Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 5

With the yet unseen dawn came hope. The coming of the Rohirrim stirred the quelled flame in the hearts of the defenders of the Guarded City, fanning it to a blaze. New strength came to them and they burst like a river from the Great Gate to join the Horse-lords.

Slowly, the cold light of daybreak became golden and warm, and the muted colours of early morning turned clear and bright.

Returning from a store-room to the ward to which she had been assigned, Idrin suddenly frowned at the sight before her. She slowed her pace, her gaze fixed on the two darkly clad figures and the bier they carried.

They were not among those who fought on the Pelennor, for the stain of battle was not upon them. A closer look revealed that their livery was that of the Guards of the Tower. As they came nearer and the tall guard carrying the fore end of the bier shifted his stance, the young woman saw that his companion, who had to that moment remained hidden in his shadow, was the Halfling Peregrin.

She peered at the litter, wondering what could bring them here when not even the first wounded from the field had begun to arrive. The figure lain on the bier then took shape and Idrin drew a sharp breath. New speed came to her unhurried footsteps and she hastened towards the men.

The sombre Guard halted when he saw her. "We were told to bring him here and seek Master Neston, lady," he said.

Idrin laid the back of her hand on Faramir's forehead, feeling the hot clamminess of his skin. Sweat shone on his brow and he was as still as one dead, and the healer once again thought of the pale faces of those stricken with the Black Shadow. Yet, Faramir was not cold as they. She glanced up at the Guard.

"A sudden fever and sickness that are not understood have taken him," he said. For a moment he gazed closely at her, the muscles in his jaw working as though he was to speak again, but said no more.

Pippin cast him a sideways glance, the image of smoke and flame coming into his mind before the healer spoke once again.

"Come." She turned and led the way to a private chamber.

As the Guard and Peregrin laid Faramir in bed, Idrin threw open the shutters. Pale light shone from the eastward window, and the southern part of the garden was alive with the colours of first spring. Within, in a small vase on the bedside-table, where one of the orderlies had sought to brighten the background of stone and wood, was a single bloom of alfirin.

The healer smiled and turned to the Guard and the Halfling. Just then, a man in dark-blue robes entered the chamber, a twinkle of bright grey glimmering upon his breast.

He strode to the bed and bent over Faramir, feeling his brow and then moving his hand to his wrist. After a moment he turned to the orderly who had come with him, bidding her bring cool water and towels. As the woman left, his gaze found Idrin and their eyes met.

The young healer glanced at Faramir and drew to the door. The Guard and Pippin followed her outside, and then she turned to them.

"You have abandoned your posts to bring him here," she said, her expression soft. "You had better return to your duties before you are missed."

The Halfling looked at the floor and shifted from one foot to the other, and the tall Man dropped his gaze. Neither spoke, but both gave a curt nod of farewell before turning on their heel and walking away.

Thinking nothing of their silence, the healer gazed after their retreating forms until they rounded a corner and then made towards her assigned ward.

* * *

The fiery disk of the sun had nearly sunk behind Mindolluin and the shadows of twilight were beginning to lengthen when the door to the treatment room Idrin had been working in opened yet again.

Turning from the long row of shelves and cabinets lining one wall, she saw the young orderly who assisted her step over the threshold, followed closely by two men.

They were tall and fair-haired and their shirts of mail glinted redly where the lamp-light caught them. The taller of the two leant slightly against the other, one arm gripping his companion's shoulder as he favoured his right leg. When they halted just inside the doorway, he stood erect, glancing about the room with keen eyes.

The orderly moved off and busied herself at the hip-high table by the short cabinets as the healer walked closer to the Riders. She studied the injured man, noting various shallow cuts and the white line of a healed scar above his left eyebrow but no sign of serious hurts other than the slash across the outside of his right boot. A close look at his companion showed he was in no need of a healer's attention, and Idrin turned her gaze back to the limping Rider.

"Sit." She gestured at the high bench draped with a light cloth set to the right of the door.

