Lady Éowyn finished him. Good old Merry!" His voice faltered and he fell silent, averting his gaze.
Idrin said nothing for a long while. Being unable to aid a hurt loved one was a harrowing thing, yet there was precious little that could be done against this Black Shadow. She drew in a breath. "We can only have patience and wait now, Pippin."
The Hobbit nodded mutely. "Yes," he whispered. Then, a second later he set his shoulders. "I should go and find Beregond of the Guards," he said. "Farewell for now."
As their ways parted, the healer's face grew more thoughtful. There were many who now lay stricken with this strange malady, she knew, all fading slowly. While she had not seen the White Lady of Rohan, she had heard the soft speech of the orderlies, speaking in wonder and pity of the fair maiden who sought battle clad in mail as one of the Rohirrim.
Men might be those who bore arms at need, truly, yet in dire straits women fought no less valiantly. Still, Idrin could not fathom why one would choose to meet her doom in a foreign land when her own home had to be defended.
Her thoughts dispersed as she entered the chamber Faramir was laid in. The window was ajar, and the scent of night-flowers wafted in. The light rainfall had ceased, yet the mild air seemed to bring no comfort to the man: Faramir was still as she had last seen him, not responding to the world around him.
The young woman sat by him, closing her eyes for a fleeting instant as she sank into the soft chair-cushion. Reaching out, she felt Faramir's brow, and the burning heat that seared her hand surprised her. She gathered the bowl of water from the night-stand, hoping the cool cloth on his skin would ease him. He did not move.
A while later, the silence in the room was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps. Idrin looked about, recognising the wizard but not the second man who came in after him.
He was dark-haired, wrapped in a grey hooded cloak above his shirt of mail, and when he moved she saw a glimmer of green upon his breast. He looked like a battle-worn soldier, yet there was something noble about him, and she thought the bright jewel a very precious thing to be owned by a common man.
"Good evening, Mistress," the stranger greeted her and went to Faramir. He laid his hand upon his brow and gazed at him closely. Then he turned to the healer. "Has he spoken at all?"
A faint crease appeared above the bridge of Idrin's nose. "No," she replied.
Watching her, the wizard's eye twinkled at the glimmer of enquiry on her face. "Aragorn is a skilled healer," he said.
The young woman returned no comment, studying the man bent over her cousin. She wondered, for his was a kingly name, the likes of which she had only ever come upon in books recording the histories of centuries long past.
The man in question passed his hand over Faramir's brow and then straightened, and his face was troubled as he and Gandalf left the chamber.
Idrin stayed at her cousin's bedside, watching him. It was a pinching feeling some moments later that reminded her of the need to visit the kitchens, and she rose reluctantly from her seat. With a lingering glance at Faramir, she went from the room, making her way to the westernmost building of the Houses.
Despite the hour, there was a flurry of activity in the kitchens: the fires were burning, and cooks and maids went about or bent over tables, preparing light meals for those in the care of the healers. Amidst the bustle, Idrin found a quiet corner and ate a little, eager to return to Faramir's chamber.
Going back to the southern wing of the Houses of Healing, she saw the tall Guard who had helped carry Faramir there standing by the door to her cousin's room, peering inside. The healer felt her heart leap and hurried forward.
The chamber was crowded: Aragorn was bent over Faramir, and Gandalf and Imrahil of Dol Amroth were beside him, while Ioreth and the orderly who tended to her cousin stood nearer the door with Pippin and young Bergil. A bowl was in Aragorn's hands, and as he straightened, Idrin caught a familiar scent in the air, reminding her of the early-spring stock-flowers of her father's house in Lossarnach.
Faramir's eyes opened, and just as warmth swelled in her chest, she felt the Guard beside her draw in a sharp breath.
"The hands of the king..." he murmured softly, and the healer turned to look at him. She recalled that piece of lore and remembered the old rhyme about athelas, and a long-ago memory awoke:
Will a king ever return to Gondor?
He may return still, one day.
The young woman peered into the chamber again, and as she gazed at Aragorn, it seemed to her that many years had fallen from his shoulders, and he looked young and powerful as the kings of Númenor of old. She glanced at Faramir and smiled. "Word must be sent to the Steward that his son has awoken."
Just as she spoke, Imrahil stepped out of the room after Aragorn and Gandalf. He caught her eye and his face dimmed. He drew her aside gently and Idrin's cheer faded at his clouded look. "The Steward Denethor has passed," said the Prince quietly. Deep silence met his words; the young woman stared at him. "Madness took him," he continued, "for he thought Faramir dead and the City fallen. He tried to burn them both in the Hallows but Mithrandir stopped him, yet, in his fey mood, the Lord of Gondor set fire to his own flesh."
Still silent, Idrin did not withdraw her gaze from the face of the Lord of Dol Amroth. Then, after a long moment, she closed her eyes and bowed her head, letting out a shuddering breath. The Steward of Gondor had been proud, headstrong, a man with a sharp mind, and she had never known his wit to fail. To have yielded to grief and despair in such a way seemed incomprehensible.
Slowly, unbidden, shapes began to take form in the darkness behind her eyelids and a fond memory came back to her, half-faded by the long years.
Like now, it had been spring, the one after her mother's passing and a turning point in her young life, for then Minas Tirith became her second home. Her aunt had sent for her, writing in a letter to her father that a girl of her tender age needed a motherly presence by her, to teach her those things a mother would. Her father was grateful to assent to the offer of his sister-by-marriage, for he had no female relatives to take up the role of mother to his young daughter. When told of the proposal, Idrin's agreement to it was swift: she loved her aunt dearly and the Guarded City was a fascinating place. She went with a promise from her brothers that they would visit as often as they could.
Elthian's elder sister met father and daughter in the Citadel. Clad in the dark garb of mourning she had refused to cast after the loss of both husband and son in battle, Ivreth walked towards them with a kind smile. Idrin rushed into her arms and the woman sank down to envelop her in a warm embrace.
Behind her, the Steward of Gondor had crossed the Court of the Fountain and now looked at his late sister's husband. "Captain Arastor."
The low voice made the little girl look up from the security of her aunt's hold, and Ivreth rose to her feet.
"Lord Denethor." Arastor inclined his head to his brother-by-marriage.
The Steward turned to his niece, studying her silently. "She does become more like her as she grows," he said at last. The ghost of a smile had brushed the firm edges of his mouth, and Idrin had returned the grin meekly.
Presently, the young woman opened her blurred eyes and drew herself up, and Imrahil's gaze was soft as he looked at her.
"Go to Faramir. He shall be glad of your company," he said, taking his leave.
As Idrin entered her cousin's chamber, he turned from young Bergil and his father and there was a spark in his eyes.
The healer reclaimed her previous seat by his bed. "How do you feel?" she asked.
"Weary but much lighter in thought and heart," replied Faramir.
Idrin then turned to the lad who stood nearby. "Bergil, could you go to the kitchens and bring some food for the Lord Faramir?"
The boy's face was still lit by a smile. "Yes, Mistress Idrin," came the eager reply, and he darted outside.
Faramir watched him disappear from sight and then cast a quick glance about the room. "I dreamt of darkness and fire," he said quietly, "and though all now looks well, I cannot be rid of the feeling that something terrible has happened within the City."
Idrin felt her stomach clench, yet she shook her head. "The battle has been won, but now is not the time for such talk," she said. "You need to regain your strength; questions can be postponed until tomorrow."
Bergil came in at that moment, laden with a tray of light food and drink, and the healer rose from her chair. "Eat and do not trouble yourself with dark thoughts tonight."
