3. Chapter 2
Ere noon the following day, Faramir was gone again. Returning from an errand, Idrin caught a distant glimpse of him in the stables before he rode out and made her way there. In truth, had she not heard the low murmur of voices speaking quietly together, she would not have realised something was afoot.
The scent of fresh hay mingled with the distinct odour of horses filled her nostrils as she stepped over the threshold. Her nose crinkled involuntarily: it had been some time since she had last come to the stables, but then the horses had been much fewer and the smells more vague. She stood a moment in the doorway, trying to compose her features and breathing.
Stableboys went hither and thither, tending to animals and stalls, and seeing to riding equipment in need of repair. The Rangers of Ithilien who had come with Faramir the previous evening busied themselves saddling their horses while conversing softly in their own tongue. Faramir was there also, but he kept silent, his gaze low as he adjusted his mount's girth straps with deft fingers. He seemed lost in thought.
Idrin picked up her skirts and walked further inside, her soft shoes barely making a sound as she trod upon the thin layer of straw that coated the cobbled floor. Coming closer she discerned that all four men were clad in shining mail under their green hooded cloaks; swords hung at their sides and helms stood on a low bench at their feet. She saw now that Faramir wore a grave expression: the expression of one who has quietly resigned to an unjust pending doom. She recalled hearing rumour of the Steward's Council that had been held earlier that morning, and her feet faltered. Then she came to a noiseless halt by the silent man.
"Must you go... so soon?" The words she had meant to say refused to be spoken, and the hesitant query took their place instead, twined with the brimming emotion of her thoughts. The Captain of the Rangers turned to her slowly.
"I must," he said simply, but there was a strain of near resentment in his voice. "The Lord of the City judges we should not yield the River so lightly."
The young woman marked the changed tone of his last words, suddenly dispassionate and disagreeing with his countenance. She gazed at him, unsure of what to say, and for that reason not trusting herself to speak. Never before had her cousin talked thus, so coolly and yet with such bitterness.
"My men are at Osgiliath," continued Faramir, but his voice was no more than a soft whisper and his eyes stared unseeing, and he spoke as one reasoning with oneself. "I cannot leave them there to face this Enemy alone." He fell quiet, for a moment seeming to forget of all presence around him. Then at length new light came to his eyes, and he saw Idrin again, looking at him in silence. "I must go," he repeated, and his words held a resolute finality.
Idrin gazed at him still. As the seconds ticked by, a deeper understanding began to sink in, and she realised that an inescapable path was already laid before their feet. "Then be safe," she said at last, placing a hand lightly on his forearm. Faramir met her eyes but made no reply. The quiet stare he bestowed upon her was unexpectedly keen and soul-searching, and for a heartbeat she was taken aback by the strange intensity of it. Before she could gather her thoughts, Faramir had looked away, and she let her arm fall idly to her side.
"Farewell," came his voice to her ears, solemn and clear and yet tinted with a subtle sadness. He reached for his helm, took the horse's reins in his free hand, and led the destrier from his stall. Waiting silently in the background, the three Rangers now followed him without speaking, leading their own mounts and offering curt nods of acknowledgement to the young woman. She turned to watch them as they left the stables, her gaze fixed on their retreating forms. A feeling of dread filled her at that instant, but she forcefully pushed the black thoughts from her mind before they could take shape, not wishing to dwell on them even for a second. Instead, she turned her attention to her surroundings.
The stables were fair and large enough to house three scores of horses, although it had been long since such a number was accommodated. Sturdy pillars upheld the roof on either side of the gate to each stall, and connected to them were arched partitions of dark wood that divided one stall from the next, low enough to allow the horses a measure of interaction with their neighbours. Narrow windows were cut into the walls at equal intervals to let the light in, and fitted to them were shutters that could be closed to keep out rain and cold. Slender lanterns hung from some beams in the ceiling, providing additional illumination when need arose.
Currently, the stables played host to the grey war-horses of the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth who had arrived in Minas Tirith two days earlier. In their presence, they hummed with brisk activity, becoming more busy and full of life than they had been in many a year.
Looking around and seeing the stablehands go about their work, Idrin belatedly registered the lateness of the hour. She silently berated herself, once more gathering her skirts and making her way outside and to the Houses of Healing.
* * *
The rest of the day was brown and bleak as the morning that had preceded it, and the sun was veiled by muted clouds. Gloom weighed upon the city and the hearts of those within. Time and again disembodied cries could be heard from high above the seventh level: the winged beasts of Mordor had returned, circling the stone fortress like ominous harbingers of doom. Unrest stirred in every soul.
Trying as she might to remain focused on her work in the Houses, Idrin caught herself becoming distracted whenever prolonged silence provided with some precious moments for thought. More often than not she found her gaze straying east, and anxiety gnawed at her.
Black night fell swiftly, and with it came the ill news that the Enemy had sent forth a host to win the passage of Anduin, led by the dreaded Witch-king of Angmar himself. Hope waned, and the next dawn lent no comfort, for it was darker and more oppressive and brought word of despair. The armies of the Dark Lord had crossed the River and the company of Faramir were retreating to the Rammas Echor, greatly outnumbered.
