1. Part 1
From ‘The Return of the King’ by J R R Tolkien.
Waterloo - Part 1
Minas Tirith – March 3019
Her maid had already filled two packing cases, far too much Lothíriel thought for a flight to safety. Well, relative safety. Lossarnach was too near Minas Tirith to offer anything but a temporary refuge. Perhaps she should have followed her sister-in law back to Dol Amroth, but it seemed so far from the centre of things. Unlike Meren, she didn’t have the responsibility of a child to take into consideration. And with Erchirion already on the front line at Osgiliath, Elphir having taken command of a company in the City, and her father and Amrothos expected in a few days with the rest of their forces, she didn’t want to go home. But she would have to leave soon, as her uncle Denethor had ordered all the women and children to depart before the men of the Outlands marched in, and well before any siege started.
“We will be going tomorrow, won’t we my lady?” Her maid had been frightened for days, and could not wait to leave. Unlike the old housekeeper, Eglan, who grumbled that she was too ancient to travel anywhere and had seen too much in her life to be alarmed by anything.
“Yes, I suppose we must. But I am going to ride; I will not leave Passion here. You and Eglan can travel in the carriage. Although with the amount you have packed for me, it will be a squeeze.”
“You will have to dress properly, even in Lossarnach, my lady. You never…”
Luckily, her fussing came to a halt when a sharp knock sounded on the door. Eglan poked her head through before Lothíriel could even say enter. “Lady Gailrin is here to see you, my lady.”
“Oh! I will come immediately, Eglan. And please serve some tea.” The housekeeper nodded and left and Lothíriel, after a quick check in the glass, hurried to the small solar kept for the ladies.
“Lady Gailrin.” Lothíriel sketched a curtsey. Strictly, as a princess, she held higher rank than Lord Hurin’s wife, but she had been taught to esteem age. Not that Lady Gailrin was ancient, only a few silver strands showed amongst the coifed black hair, but somehow her tall straight posture and neat appearance commanded respect. On top of that, the older woman had been kind to her since she’d come to Minas Tirith to join her brothers.
“My dear, I am sorry to come unannounced, but my mission is urgent. I feared you had already left the City.” She sat down at an invitation from Lothíriel but on the edge of her seat, looking ready to leave at the first opportunity.
“No…” Lothíriel replied, a bit flummoxed, both by the unexpected visit and from the talk of an urgent mission. “We intend leaving for Lossarnach tomorrow. I have kin there so decided not to return to Dol Amroth.”
“Yes, well. I am sorry to be blunt, Lothíriel but I am hoping you will stay. I haven’t got time for niceties; there are other ladies on my list to see.”
“Stay?” Lothíriel echoed, now thoroughly confused. “How can I stay? The orders are very clear.”
“Quite!” Lady Gailrin pursed her lips dismissively. “An order made by men without any thought to the realities of the situation. Get all the women out? Who then is to administer to the wounded?”
“I.... the healers, I imagine,” Lothíriel stuttered. “We have wonderful Healing Houses and the Warden and his assistants are very skilled. And the women amongst them do not have to leave.”
“Of course not. But, Lothíriel dear, think! Even if our troops fight off the attack, the casualties will be enormous. Our healers cannot possibly cope with the number of wounded expected. I pointed this out to Denethor, and I am glad to say he saw the sense of my argument. He has given permission for me to recruit a band of ladies who will stay to serve in the Healing Houses. I am very much hoping that you will be one of them.”
“Me…!” Lothíriel gasped. “I have no skill in that way at all.”
“How much skill does it take to hold a cup of water to a dying man’s lips, or wash dirt from a blinded man’s eyes, Lothíriel? Doing those sorts of jobs frees up the healers and their trained assistants for the more difficult work.”
“Oh.” Lothíriel sat down heavily, thoughts raging around her head. Luckily she was saved from answering immediately by Eglan arriving with the tea.
Lady Gailrin waited until Lothíriel had taken a few sips, but it was obvious she wanted an answer. “Well, my dear. Do you think you can do it?”
How could she say no? And she did want to stay. But apprehension as to whether she would be of any use stopped her from totally agreeing. She prevaricated instead. “I can’t stay here on my own, and my maid chafes to get away….” Lady Gailrin’s face fell and Lothíriel came to a decision. “…But perhaps Eglan would keep me company if she were allowed.”
“That’s settled then.” Lady Gailrin beamed at her, standing up and giving her no time to change her mind. “I shall put both of you on the list of those with permission to remain in the City.” She tossed back her tea, and smoothed her dress. “I must rush now, Lothíriel there are others to see. But we will all meet tomorrow to learn the techniques of stitching simple wounds. You have not disappointed me, my dear.”
