Through Shadows

Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Poppy

"Death in the morning and at day's ending

lords took and lowly. Long now they sleep

under grass in Gondor by the Great River."

quoted from The Battle of the Pelennor Fields; The Return of the King; Book V by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Minas Tirith, 18th March, 3019, Third Age

She woke to the sounds of horns and trumpets, the silver tone of the Gondorean fanfares rising over the powerful low-pitched bellowing of the great horns of the North. The host was leaving. The brightening square of the open window already spoke of a fair morning; obviously she had slept longer than was her wont. A restful sleep, dreamless as far as she remembered. She had agreed to take a light draught to ease the pain in her arm. Not the benumbing poppy syrup that lulled the injured into forgetfulness, but meadowsweet, leaving the brain functioning but taking the edge off the pain. She sat up, surprised how refreshed she felt after a night's undisturbed rest. Signals and commands sprang up, reverberated by the walls of the city.

Slipping out of bed, she made for the window, knowing that she would see nothing but the stony confines that held her. It was good that Éomer had come yesterday, well before the last preparations had to be completed and the ultimate tension of departure had set in. Through the noise of the decamping companies she heard the whinnying of horses… She would have to ask Elfhelm what had become of Windfola.

Seven thousand men and one thousand horses on a hopeless march. She raised her chin in challenge. Maybe those Gondoreans hoped. Hoped that the distraction would work, but the Eorlingas would march at their side, driven on by loyalty and stubborn resistance. As long as they were able to raise spear and sword they did not need any hope.

With a grim smile she clenched her right hand. Not yet fit for anything, but she would work on that. She had no illusions concerning her left arm: The way the bones had shattered under the Nazgul's mace there was no chance that she would ever be able to raise a shield again with it. Given time it might heal, but it would always remain weak and prone to pain. She had seen enough wounded warriors to read the signs, she would not feed vain hope.

Stepping down from the stool, she looked about her room: white walls, white sheets, a white cupboard. Only the wicker-chair provided a dash of colour, be it only a faded shade of light brown. A lifeless prison, pristine walls to close her in, left behind for good this time, her warring days being done.

She needed to get out of this enclosure, and for that she needed raiment. Stepping up to the cupboard, she opened it to check its contents. Spare blankets, pillows and two piles of immaculate sheets. So that Mareth woman did not have to leave the room to change the bedding yesterday morning. A wry smile tucked the corners of her mouth. Quite an eloquent way to spare a patient embarrassment. There obviously was more to those healers than hit the eye at first sight.

But that did not provide any garment. She would have to rely on Prince Imrahil's housekeeper, and the sooner the better.


Soon after breakfast Merry turned up, low-spirited despite his attempts to appear at ease. As they did not feel inclined to talk, Éowyn encouraged him to start some exercises to strengthen his hand and to overcome the numbness, but with the noise of the decamping army still audible, his concentration was lacking. Finally he left, his shoulders sagging, and with a sad smile. "I'm sorry, my lady, but I'm no good company at the moment. I'm afraid, I already miss him."

Being left on her own, she slumped down on her bed, when her gaze was caught by the wicker chair.

I'm afraid, I already miss him... Yes, she did miss him, though she would not tell him, her high- handed big brother. For a split moment she wished, he was sitting there, sprawled in that creaking chair, much too small for his large frame, grinning that slow, wicked grin that could make her boil with rage. But she pushed that thought aside. He was King of the Mark, riding to war, there was no room for whining and nostalgia. Elfhelm and three thousand Riders would be leaving soon to clear the road in the north. As they had started they would continue… Théoden King would be proud of them. As they were proud of him. She smiled, remembering how her uncle had overcome the Worm's bewitchment, how lordly and strong despite his age he had returned from the battle of the Hornburg… Victorious. And now he had fallen, but not before trampling the enemy's banner into the dust. Eorl's heir had felled the Black Serpent… What a glorious way to die.

And here she was: maimed, caged, useless. Why had death been denied to her? Death in glory, victorious over Angmar. She clenched her fist. It was useless to moan and wail. Fate was like that and she would bear up under it. When at last the foe reached out for Mundburg, they would not find her unprepared. First of all she had to get back her strength and the control over her hand, and that was only achieved by continued exercise.