Faramir sat up straighter and looked at the tall Guard standing by the door, poised to go and yet hesitating. "Go to your rest, Beregond," he said. "The night is growing old."
Beregond bowed and passed silently from the room, and Bergil followed him.
Pausing at the threshold behind them, Idrin wished Faramir good rest and left him to his meal. Further down the corridor, an angry voice came from behind a shut door she passed by, spitting out a harsh word in an unfamiliar language, and the healer stopped in her tracks. She took a step back and knocked on the door, receiving a grunt-muffled response.
The chamber she entered was furnished with three beds, high-backed chairs, a small table and a chest of drawers. A changing-screen was near one wall and under a water-tap behind it stood a bathtub.¹
Sitting on one of the beds, the hazel-eyed Rider she had treated earlier glanced up. A sheet was wrapped around his waist and falling to his feet, and his wet hair brushed his bare shoulders in a dark-golden cascade. The dressing previously wrapped about his calf was lying at his feet and he used one edge of the sheet to dab at the stitches on his leg.
Idrin turned a quick look on the bathtub: it was filled with water and beside it a puddle glistened on the floor. She hurried forward, going to a small cupboard and collecting pads of cotton-cloth and a shallow tin and then knelt by the Rider. "Let me." She drew a chair in front of him and placed the items she carried near the stack of fresh clothes folded neatly on one corner of the bed.
The man watched her. "I tried to keep it dry," he offered. Despite the misfortune, the discarded dressing was more damp than sodden, and the stitches appeared to still be fast in place. As the healer set his right foot on the thin chair-cushion, the Rider stiffened and fumbled with the sheet covering him.
Idrin pressed a patch of loosely woven cloth gently along the line of black stitching. "You were in luck," she said, spreading salve on the now-dry skin and binding soft pads to it.
"That I was," the Rider agreed as he lowered his leg to the floor. "I was not so fortunate the last time a stitched wound got wet."
Storing away cloth and tin, the young woman glanced at him. "What happened then?"
"I was but a lad of ten and got injured during play," he said. "It was a deep cut: the healer in Aldburg had to stitch it. I did not heed his advice about not straining myself for a few days and went riding with my cousin. I fell into the stream we had halted by and the wound was soaked. It seemed to me that it took forever to heal." Absent-mindedly, one finger traced a pale white line above his hip, and when he lifted his gaze, the Rider saw the healer studying the mark intently. When their eyes met, she blinked and looked towards the bathtub and spill on the floor.
"I shall send someone to clear the bath-water. Is there anything you need?"
He shook his head. "No, thank you."
Idrin moved away from the wall. "Then I bid you good-night." The healer made towards the door but the Rider's voice stopped her.
"Your name, Mistress?"
Pausing, the young woman looked over her shoulder. "Idrin."
"I am Éothain." He watched her until she passed from sight.
Making her way to the garden outside, the healer was glad for the cool breeze that fanned her face. The scent of damp earth was a welcome change from the harsh smells in the Houses, and she breathed deeply. A gleam of white far above caught her eye and she saw the standard of the Stewards flowing in the gentle wind, and Beregond's words returned to her mind.
The hands of the King.
Picking up her skirts, she hurried to the seventh level, slowing her step when she reached the Citadel library. The man in black and silver standing before the door bowed his head as she approached and stepped aside to let her enter.
Built on one level, the building was small, vaulted by a high-ceilinged dome. The heavy bookcases stood against and aligned with the walls, arranged behind an open space that held two long tables and chairs.
Idrin lit the lamp on the empty librarian's desk and carried it with her to the middle aisle. Carefully, she scanned the title of each book, pausing now and then to consider one or another. Finally, she drew out a dark-green tome and took it to a table.
She sat and turned the pages slowly, glancing at names and family trees spanning the generations from the Lords of Andúnië – her father's kin – to the Kings of Arnor. Trailing a finger down the lines of elegant script, the young woman paused and looked closely at the text relating to the last Kings of Arthedain. Their names reflected their high station, her tutor long ago had said, and as tradition would have it, no men but their direct descendants could claim names as lofty. Her brother's words of the previous day came back to her. Having seen Faramir awaken and witnessed the truth of old rhymes, Idrin now understood that the line of Isildur had not ended but endured, forgotten, in lands beyond the Misty Mountains.
She closed the book and returned it to its place, and suddenly the silent half-light about her was stifling.
Going from the library and reaching the warmth of the Healers' wing, the young woman felt her limbs grow heavy. A voice called her name and she turned to see Arvinion and Damhir stride towards her. She reached for their hands quietly.
After a while Arvinion studied his sister, taking in the lines of tiredness on her face and the stains on her kirtle. He caught her eye. "Will you be staying with us tonight?"
Idrin shook her head. "There are many injured men in the Houses who may take a turn for the worse. I would not like to be away should anything arise in the night."
Her brother's gaze softened. "Faramir at the least looks well – the Prince Imrahil told us what happened in the Hallows."
The healer was silent for a spell. "Yes, Faramir's awaking is the one good thing to come out of this wretched day," she said at last.
Beside Arvinion, Damhir rubbed his shoulder. "Wretched, indeed. Let us hope that we may have a measure of peace after it." He blinked. "But now, I think, we should all turn to our beds."
Idrin nodded, feeling a haze blanket her senses.
Her brothers shifted their stance. "Rest well, sister."
Wishing her good-night, Arvinion and Damhir took their leave, and the young woman made for her own chamber.
¹ The more technologically skilled races in Middle-earth could have created water taps to facilitate indoor plumbing in establishments needing constant water supply, much like the ancient Romans devising taps 'operated by means of a rotary plug . . . turned [by means of a handle]' to control the water flow (Roberta J. Magnusson, Water Technology in the Middle Ages).
A cool wind blew from the west, sighing among the short plant-life scattered on the narrow shoulder of Mindolluin that joined tπo the City of the Kings. Standing on the rearward wall of the sixth circle, Idrin looked beyond the winding road that went from Fen Hollen, watching the white-domed mansions blush with the colours of early day. At the other end of the descending path, the Steward's Door was shut, yet between the empty halls there was much movement.
The Prince Imrahil had given orders that the rubble from the House of the Stewards be cleared, and men now went about the task briskly. Gazing at the silent houses of the dead from afar, Idrin noted with sudden awareness that the keen emotions stirred by the news of her uncle's passing had become less sharp. As the golden sunlight fell upon pale little flowers growing in clusters about the Hallows, her thought went to her late mother, long buried in her beloved Lossarnach as she had desired.
The young woman wished she had more memories of her. She could bring to mind the semblance of Elthian's gentle voice and her grey eyes and her dark hair, yet much had faded over the years. Among her most vivid recollections were those of the time she had spent with her at the Houses of Healing before the crippling illness finally overcame her.
She had almost always been at her mother's side then. She would sit at her feet and read to her, or regale her with tales she had heard, or tell her of some intriguing piece of history she had learnt during her lessons earlier that day. Her mother would listen, smiling at her. They would speak of the day outside and the going-ons in the City, and Idrin would tell her of any news she happened to hear. At times a light cough would break her mother's peace, stifled behind a linen handkerchief. More and more often as days passed, her body would stiffen and, in a voice that belied her clouded features, Elthian would bid her daughter go and play or seek the healers, whose knowledge, she knew, enchanted her. Then, as Idrin closed the door behind her, she would hear her mother cough in earnest – a shattering sound that made her heart plummet.
