Through Shadows

Chapter 7

Chapter 7

Simbelmyne

And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the city.

Quoted from: The Ride of the Rohirrim; The Return of the King, Book Five; by J.R.

Minas Tirith, 21st March, 3019, Third Age

Their visit to the Warden's was but short. Éowyn and Ceadda found him in a large sunlit room, carefully measuring out small amounts of different herbs, seeds and other substances while a young lad in the grey garb of the healers was busy grinding these ingredients with mortar and pestle and packing them into smallish jars. Stowing the herbs and his utensils away, the old man asked a few questions concerning the number of the wounded and the time they might arrive and then he sent the lad to inform the wards in question and started to meticulously cork up the jars and seal each one of them.

"We have been preparing since the moment the troops left for Anórien," he explained while closing the last jars. "As you perhaps know, we did not keep any lightly wounded in the Houses but put them up in formerly deserted large houses in the fifth and forth circle where the healers check on them in a daily routine. We prepared another quite large building in the fifth circle and now with the news of the arrival of the wounded in the late afternoon, we'll start to take everyone who can walk on his own feet down there to make room for those who might need closer observance and care."

Having sealed the jars, the Warden counted them and then opened a large book and wrote down the number of jars and their contents. Closing the book, he looked up, and Éowyn was surprised by the change his features had undergone since she had met him the day before. It was the same haggard face, partly covered in grey stubble, the same thin neck which made his larynx look almost obscenely present under the folds of his wrinkly skin, the same nearly bald head with that ridiculous wreath of short grey hair, but where one day ago his deeply-set eyes had been tired and worried now they had a lively, almost determined expression, and his thin lips were crinkled in a faint smile.

"I have to have a look at the progress made in the wards, my lady. Would you care to accompany me?" Opening the door for them, he let them out and then carefully locked the door. "We keep potions here that could be dangerous in the wrong hands, so we have to be careful," he explained and then started to scuffle along the corridor at a remarkable speed. When they approached the wards they encountered the first group of men, walking slowly towards the main entrance, leaving for their new quarters in the fifth circle. While she had been talking with the Warden things obviously had already been set into action. The men nodded to the Warden, greeted Éowyn respectfully and asked Ceadda a few questions concerning the campaign before they went on, and the Warden smilingly shook his head. "Remarkable men, these Rohirrim, but no easy patients."

Éowyn suppressed a snort. "They are warriors, Master Warden, not children."

The old man uttered a soft laugh, brittle like dry leaves, rustling in a sudden gust. "Oh, I'm grateful they are warriors, my lady, and no mistake. But to me, all my patients are my children and the naughty and obstinate ones I do not love less. But I feel very much reassured by the fact that Captain Grimboern has taken up the baton to keep at least some rule and order in the four wards that house the Rohirrim."

They had reached the first ward by now, and when they stepped through the large wooden door into the yard Éowyn stood dumbfounded for a moment, staring at the whirling chaos in front of her. It was the first time she saw the wards by daylight, and the small quiet yard she had crossed at night was a display of bustling activity now. Three other doors opened into the yard, and all of them were thrown wide, to allow some of the wounded to be led out with the support of their comrades, and others to be carried on their pallets across the yard from one of the sickrooms arranged around it to another. Healers in grey robes and Eorlingas alike were transporting empty pallets and blanket piles, wooden buckets with steaming water and packs with the wounded Riders' gear and belongings. It looked as if an entire éored was breaking camp. She spotted Merry at one of the open doors, a rough brush in his hand, asking one of the Riders to bring him one of the filled buckets, and beside the small water basin in the middle of all this stood Grimboern, watching the chaos with obvious delight.

"What is going on here?" Éowyn bit the inner part of her cheek to keep herself from smirking, seeing the Warden's face take on a vivid pink hue. Again he had the worried look she had noticed the previous day. His larynx jumped, giving her the impression of a frog, imprisoned in that wrinkly throat and desperately struggling to get free. Seeing an elderly healer coming out of one of the sickrooms, the Warden hastily excused himself and went over to the portly man to learn about the going-ons.

His attention drawn to them by the Warden's squeal, Captain Grimboern walked over to them, a broad grin on his face. "Hail, Éowyn Cynesweoster and welcome to you, Ceadda. Seems we have frightened our dear Warden a little again. He obviously does not like to be surprised."

Éowyn snorted. "I have to admit that I'm slightly surprised, too. The Warden told me that the lightly wounded would be taken somewhere else to make room for those coming from Sunland, but I certainly did not expect such a bedlam."

