10. Chapter 9
The next day passed quickly. The Houses of Healing were in a flurry of activity: the news of the oncoming march of the army of the West to the Black Land had caused quite a stir. People came and went, soldiers declared fit made ready to depart with the companies, and those not yet fully healed but yearning to go to battle pleaded to be released from the care of the healers. And there was quite a number of men, both Gondorians and Riders of Rohan, who insisted they were well enough to undertake the journey and even tried to prove their wounds troubled them no longer. Striving to keep order, the healers often felt their patience dwindle; yet they mastered their emotions and continued to gently reason with the headstrong warriors.
Idrin found Éothain pacing in his room after checking on the patients appointed to her. One crutch held loosely but ever at the ready, he was taking tentative steps to and fro, testing the strength of his injured leg. Having already dealt with enough willful knights to know what that determined look on his face meant, the healer shook her head to herself.
"You should not strain your leg so," she addressed him without preamble; "it will only slow the healing process."
The Rohir turned to her with an easy grin. "I already feel much better," he replied lightly, "and the pain is nearly gone."
The gleam in his eye and the jovial smile were almost catching, but a twinge of worry pricked at Idrin. She remembered well his despondent expression after his exchange with King Éomer and knew he would be loath to stay behind while others challenged Sauron. Surely he would soon express his wish to leave the Houses? All of a sudden she felt too tired to sustain the argument that was sure to rise were he to confirm her guess. She took a breath. "Come, let's go outside to the gardens," she suggested instead, hoping that her supposition would be proven wrong. Expecting her to object more strongly to his unaided walking, Éothain gazed at her for a moment in silence, but accepted the proffered crutch gratefully.
* * *
After a short stroll through the blooming greenswards, they found themselves standing upon the wall, gazing eastward. "There will be no pleasant sights to behold," Idrin had said when she realised where Éothain was headed, but she did not stop him. And it was indeed a mordant view: the land was barren, scorched and laid to waste. Following the battle, a great labour was begun to cleanse the Pelennor of bodies and debris: the fallen defenders of Minas Tirith had been taken from the field to be buried in honour, and the slain servants of the Enemy had been piled in great mounds and burned. Still, carrion fowl could sometimes be seen wheeling in the air, hunting for whatever remaining scraps they could find. Apart from their occasional harsh cries, only the multitude of tents belonging to the Rohirrim and the Dúnedain who had camped just outside the City brought the sole semblance of life upon the fields.
A sharp chill came from within and Idrin wrapped her arms around herself. It was the first time she had looked out to the plains after the battle. "I have seen men live in torn bodies," she began softly; "I have watched them die –" The voice caught in her throat and she took a moment to compose herself. "But never could I imagine that land can be ravaged so," she finished, a deep frown clouding her features, her eyes fixed steadfastly ahead. She could feel Éothain's gaze on her, almost penetrating.
It was a while before he spoke: "You are fortunate to have seen only this." His tone was quiet but there was much hidden in those few words. She turned to face him and he held her gaze long. The horrors of the battlefield were mirrored in his eyes, harrowing memories and sorrow. He had seen much and had experienced far more ghastly things than she, but they had both known death. She withdrew her gaze first.
Without talking they came down from the wall, each entertaining their own grim thoughts, and sat on a bench as the day before.
"Tell me of Rohan," Idrin shook her gloomy musings, deciding not to mar the sunlit, cloudless day with darkness. Éothain's countenance slowly changed and a twinkle lit his eyes.
"The Riddermark... is a country ever swept by the north and west winds," he began after some thought. "The summers there are less mild than in Gondor and the winters more harsh; but in springtime the plains turn golden and green..."
* * *
Night had fallen. Idrin cleared away the tray from the bedside-stand, storing its remaining contents back into the cupboard. Turning to regard Éothain after scrubbing her hands with soapy water from the wash-basin, she saw the Rider gazing at her quietly. There was a calculating look in his eyes and he seemed to be mulling over some thought or other. He looked at her for a moment more before drawing in a long breath.
