Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 6

A drizzling rain came from the West as the night deepened. Ringing with the clash of arms no more, the scarred field of the Pelennor breathed again, and beyond it the waters of the Anduin began to clear of red foam. In the Guarded City lights sprang forth in every circle, twinkling like a host of yellow stars. Up in the sixth level, the Houses of Healing had grown quiet, no longer filled with the cries of the wounded rushed in from battle.

With no more soldiers requiring immediate care, Idrin now left the ward to which she had been appointed, making towards the southern part of the Houses. A door swung open somewhere to her left and the Halfling Peregrin emerged into the corridor. Just before the door shut behind him, the healer made out a small figure lying on the bed and a mop of brown curls splayed on the pillow.

It was Pippin's kinsman, she knew. Long hours ago, in a moment of respite, she remembered catching a glimpse of the wizard Mithrandir carrying him past the treatment room in which she had been working, and recalled noting his closed eyes and the grey tint to his face.

"How is your friend?"

Her voice made Pippin look up at her. He sighed.

"The same," came his reply. "He has neither stirred nor opened his eyes. His skin is deathly cold and his right arm even more so. At first he spoke much in his dreaming, murmuring many things. Gandalf – Mithrandir, that is – said that he had dealt a great blow to the Witch-king on the battlefield, and that the Lady Éowyn finished him. Good old Merry!" His voice faltered and he fell silent, averting his gaze.

Idrin said nothing for a long while. Being unable to aid a hurt loved one was a harrowing thing, yet there was precious little that could be done against this Black Shadow. She drew in a breath.  "We can only have patience and wait now, Pippin."

The Hobbit nodded mutely. "Yes," he whispered. Then, a second later he set his shoulders. "I should go and find Beregond of the Guards," he said. "Farewell for now."

As their ways parted, the healer's face grew more thoughtful. There were many who now lay stricken with this strange malady, she knew, all fading slowly. While she had not seen the White Lady of Rohan, she had heard the soft speech of the orderlies, speaking in wonder and pity of the fair maiden who sought battle clad in mail as one of the Rohirrim.

Men might be those who bore arms at need, truly, yet in dire straits women fought no less valiantly. Still, Idrin could not fathom why one would choose to meet her doom in a foreign land when her own home had to be defended.

Her thoughts dispersed as she entered the chamber Faramir was laid in. The window was ajar, and the scent of night-flowers wafted in. The light rainfall had ceased, yet the mild air seemed to bring no comfort to the man: Faramir was still as she had last seen him, not responding to the world around him.

The young woman sat by him, closing her eyes for a fleeting instant as she sank into the soft chair-cushion. Reaching out, she felt Faramir's brow, and the burning heat that seared her hand surprised her. She gathered the bowl of water from the night-stand, hoping the cool cloth on his skin would ease him. He did not move.

A while later, the silence in the room was broken by the sound of heavy footsteps. Idrin looked about, recognising the wizard but not the second man who came in after him.

He was dark-haired, wrapped in a grey hooded cloak above his shirt of mail, and when he moved she saw a glimmer of green upon his breast. He looked like a battle-worn soldier, yet there was something noble about him, and she thought the bright jewel a very precious thing to be owned by a common man.

"Good evening, Mistress," the stranger greeted her and went to Faramir. He laid his hand upon his brow and gazed at him closely. Then he turned to the healer. "Has he spoken at all?"

A faint crease appeared above the bridge of Idrin's nose. "No," she replied.

Watching her, the wizard's eye twinkled at the glimmer of enquiry on her face. "Aragorn is a skilled healer," he said.

The young woman returned no comment, studying the man bent over her cousin. She wondered, for his was a kingly name, the likes of which she had only ever come upon in books recording the histories of centuries long past.

The man in question passed his hand over Faramir's brow and then straightened, and his face was troubled as he and Gandalf left the chamber.

Idrin stayed at her cousin's bedside, watching him. It was a pinching feeling some moments later that reminded her of the need to visit the kitchens, and she rose reluctantly from her seat. With a lingering glance at Faramir, she went from the room, making her way to the westernmost building of the Houses.

Despite the hour, there was a flurry of activity in the kitchens: the fires were burning, and cooks and maids went about or bent over tables, preparing light meals for those in the care of the healers. Amidst the bustle, Idrin found a quiet corner and ate a little, eager to return to Faramir's chamber.

Going back to the southern wing of the Houses of Healing, she saw the tall Guard who had helped carry Faramir there standing by the door to her cousin's room, peering inside. The healer felt her heart leap and hurried forward.

The chamber was crowded: Aragorn was bent over Faramir, and Gandalf and Imrahil of Dol Amroth were beside him, while Ioreth and the orderly who tended to her cousin stood nearer the door with Pippin and young Bergil. A bowl was in Aragorn's hands, and as he straightened, Idrin caught a familiar scent in the air, reminding her of the early-spring stock-flowers of her father's house in Lossarnach.