Grimboern guffawed. "It's no bedlam at all, I assure you. Just some kind of orderly chaos. All who can walk will be led to a house in the fifth circle. A fine building with a nice yard with shading trees. And it even has stables. All a bit overgrown by weeds, but it must have been quite an impressive residence. The boys will be comfortable there. Pallets and bedding were taken over there yesterday and all in all they'll have more room and less regulations than here in the Houses. And anyway everybody who can walk as far as the camp will be happy to go there."

A greeting shouted across the yard caught their attention. A young lad stood in the door of one of the sickrooms, waving one of his crutches about clumsily, and Ceadda's long bony face split in a wide grin as he rushed over to violently hug the boy. Grimboern's face went serious. "Lost two of his nephews, the poor bugger. Leofstan, his sister son, is the only one of the three who came with him to survive."

"That is Leofstan?" Éowyn was shocked. She knew the youngest of Ceadda's nephews had been born the year after Juthwara's death, so he was fifteen at most.

Grimboern shrugged. "He and his elder brother came as grooms, not as warriors. Some scattered troops of those Southron bastards sneaked up behind our baggage train and before our Riders became aware of them, most of the grooms were chopped down." The large man heaved a breath. "Herders from the Eastemnet. They stood their ground and defended the horses like their kin. We avenged them fittingly and let none of the Southerners escape, but it grieves to lose such dedicated lads."

Solemnly Éowyn watched Ceadda and his nephew leave the yard, the messenger answering the boy's barrage of questions, his duty as errant rider clearly forgotten. Ceadda the herder, the fastest and most skilled Rider in the Folde. Ceadda, who loved children and never had fathered any despite the affectionate relationship with his late wife. She gritted her teeth. Now at least he would be able to be at his nephew's side when it came to the last stand. Four more days at most for the host to reach the Black Gate... And he would not have to face his siblings, bringing word of the boys' death. For a split second she doubted the people's minds. Why were these fools milling about, arranging and rearranging the housing of the wounded when they were going to die anyway in such a short time? Dismissing the thought as weakness, she squared her shoulders and turned to Grimboern.

"I do understand that they need room for the wounded that will arrive from Anórien, and it certainly makes sense to put up those who do not need urgent treatment any more somewhere else, but why are they making the bedridden change rooms?

"That was Limp's idea." Grimboern motioned over to where Lhindir stood amongst a group of young Riders, obviously explaining something.

Éowyn bristled. "That young man is a more than able healer and he certainly does not deserve to be called names by you."

The Captain raised his eyebrows in surprise. "I certainly did not mean to belittle his skills, nor do I want to insult him, Éowyn. But the names of these Gondoreans are difficult to remember and to pronounce for most of the lads, and so we have Limp Lhindir, and little Wren Anwen, his sweetheart. Not to forget Mother Goose Ioreth and the billy-goat."

"Billy-goat?"

Grinning, Grimboern jerked his head to where the Warden stood, still in a vivid discussion with the elderly healer. "And don't worry. They call him that for his voice, not his stink."

Éowyn suppressed the sudden urge to grin too and shook her head. "And what did Lhindir suggest?"

"Oh, they put those patients together who need approximately the same treatment. That makes it easier for the healers and for the helpers. We have three more wards like this one with wounded Eorlingas, with a yard and three large rooms around them. They are trying to empty one room in every ward for the wounded to come. Lim... er, Lhindir pointed out that thus they could give the empty room a thorough scrub before the new patients arrive. The work is mainly done by our own men, to give the healers a break before the storm sets in." Grimboern grimaced. "We'll need all healers we can get then, even those who normally do the night shifts."

At that moment a group of young Riders entered the yard, some of them carrying armfuls of bedding over from one of the neighbouring wards. One of them was limping heavily and only after a second look Éowyn recognised the features of Berhtulf, one of Éomer's men, under the purple and greenish bruises that marred his face. But before she could greet him, Ioreth shot towards him, blocking his way, the speed of the plump old woman surprising not only Éowyn.

"You brainless rascal! Go back to bed! Immediately! Do you hear me? I told you to stay put, didn't I? Why can't you obey orders for once? You Rohirrim and your mulish stubbornness! You're risking your health, don't you understand that? You have a leg wound and three broken ribs, not to say anything about the bruises, and here you come strutting in as if..."

"My, what a splendid mother goose you are, Elder Modor." Berhtulf flashed her a toothy grin that looked rather horrifying due to his swollen and miscoloured face. "But now please shut up or my ears will fall off, adding to my injuries."