Stitch wounds! Lothíriel opened her mouth to remonstrate, but Lady Gailrin had already swept her skirts through the door.
Strangely though, as she found out the next day, she had a natural aptitude for stitching wounds. Well, for sewing up a rent in the piece of hog-skin she’d been given to practice on, anyway. A tribute to a noble upbringing and Gondorian samplers, she acknowledged.
Also, the faint disquiet that her father would not approve of her staying to succour the wounded proved unfounded. The Lord of Dol Amroth arrived a day later to a tumultuous welcome, took a few moments to put his arm around her, hug her to him saying how proud he was that she would play her part, before going off with Mithrandir complaining that Denethor was doing nothing to order a proper defence of the City. After that she saw him only occasionally and then he was usually in deep conversation with his chief knights, who had taken every spare bed in the house and overflowed onto the floor of the ante-chamber. Eglan tutted, but dispensed blankets and food with incredible efficiency.
But her father’s arrival seemed to be the signal for things to worsen. A dark cloud descended on the City, the grey gloom depressing hope. Her cousin Faramir had been sent with extra troops to strengthen Osgiliath. Everywhere there was talk of his father putting him and his men in unnecessary danger, as they had no hope of defending the river and the outer defences. But Denethor had his way, and Lothíriel feared for both Erchirion and her cousin.
With tension mounting in the City, and her home turned into a command post, Lothíriel found the peace of the Healing Houses preferable. To an extent shut off from the outside, only rumour reached those that laboured with the injured. And the injured were starting to come in. But Lothíriel knew that coping with the survivors from the rout at Cair Andros was only a foretaste of the horror to come. Welcomed by the warden, and handed over to Ioreth to be assigned duties, the team of Ladies were soon given mundane but necessary jobs to do. Preparing bandages and dressings did not cause Lothíriel any difficulty, the companionable chatter passing the time nicely. And when she progressed to holding basins and passing sutures, she did not disgrace herself, only closing her eyes occasionally when the healers probed deep into torn flesh.
But then news of disaster came. The reports of the desperate retreat from Osgiliath penetrated even the thick stone walls that sheltered the sick. Lothíriel, with no duty for a moment, ran through the herb-garden to the outer wall in time to hear a trumpet signal the rescue attempt. Far below her, charging across the Pelennor went her father with his Swan-knights. She could just make out the blue and silver banner streaming out.
“Ride! Ride!” she shouted, as her kinsmen tore towards the returning mass of men. At first all she could see were the flaming brands carried by the enemy, but then a large group of scarlet clad horsemen appeared out of the gloom, attacking Gondor’s retreating army. With spears raised the Swan-knights flew to the aid of their beleaguered compatriots. “Amroth for Gondor!” she cried. But like a thousand others, her voice carried away in the wind. Then a piercing cry shrieked through the air, reaching even the high levels of the City and sending a blast of fear through her. Lothíriel clutched her arms about her in horror as great winged shadows swooped over their soldiers, rending with beak and claw. Not being able to bear the sight, she turned and hid her face a moment – Erchirion could be amongst those tormented by the evil beings. As she gained the courage to look again, suddenly she saw a rider overtake her father and raise his hand from which a white streak of light swept away the foul things. “Mithrandir,” she breathed. And the cry went up from the watchers on the walls: ‘Behold the White Rider!’
Soon all the men that could be saved were within the City and the great gates shut. Lothíriel stood rooted to the wall not wanting to look but unable to move, as from the river the marching companies of Mordor flooded the plain like a foul, black tide. May the Valar help them all! By morning they would be truly besieged. She stayed watching until the light finally went, returning inside to worse news— Faramir had been injured, possibly even to death. Hurrying through the halls seeking to find someone who knew what had happened, she came to a sudden halt. Amongst the wounded who had arrived from the latest sortie she recognised a captain who sat slumped on the floor with his back against a pillar. “Erchirion!” Her brother had a bandage around his head and his arm wrapped in a piece of cloth.
Raising his head, he focused tired eyes on her, his normal tanned skin now a pallid grey. “Lothy? What are you doing here? I thought you were safe in Lossarnach.”
Lothíriel crouched down next to him, taking his hand. Her own shook slightly. Gondor’s proud uniform was torn and blooded, but she could see no major injuries. Relief churning her stomach, she touched his good arm. “I’m helping out here; they are expecting huge numbers of wounded.”
“Huge numbers of dead would be more accurate,” he muttered.
She must have blanched, because he squeezed her hand. “Take no notice of me; I am not quite feeling myself. Mithrandir says that Rohan will come, and we must hold on to that.”