The man remained standing. "It was not my wish to come here, Mistress," he said, using the Common Tongue, his speech slow and deep. "The battle on the field below is not yet over, and it is many times that I have fought bearing such injuries."

His steady gaze had found the healer, but an incredulous exclamation from the second Rider made the injured man turn and speak to him rapidly in their own tongue, his words crisp. When his companion returned no answer, the tall Rider looked back at the young woman and drew himself up to his full height.

The motion was followed by a grimace and a stifled groan, and Idrin glanced at the man's hurt limb. Then she stared up into his pale, proud face. "It seems that your leg would fail you if you were to go to the battlefield," she said.

His jaw clenching, the Rider looked at the healer with a calculating gaze. After a few seconds he shifted forward resolutely but quickly flung out an arm to clutch at his companion's shoulder as his legs gave way. With a huff he limped to the wide seat and unbuckled his belt, setting his sword against the wall before settling down on the bench.

While the man fumbled with the fastenings of his damaged boot, Idrin went to the cauldron heating near one wall and ladled water into a large bowl, taking it, along with a tinted bottle, to the cabinet-worktop where the orderly had prepared a tray with pads of soft cloth and bandages, a pair of snips and a slender knife. The healer added the bowl and bottle to the load and carried all to the oblong table by the high seat.

Drawing a stool to the bench, she sat and looked closely at the leg propped on the hard surface: dried blood stained the Rider's ankle-length breeches and fresh droplets had seeped through the fabric.

Idrin passed her fingers lightly over the rough material – it stuck firmly to the wound beneath. Taking a patch of cloth from the tray and dipping it into the water, she soaked the crusted area and then contemplated the gashed fabric that had come loose. "It will be easier if this is cut away," she said, looking up at the Rider. She found his gaze fixed on her, cool and appraising.

After a long moment the hazel eyes turned away and the man moved to study his breeches, not noticing the healer's jutting chin and flaring nostril. He fingered the slashed fabric: the crooked blade had left a mess of stray threads in its wake. He nodded to himself and looked at Idrin. "They are torn beyond repair."

The low, measured voice drove the memory of the bold appraisal from her thought, and the young woman blinked. Taking the snips, she cut the fabric around the wound and about the knee, pulling the loose pieces away carefully: the gash was deep, almost extending the length of his calf. She slid the edge of the knife carefully over the skin and then dipped a pad of cotton-cloth into the warm water, cleaning it thoroughly.

A faint shuffling noise broke the silence and the Rider standing idly by the bench spoke: "Is there anything I can do to help, Mistress Healer?"

Idrin looked up at him. "Not at the moment," she replied. "You may wait outside while I stitch the wound, if you wish, but the healers treating those severely wounded would welcome aid. Glaewen will show you."

The orderly stepped forward and waited by the door, and the man nodded, glancing at his companion. They exchanged a few words in their native tongue and then the Rider followed the woman outside, the door closing softly behind them.

Idrin rose and went to the shelves, opening two jars and adding a careful measure of the contents of each into a cup. She let the mixture steep in boiling water and then took the cooling vessel along with a phial and jar to the bench.

"This will help lessen the pain and the swelling," she said, proffering the cup to the man.

The Rider drank deeply and then tensed, fighting a cough. He wiped his mouth. "Vile, bitter stuff."

The healer took the cup from him and placed it on the oblong table. "It's willow bark for the inflammation, with elderberry and hyssop to fight off infection," she said. Uncorking the phial she held, she soaked a clean cloth with its amber contents.

The Rider watched her closely.

Idrin caught the inquisitive gaze. "This will relax the muscles and lessen the pain," she explained, pressing the cotton-cloth to the shaven skin; "extracts of peppermint and the bird-pepper plant.¹ You will feel the pressure from the needle, but there should be little else."

