7. Chapter 6
Idrin returned to the treatment room, tidying away phials and dressing materials and scrubbing surgical instruments clean. There were domestics whose job was to tend to the state of the chambers, but it was no difficult task to do it herself. Once everything was in order, she went from the room with a mind to see how Faramir fared. A door swung open somewhere to her left, and Pippin emerged into the corridor. Just before the door closed behind him, she made out a small figure lying on the bed, a mop of brown curls splayed on the pillow.
It was the Halfling Meriadoc, she knew, Pippin's kinsman and good friend. He had been carried to the Houses of Healing in the arms of Mithrandir, not three hours after her cousin had been brought in, and there was a grey tint to his face and his eyes were shut.
"How is your friend?" she asked Pippin. He looked up at her, and the worry and sadness in his gaze was clear.
"The same," he replied. "He has neither stirred nor opened his eyes. His skin is deathly cold, and his right arm even more so. At first he spoke much in his dreaming, murmuring many things. Gandalf – Mithrandir, that is – said that he had dealt a great blow to the Witch-king on the battlefield, and that the lady Éowyn finished him. Good old Merry!" He fell silent, valiantly holding back tears, trying to keep himself composed.
"I wish there was something I could say." Idrin was at a loss for words. But then again, what comfort could words really give? "Patience is all we have left now, Master Peregrin."
He nodded mutely. "I should find Beregond," he said. "Goodbye for now." With a barely perceptible nod of his head, he went away. Idrin, too, continued on her way, many musings swirling in her mind.
The Houses were beginning to flood with the wounded, and since morning there had been a good number brought in that were stricken with the same malady as Faramir and Merry. They were ashen-faced and unresponsive and would often speak in their sleep before becoming silent and finally passing away. Thus some had died, but others still held on. Try as they might, no cure had been found: it proved to be beyond the skill of the healers, this Black Shadow.
The Lady Éowyn, niece to the late king Théoden, had also been brought to the Houses, that same sickness upon her. She was clad in mail as one of the Rohirrim, and that was strangest of all. Idrin could not fathom why she would ever seek to fight in battle and meet her doom there, for death was nearly certain. What mad despair had led her to take such a path, to choose cruel death over life? She was valiant, but although she had slain the Lord of the Nazgûl – a most remarkable feat – the price paid was high.
Her thoughts dispersed as she entered the room her cousin was laid in. From the open window she could see stars dotting the sky, and the soft scent of night-flowers from the garden wafted in. But Faramir was still as she had last seen him, not responding to the world around him. From the moment he had been brought in, she had sat by his bedside whenever she could, taking it upon herself to tend to him. And he was now burning with fever. She reached for the bowl of water on the night-stand, hoping the cool cloth on his brow would be soothing. He did not move.
Just then, two men entered the room. One she knew in person, and he had often sat with Faramir throughout the long hours: Mithrandir. The other was dark-haired, wrapped in a grey hooded cloak above his shirt of mail, and when he moved she saw a glimmer of green upon his breast. He looked like a battle-worn soldier, but there was something noble about him, and she thought the bright jewel a very precious thing to be owned by a common man.
She stood as they walked in, and the stranger went to Faramir. He laid his hand upon his brow and gazed at him intently. Then he turned to her. "Has he spoken at all?"
"No," she replied, and looked questioningly at Gandalf, surprised that an unknown man should take such interest in Faramir.
"Aragorn is a skilled healer," was all the wizard said, and there was a twinkle in his eye when the name seemed to stir her. She watched with renewed curiosity as the man gazed upon her cousin's face, as though seeing things that were hidden from all others. Was this truly Isildur's heir that Faramir had spoken of? Before her thoughts could run wild, Aragorn straightened and left the room, but his face was troubled.
Not long afterwards he returned, and with him, apart from the wizard, were Imrahil of Dol Amroth and Pippin and Ioreth. Near the door stood Beregond of the Guards, but he did not enter. Idrin resolved to simply watch and listen as the others spoke together of herbs and the nature of Faramir's ailment. The herb-master of the Houses came in a while later; an elderly man with streaks of white in his hair, keen eyes and a proud walk. The words he spoke awoke an old memory: of the book gifted to her long ago, and the answer received to the question she had asked her mother.
As the old man went away, she found herself gazing at Aragorn with wonder. She had thought it strange that he had asked for athelas when none had ever attributed any potent healing properties to it, but the verses of the poem recited stuck to her mind. They now began to make more sense. She watched as he breathed on the dry leaves brought by the young errand-runner Bergil, crushing and casting them into steaming water. Whatever small doubt she had as to the true identity of the man dispersed the moment Faramir opened his eyes. The joy flooding her was mingled with awe, and she lifted her gaze to Aragorn. It seemed to her that a new light had come into his grey eyes, and many years fallen from his shoulders; he looked young and powerful as a lord of Men of old.
She reclaimed her seat by her cousin's bed when the new King bade him rest and departed. Faramir's eyes were closed but they flickered open as she touched his brow. His fever had gone down. Ioreth and the woman by her took their leave then, wishing Faramir good rest.
"How do you feel?" asked Idrin, dipping the cloth in water and cooling his skin.
"Refreshed, much lighter in thought and heart," he replied, looking at her through heavy-lidded eyes.
The healer turned to the lad who had been standing nearby, overjoyed by the man's recovery. "Bergil, could you go to the kitchens and bring some food for the Lord Faramir?"
