3. Chapter 3
Angdan's smithy was situated in the first circle, near the gate to the second level, neighboured by a carpenter's and a ropemaker's workplaces. Idrin was surprised when they passed and left it behind, having thought they would meet the blacksmith there, but before she could question the apprentice, the boy had halted. They had come to Angdan's house, and presently his apprentice led the way across the yard towards the back.
They found the blacksmith and his wife at the entrance of a newly built stable – a structure which had not been there the last time the healer had visited. The worry lines creasing the man's face smoothed somewhat when he saw her. As his eyes found Éothain, his whole countenance changed, and visible relief lit his features.
"Oh, this is beyond my hopes!" he exclaimed. Then, in a more sombre tone of self-reproach, he added, as if to himself: "How silly of me not to think of it before. The City is full of Rohirrim!"
Feeling there was something she had yet to grasp, Idrin frowned, but the blacksmith had already begun introducing himself to an equally befuddled Éothain. Hurriedly, the man extended a heavy arm behind him, shifting his position as he did so. Only then did the healer take note of a large, dark shape in the stable: a chestnut-coated horse lay in the shadows. It got up as the smith gestured, and a moment later pawed the ground.
"Rindil found her near an abandoned farmstead on the Pelennor on her way back to Minas Tirith." Angdan glanced fondly at the plump woman beside him. "There was no-one to claim the mare, and my wife did not want to leave her alone in a ravaged land, so she brought her home." The smith focused his attention on Éothain. "She's a beautiful creature, this mare. I haven't much knowledge about horses, but like Rindil, I did not want to turn her away. I've built her a stable; do what I may to feed her the best I can; but lately her behaviour's begun to change." He paused for breath and went on, "Her udder seems to have become larger and she's grown restless. Since yesterday there have been beads like wax on her teats. Today she's been shying away, walking around and looking at her flanks. Not long ago she began passing water frequently and even kicked at her belly."
The blacksmith turned a worried look on the mare which shifted her weight from one hind leg to the other and grunted. He looked back at Éothain, fear evident in his eyes. "Like I said, I know very little about horses. Is she is sick?"
Angdan then seemed to remember that Idrin was listening quietly beside the Rider. "I sent for a healer because, in my daze, I did not know what else to do. That the Rohirrim could help had completely fled my mind." He offered the words as an apology of sorts.
Idrin looked over the mare with a critical eye and approached slowly, waiting for the animal to acknowledge her presence with a stare before reaching out to stroke her shoulder. Emboldened by the acceptance, the healer ran her hands carefully over the large body and stepped back. "This is beyond my knowledge," she admitted. A visibly wounded animal she could help, but this seemed more challenging. The lack of a common tongue that people could understand complicated matters further. Keen realisation struck her at the thought: under such circumstances, it must be remarkable indeed for a person to be able to discern the internal suffering of an animal.
"She is not sick." Éothain's voice betrayed a smile, drawing all attention to him. He had gone around the mare, making an unhurried acquaintance and whispering soothing words to the animal before inspecting her hindquarters and abdomen. "She is about to foal. True, her size is smaller than commonly observed, but this is probably her first pregnancy and she is a fairly heavy-set animal. It's not very uncommon for such mares to simply look well-fed when they are in foal."
The blacksmith and his wife stared at him with undisguised surprise as he rejoined them. "Foal?" Rindil repeated, gazing at the horse. As though in affirmation to the Rider's words, the mare pawed the ground once more.
"And very soon, I daresay," replied Éothain as the animal lifted her tail. "Could you spare a couple of clean towels, madam? They may be needed. And, perhaps, something to wrap the tail in, and salve?"
Rindil nodded. "I have clean towels."
"Would a roll of bandage do for the tail?" asked Idrin, fumbling with the strings of a purse on her belt. "And this?" Along with the rolled strip of gauze, she produced a small jar containing ointment and held it up. "Marigold and orangeroot."
"They will do," Éothain assented, and the blacksmith's wife made for the house in search of towels. The Rider took the bandage and approached the mare, lulling her with soft speech as he deftly bound her tail. When he stepped away, the animal snorted and lay down once again.
