6. Chapter 5
Dawn had brought hope. The coming of the Rohirrim stirred a quelled flame in the hearts of the Gondorian defenders of the Guarded City, fanning it to a blaze. New strength came to them and they burst from the Gate to the Plains like a raging river to join the Horse-lords.
In the Houses of Healing the pale sun seemed to flood every room and shine all the brighter. Healers and patients alike found themselves more ready to smile, and some even attempted to jest. Spirits were lifted and the warm light seemed to never fade. Then the wounded began trickling in, and a cloud blotted out the sun and good cheer.
Idrin was just returning from the storage-room to the ward she had been assigned to when the sight that met her caused her breath to stop. Forgetting where she was, she rushed to the two figures carrying the bier, the veil covering her hair threatening to slip. Around her people turned to stare after her, no doubt startled by the disturbance of the relative peace that reigned in this part of the Houses, but her eyes were fixed on the two men. They were clad in the livery of the Guards of the Tower; one tall and of sombre countenance, the other a fraction shorter than a Dwarf, his arms raised as he grasped one end of the litter. She recognised Pippin; the other she wasn't acquainted with.
Yet it was the man on the bier who held her undivided attention and made her heart race. Sweat shone on Faramir's brow, his eyes were shut, and he was as still as one dead.
"What happened? I understood he was not fatally wounded?" Manners neglected and words coming out brusquely, she looked up at the tall Guard, fear in her eyes and voice.
"He was not, lady," he replied calmly, "but a sudden fever and sickness that are not understood have taken him."
Pippin cast him a sideways glance, for one absurd second thinking that the man might relay Denethor's deed, but the Gondorian said no more.
Her worried gaze sliding to her cousin once more, Idrin realised that precious minutes were being wasted as they stood there, and that was partly her fault. When she raised her eyes, her face displayed the trademark expression of tranquillity. "We must find him a bed." She led the way to a quiet room and they followed.
After Faramir was laid in bed, she turned to them. "Thank you –" she looked at the halfling's companion and paused, registering she didn't yet know his name.
"Beregond," the man provided.
"Thank you, Beregond," she said again, every word lined with sincerity, conveying not only her gratitude for their help, but also and mostly for their caring for Faramir. Beregond gave a small nod of his head. Her eyes moved to Pippin, "And thank you, Master Peregrin." The halfling managed a smile.
As they walked back to the door of the Houses, other healers already heading to Faramir's room, Pippin turned to Beregond. "Why did you call her lady?"
The man was mildly surprised by the question, but then remembered that the Hobbit was a foreigner to the City. "She is the Steward Denethor's sister-daughter," he explained.
"Oh," Pippin uttered simply.
The sound of the voice so close to her was unfamiliar. It was hoarse, the accent heavy, ringing strange in her ears: it was not the easy speech belonging to Gondorians.
"Yes?" Idrin's response came automatically as she spun on her heel to face her addresser. True enough, the man gazing at her was golden-haired and had deep blue eyes, and, along with the guttural pronunciation of Westron, those features marked him clearly as being one of Théoden's Riders. Her eyes, however, landed on the man leaning against him, one arm draped over his companion's shoulders for support. Flaxen hair hung nearly to his shoulders, and he looked at her under half-closed eyelids, his breathing slow and deep. His left leg was bent at the knee, and he avoided putting weight on it, his boot only gingerly touching the floor.
Idrin placed the roll of gauze she was holding in the basket on the shelf. "Come with me." Her pace slow, they were only one step behind her. "Where is the injury?" she enquired. The wounded warrior mumbled some words, but failed to make himself heard. He had obviously been drained of strength. Still, to have crossed the threshold of the Houses on foot and not on a litter meant he had not suffered a grave bodily harm.
"An Orc-blade caught him on the outside of the left calf," the other Rider answered concisely in his comrade's stead.
"How long ago?"
The Rider had to think a moment. "No more than an hour."
Entering the treatment room, Idrin's first care was to light the oil-lamps: the fiery orb of the sun had nearly sunk behind Mindolluin, and the shadows of twilight were beginning to lengthen. She gestured at the cot situated to the far right of the door as she made for the shelves along the wall. The Rohir helped his companion settle himself onto the bed, propping the sole pillow against the headboard. The injured man fumbled with the fastenings of his damaged boot, tugging to get it off. He sank back into the pillow, letting out a small groan as he inadvertently pressed down on his wounded limb with more force than intended.