He had made the remark in the language of the Mark, and the Riders in earshot laughed, causing Ioreth to blush angrily. But she stood her ground. Her forefinger mercilessly dug into the young man's bandaged chest. "You impertinent whelp! If you mean to insult me, you should at least have the courage to do so in the Common Speech, so I can understand you."

Grabbing her hand, Grimboern intervened. "Mistress Ioreth, I assure you he meant no offence. He just...he just compared your... your way of scolding him and your talkativeness to..."

"To what?" The healer's angry eyes flitted from Berhtulf to Grimboern and back. "To what, Captain? It is not the first time I hear your men address me like that, and it does not make my work easier, you know." Heaving a breath, she folded her arms in front of her chest. "Well now, Captain, what does that elda moda mean, they always call me?"

An expression of utter relief spread over Grimboern's face. "Ealder Modor it is, Mistress Ioreth. It means grandmother in the language of the Mark and it is used as a term of respect towards elderly women."

Ioreth's mouth opened, but no word came out. Where her cheeks had shown angry red spots before, they now literally glowed with embarrassment. Finally she closed her mouth and cast the man in front of her an insecure glance. "You're having me on, aren't you?"

Éowyn almost pitied her. "No, Mistress Healer," she chimed in to end the embarrassing situation. "Ealder Modor is an honorary term in the Mark."

Slowly the old woman turned to Berhtulf. "So I have done you wrong, lad, haven't I? Though you really should have stayed in bed and..."

Stepping close, the young man put his large forefinger across her lips. "Hush, Ealder Modor. You have not done me wrong at all, so don't say anything. And I also called you Mother Goose and surely you looked like one the way you approached me." His phrasing of the Common Speech was impeccable though heavily accented. Ioreth stared at him in surprise.

"A mother goose? Me?"

Berhtulf grinned. "Well, you didn't flap your wings, but I assure you: that forefinger of yours was much alike the beak of an angry goose."

"Ah, you rascal." Angrily the old healer swatted at the young man's head, but with that typical broad grin of his, Berhtulf stooped and pecked her on the cheek before continuing his way to one of the sickrooms.

"Captain Grimboern. I expect your men to behave in a proper and respectful way and leave my healers alone." The Warden's voice was rather high-pitched and Éowyn understood only too well why the Riders called him billy-goat. Grimboern opened his mouth to answer, but before he could utter a word, Ioreth herself intervened. With sparkling eyes she positioned herself in front of the old man, her arms akimbo.

"With all due respect, Master Warden, but in what kind of world are you living? What is wrong with a hearty peck? And how can it show disrespect? You want them to leave your healers alone? These men risked their lives to protect those healers, and not only them. And mind you, they are prepared to do it again should it be necessary. Have you ever given any thought to how their commitment to their comrades' needs eases our load of work? Yes, Master Warden, they might be wild and unruly and rough, but they do not show any disrespect. On the contrary, I assure you they hold us healers in high esteem, all of them. And that is more than can be said of some Gondoreans. And what is proper behaviour under the circumstances we live under? Will you next demand they should greet any orcs storming the ward politely before cutting them down?"

"Peace, Mistress Ioreth." Fighting not to laugh at the old healer's curtain-lecture, Éowyn spoke up. "As far as I understand habits and rules of proper behaviour differ somewhat in Gondor and the Riddermark. But nevertheless, Master Warden, you can rest assured that no Rohir would behave in an indecent way towards any of the healers. Their profession is regarded as a very honourable one in the Mark. And if Mistress Ioreth feels insulted by that young Rider's behaviour, even if no insult was intended, one word from her would be enough to make him apologise and never behave like that towards her again."

From the Warden's jerking larynx she guessed he found it difficult to keep his composure, but anyway the old man never got a chance to say something, because Ioreth audibly cleared her throat and then broke into another vigorous speech of defence of the Riders of Rohan.


Éowyn was glad to be able to shut the door or her room behind her. Closing her eyes for a brief moment, she heaved a breath. How could it be that the simple fact of being up and about for not more than a handful of hours could tire her out like that? But then it had been the first time she had been outside for a bit longer, been walking, and what she had found the most demanding challenge, been talking to that Steward.