It had been her aunt who always lifted her gloom at those times, with a few well-chosen words and a gentle touch. Ivreth had ever been a steadfast support during Elthian's illness, and afterwards, when Idrin returned to Minas Tirith, the woman became the mother she lacked. The healer recalled her patience as Ivreth read her lessons with her, and the softness in her eyes as she praised her needlework, and the authority in her voice as they walked about the Citadel, her aunt instructing her in the duties that the mistress of a household was charged with.
Like her sister, Ivreth had requested that upon her death she be laid to rest in the land she had lived as a married woman. Two months had passed since her wish was honoured, and the Steward Ecthelion's elder daughter now lay in fair Lebennin where her husband had been Lord.
Idrin blinked and a shadow flitted over her face as she caught a glimpse of blackened stone in the distance. She looked on the House of the Stewards for a moment longer and then her eyes found the bleak field of the Pelennor below, dotted with many tents and horse-paddocks. She lifted her gaze and came down from the wall, passing the porter's house where Beregond sat in silence.
A quiet hum was in the air as the young woman made her way to the southernmost wing of the Houses of Healing. She stopped before a closed door and knocked. The three men playing at cards within the chamber greeted her jovially, and their mood made Idrin smile.
"How is your cheek, Anborn?"
The tallest of the men turned towards her, displaying a line of delicate stitching running from his left eye to the corner of his mouth. "It feels better, Mistress, no longer smarting."
Idrin drew a chair beside him and sat, studying the stitched gash bordered by reddened skin.
So much of the morning passed, and it was nearly two hours before noon that the healer entered the last room assigned to the soldiers under her care.
Éothain was leaning lightly on one crutch by the chest of drawers, brow furrowed, lips pressed tightly together and fingers drumming against the dark wood. The brisk sound was stilled when the Gondorian passed the threshold and the Rider drew himself up as best he could. "The women say I am to stay confined to this House," he said in a clipped voice, eyes boring into her.
He saw the healer take quick note of the second crutch propped against the furniture before looking up at him.
"If your leg is to heal without complication, you should not strain it by walking far," she said. "Anything more than ten minutes at most will hinder the mending process."
Éothain let out a breath. "I need to find my men: they were to report to me but none have yet come."
"That can be easily remedied," returned the young woman. "One of the boys running errands in this House can fetch whomever you seek." She glanced down. "I trust your leg does not bother you."
"It is no more than a pinch every now and then," said the Rider.
The healer listened approvingly. "The dressing will be changed tonight. In the meantime I shall send for an errand-boy, and the orderly to take the breakfast tray."
Éothain contemplated his leg in silence and nodded to himself. As she left the room, he sat slowly down on his bed and turned to the window, gazing at the sunlit garden outside.
Within, Idrin walked swiftly towards the other end of the building. She found the Lord Húron settled by the open window in his chamber, poring over a sheet of parchment. Catching sight of her, he moved to lower the lone page beside him but his grip failed and the open roll fell from his suddenly unbending fingers.
The healer glanced at the man's hands and looked up to meet his gaze.
"It has grown worse again," said Húron. "The stiffness in my legs has returned also – I awoke this morning and for a few moments I could not move. It seems we turn back to skullcap and red clover, do we not?"
The man's light disposition brought the hint of a glimmer to Idrin's eyes. "Yes, quite," she returned.
Húron looked through the window, a wistful expression on his face. "Such a bright day. I should like to go outside a while." His clear gaze found the healer and he recognised her pondering silence. "My legs can handle a short walk," he assured her.
"Very well," said the young woman slowly, retrieving his walking stick as he carefully rolled the piece of parchment he had been reading.
Step by step they made their way to the northward garden and sat beneath a young tree. The retired captain looked about him and breathed deeply.
Both turned at the sound of the voice and Idrin saw Éothain standing a few paces away from them, staring at the sitting man in delighted surprise.
Beside her Húron squinted and gradually a slow smile came over his features. "Éothain. It has been far too long."
"It has," said the Rider. He regarded the man fondly and then a faint wrinkle creased his brow. "Most of Mundburg have gone to refuge in the south vales of Gondor and I recall you had some family thither. How is it you are not with them now?"
The retired captain allowed himself a humourless grin. "My relationship with my son's family has not been what it used to since he died," he returned. "Even if I did leave Minas Tirith, I would simply be waiting for battle and death somewhere else." He paused for breath and gestured for Éothain to come and sit by him.
As the Rider settled on the bench, Húron turned to the young woman but a sudden flash of white caught his eye and he closed his mouth. He looked towards the wrought-iron gate set in the thick hedge surrounding the Houses of Healing. Éothain and Idrin trailed his line of sight.
In the main street beyond, two men in the armour of the Citadel came from the west carrying a covered bier. Met by Gandalf, their faces were grim and they handled their load with much care as the wizard spoke to them in a quiet voice. Giving a brief reply to his words, the guards continued their way to the seventh circle and, after a grave glance towards the Houses, the old wizard went after them.
"What burden do they bear with such reverence?"
"The Steward Denethor," said Húron. Rumour of the previous day's commotion in the Hallows had long since spread through the City. "He has passed." The retired Gondorian captain turned to the Rider of Rohan, but the younger man's attention was no longer held by the solemn procession. Húron followed his gaze, looking to his left, and saw the healer beside him staring silently at the men disappearing into the tunnel that led to the Citadel.
"Your uncle was a respected man," he said.
Once more, the words made Idrin think how withdrawn and grim the Lord of Minas Tirith had become since the cloven Great Horn was brought to him, and how very tired he had looked. "His far sight troubled him greatly after Boromir's death."
Húron gave a short, knowing hum. "It must have been grave indeed to have such visions of the Enemy's growing power as the Steward Denethor did," he said. "Yet, luck smiled upon us yesterday."
"And there is still a long way to go ere we reach the end of the road and the victor is declared," said Éothain, letting out a slow breath.
Húron nodded. "True, but nothing is final until then."
The Rider of Rohan smiled. "I envy your high heart, Húron."
The retired captain waved his hand. "I simply understood long ago that no single thing is carved in stone. Hope is what keeps our footing steadfast," he returned, his gaze wandering to a patch of white alfirin nearby that spilled over the edge of their flowerbed. He motioned to them with a light gesture. "It never truly fails, much like these flowers here that bloom in the south vales and yet thrive even on bare mountain-tops, their beauty unwithering even when they are cut."
"Similar to the simbelmynë in the Mark," murmured Éothain absently.¹
"So many things we think will never come to pass, and yet yesterday the improbable occurred: the battle was won," Húron continued. "And the lost heir of Isildur shall claim the throne of Gondor, if he be not a figment of the imagination conjured in the wake of our victory," he added sceptically, looking up at the White Tower and the banner of Dol Amroth that flapped listlessly in the breathless breeze.
Silently listening to the two men talk, Idrin now sat straighter. "He is very much real," she said. "Had I not seen him lift the Black Shadow from Faramir, I too would have doubted him."
The retired Gondorian captain looked at her, quiet, but Éothain's lip twitched and a glimmer flickered in his eyes, one eyebrow quivering. "The Ranger from the North... King of Gondor. He has a bright sword, yea, and his bearing and speech are lofty, yet the line of Kings failed hundreds of years ago, 'tis said. Any man belonging to a branch of that forgotten kin could lay a high claim to the throne of Gondor."
Húron gazed at him. "Were you born a Gondorian, you would have learnt tales and legends that tell how the true King is known," he returned. "Doubtlessly there is a reason why this man's existence was kept a secret, and the truth of his birthright shall certainly be put to the test."