Nodding, she tried to push down her fear. Erchirion did not need her to break down at that moment. “Cousin Faramir, I have heard he is injured.”
“We stayed too long; they came across the river in huge numbers. I lost sight of Faramir when we reached the Rammas, but Father found him.” His face clouded. “Our cousin took a Southron dart in his side, but besides that some other evil lies on him. It does not look good, although he still lived when they took him to the Citadel.”
Erchirion shrugged. “Maybe they will send someone to see to him. I do not know.”
Lothíriel couldn’t understand why Faramir hadn’t been brought to the Healing Houses where he would receive the best treatment, but right then she had her brother to worry about. “How bad are you hurting? Has anyone looked at you, Erchirion?” She put her hands up to his head, deftly untying the grubby piece of linen.
“That’s just a scratch which bled a lot, but my arm needs stitching. I sat down to wait until somebody has time. There’s a lot worse than me.”
Warriors needed to be robust but Erchirion couldn’t fight well with an open gash in his arm. “Your head wound will need bathing, but I will deal with it later. Let me look at your cut.” She started to unwind the cloth on his arm. “If it’s not too bad I can do it for you.”
“You!” Erchirion didn’t hide his qualms, pulling his arm away.
“I’ve been trained!” she retaliated. “You may have to wait for ages otherwise.” Lothíriel thought it best not to tell him she hadn’t actually worked on a real person yet. But she had watched plenty and had to start somewhere. Who better than her brother to practice on?
Erchirion didn’t look convinced, but probably not feeling like arguing, let her finish uncovering his wound. “Luckily it’s not my sword arm so I suppose you can’t do much harm,” he grudgingly agreed.
“The sooner it’s done the better.” Examination showed the cut to be clean although quite deep, some sharp blade having sliced through hard leather and into flesh just between vambrace and mail. The wound started to bleed with the covering removed. “Keep still and I will get the things needed.” She hurried off to fetch a tray which held all the equipment required for stitching up. One of her jobs had been preparing bowls of spirit, wadding, bandages and sutures that could be grabbed quickly.
By the time she returned Erchirion had got his arm halfway out of his sleeve. “Careful,” she admonished, crouching down to help him. “You will make the blood flow more.”
He grinned, ruffling her hair with his good arm. “Quite the little expert, aren’t we?”
She grinned back. He hadn’t seen her stitching yet! Pulling up a low stool, she sat next to him placing his arm on a cloth on her lap. “I’ve got to swab it clean. This stuff comes from Dol Amroth. They distil it from seaweed and it’s good for stopping infection. That’s most important.”
He grimaced as the yellow liquid stained his arm, yelling as spirit reached raw flesh. “Ah…Lothy, that stings!”
“Keep still!” He must have jumped a foot in the air and she hadn’t even stuck the needle in yet. “I can get you something for the pain but we are trying to save what we have for the seriously wounded.”
“No, just get on with it.” He settled again, gritting his teeth, she suspected.
Her turn to grimace at the first stitch: human flesh not quite the same as hog-skin. But she would be no use over the coming days if she couldn’t do this, so she shut her mind to all but the job in hand and determinedly dug the needle in again. Erchirion closed his eyes and compressed his mouth, but apart from the occasional intake of breath he kept quiet while she worked. “I’ve finished,” she said eventually, trying not to show how pleased she was with herself.
A great expel of breath accompanied that statement. His face had gone from grey to white. But when he looked at her handiwork he managed half a grin. “That’s quite neat. Mind you, with all that sewing they made you do…”
“Oh, Lothíriel, you’ve made a good job of that. Is it your first? I haven’t tried to do one yet.”
“First!” Erchirion hissed at her. But his face changed when he got a good look at the speaker.
“I don’t think you’ve met my brother, Prince Erchirion, have you Lady Cammir?” Auburn curls, freckles and a pert nose had their usual effect. Lothíriel decided men must like variety, her own black tresses and grey eyes far too common. And how could her friend look so good in a plain grey dress half covered by an apron. Grey drained the colour out of her own complexion. Staring at Cammir mesmerised, Erchirion looked as though the blow to his head had finally dazed him.
“Oh, your brother. That was kind of you, Prince Erchirion, to let Lothíriel practice. You must be very brave.”
Lothíriel ignored the look she got from Erchirion at that remark, it would have cracked marble. “Oh, he is very brave, Cammir. Why don’t you bandage him up while I dispose of this?”
“Of course.” Cammir treated Erchirion to one of the provocative smiles she seemed to excel in. “I will be careful not to hurt you any more. Ioreth says my bandaging is excellent.”
Erchirion found his tongue at last. “I am sure everything you do is excellent, Lady Cammir.”
