Plague on Both Your Houses, A

Old Wives' Tales

1. Old Wives' Tales

   
   
   
“But do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.”
Farewell to Lorien, FotR

*******

Ithilien, late Spring, year 1 of the Fourth Age.

~*~

Where have the years gone?


Eowyn stared at the contents of the open chest as myriads of long-forgotten memories rushed through her mind. Her hands searched through the items stored in the heavy, wooden container: ribbons she wore in her hair as a child, faded drawings on withered parchments, clothes she had long since outgrown, old toys and trinkets. My whole childhood rests here, she thought, bringing a ribbon to her face and breathing in the lingering scent of lavender.

A sad smile curled the corners of her mouth. When she had left Edoras to follow Faramir as his bride, the items in the trunks that came with her were her last concern. Her eyes watered when her fingers touched the rough surface of wooden horse - Théoden’s gift for her fifth birthday. It is the dust, she told herself as she dried her eyes with the cuff of her sleeve. The dust makes me weep – the dust and cobwebs that cover everything in this forgotten place…

The sudden jolt of pain in her lower abdomen made her grimace. Easy, little one, Eowyn thought as she stroked her belly in slow, circular moves, comforting her unborn child. Wait until the summer comes and the nights grow warmer. Wait until the crickets lull you to sleep each night and the night breeze carries the scents of heather and thyme to your cradle. The memory of another child - the child she gave birth to hardly a year into her marriage, the child that never lived to see the summer - surfaced in her mind. Lüthwen, the old midwife Eowyn had met in the Houses of Healing, had considered her stillborn child a result of Eowyn’s recent injuries and grief. Ah, dwimmerlaik, your evil grasp reached me from beyond the grave, Eowyn thought, her lips drawn into a tight line. But she had mourned her dead. Nothing would harm this child.

Pushing back the grim thoughts, Eowyn took the wooden horse out. It would make a fitting gift for her son, for she was certain her child was male. Lüthwen, trained from her early years as a midwife and skilled in herb and animal lore, had told her that she undoubtedly carried a boy in her womb. A chuckle escaped Eowyn’s lips. Faramir, with his practical mind, dismissed such sayings as “old wives’ tales”. Eowyn, however, had come to trust Lüthwen, with her kind eyes and gentle, skillful hands. Since their first meeting in the Healing Houses, she had heard of Lüthwen’s accuracy in such predictions – in animals and women alike – and now considered herself fortunate that the old midwife had accepted a place in her household. During the war, Lüthwen had seen enough of ugliness and death, as she had once told her. Tending expecting women and little children would finally bring peace to her heart and mind.

Perhaps there are some of Eomer’s old toys stored in here, thought Eowyn as she leaned over the open chest. Each item held its own story – its own memories – and soon Eowyn lost track of time. Some time later, another kick from her unborn child pulled her out of her thoughts. Grasping the sides of the heavy chest, she pulled herself up. Her ankles ached, her knees felt weak, and she still had not found what she had come to this storage room for. Frowning, she passed her fingers through her hair. What was I looking for?Her face lit up as the memories came rushing in. Our old cradle, she thought. The one of sturdy oak, polished and adorned with carvings of running horses. She closed the chest, picked up the wooden toy and walked to the back of the room, looking for the cradle her son would rest in – rest, and dream of open fields and mares with long, flowing manes.

Much to Eowyn’s annoyance, she found the cradle at the back of the room, stored behind more crates and trunks. When she finally pushed her way through, she frowned. I can’t possibly move such a heavy object all by myself. She pushed aside an empty trunk to make room. I wouldn’t be able to move this even if I was not with child, she thought.

Folding her arms across her chest, Eowyn contemplated on her options. I need help, no doubt about that. At least I hope that the cradle is still in good condition. I’d hate for it to collapse under the weight of my child. She sighed. Since she made it this far, she should at least check its condition. Passing over some old, folded curtains, she approached the cradle and gasped: it was occupied.

A small brown cat had claimed Eowyn’s old cradle as her and her offspring’s domain. Three kittens nursed the striped feline who eyed Eowyn with suspicion. When Eowyn took another step closer to them, the cat bared her teeth and hissed a warning.

