Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 4

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.

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