Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 7

A cool wind blew from the west, sighing among the short plant-life scattered on the narrow shoulder of Mindolluin that joined tπo the City of the Kings. Standing on the rearward wall of the sixth circle, Idrin looked beyond the winding road that went from Fen Hollen, watching the white-domed mansions blush with the colours of early day. At the other end of the descending path, the Steward's Door was shut, yet between the empty halls there was much movement.

The Prince Imrahil had given orders that the rubble from the House of the Stewards be cleared, and men now went about the task briskly. Gazing at the silent houses of the dead from afar, Idrin noted with sudden awareness that the keen emotions stirred by the news of her uncle's passing had become less sharp. As the golden sunlight fell upon pale little flowers growing in clusters about the Hallows, her thought went to her late mother, long buried in her beloved Lossarnach as she had desired.

The young woman wished she had more memories of her. She could bring to mind the semblance of Elthian's gentle voice and her grey eyes and her dark hair, yet much had faded over the years. Among her most vivid recollections were those of the time she had spent with her at the Houses of Healing before the crippling illness finally overcame her.

She had almost always been at her mother's side then. She would sit at her feet and read to her, or regale her with tales she had heard, or tell her of some intriguing piece of history she had learnt during her lessons earlier that day. Her mother would listen, smiling at her. They would speak of the day outside and the going-ons in the City, and Idrin would tell her of any news she happened to hear. At times a light cough would break her mother's peace, stifled behind a linen handkerchief. More and more often as days passed, her body would stiffen and, in a voice that belied her clouded features, Elthian would bid her daughter go and play or seek the healers, whose knowledge, she knew, enchanted her. Then, as Idrin closed the door behind her, she would hear her mother cough in earnest – a shattering sound that made her heart plummet.

It had been her aunt who always lifted her gloom at those times, with a few well-chosen words and a gentle touch. Ivreth had ever been a steadfast support during Elthian's illness, and afterwards, when Idrin returned to Minas Tirith, the woman became the mother she lacked. The healer recalled her patience as Ivreth read her lessons with her, and the softness in her eyes as she praised her needlework, and the authority in her voice as they walked about the Citadel, her aunt instructing her in the duties that the mistress of a household was charged with.

Like her sister, Ivreth had requested that upon her death she be laid to rest in the land she had lived as a married woman. Two months had passed since her wish was honoured, and the Steward Ecthelion's elder daughter now lay in fair Lebennin where her husband had been Lord.

Idrin blinked and a shadow flitted over her face as she caught a glimpse of blackened stone in the distance. She looked on the House of the Stewards for a moment longer and then her eyes found the bleak field of the Pelennor below, dotted with many tents and horse-paddocks. She lifted her gaze and came down from the wall, passing the porter's house where Beregond sat in silence.

A quiet hum was in the air as the young woman made her way to the southernmost wing of the Houses of Healing. She stopped before a closed door and knocked. The three men playing at cards within the chamber greeted her jovially, and their mood made Idrin smile.

"How is your cheek, Anborn?"

The tallest of the men turned towards her, displaying a line of delicate stitching running from his left eye to the corner of his mouth. "It feels better, Mistress, no longer smarting."

Idrin drew a chair beside him and sat, studying the stitched gash bordered by reddened skin.

So much of the morning passed, and it was nearly two hours before noon that the healer entered the last room assigned to the soldiers under her care.

Éothain was leaning lightly on one crutch by the chest of drawers, brow furrowed, lips pressed tightly together and fingers drumming against the dark wood. The brisk sound was stilled when the Gondorian passed the threshold and the Rider drew himself up as best he could. "The women say I am to stay confined to this House," he said in a clipped voice, eyes boring into her.

He saw the healer take quick note of the second crutch propped against the furniture before looking up at him.

"If your leg is to heal without complication, you should not strain it by walking far," she said. "Anything more than ten minutes at most will hinder the mending process." 

Éothain let out a breath. "I need to find my men: they were to report to me but none have yet come."

"That can be easily remedied," returned the young woman. "One of the boys running errands in this House can fetch whomever you seek." She glanced down. "I trust your leg does not bother you."

"It is no more than a pinch every now and then," said the Rider.