One hour after sunset, Idrin found herself walking up the sloping tunnel that led from the sixth circle to the Citadel. A nervous restlessness had settled upon her, and she spoke no word of greeting to the guard who stood at the gate as she always did, managing only a swift, non-verbal gesture. He let her pass, asking no questions. That discomposing unease had taken hold since the news from Osgiliath came, disturbing her thought, and would not let her be at peace. It grew as sunlight faded, until at last the eldest of the healers took note of her straying eyes and grave face. Ioreth then bade her go and take what rest she could for the night, knowing that her current state of mind would only hinder her work all the more.
And so the young healer now contemplated visiting the small library which stood near the south wall of the Citadel, hoping that books would school her morose thoughts. Situated by the King's House and facing the White Tower, it was built by Ecthelion II for his wife, Almiel;1 an elegant structure of pale-coloured stone, surrounded by well-tended copses of low shrubbery, and filled with a precious collection of reading material.
As the lamp-lit tunnel fell away behind her, Idrin once more turned her gaze to the east, and there, upon the great battlement that crowned the towering bastion rising up to the seventh level, she saw a lone dark figure.
At first she wondered whyever a child would be in the Citadel, but then reason reminded her that the few lads left in Minas Tirith never ventured as far as the seventh circle. Truly, upon closer inspection she saw that the small person was clad in black and silver, and by him, on the stone seat beneath the embrasure sill in the wall, was a tall helm. It was no Man-child, she realised, but the Halfling who had come to the City with Mithrandir. She had not had the chance to make his proper acquaintance as of yet, but she had heard many a mention of him.
Curiosity drove her previous anxiety away, and she walked towards him. In the sheer silence her footsteps made a clear sound; the hobbit turned round from where he stood on the seat looking over the wall and across the Pelennor, causing the young woman to pause in her walk. The thoughtfulness on his face vanished when he saw her, replaced with a mild expression.
"I am sorry if I have startled you," Idrin apologised in a soft voice, resuming her slow pace.
He shook his head lightly as she covered the small distance between them. "I was only thinking, but I am glad to have some distraction from it."
The young healer understood. "Then I am glad to provide it," she replied, looking at him more keenly. The curly, almost blond,2 mop of hair atop his head and his small stature did indeed give him the appearance of a child, but the depth in his eyes was a direct contrast to that. It took no effort to see that the thoughts troubling him were of battle and darkness, for such thoughts were on the mind of all now.
"My name is Idrin," she introduced herself to the halfling.
"And I am Peregrin Took, or Pippin, if you like." And with that, he offered a short bow. He observed her as he straightened to his full height, taking in the garb she wore. "You are a healer?" he asked, remembering that Beregond of the Guards had once mentioned in their talks that the only women currently residing in the city were the healers or those assisting them.
"Yes, I am," answered Idrin, but the hobbit couldn't help wondering for a brief spell. Even to his untrained eye her bearing seemed different from that of the few women he had caught sight of when he and Gandalf had arrived in Minas Tirith. The way she walked, upright and with the shoulders set back; her movements, concise and controlled; they suddenly reminded him of Faramir.
His musings were interrupted when he caught sight of her face, solemn as she quietly stepped forward to the wall to gaze eastward. Pippin soun on his heels and followed her line of sight, and thoughts of war assaulted him once again.
There, above the Mountains of Shadow stretched massive clouds, dark and brown and touched with crimson-red. Ominous they looked, and they brimmed with blazing flashes, but no rumbling noise issued from them, and there was only a distant impact to the air, like a clap of thunder with no sound.
Pippin sighed, and found himself recalling yet another conversation he had with Beregond. "It's terrible to simply stand and wait for battle to come, knowing you can't escape it," he mused.
"It is," agreed Idrin, and turned her eyes towards the great curve of the Anduin. "But not knowing if your loved ones are safe is worse." The hobbit looked at her. "My brothers and cousin are at Osgiliath," she continued unprompted, confirming his vague guess.
"My friends are in Rohan," said Pippin, "and I would dearly like to see them again. I suppose I might, if King Théoden comes." He fell silent.
Idrin did not speak for a moment. Verily, their hope now rested with the Riders of Rohan, and if their aid came too late... She shook her head. "Come, Master Peregrin, it does no good to dwell on such thoughts." She paused, thinking to herself. "I am bound for the Citadel's library. Perhaps you would join me?"
Pippin smiled ruefully; indeed, he would have liked to, at some other time perhaps, but the darkness that now weighed on his heart seemed unable to disperse. "I am afraid no book or ancient map can truly distract my thought at present," he declined politely.
The young woman regarded him briefly, understanding the words left unspoken. She then bade him a fond good-night and made her way from the wall. Watching her walk towards the library, Pippin felt a heaviness settle upon him. He knew he would find no rest that night. Gandalf was gone and the East looked more menacing than ever. He turned his gaze to Osgiliath and the Mountains of Shadow beyond, and his thought went to Frodo and Sam.
1 Tolkien does not give us the name of Ecthelion II's wife; naming her Almiel is my taking creative licence. The small library situated in the Citadel is also of my invention.
2 '. . . and [Peregrin Took I has] got hair that's almost golden.' (The History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, Part One, Chapter XI: The Epilogue)
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