Faramir's eyes opened, and just as warmth swelled in her chest, she felt the Guard beside her draw in a sharp breath.

"The hands of the king..." he murmured softly, and the healer turned to look at him. She recalled that piece of lore and remembered the old rhyme about athelas, and a long-ago memory awoke:

Will a king ever return to Gondor?

He may return still, one day.

The young woman peered into the chamber again, and as she gazed at Aragorn, it seemed to her that many years had fallen from his shoulders, and he looked young and powerful as the kings of Númenor of old. She glanced at Faramir and smiled. "Word must be sent to the Steward that his son has awoken."

Just as she spoke, Imrahil stepped out of the room after Aragorn and Gandalf. He caught her eye and his face dimmed. He drew her aside gently and Idrin's cheer faded at his clouded look. "The Steward Denethor has passed," said the Prince quietly. Deep silence met his words; the young woman stared at him. "Madness took him," he continued, "for he thought Faramir dead and the City fallen. He tried to burn them both in the Hallows but Mithrandir stopped him, yet, in his fey mood, the Lord of Gondor set fire to his own flesh."

Still silent, Idrin did not withdraw her gaze from the face of the Lord of Dol Amroth. Then, after a long moment, she closed her eyes and bowed her head, letting out a shuddering breath. The Steward of Gondor had been proud, headstrong, a man with a sharp mind, and she had never known his wit to fail. To have yielded to grief and despair in such a way seemed incomprehensible.

Slowly, unbidden, shapes began to take form in the darkness behind her eyelids and a fond memory came back to her, half-faded by the long years.

Like now, it had been spring, the one after her mother's passing and a turning point in her young life, for then Minas Tirith became her second home. Her aunt had sent for her, writing in a letter to her father that a girl of her tender age needed a motherly presence by her, to teach her those things a mother would. Her father was grateful to assent to the offer of his sister-by-marriage, for he had no female relatives to take up the role of mother to his young daughter. When told of the proposal, Idrin's agreement to it was swift: she loved her aunt dearly and the Guarded City was a fascinating place. She went with a promise from her brothers that they would visit as often as they could.

Elthian's elder sister met father and daughter in the Citadel. Clad in the dark garb of mourning she had refused to cast after the loss of both husband and son in battle, Ivreth walked towards them with a kind smile. Idrin rushed into her arms and the woman sank down to envelop her in a warm embrace.

Behind her, the Steward of Gondor had crossed the Court of the Fountain and now looked at his late sister's husband. "Captain Arastor."

The low voice made the little girl look up from the security of her aunt's hold, and Ivreth rose to her feet.

"Lord Denethor." Arastor inclined his head to his brother-by-marriage.

The Steward turned to his niece, studying her silently. "She does become more like her as she grows," he said at last. The ghost of a smile had brushed the firm edges of his mouth, and Idrin had returned the grin meekly.

Presently, the young woman opened her blurred eyes and drew herself up, and Imrahil's gaze was soft as he looked at her.

"Go to Faramir. He shall be glad of your company," he said, taking his leave.

As Idrin entered her cousin's chamber, he turned from young Bergil and his father and there was a spark in his eyes.

The healer reclaimed her previous seat by his bed. "How do you feel?" she asked.

"Weary but much lighter in thought and heart," replied Faramir.

Idrin then turned to the lad who stood nearby. "Bergil, could you go to the kitchens and bring some food for the Lord Faramir?"

The boy's face was still lit by a smile. "Yes, Mistress Idrin," came the eager reply, and he darted outside.

Faramir watched him disappear from sight and then cast a quick glance about the room. "I dreamt of darkness and fire," he said quietly, "and though all now looks well, I cannot be rid of the feeling that something terrible has happened within the City."

Idrin felt her stomach clench, yet she shook her head. "The battle has been won, but now is not the time for such talk," she said. "You need to regain your strength; questions can be postponed until tomorrow."

Bergil came in at that moment, laden with a tray of light food and drink, and the healer rose from her chair. "Eat and do not trouble yourself with dark thoughts tonight."

Faramir sat up straighter and looked at the tall Guard standing by the door, poised to go and yet hesitating. "Go to your rest, Beregond," he said. "The night is growing old."

Beregond bowed and passed silently from the room, and Bergil followed him.

Pausing at the threshold behind them, Idrin wished Faramir good rest and left him to his meal. Further down the corridor, an angry voice came from behind a shut door she passed by, spitting out a harsh word in an unfamiliar language, and the healer stopped in her tracks. She took a step back and knocked on the door, receiving a grunt-muffled response.

The chamber she entered was furnished with three beds, high-backed chairs, a small table and a chest of drawers. A changing-screen was near one wall and under a water-tap behind it stood a bathtub.¹

Sitting on one of the beds, the hazel-eyed Rider she had treated earlier glanced up. A sheet was wrapped around his waist and falling to his feet, and his wet hair brushed his bare shoulders in a dark-golden cascade. The dressing previously wrapped about his calf was lying at his feet and he used one edge of the sheet to dab at the stitches on his leg.