He glanced up at the quickly climbing sun and then back to his younger companions, the planes of his face softening. "I believe it is time for me to retire. I begin to feel an ache in my bones," he said and slowly got to his feet.
The healer rose with him, and Húron let her take his arm. He turned to Éothain. "We shall see each other again, lad."
Peering at the older man, the Rider of Rohan gave him a wordless, cursory nod in farewell and watched the pair walk away silently.
When they reached the southernmost wing of the Houses of Healing, the retired captain halted and looked softly at Idrin. "You need not wait on me, child, I can make my way to my room easily enough from here."
The young woman opened her mouth to speak, but Húron intercepted her: "It is no difficult task to walk a bit farther. Go."
With a brief purse of lips, the healer conceded and took her leave. Going back to the northward garden, she found Éothain staring unseeingly into the distance, brow knitted. His eyes cleared as she stepped closer to the bench and then looked up, gazing at her thoughtfully.
"How long has Gondor been without a King?"
Idrin blinked. "More than nine hundred years," she replied.
In the brief pause that followed her words, Éothain shifted a little in his seat and motioned for her to settle down. "And?"
The young woman sat. "The last king, Eärnur, went to Mordor in the year 2050 in answer to the Dark Lord's challenge and never came back. He had no heir," she carried on. “After that the rule of the Stewards began. Had Pelendur not advised against accepting Arvedui's claim to the crown after Ondoher's fall —"
Idrin caught a queer glimmer in the man's eyes then and stayed her words, realising that those bits of history she considered elementary sounded like unconnected thoughts to the Rider of Rohan. She took a breath. "The Kings of Gondor came from the line of Elendil's second son, Anárion. King Ondoher was the last of that line; he and his sons were slain in battle," the young woman began again. "Arvedui, the last King of Arthedain and a direct descendant of Isildur, who had wedded Ondoher's daughter, made claim to the throne after their death, but by the Steward Pelendur's advice was rejected..."
Éothain nodded absently to himself, settling deeper into the bench as Idrin talked of the last Kings of Gondor. "What of those tales Húron mentioned?" he asked when she paused.
"It is recorded that the Kings of old were great healers," replied the young woman. "owing this power, perhaps, to their foremother Lúthien, daughter of Melian the Maia and Thingol the Elf-king." And the thread of old lore was taken up anew and their conversation carried on, until the noon bell called them to lunch.
¹ Evidence in JRR Tolkien's writings indicates that the alfirin and the simbelmynë are two different flowers, even though Christopher Tolkien equates them in his commentary in Unfinished Tales.
In one of his letters, the Professor writes that 'Alfirin ("immortal") would be an immortelle, but not dry and papery: simply a beautiful bell-like flower, running through many colours . . .' (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter #312).
Contrasting this image of the everlasting, bell-like flower of many colours that is alfirin, he envisions the simbelmynë as 'an imagined variety of anemone, growing in turf like . . . the pasque-flower, but smaller and white like the wood anemone. Though the plant bloomed at all seasons, its flowers were not "immortelles"' (JRR Tolkien, Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings).
Parting from Éothain near the south lawn of the Houses of Healing, Idrin crossed the garden and made her way to the Healers' wing. Approaching the dining-hall, she saw that the wide chamber was beginning to fill. The Chief Healer, Neston, was standing just inside the doorway, surrounded by a small group of healers and orderlies. Those around him were quiet as he spoke, and the words that reached Idrin's ears made her pause:
"The Warden and I have met with the Lord Aragorn. Our army is to march to the Black Gate in two days' time, accompanied by a number of thirteen healers and twenty-six orderlies," he said.¹ "Those healers who wish to go with the host may come to my study after noon, and orderlies may seek out dame Ioreth. Those who remain shall be assigned additional tasks on the morrow."
Idrin listened as she walked into the hall, feeling a solid weight settle in her stomach. A venture into even the nearest reaches of Mordor was disquieting news. She turned her attention to the growing bustle in the chamber and, among the sea of dark-headed males, caught sight of long, almost red hair and a slender figure.
The russet-headed woman robed in blue and pearl-white came towards her. "I had expected we were to block the Great Gate and prepare for siege, not march to the Black Land," she said promptly.
"A foolhardy decision," murmured Idrin as the two of them made for the cook's counter.
"'Tis a bold move," returned the other and remained silent while they picked up their plates and cups. "I should like to go with the host," she finally went on as they sat at a long table.
Idrin glanced up at her and then dropped her eyes. "I haven't given the matter much consideration yet," she said softly.
The russet-haired healer peered at her companion, noting the thoughtful expression on her face and the gaze that did not quite meet her own. Idrin's eyes remained fixed on the table, and after a moment the red-headed woman turned her attention to her plate.
At the end of their meal, an errand-lad overtook them at the door and gave Idrin a folded piece of parchment.
The healer lingered in the corridor to read. "My brothers write they were given leave to visit their families before the host marches," she said as she put the letter in her kirtle-pocket. "They should be back before sundown tomorrow."
"They were lucky to have been afforded such kindness," returned the red-haired woman beside her, a faraway look glazing her eyes momentarily. "The town's being only a few hours ride worked in their favour."
As the two healers went their separate ways, Idrin thought on the words left unspoken. Her brothers were most fortunate indeed: for many of those currently residing in Minas Tirith, it would be some time before they saw their loved ones again, if at all.
The young woman's feet carried her across the lawn, and she found Faramir standing at the open window in his chamber, looking at the blooming flowerbed outside that stretched almost to the wall.
He spun round at the sound of her footfalls and regarded her with bright eyes. Then his gaze sobered. "Uncle Imrahil visited earlier," he said in a quiet voice.
The young woman felt her heart sink. She had not expected the news of Denethor's death to be relayed to Faramir so soon.
"I had not thought Father would fall to despair thus," the man continued. "The visions he saw in the Stone finally overthrew his mind." He sighed.
Idrin marvelled at his calmness. Then, belatedly, she registered his words. "The stone?"
The faintest semblance of a grim smile brushed Faramir's lips. "Remember you the high room under the summit of the Tower?"
The young woman nodded. She could well recall the solitary door at the top of the long flight of stairs in the Tower of Ecthelion, always locked and mystifying. "I ventured up there just once, when I was nine. Uncle found me staring at the door. That was the only time he ever raised his voice at me," Idrin reminisced. She grinned. "I used to think he had some kind of treasure locked in that room."
Faramir hummed at the words. "I guess it could be called that."
The young woman glanced at him. "A stone," she repeated slowly. Then the frown creasing her brow smoothed. "The seeing-stone of Minas Anor?"
"Indeed," returned her cousin. "After the days of the Kings, the palantír's existence was a guarded secret known only to the Stewards, it seems. Boromir knew of it, for Father took him up the Tower many years ago. It was then that I first set out to discover what was kept in the secret room, but it was only today that my suspicions were fully confirmed."² He saw Idrin's face slowly grow thoughtful again.
The young woman was silent for some time, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet: "Using the palantír was why Uncle seemed so tired this past year."
Faramir gave a half-nod. "Wielding a seeing-stone requires great mental strength, I have gathered; it can be taxing to both mind and body."
"What will happen to it?"
"The Lord Aragorn will keep it," returned Faramir. He regarded his cousin for a moment. "Wilt thou go with the host?"
Idrin blinked at the sudden question and opened her mouth. No words came. Her eyes darted away from Faramir's clear gaze. "I..." Her voice trailed off.
The man took note of the slightly furrowed brow and twitching lip. "You do not wish to find yourself on a battlefield," he said softly.