She started with her hand, pressing every single finger against the wall, till she felt the pain. She clenched her fist, lifted the mug the healers had left, and at the end lifted the stool over and over again, until she felt the muscles of her arm tremble with exhaustion. She knew it was senseless to continue, and so she turned to improving her general fitness, pacing the room as fast as she could, and when walking in the constricted space finally made her feel dizzy, she used the stool, stepping upon it and down again with accelerating tempo. Sweating and panting, she finally stopped, feeling mentally balanced again though bodily exhausted and crawled into bed. Her arm was throbbing constantly, as the exercises had caused it to move despite the splint, and when the healer who brought her lunch asked whether she needed a pain killer, she gratefully excepted the mug of meadowsweet tea.

In the afternoon Merry came again, and once more he brought a fine cloth, filled with a selection of sweetmeats. "The man is still waiting," he announced slightly embarrassed, "because they want to know if there is anything you would like especially."

That was her chance. Getting into bed and making sure she was well-covered, she told the hobbit to let Imrahil's man-servant enter, and soon she had expressed her need of a convenient but appropriate garment, and he left, assuring her that the housekeeper would feel honoured to be of service.

Grinning she got up, and taking up exercising her hand again, she animated the hobbit to do alike. For hours they lifted things, pushed their hands against obstacles, pulled the drawer of the bedside table with only short breaks to drink some of the spiced water and have one of the pasties that made up today's fill of the cloth. Concerned she noticed that the hobbit did not reach for a second pasty though they were crisp and fluffy, filled with fruit and clotted cream.

She must have lost track of time, for much sooner than she had expected the gangly young healer that had served them the day before entered to bring their evening meal. His eyes widened, seeing the pasties, and without hesitation Éowyn shoved the bundle into his hands. "Take them, and share them with your sweetheart."

"But, my lady..." The lad blushed profoundly, holding the bundle gingerly.

"What's the matter? If you don't have a sweetheart yet, share with some friend or fellow-healer."

"No, that's not why… I mean…" The young healer's face and neck and especially his ears were literally glowing by now, and he cast an uncertain glance at Merry. Out of the corner of her eye Éowyn saw the hobbit shake his head. The lad relaxed, and having put their trays to be reachable in a convenient way, he left the room, promising to return the cloth when he came to collect the crockery.

It was a creamy soup with tiny pieces of chicken in it this time, and they ate in silence. Only when the healer had left the room with the empty bowls did Éowyn turn to Merry. "Well, King's Squire? What did you signal him, shaking your head?"

Now it was the hobbit's turn to blush. "I offered him a cake yesterday, and he declined, but asked if I would mind him taking one for his girl." Looking up into Éowyn's eyes, he overcame his embarrassment and finally grinned. "You see, as the Gaffers in the Shire say: As long as there's life there's hope and need for vitals. Let's take it as a good omen that the lad has a girl he cares for and that she is sensible enough to care for good food."

Éowyn could not help a grin, and as if some dark cloud had been lifted, the hobbit now fell back into his easy chat, his worries for his friends being put aside for the time being, though not forgotten. They talked deep into the night, until finally Mareth turned up and shooed Merry to his own room.


Minas Tirith, 19th March

The night passed, but though she had been tired and Mareth had brought her a bitter brew of valerian and hop, Éowyn was ill at ease and sleep would not come until nigh before dawn. The morning passed much the same as the day before: She ate and exercised, alone or with Merry with grim determination: Death should not find her weak.

In the afternoon Prince Imrahil's housekeeper came herself to deliver an assortment of clothes, and Éowyn had to admit that the old woman had chosen with practical care and intelligence. The robes were easy to don, though probably not totally without help, and wide enough to go over her splinted arm. She also had brought a pair of linen shoes with thick soles of plaited straw, and slipping inside them, Éowyn found them quite comfortable, though a bit tight at the ball of the foot.

The housekeeper nodded. "I thought so. I could not imagine a trained warrior to not have muscled feet." She chuckled. "The gowns belong to Prince Imrahil's daughter. He thought you were of about the same height. Well, I selected the loosest garments, and a better fitting pair of these shoes will be ready for you by tomorrow evening."

Putting the other clothes away in the locker, the old woman placed a dark blue velvet robe at the foot of the bed. "This you can easily throw over your shoulders yourself, as it is open down the front. There is a belt attached to it, but it is voluminous enough to cover you completely, even if not belted."

Éowyn thanked her and once the woman had left, she examined the robe more closely: thick, smooth velvet, tumbling down from the shoulder seams in rich folds… Obviously that was exactly what Éomer had so contemptuously referred to: a lounging robe. With a bit of fumbling she managed to get into it and found the housekeeper's words confirmed: The garment covered her from throat to toes, even without the belt being tied. It was soft and warm, and snuggling into it, she sat down in the wicker chair, her feet pulled up beside her. Certainly this pooling robe was big enough for even her brother to fit in, and for a short moment she relished in the idea that he might have worn it when at Imrahil's house.

