Before the Last Battle by Certh

[Reviews - 4]
Table of Contents
Printer Friendly: Printer Chapter or Story
- Text Size +

Jump to

Chapter 1

It was sometime past the sunset-hour when she first heard it: a shrill cry coming from above the fields of the Pelennor, an unearthly screech that turned her blood to ice. She froze mid-step, a shuddering chill spreading through her limbs and awakening some nameless terror within her. Her breast heaved with each laboured breath, heart thudding painfully in her chest. For many endless seconds she stood as still as a statue, wide eyes staring unseeingly. Then, as the echo of the piercing shriek died away, she brought a hand to her breast to still herself and breathed deeply. Gathering her skirts, she strode forward to cross the darkening lawn, curiosity getting the better of her. She climbed the short flight of steps hewn into the stone of the wall and pressed against the parapet that ran the whole length of the paved walk-way, looking down.

Six hundred feet below the plain looked dim and bare, but to the left, near the Gate, dark shapes circled and swooped and rose again. They were winged beasts of great size, wheeling above something on the ground, hovering over tiny black specks that moved erratically. Those spots that tried to evade the flying creatures were horses, she realised. Another sharp wail made her cower and take a quick step back from the parapet, pressing her hands to her ears. A trumpet call cut suddenly through the terrifying screech, its note long and high. The young woman's heart thumped with renewed force against her chest and she choked on a sudden intake of breath, recognising the sound.

She dropped her arms to her sides and forced her rooted limbs to move forward. Hands grasping the parapet tightly, she leant over and looked out. Three of the riders were running on foot towards the Gate, thrown from their mounts, but the fourth remained in the saddle and was riding back to them. The flying beasts circled above them still, like terrible birds of prey. The young woman's wide eyes darted from one rider to the other frantically, her pulse racing.

A white light then appeared as if out of nowhere and sped towards the men, growing even more bright and dazzling. One of the fell creatures dived. A flare of blazing radiance shot into the heavens, and the woman thought she saw a figure, clad in brilliant white. The winged beast gave a shriek and veered round; its companions gained height and followed it eastward. She watched their dark bulks disappear into the vast brown cloud that dominated the East and let out a deep breath. Turning her gaze at last to the fields, she saw a dimmed white glimmer pass from sight under the outer walls: the hunted men and their saviour had entered the City.

At that hour the young woman was all at once aware of the darkness that had fallen, much deeper than the pastel shades of twilight. As though jolted awake from a dream, she felt the wrinkled fabric in her hand and opened her palm, smoothing the cloth with gentle fingers. Then she came down from the wall.

She picked her way through the flowering greenswards laid out between the buildings that made up the Houses of Healing, her brisk footsteps the only sound in the calmness of the early night. It was pleasantly cool, and in the quiet that reigned at that moment the domain of the healers seemed secluded from the rest of the City. It was as though the dread of the fell beasts had been but a fading dream. As she reached her destination, a hum went up from afar, rising steadily to a clamour and cheering. Looking over the shrubbery that was the border to the Houses in the distance, she could discern a press of people, following two horsemen to the Citadel. Her footsteps slowed to a halt, and her heart fluttered once more. For a long moment she stood staring at the crowd with bright eyes, wishing she could join them despite the obligations that called to her, but then, with a shake of her head, moved away towards the nearest wing of the Houses.

The door she pushed open led to a dark room. Taking a step inside, she reached with one hand and tended a tall oil-lamp that stood on a nearby table, illuminating the space with pale yellow light. It was a store-room: rows upon rows of shelves lined the walls above short cabinets, and a couple of low tables were placed there also, and a long, narrow bench in one corner. Jars and bottles, flasks and bowls of various shapes and sizes filled the shelves, some containing liquids and others powders or dried herbs. On the worktop that was attached to the cabinets were two bronze sets of mortar and pestle, and brass balance scales, and empty phials. A modest, still-burning hearth with a large kettle for boiling water was nearby, and sprigs of freshly culled herbs were hung from hooks in the wall to dry.

The young woman walked to the cabinet at the far side and deposited the small bundle she held on the work-surface. The light from the lamp behind her bathed her form. She was clothed in the garb of the healers: a pearl-white chemise under a sleeveless steel-blue kirtle, a thin veil of light colour covering her hair and fastened at the nape of the neck. Clear sea-grey eyes framed by dark lashes were set above high cheekbones, and her small nose turned up at the tip.

The healer unfolded the cloth before her and placed the grey-green leaves it held in a deep bowl, pouring boiling water over them and covering the container. Letting the tea steep for a few minutes, she strained the liquid into a cup, adding some drops of lemon juice and honey to temper the flavour. She produced a small tray from a cabinet drawer to hold the cup and went from the store-room with her load.

The next chamber she entered was lit brightly, the lamp casting feeble shadows here and there as it flickered.

"I apologise for my lateness, Lord Húron," the healer addressed the man standing at the window as she placed the salver on a high table.

The man had turned round at the sound of footsteps and now waved her apology off with a kind grin before taking the cup she offered. "Thank you, child." His bearing was proud, his hair and beard flecked with much grey and his smiling eyes keen.

The young woman mirrored his expression involuntarily. The lord Húron had been a captain of Gondor, permanently disabled in battle two years previously. Yielding his office to another, he had hoped for a quiet retirement, yet a recurring decline to his health currently confined him to the Houses of Healing. He and her father had been close friends, and after her sire was slain during the Nazgûl's attack on Osgiliath past June, the lord Húron had been as kind as a parent to her.