Eowyn recoiled. Control yourself, woman, she scolded herself. It is just a cat. Still, more memories of her childhood in Meduseld came back and she stared at the small animal blankly, childhood fears resurfacing at the sight of the brown feline hissing defensively over her kittens. Growing up, she had never paid much attention to cats. With her brother’s hounds roaming the halls and yards, the cats rarely left the kitchens and dungeons below Meduseld, too busy hunting mice or doing whatever mischief felines usually do. During the cold winter nights, Eowyn had listened wide-eyed to all kinds of frightening tales regarding cats. “They steal the children’s breath,” some old servants claimed. “If a cat scratches a pregnant woman,” others said, “it is highly likely that the child will die in the womb.” “If a black cat crosses your path under moonlight, or if it jumps on your bed at the strike of midnight, you’d surely die by the plague,” most tales agreed. Eowyn grew up convinced that she should watch her back around felines, for they meant no good.

With one hand protectively over her abdomen and the other holding up the old wooden horse as a ward against evil, Eowyn paced backwards. “Nothing will harm my son! Nothing!” Eowyn felt the cat’s yellow eyes following her every move as she looked around. A devious smile dawned on her face as she located a broom at her right. Now I’ll show you, she thought, and reached for the broom. Leaving the toy on a crate behind her, she raised the broom and attempted to chase the cat away from her cradle.

The cat fluffed up, hissed, and charged at the extended broom. Trying to stay as far away as possible from the cat’s claws, Eowyn backed up. A yell escaped her throat as she tripped on a crate behind her and fell. She landed on the pile of old curtains with a heavy thud and the broom slipped her grip, knocking over several crates and sacks. One crash followed another, and when things stopped falling down around her, Eowyn’s eyes were watering due to the cloud of dust she now found herself in. When her vision finally cleared, she saw the cat’s triumphant stare as she stood at the edge of the cradle, while the three kittens watched with great interest the mayhem around them.

“Damn cat,” Eowyn cursed. The little monster is laughing at me, I’m certain of it, she thought. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment. “What are you looking at, spawn of Mordor?” Eowyn spat. Slowly, she sat up and dusted her hands and vest. Her head jerked upwards at the sound of a woman’s voice behind her.

“My lady? Are you in here?”

Thankfully, the voice belonged to her handmaid and midwife, Lüthwen. No need to embarrass myself at the eyes of every servant of this house, Eowyn thought, relieved. “I’m here, Lüthwen,” she replied, trying to sound calm.

The sounds of footsteps over fallen crates and of various items pushed aside followed her words. “By the grace of the Valar, what has happened in here?” Eowyn raised her eyes to see her maid’s plump face appearing from behind the chests. A shadow fell over Lüthwen’s round face when their eyes met. “My lady! Are you hurt?” The old woman rushed to her side and helped her to stand up, mumbling. “What were you thinking of, lass, endangering yourself and your unborn child in such a manner? How would your poor husband feel if anything happened to either of you? How would I feel?”

Eowyn could not help smiling with the old woman’s ramblings. “I am fine, Lüthwen,” she reassured the old woman. “I just need to clean up, that’s all.”

“One of those crates might have fallen on you,” replied the old woman. Carefully, she touched Eowyn’s lower abdomen with slow, gentle moves. “Are you in any pain?”

Eowyn shook her head. “I told you, Lüthwen, I am fi-”

She never finished her words as her maid raised her index finger to her lips. “Hush,” she said, and continued to feel her belly. Taken aback from the old woman’s firm expression, Eowyn remained silent. “If you see any blood - any blood at all - over the next few days, my lady, you will call me at once, no matter the time of the day,” Lüthwen finally said, a frown still clouding her warm brown eyes.

Eowyn nodded. Lüthwen raised her hand to the young woman’s fair head and pushed some stray locks away from her face. “What made you come up here, my lady?”

Eowyn smiled, seeing that the mischievous twinkle had returned in the old woman’s eyes. “I was looking for this,” she replied, waving at the old cradle.