The second day of their march towards the Black Gate. Where were they now? Where had they spent the night? Was anybody out there thinking of her or of anyone left behind? Éomer, would he be talking with Imrahil's son about their younger siblings in the Houses of Healing in this fortress of dead white stone they called a city? Prince Imrahil, who had stolen death from her, who was he talking to? She did not even know what he looked like, but did they not all look vaguely the same, those Gondorean lords, proud of their Numenorean ancestry?

Seven thousand men on a hopeless march. She tried to imagine the colours of the pennants, flying in the brisk wind of a clear but cold day… What colours would he display? She well remembered the rolled up banner his kinsman had been carrying… A banner fit for a king, no doubt. Had he not been kingly even in the Ranger's rags? How the mail of Théoden King's armoury had underlined his proud stance… Like a king of old, stepped out of the tales and myths of the ancestors he had seemed to her. What hauberk did he wear now? Certainly Gondor's, the Black and Silver she had seen on Boromir in Rohan. Solemn and cold colours that nevertheless had come alive through Boromir's personality and presence, through the smile he had kindled in Théodred's eyes, the joy and friendship those two outstanding warriors and lords had seemed to bathe in at their meetings, a feeling so true and warm that it had pulled in any bystanders... And now they were gone. Dead like all of them soon would be. Dead, if the gods were merciful.

She shivered despite the thick robe. It was useless to ponder. There was no hope but that for a clean death if a noble one could not be had. They would not get her alive, but neither would she shrink away from the enemy. She was a daughter of the House of Eorl, a Shieldmaiden of the North and if death was inevitable, she would at least try to take as many of those foul creatures with her as possible. And with that she threw back the folds of the garment and stood. Squaring her shoulders she breathed deep, and pushing the chair against the wall, she took up her exercises again. Whenever they would come, they would find her prepared.

ooo

It was dark, a darkness that profound that it reached into her very soul. Seized by a feeling close to panic, she held her breath and tried to get her bearings. She was lying on some kind of bedding. A bed…a sleeping roll on the ground? She was not sure, and more than she heard it, she felt the even breathing of a sleeper beside her. Shifting closer, she gingerly felt the sleeping form, afraid she might wake she did not know what. Her searching fingers touched an elbow and following the lower arm, she found the hand was placed below the sleepers bearded cheek.

Her fingers ghosted over the features, her heartbeat speeding up with the sudden joy of recognition: Fréalaf! Shoving her left arm across his back, she crept close, leaning her head against his shoulder, relishing in the warmth that radiated from his body, breathing in the familiar smell with a contented sigh.

She was about to drift back into sleep, when she felt something shift, some unfathomable fear rushing through her. "Fréa!" Her yell made no sound. Grabbing his shoulders in a desperate attempt to wake him, she felt cold, sweat-covered skin under her palms, bones where she had expected the swordsman's muscles. She flinched in terror, when the body beside her turned, clammy hands clutching her wrists, pulling her close. Somebody that definitely was not Fréalaf sat up straight, his upper body towering over her, following her movement as she backed off. His stale breath assaulted her nostrils and with disgust and shock she recognised who held her: Gríma! Jerking her hands down and pushing them up again in one swift moment, she freed herself from his grip, and throwing her body backwards, she brought herself out of the reach of his hands. Twisting around in the darkness, she fiercely kicked in his direction with both feet, feeling with grim satisfaction how her bare heels hit him right in the face.

Scrambling to her feet, she tensely hearkened into the darkness, when suddenly something wet and cold wrapped itself around her ankle, pulling her off balance. She mustered all her strength, and stepped on the thing with her untangled foot. Having freed herself, she stumbled backwards, out of the reach of whatever was there in the dark, groping for her. Panting she stood, waiting for the next attack, no longer having any orientation, as sight and hearing seemed to have ceased to exist. With rising panic she felt the air around her feet turn cold, and slowly rising, the cold enclosed her, until at last she felt something rushing at her out of the darkness, an icy gust streaming in front of it, wicked and deadly. In a desperate attempt to get out of the evil draught, she flung herself aside…

Gulping for air she woke, finding herself crouching at the head of her bed, entangled in her sheets and her sweat-soaked nightgown. Through the window the dim grey of the approaching dawn could be seen. The cold and bitter hours before dawn…how often had they found her awake those last years back in the Mark?

Trying to banish the nightmare from her mind, she rose, swearing under her breath, as freeing herself from the sheets with the use of only one arm proved more difficult than she had thought. She wanted to wash herself, to get the cold film that covered her off her body.

