4. Chapter 4
The next few days passed in a quiet fashion. Éothain went to Angdan's house to help with the mare and foal every day, each morning and evening, checking into the condition of the animals and offering advice. Idrin accompanied him whenever she could, more often than not during the evening when her work at the Houses of Healing finished. She was glad to witness the caring for a foal, and discovered she was looking forward to the time spent at Angdan's stable.
"I never thought I would like being with horses so much," the healer confessed late one evening as she and Éothain made their way back to the upper circles of Minas Tirith. "I have always favoured cats, ever since I can remember, but these past days I've come to realise I have never really taken care of other animals in order to have a true standard for comparison. I think I begin to understand why you Rohirrim cherish horses."
The Rider of Rohan studied her when the little speech ended and then broke the fleeting spell of silence. "You have yet to meet mine." As she promptly turned to look at him with a new spark in her eye, he went on,"If you are not tired..."
A bright expression was Idrin's answer.
* * *
Young stablehands, coming from the small enclosure by the stables on the sixth level which provided an area for exercise for the horses within the city, were leading two destriers back to their stalls. At the sound of soft voices, one of the stallions turned to look at Éothain and nickered. The stablehand leading him paused in his stride, waiting for the Rohir to approach.
Idrin hovered a few paces away, following the brief exchange of words between the two and watching the boy hand the destrier's lead rope to Éothain before departing. She took a moment to size up the big, dapple-grey warhorse boasting one dark foreleg, then walked closer.
The Rider of Rohan turned to her, one hand on the stallion's withers. "This is Dyrstig," he said fondly, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards when the warhorse stretched his neck and leant into him in content as the Rohir scratched a sensitive spot.
"Dyrstig." Idrin tested the new word on her tongue. "What does it mean?"
"It means daring," Éothain answered. "He was an inquisitive foal, not afraid of the unknown, very bold. He still is." He scratched the stallion again and chuckled at the garnered reaction.
"Gód æfen, Dyrstig." Her accent coloured with the lilt of Gondorian tones, the healer bid the destrier good evening in Rohirric, bringing to memory the few words she had learnt when she cared for recuperating Riders of Théoden after the battle of the Pelennor.
Her companion grinned lightly to himself at the sound of his native tongue coming from her lips. He passed a calloused hand over the stallion's neck and withers. "My previous horse was killed by an Orc-arrow during a raid last winter." He tugged at the rope to set Dyrstig into motion. "He is young, this one," he spoke of his warhorse warmly as they crossed the threshold of the stables; "barely six years of age. The battle on the borders of the Entwood was his first."
Idrin had followed the Rider to an empty stall – nose crinkling at the concentrated smell of manure and wet straw – and came to a stop before the gate while Éothain led his horse inside. In the neighbouring stall was the destrier they had seen earlier, the stablehand charged with his care tending to his manger. The healer watched as her companion secured his mount's lead rope, her mind cast back to the report of the encounter between the Riders of Rohan and the Orcs near the eaves of Fangorn as relayed to her by both Éothain and Merry Brandybuck. It was noteworthy how different perspectives could lend such variance to one single event.
And now, studying the dapple-grey destrier, Idrin suddenly realised that, to that moment, her and Éothain's talk of horses had focused on Angdan's mare and her foal. Those few hours they had spent together they had talked of Rohan and Gondor, of their families and fond childhood memories.
She took a few careful steps into the horsebox and held out a hand to Dyrstig. The stallion turned to look at her with big dark eyes, staring for a long moment before his muzzle lowered above the proffered palm. Nostrils flared as he sniffed, and when he looked up at her again, Idrin breathed and reached out.
"The only horse I have ever owned was a pony," she said, scratching the horse's strong neck. "It was a gift from my father for my seventh birthday – a light brown, sturdy animal. I named him Nolwa, because of his colour."
Amusement drew Éothain's lips into a grin, and he spoke before she could continue, "After the spice brought to Middle-earth by the Númenóreans." At the healer's look of surprise, he went on, "Morwen Queen brought some of it with her from Gondor. I remember hearing that it's called sweet-wood in the Common Tongue and that the tree producing it is found only about the southern borders of your realm."1
"Yes," Idrin confirmed, once again realising there was more to the people of Rohan than met the eye. Absently, her hand moved towards Dyrstig's ears. She started when the stallion lowered his head and began sniffing at her clothes, uninterested in her touch. As he became more persistent, his Rider chuckled and left the stall, returning shortly with an offering of hay. The warhorse accepted it without so much as a glance at his master.
Éothain turned to the healer. "What happened to your pony, then?"
"I had brought him with me when I came to Minas Tirith to live with my aunt when Mother passed. The change of home affected him much, though – he stopped eating, became dispirited. He was used to the openness and grasslands of Lossarnach; being shut in a city of stone equalled to being deprived of freedom. I agreed with Father that taking him back to my parents' house in Forvarad2 would be best. Now, he is growing old there, with Orien doting on him." Idrin gave a brief smile.