Idrin had gone to the cauldron heating on the stove and ladled some water into a large bowl, taking it to the hip-high table in the middle of the room. She put the vessel into a tray together with a clean cloth, pads of gauze, bandages, a pair of small, delicate snips and two glass containers, and carried it to the bench by the bed's headboard. She squatted beside the injured Rohir.
The dark stain of blood smeared his ankle-length breeches, and fresh pinpricks had seeped through the fabric. She took the cloth from the tray and dipped it into the water, soaking the wound until the scab that had formed softened and the fabric detached from it. She looked at the slashed piece of clothing appraisingly and then up at the Rider, subconsciously taking in his appearance. His face was dirtied by the grime and dust of battle, but under the light she judged him to be about a couple years older than herself. His features were not unattractive: slightly prominent cheekbones, a somewhat pointed nose, a well-defined jaw-line covered by a short, dark blond beard, and a firm mouth. The thin, pale line of an old scar parted his left eyebrow, almost reaching his temple. And he was watching her, the intensity of his gaze disarming. His eyes weren't blue or grey as was usual with the Rohirrim, she noticed, but a light hazel, and the look in them was assessing. Something in her stomach flipped under that scrutiny, and she mentally shook herself.
"It will be faster and easier if the fabric is cut away," she went on with what she had been meaning to say, her tone as even as always.
He eyed his breeches critically: the Orc-blade had ripped a jagged cut through them and the stray threads poking out would undoubtedly make mending an impossible affair. He nodded as he spoke, his voice low-pitched, "They are torn beyond repair."
At the affirmation, Idrin took the snips and made a circular cut on the fabric around the knee, pulling the loose piece away carefully. Thankfully the wound had not gone through the skin on the other side. She clipped the hairs around the gash and dipped a pad of gauze into the warm water, cleaning the site as thoroughly as she could. She examined the wound while doing so: it almost extended the length of his calf and was deep, but there were no foreign particles lodged in it, the edges were now clean and the bleeding had stopped completely. There was no bruising to the surrounding area and no heat or tenderness when she pressed gently downwards with her fingertips, indicating no other complications.
The wounded man watched her without speaking as she took his wrist and put two fingers below the thumb, applying the same pressure. Her face sobered with concentration, but after a few moments he thought he saw a flicker of something akin to approval in her eyes.
"Is there anything I can do, Mistress Healer?" The Rohir standing idly by the bed, watching, broke the silence.
Idrin looked up at him. "I am afraid there isn't," she replied. "You may wait outside while I stitch the wound, if you wish. But the healers treating those severely wounded would welcome aid."
The man nodded at the crisp suggestion and glanced at his companion. They exchanged a few words in their native tongue, and then he made his way outside, the door closing softly behind him.
Idrin rose to her feet and went to the shelves, scanning the contents. She found what she was looking for – the jars of dried willow-bark and henbane – near the back and added a careful measure of each into a cup, letting the mixture steep in boiling water. When the tea was ready, she returned to the Rider's bedside.
"This will help with the pain," she said. "You will most likely feel the pressure from the needle, but there should be little else."
At her words he took the cup from her hands and drank, grimacing at the strong bitter taste. "Vile stuff. What's in it?"
"Willow bark to fight off inflammation and henbane to relax and dull the pain," replied Idrin. She took note of the raised eyebrow. "Henbane does not induce such heavy sleep as poppy juice does," she went on promptly. "Many people regard it with superstition, but it can be beneficial when used correctly. It can relieve muscle spasms and is less harmful than belladonna when misused."
The Rider's brow furrowed. "I admit I had never considered it might also have favourable uses," he confessed.
The healer looked at him. "All plants have both good and bad properties, depending on how we choose to use them." Normally, the healers in Minas Tirith used the extract of the spadic bush found in the South to numb skin and muscle and nerve,¹ but after the Great Gate had been breached, they tried to use what supply they had sparingly and where needed most. Herbal teas might not be as potent, but the right dosage of ingredients could sedate and lessen pain well enough. "It won't be long before it starts taking effect," Idrin supplied, gathering both the cup handed to her and the bowl of water from the bench and carrying them to the high table.