Pouring some water into the washing basin was challenging enough, but getting out of that cursed nightshirt proved nearly impossible. Having finally managed to undress, she sponged herself down as far as she could, but when she straightened, having dried her legs, her shoulder caught at the washstand, tipping it over and causing the washing basin to shatter with a deafening crash. Within seconds there was a soft knock at the door and then it was opened.

"My lady?"

Éowyn recognised Anwen's voice, hushed and anxious. Towel in hand, she stepped out from behind the screen. "I'm here, what do you want?"

The healer's mouth dropped open at the sight of Éowyn's naked body, her wide opened eyes dark pools in the dim light from the window. Standing proud and erect despite the splinted arm and a fair amount of bruises, Éowyn grimaced at the obvious prissiness. Béma's horse, and that timid little girl called herself a healer!

"What's wrong?" She felt the urge to pummel that useless wench out of her room.

The girl swallowed. "I'm sorry, my lady, I was passing by outside when I heard the noise. I thought you might be having another nightmare and just came in to check if you needed any help."

Éowyn glared at her. "I don't. But why do you prowl outside my room at this time of night in the first place?"

Lifting her right hand, Anwen produced a small phial of brown glass. "Mareth sent me to get some more poppy syrup from the apothecary." Her voice was a mere whisper. "It's because of Oswin. He's been getting worse all through the night." Her voice petered out, her eyes wide and desperate.

Éowyn felt her anger die abruptly. "Don't let me keep you from your work then. I'm alright, I just knocked the washstand over accidentally. Leave the cleaning-up till the morning. The stone floor will not suffer any harm from a small amount of water, and the shards of the basin are better collected in daylight anyway."

"As you wish, my lady." The young healer made for the door, but as she reached for the handle, she hesitated and finally turned round again and mustering all her courage, she looked up into Éowyn's stern face. "My lady, I know I'm not entitled to it and the Warden will probably not approve at all, but can't you come and see Oswin?

"Now?" Éowyn was bewildered.

Anwen simply nodded. "Please, do come, my lady, he's so terribly young and he's my responsibility, but he doesn't speak Westron… He doesn't speak at all anymore," she added with a suppressed sob.

Éowyn frowned. "You attend the wounded Rohirrim?"

"Yes, I do night shifts. But those I am with do not speak much Westron. Grimboern at least knows a little and tries to help me, translating, but I don't grasp what he wants me to understand about Oswin.

"Help me dress." Turning to the small locker, Éowyn motioned to her to take out one of the loose, sleeveless chemises. That would have to do, as the robe would go over it. Soon she was dressed and made for the door, the girl leading her through different corridors till they reached some kind of inner yard. While crossing it, Éowyn noticed that all along the walls men were sleeping on bedrolls. Frowning, she turned to the healer. "Why do these men sleep outside on the ground? Don't you have enough beds or pallets for them ?"

Anwen shook her head and laid her finger against her lips, signalling the need of silence. "They are no patients but stay to help with the wounded. We have so many severely injured that there are barely enough healers to see to the medical treatment and it is a great help that those men tend to their comrades, wash and feed them and help them with their other needs."

Approaching a large door that stood wide open to let some fresh air in, the young healer beckoned Éowyn to follow her, and they entered. Along the left and right side of the large, longish room injured Rohirrim were lying in rows of pallet-like beds lined up against the walls. Most of them were sleeping, but near the end of the room, some figures were crouching around one of the beds. An oil lamp cast some light on their faces and on the face of the young man lying there. Coming closer, Éowyn noticed the sickening stench emanating from it: a belly wound, and an infected one by the smell of it. When she reached them, the injured Rohirrim sitting on the pallets beside the dying Rider looked up and then lowered their heads in a mute but respectful greeting. One glance at the young man's face affirmed the fact that his end was fast approaching. She had been prepared for that, but what shocked her utterly was his obvious youth. The feverish, sunken cheeks were not bearded and only the chin and the upper lip sported some light dusting of downy hair. A mere boy! Éowyn knelt beside the pallet, mustering all her self-command not to pull a face at the putrid smell.

"His name is Oswin," one of the other Riders told her, a tall, broad-shouldered man in his forties, his voice having the soft lilt of the Eastemnet. With a jolt she recognised Grimboern, one of Elfhelm's captains, a bandage covering the left side of his head, the empty sleeve of his shirt making clear that his left lower arm had been amputated.

"Oswin!" Addressing the boy, she took his hand, but he gave no sign that he noticed her. "How come a boy this young followed the Muster?"

