13. The Houses of Healing
The Houses of Healing
What makes a rider? His horse.
What makes a warrior? His sword.
What makes a king? His honour.
What makes a man? His heart.
(Saying from Rohan)
Lothíriel hummed to herself as she picked up another roll of bread from her breakfast tray.
"That's a gay and lively tune," her maid remarked. "A new song you're learning to play?"
Lothíriel stopped when she realized what music she hummed: from one of the dances of the Rohirrim. She busied herself with settling her tray more securely on her lap and taking a sip of tea.
"No, just something from last night."
She could hear Hareth drawing the curtains and opening her bedroom window, admitting birdsong and the smell of moist earth from the garden outside. The breeze of fresh air did not have the coolness of early morning anymore and Lothíriel wondered how late it was.
"Did you sleep well?" her maid asked, still bustling about. "No bad dreams?"
The comment surprised Lothíriel. "Bad dreams? No. Why?"
Hareth stopped for a moment. "You're asking me why? Lothíriel, you were attacked by a warg yesterday!"
"Oh! The warg!" Lothíriel found she had forgotten all about it. "No, I didn't dream about that."
She could almost see the old woman shake her head. "The resilience of youth," Hareth muttered. "And I nearly died of fright just hearing the tale."
Floorboards creaked as her maid crossed the room towards the wardrobe. She clucked her tongue. "Really Lothíriel, what did you do to your lovely dress? The hem is all dirty. And where did you pick up all these spider webs?"
Lothíriel tried not to look guilty. "I had a look at Denethor's maze. You know we used to play there as children."
"Lothíriel, you didn't go wandering about the garden all on your own, did you? Your father won't like it if he hears of it."
"I was perfectly fine. The King of Rohan had the kindness to accompany me."
Her maid shook out the dress. "The King of Rohan? Isn't he the one who saved you from that warg yesterday?"
Lothíriel nodded. She smiled when she remembered Éomer's words to her father at the end of the evening, when the Dol Amroth party had retired. Being thanked once again he had replied, "On the contrary, I am in your daughter's debt."
Unlike most of her father's entertainments at home, the evening had turned out quite enjoyable after all. Very enjoyable to be honest. The Rohirric dances were less complicated and much livelier than their Gondorian counterparts. Once Éomer had explained the steps to her, she had picked them up very quickly. And although at first the sensation of having a man so close and feeling his warm hand resting on her waist, guiding her, had been rather strange, she had soon got used to it.
Taking another bite from her roll, she wondered if it would be possible to play Rohirric music on her small harp. The tunes had a strong rhythm, a bit like a slow heartbeat, overlaid with quite a complicated melodic line. When she had mentioned such to Éomer's bard, Cadda had offered to teach her how to play some of the simpler tunes. However, she felt unsure if the bard had offered out of mere politeness or had meant it sincerely.
"So what are your plans for today?" Hareth interrupted her musings.
Lothíriel had very definite ideas on that. "I intend to go riding again."
"Does Prince Imrahil know about it?"
"Not yet," Lothíriel admitted.
Hareth chuckled. "I recognize that stubborn expression on your face. Shall I get your riding dress out?"
"Yes please," Lothíriel nodded. She pushed the tray away and swung her legs over the side of the bed, careful not to overset the remains of her breakfast.
She would have liked to wear the clothes Éowyn had lent her the day before, but Hareth informed her they were dirty and had to be washed first, so she settled on a light tunic with a traditional riding skirt instead. Just as her maid did up the last pair of laces, somebody knocked on the door.
"Lady Lothíriel!" She recognized the voice of one of the servants. "Prince Imrahil requests your presence in the library."
Before she had the chance to ask why, the girl left again. Lothíriel mentally reviewed the events of the night before, wondering if any of them might have aroused her father's displeasure. Had he heard about her solitary walk in the gardens?
However, when soon afterwards she joined her father in the library downstairs, a pleasant surprise awaited her.
"Lothíriel! How nice to meet you again." Éowyn's cheerful voice was unmistakable. "And dressed for riding already, how convenient."
Lothíriel found herself clasped in a quick embrace and then the other woman linked arm with hers. "We can be off straightaway then."
"Lady Éowyn, I'm not sure this is a good idea," her father intervened. He sounded downright flustered.
Lothíriel couldn't blame him, she felt a bit overwhelmed herself. "What idea?"
"Didn't you arrange with my brother to pay a visit to the Houses of Healing?" Éowyn asked.
"Why yes, but-"
"Good. He's going to meet us there." Éowyn gave her arm a quick squeeze. "Shall we go?"