The air in the small room was fresh, thanks to the open window, and when she lifted her eyes to its sun-lit square, she gasped with surprise. There, on the high windowsill sat a small earthenware pot, glazed in brown and green, planted with such an abundance of heart's ease that some of them spilled over the brim of the pot. The small yellow and blue blossoms bravely lifted their tiny faces above the dark green foliage, catching the rays of the pale spring sun. Three faces in a hood the children of the Mark called them, and often she had collected the flowers on the sandy patches near the riverbanks to please her mother, who had used them to dye wool. Little had she known then about the virtue of the plant against all kinds of chest complaints. Did whoever had put the pot there know about the flower's virtues? A smile crept into her face as she touched the leaves. Living green and tiny blossoms, creator of joyful colours and helper against many an ailment. What a mighty power in such a small body, what a token of persistence, of life conquering death. She moved her pillow to the foot of the bed, so she could see the flowers while lying down. She needed to rest, just for a short while. Lowering herself, careful not to bump her broken arm anywhere, she lay down on top of the coverlet. The arm was throbbing slightly and her bruised shoulder gave her some discomfort, too, but her right hand was warm, despite her exhaustion. Gathering the shawl closer around herself, she curled up, her gaze never leaving the flowers on the windowsill. Heart's ease, simple, sturdy guardian of life... Vivid colours against a pale blue sky. Slowly her eyelids drooped.

ooo

When she woke again she found that someone had spread a blanket over her while she had been sleeping. She felt recovered, but the pain in her arm had worsened and for a moment she even thought that might have caused her to wake up. But then she noticed the noise, though muffled by door and walls. Slamming doors, heavy, booted steps and voices calling. The wounded from Anorien had arrived. Elfhelm was back.

She had just risen and ordered her clothes when there was a sharp rap at the door and Marshal Elfhelm entered. A tall, haggard man in his early fifties, beard and braids already heavily shot with grey, he was nevertheless every inch the accomplished Rider and warrior. But now his tired face and sagging shoulders bore undeniable witness of his exhaustion. His mail shirt was ripped at his right sleeve, and though the worst dirt and grime had obviously been cleaned off, his clothes and leather cuirass were dirty and there was a smear of rust on the bridge of his nose.

"Éowyn, hál." His sharp, cerulean eyes searched her face, his straight brows knotted in a frown. "They told me you were sleeping, but the Steward, Lord Faramir, has convened a counsel to inform the leaders of the various troops in town and the lords of Minas Tirith of the present situation." He grinned lopsidedly. "I'm bloody sure some of those lords are only too happy about every Eorling that stays outside their precious city. But be that as it may, I told the Steward that as you were the only member of Eorl's House present you were to be regarded as underking in Éomer King's absence and should attend, too."

She raised her brows. "Did you? And what did that Gondorean say?"

Elfhelm shrugged. "He agreed. Actually said he thought it a good idea. But I do not care overmuch what those Gondoreans think anyway. I'm not willing to bow to their manners and customs. Not under the given circumstances. We lost nearly a hundred Riders and have more than three-hundred wounded that severely that they will need the healers' treatment. And I will say nothing about the horses. Gondor is our ally and we fulfil our oaths, but I will not bow to Gondorean fancies."

Éowyn nodded. "When are we supposed to assemble and where?"

"In one hour, in Lord Faramir's room here in the Houses of Healing." With a sigh the Marshal passed one of his large hands over his eyes, and for a split second it seemed to Éowyn as if his fatigue had doubled. "Éowyn, I'll have to clean up a bit and I would like to have a look at Acwuld before the counsel, so I better get going."

"Acwuld? He's wounded?" She remembered him well. A man in his thirties, he had been the Marshal's standard bearer for nearly ten years now, a skilled and proud warrior and a bear of a man. Elfhelm nodded.

"To tell the truth, I don't know if there is any hope for him. Those beasts slashed his mount's belly and he fell under his horse. But those Gondorean healers have worked wonders on some of our wounded, so I convinced him to hold on, but..." He shrugged, not finishing the sentence, his lips compressed to a thin line. Reaching out, Éowyn gave his arm a reassuring squeeze.

"Go then, Elfhelm. I'll be at the Steward's in time."

As soon as the marshal had left the room, her thoughts turned to the council ahead. She felt mentally fresh and up to it, but the throbbing in her broken arm was giving her increasing trouble. Should she ring for the healers to give her something against the pain lest it reduce her concentration and alertness in the council? She dismissed the thought. The healers certainly had all hands full with the arriving wounded. She sat down on the edge of the bed and poured herself some water. Drinking it in small sips, she willed the pain away, but to no avail. With a thump she put down the cup on the bedside table. She would go to the Eorlingas' wards. Certainly one of the healers would be able to give her some painkiller, preferably meadowsweet.

As soon as she turned into the main corridor that led from the general treatment rooms to the wards, she spotted Elfhelm's tall figure amongst the men who were attending to injured men, helping them to slowly walk to the wards or carrying them on pallets.

"What about Acwuld?"