Idrin turned a quick look on the bathtub: it was filled with water and beside it a puddle glistened on the floor. She hurried forward, going to a small cupboard and collecting pads of cotton-cloth and a shallow tin and then knelt by the Rider. "Let me." She drew a chair in front of him and placed the items she carried near the stack of fresh clothes folded neatly on one corner of the bed.

The man watched her. "I tried to keep it dry," he offered. Despite the misfortune, the discarded dressing was more damp than sodden, and the stitches appeared to still be fast in place. As the healer set his right foot on the thin chair-cushion, the Rider stiffened and fumbled with the sheet covering him.

Idrin pressed a patch of loosely woven cloth gently along the line of black stitching. "You were in luck," she said, spreading salve on the now-dry skin and binding soft pads to it.

"That I was," the Rider agreed as he lowered his leg to the floor. "I was not so fortunate the last time a stitched wound got wet."

Storing away cloth and tin, the young woman glanced at him. "What happened then?"

"I was but a lad of ten and got injured during play," he said. "It was a deep cut: the healer in Aldburg had to stitch it. I did not heed his advice about not straining myself for a few days and went riding with my cousin. I fell into the stream we had halted by and the wound was soaked. It seemed to me that it took forever to heal." Absent-mindedly, one finger traced a pale white line above his hip, and when he lifted his gaze, the Rider saw the healer studying the mark intently. When their eyes met, she blinked and looked towards the bathtub and spill on the floor.

"I shall send someone to clear the bath-water. Is there anything you need?"

He shook his head. "No, thank you."

Idrin moved away from the wall. "Then I bid you good-night." The healer made towards the door but the Rider's voice stopped her.

"Your name, Mistress?"

Pausing, the young woman looked over her shoulder. "Idrin."

"I am Éothain." He watched her until she passed from sight.

Making her way to the garden outside, the healer was glad for the cool breeze that fanned her face. The scent of damp earth was a welcome change from the harsh smells in the Houses, and she breathed deeply. A gleam of white far above caught her eye and she saw the standard of the Stewards flowing in the gentle wind, and Beregond's words returned to her mind.

The hands of the King.

Picking up her skirts, she hurried to the seventh level, slowing her step when she reached the Citadel library. The man in black and silver standing before the door bowed his head as she approached and stepped aside to let her enter.

Built on one level, the building was small, vaulted by a high-ceilinged dome. The heavy bookcases stood against and aligned with the walls, arranged behind an open space that held two long tables and chairs.

Idrin lit the lamp on the empty librarian's desk and carried it with her to the middle aisle. Carefully, she scanned the title of each book, pausing now and then to consider one or another. Finally, she drew out a dark-green tome and took it to a table.

She sat and turned the pages slowly, glancing at names and family trees spanning the generations from the Lords of Andúnië – her father's kin – to the Kings of Arnor. Trailing a finger down the lines of elegant script, the young woman paused and looked closely at the text relating to the last Kings of Arthedain. Their names reflected their high station, her tutor long ago had said, and as tradition would have it, no men but their direct descendants could claim names as lofty. Her brother's words of the previous day came back to her. Having seen Faramir awaken and witnessed the truth of old rhymes, Idrin now understood that the line of Isildur had not ended but endured, forgotten, in lands beyond the Misty Mountains.

She closed the book and returned it to its place, and suddenly the silent half-light about her was stifling.

Going from the library and reaching the warmth of the Healers' wing, the young woman felt her limbs grow heavy. A voice called her name and she turned to see Arvinion and Damhir stride towards her. She reached for their hands quietly.

After a while Arvinion studied his sister, taking in the lines of tiredness on her face and the stains on her kirtle. He caught her eye. "Will you be staying with us tonight?"

Idrin shook her head. "There are many injured men in the Houses who may take a turn for the worse. I would not like to be away should anything arise in the night."

Her brother's gaze softened. "Faramir at the least looks well – the Prince Imrahil told us what happened in the Hallows."

The healer was silent for a spell. "Yes, Faramir's awaking is the one good thing to come out of this wretched day," she said at last.

Beside Arvinion, Damhir rubbed his shoulder. "Wretched, indeed. Let us hope that we may have a measure of peace after it." He blinked. "But now, I think, we should all turn to our beds."

Idrin nodded, feeling a haze blanket her senses.

Her brothers shifted their stance. "Rest well, sister."

Wishing her good-night, Arvinion and Damhir took their leave, and the young woman made for her own chamber.

Chapter End Notes:

¹ The more technologically skilled races in Middle-earth could have created water taps to facilitate indoor plumbing in establishments needing constant water supply, much like the ancient Romans devising taps 'operated by means of a rotary plug . . . turned [by means of a handle]' to control the water flow (Roberta J. Magnusson, Water Technology in the Middle Ages).

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