"Yes, Mistress Healer," came the eager reply, and the boy darted outside, still grinning widely.
Idrin walked briskly down the corridor, in the direction she had come from a scarce two hours ago. She felt vexed with herself for forgetting to address the issue in its proper time. While she had no doubt the Rohir knew, it was her obligation as a healer to have mentioned it. As she stopped outside the door, an angry voice from within spat out a harsh word in an unfamiliar language; she did not need much imagination to identify it as a curse. A twinge of sudden fear pricked at her, and she knocked urgently on the wood, receiving what sounded like a verbal response muffled by grunts.
Éothain glanced up as she entered. He was sitting on the bed, a sheet wrapped around his waist and falling to his feet, his upper body bare and his wet hair brushing his shoulders in a dark-golden cascade. He used one edge of the sheet to dab at the criss-cross of stitches on his calf; the dressing was lying at his feet. Idrin started at his unanticipated state of half-nakedness, but his leg claimed her full attention. Her peripheral vision taking in the room rather subconsciously, she saw that the bathtub was filled with water, a small puddle glistening on the floor. Her fear had been realised. She rushed forward.
"Let me help." She went to a cupboard and took out gauze and a tin.
"I am afraid I was unsuccessful in preventing the dressing from getting wet," said the Rider as she knelt by him, placing the items she carried beside the stack of fresh clothes folded neatly on one corner of the bed.
"It could have been worse." The discarded strip of gauze wasn't nearly as wet as she had feared, and the stitches were still fast in place. She moved to draw the chair in front of him, took hold of his left foot and set it on the thin cushion. The Rohir stiffened at the contact, and then quickly fumbled with the sheet, adjusting it so that it covered him better. Taking the pad of gauze, Idrin pressed it gently along the line of sutures, soaking up the droplets of water that had remained. She applied a new coating of salve with a small spatula and wrapped the second roll of gauze around the leg.
She lowered the injured limb onto the floor. "You were lucky." Clearing her makeshift working space, she moved the chair back to its previous place.
"That I was," he agreed. "I learnt a long time ago that wet stitches are not conducive to healing."
Idrin found her curiosity piqued by his words. "What happened then?"
A lopsided grin tugged at the Rohir's mouth as the memory resurfaced. "I was but a lad of ten, and had received an injury during play. It was a deep cut; the healer in Aldburg had to stitch it closed. I did not heed his advice about not straining myself for a few days and went riding with my cousin. By some ill fate I ended up in the water of the stream we had halted by, and the wound was soaked. It seemed to me that it took forever to heal; I still have the scar."
The absent-minded motion of his fingers tracing a pale line on his lower abdomen made Idrin abruptly remember that he was covered in naught but a sheet. For the first time in years, she felt warmth threatening to rise to her cheeks but caught herself, irritated. Where had that instant of girlish coyness come from? She had seen bodies before: it was part of her job as a healer and had long ceased to affect her. She walked to the window and drew the shutters half-open, letting the coolness of the March air into the room.
Éothain watched her, finding the opportunity to look at her more closely while she stood gazing outside. She had comely features: high cheekbones, dainty nose, full bottom lip, rounded chin. The thick, dark hair peeking from under her light veil appeared exotic: used as he was to the fair women of Rohan, the colour seemed striking. His thoughts had not yet taken proper form when she stepped back from the window. Her eyes landed on the bathtub and spill on the floor.
"I shall send someone to clear the bath-water." She motioned to the tub. "Is there anything you need?"
He gave her a tiny smile. "No, Mistress Healer, thank you."
"Then, I bid you good-night." Mirroring his expression with a small nod, Idrin made towards the door.
She had just closed the door to her own room in the healer's wing when a knock drove the thoughts of present repose from her mind. Heaving a sigh, she strode across the small chamber. A feeling of guilt overshadowed her joy as she opened the door to face her brothers. In all the bustle of the hours after the battle, she had forgotten to seek them out and learn how they fared. She now saw that they bore no serious injuries, but her self-reproach flared all the same.
"I'm sorry, I forgot!" she mumbled, embracing them close. They held her affectionately.
"It has been a long day for all, Idrin; you are entitled to forgetfulness." Damhir understood, but despite the attempt at a grin, his voice lacked its usual cheerfulness. She stood straighter, her features growing solemn.
"What has happened?" The sombre expressions of both her brothers filled her with strange dread. Arvinion studied her face; he knew she was not faint-hearted.
"Uncle Denethor has passed," he said. Deep silence met his words. "Madness took him," he continued; "he thought Faramir dead and the City fallen, and tried to burn them both. Mithrandir stopped him, and in the end he set fire to his own flesh. So the servants who went with him to the Hallows say."
Idrin sat heavily on the bed, a glazed look in her eyes. Many things the Steward of Gondor had been: proud, curt, arrogant even; but his sanity had never been called into question thus. To have yielded to grief and despair in such a way seemed unfathomable – he had ever been a strong man. Her mind was cast back to times long past, when the Lord of the White Tower had been less grim and smiled even. A tear fell down her cheek; she wiped it with the back of her hand. She did not feel the sadness that had incapacitated her when her parents had passed, or when her beloved aunt and guardian Ivreth had succumbed to illness two months previously. It was a hollower feeling, but one of sorrow nonetheless.
She felt the bed sink slightly beneath her and a gentle arm wrap about her shoulders. Her brothers sat beside her in silence, quiet filling the room.