2. 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 very blood to ice. She froze mid-step, unable to move as a shuddering chill awoke some nameless terror within her, rooting her to the spot. With starting eyes and a racing heart she managed after many long seconds to coerce her limbs into motion. She rushed forward – the want to find out what had just passed was stronger than the cold dread that still gripped her heart. Gathering her skirts, she crossed the darkening lawn swiftly and reached the wall, climbing the short flight of steps hewn into the stone. Anxiously, she pressed against the parapet that ran the whole length of the paved rampart-walk, 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, that much she could guess, and the sight of them and their cries brought a feeling of ill foreboding upon her. They wheeled above something on the ground, hovering over tiny specks of black that moved erratically as if trying to evade the flying creatures. Horses, she realised. Another piercing wail made her cower and 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. She lowered her arms to her sides, but her thudding heart clenched – that call was not unknown to her.
Once again she braved herself to move forward and dared look 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, and the young woman could only watch their advance, feeling utterly helpless.
Yet a white light 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 relief flooded her. 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.
Releasing a breath she didn't known she had been holding, 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, cutting across the garden with purposeful strides.
She picked her way through the flowering greenswards laid out between the buildings that made up the Houses of Healing, her 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, 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. A fierce and sudden want to join them swelled in her chest, but she quenched the feeling with practised discipline. She had duties to attend to.
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 near table, illuminating the space with pale yellow light. It was a storage-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 covered her hair, fastened at the nape of the neck. Clear sea-grey eyes were set above high cheekbones, framed by dark lashes, and her small nose turned up at the tip.
She 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, the healer strained the liquid into a cup, adding some drops of lemon juice and honey to temper the strong flavour. She produced a small tray from a cabinet drawer to hold the cup, and went from the storage-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," she addressed the man standing at the window as she placed the tray 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 snow-white and his smiling eyes keen. The lord Húron had been a respected captain of Gondor, but two years previously a mishap permanently disabled him in battle, also causing a recurring decline in his health, and thus he ultimately thought it best to yield his office to another. 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 the present time he sat on the bed and sipped the hot tea, savouring the subtle aroma of sage. After a few moments he spoke again, "Those bone-chilling cries a while ago, what were they?" His serene, penetrating gaze fixed on the young healer.
"Winged beasts from Mordor," she replied softly, finding that the memory of them was not quite so distressing in a well-lit room. "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 when she found herself freed from duties and standing beneath an arc grown with lilac-coloured trailing plants, breathing in the cool air. The veil that had covered her hair was now upon her shoulders, worn as one might a shawl, and a thick plait 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. She closed her eyes and concentrated on the simple act of inhaling and exhaling, emptying her mind of distracting thoughts. Her precious moments of repose however were punctuated by slow, solid footfalls; her lids fluttered open and she spun on her heel.
The dark-haired man clad in the green attire 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. Although she was a fraction taller than the average height for a woman, she had to tip her head backwards to meet his gaze. He was beaming at her still, yet signs of fatigue 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 small garden between the nearest wings of the Houses of Healing, connected to one another 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 went swiftly toward the storage-rooms. It suddenly struck him at that moment how closely she resembled her mother, his father's sister, 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; she had grown and seen much.
His thoughts had not the time to wander far; before long she had returned from the storage-room, bearing a cup. "Drink this," she said quietly. "It will soothe your mind."
Faramir accepted the cup gratefully; even when no words were spoken, his cousin had always had the innate ability to sense when one was unwell, and strove to help if she could. And in truth, he had come to the Houses with half a mind to seek her out 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.
"Is this poison, Idrin, cousin dear?" His tone was serious, but the flicker of an almost impish quality in his voice countered it.
The young healer started for a moment: such light talk was a rarity for the usually thoughtful captain. Then she laughed, pleased with the unexpected change that had come over him. "Were I trying to poison you, Faramir, I would have chosen a more subtle way." Still, she had to admit that valerian tea was indeed bitter; she should have added honey. The corners of Faramir's mouth twitched, and he began laughing with her. When his chuckle died down, he took a breath and drained the cup, having full knowledge of that infusion's beneficial properties.
"I am glad you are well." Idrin's kind gaze softened her sobering voice, and for a while she said no more. "Now, what news from Ithilien?"
Faramir was quick to reply. "The Dark Lord is assembling his armies; Orcs and goblins and Men of Harad riding great beasts." He began his tale, from the errand that had taken him from the City ten days before, to his riding from Cair Andros the previous evening, and they spoke well into the night before retiring to their chambers.