Idrin felt she could laugh for the absurd simplicity of it all. The mare was pregnant and in labour. That possibility hadn't even crossed her mind. Then again, for one like her, or Angdan or Rindil, not familiar with the signs of a horse's delicate condition, coming to such a definite conclusion would be difficult. Were it a person, the healer could have read the tell-tale signs of labour easily. But to have intimate knowledge of the four-legged companion that was the horse, to know with perfect clarity what it felt and when it needed aid, was a singular thing. With arresting excitement, Idrin realised she would have liked very much to possess that kind of knowledge. Horses truly were magnificent beasts.
Near her, and still at a loss for words, Angdan glanced about and noticed his young apprentice standing unobtrusively by the stable door, watching. "You are free to go home, Braignor," he addressed the boy. "I have kept you here long enough. Thank you for all your help."
The lad offered a farewell and, with a last look at the mare, strode away.
The smith turned back to Éothain. "How am I to care for a newborn foal? I would not know what to do." Anxiety laced his voice.
"You need not do much," replied the Rohir. "Simply keep the stable dry and clean, protected from harsh weather and loud noises; give the mare good-quality feed; make sure the bedding's soft. The dam will do the rest." He paused. "I will visit every day and help."
Calmed by Éothain's reassurances, Angdan felt his worry flee at the Rider's last commitment. "That would put my mind at ease, indeed."
The sound of rushing water made all eyes turn to the mare. She was on her side, legs extended as a dark shape enclosed in an almost transparent sac protruded beneath her tail. Two legs were slowly pushed out into the world. The standing company watched in silence as the dam raised her body slightly off the ground to help position her foal before easing herself down onto the straw again. Contractions were accompanied by grunts and followed by the appearance of the foal's muzzle.
Éothain had drawn Idrin nearer the wall and away from the dam, and stood there with her, knowing that a foaling mare might be stressed by the close proximity of strangers. When he cast a brief glance about him, Angdan, Rindil – clutching the towels in both hands – and the healer were gazing transfixedly at the unfolding sight. He could not suppress a small, private grin: they reminded him of small children watching a wondrous show for the first time. The Rider looked back at the mare, saw that one of the foal's shoulders had been pushed out, and turned to the blacksmith.
"Angdan, we will need clean water and soap."
Pulled out of his reverie-like state, the smith nodded and went to fetch a bucket.
Ten minutes later the foal lay on the straw, managing to lift its head as the dam shifted slowly to a sitting position. Its head freed from the suffocating membrane, the newborn flailed for some moments before the mare rose, pulling it upright and breaking the connecting sac and cord. Half an hour after that, the foal was standing on wobbly legs; the afterbirth had been passed; and the mare tended to her wet offspring.
Éothain inched closer, mindful not to cause unnecessary distress to the dam, and bent to inspect the delivered membranes. They were intact, thin, and showed no sign of abnormal colouring or bleeding spots. Satisfied, he looked over at the mare. He was pleased to note that she was calm and didn't seem to feel upset by the presence of four people nearby, two of whom were strangers.
"We need to wash her before the foal suckles, and treat the newborn's stump with salve to prevent infection."
At the Rider's words, Rindil gave one towel to her husband, and he and Idrin stepped towards the animals. They halted as the dam turned to stare at them. After a long moment, she shifted her attention back to her newborn.
"It's better not to place yourselves between the foal and the mare," the Rohir warned. "She's a gentle animal, friendly, but mares can be fiercely protective of their newborns." He did not elaborate, but he had seen many a dam pin her ears back, charge and even bite when she felt someone posed a threat to her foal, be he a stranger or not.
Angdan and the healer nodded and approached accordingly. When the smith stroked the mare and slowly crouched to clean her udder with lukewarm water, following Éothain's instructions, Idrin washed her hands and held one out to the dam, allowing her to sniff it before putting the foal between them and sitting carefully on her heels beside it. The newborn started at the close proximity, but soon turned its attention to its mother as the healer applied a thin coating of salve to the cord stump.
Éothain took to clearing away the wet straw where the mare had foaled, replacing it with new and checking the manger and water trough. Ideally, the birth should have taken place in a separate box and not where the horse was normally kept, but the stable was small and Angdan had not known the mare was pregnant. The Rider turned to the blacksmith and Idrin as they stepped away from the animals. "We should give them some peace," he said, nodding towards the mare and foal as the newborn began to suckle.
