1. Chapter 1
She could not recall ever having enjoyed nature so. The sky was a clear blue with only a handful of white cloud-wisps sailing lazily across it; the fiery orb of the sun was shining brightly; and the trees along their path stood green and proud. The short route from Cair Andros to the field of Cormallen was strangely scenic, not reminiscent of the plundered land they had ridden through from Minas Tirith to Osgiliath. Here there was no scorched earth or felled trees or indeed any evidence to indicate the passing of the enemy: the Orcs had most likely forded the River at a more northward point. That alone would account for the almost dreamlike serenity of their surroundings. This location came into stark contrast with the signs of destruction that in other places served as reminder of the War's cruelty. The contradiction was eerie.
Idrin remembered well the moment the great Eagle had flown over the Guarded City, singing of the Dark Lord's downfall and the crumbling of his Tower. It had been after noon, nearly two weeks previously; she was sitting in the Halfling Meriadoc's chamber in the Houses of Healing, keeping him company. The two of them had grown fond of each other in those days after the army's departure and began seeking one another's fellowship, talking as friends might. The long hours of waiting for tidings were oppressive but passed more quickly and pleasantly when conversing with another. Merry told her of the Shire and his life there and of the adventures he had before the battle of the Pelennor Fields, and Idrin told him of her family and shared tales of Gondor.
So it was that healer and Hobbit – as Idrin now knew one belonging to that charming race was called by their own folk – sat by the open window, Merry recounting an incident from his childhood in Buckland, when the song of the Eagle reached their ears. They stood and looked outside, and their hearts were lifted at the sight of the blazing Sun and cloudless sky.
"The Shadow has passed," said Merry and his face glowed. He began humming aloud a lively tune of the Shire, occasionally breaking into song:
Hark all, winter is gone;
now spring-birds come
to nest in trees
and bring the sun.
Let us all be glad
for the days are bright
with light and cheer,
music and dance.
The white frost has thawed;
the earth's astir
and colourful turf
covers every field.
Wreaths and ribbons adorn
each smial's door
for the season of joy
is here once more.
Idrin looked at him and smiled, feeling her heart flutter in her chest.
It was four days later that messengers came, bearing tidings and word from the King. Her brothers had also sent word, bidding her join them at the field of Cormallen. She had been hesitant at first, thinking of the work at the Houses of Healing she would leave behind for selfish reasons: there were still men who needed tending, and the number of healers had dwindled since nearly every single one of the male healers, along with some of the younger women, had gone with the army to offer their skill. Ioreth and many of those serving in the Houses advised her to allow herself a brief respite and go: since the fatally wounded from the Pelennor had been seen to, daily assignments had become much easier, and tasks had been mainly toned down to monitoring the condition of the recuperating.
Seeking to talk with the Warden, he told her that her absence for a few says would not be crucial: work in the Houses had indeed lessened as of late and the leave-taking of one person would not be felt. His words had succeeded in partially dispersing her feelings of disquiet.
So, she was now riding to the field of Cormallen in relative ease of thought.
"Oh, those trees are beautiful. There's something almost Elvish about them." Merry's voice made Idrin focus on their surroundings. A line of tall trees had appeared before them, with dark barks and leaves of deepest green; but it was the flowers hanging like a multitude of delicate chains from the boughs that arrested the eye, coloured in sheer gold and tinted with red.
The healer turned to the Hobbit who rode on a grey pony beside her. "They are called culumaldar, because of the colour of their flowers," she said. "It is from them that Cormallen took its name."
Merry glanced at the graceful trees that loomed closer, mentally comparing them to the stately mallorn-trees of Lothlórien: so different they looked and yet somehow strangely akin.
A man – one of the Gondorian soldiers who had accompanied the small party of twenty from Minas Tirith – steered his horse close to Idrin as they came near the golden branches. "We shall be arriving soon, lady," he informed her and then took his place by the one wagon that carried an assortment of provisions.
Idrin shifted in the saddle, only to wince at the discomfort brought by the movement. Her thighs were sore. This was the third day of their journey and although they had travelled by river from Osgiliath to Cair Andros, the hours spent aboard ship – and the ointment applied to her aching legs - were not enough to ease the tenderness caused by two days of riding. Admittedly, it had been a long time since she had ridden a horse for such a long period of time: even though she loved those large animals and was quite comfortable being on the back of one, the previous year with its hectic paces had not provided with the opportunity to do more than gaze at them from a distance.
She adjusted her grip on the reins as the company passed through the golden-red trees, absently revelling in how smoothly the tan palfrey beneath her responded to her signals. For a moment her memory went back to her early adolescence and an experience she now thought amusing: her first attempt to ride side-saddle. It was not uncommon for women to ride in such fashion; many Gondorian ladies preferred it, claiming it was a more dignified manner of riding for a female than sitting astride a horse. Idrin had attempted it but soon discovered it was not to her liking. She disfavoured the fact that she would always need aid to get into the saddle; the posture she had to keep was uncomfortable and her body felt unnaturally locked into place; she could not use the pressure of her legs to steer her mount and with that came a feeling of helplessness. Riding astride was much easier for her, giving more freedom of movement.