The young woman let out a sighing breath, meeting his keen grey eyes for the first time. "No, I do not," she admitted. Then she drew herself up. "It's a reckless move, setting seven thousands against the vast armies of Mordor. Foolish."
Faramir looked at her long with a searching gaze, saw her flaring nostril. When her countenance softened, he spoke. "It is not victory by arms the Captains hope to achieve," he said. "Such hope would be futile. Nay, they only wish to draw the Dark Lord's attention away from those who may bring about his undoing."
Idrin gazed at him.
He went on: "Do you remember when you made a guess at the riddling dream Boromir and I had? Our doom lies indeed with the two Halflings we met in Ithilien. Isildur's Bane has awoken, that which was thought to have perished from this world and the one thing the Dark Lord desires above all; that for the unmaking of which the Fellowship of Nine set out in secret."
Slowly, the young woman's eyes widened, and Faramir watched her sink into a chair silently.
"Then... we wait," she said and absently smoothed her kirtle, peering at him. "How do you feel today?"
"Well enough," answered Faramir. "I rested easily last night, and this morning I was allowed a short stroll through the gardens. Then Uncle Imrahil came." He paused. "And you, cousin? How has it been with you?"
"I have not been as hard-pressed as others," returned Idrin. "Those least wounded have been my charge, and many shall be fit to leave the Houses by tomorrow."
The two of them sat and talked together thus for some time, and Faramir was content to hear of the young woman's work and the doings in the City during the days that the grim sickness was upon him. When he grew tired, Idrin left him to rest. The men under her care would not need her attention until evening, and so she made towards the gardens.
From afar the healer caught sight of the familiar form of Éothain standing beside a bench, leaning heavily on his crutches, his back to her. Letting out a huff, she turned her footsteps towards him and picked up her pace. As she advanced, she noted that he was talking to a flaxen-haired man, taller in stature but like him in bearing. Idrin came to stand a few paces away from them, waiting, fragments of their rich, sonorous speech reaching her ears.
After some moments the voices faded into silence, and looking over Éothain's shoulder as he stepped forward, the taller man spied the young woman nearby. He acknowledged her with a glance and strode past her towards the Houses.
When Idrin turned to Éothain, she saw he had moved to stare at the retreating figure, his lips pressed into a thin line. He looked at her then, and his eyes were bright.
"There was an important council held and Éomer did not deem it important to inform the Captain of his éored."³ The Rider's words were crisp, his gaze straying to where his companion had disappeared. "And now, he merely comes after all decisions have been made to tell me we are to march to the Land of Shadow in two days and that he does not expect me to fight while injured." He peered at the healer.
Idrin was watching him in silence. "Please, sit," she said, her eyes flicking to his bandaged leg.
Éothain sat on the bench readily and let out a heavy breath. "He said that his sister, Éowyn, rode with our host in disguise and now lies in this House after her encounter with the Chieftain of the Ringwraiths. Whatever possessed her to leave her charge in the Mark and follow Théoden —" The Rider checked himself and shook his head, looking up at the young woman again. "How came you to become a healer?"
Idrin took a seat beside him. "Ever since I was a child I have been drawn to those who strive to help others," she replied. "When I came to Minas Tirith with my mother, I was often in the Houses with her. I liked helping the healers: rolling bandages, fetching things they needed, running small errands; and in time they began teaching me about the healing herbs. Afterwards I became an apprentice and began studying in earnest."
Éothain thought for a moment. "You were not born here, then?"
The healer shook her head. "I was born in Forvarad, a town in Lossarnach by the Anduin.s08; My father and mother were born in Minas Tirith, but after they were wedded they built their home there. Mother liked the river and the flowering meadows." A gentle smile touched her lips. "What of you? How came you to become a Rider of Rohan?"
"My forefathers were Riders," returned Éothain. "I learnt how to ride even as I learnt to walk and was taught how to wield sword and spear when still a lad. It was during one of those early lessons that I first met Húron – my father and he had been acquainted years earlier when Húron travelled to the Mark on military matters, and thereafter he visited whenever such affairs took him thither."
"Forgive the intrusion, lady," a voice nearby cut into the conversation, "but do we march to war? There seemed to be much excitement among the younger orderlies just now."
Idrin turned to see the Halfling Peregrin and his kinsman and regarded them for a moment. "Yes, Master Pippin, we march to war," she replied. "There will be healers and orderlies accompanying the host, hence the bustle."
"Surely there are not enough men to secure victory?" the second Hobbit was quick to observe.
"There are not, Master Holbytla," returned the Rider of Rohan, "but we can challenge battle still!"
The dark-haired Halfling looked at him.
"I understand you are Peregrin's kinsman, Master Hobbit," the healer turned the matter aside then.
"I am," he answered, shifting his attention to her. "Meriadoc Brandybuck is my name, Merry for short." He moved to sit at the bench opposite the young woman and the Rider, looking up at the roof of green maple leaves above him as the foliage rustled in a breath of cool wind. He hummed softly to himself and let his gaze wander about the greensward. "The city would look so more cheerful if there were more gardens like this one in it."
"It would," Éothain agreed with the quiet musing. "And the trees here are in need of some pruning."
The Halflings peered at the man studying the greenery that surrounded them.
He caught their enquiring gazes on him and continued: "I am not much of a gardener, but I know how to tend trees at the least. My father has always loved the earth."
"As has mine," said Pippin, "though the gardening he leaves to my mother." A fleeting grin passed over his face.
Beside him, Merry chuckled fondly, raising a hand to his right arm. "Aunt Eglantine can be formidable with a pair of pruning shears." Absently he kneaded the muscles under the sleeve-fabric.
"Your arm still pains you?"
The curly-headed Halfling looked up at the Rider. "It's just a twinge," he replied. "That cool draught earlier must have affected it."
Across from him Idrin glanced at the arm in question and then up at the sky. The afternoon sunlight was no longer blazing bright. "It's growing late," she said. "I must return to the wards – there is still work to do before supper-time." She rose, and by her, Éothain wordlessly reached for his crutches and hoisted himself upright.
"Good-night, then," said Merry. "I will stay here a while longer. I am not tired yet, and the air is still warm enough."
Pippin gave a half-nod to himself. "In that case, I will bring some food from the kitchens," he said. "Camping in such lovely gardens is not a bad idea," he finished with a tiny smile.
The healer and the Rider took their leave and the two Halflings settled onto the bench, turning their eyes towards the rose and orange haze in the West.
¹ '. . . [the number of soldiers setting out for Mordor] told six thousand foot and a thousand horse.' (The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter IX)
My assigning a total of thirty-nine healers and orderlies to accompany a host of seven thousands is prompted by a passage regarding the medical personnel allotted to the British army at the battle of Waterloo: 'In theory, each battalion of six hundred men was authorized only one surgeon and two assistants' (Richard A. Gabriel, Between Flesh and Steel).
² '[T]the Anor-stone had become a secret . . . after the fall of Minas Ithil . . . [T]he traditions regarding [the palantíri] and their use [were preserved] in the special archives of the Stewards, available beside the Ruling Steward only to his heir.' (Unfinished Tales, Part Four, Chapter III)
Despite the fact that, during Denethor's rule, only Boromir would have officially been privy to the existence of the Anor-stone, it seems plausible that Faramir, having inherited his father's shrewdness and thirst for knowledge, would have at some point begun to suspect that the seeing-stone of Minas Anor was in the secret keeping of the Steward.