"She takes good care of him."
"Yes," the healer affirmed. "She can even brush his coat herself." The young woman took a breath and released it slowly. "I lack such skills."
"You have never rubbed down a horse?"
A glint flickered in Idrin's eye at the Rider's undisguised incredulity and stare of absolute surprise. She drew herself to her full height. "Learning how to curry horses is not mandatory in Gondor – we have squires for that task."
Éothain was taken aback by her cool tone. He gazed at her without blinking.
After a long moment Idrin suddenly turned her eyes away and looked down at the straw-covered cobbles beneath her feet. "I didn't mean to be so sharp." Her voice came out with some difficulty when she ventured to look up at him.
The Rohir's expression changed slowly. "I forgot I was speaking to someone whose culture is different," he offered guardedly, continuing the quiet study of her face. He could not deny he enjoyed the time spent in the healer's company, but for brief spells he wondered what more there was to her. These flaring reactions he had witnessed baffled him – haughtiness was not a quality he had attributed to her during their first encounters. Now, there were instances when he felt as though his knowledge of her waxed only to wane again, shifting like the flitting steps of a dance.
He noticed Idrin's eyes dart to him with something akin to worry. At length she spoke, "Dressing horses is something I was never taught." She paused and drew breath. "But it is a skill I would like to learn."
Éothain regarded her solemnly for an instant, then took Dyrstig's lead rope and gestured briskly. The healer stared after him as he began making his way to the wide space near the back of the stables where equipment was held, a small frown appearing above the bridge of her nose. She followed despite her daze, thoughts fluttering. She realised it would unsettle her to lose the companionship of this man she had grown fond of due to misguided outbursts of overbearing pride on her part. That vexing remnant from her early childhood was something she had to learn to repress.
A few feet ahead, Éothain had secured his destrier to a post. The boy tasked with the care of the warhorse flew to his feet, abandoning the repair of the saddle he held, but the Rider gestured to indicate he required no help. As the young stablehand retreated farther off, the Rohir retrieved a bucket filled with an assortment of brushes, picked an implement from their midst and turned to Idrin.
The measure of anxiety on the healer's face as she watched him made his lips twitch. The grin softened his features. Perceiving it, Idrin seemed relieved; her countenance relaxed.
A snort and a single stamping sound drew Éothain's attention to his horse. The Rider crouched beside him and ran a hand down the stallion's leg, tapping the back above his hoof. As Dyrstig picked up his foot, the Rohir turned to Idrin. He took a moment before speaking. "Dressing a horse does not only entail the brushing of his coat. Checking the hooves for lodged objects or cracks is equally important, as it helps prevent lameness and infection." He motioned with the hooked, tapered tool in his hand. "A good hoof-pick is essential for cleaning."
The healer stepped closer, watching in fascination as the Rider's words gradually became actions.
* * *
The night outside was cool when they sat to supper. Orien skipped into the dining-room, Espig trotting at her heels. The young girl took a seat beside her mother, fumbling with one hand as the other wrapped firmly around something in her palm.
"Aunt Idrin, I was looking for Espig and found him playing with this in your room." She opened her hand, proffering the contents to the healer.
The young woman shook her head with a grin at the half-grown cat as she lifted the fine chain and broken silver ring it held. "I had forgotten this on my dressing table last night."
Gladhwen turned to her with a look of curiosity. "You no longer wear it?" Then, as she thought to herself, her expression mellowed. "Of course, one year is a long time to mourn."
Sitting by Arvinion, Éothain shifted his attention to the women at those words. Idrin's brothers mimicked him, watching quietly.
The healer met the gaze of Damhir's wife, absently brushing chain and ring with her fingers. "It has been a few months since I last wore it," she admitted. "I keep it in a box, taking it out whenever memory is overwhelming."
Faervel reached to clasp her hand. Next to her, Orien glanced at the sympathetic faces of her relations and blinked.
"But what is it?" she asked softly, unknowingly voicing the Rider of Rohan's question as well.
"A betrothal ring," her mother answered. "It is custom in Gondor for a man to present a woman with a silver ring when he asks her hand in marriage. He breaks it, keeping one half and giving the other to his sweetheart, promising they will be married."3
Orien's eyes glinted with understanding; she looked at Idrin. "Thaldor gave it to you." After a small pause, she turned to her mother. "Do you have one, mama?"
Faervel smiled lovingly at her daughter. "Yes, and I also keep mine in a box, because it was replaced with a wedding band."
The girl nodded. "And Aunt Gladhwen?"
"Yes," Damhir's wife chuckled.
"Papa?" Orien turned to her father.