“And that graze on your head, you must let me bathe it.” A delicate white hand rose to his forehead and slim fingers pushed his black hair aside.
“Excuse me!” Lothíriel said, already feeling a bit superfluous as the two gazed at each other. Erchirion’s normal colour had started to return. She took the tray and headed for the sluices before he remembered her subterfuge.
Amusement that Erchirion, who had withstood the first assaults of Mordor with honour, immediately capitulated to the wiles of a pretty woman, helped Lothíriel through the rest of that day and the night. However, during the next, when even the stone walls of the Healing Houses couldn’t protect the inmates from the rumours that great catapults were bombarding their City with the heads of the fallen, her stomach churned with fear. And as it became known that an army of evil foes held the North Road against the coming of Rohan, despair crept through every crevice in the stone, shrouding the halls in gloom. But worse were the terrifying shrieks of the Nazgul. None could escape their malevolent power as they circled high above the City, making even the bravest cringe in terror. Lothíriel tried to control shaking hands and concentrate on her duties, spending the first part of the day bathing wounds caused by pieces of flying masonry. But new reality hit when soldiers were carried in with scorched flesh. Human heads in the catapults had been replaced by some devilry from Mordor and missiles hurled high above the wall exploded in mid air, so she heard. Fire raged through the lower levels and men started to die. Although she and the other ladies were mostly working in the area used to treat the less serious injuries, the screams of the maimed echoed through the house. The awful reality of war could not be hidden and the only way to hold the terror at bay was to keep working.
Finally, in the relative quiet of the evening during a lull in the bombardment, Lothíriel started to clean up the trays and prepare them for the next influx of wounded. She’d dealt with all the changes of dressings she had been allocated, and passed a weary hand across her eyes, tiredness finally catching up with her. And hunger, she’d had nothing to eat since the morning.
“I think we’ve done all we can here today, Lothíriel. We ought to get some sleep whilst we can. I will walk with you, if you like.”
“Oh, Lady Gailrin, thank you. I admit I am very tired and looking forward to some supper.” Lothíriel undid her apron and threw it into the laundry basket; at least water came down into the City from the mountain, so they would not go short of that.
“You have worked hard, my dear. You do not regret your decision to stay in the City?”
Lothíriel studied the older woman: she still looked neat, with her hair braided and pinned tightly to her head, but the fatigue showed in her eyes. “No, I do not regret it. Lossarnach or even Dol Amroth would be no real refuge, and here I hope I am being useful.”
“No doubt about that, Lothíriel. The Warden has told me how pleased he is that we are here.”
“They walked out of the building onto the sixth circle of the City. Rising in the still night air came the sounds of the enemy’s bombardment. It had started again; strange how quickly one got used to it. At this height they were safe for the moment. Unless the gates gave way, and she didn’t want to think about that. Her father’s house and Lord Hurin’s were both built against the wall of the Citadel, just along from the stables. Crowded stables, and most of the horses had come from Dol Amroth. Minas Tirith did not have many mounted troops.
Reaching the entrance to her home, Lothíriel said goodnight to Lady Gailrin, walking quickly under the archway into the courtyard. Immediately a guard stepped forward, saluting as soon as he recognised her in the lamplight. Horses here too, they could house over a dozen in their own stalls but four more warhorses were tethered in the yard. Thank goodness she’d sent Passion to Lossarnach. The thought of a prolonged siege and of her mare being killed when the fodder ran out, or worse, being eaten…she shuddered …don’t think about that either.
Opening the door to the ante-chamber brought the expected sight: her home resembled a barracks. Resting warriors sat around, mostly cleaning weapons. The remains of a meal still littered the table and two men were asleep on the floor. No sign of her father, he was probably somewhere with Mithrandir. Elphir would be eating with his company, and so probably would Erchirion, his wound being light. But Amrothos got up from a seat in the corner.
“Lothíriel, you look a mess.”
That made her grit her teeth, but she toned down her reply as they were not alone. “So would you if you had been doing what I have. We can’t all laze around for hours shining our swords. And look at the muddle in here! You can’t expect Eglan to clear up everything. I thought soldiers were supposed to keep things in order.”
That caused a few grins. She had known most of her father’s knights since childhood and they were well used to quarrels between the Dol Amroth siblings. But then Eglan came bustling out from the direction of the kitchen. “Don’t worry, my lady, your father has promised to send some help. And I’ve saved you some supper. When you have washed you can have it on a tray.”
Lothíriel pushed opened the door of her bedchamber – her only sanctuary, one place not invaded by warriors.