³ In the last draft of The Lord of the Rings to feature him, Éothain was the 'captain of Éomer's company (éored)' (The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Ring, Part One, Chapter VII). Although the rank is not mentioned in the published text, it is most certain that it was retained: Éothain's being the only person who dared speak his mind, twice, when first meeting the Three Hunters in The Two Towers, something that largely goes unmarked by Éomer, is fair indication of an elevated station, as one of lesser rank would not be likely to display such open forwardness.
4 Forvarad is my creation, one of the unnamed settlements dotting the landscape of Middle-earth.
The next day dawned bright. The Houses of Healing were in a flurry of activity: orderlies and healers went to and fro, and soldiers declared fit made ready to depart with the companies marching to Mordor.
“The guesthouse on the fourth level is nearest,” said Idrin as she arranged small jars and pads of cloth on a tray. “It is close to the gate that leads to the fifth circle of the City.”
The golden-haired young man sitting on the bed behind her rose and reached for the pack and scabbard lying against a wall. He straightened and readjusted the linen sling his left arm was in, rubbing gingerly at his shoulder.
Fumbling with a leather pouch attached to her belt, the healer unfastened it and presented it to the Rider. “Do not worry your arm, and apply the salve twice a day.” The man took the small bag from her, and she went on: “I shall see you again in five days; the swelling will have gone down by then. In the meantime, if the pain becomes more than a twinge, or if the area grows hot, come to the Houses.”
The young man nodded. “Thank you, Mistress.” He bent to store the pouch in his pack, and Idrin picked up the tray and made for the door.
* * *
It was a couple of hours before noon when she entered Faramir's chamber.
Perched in the window-recess, the man looked up from the sheaf of papers he had been studying. “You came early, cousin,” he said.
“I had not much to do,” replied Idrin: “many have been released from my care, and those who still remain are in no need of special attention.”
Faramir left his seat and set the documents he had been holding on the bed. “Will you walk with me, then?”
“Yes.” Idrin nodded readily and followed him outside.
As they stepped into the garden, the young woman paused when her fingers tightened against a forgotten weight in her hand. “I have something for you,” she said, lifting her arm. “I thought it might help rest your mind when you take up your authority as Steward.”
Faramir took the leather-bound book from her and peered at the cover. The hint of a grin touched his features. “Thank you,” he returned, taking a moment to leaf through the first pages before clutching the tome to him.
They strolled along the hedge that ran about the domain of the healers in silence for some time. Then the Lord Denethor's secondborn sighed. “The fallen will have to be named and buried; we shall have to provide for those who will remain in the City. I will have to speak with the Lord Éomer about King Théoden's body – as it will be some time before he can be buried with proper honour, the services of the embalmers shall have to be enlisted.” He looked up at the smattering of white clouds dotting the sky. “And then, there's the matter of my father's remains,” he said. “Alas that the fire made it so that there shall be no tomb to hold an embalmed body. Yet, he once said he wished to be laid to rest beside my mother – perhaps when all is peaceful again we may journey to Dol Amroth and honour that.”
Beside him, the young woman hummed quietly. “Yes, when all is set in order.”
Faramir held her gaze for a brief instant and then turned to look towards the dark clouds beyond Ithilien. “Mother feared the darkness in the East,” he said. “It had been a whispering shadow and a threat in her mind, ever growing as the years passed. It was for love of my father and us that she endured living in Minas Tirith.”
Idrin remained silent. As a child she had heard tale of how Finduilas had slowly withered in the Guarded City, and more than once she had wondered why the Shadow had affected her so.
A Gondorian soldier approached them then and addressed Faramir: “The Lord Éomer wishes to see you, lord.”
Faramir bade him conduct the new king of Rohan to his chamber and, when the man bowed and departed, turned to Idrin. “Perhaps we can resume our walk later.”
“Arvinion and Damhir are returning from Forvarad this evening, and the townhouse is in need of tidying,” answered the young woman; “but I shall try to come if all is done before the sunset-bell.”
Faramir inclined his head and turned to follow the soldier who had disappeared in the distance.
When he left, Idrin stood for a while and then walked to the wall, climbing the steps to the top. She rested her hands lightly on the parapet and looked down. Flanking the broken Great Gate were the many tents of the Rohirrim and the Dúnedain, the sole source of colour upon the barren plains. In the west and south, near the root of Mindolluin, she could discern a press of men, busy as ants.
The young woman watched as the wide tract of land they worked in was being meticulously cleared of debris. There would be mounds raised there soon, Idrin knew, housing the fallen defenders of Minas Tirith, after their bodies were washed of the grime of battle. She wondered how long it would take before the fields grew green again.
The sound of heavy footfalls punctured her solitude, and a tall figure came to stand beside her. Idrin turned to see Éothain gazing over the plains. Her eyes moved to the leg only gingerly touching the stones beneath it and then beyond to the steps leading up to the wall-walk. She let out a breath and averted her gaze.
“Is it the first time you look over the walls after the siege?” asked Éothain.
Near the root of the mountain, the site of the future mounds was slowly becoming smoother and less dark than the burnt earth surrounding it as the top layer of soil was removed and the earth turned.
“No, but it is the first time I look so long,” replied Idrin. “I have never seen such scorched land before. Set against this, the injuries of Men seem almost a trifling matter.”
Beyond the confines of the City and the newly erected tents nearby, in the desolate plains, were burnt homesteads and charred trees and blackened earth.
Éothain looked away and gave the young woman a fleeting glance. “It is a sad sight.” There was a pause, and then he spoke again in a quiet, slow voice: “Have you lost anyone in the battle?”
The healer turned to regard him. “No, I was fortunate,” she said. “My brothers fought and survived.”
“As was I,” returned Éothain. “Both my cousins are hale, though the arm of Éowyn is broken.¹ I should go and see how she fares.”
The young woman was peering at him in silence, her gaze steady, and when he shifted, she blinked.
“Come, let us go sit,” she said. “You should rest your leg.”
They came down from the wall and settled on a bench as the day before.
"Tell me of Rohan," Idrin requested.
Éothain's countenance grew lighter. "The Riddermark is a country ever swept by winds,” he began. “The summers are warm and the winters can be harsh; but in springtime there is much rain and the plains turn green. The Entwash divides the land into the Westemnet and the Eastemnet, and in times of peace there are large herds of horses roaming the open grasslands there, cared for by herdsmen who camp in tents year-round."²
There was a spark in the young woman's eyes as she listened. “I would like to visit it one day,” she said. “The farthest I have travelled to is Dol Amroth, by the sea, many years ago.”
“I would like to see more of this city,” returned Éothain. “Stone is not so much used in the Mark. Wood-workers and cob-builders are more common among us.” He glanced up at the sun high in the sky. “The wood-carvers would have much to do at this time of year,” he said, “fashioning snowdrops and daffodils and glory-of-the-snow from tree-bark to mark the end of winter.”³ And with that he began telling her about spring in the Riddermark.
* * *
The light had not yet failed when Idrin shut the door to the room behind her, leaving the man within basking in whatever warmth the descending sun had to offer. There was only one more soldier in need of her attention at present, and the healer made for his chamber.
Éothain was testing his injured leg as the young woman walked in, taking small steps without the support of crutches. He sat on the bed beside a weathered map laid flat upon it when he caught sight of the healer's raised eyebrow, and she went to the small cupboard near the bathtub without speaking.
The Rider was on his feet once more as soon as she had seen to his stitched wound. While she busied herself storing away the jar of ointment and roll of linen-cloth, Éothain was pacing back and forth across the room, making slight use of one crutch. He halted by the window and gazed outside at the gardens bathed in the golden light of late afternoon, one forefinger tapping briskly against his leg and a faint crease furrowing his brow. After a few moments he turned about, and his mouth was set in a firm line.
