4. Chapter 3
Morning came dim and hazy; the early sun shone with a subdued brightness through the bleak veil that seemed to swathe the city, offering little light. Idrin, as she was accustomed, awoke not long after dawn, even though the world outside the Steward's House was still grey, more so than usual. Located in the east wing, her chamber faced south and her window commanded a sweeping view of the Pelennor fields and, farther off, of the glittering bend of the Anduin. Now, however, all seemed gloomy and muted.
The Steward's House itself stood by the citadel's library and near the south-east wall, opposite the Great Hall of Feasts. Built during the time of Mardil Voronwë, it had served as housing to the family of the Ruling Stewards since the early years after the loss of King Eärnur.1 Its architecture was simple and yet imposing in that plainness: pale, sturdy walls rose to meet high-angled roofs, forming an oblong structure; many tall, arched windows flooded the halls and chambers within with sunlight; marble-balustraded balconies graced the upper floor, giving the building an air of openness.
Finishing her morning toilet, Idrin dressed and went down to the dining hall for the first meal of the day. There, a brazier of charcoal burned with yellow flame, the shadows it cast dancing on the finely-carved cabinets and elaborate hangings on the wall.
Sitting alone at the dark-oak table, breakfast was a silent affair, but it had not always been so. Idrin could recall laughter and good cheer in that same hall, during those times when one, or both, of her cousins would break their fast with her, when no duties kept them away from the City. And it was many times when her uncle and she sat at meals together, although their talk then was quiet and they mostly ate in companionable silence. The Steward had grown more distant as of late, however, and she seldom chanced upon him at the breakfast table any more.
She had applied herself to the honeyed almond bread and cheese in front of her when a low, rolling sound echoed from some distant place outside. Starting, she looked up from her plate and through the large window opposite the table, opened to the view of the Court of the Fountain. A small crease settled on the bridge of her nose: she had heard that same ominous rumble earlier that morning. Just then, a manservant entered the hall, and she turned to him.
"What was that, Eithor, do you know?"
The middle-aged domestic looked at her for a long moment without speaking, suddenly hesitant. "The enemy has taken the Pelennor Wall, my lady," he replied at last in a soft voice, his eyes clouded. The young woman fell silent at the news and was still, her heartbeat frantic in her ears.
* * *
The day was waxing towards noon when a great noise filled the streets of the City. The sharp sound of hooves on stone and the thud of heavy wheels, mingled with the occasional rise and fall of men's voices, ascended slowly towards the Citadel. An orderly line of wains drawn by sturdy horses halted before the gate of the Houses of Healing, flanked by two tens of grim men on horseback. At the front, riding by the second wagon, was the brilliant figure of Gandalf the White, and he alone seemed unweary.
As the men dismounted, one hurried to seek the Warden of the Houses while the others made it their task to help the less gravely injured onto solid ground.
It was not long before the soldier returned, followed closely by the grey-haired, tall man who was the chief healer, and the old wife Ioreth. With a swift glance at the wains and their load, the Warden bade some of the men go with the elderly woman and fetch litters to carry those who had difficulty walking. He stood motionless, watching as the men returned and the wounded soldiers began to dwindle and disappear into the Houses.
"So it begins," he murmured quietly, his darkened eyes fixed upon the retreating figures of the survivors from the Causeway Forts, a hand twitching momentarily against the deep blue fabric of his robes.
"Yes," came the wizard's even voice from his side as he too gazed after them, "and the hours to come shall be long, Master Warden." With that he turned and led Shadowfax from the gate, handing the reins to one of the stablehands who had come to take wains and horses away.
* * *
The air was thick with the smell of strong spirits. Idrin bent over the wounded man, fingers running lightly along the crude bandage wrapped around his head. It was stained rusty brown. Carefully, she removed the long strip of fabric and looked at the wound closely. The gash running from his hairline to the top of his eyebrow was deep, but no fluid leaked from it and the edges were smooth. It wouldn't need stitching.
She took a pad of gauze from the tray on the stand by the man's bed and soaked it with a clear spirit. The soldier sat up straighter, anticipating the sting of the disinfectant. He winced as the liquid came in contact with his skin but made no complaint. A few moments later, the healer folded the gauze and scrubbed gently along the edges of the wound.
"'Twas terrible." After a long while of following her movements with his eyes without uttering a word, the man finally spoke. His voice was low and haunted. "Never before have I seen so large a horde. Orcs and goblins and Easterlings. And there were wolves, those giant wolves from Wilderland. Bearlike in the face and long-muzzled with sharp fangs. Never before had we known them to come so far south. They tore at the flesh and ripped men to pieces as though they were rag dolls."
His eyes had become glassy while he spoke, but in the quiet that ensued he seemed to come back to himself and focus on the face of the woman tending to him. He lowered his gaze in remorse.
"I am sorry, Mistress Healer," he offered sincerely. "I forgot where I am. Such words of battle and death are not fit for the ears of a lady. Forgive me."
