Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 10

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.

“Mistress Idrin!”

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

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