Boom…! Boom…! Boom…! Lothíriel clutched at the sheets, realising she must have been hearing the enemy’s drums even whilst in the depths of sleep. She didn’t want to open her eyes but when she finally forced her lids apart no glow penetrated her window. Unless light had been completely extinguished by the Dark Lord, dawn was still a way off. Even so, as she listened to the low beats from some evil war machine that reverberated through the rock to reach even the heights of the City, any thought of sleeping left her. If it were to be her last day then she might as well get up and face it. Slipping from under the covers, it was only when she put her feet on the rug that she realised how badly her legs were shaking. Swallowing, and pushing down her fear – how many times had she done that in the last few days—she stretched out her arm and turned up the lamp.
A quick wash, a clean dress and she left her room. The ante-chamber was empty. She needed no one to tell her the warriors had gone to deal with whatever new horror manifested itself six hundred feet below. Lothíriel headed to the kitchen, she wanted some tea before she could face the day.
“Eglan, what are you doing up?” The housekeeper sat in a chair on one side of the fire, cup in hand.
The old woman heaved herself from the chair to reach for the kettle. “No point in going to bed, my lady. Nodding by the fire is enough for me and that way I won’t miss anything.”
Miss anything! Lothíriel would have liked to miss it all. Her first flush of bravery had vanished and she felt tempted to run back to her room and bury herself under the quilt. “Do you know what’s happening, Eglan? Those awful drums are getting faster.”
“A message came that they were bringing up a great ram to batter the gates, and every man here rushed off. That’s all I know. Have some tea, my lady.”
The gates! She had thought them impregnable, but now she doubted. How long would they hold against such terrible power? A bolt of fear made her sway for a moment but a steady hand held a cup in front of her. Smelling the fresh scent of lemon verbena, Lothíriel gratefully cradled her hands around it. “I might as well report for duty, at least I’ll find out what is going on.”
“Not without something to eat, you won’t. You’ll need your strength for whatever happens.”
Her stomach felt too cramped to eat but she took the proffered slice of bread and honey and sat down in the other chair. Nibbling at the bread she tried to ignore the ever-increasing pounding that seemed to shake even solid stone.
Minutes later Lothíriel emerged into a deserted courtyard. The horses had gone. Did her father intend to lead a charge once the gates were down? She did not know and didn’t really want to think. But one good thing had happened while she slept: the sky had cleared. Sometime in the night the wind must have changed. It now blew fresh from the sea. Huddling her cloak around her she hurried along the empty street in the direction of the stables and the Healing Houses. Thump! The violent noise echoed around the buildings. Lothíriel stumbled to a halt. The gates! They had started ramming the gates! Terror made her hesitate but then not wanting to be out on her own when the enemy broke through, she gathered herself together and flew along to the stables. Here, a few men had crossed the road and climbed up to peer over the wall. Recognising one of the old stable-hands Lothíriel joined them, staring out to the Ephel Duath where the sky had lightened slightly—the first hint of dawn.
Thump! Another shattering blow! Not only the noise sent shafts of fear spiralling to the sixth level, but a great evil presence swirled around them. Everyone involuntarily stepped back a pace. One young boy ran back to the stables. “That’s the second one. They’ll be through soon, my lady, and then we’ll all be done for.” Old Hagen sounded unperturbed but perhaps like Eglan nothing much frightened him anymore. She couldn’t say the same about herself, her whole body trembled. Why ever had she stayed? At least if she had gone to Lossarnach she could have ridden Passion far away… but as she thought it she knew that there would have been no hiding anywhere, and the only thing to do was the same as her father and brothers were doing – probably right now – face the foe head on. Moving back to the wall, Lothíriel grasped at the capping stones and looked over. But she could see nothing except the burning torches of the enemy dotted like fireflies over the plain. Someone muttered that maybe the Rohirrim would come to the City’s relief, only to be shouted down by another that there was no way through the army in Anórien.
A vibrant flare-up of light streaked upward, far into the sky. Then an ear-splitting crash echoed around them. They must be through! Eru save them!
The watchers on the wall were stunned into a rigid silence; fear rendering them immobile. Images of foul beings charging up the streets towards them flashed in front of her eyes. Lothíriel put her hand to her mouth, biting down on her knuckles, only pride keeping her from screaming her fright into the still air. Breathlessly she waited for the noise of the first incursion into the City, but it seemed that below them nothing moved. The hush was eerie, so unexpected after the sundering of the gates. What was happening down there? The silence continued until suddenly the staccato notes of a cock crowing somewhere on one of the levels below, pierced the quiet. The herald of the dawn sounded its customary call, oblivious to invasion and war.