"Lady Éowyn," her father protested. "Your offer is very kind, but I really think Lothíriel should have a day of rest today, to recover from the terrible ordeal she had to endure."
Lothíriel reached out a hand. "Please father, I'm fine. I said I would go and see that poor rider who got hurt in the attack yesterday."
He clasped her fingers. "Lothíriel dearest, are you sure? I do not want you to upset yourself with all those painful memories."
She only hesitated for a moment. "I think I can manage. Éowyn and Éomer will be along, after all. I feel that it is my duty to thank Guthlaf for what he did."
She heard him sigh and he released her hand. "Very well, daughter. I just hope you won't regret this."
Éowyn started to pull her towards the door. "That's settled then," she said. "I promise to deliver your daughter back safely...later."
The door shut behind them before Lothíriel even had the chance to say good-bye to her father and she found herself inexorably pulled forward.
"Hurry up before Prince Imrahil changes his mind," Éowyn whispered.
Lothíriel hastened her steps. "Why the rush?"
"Don't you want to attend the riding competitions later on today?" the other woman asked back.
Lothíriel had heard that in the afternoon, the Rohirrim planned races and displays of their horsemanship. "Why yes, I'd love to!"
Éowyn laughed. "I thought so! Well in that case we'd better be gone before your father realizes I didn't specify when exactly I'd bring you back."
In the courtyard, Winterbreath already waited for her, bridled and saddled, and they were out the gate and winding their way through the morning traffic before Lothíriel had stopped laughing.
The Houses of Healing were situated on the same circle, but further to the south-east than their town house and it did not take them long to get there. When they arrived, they were greeted by Éomer who awaited them.
"Success!" Éowyn laughed.
"Just as I thought," her brother replied. "Sending in the Slayer of the Witch King carried the day."
He swung Lothíriel down from her horse. She was starting to expect it.
"The Warden is waiting for us," Éomer explained in a more serious tone as he settled her hand firmly on his arm. "Shall we go in?"
Lothíriel nodded, her palms suddenly sweaty at the thought of visiting the place she had sworn never to return to. Then the doors creaked open and the smells hit her: the soap used to clean the flagstone floor, the astringent scent of medicines and herbal teas - pain, anger and despair.
She had no recollection of digging her fingers into his arm, of coming to a complete halt before she even crossed the threshold. Her heart hammered wildly in her chest and all her instincts shouted at her to run! Why had she agreed to come!
"Lothíriel?" he asked again, his voice as gentle and soft as if he tried to calm a skittish filly. "Are you all right? I can go in on my own, you know. Would you like to wait in the garden?"
Lothíriel hesitated. To wait in the garden, in the fresh air? She desperately wished to agree to his suggestion, but at the same time she felt ashamed for running away from her memories that way. It seemed cowardly. Besides, she truly wanted to visit the rider. It was just that what had been an easy decision to make last night proved much more difficult to face in the morning's harsh reality.
She took a deep breath. "No. I want to come."
"You will tell me if you feel unwell?"
Lothíriel nodded, and they entered the house. Their steps echoed hollowly in the long passage leading to the Warden's office. She knew the layout well, a small central courtyard encircled by corridors with treatment rooms arranged on either side and a gate leading into the extensive gardens beyond. They passed a number of people on the way and her ears automatically identified the sounds she had come to know so well: the tapping of crutches against the floor, the brisk walk of healers on their rounds and the soft murmur of voices from behind closed doors. She shivered.
A large hand covered hers for a moment and squeezed it. So he had noticed - little seemed to escape the man. Comforted by the brief contact and his solid presence by her side, she relaxed slightly.
The Warden greeted them warmly when they reached his office, but she did not recognize the voice with its soft southern accent. Then she remembered her father mentioning that the old Warden had retired after the Ring War. He hesitated for the barest moment when presented to her.
"Princess Lothíriel? How nice to meet you. How are you?"
Although she knew her clipped tones bordered on rudeness she could not manage more than that and an uncomfortable silence ensued.
"We have come to see one of my riders, Guthlaf," Éomer said. "How is he?"
"Weak from the loss of blood, but he should have regained consciousness by now," the Warden answered. "We had to administer drugs last night to perform the procedure on his arm."
"The procedure?" Éowyn asked.
The Warden cleared his throat. "Unfortunately his lower arm proved to be too badly damaged by the animal's mauling to be salvageable. Also warg bites are prone to fester. We had no recourse but to take the arm off just above the elbow."