Idrin paused in the middle of pressing a clean patch of gauze to the salve she had applied to the man's wound, and looked at him. He was in his mid-thirties, dark-eyed and dark-haired, with a short beard growing on his chin; one of the few men who had managed to survive the slaughter at Cair Andros. She met his gaze, both startled and touched by his thoughtfulness.
"There is no need to apologise," she said smoothly. "Speaking of it will unburden your heart." She placed a bandage over the pad of gauze and began wrapping it around his head. "I am not unused to such tales. It comes with being a healer. And growing up in a household of men, one is bound to hear of such things." It was quite true: more often than not her brothers and cousins preferred not to talk of the gruesome elements of battle in her presence, forgetting that her being a healer meant her inevitable acquaintance with such. Still, however guarded their tales of battle might be, even their tongues slipped at times. The image of cool grey eyes and the semblance of laughter gliding into her thought made her recall that they were not the only ones who had occasionally indulged her interest. The memory brought a brief twinge of sadness with it.
One corner of the wounded man's mouth before her quivered. Idrin tied the bandage in a neat knot and looked at him again, this time surveying the long wound beneath the ribcage she had previously treated and sewn.
"Rest," she advised as she rose from her chair, her tone gentle. The soldier closed his eyes, and she turned to the tray on the night-table, picking it up and carrying it to one of the tiered shelves placed along the walls away from the beds. Once its contents were stored in their rightful place, the used bandages and gauze discarded into the nearby disposal basket, she took the tray to the adjacent storage-room to be washed and returned to the sick hall, a cup in her hands.
She made her way to a bed near the narrow window. The young man lying on it turned to her as she stopped by him, and his eyes fixed on the cup.
"This will take the pain and bring sleep," she explained and slipped a hand under his head, helping him lift it. He drank from the cup slowly, emptying it in four long sips, and lowered his head onto the pillow once more.
"Thank you." The broken whisper was drowned by the spasm that contorted his face, his eyes squeezing shut. Idrin touched him gently on the shoulder in a comforting gesture, watching his broken arm twitch under the hardened bandage that held it fast. When the fit passed and his body relaxed, she withdrew her hand and opened her mouth to speak. The soldier grasped at her fingers.
"Please, stay." There was something urgent in his weak voice, and his eyes bore into hers in an unspoken plea. "Until the pain goes," he went on, attempting to gather his manners and sound more calm. Idrin closed her mouth and sat in the chair by the bed, setting the cup she held aside. He was young, she observed, not even in his second decade, and his clean-shaven face made this even the more evident. This battle had probably been his first.
Long seconds passed in silence. "I had always thought that the Rammas could not be breached," he spoke again in a whisper and then fell quiet, staring far-off, unseeing. Idrin kept to her own musings, staying by his side until sleep took him.
* * *
Evening had come when yet more wounded men began pouring into the Houses. The healers moved ceaselessly from treatment rooms to sick halls to storage-rooms, getting supplies, tending the injured and finding beds for those in need of a lengthier recuperation. In that whirl of activity, it took Idrin a full moment to realise that the two young men in her path were no strangers. They stood there, gazing at her with eyes that bore a striking resemblance to her own. She halted a moment, blinking as her tired mind finally began working properly.
"Arvinion, Damhir!" Joy and relief were evident in her voice, and she hastened to them, nearly breaking into a run. Both Ithilien Rangers graced her with smiles, their dirtied faces lighting up. They embraced her long and with warm familiarity.
"How are you, sister?" The older of the pair looked down at her when she pulled away, regarding her properly. His brow furrowed as he took in the dark stains on her clothing and the fatigue that lined her face all too clearly. Idrin only spared her attire a fleeting glance.
"A lot of gravely injured have come to us today," she replied quietly to her brother's inquisitive gaze. He still looked at her, perplexed by her utter calmness in the midst of the chaos around them. Just as he decided to speak again, his words were cut off by his sister's soft voice when her eyes locked on her second brother. "Damhir..." A faint wisp of worry brushed her tone.
The fabric of his left sleeve was sliced above the elbow and a long horizontal line of dried blood stuck the edges to his arm. She met his eyes, her gaze inadvertently falling on the carmine-red smear on his cheek above the trimmed beard that covered his jaw.
"That is nothing, dear sister," said Damhir, emphasising his words. "You have much more seriously wounded men to tend," he continued, and Idrin followed his eyes about the room. The hustle and bustle was not going to abate soon, and she had to return to her work.
"Go and rest, and I will find you later," she promised after a moment of thought. The proper reunion with her brothers would have to wait; this was neither the place nor the time for it. They nodded their agreement and took their leave silently, leaving their sister to her duties.
¹ In Tolkien's works, there is no explicit mention concerning the lodgings of the Ruling Stewards of Gondor. Given the elevation of the Stewards from chief counselors to the King to rulers in the King's absence after the demise of Eärnur, we can assume that separate lodgings were built to accommodate them and their families in the Citadel of Minas Tirith. Since the living quarters for the Kings and their families were named the King's House, it seems fitting that the living quarters for the Ruling Stewards should bear the name the Steward's House.
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