A chorus of voices dispersed her musings, promptly claiming her attention. They had arrived at the encampment: the wide green lawn was dotted with tents and pavilions, and a swarm of people went to and fro.
"My lady, welcome to North Ithilien," a familiar voice came from her left as she drew her horse to a halt, and she looked down to see Arvinion beaming at her. A wide smile lit her face at seeing her brother well and unharmed. She dismounted eagerly, miraculously not getting tangled in the skirts of her dress, but her balance was lost the moment her feet touched the ground and she swayed dangerously. Her brother's hands were about her waist immediately. Steadying herself, she threw her arms about his neck. Arvinion returned the embrace and then held her at arm's length, looking at her appraisingly. She was startled by another figure coming in close proximity.
"Lady," the man sounded apologetic for interrupting their reunion. "I shall see that your horse is tended to." He had already taken hold of the gelding's reins and waited for her consent.
"Thank you," Idrin said appreciatively; the soldier led the horse away. Behind him, Idrin caught sight of Merry, standing alone and surveying the camp. She beckoned to him and turned to her brother when the hobbit came to stand by her.
"Arvinion, I would like you to meet Meriadoc Brandybuck."
The esquire of Rohan gave a polite bow.
"We meet at last, Master Meriadoc," said Arvinion cordially. "My sister speaks fondly of you and your kinsman Peregrin," he went on, recalling a long letter that he and Damhir had received some days past.
"She has kept me very good company while I was recovering in the Houses of Healing," said Merry.
"And has no doubt learnt all there is to know about Hobbits." The laughing voice belonged to Gandalf: the white-robed old wizard had approached them on silent feet.
Merry grinned. "Hullo, Gandalf," he greeted him, and went on to add: "But if you mean to accuse me of having talked the lady's ears off, I ought to say that she was genuinely interested in Hobbit-lore."
Laughter followed his words.
"That I was, Mithrandir," Idrin was quick to defend Merry's claim, her eyes sparkling with good humour.
"I am quite sure of it, lady," acceded the wizard. "Hobbits are remarkable creatures in their own way." He paused and turned to Merry again. "There is a friend who dearly wishes to see you, my lad."
The hobbit's face lit up. "Pippin," he murmured; then he looked at Idrin and Arvinion. "I shall seek you out later." He took his leave and went with Gandalf eagerly, the weariness of the journey seemingly having fallen off him.
Arvinion turned to his sister, "Halflings truly are a delightful people." At his sibling's languid gesture of agreement, he took note of the subtle traces of fatigue on her face and shook his head. "You must want to clean up and rest, and here I detain you from it." Despite the self-reproof, a hint of merriment touched his features as he proffered his left arm to his sister, "Shall we?"
Idrin threaded her arm lightly through his and they made their leisurely way further into the camp.
"I will see that your luggage is brought here," said Arvinion as they stopped in front of the large tent the siblings would now share.
"That has already been done." Damhir had emerged from within; he beamed at his sister and in one swift movement caught her by the waist and twirled her round. Idrin embraced him as he set her on her feet, her face radiant with a smile.
They ushered her into the tent and she saw that the small chest she had brought with her was indeed there, placed at the foot of an improvised bed in a curtained area evidently set apart for her use. They went outside then, leaving her to her privacy. Idrin eyed the mattress critically: a sturdy sack woven of hemp and filled with fresh bracken was beneath the bedroll, effectively raising it a few inches off the hard ground. It did not seem unlike the sleeping pad she had used during the ride from Minas Tirith, although it did look more yielding – a fact that pleased her immensely. Having camped with her father and brothers in her early childhood, she had known there would be no soft mattresses over the course of the journey to Ithilien, but her unaccustomed body had nonetheless protested against the feel of stony ground when she lay to sleep.
Now, a corner of her mouth curved upward at the thought that her brothers had gone to such lengths to make her bedding so comfortable. Pressing down on it experimentally revealed that it was almost springy and that added to her delight. She glanced down at her riding habit: the moss-coloured dress was dusty and the black under-dress showing from underneath the ankle-length split skirt clung to her legs. Idrin suddenly felt the linen fabrics weigh down on her shoulders. She unclasped the belt and, gathering fresh clothes, made for the screened corner that played the part of a makeshift bathroom.
The luxury of heated water and soap was a reminder of all those things she had valued too lightly for so many years. It was childish behaviour in a way, she reflected as she scrubbed vigorously at her skin with the rough towel and washed the dirt from her hair. But if the short journey had done one thing, it was to make her less liable to take anything for granted again.
When she exited the tent a while later, twilight had fallen and the camp-fires were lit.