And then, as if the cock had signalled deliverance, the battle-call of a horn reached her ears. Another and another were blown, until the sound of thousands reverberated around them. But only when she heard the cheers rising up from Gondor’s soldiers below did Lothíriel totally comprehend – Rohan had come! And as the bellow of the great war-horns of the Rohirrim echoed through the City and the mighty roar of their challenge rang out over the Pelennor, she held up her arms and embraced the sweetest sounds she had ever heard.
Nothing had prepared Lothíriel for the sheer cruelty of such a battle. From the arrival of the first wains bearing the wounded there was no thought or hope of her, or anyone else, dealing with just minor injuries. There were none. Any warrior that could still fight stayed to do so, and those brought to the Houses were hacked, cut or crushed as to make Lothíriel wonder how they still lived. Her mind and body numb, she passed dressings and instruments to those with skill to use them; cleared mess and gore that in some other life would have had her retching and gagging, and prayed for the strength to come through this dreadful day. The halls filled: fair heads appeared amongst the dark – men who spoke a guttural language that she could not understand. But pain needed no translation and hands that reached for comfort cared not in what tongue soothing words were spoken.
Then rumour ran rife: Denethor had died in strange circumstances; her cousin Faramir was being brought in, barely alive. And a woman also – a lady of Rohan who had smote down the Witch-King! Lothíriel missed her cousin’s arrival but saw a stretcher passing through the hall bearing a white-faced woman – surely she had already departed this life? But, like Faramir, she was taken to the area reserved for those who suffered from the strange sleeping-sickness that had started with the coming of the Nazgul, and Lothíriel’s attention returned to those in her immediate care.
They worked on. One hour much like the next, but as each passed any difference between healers and helpers became blurred in a bloody mess. At one point Lothíriel looked up to see her friend Cammir carrying a man’s mangled arm which she deposited in a basket. Cammir had rolled up the sleeves of her gown and tied her pretty curls back with a scarf, beads of perspiration sat on her brow. The two women said nothing but their eyes locked, sharing a moment of horror but also pride that they could do this. Acknowledging that if they survived they would never be the same again, for they had been tested and had not failed.
Then at last, as the sun sank in the west, the news came. Joy, oh joy! They had won! The enemy were fleeing. A cheer went up from all those who could utter sound. Not that it brought any respite to Lothíriel or anyone else who still tended the wounded. At some time she had been passed a drink and a chunk of bread pudding, which she had eaten whilst holding the hand of a young lad with blonde hair who had lost a leg. But since then no thought of rest or food had disturbed her from the tasks that still needed doing. And she hardly dared to think what might have happened to her family. None had been brought to the Healing Houses so that meant they were either uninjured or…. No! She would not even think it.
Just as she tied off the ends of a bandage around the head of one of Gondor’s soldiers a familiar voice made her jump.
“Father!” Without caring that her father’s armour was still covered by filth, Lothíriel flung herself against him.
Oh, the relief of finding out her brothers were almost unscathed, suffering only minor cuts and bruises. But after telling her that and how proud he was of her conduct, her father had gone again. Attending the new king, he had whispered, although she was to keep it quiet for the moment. But later that rumour ran like wildfire around the Healing Houses as a grey-clad man slipped past her escorted by her father and Mithrandir and later still, after the Warden and Ioreth had fussed around looking for some herb, a clean fresh smell had permeated every chamber, bringing comfort to all. ‘The King is here. We have a king. After the battle the King brings healing,’ she heard the whispers everywhere.
Lothíriel, with duty piled upon duty, never got chance to visit Faramir, although she heard that the new king – Aragorn, her father had called him – had brought her cousin back from near death. He had also saved The White Lady of Rohan and a Halfling who had fought with her. What sort of woman rode to battle, Lothíriel wondered. Evidently she had stood between Théoden of Rohan and the Lord of the Nazgul, guarding her king’s body against the evil wraith. Now Rohan had a new king: the lady Éowyn’s brother who sat by her bedside. But Lothíriel had only caught a glimpse of a tall fair-haired man as he had passed through, she being more concerned with his kinsmen. Most of whom were also fair, but lay in rows on pallets and might never walk tall again.
“Lady Lothíriel, it’s time you went home for some rest.”
Lothíriel blinked. Far beyond tiredness and hunger her limbs dragged, but otherwise she felt she could carry on forever. “I’m fine, Master Ragnor.”
“No, you are not. You have wiped that bowl at least five times which is not surprising since you have been here since dawn yesterday, and now the sky is getting light again.”
Lothíriel looked towards the high window. Ragnor was right; she could see pink-washed grey. The sun must be rising and she had not noticed. “Perhaps you are right, but I will come back.”
The assistant warden smiled. “Tonight. If you don’t mind. It would help if you took the night shifts for a few days. You young ones take easier to missing your normal sleep. But apart from that, you have a comforting way with you, Lady Lothíriel, and there are many that need reassurance in the dark watches.”
