Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Story Notes:

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.


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."

Chapter End Notes:

* 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)


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