Before the Last Battle by Certh

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Chapter 8

Parting from Éothain near the south lawn of the Houses of Healing, Idrin crossed the garden and made her way to the Healers' wing. Approaching the dining-hall, she saw that the wide chamber was beginning to fill. The Chief Healer, Neston, was standing just inside the doorway, surrounded by a small group of healers and orderlies. Those around him were quiet as he spoke, and the words that reached Idrin's ears made her pause:

"The Warden and I have met with the Lord Aragorn. Our army is to march to the Black Gate in two days' time, accompanied by a number of thirteen healers and twenty-six orderlies," he said.¹ "Those healers who wish to go with the host may come to my study after noon, and orderlies may seek out dame Ioreth. Those who remain shall be assigned additional tasks on the morrow."

Idrin listened as she walked into the hall, feeling a solid weight settle in her stomach. A venture into even the nearest reaches of Mordor was disquieting news. She turned her attention to the growing bustle in the chamber and, among the sea of dark-headed males, caught sight of long, almost red hair and a slender figure.

The russet-headed woman robed in blue and pearl-white came towards her. "I had expected we were to block the Great Gate and prepare for siege, not march to the Black Land," she said promptly.

"A foolhardy decision," murmured Idrin as the two of them made for the cook's counter.

"'Tis a bold move," returned the other and remained silent while they picked up their plates and cups. "I should like to go with the host," she finally went on as they sat at a long table.

Idrin glanced up at her and then dropped her eyes. "I haven't given the matter much consideration yet," she said softly.

The russet-haired healer peered at her companion, noting the thoughtful expression on her face and the gaze that did not quite meet her own. Idrin's eyes remained fixed on the table, and after a moment the red-headed woman turned her attention to her plate.

At the end of their meal, an errand-lad overtook them at the door and gave Idrin a folded piece of parchment.

The healer lingered in the corridor to read. "My brothers write they were given leave to visit their families before the host marches," she said as she put the letter in her kirtle-pocket. "They should be back before sundown tomorrow."

"They were lucky to have been afforded such kindness," returned the red-haired woman beside her, a faraway look glazing her eyes momentarily. "The town's being only a few hours ride worked in their favour."

As the two healers went their separate ways, Idrin thought on the words left unspoken. Her brothers were most fortunate indeed: for many of those currently residing in Minas Tirith, it would be some time before they saw their loved ones again, if at all.

The young woman's feet carried her across the lawn, and she found Faramir standing at the open window in his chamber, looking at the blooming flowerbed outside that stretched almost to the wall.

He spun round at the sound of her footfalls and regarded her with bright eyes. Then his gaze sobered. "Uncle Imrahil visited earlier," he said in a quiet voice.

The young woman felt her heart sink. She had not expected the news of Denethor's death to be relayed to Faramir so soon.

"I had not thought Father would fall to despair thus," the man continued. "The visions he saw in the Stone finally overthrew his mind." He sighed.

Idrin marvelled at his calmness. Then, belatedly, she registered his words. "The stone?"

The faintest semblance of a grim smile brushed Faramir's lips. "Remember you the high room under the summit of the Tower?"

The young woman nodded. She could well recall the solitary door at the top of the long flight of stairs in the Tower of Ecthelion, always locked and mystifying. "I ventured up there just once, when I was nine. Uncle found me staring at the door. That was the only time he ever raised his voice at me," Idrin reminisced. She grinned. "I used to think he had some kind of treasure locked in that room."

Faramir hummed at the words. "I guess it could be called that."

The young woman glanced at him. "A stone," she repeated slowly. Then the frown creasing her brow smoothed. "The seeing-stone of Minas Anor?"

"Indeed," returned her cousin. "After the days of the Kings, the palantír's existence was a guarded secret known only to the Stewards, it seems. Boromir knew of it, for Father took him up the Tower many years ago. It was then that I first set out to discover what was kept in the secret room, but it was only today that my suspicions were fully confirmed."² He saw Idrin's face slowly grow thoughtful again.

The young woman was silent for some time, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet: "Using the palantír was why Uncle seemed so tired this past year."

Faramir gave a half-nod. "Wielding a seeing-stone requires great mental strength, I have gathered; it can be taxing to both mind and body."

"What will happen to it?"