The healer listened approvingly. "The dressing will be changed tonight. In the meantime I shall send for an errand-boy, and the orderly to take the breakfast tray."

Éothain contemplated his leg in silence and nodded to himself. As she left the room, he sat slowly down on his bed and turned to the window, gazing at the sunlit garden outside.

Within, Idrin walked swiftly towards the other end of the building. She found the Lord Húron settled by the open window in his chamber, poring over a sheet of parchment. Catching sight of her, he moved to lower the lone page beside him but his grip failed and the open roll fell from his suddenly unbending fingers.

The healer glanced at the man's hands and looked up to meet his gaze.

"It has grown worse again," said Húron. "The stiffness in my legs has returned also – I awoke this morning and for a few moments I could not move. It seems we turn back to skullcap and red clover, do we not?"

The man's light disposition brought the hint of a glimmer to Idrin's eyes. "Yes, quite," she returned.

Húron looked through the window, a wistful expression on his face. "Such a bright day. I should like to go outside a while." His clear gaze found the healer and he recognised her pondering silence. "My legs can handle a short walk," he assured her.

"Very well," said the young woman slowly, retrieving his walking stick as he carefully rolled the piece of parchment he had been reading.

Step by step they made their way to the northward garden and sat beneath a young tree. The retired captain looked about him and breathed deeply.

"Húron!"

Both turned at the sound of the voice and Idrin saw Éothain standing a few paces away from them, staring at the sitting man in delighted surprise.

Beside her Húron squinted and gradually a slow smile came over his features. "Éothain. It has been far too long."

"It has," said the Rider. He regarded the man fondly and then a faint wrinkle creased his brow. "Most of Mundburg have gone to refuge in the south vales of Gondor and I recall you had some family thither. How is it you are not with them now?"

The retired captain allowed himself a humourless grin. "My relationship with my son's family has not been what it used to since he died," he returned. "Even if I did leave Minas Tirith, I would simply be waiting for battle and death somewhere else." He paused for breath and gestured for Éothain to come and sit by him.

As the Rider settled on the bench, Húron turned to the young woman but a sudden flash of white caught his eye and he closed his mouth. He looked towards the wrought-iron gate set in the thick hedge surrounding the Houses of Healing. Éothain and Idrin trailed his line of sight.

In the main street beyond, two men in the armour of the Citadel came from the west carrying a covered bier. Met by Gandalf, their faces were grim and they handled their load with much care as the wizard spoke to them in a quiet voice. Giving a brief reply to his words, the guards continued their way to the seventh circle and, after a grave glance towards the Houses, the old wizard went after them.

"What burden do they bear with such reverence?"

"The Steward Denethor," said Húron. Rumour of the previous day's commotion in the Hallows had long since spread through the City. "He has passed." The retired Gondorian captain turned to the Rider of Rohan, but the younger man's attention was no longer held by the solemn procession. Húron followed his gaze, looking to his left, and saw the healer beside him staring silently at the men disappearing into the tunnel that led to the Citadel.

"Your uncle was a respected man," he said.

Once more, the words made Idrin think how withdrawn and grim the Lord of Minas Tirith had become since the cloven Great Horn was brought to him, and how very tired he had looked. "His far sight troubled him greatly after Boromir's death."

Húron gave a short, knowing hum. "It must have been grave indeed to have such visions of the Enemy's growing power as the Steward Denethor did," he said. "Yet, luck smiled upon us yesterday."

"And there is still a long way to go ere we reach the end of the road and the victor is declared," said Éothain, letting out a slow breath.

Húron nodded. "True, but nothing is final until then."

The Rider of Rohan smiled. "I envy your high heart, Húron."

The retired captain waved his hand. "I simply understood long ago that no single thing is carved in stone. Hope is what keeps our footing steadfast," he returned, his gaze wandering to a patch of white alfirin nearby that spilled over the edge of their flowerbed. He motioned to them with a light gesture. "It never truly fails, much like these flowers here that bloom in the south vales and yet thrive even on bare mountain-tops, their beauty unwithering even when they are cut."