The Rohir watched silently under heavy lids as she washed her hands with hot water and alcohol. Moving to the stove, she used a thick linen towel to gather the surgical instruments drying on a grate by the fire, bundled them in the clean fabric and took them to the table. She covered the surface of a small tray with the cloth and arranged the pair of tweezers, clamp-like instrument with finely toothed jaw-tips and curved needle on it. Fishing out two small packages from a basket, she picked up the tray and made her way back to the warrior.
She placed her load on the bench, took a chair and sat by the bed, soaking a piece gauze with a clear spirit from the tinted phial. "This might sting," she warned, looking up at him before pressing the pad onto the wound. The Rider bit back a hiss and a curse in Rohirric, holding his breath when she repeated the action. The healer opened one package and threaded the needle with the cream-hued cord of catgut, glancing at him when she was done. He had lain back into the pillow and closed his eyes.
"Let me know if the pain grows uncomfortable and I will see what can be done," she said.
His leg twitched as the needle pierced muscle, but the pain was dulled by the tea taking effect. He opened his eyes when the twinging sensation ceased altogether and looked down to see the healer clip the black thread. The criss-cross of silk stitching was symmetrical and evenly spaced, standing out against his skin. Idrin unsealed the shallow jar and began rubbing salve into his leg, wrapping a long strip of gauze around the wound and securing it in place with a tiny clamp.
"There." She looked up at him, putting the lid on the jar and gathering all the used implements into the tray. "You were fortunate: the layer of cloth and the boot seems to have sealed the wound from the worst of the dirt and contamination. But the cut was deep and you will have to stay in the Houses for at least seven days, to rest your leg and allow it to heal properly. The stitches can be removed then." She got up and made for the wash-basin, scrubbing her hands meticulously, and then moved to the door. The second Rohir was nowhere to be seen, but he appeared shortly from a side-corridor and stepped into the room after the healer.
While the two conversed softly, Idrin went to the large storage-cabinet and returned holding a pair of crutches, holding them out to the injured Rider. "Come, I will show you to your room," she invited.
He was already on his feet, supporting himself on his comrade's shoulder as he kept his stitched leg off the floor. He eyed the offered crutches with a slight frown and a look bordering on disdain, but nonetheless accepted them and took a few tentative steps to get used to the new accessory. The other Rohir bent down to retrieve the discarded boot.
The room Idrin led them to was small, but had a beautiful view of the gardens. Apart from the bed, the furnishing consisted of a chest-of-drawers and a couple of chairs. A changing-screen stood near the bed, and by it a bathtub that could be filled with hot water by turning the tap of the cauldron that sat upon the stove.
The injured Rohir did not conceal his surprise. "There is only one bed."
Despite the sparseness of his words, the healer understood. "This is one of the rooms reserved for those in need of longer recuperation from lingering illnesses. The Warden thought it best to keep the not fatally wounded in this wing. The sick halls are closer to the main road: it's easier to access and house those in critical condition there."
The man nodded – this system of sorting the wounded was sensible, although he had no doubt that the whole city would, sooner rather than later, be filled with injured men. His hands worked to remove the belt holding his sword and he seated himself on the bed. After a brief conversation with his companion, the other gave a short bow to Idrin.
"Farewell for the present, Mistress Healer." With that he turned on his heel and left the room.
Stunned by the unexpected gesture, Idrin stared after him, blinking once. She knew it was not true that the Rohirrim lacked manners, whatever various Gondorians might say, but this formality was surprising. She was not used to such displays of ceremony within the Houses. Gathering her wits, she looked back at the man she had just treated. He was gazing at her, one corner of his lips curving upwards, evidently amused by her changing countenance.
"If there is anything you need, just call." Her voice was soft, level; her previous calmness had returned.
"Thank you." He hesitated, but spoke again as she moved to the door, "Mistress Healer, will you give me your name?"
Her hand on the doorknob, she looked over her shoulder. "It is Idrin."
"I am Éothain," he offered.
1 Spadic bush is another name for the coca plant, a compress of which was used by the Incas on wounds to provide pain relief (Paul Richard Steele, Handbook of Inca Mythology). Taking into account the growth parameters of the coca plant while consulting Karen Wynn Fonstad's Atlas of Middle-earth, it doesn't seem unlikely that the plant might grow in certain places in south Lebennin and South Ithilien.
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