"The Lord Aragorn will keep it," returned Faramir. He regarded his cousin for a moment. "Wilt thou go with the host?"

Idrin blinked at the sudden question and opened her mouth. No words came. Her eyes darted away from Faramir's clear gaze. "I..." Her voice trailed off.

The man took note of the slightly furrowed brow and twitching lip. "You do not wish to find yourself on a battlefield," he said softly.

The young woman let out a sighing breath, meeting his keen grey eyes for the first time. "No, I do not," she admitted. Then she drew herself up. "It's a reckless move, setting seven thousands against the vast armies of Mordor. Foolish."

Faramir looked at her long with a searching gaze, saw her flaring nostril. When her countenance softened, he spoke. "It is not victory by arms the Captains hope to achieve," he said. "Such hope would be futile. Nay, they only wish to draw the Dark Lord's attention away from those who may bring about his undoing."

Idrin gazed at him.

He went on: "Do you remember when you made a guess at the riddling dream Boromir and I had? Our doom lies indeed with the two Halflings we met in Ithilien. Isildur's Bane has awoken, that which was thought to have perished from this world and the one thing the Dark Lord desires above all; that for the unmaking of which the Fellowship of Nine set out in secret."

Slowly, the young woman's eyes widened, and Faramir watched her sink into a chair silently.

"Then... we wait," she said and absently smoothed her kirtle, peering at him. "How do you feel today?"

"Well enough," answered Faramir. "I rested easily last night, and this morning I was allowed a short stroll through the gardens. Then Uncle Imrahil came." He paused. "And you, cousin? How has it been with you?"

"I have not been as hard-pressed as others," returned Idrin. "Those least wounded have been my charge, and many shall be fit to leave the Houses by tomorrow."

The two of them sat and talked together thus for some time, and Faramir was content to hear of the young woman's work and the doings in the City during the days that the grim sickness was upon him. When he grew tired, Idrin left him to rest. The men under her care would not need her attention until evening, and so she made towards the gardens.

From afar the healer caught sight of the familiar form of Éothain standing beside a bench, leaning heavily on his crutches, his back to her. Letting out a huff, she turned her footsteps towards him and picked up her pace. As she advanced, she noted that he was talking to a flaxen-haired man, taller in stature but like him in bearing. Idrin came to stand a few paces away from them, waiting, fragments of their rich, sonorous speech reaching her ears.

After some moments the voices faded into silence, and looking over Éothain's shoulder as he stepped forward, the taller man spied the young woman nearby. He acknowledged her with a glance and strode past her towards the Houses.

When Idrin turned to Éothain, she saw he had moved to stare at the retreating figure, his lips pressed into a thin line. He looked at her then, and his eyes were bright.

"There was an important council held and Éomer did not deem it important to inform the Captain of his éored."³ The Rider's words were crisp, his gaze straying to where his companion had disappeared. "And now, he merely comes after all decisions have been made to tell me we are to march to the Land of Shadow in two days and that he does not expect me to fight while injured." He peered at the healer.

Idrin was watching him in silence. "Please, sit," she said, her eyes flicking to his bandaged leg.

Éothain sat on the bench readily and let out a heavy breath. "He said that his sister, Éowyn, rode with our host in disguise and now lies in this House after her encounter with the Chieftain of the Ringwraiths. Whatever possessed her to leave her charge in the Mark and follow Théoden —" The Rider checked himself and shook his head, looking up at the young woman again. "How came you to become a healer?"

Idrin took a seat beside him. "Ever since I was a child I have been drawn to those who strive to help others," she replied. "When I came to Minas Tirith with my mother, I was often in the Houses with her. I liked helping the healers: rolling bandages, fetching things they needed, running small errands; and in time they began teaching me about the healing herbs. Afterwards I became an apprentice and began studying in earnest."

Éothain thought for a moment. "You were not born here, then?"

The healer shook her head. "I was born in Forvarad, a town in Lossarnach by the Anduin.s08; My father and mother were born in Minas Tirith, but after they were wedded they built their home there. Mother liked the river and the flowering meadows." A gentle smile touched her lips. "What of you? How came you to become a Rider of Rohan?"