Lüthwen stared at the cradle and the cat resting inside it. “The cat?” She stared back at Eowyn, confused. “My lady, had you told me that you wanted a kitten, I would have brought you one from the kitchen or the stables. Those are too young to be parted from their mother and old Baran here can get very protective of her offspring.”

Eowyn rolled her eyes. “I was not looking for the cat, Lüthwen; I came looking for the cradle!” Her voice sounded strangely high-pitched inside her head. “This is my old cradle, the cradle in which both Eomer and I slept when we were babes, and this accursed animal hissed at me!” All of the sudden, more memories from her childhood rushed in. Mother, Eomer pulled my hair! Father, Eomer took my wooden horse! Her face now burned with embarrassment. Lüthwen warned me of possible mood changes, she thought, averting her eyes from the grinning woman. I suppose I never thought it would happen to me.

The old woman gently stroked Eowyn’s chin. “My lady,” she said, her voice gentle, “I’m sure that Baran will not object if I make her a warm, comfortable nest in one of the crates here. I will call one of the younger servants and we’ll have this item moved downstairs in the blink of an eye.”

Eowyn shook her head. “No! I will not have my child sleep in it after those creatures have used it.”

Lüthwen blinked. “My lady, if the thought of the cat’s fleas troubles you, I will make a strong brew of rosemary, lavender and pennyroyal. After I’m done scrubbing the cradle with it, no flea will survive to disturb your child’s rest.”

“Fleas are the least of my concerns, Lüthwen,” she replied. “It is bad luck that worries me most.”

The old woman stood flabbergasted. “Bad luck? You think that cats bring bad luck?” Eowyn nodded. “Who told you such a thing?”

She shrugged. “Nearly everyone, when I was growing up. I’ve heard tales that cats steal the children’s breath - that if you cross one under moonlight, you’ll die by the plague.”

Lüthwen’s face hardened. “Lies and superstitions,” she mumbled. She took Eowyn’s hands in her own, her expression softer now. “My lady, I understand that your ways are different than ours in some aspects. But this… this is simply false.” She pointed at the pile of old curtains behind her. “If you hold any love for me, lady, perhaps you would listen to an old woman’s tale?”

Eowyn stared at the plump woman and the kindness in her brown eyes. Behind her, the sunlight warmed the room and the dust danced in the sunbeams. Inside the cradle, the cat seemed peaceful now and groomed her kittens, purring loudly. This strange sound made Eowyn feel strangely relaxed inside. She nodded, sat down on the pile of curtains and placed the wooden horse on her knees.

Lüthwen sat on a crate beside the cradle. For a few moments she did not speak, lost in her thoughts, her eyes fixed on her ever moving fingers that straightened her clothes and traced the outline of her apron. Then she raised her head and began her tale. “I was born and raised at Pelargir, my lady. My mother’s family came originally from Osgiliath, but I have never seen the place. When I was a little girl, the city already lay in ruin. As you may have heard, Osgiliath’s decline started with the coming of the plague.” She raised her eyes to Eowyn. “Are you comfortable, my lady?”

Eowyn nodded and Lüthwen continued with her tale. “The people of Osgiliath shared your dislike for cats - and for good reason, one might argue,” she said, leaning over the edge of the cradle to check on the feline family inside. The female cat looked up and purred louder. “Many lifetimes ago, the King of Gondor resided at Osgiliath, and not at Minas Tirith, like Lord Aragorn, may Eru bless his soul. One of the kings of old took as his wife a woman with Southern blood in her - a woman who loved cats. Legend has it that this woman was wicked and set her cats to discover all of the dark secrets of the people of Gondor, so that she knew those things that men wish most to keep hidden. In the end, the king had no choice but to have the fallen queen set on a ship alone with her cats and set them adrift on the sea before a north wind.”

Eowyn leaned back on the pile of cloth, mesmerised by the warm tone of the woman’s voice.

