Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 3

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.

“Mistress Idrin.”

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.

Chapter End Notes:

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.

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