"Mistress, I wish to join the companies."
Idrin looked up and met the unyielding gaze. There was a spell of silence.
"Your leg is mending," she said at last. "Putting undue pressure on it now will not help matters."
Éothain stared at her, his jaw suddenly clenching and his body stiffening. “Undue pressure? Mistress, a soldier cannot fight sitting.”
The young woman shook her head slowly, and the Rider spoke again, his words measured: "We will not go to the Land of Shadow on foot, and it will take us six days at the least to get there. My leg will have time to heal.”
"You would risk further injury to follow your King,” said Idrin quietly. She let out a deep breath. “If the muscle does not knit properly, some permanent damage may remain; and if the wound opens again, it will not be as easy to close.”
Éothain peered at her. “I have dealt with such injuries before; I can look after myself. And should something happen, there will be healers among us."
The young woman huffed and looked at him steadily, concealing her imperceptibly twitching fingers in a fold of her chemise. He held her gaze, and after a while she averted her eyes. "Very well," she said and turned to the cupboard again, rummaging through it for a few minutes. Approaching Éothain, she offered him a sturdy pouch. "Dressing material and salve," she explained when he raised an eyebrow in enquiry; "there's enough for two weeks. I will have a remedy for the pain sent in the morning."
The Rider of Rohan took the brown pouch from her and glanced at the shallow jar and bandages inside. "Thank you." He tightened the strings. "I should find Húron; bid him farewell," he said, softly as if speaking to himself.
“I can show you to his room,” said Idrin.
Éothain adjusted his grip on the single crutch he held and followed her. They found Húron sitting on the bed, his attention bent on flexing and extending his fingers.
Idrin watched the man's movements, noting the improved mobility and reduced stiffness, before he became aware of them.
“I do feel better than I did this morning,” he said, glancing down at his hand. “Exercise helps indeed.” He looked at the healer.
“That is good news,” she replied. “If all is well, you may return home tomorrow.” There was a pause and then she spoke again: "I should leave you; there is much to be done at the townhouse before Arvinion and Damhir come.” She turned to the Rider of Rohan, meeting his gaze briefly. "Fare you well, Éothain."
He peered at her. "Farewell, Mistress."
She offered a faint upturn of lips and swept from the room.
"You go to Mordor."
Húron's words drew Éothain's attention, and the Rider saw the man was gazing at his bandaged leg. He nodded at the statement. Feeling the Gondorian raise his eyes and open his mouth after a ponderous moment, he checked him: "How did you come to be at the Houses of Healing? When last we met in the Mark, you were as hale as can be."
A mirthless grin touched Húron's features. "Age and sickness spare no man," he replied.
¹ JRR Tolkien gives us no details on Éothain's background. His and Éomer's being cousins is of my own invention, an extrapolation from the little we know about him. The first fact to draw from is his name itself: Éothain has the same element eoh (horse in Old English) as Éomer, Éowyn, Éomund. Names among close family members of the Rohirrim tend to have a similar sound (Théoden, Théodwyn, Théodred), so, deducing from that similarity, Éothain may very well be related to Éomund and his family.
The second fact to draw from is Éothain's brazenly voicing his thoughts to his Marshal when first coming across the Three Hunters: such bold speech may be indicative of the easy familiarity that exists among close family members.
² Rohan is a country that mainly boasts grasslands: 'The wind went like grey waves through the endless miles of grass . . . Often the grass was so high that it reached above the knees of the riders . . . The grass-lands rolled against the hills that clustered at [the feet of the White Mountains] . . . winding their way into the heart of the great mountains . . . [I]n the wet meads and along the grassy borders of the stream grew many willow-trees . . . [There were] willow-thickets where Snowbourn flowed into Entwash . . .' (The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter V & Chapter VI; The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter III).
These descriptions indicate regions of temperate grasslands, as this biome '[consists] of grasses and herbs that extend across vast plains with occasional low, rolling hills. Trees grow only beside rivers . . .' and '[i]n temperate regions there is a dry season that begins in the late summer, fall, or winter and continues until spring . . . Where rainfall is relatively high, the grasses are about five feet (1,5 m) tall . . .' (Michael Allaby, Grasslands).
³ This Rohirric tradition is my creation, inspired by the vernal equinox being considered the official first day of spring in many countries of the northern hemisphere.
The townhouse was dark when Idrin entered, the hearth cold and the windows shut, witness to the recent absence of the housekeeper who had gone to Lebennin. The young woman built the fire in the drawing-room, tended the oil-lamps and went to the broom-cupboard.
Busying herself with tidying and cleaning, she saw that twilight had nearly turned to night by the time she walked into the last room to be put in order. Her father's study wasn't large, and the work was done quickly. Chores finished, the young woman went to the desk once again with a mind to finally place the open book there back on the shelf and clear away the stacked sheets of parchment.
She made to mark the page and found herself sitting in her father's old chair, her eyes gliding over the written word. She turned to the stray piece of parchment resting against the leather-bound tome, its light surface covered in her own clear handwriting, the words matching those on the page under it. Idrin let the bookmark fall to its place, dividing the tome into two unequal parts. There was some work to be done yet before her copy of the long account relating to her father's kin was completed. She closed the book and let it lie on the desk, blew out the lamp-flame and left the study.
A quick look out an open window revealed an ink-dark sky dotted with stars. Idrin drew the shutters and climbed the flight of stairs to the landing. She would go to Faramir in the morning.
After a warm bath, she descended to the kitchen. Signs of movement within, where all had been quiet before, made her heart give a wild leap in her chest and for an instant the breath caught in her throat. Her feet came to an abrupt halt at the doorway. Then the fleeting moment of surprise passed and Idrin recognised her brothers. She relaxed and walked in towards them.
“How are Faervel and Orien? Gladhwen?” she asked.
“All are well,” replied Arvinion. “Faervel is busy with running the household and helping her father manage his trade affairs when need be.” He chuckled. “Were my wife a man, she would have made a fair merchant herself.” He watched Idrin move about the kitchen, finding pots and plates and knives, and went on: “Orien has taken to drawing and asks when she might learn how to ride. She has grown so since I saw her last.”
Following his sister with his gaze, Arvinion saw the expression of fondness on her features turn to gloom for the barest moment, the motion of her hands slow for a passing second. Perhaps it was that she missed her young niece and sisters-by-marriage, whom she hadn't seen in a good while. Then the impression fled and Idrin was turning to regard her second brother.
There was a gleam in Damhir's eyes that the young woman had never seen before.
“I am to become a father,” he said promptly, his mouth curving into a smile. His sister's face lit up but Damhir's countenance dimmed shortly. He grimaced, shaking his head once. “A fine time for such news, is it not?” The man heaved a deep breath. “Gladhwen is distraught; she fears the shadow in the East and what the future may bring.” He huffed. “Her anxiety is distracting.”
Arvinion peered at his younger brother. “There is good reason for her worrying but your wife needs to calm herself.” His eyes fell on a small wicker basket lined with thick green cloth and turned to his sister. “Has Nathes sent word?”
Idrin stirred. “Apart from the letter writing that the two of them arrived in Lebennin in good time, there has been no news,” she replied.
She went back to cooking, and the hours were spent in quiet conversation, the night going quickly by.
When Idrin rose in the grey hour before sunrise, she found her brothers in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. They ate in silence and then, much sooner than she would have liked, she was by the garden-gate, watching Arvinion and Damhir round the bend to the front of the house, leading their mounts. There was a moment of quiet as they stood before her, the breath of their horses misting in the cold air. Idrin embraced her siblings close.