"Similar to the simbelmynë in the Mark," murmured Éothain absently.¹

"So many things we think will never come to pass, and yet yesterday the improbable occurred: the battle was won," Húron continued. "And the lost heir of Isildur shall claim the throne of Gondor, if he be not a figment of the imagination conjured in the wake of our victory," he added sceptically, looking up at the White Tower and the banner of Dol Amroth that flapped listlessly in the breathless breeze.

Silently listening to the two men talk, Idrin now sat straighter. "He is very much real," she said. "Had I not seen him lift the Black Shadow from Faramir, I too would have doubted him."

The retired Gondorian captain looked at her, quiet, but Éothain's lip twitched and a glimmer flickered in his eyes, one eyebrow quivering. "The Ranger from the North... King of Gondor. He has a bright sword, yea, and his bearing and speech are lofty, yet the line of Kings failed hundreds of years ago, 'tis said. Any man belonging to a branch of that forgotten kin could lay a high claim to the throne of Gondor."

Húron gazed at him. "Were you born a Gondorian, you would have learnt tales and legends that tell how the true King is known," he returned. "Doubtlessly there is a reason why this man's existence was kept a secret, and the truth of his birthright shall certainly be put to the test."

He glanced up at the quickly climbing sun and then back to his younger companions, the planes of his face softening. "I believe it is time for me to retire. I begin to feel an ache in my bones," he said and slowly got to his feet.

The healer rose with him, and Húron let her take his arm. He turned to Éothain. "We shall see each other again, lad."

Peering at the older man, the Rider of Rohan gave him a wordless, cursory nod in farewell and watched the pair walk away silently.

When they reached the southernmost wing of the Houses of Healing, the retired captain halted and looked softly at Idrin. "You need not wait on me, child, I can make my way to my room easily enough from here."

The young woman opened her mouth to speak, but Húron intercepted her: "It is no difficult task to walk a bit farther. Go."

With a brief purse of lips, the healer conceded and took her leave. Going back to the northward garden, she found Éothain staring unseeingly into the distance, brow knitted. His eyes cleared as she stepped closer to the bench and then looked up, gazing at her thoughtfully.

"How long has Gondor been without a King?"

Idrin blinked. "More than nine hundred years," she replied.

In the brief pause that followed her words, Éothain shifted a little in his seat and motioned for her to settle down. "And?"

The young woman sat. "The last king, Eärnur, went to Mordor in the year 2050 in answer to the Dark Lord's challenge and never came back. He had no heir," she carried on. “After that the rule of the Stewards began. Had Pelendur not advised against accepting Arvedui's claim to the crown after Ondoher's fall —"

Idrin caught a queer glimmer in the man's eyes then and stayed her words, realising that those bits of history she considered elementary sounded like unconnected thoughts to the Rider of Rohan. She took a breath. "The Kings of Gondor came from the line of Elendil's second son, Anárion. King Ondoher was the last of that line; he and his sons were slain in battle," the young woman began again. "Arvedui, the last King of Arthedain and a direct descendant of Isildur, who had wedded Ondoher's daughter, made claim to the throne after their death, but by the Steward Pelendur's advice was rejected..."

Éothain nodded absently to himself, settling deeper into the bench as Idrin talked of the last Kings of Gondor. "What of those tales Húron mentioned?" he asked when she paused.

"It is recorded that the Kings of old were great healers," replied the young woman. "owing this power, perhaps, to their foremother Lúthien, daughter of Melian the Maia and Thingol the Elf-king." And the thread of old lore was taken up anew and their conversation carried on, until the noon bell called them to lunch.


Chapter End Notes:

¹ Evidence in JRR Tolkien's writings indicates that the alfirin and the simbelmynë are two different flowers, even though Christopher Tolkien equates them in his commentary in Unfinished Tales
In one of his letters, the Professor writes that 'Alfirin ("immortal") would be an immortelle, but not dry and papery: simply a beautiful bell-like flower, running through many colours . . .' (The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter #312). 
Contrasting this image of the everlasting, bell-like flower of many colours that is alfirin, he envisions the simbelmynë as 'an imagined variety of anemone, growing in turf like . . . the pasque-flower, but smaller and white like the wood anemone. Though the plant bloomed at all seasons, its flowers were not "immortelles"' (JRR Tolkien, Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings).



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