When the group of four stepped outside, they saw the light had begun to fade and the western sky was tinted with hues of pink and orange.
"Your dress is wet."
Idrin turned at the sound of Rindil's voice, and then looked down at what she wore. The sleeves and hem of her dress were stained indeed – her contact with the newborn foal had left its mark.
"You cannot go home like this," the blacksmith's wife went on. "I shall find you something to wear, and once I have washed your dress, I will send it up to the Citadel."
The healer knew she should reply but hesitated. She considered refusing – the stains weren't quite so visible in the gathering dusk, and she wasn't particularly attached to the dress, as it was an old one she had worn for working in the library. Idrin realised she was being very childish, but she had always found it strange to wear clothes that weren't her own. A childish whim indeed! She forced herself to act rationally and managed a small smile.
"Thank you," she said at last and followed Rindil inside the house.
A wide strip of pale light illuminated the horizon when she and Éothain ascended to the second level of Minas Tirith, the Rohir having promised Angdan to visit the next day. As they walked, Idrin suddenly remembered the disagreement and unfinished conversation she had with the Rider of Rohan. How easily it had fled to her unconscious mind, and how easily it had come to the forefront again! As she turned to look at the street leading to the orphan-house, the frustration she had felt before rose inside her once more, but it was more feeble. This was one conversation she wanted to finish.
"You asked me if I would do it if it was my own child."
Éothain surprised her by broaching the subject himself, before she could contemplate the best way to go about it. It was as though he could read her mind. Perhaps they thought alike, both wanting to understand each other's reasons.
"Yes, I would," the Rider continued. "If that meant sparing my child a slow death, preceded by friendlessness and gradual decay of the body and emotional pain, I would."
His firmness gave Idrin pause. "Not all those who have the disease are shunned and miserable," she said finally. She did not argue the matter of death, because she knew it was eventually inevitable. Sometimes the progress of the disease was so violent that those afflicted lived no more than a year. At other times, progress was slow, but the loss of feeling caused by hardskin led to injuries that remained unnoticed and untreated, which in turn brought infection.
"Perhaps not in great cities where some perceptions are different," returned Éothain. "But even there, the disfigurement and crippling hardskin causes eventually make people lose hope. Theirs is a drawn-out suffering."
"Even so, what right have we to decide another's fate?" The healer recognised the truth in Éothain's words, but it was difficult to believe that to deal death was kinder. "Everyone has the right to live, and with proper care discomfort can be eased and spirits can be lifted."
The Rider stared at her as their pace became slower, and took a deep breath, trying to choose his words. "You are a healer, sworn to preserve life. You find it difficult to understand that, sometimes, death is a more merciful lot than life." Was it truly so incomprehensible a notion, that death could be salvation?
Idrin came to an abrupt stop between two empty houses, and glared at him. Éothain's words struck something sensitive inside her; she took offence at the slight on her sense of comprehension. "When there are people who do not try to make things better, of course death would seem a good option." Her tone was cutting and threaded with agitation, her hands twitching at her sides. "Perhaps it is easier for you to deal death – you are a soldier after all."
Éothain tensed; his eyes flashed, and his voice was low when he spoke. "You think I enjoy taking lives?" There was indignation in his tone, the sound of a threatening storm rumbling far away as he fixed her with a steady gaze. "One can't stay passive on a battlefield!" The guttural hues of his native tongue coloured his voice as incredulity showed. It was ridiculous to think Idrin meant what she said, she who was born into a family of war-hardened men.
"And one can't stay passive when it comes to helping people heal," Idrin spoke before the Rider had the chance to voice his train of thought. "There may be no cure for hardskin, but the quality of life for those who have it can be improved. If only more people were less narrow-minded..."
"Hardskin is spread by contact; people fear for their health. How can that be narrow-mindedness?" Éothain's tone came out harsher than he had intended, but his will to rein his temper was failing.
"It is spread by close contact," the healer countered, her own voice growing impatient at the Rider's refusal to understand. "That does not mean that a brief, simple act of kindness will endanger healthy people. No-one should be treated like an outcast."