At present he sat on the bed and sipped the hot tea, savouring the subtle aroma of sage wafting from the cup. After a few moments he spoke again: "Those bone-chilling cries a while ago, what were they?"

The young healer met his serene gaze. "Winged beasts from Mordor," she replied softly, willing her voice to remain steady. "They assailed Captain Faramir and three of his company, but Mithrandir drove them away."

The Lord Húron frowned. "Then they were fortunate indeed," he said finally. "Those fell creatures sounded mighty unkind." His grave voice made the young woman shiver inwardly.

* * *

It was about two hours later that she found herself freed from duties, coming to stand beneath an arbor grown with lilac-coloured trailing plants. The veil that had covered her hair was now upon her shoulders, worn as one might a shawl, revealing the thick plait that went almost to the middle of her back, dark as rich-brown lebethron-wood. The night was quiet and black and starless, yet the moon shone white and cold in the sky. The healer allowed the latticework to support some of her weight, closing her eyes and concentrating on the simple act of breathing. Too soon, it seemed, solid footfalls punctuated the silence. Her lids fluttered open and she spun on her heel.


The dark-haired man clad in the green and brown raiment of the Rangers of Ithilien mirrored her joyous smile, and his grey eyes glinted. With a couple of long strides he reached her and tenderly took her hand in his. Tall though she was, the young woman had to tip her head backwards to meet his gaze. He was beaming at her still, yet the healer's delight was suddenly drained, and she stared up at Faramir with troubled eyes.

"Those men who were with you..."

"Arvinion and Damhir are not among them," he said quickly, guessing her mind. "And all are well," he added as an afterthought.

Her face relaxed, and she studied him, for the first time noting the signs of fatigue that traced his features. "You are weary, cousin," the healer spoke softly. "Come and sit a while." She led him to one of the benches of carven wood and iron that dotted the garden between the nearest wings of the Houses of Healing, surrounded by open passages paved with light stone.

He sat and took a deep breath of the flower-sweet air, absently following the young woman with his eyes as she bade him wait and hurried towards the adjacent building. At that moment it suddenly struck Faramir how closely she resembled her mother, who had passed away seventeen winters before. Indeed, she was no longer the child who had accompanied her sick parent to the Houses of Healing so many years previously.

His thoughts did not have the time to wander far: before long the healer had returned, bearing a cup.

"Drink this," she said quietly. "It will soothe you."

Faramir accepted the cup gratefully, giving its contents a cursory sniff. In truth, he had come to the Houses with half a mind to seek his cousin and ask for a draught to ease his jadedness. With a warm smile he conveyed his gratitude and took a long sip. Then, as he swallowed, a grimace of distaste warped his features.

"You are certain this is valerian and not hemlock, Idrin?"

The young healer started. Then, she belatedly noted the almost impish flicker in Faramir's eyes. A laugh escaped her lips: witnessing the thoughtful captain entertain such light talk had become a rarity in recent months, and it now cheered her to see him in this good mood. "Indeed. Were I trying to poison you, Faramir, I would have chosen a more subtle way." Still, she should have added more honey.

The corners of Faramir's mouth twitched, and he began to laugh with her. When his chuckle died down, he took a breath and drained the cup.

"I am glad thou art well." Idrin's voice sobered and for a while she said no more. "Now, what news from Ithilien?"

Faramir let out a heavy breath. "The Dark Lord is assembling his armies: Orcs and Easterlings and Men of Harad riding mûmakil. We ambushed a company of Southrons on the North Road, yet the great beast with them took many lives in its passage, men on both sides." As he spoke of the mûmak he saw his cousin begin to tense and then, with a private little shake of her head, relax again. The Captain of Gondor regarded her for a moment and fell quiet.

"Have you seen the Halfling who came with Mithrandir?" asked Idrin suddenly. "They say he travelled with Boromir." She paused. The riddling words in her cousins' visions came back to her once more, kindling her thought as they had done when she heard that the wizard's companion was a Halfling. "Yet, if he were the one of whom the rhyme in your dreams spoke, his fate would lie in some deed of valour, surely, and not here in serving a Lord of Men."

Faramir stirred and gazed at her long before speaking, his words slow. "I have seen him, yes. He was a companion of Boromir indeed: their fellowship set out from Imladris but their paths afterwards parted. We found two of that sundered company – two Halflings – in Ithilien, going east."

"It must be a desperate errand that would take them so far beyond the Anduin." The healer looked at her cousin thoughtfully, the crease above the bridge of her nose deepening as she sat in silence. "Our doom then lies with them, and with Isildur's Bane – whatever that may be –, or so I read the riddle."

The Captain of the Rangers shifted in his seat as Idrin gazed into the darkness. "So it would appear," he returned.

The healer was quiet for a brief spell, her eyes becoming unfocused, and the Steward Denethor's secondborn son wondered for a moment if a question was forthcoming. Then Idrin came back to herself.

"It's growing late and I should let you go to your rest."

Ease flooded Faramir's features. "I admit I would welcome sleep in a soft bed – it has been a long ten days," he said. He rose and proffered his arm to his cousin. She rested her hand lightly on his forearm, falling into step beside him as they wove their way out of the gardens and up towards the Citadel.

[Report This]
You must login (register) to review.