Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 2

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.

"Good evening."

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.

Chapter End Notes:

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)

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