“King Tarannon died childless,” continued Lüthwen. “Ever since, the people of Osgiliath treated cats with suspicion, the memory of the queen’s prying animals never leaving their minds. Those among them who favoured cats and welcomed them in their households, like my mother’s family, were frowned upon. Still, no other similar incidents of evil workings were recorded.” She reached out and stroked the cat’s head. “Many lifetimes passed, and on a dark morning in late November, a black ship sailed up the river and into the city. Its sails were torn and no man held the wheel. It crashed on the docks and no man dared to approach it, for all sensed something evil about it.” Lüthwen raised her eyes to the ceiling. “They should have burned it.”

Eowyn sat up, entranced. “Well? What became of it?”

Lüthwen looked at her, the lines on her face somehow growing deeper. “The rats came. Under a starless sky, hundreds, no, thousands of huge black rats came out of the cursed ship and spread in the city. They crawled into the cellars, they swarmed in the sewers, they sneaked into the homes of the poor, chewing, defiling, infesting everything in their path. Not long after, people started to fall ill and die.” The old woman suddenly stopped her tale and looked up, embarrassment burning her face.

“Well?”

“My lady, forgive this foolish crone,” she muttered. “I forgot.” She slapped her forehead. “How could I forget? A woman in your condition should not be exposed to tales of plague and death.” She shook her head. “It cannot be good for your child.”

Eowyn looked at her lap, her fingers tracing the outline of the wooden horse. The image of a monstrous creature wielding its grim mace flashed in her head. Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! A jolt of pain traveled through her shield arm and made her grimace. “I am no stranger to suffering and death, Lüthwen,” she said, her voice low. “Please, continue. I want to hear the rest of the story.” She tilted her head sideways, waving at the cradle. “And it seems that the cats want to hear it too.”

Lüthwen looked at the four pairs of yellow eyes staring at her over the edge of the cradle and smiled. “As you wish, my lady.” She remained silent for a few moments, as if choosing the right words. “I heard this tale from my grandmother when I was no more than a child, and for months bad dreams troubled me,” she finally said. “All the accounts of the Great Plague speak of much pain and suffering. It spared no one; the poor and the rich died in the same horrible way. It took the poor first, for large families lived in small, damp shacks with little more to eat than stale bread and cheap ale. Those afflicted lay feverish, mumbling incoherently and coughing up blood. Although the fever burned them, fresh water made them nauseous, until they fell into a deep, tormented sleep from which they never awoke. Before death released them, the bodies and faces of those unfortunate souls took on an ashen shade, a sight horrible to the mothers who watched their children drifting away.” Lüthwen straightened her apron, and the cat took this as an invitation. She jumped out of the cradle and settled on the old woman’s lap.

“Where did that ship come from?”

“Ah, that’s exactly what the people of Osgiliath wondered as well, my lady,” replied Lüthwen. “Some said that an old Evil stirred at the east, and this plague was part of Its cunning plan, so that the watch on the borders of Mordor would cease and the fortresses that guarded the passes would be unmanned.” She sighed. “Those who claimed so were probably right, as the war has showed us. Still, during those days of fear and death, strange rumors spread amongst the townsfolk. Some said that the black ship carried the angry spirit of the exiled queen who had returned, seeking revenge.” Lüthwen shook her head. “Some even blamed the cats as the plague bearers. It grieves me to hear that this absurd rumor has survived the passing of time.”

Eowyn searched for something to reply to this, but no words came to her mind. Lüthwen’s story could very well be true. “How did your family survive, Lüthwen?”

The old woman stroked the cat’s head. “Many of my ancestors died during that time, but several survived because, simply, the rats avoided their house. The cats did a wonderful job chasing and killing the plague-bearing vermin. Soon after the outbreak, when my family moved to Pelargir, they took the family cats with them.” Lüthwen stared at the cat on her knees, smiling. “It was not an easy trip, but that’s a tale for another time.” She stood up and gently placed the cat with her young ones. “It is getting late, my lady. We should return downstairs and get you cleaned up. Your husband should return shortly.”

Eowyn took Lüthwen’s outstretched hand and pulled herself up. The old woman was right; Faramir should not see her like this. She looked at the cat that had once more made herself comfortable inside her cradle. Fine, cat, she thought. Perhaps you are not an omen of ill luck. But you cannot have my cradle.