Grimboern shrugged. "He's by no means the only one, Lady Éowyn. So many have lost their families, their homes in the raids of the past years. What do you think keeps them alive, spurs them on, but the love for their people and the desperate urge to avenge the dead and to protect those who are still alive?"

What spurs them on... Solemnly she nodded.

"Waeter." The parched lips parted in a hardly audible whisper.

Taking the cup standing beside the pallet, Éowyn motioned to one of the Riders to push an arm under the boy's head to enable him to drink.

"No!" Anwen's voice was low and a little shaky, and when Éowyn looked at her in surprise, the young healer blushed, but bore up under her gaze. "Mareth told me to just wet his lips, not to let him drink, as his entrails are probably punctured."

"And?" Éowyn snapped.

"My lady," the girl spluttered, "he will die if he drinks."

"Fool! He will die anyway so what is the use of prolonging his suffering?"

"But … " The girl stared at her, her eyes wide with shock.

Anger flaring up inside her, Éowyn launched the next stroke. "I would rather deal him the finishing stroke myself than let him suffer and rot away in such an abominable way." She felt tempted to smack that imbecile, pampered being in front of her, lash out at those wide open eyes, just to give that girl a real reason to look scared and hurt.

A heavy hand on her shoulder brought her to her senses. "Hláefdige mín," Grimbold's low, lilting voice rang close to her ear, "Let her be."

Looking up into his serious face, badly bruised over the left cheekbone, she felt her irritation ebb away. How could she have snapped like that? With a nod he knelt beside Oswin's bed and shoved his arm under the boy's head, until it was cradled in his armpit. Bending over Oswin's limp form, Éowyn addressed him again, raising the cup to his lips, when a low-pitched, firm voice stopped her.

"Wait." Without further ado Mareth took the phial out of Anwen's hands and added an amount of the viscous syrup to the water. "Let him have some poppy first to ease the pain." Motioning to the younger healer to follow, she left the room, leaving the Rohirrim to tend to their comrade as they thought fit.

"Come Dear, drink."

Pouring a few drops, Éowyn waited for the young Rider to swallow and then repeated the action, dabbing what he did not swallow with the corner of the bed-sheet. After a few gulps, the boy opened his eyes with a bewildered, feverish gaze, and grabbing Éowyn's arm in a desperate clutch, he tried to sit up. With soft, crooning noises she urged him to lay back, which he did with the help of Grimboern, but he never let go of her arm. One of the Riders took the cup from her hand, and she stroked the sweat-clotted strands from Oswin's forehead. His eyes searched hers, and when Éowyn twisted her arm to take his hand, he started to speak. A rasp, breathless voice, strained with pain and fear. "Mother, don't leave me alone."

"I won't, Dear." Whispering softly, Éowyn bent towards him, squeezing his hand. "Drink some more, Oswin, come, it will do you good." But the boy had closed his eyes again, his eyelids fluttering, his lips forming one word again and again: "Mother."

"Sing, Lady." Grimboern's voice was hoarse and merely audible. "Sing and give him peace."

And Éowyn started to sing, soft and low, not the battle-songs, glorifying the valour of the fallen warrior, but a lullaby, a gentle melody her mother had sung to her, and slowly she felt the tension of the boy's tortured body slacken as the effect of the poppy set in, supported by the soothing patterns of the melody, washing over him.

Éowyn sang, her voice soft and caressing, watching the young Rider's jaw slacken. She sang as his head rolled to the left. She sang, as she felt his chest heave in one last painful breath. And still holding his hand, she sang, not the lullaby now, but one of the ancient songs, cherishing the plains, the horses, life. She sang, and then she realised that Grimboern, still kneeling beside the pallet, had started to hum. Low, dark, coarse, like rocks grinding in the rivers of the Mark, and one by one the Riders joined in, deep resonances forming a carpet of solid warmth and strength over which her own voice rose, louder now, clear and fresh, life conquering death.

And she kept singing, holding the boy's slowly stiffening hand, her gaze fixated on the window up in the wall. Slowly the dim square turned into greyish violet, the bitter hour before dawn, while she sang his soul over the threshold and they themselves stepped into the brightness of yet another hopeless day.

Annotations:

poppy: the flower is a symbol of sleep and death (eternal sleep). There are a lot of different varieties, papaver somniferum is used for the production of opium/morphine, while the red flowers of papaver roheas have become a symbol of remembrance for soldiers who have died during wartime.

Waeter: (Old English/ Rohirric) water

Hláefdige mín: (Old English/ Rohirric) my lady


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