"My forefathers were Riders," returned Éothain. "I learnt how to ride even as I learnt to walk and was taught how to wield sword and spear when still a lad. It was during one of those early lessons that I first met Húron – my father and he had been acquainted years earlier when Húron travelled to the Mark on military matters, and thereafter he visited whenever such affairs took him thither."

"Forgive the intrusion, lady," a voice nearby cut into the conversation, "but do we march to war? There seemed to be much excitement among the younger orderlies just now."

Idrin turned to see the Halfling Peregrin and his kinsman and regarded them for a moment. "Yes, Master Pippin, we march to war," she replied. "There will be healers and orderlies accompanying the host, hence the bustle."

"Surely there are not enough men to secure victory?" the second Hobbit was quick to observe.

"There are not, Master Holbytla," returned the Rider of Rohan, "but we can challenge battle still!"

The dark-haired Halfling looked at him.

"I understand you are Peregrin's kinsman, Master Hobbit," the healer turned the matter aside then.

"I am," he answered, shifting his attention to her. "Meriadoc Brandybuck is my name, Merry for short." He moved to sit at the bench opposite the young woman and the Rider, looking up at the roof of green maple leaves above him as the foliage rustled in a breath of cool wind. He hummed softly to himself and let his gaze wander about the greensward. "The city would look so more cheerful if there were more gardens like this one in it."

"It would," Éothain agreed with the quiet musing. "And the trees here are in need of some pruning."

The Halflings peered at the man studying the greenery that surrounded them.

He caught their enquiring gazes on him and continued: "I am not much of a gardener, but I know how to tend trees at the least. My father has always loved the earth."

"As has mine," said Pippin, "though the gardening he leaves to my mother." A fleeting grin passed over his face.

Beside him, Merry chuckled fondly, raising a hand to his right arm. "Aunt Eglantine can be formidable with a pair of pruning shears." Absently he kneaded the muscles under the sleeve-fabric.

"Your arm still pains you?"

The curly-headed Halfling looked up at the Rider. "It's just a twinge," he replied. "That cool draught earlier must have affected it."

Across from him Idrin glanced at the arm in question and then up at the sky. The afternoon sunlight was no longer blazing bright. "It's growing late," she said. "I must return to the wards – there is still work to do before supper-time." She rose, and by her, Éothain wordlessly reached for his crutches and hoisted himself upright.

"Good-night, then," said Merry. "I will stay here a while longer. I am not tired yet, and the air is still warm enough."

Pippin gave a half-nod to himself. "In that case, I will bring some food from the kitchens," he said. "Camping in such lovely gardens is not a bad idea," he finished with a tiny smile.

The healer and the Rider took their leave and the two Halflings settled onto the bench, turning their eyes towards the rose and orange haze in the West.


Chapter End Notes:

¹ '. . . [the number of soldiers setting out for Mordor] told six thousand foot and a thousand horse.' (The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter IX)
My assigning a total of thirty-nine healers and orderlies to accompany a host of seven thousands is prompted by a passage regarding the medical personnel allotted to the British army at the battle of Waterloo: 'In theory, each battalion of six hundred men was authorized only one surgeon and two assistants' (Richard A. Gabriel, Between Flesh and Steel).

² '[T]the Anor-stone had become a secret . . . after the fall of Minas Ithil . . . [T]he traditions regarding [the palantíri] and their use [were preserved] in the special archives of the Stewards, available beside the Ruling Steward only to his heir.' (Unfinished Tales, Part Four, Chapter III)
Despite the fact that, during Denethor's rule, only Boromir would have officially been privy to the existence of the Anor-stone, it seems plausible that Faramir, having inherited his father's shrewdness and thirst for knowledge, would have at some point begun to suspect that the seeing-stone of Minas Anor was in the secret keeping of the Steward.

³ In the last draft of The Lord of the Rings to feature him, Éothain was the 'captain of Éomer's company (éored)' (The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Ring, Part One, Chapter VII). Although the rank is not mentioned in the published text, it is most certain that it was retained: Éothain's being the only person who dared speak his mind, twice, when first meeting the Three Hunters in The Two Towers, something that largely goes unmarked by Éomer, is fair indication of an elevated station, as one of lesser rank would not be likely to display such open forwardness.

4 Forvarad is my creation, one of the unnamed settlements dotting the landscape of Middle-earth.



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