"They are living dead."
Idrin gaped at him. She felt as though they were spinning in circles, locked in the repeating steps of a tedious dance, going neither forward nor back. How could a person be so infuriatingly stubborn? She drew herself to her full height, her expression cooling. "It seems we can make neither head nor tail of this." Her voice was flat; she strove to keep it even. "It would be best if this discussion ended now." Before Éothain could speak, her feet had carried her away towards the marketplace.
He blew out a breath and forced a hand through his hair, pride holding him immobile in the shadow of the abandoned houses. How could she not understand the dire danger hardskin posed? Contact with those afflicted equalled peril; contracting the disease meant death. And whether it came slowly or not, death was always preceded by suffering. Surely strong poppy tea or a swift blade would be more merciful?
Ahead of him, Idrin stalked away determinedly, her hands clenched into fists. She turned sharply at the voice calling her, eyes blazing. A moment too late, the healer's features smoothed when her vision cleared and she saw the flinching stall-owner. A twinge of guilt pricked at her: she had no right to inflict her negative emotions on undeserving bystanders.
Collecting himself, the burly man handed her a small, rough bundle. "I have something for Espig."
Idrin had recovered enough of her manners to offer a warm thank-you and bid him a pleasant evening. Around them, the marketplace was emptying swiftly, merchants gathering their wares and taking down their stalls for the night.
A fair distance behind the healer, Éothain still hovered by the empty dwellings. A hand drummed insistently against his leg, tapping out a vexing rhythm. His gaze was focused on Idrin, but his thought roamed back to their argument. The more he stood there, the more his posture relaxed. Finally, his tight jaw unclenched and his frantic tapping slowed to a stop. He let out a deep breath and started forward reluctantly.
The healer in front of him did not seem to hear his nearing footsteps. Making her way alone towards the upper circles of the city, her haunting thoughts had returned, but the emotions they evoked were less potent. Her rational mind had taken over, and a cooler evaluation of what had taken place began. As long seconds passed, Idrin came to realise that not all Éothain had said during their heated discourse was illogical. Thinking back on the instances of intolerable pain and suffering and loss of dignity she had witnessed as a healer, she began to understand his notion concerning the mercy of death. The realisation made her feel ashamed of her earlier outburst.
She could not recollect ever having spoken in anger before: she had always opted to keep herself calm and think before speaking, knowing that words uttered in the heat of a moment were more often than not unjust. Sobered, her brisk pace slowed. How easily her self-control had fled! With a shake of her head, she suppressed a groan and closed her eyes, bringing her dragging feet to a halt. Éothain was standing a few paces from her when she finally took a deep breath and turned.
She was the first to speak. "I'm sorry. There are indeed cases when life is more burden than blessing." The healer raised her eyes to his and her voice softened. "But I don't think we have the right to make such choices for others."
Éothain gave an unconscious nod. She was insistent about stressing her opinion, yet it seemed she had come to comprehend part of his own thought as well. He could reciprocate that understanding. "I have been rather obstinate myself," he admitted. "I should not be so quick to pass judgement. People with hardskin should be treated with more kindness." He paused for breath but said no more.
Idrin marked the instant of minute hesitation and waited. When he did not speak again, she decided to simply acknowledge the fact he had – for the most part – made an effort to understand her mind a little better. The two of them might not be in complete agreement, but they had made concessions. That was a promising beginning. Feeling as though a weight had been lifted from her, Idrin motioned towards the gate leading to the fourth level and he fell into step beside her.
The shadows and coolness of evening had already enveloped them when they reached the townhouse on the fifth level. As the healer shifted the bundle she held, Éothain eyed it curiously: he had seen what had taken place in the market. "What is that?"
Idrin's response was cut short as her tabby kitten ran to greet them. A small nose sniffed persistently at the rough bundle, and the healer undid the knot securing it, emptying the contents in a bowl by the front door. Espig began devouring the tender fish remains eagerly.
The young woman straightened and turned to Éothain. "You will stay for supper?" It was both an enquiry and an assertion.
The Rider nodded and followed her inside, glad their previous argument appeared to have left no lasting trace.
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.