“I’ll do that. I don’t mind the night hours. And I will be glad to go now. But could I just visit my cousin Faramir? I have heard he is well but I would like to see him with my own eyes.” She had not had chance to visit her cousin since his arrival, although she had heard all about the shocking circumstances that led to Denethor’s death from her father when he had sought her out for the second time.
“Of course, my lady. I have just come from him, and he sleeps a healthy, natural sleep. I would ask you to look, but not to wake him.”
Lothíriel slipped quietly along the passage to the chamber that had been put aside for those suffering from the debilitating Black Breath that came from contact with the Nazgul. Now she had stopped working the weariness threatened to overwhelm her, but determined to check on her cousin, she tried to ignore it. Casting her eyes around the large peaceful space, she saw that although most patients still slept some convalescents were propped up on their pallets, talking softly to each other. There were even a few visitors, mainly soldiers. Evidently the new king and his elven brothers had worked tirelessly through the night to bring many out of the awful state of unconsciousness, both in the halls and in various homes in the City. To one side of the chamber up a short flight of steps a few beds had been partly screened off with curtains, and Lothíriel made for these. Raglan had told her that Faramir was in the end one. So reaching it, she silently pushed the material aside. Her cousin looked peaceful. He slept with a smile on his face as if his thoughts pleased him. Perhaps he had not yet been told about his father. Maybe it was lucky he slept for she would not know what to say. She hardly believed it herself and let her thoughts wander back to her childhood when both Faramir and Boromir would visit. How they had relished the comparative lack of ceremony of the castle at Dol Amroth after years living in the overformal atmosphere of the Citadel. But Boromir would never visit again and someone new would rule Gondor. For good or ill she did not yet know, although what she had heard about the new king sounded well.
Turning to leave – she would come back when she returned to duty – Lothíriel heard her name called softly. The curtain around the next bed twitched and Lady Gailrin’s head poked out.
Lord Hurin’s wife pulled the screening closed behind her and spoke quietly. “I thought I saw you pass, Lothíriel. Have you been here all this time?”
“Yes. I didn’t notice my tiredness before but now I can’t wait to get home. I just wanted to see Faramir. What about you, Lady Gailrin, surely you have not been up for twenty-four hours?”
Lady Gailrin shook her head. “I managed a couple of hours just before midnight. But now I am watching over the Lady Éowyn and sitting quietly in a chair is restful. She is sleeping peacefully, so it’s just a case of being here in case she needs a drink or anything.”
Lothíriel dropped her voice. “What kind of woman is she to ride to battle like that? Is it normal for the ladies of Rohan to do so?”
“No, it’s not. And her brother was distraught, after thinking her safely back in Rohan. He sat with her for most of the night and would only allow your father to take him away to rest a couple of hours ago. I promised to stay with her until he returned. You will be surprised when you meet her, Lothíriel: she must be strong to wield a great sword, but she’s slender and very beautiful.”
“I shall look forward to it, but right now I am so tired I can hardly stand up. I must go, Lady Gailrin, but I will be back tonight.”
“Wait my dear,” Lady Gailrin clutched her arm. “You cannot go alone; the City is overflowing with soldiers and although the sixth level is out of bounds to the lower ranks, you never know. We must find you an escort.”
Lothíriel opened her mouth to protest, her home was hardly any distance. But before she could do so a Gondorian captain, who had been sitting nearby next to another lying on a pallet, got to his feet and spoke up. “I’ll be honoured to escort Princess Lothíriel home, my lady. Her brother, Prince Elphir, is my commander, so I consider it my duty.”
Before they got to the door of the Healing Houses Lothíriel had discovered that her companion, Arthad, had a wife and child safe in Lossarnach and had been visiting his younger brother, injured during the retreat from Osgiliath.
They were in deep conversation when Arthad opened the heavy door that led to the sixth level. The fresh air hit her and she stumbled slightly. Arthad grabbed her arm, steadying her.
“Thank you. I am wearier than I thought. Oh!” Lothíriel stared: the road between the Healing Houses and the stables was crammed with lines of horses. They snuffled and coughed, occasionally shifting from one foot to the other. But along the remainder of the street nothing else moved, probably most were making up for the lack of sleep over the previous days.
“Battle-horses belonging to the Lords of Rohan, my lady. They don’t like them to be too far away. Although these are only a few. All the rest of their horses, thousands of them, have been taken to graze south of the City where the grass is undamaged.”
“Goodness, I hadn’t given any thought to the horses. I have just been concerned with the injured Rohirrim. But I suppose both men and horses need lodgings.”