"Mistress, I wish to join the companies." His voice was clear, and the finality in the spoken words left no doubt that they were meant to be taken as a statement rather than a request. Idrin wasn't surprised by the straightforwardness of his manner: her contact with the Rohirrim these last days had taught her that they were a direct people not fond of circuitous talk. And even though she had wished it otherwise, she was prepared for this broach of subject.
"Your leg has not yet mended," she replied. "Going into battle will only result in the wound reopening." She might have been indulgent during their stroll that morning, keeping her peace when he tested his limits and walked without the support of crutches, but this was wholly different.
"It will be a few days before we engage the enemy," Éothain returned. When the healer opened her mouth to protest, he cut her off: "And our horses will do the walking. My leg will have time to heal until we reach the Black Gate."
She huffed. "A few days won't be enough for the wound to close properly," she pointed out. "And the strain of riding alone will not ease things." The Rohir was clearly not impressed. She tried logic: "Would you risk further harm to your leg? If the stitches are pulled, you will not be able to support your weight and fight."
There was a gleam of pure amusement in Éothain's eyes as he regarded her closely, amusement at her persistence. "Mistress, I have sustained graver injuries than this that did not prevent me from fighting," he resorted to the same argument he had used when conversing with Éomer the previous day.
Idrin didn't know if his claim was indeed true, but she would not be so easily deterred. "It does not matter. There may still be unforeseen complications."
Oddly enough, the hint of a feeble smile pulled at the corners of the Rider's mouth, and he shook his head. "I can look after myself, Mistress," he said. "And if something should happen, there will be men with knowledge of healing among us."
That seemed to placate her. She looked at him steadily, knowing that this was one argument she had lost. "Very well," she resigned gracefully and walked over to the cupboard, rummaging though it for a few minutes. Returning to Éothain's side, she offered him a sturdy pouch of brownish colour. "Dressing material and salve for your wound," she explained when he raised an eyebrow in enquiry. "There's enough for two weeks."
He took it from her and glanced at the shallow jar and bandages inside. "Thank you." He tightened the strings. "I should find Húron; bid him farewell," he mused.
The healer nodded absently. "I can take you to his chamber. I was bound to go to him after tending to your leg."
* * *
It was fifteen minutes later that they reached the Lord Húron's room, having first stopped briefly at a storage-room. Éothain had watched the healer with interest as her hands moved surely and quickly to shelves and implements, her work deft as she prepared a potent draught.
Now he followed her into the Gondorian's chamber, balancing himself as well as he could on somewhat sore legs while she gave the elderly man a cup and exchanged a few words with him.
"I should leave you," she finally addressed both of them and then turned her eyes upon the Rohir. Here was where their ways parted. "Fare you well, Éothain, son of Léofred," she said. "May the Valar look over you."
"I hope we meet again, Mistress," he returned. "Your company has been a true delight." His gaze lingered on her and she held it momentarily before offering a small upturn of lips and sweeping from the room.
"You go to Mordor."
Húron's words drew Éothain's attention, and he saw the man was looking at his bandaged leg. Yet, whatever his thoughts, he did not speak them out loud. The Rider simply nodded; the former captain said no more.
"How did you come to be at the Houses of Healing?" Éothain asked after a moment of silence. "When last we saw you, you were as hale as can be."
A mirthless grin touched the lord Húron's features. "Age and sickness are catching up on me, my lad."
* * *
The moon was high in the sky when Idrin found herself in her family's townhouse, giving into the indulgence of a long soak in a warm bath. Donning a gown of pale green, hair unbound upon her shoulders, she descended into the drawing-room a while later where her brothers were seated. They had only that morning returned to the City from Lossarnach, having allowed themselves a day's respite in order to see how their wives and children fared. And now the siblings set to enjoy what precious moments they could together before the sun rose and battle sundered them.