"Your supper will be cold if you keep this up, child," a firm female voice cut in. The elderly housekeeper – a tall, thin woman with greying hair – placed the last platter on the table.
"Nathes is right," Arvinion agreed, glancing appreciatively at the woman. As his daughter began eating, he added with a small smile, "I do keep my betrothal ring in the box with your mother's."
Orien brightened at the received response and applied herself to her food.
Next to her chair, the tabby cat gazed expectantly up at the table. The housekeeper made beckoning noises. "Come, little one, it is time for you to eat, as well." Espig followed her eagerly to the kitchen.
* * *
Chairs were set round the fire in the drawing-room after the meal, and quiet talk resumed. Orien had gone to bed and, lacking his playing mate, Espig had stretched out on the rug in front of the blazing logs.
"I heard King Éomer's errand-riders returned today," said Damhir. He looked at Éothain. "What news?"
All eyes turned to the Rohir. It was known that, shortly after the great victory of the army of the West against Sauron, Rohan's new king had sent riders to all corners of his realm, seeking to learn the extent of the hurt that had befallen it since Théoden's ride to Gondor.
"The Westfold was hit hardest by both Dunlendings and Orcs," Éothain began. "The land is razed, houses torched, livestock slaughtered; it is doubtful that the fields will yield even little produce this season. The waters of the Isen have been fouled by Saruman's armies; the Snowbourn also." The Rider drew a heavy breath. "Orcs burnt much of the Wold, but did not pass into the Eastemnet or beyond – it is said that Ents stayed them."4 He paused, and a grim semblance of a chuckle crossed his lips. "'Tis a wonder the Entwash was not polluted."
There was silence for a heartbeat.
"Rebuilding will be slow, for both our realms." It was Arvinion who spoke, his voice quiet. There was much to heal in Rohan, and the same was true for Gondor. Only those lands within sight of the southern slopes of the White Mountains had been utterly unaffected by battle. Yet, whatever grain and foodstuffs the southern fiefs could spare had been loaded onto wagons bound for the land of the Horse-lords, a measure of help for those who had aided Gondor in its direst hour.
Gladhwen rested a hand on her growing belly in sudden protectiveness. "Goods can always be replaced," she said; "lost lives cannot be. War has never been kind to anyone."
"No, it hasn't," the Rohir agreed. He considered Idrin, sitting near Espig and unconsciously twirling the broken ring in her fingers as she listened. He seized the opportunity to deviate from the cheerless conversation. "How long did you know one another?"
The healer turned, starting at the unexpected enquiry but knowing Éothain referred to Thaldor. Ever since that night in Cormallen, he had asked no questions concerning him. "Three years," she answered. "His father held land near Forvarad and was a friend to mine." Though the Rider made no further enquiry, she went on. "Thaldor and I met at a dance; began spending time together, and when our parents expressed their content, suggesting we could have a good life together, we entertained the idea. There was attraction, but as we grew to know each other better, it became friendship; those romantic feelings we thought we had fled. Neither of us had found passionate love, or indeed such easy friendship before, and we came to realise that the former might not be meant for everyone. Still, we decided to marry, because to spend life with a person one respects and feels perfectly comfortable with truly is as wonderful. Physical awareness would grow with time, perhaps, but we both cherished the fact that we would live in Lossarnach once we were wed, build a house by the river." Idrin fell silent, a feeling akin to peace washing over her, fingertips caressing the cool silver.
Éothain studied her but could find no words to offer.
"He would have made a good husband, sister," said Faervel affectionately.
"Yes, he would have," the healer concurred, her voice heavy.
Her brothers exchanged a look, and Damhir lifted his glass. "To old friends. And a safe journey on the morrow to the new."
1 Sweet-wood is the English translation of kayu manis, the Indonesian name for cinnamon. Despite Tolkien not making mention of this spice in his writings, by taking into account the optimal growth parameters for the cinnamon tree while consulting Dr Dan Lunt's The Climate of Middle-earth, it appears that the southern regions extending from Pelargir to the northern border of Harad are suitable for its cultivation.
Nolwa is the Quenya name for cinnamon of my invention, literally translated as scented stick.
2 Although the map of Middle-earth identifies only a few towns and cities, Professor Tolkien implied that there were more settlements marking its landscape. Forvarad is my creation, an attempt to bring to life one of those anonymous towns.
3 While the Professor invented customs for the Elves (found in Morgoth's Ring of The History of Middle-earth), he didn't do the same for Men. This Gondorian betrothal custom is of my invention, inspired by the verses of the ballad The Broken Token:
'A ring of gold he took off my hand./ He broke the token, a half to keep,/ Half he bade me treasure.'
4 '. . . [Orcs] came over the [Anduin] and down from the North . . . [they] were more than surprised to meet [the Ents] out on the Wold . . . not many escaped [the Ents] alive, and the River had most of those.' (The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter VI: Many Partings)
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