“The men have been taken into the citizens’ homes and every empty house has been opened, my lady, but even so many are sleeping in the streets on the lower levels. They say that the Rohirrim rode for five days with not much more than oats to sustain them. Then they fought like demons, so it’s no wonder some just collapsed from exhaustion when it was over. At least we can offer them clean linen and decent rations; the City is well stocked.”
Organisation! Her uncle Denethor might have had his faults but no-one could ever accuse him of not succouring his people. A wave of sadness passed over her: whatever happened now so much would never be the same again.
“Halt! Name yourself!”
Lothíriel jumped. So unforeseen, the harsh voice startled her. Without her noticing they had reached the archway that led into the courtyard of her house. But hand on sword hilt, a tall, fair-haired warrior barred her way.
“Princess Lothíriel seeks entrance to her home! Do not keep her waiting for she is weary after ministering to the sick.” Arthad drew himself up and responded to the challenge in like manner.
Lothíriel had to hide a smile at the exchange, which reminded her of two strutting cocks facing off. But where were her father’s guards and why had they been replaced by one of the Rohirrim? As she thought it a blue-clad soldier stepped out, clasping his compatriot on the arm.
“Rest easy, my friend. It’s Prince Imrahil’s daughter.”
“Pardon, my lady.” Her challenger relaxed, nodded a bow and moved to the side of the arch to allow her through. “But be careful to go straight to the doorway, my lady, our horses do not tolerate strangers.”
Having thanked Arthad and entered the courtyard, Lothíriel saw what the man meant – more warhorses were now tethered in the yard. They stood with hanging heads, no doubt still weary from their exertions. Putting her hand on the iron latch of the door she wondered what she would find. If there were horses in the yard there would be….the smell hit her first. The same scent of unwashed male, blood and gore she had been immersed in for days. But at least in the Healing Houses they washed it off. Lothíriel put the back of her hand to her nose and looked around the ante-chamber – she supposed some effort had been made to leave a path through to the passage that led to the family’s private quarters, but that was all. Sleeping men covered the floor and there were even a few bedded down on top of the huge table. All lay fully clothed next to their weapons, and interspersed between the knights of Dol Amroth were blonde men of Rohan. One man with long braided hair coughed and turned over, clutching for his sword as he did so. Lothíriel saw he had a gash over one eye. She picked up her skirts and tip-toed through the prone men. These warriors deserved their sleep, although with the sky lightening they would probably wake soon enough.
Halfway across one did just that, sitting up and staring straight at her. He opened his mouth in surprise, but Lothíriel quickened her pace and disappeared into the passage. With any luck he would go back to sleep thinking her part of a dream. Not that she imagined she looked like any man’s dream at that moment. And she probably wouldn’t for a while, sympathising with the warriors there – the need to sleep paramount before any cleaning up. Thankfully her own room and bed were just steps away.
Lothíriel pushed open the door of her bed-chamber, and immediately recoiled from the unexpected rank smell of blood and unwashed… she stopped dead, ramming her hand against her mouth to prevent a gasp escaping. There was a man in her bed! A naked man! The chaos in the room bore witness to the fact that he must have stripped off and virtually fallen on the bed as clothes and bits of armour were strewn all over floor. Her eyes flicked around – the only thing to have been placed with any care was his sword, which stood propped in the corner. But no time had been spared to wash off the stench of battle, as the bowl of water looked to have been ignored.
She knew she should leave straightaway but could not resist returning her gaze back to the prone figure on the bed; he certainly took up a large part of it. Not one of their Knights but another of the Rohirrim, she deduced from the mane of somewhat lank, light-coloured hair that fell over his face and across his back. Luckily, as quilt and sheet had tangled around his feet, he lay on his stomach with his head resting on his arm. Sweet Elbereth, she had seen a lot of bare male flesh since taking up her new role but none had got her heart thumping like this. Lothíriel swallowed, she should retreat out of the door but seemed unable to draw her eyes away from the sight of long lean legs, well shaped buttocks and the deep sculpted muscles of his broad back. Even in all his dirt he looked magnificent.
A hushed whisper from behind her made her start. Without turning around she stepped backwards out of the door, pulling it quietly shut.
“My lady, I’m sorry. I meant to waylay you, but I fell asleep. Your father brought him back a few hours before dawn. He was so exhausted he couldn’t even wait for me to make up another bed, so we put him in yours.”
The old housekeeper sounded as though she was expecting to be censured, but Lothíriel took her arm steering them away from the door. “Who is he?” she whispered, although she had a pretty good idea, given the alert guard outside and the men sleeping in the ante-chamber.
“The King of Rohan, my lady.”
To be concluded.