The hours were spent in quiet conversation: Arvinion and Damhir had brought much news from the Vale of Flowers and they were eager to share it. Just as anxious to hear word from outside the City, Idrin was pleased to learn that both her sisters-by-marriage were well; Arvinion would not stop talking about his six-year-old daughter and how fast she was growing; Damhir was overjoyed that his wife was with child.
It was good that their fond memories still burned bright, Idrin mused; that thought of the approaching battle had not yet filled them with apprehension. She was glad they would still smile and be merry and for an instant wished morning never came.
But night faded all too quickly, and when she rose in the grey hours before sunrise, her brothers were in the kitchen, preparing breakfast. They ate in silence and then, much sooner than she would have liked, she was before the garden-gate, embracing her siblings with abandon.
"Return safely," was all she managed to breathe and drew back to watch them pass under the gate of the fifth circle.
* * *
The first light of early morning was just beginning to touch the stone buildings when Éothain and Éomer met in the Houses of Healing. The new king of Rohan said nothing when his kinsman announced he would be riding with the host, only regarded him with a calculating and warning stare. Presently they made their way through the sick-ward, the echo of their footfalls surrounding them.
Éowyn was standing at the window as they entered her chamber, her mouth pressed in a thin line and a thoughtful expression on her face. She spun round when she felt their presence and her eyes flashed at the sight of them clad in mail and girt with swords.
"It is good to see your arm is healing, Éowyn," said Éothain in greeting.
She merely nodded. "You are fortunate, cousin," she spoke at last. "Your injury does not hinder you." There was a trace of longing in her voice that he did not understand; but they spoke together for a little while, and then Éothain took his leave, letting the siblings say their farewells in peace.
"What troubles you?" Éomer was not one to stall. He sat by his sister on the bed.
She turned dark eyes to him. "Can you not guess? You know what I yearn for."
The new king studied her; he did indeed know. "What you yearn for cannot be granted," he said gravely.
"You ride to battle and renown and I stay behind to while away the long hours in sloth," came her bitter words. Then, with an effort, she collected herself. "Forgive me," she said and her voice trailed off for several moments. "Safe journey." There was still a coolness in her clear eyes, but Éomer knew how to read the things she left unspoken. He rose to his feet.
"Farewell, sister." He cast her a fond glance and went from the room.
* * *
The City hummed with still watchfulness. Idrin stood upon the wall of the sixth circle, Faramir at her side. The sun reflected on helms and spears on the field of the Pelennor below, glinting off them in near dazzling flashes. The host was assembled: the great sable standard bearing the device of seven stars and crown above the white tree was in the van, and behind it were the white-horse-upon-green of Rohan and the silver swan of Dol Amroth. Those remaining in the City looked down from windows and parapets, but there was no cheering to send the army off. All awaited the trumpet-call with grim patience.
"It feels strange that we should have a King after the War." The words were said in a whisper, but in that complete lack of sounds they were loud enough to be heard. Out of the corner of her eye the healer saw that the man who had spoken them was standing a mere few feet from her and Faramir.
"He may not survive the last battle," the man's companion said curtly in a low voice. "And then, what difference does it make who will rule Gondor, Steward or King? There has been no King for hundreds of years."
"He is a great Captain of Men, they say," the first Gondorian went on, seemingly heedless of the dismissive tone. "A warrior and a healer, 'tis said; and he has cared for the injured greatly. He has shown more compassion than Denethor, and the City already feels different now that he has come."
His companion grunted and waved him off, not granting him a reply.
Idrin caught Faramir's eye and saw the arch of an eyebrow and the twinkle of a bemused smile. He leant in to speak, but just then the clear sound of a trumpet was borne on the wind. The healer straightened and watched the army begin its march, hoping this bold endeavour into the Enemy's land would be the beginning of a brighter future.
End of Part I
To come: Colours of Dawn Part II – Beneath Trees of Gold
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