His discomfort of having to discuss these gory details showed in his voice. Yet how harmless it sounded. To take it off. Lothíriel knew the correct term would have been to saw it off. Someone had once described the big, serrated knifes, sharper than any butcher's blade, to her. The thought of having them applied to a man's flesh and bone sickened her and she could feel her gorge rising.
"If Guthlaf's conscious again, I would like to go and see him," Éomer said quietly.
"Yes, of course." The Warden opened the door to his office. "I will show you the way. Perhaps the ladies would like to have a look at the gardens? They are very pretty this time of the year. Let me call a servant."
"That won't be necessary," Éowyn interrupted him. "We are coming along, too."
He seemed to recall who he was talking to, for he raised no more objections. "Of course. This way, please."
To reach the rider's room they had to cross the small sunken courtyard with its cheerfully babbling fountain and ascend a couple of steps on the other side.
"I advise you to keep your visit short, so as not to overtax your man. Also, you might find him slightly disoriented from the drugs and rather ... upset," the Warden warned Éomer.
"Yes, I imagine so," Éomer replied in his driest tone. "Thank you for showing us the way."
He waited pointedly until the man recognized his words for the dismissal they were and took his leave.
"Upset!" he murmured under his breath, so softly that Lothíriel did not think he meant anybody to hear him. Some kind of signal seemed to pass between brother and sister.
"Let's go in," Éowyn said.
The first thing that struck Lothíriel was the sheer youth of the rider. His voice rough and tense with suppressed pain when he recognized his king, she nevertheless judged him not much older than herself.
"Éomer King!" an incomprehensible stream of Rohirric followed.
Éowyn steered her to one side of the bed where a couple of chairs stood ready, while her brother took a seat on the other side and tried to calm Guthlaf down. The rider sounded feverish and Lothíriel wondered if the healers had given him poppy syrup - how well she remembered the sickly sweet taste of it.
The realization that it could have been her lying in the bed flitted through her mind and chilled her to the bone. At the time of the fight, her only concern had been to save Alphros, yet she could so easily have ended up dead or badly hurt. The thought of becoming even more dependent on others and losing still more of her precious freedom quite simply terrified her.
The rider kept repeating the same words over and over. Lothíriel leaned towards Éowyn.
"What is he saying?" she whispered.
Her friend hesitated. "He's asking, why him."
Lothíriel nodded in understanding. She recalled posing exactly the same question when she had woken up from her accident, to find herself in excruciating pain from her broken ribs and arm and with a headache like she had never experienced before or since. But the worst had been the stricken silence when she had complained she could not see and demanded they remove the blindfold across her eyes. "There is none," her father had answered at last.
Éomer's voice was deep and soothing, filled with an inner strength, and slowly the rider calmed down. Nevertheless, with the anguish still in his words, Lothíriel felt like an intruder. Why had she insisted on coming? She did not know anymore what she had hoped to accomplish. Then she heard Éomer mentioning her name.
"Princess Lothíriel has come to see you, Guthlaf," Éomer translated for her.
She leaned forward. "I wanted to thank you," she said haltingly, "for standing between me and harm's way."
Her words dropped like stones into the leaden silence.
"You're the blind princess."
"I've lost my sword arm. Your Gondorian healers took it off." He almost spat the words out, but his Westron held surprising little trace of a Rohirric accent.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
Éomer made a protesting sound. "Guthlaf, the princess is not to blame. The healers did as they thought best, to save your life."
"I wish they hadn't bothered." The brief flash of anger seemed to have exhausted him. "My apologies, my lady," he added after a moment.
"No offence taken." Lothíriel leaned forward. "You speak Westron well," she said, thinking to distract him from his troubled thoughts.
"I grew up in Meduseld and learnt the speech of Gondor there," the rider explained. "My father was Háma, the Doorward of Théoden. Captain of the king's guard, like his father before him."
She could hear him shifting on his bed, as if in pain. "Éomer King," he said, "what shall I do now? Being a warrior is all I know!"
Éomer sighed. "Guthlaf, don't worry about that. Worry about getting well again. You are still a member of my guard."
"Will I be able to retrain to the other arm?"
"It's too early to say," Éomer replied after a short pause. "First you have to regain your strength."
"But you don't think so," Guthlaf said in a flat tone.
"No. I said we'd have to wait." A hint of steel had crept into Éomer's voice and the rider seemed to suddenly recollect whom he was addressing.
"My Lord King, I'm sorry," he apologized.
"Guthlaf, the Riddermark needs more than just warriors, it also needs craftsmen, and men to guard the horses and..."