"Return safely," she said and drew back to watch them pass under the gate of the fifth circle.
* * *
Pale daylight was just beginning to touch the treetops when Éothain found himself waiting near the gate of the Houses of Healing. Leaning on one foot, he gazed out into the main road, a light in his eyes. He fingered the hem of his gambeson. Newly cleaned and mended, the padded garment had, for a brief spell, felt heavier than he recalled when he had put it on after rising; and his shirt of mail had seemed to make the strain on his right leg more evident. It had been a few moments before he once again grew familiar with the added weight of his sword-belt and sword, an he had paced the length of his room carefully until the first break of dawn, reacquainting himself with his armour. Then he had shed the hauberk and blade and left his room, his step brisk.
Éothain's fingers were presently stilled as he set eyes upon the tall figure passing through the open wrought-iron gate, fully armoured and holding a white-crested helm under one arm.
The new king of Rohan peered at his kinsman. “The healers have released you from their care, then?” he called.
“Grudgingly so,” replied Éothain, turning about when Éomer reached him and walking with him towards the cluster of stone buildings that housed the wounded.
Éomer glanced at the man's injured leg once more, noting his limping progress. He regarded him with a calculating stare. “If I understand that you cannot support your weight when the time of battle comes, you will go back to the tents with the esquires and healers.”
Éothain met the level gaze steadily but said nothing.
Passing by a half-open window, they caught fleeting sight of flaxen hair and a gaunt face, and heard a man's low voice:
"Why do you fight to save me, Mistress? My leg is gone. I will never be able to ride a horse again."
The tone was one of despair, but a female voice countered it in reply: "You may not be able to ride into battle, but your experience will be valuable to others." The woman hidden from view spoke calmly, her words slow. "You will pass the knowledge you carry to the younger ones. As long as man draws breath, he is not useless."
Éomer and Éothain shared a glance.
“You should visit with them, those who are in the care of the healers,” said Éothain when they had walked a few paces farther.
The new king nodded slowly. “I shall.”
They went on in silence, and when they reached the southernmost wing of the Houses, they found Éowyn standing at the window of her chamber, her mouth pressed in a thin line and a thoughtful expression on her face. She spun round when she felt their presence and her eyes flashed at the sight of them clad for battle.
Éothain peered at her. "It is good to see that your arm is healing, Éowyn," he said.
She merely gave a half-hearted nod. "You are fortunate, cousin," she spoke at last. "Your injury does not hinder you."
There was a hint of longing in her voice that Éothain did not understand. Then, in the instant of quiet that followed, he remembered the late visit he had the previous evening and met Éowyn's eyes.
“Windfola was found by the banks of the River last night,” he said. “My men suppose he had wandered far afield in his terror after he fled from the Lord of the Ringwraiths and his winged creature during the battle. He bears no grave injuries; his wounds were dressed and he was taken to the Steward's stables to rest.”
Éowyn's face softened. “I am glad,” she said. “To see Windfola again is something to look forward to, since there is naught else to do.”
There was a twinge of sadness in her voice despite her words, and Éothain suddenly felt his presence could do no more to lighten the mood that was upon her. He drew himself up. “I must go and get ready,” he said, making slowly for the door and closing it behind him.
When he had gone, Éomer turned to Éowyn. "What troubles you?" He sat by his sister on the bed.
She turned dark eyes on him. "Can you not guess? You know what I yearn for. You ride to battle and renown and I stay behind to while away the long hours in sloth."
The new king studied her. "What you yearn for cannot be granted," he said at last. “War does not become women, Éowyn. Thou canst reside in a house of peace while such still lasts. Heal thy body and mind and do not seek for glory in death.”
Éowyn held his gaze for several moments without speaking. Then she ducked her head, and when she looked up at him again, the intensity in her look had dimmed. "Safe journey," she said.
There was still coolness in her clear eyes as she spoke, but Éomer knew it was transient. He rose to his feet. "Farewell, sister." He cast her a fond glance and left the room.
Éowyn watched him go, quietly.
* * *
Minas Tirith was humming with still watchfulness.
Idrin stood upon the wall of the sixth circle with Faramir at her side. The sun reflected on helms and spears on the field of the Pelennor below, glinting off them in bright flashes. The host was assembled: the great sable standard bearing the device of seven stars and crown above the white tree was in the van, and behind it were the white-horse-upon-green of Rohan and the silver swan of Dol Amroth. The people remaining in the City looked down from windows and parapets, but there was no cheering to send the army off: all awaited the trumpet-call with grim patience.
"It feels strange that we should have a King after the War."
The words were said in a whisper, but the silence all about made them loud enough to be heard. The man who had spoken was one of a twain standing a few feet away from Idrin and Faramir. "He is a great leader of Men, they say; a warrior and a healer,” he told the one beside him. “I have seen him cure one of my kinsmen from the Black Breath with my own eyes.”
His companion kept his attention on the host below. "Even the greatest warrior may not survive this last coming battle," he said curtly. "And if he be indeed the heir of Isildur, why did he not claim the kingship sooner?”
The man with him had no reply to offer.
Just then, the clear sound of a trumpet was heard. The army began its march, and those in the city watched men and beasts slowly dwindle in the distance.
When naught remained before the Great Gate, Idrin turned to Faramir. As she caught his eye, he turned a fleeting glance on the pair of men nearby and made for the steps hewn into the wall.
“It will be some time before the Lord Aragorn's claim is fully accepted by all, it seems,” he said as they wove their way back to the Houses. “Victory in battle, should it come, might strengthen people's trust.”
By his side, Idrin hummed quietly in agreement. Walking with Faramir to his room, she bid him farewell and went to commence the day's work. As she continued alone down the silent corridor, she heard clear speech coming from farther ahead:
“I wish to go to the stables.”
The female voice that answered this demand was younger, holding a trace of wonder: “Lady, you are to stay in the keeping of the healers for many days yet.”
Approaching the source of the conversation, Idrin saw an open door looming closer to her right, light spilling from within the chamber and into the corridor.
“I am to be under their care, not a prisoner,” returned the first woman coolly. “It is my arm and not my legs that requires mending. I will return.”
Drawing almost level with the room, Idrin caught sight of an orderly's dove-grey garb peeking from the doorway and at length heard the young girl say: “I have not the authority to make such decisions, lady. I do not know if —“
“Who would make such decisions?”
Passing by the chamber, the healer now glimpsed the lady Éowyn standing before the orderly, proud and erect, her eyes bright.
The orderly's voice made the healer pause and turn back. The lady of Rohan peered at Idrin from within the room, and the girl's gaze was fixed on her.
“The lady Éowyn wishes to visit the stables,” said the orderly promptly.
Idrin considered the words and met Éowyn's gaze. “I see no harm in that; yet I understand that the Warden himself was tasked with your keeping in these Houses. Whatever orders he gave on this matter, I cannot revoke. In his domain the Warden is master.”
Éowyn looked at her for a moment. “It is the Warden I should seek, then,” she said.
“Indeed,” returned Idrin, averting her attention from the appraising grey eyes and taking a step back from the threshold. “Good-day, lady.”
The lady of Rohan stared after the retreating form and dismissed the orderly, shutting the door behind her.
End of Part I
To come: After the Rain Part II – Under Trees of Gold
Here follows a list with the names of the original characters who made an appearance or were mentioned in this story, along with original place-names and meanings. Names marked with an asterisk are constructed by me.
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