As if sensing her thoughts, the cat hissed. Eowyn frowned. “This is not over,” she mumbled through clenched teeth, and followed Lüthwen to the stairs. As the maid helped her on the narrow steps, something still puzzled her. “Tell me, Lüthwen, do you know what became of the exiled queen?”

“No one really knows, my lady,” replied the old woman, as she dusted Eowyn’s clothes. “She was lost at sea, I suppose. Still…”

“Yes?”

“Travelers who pass through Osgiliath have claimed the strangest thing, my Lady. Some say that, at nights when the wind blows from the south, the figure of a tall, noble-looking woman is often seen by the river. Rumors have it that she walks at the riverbank under the full moon, in the company of a white cat, a cat with an amber gaze that reaches inside your head and sees all the things that men wish most to keep hidden.” She shook her head. “Old wives’ tales, if you ask me.”

Eowyn giggled. Then a sparkle caught her gaze and she raised her eyes at the top of the stairs. The brown cat stood there and stared at them, as if she understood their words. Eowyn felt a shiver down her spine as she turned her back to the cat and walked down the hallway.

Old wives’ tales, she thought.

Of course.

~*~

The moon waxed and waned and the nights grew warmer. With the first sunlight on a cool morning in early summer, the sound of a newborn echoed inside the walls of their house in Ithilien. The child was indeed a son; a strong, healthy boy, much to his mother’s unspoken relief and his father’s pride.

During one night in late summer, they had a visitor. Mablung, on his way back from Osgiliath, rode to Ithilien to see his former Captain, his fair bride, and their little boy. Over cups of wine they spoke of war and peace and friends lost. Among tales of battle, death and valour, Mablung had the strangest story to tell. Many of those who worked on the reconstruction of Osgiliath had reported strange sightings. After the nights of the full moon, they came across footprints at the riverbank, footprints that presumably belonged to a woman, along with myriads of feline pawprints around them. On those mornings a strange sorrow hung over the riverbank, much like the morning fog hangs over the southern harbours. Many of the workers sought employment elsewhere, fearing that some of the Dead had not been released and still dwelled in the ruined city.

Faramir laughed. “Old wives’ tales,” he said.

Eowyn smiled, recalling Lüthwen’s story. Then the brown cat stepped inside the room, coming from the fields outside with a freshly killed rat in her fangs. As the small animal walked by Eowyn’s seat, their eyes met.

Old wives’ tales, she thought.

Of course.

That night, when the small cat jumped up on the cradle and curled beside her sleeping son, Eowyn did not chase her away.


********


Author’s notes:

With many, many thanks to Ms.Sebasky for her feedback and Lady Elwen for her editing.

Baran is “brown” in Sindarin. The best name I could think for the cat…

Regarding the plague: The second and greatest evil came upon Gondor in the reign of Telemnar, the twenty-sixth king ... a deadly plague came with dark winds out of the East. The King and all his children died, and great numbers of the people of Gondor, especially those that lived in Osgiliath. Then for weariness and fewness of men the watch on the borders of Mordor ceased and the fortresses that guarded the passes were unmanned.
(The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix A, Annals of the Kings and Rulers: Gondor and the Heirs of Anárion.)

The fallen queen is, of course, Berúthiel. Regarding Berúthiel:
"She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin. She hated all making, all colors and elaborate adorment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things " That men wish most to keep hidden", setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. At last King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle Moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow. And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings."
(Unfinished Tales, Part 4, Ch II The Istari Note 7)

The scene of the infested rats and the abandoned ship draws inspiration from the film “Nosferatu” by F.W. Murnau (1929).

The details of the plague are based on the epidemic of the bubonic plague of Europe during the 13th century.

The superstitions regarding cats are real life superstitions of various cultures. I used too many book and web sources to list them here.

The herbs Lüthwen mentions having flea-repealing powers are also accurate according to my herbal manuals.

This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

   
   
   

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Author: Werecat

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Complete

Rating: General

Last Updated: 12/30/06

Original Post: 10/29/04

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