"It doesn't need useless cripples," the rider interrupted him. "Why didn't they just leave me to die!"
Éowyn drew her breath in sharply. "I thought so too, once, that I would have preferred to die in battle rather than be healed in body." Her voice softened. "Yet I learnt differently."
Lothíriel remembered raging at the healers, her family, the whole of Arda, when after exhaustive treatments, it had become clear that she would never regain her sight. Looking back at that time she suddenly realized how far she had come since.
"Nobody is useless," she said firmly. "I'm sure you will find your place in life."
"That's easy to say for a princess. What can half a man like me hope to achieve?"
Lothíriel would have liked to reach out a hand and touch him, but she feared to accidentally brush against a wound. She leaned forward. "Guthlaf, it's his mind, his heart and his honour that make a man, not how many hands he has."
She stopped abruptly when the rider inhaled heavily. Had she been too blunt?
"Lady, what woman will look at me now and not feel repulsed?" His voice broke and he sounded very young again. "I have a girl waiting for me back home. What will she say?"
"If she has any sense at all, she will be grateful you survived. And let me tell you, if your girl decides to turn her back on you for this, you're better off without an utter fool like that."
"The princess is right," Éomer agreed gravely. But Lothíriel was beginning to know the King of Rohan well and she heard just the slightest trace of laughter in his voice. What had she said that amused him?
"You do not need two hands to cradle a newborn infant," she insisted, "or to play with a child or to..." She had intended to say to love a woman, but thought better of it. Her voice petered out.
The rider sighed. "I just want to know, why me?" But he sounded calmer now.
"That I cannot answer," Éomer said. "But although I know this will be small comfort, think of what could have happened if we had not encountered the warg. What if it had preyed on defenceless villagers, on children?"
A long silence descended, broken only by the sound of sparrows chirping in the garden outside and the lazy buzz of a bumblebee. The smell of a lilac tree in bloom drifted in through an open window.
"You are right, my Lord King," the rider said. "That does not bear thinking about."
"You're a good man, Guthlaf." Éomer's chair creaked as he leaned forward. "I have to go now, but I will come and visit again soon."
Lothíriel got up, too, when she heard the others do so. "May I come and see you again?"
"I'd be honoured."
Lothíriel found that the prospect of returning to the Houses of Healing had lost much of its terror. Once the door to Guthlaf's room clicked shut behind her, she turned to Éomer.
"Was I too blunt? Are you sorry you asked me along?"
He laughed, an open and cheerful sound seldom heard in this place. "Not at all. While nobody will ever call you honey-tongued, nobody will ever be able to accuse you of not being honest either. It's a quality we value in the Riddermark. I believe Guthlaf will feel better after our visit, at least for a while. It's a long road he has to travel."
She mulled his words over for a moment. "You've done this before, haven't you?"
"Oh yes. I know the Houses of Healing far too well, but it never gets any easier."
They slowly started walking back towards the exit.
"So do you think he will be able to retrain to the other arm?" Lothíriel asked.
"I don't know," Éomer sighed. "It's not just a matter of learning to handle the sword with your other hand, but also the fact that he won't be able to hold a shield. With some cases in the war, where men had their hands hacked off, we..." He stopped abruptly. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to burden you with that kind of gory detail."
Lothíriel frowned. "I hail from a long line of warriors. I would much rather have you tell me the unvarnished truth. Just treat me like one of your men."
"That would be difficult."
Why did he sound so amused? And was that a snort of laughter from Éowyn? But before she could ask, he carried on explaining.
"If the lower arm's still intact, we can rig up a shield, but with Guthlaf that's not feasible - also his balance will be changed. We'll just have to wait and see." He hesitated. "I'm just not looking forward to facing Beornwyn."
"His mother. She has already lost her husband at the Hornburg and now her eldest son comes home injured from what should have been a carefree visit to Gondor."
"It will be you having to tell her?" she asked.
"It's my duty."
He sounded tired and discouraged, Lothíriel thought with a pang. She wished there were something she could do, to help him bear the weight of his obligations and ease his worries. But what help could she possibly offer? After all, she was no wise councillor or mighty warrior.
Silently, they made their way out, to where his guards awaited them with their horses. Once the doors of the Houses of Healing had shut behind them, she took a deep breath of the fresh, clean air and turned her face upwards to the warming rays of the morning sun. It felt good.
After he helped her mount Winterbreath, Éomer let his hand rest for a moment on her thigh.
"Thank you for coming."
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.