The man made no comment, following her movements in silence as, after several moments, she dampened a soft pad with the colourless liquid from the tinted bottle and scrubbed the wound gently. The sharp smell of clear spirits pricked his nostrils, but he merely felt a slight sting where the soaked cloth passed over his skin. His gaze continued to trail the healer when she moved to wash her hands in the basin standing against the far wall and then make her way to the hip-high table.

He caught the gleam of polished steel as she picked up the contents of a raised metal board, arranging them carefully on the small tray beside it before returning to the bench with her load. Watching her sit and lift the ivory-hued cord from the small metal bowl, the Rider tensed when the clamp-like instrument holding the threaded needle hovered over his skin.² He glanced at the dark liquid of the phial on the small table and felt his body go rigid.

The pain he had anticipated was only a twinging sensation and the hand he held stiff against the bench relaxed. He let out a long breath and looked at the young woman bent on her work. The swift, fluid movements nearly lulled him, and it was after some time that he realised that the healer's hands were empty. He peered down at the row of black stitches, evenly spaced and standing out against his skin.

In front of him, the healer had unsealed the shallow jar and began rubbing a cool salve into his leg, pressing a clean pad on the stitched wound and wrapping a long strip of bandaging linen around it, finally securing it in place with a small clasping pin.

"There." She looked up at him. "You were fortunate: the cloth and boot protected the wound from the worst of the dirt. However, the cut was deep and you will have to stay in the Houses for at least seven days, to rest your leg and allow it to heal properly. If all is well, the stitches might be removed then."

The Rider frowned. "Seven days of idleness are too many when the war is not yet over."

"Yet your injury was not an insignificant one," returned Idrin, and after a long moment the man averted his gaze.

As the young woman got up, going to the smaller washbasin placed on the cabinet-worktop, the door opened and Glaewen appeared, followed by the Rider's companion. While the two men conversed in low voices, Idrin went to the large closet and returned holding a pair of crutches. She proffered them to the injured Rider. "Glaewen will show you to your room," she said.

The man's lips pressed into a thin line as he peered at the crutches, one eyebrow arching. He rose carefully and attempted a step forward, moving away from his companion's outstretched arm. His leg buckled and he drew in a hissing breath. Managing to steady himself, the Rider stood still for an instant, the crease above the bridge of his nose smoothing before he finally took the crutches from the healer. "Thank you, Mistress." The words were a terse sigh.

Idrin's mouth twitched into a dim smile. "Take care not to let water soak it," she said, motioning at the stitched leg.

"I will." The Rider glanced at her and then turned to the door, following the orderly and his companion, who had gathered the discarded boot and sword-belt, outside the room.

Behind them, Idrin moved to clear the small oblong table and made her way to the short cabinets.

Chapter End Notes:

¹ Elderberry and hyssop exhibit antimicrobial, antioxidant and immune-boosting action (Sara Kunha et al, Sambucus nigra – a promising natural source for human health; Fatemeh Fathiazad & Sanaz Hamedeyazdan, A review on Hyssopus officinalis).
Peppermint contains menthol, which has topical anaesthetic effects (N Galeotti et al, Local anaesthetic activity of (+)- and (-)-menthol).
, or cayenne pepper, contains capsaicin, topical formulations of which defunctionalise nociceptive nerve fibres. Cayenne peppers can be found in temperate climates, and thus in Eriador, Gondor, Rohan (P Anand & K Bley, Topical capsaicin for pain management; TG Tutin et al., Flora Europaea; Karen Wynn Fonstad, The Atlas of Middle-earth).

² Given the Gondorians' skill in healing ('[T]he leechcraft of Gondor was . . . skilled in the healing of wound and hurt, and all such sickness as east of the Sea mortal men were subject to.' [The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter VIII]), it can be assumed that they also developed the instruments to facilitate their work, similar to the ancient Greeks and Romans devising ophthalmic probes, tongue depressors, forceps with finely-toothed jaws, ointment spatulas, or pivoting surgical instruments, to name a few (John Stewart Milne, Surgical Instruments in Greek and Roman Times).


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