Elfhelm slowly shook his head. "The healers say both his thigh bones are broken and also his pelvis in several places. They cannot set the last. And even if his bones healed, he would not be able to sit again, let alone walk. And..." Elfhelm hesitated, his tired face full of concern. "They said they would have to... to amputate him. For otherwise there would be no chance of survival anyway."

Éowyn clenched her hand. No chance of survival anyway. Was that not what they all were facing? What pains had that man endured in one of those rocking wains all the way back to Minas Tirith? And to what avail? None. Only to lengthen his agony and on top of all to be told he would stay crippled. "I cannot imagine he would like to live on like that, a legless burden to his family." Her voice was harsh and determined.

Elfhelm grimaced. "No, certainly not. But I was not talking about his legs, Éowyn. The healers can set them, but with the smashed pelvis they would be useless anyway. What the healers are suggesting is to amputate his testicles."

"What?" Her voice sounded shrill in her own ears. What in Morgoth name had got into those Gondoreans? To geld an Eorling, a renowned Rider!

Elfhelm winced. "His balls got literally pulped. I..." Raising his hands in a helpless gesture, the marshal searched for words. "I've never seen anything like that, Éowyn. Swollen to the size of a goat's udder. And he refuses to be sedated."

Éowyn shuddered, imagining the pain the poor man must be suffering. At that moment a group of mail-clad Riders emerged from the treatment room, carrying a pallet. Acwuld. Elfhelm heaved a breath. "He demands a clean and honourable death. And that is all we can give him."

Éowyn nodded. "Will you...?"

Elfhelm shook his head. "No, his oath-brother Swidbert is with him. But I will be at his side. We'll carry him into the yard of one of the wards for he wants to see the sky."

By now the men carrying Acwuld had reached them. The standard bearer's face was bathed in sweat and contorted with pain, but seeing his marshal, a twisted shade of a smile curved his lips. "Told you so, Marshal," he whispered and then closed his eyes.

They followed the pallet bearers to the ward. When the Riders had lowered Acwuld beside the small water basin Elfhelm removed the jewelled dagger he wore on his belt and placed it beside his standard bearer's head.

"For your son, Acwuld. To remember his brave father." Acwuld opened his eyes and Elfhelm squeezed his hand before stepping back to give room to Swidbert. The oath-brothers' eyes locked, and then Swidbert drew his dagger and placed its tip on Acwuld's chest.

A clean death. Éowyn swallowed. A clean death was all this brave man would get and even that was more than most of those in the yard could hope for. Acwuld's face was clam, and placing his hand over his oath-brother's that held the dagger, he whispered something. Swidbert nodded and turned to the men now crowding around them in the yard. "Eorl's Ride. He wants you to sing Eorl's Ride."

For a split second there was silence, and then Elfhelm broke into song, his low-pitched baritone ringing through the yard.

"He rode from the North

Fierce and fearless

Leod's scion

Eorl the Young..."

All around them men joined in and from the rich bass at her right Éowyn realised that Grimboern was standing there. With a faint smile Acwuld closed his eyes and then the dagger sank into his heart. A clean death. Éowyn threw her head back, and like a she-wolf, joining in the howling of her pack, she joined in the song.

"Engaged man and mount

In raging battle

He won the Mark

With sword and spear.

Homestead of heroes

And unmatched horses

Blood he gave

For soil and sun."

"What is going on here?" Her voice loud and sharp, Mareth pushed through the crowd until she came to stand at the foot of Acwuld's pallet. Her mouth opened. The dead man's eyes were closed, and there was but a small stain of blood where the dagger had pierced his chest, but the experienced healer did not need more than a single look. "You beasts!" Mareth nearly choked on her words, her voice trembling with anger and disgust. "You barbarians. How could you..."

"We could, because he wanted us too, Mistress Healer. And we won't take any insult from you." Elfhelm's voice was edged with steel, his face a stony mask of disdain. Wordlessly Mareth turned on her heel and left the yard.

Out of nowhere suddenly Anwen appeared beside the pallet. For a split second Éowyn felt complied to pull her aside to prevent another outbreak of hysterics and tears, but the girl's face was absolutely calm. Slowly she reached out and stroked the bloody spot on Acwuld's chest and then pulled up the blanket to cover his face. Stepping back to give room to the men who now lifted the pallet to carry their comrade to the burying ground, she came to stand beside Éowyn, a strangely serene smile on her face.

"Lhindir promised to do that for me if the enemy should break into the Houses. He told me it would be fast and I need not be afraid, but nevertheless I have been all the time." Her smile deepened. "Until now. I know now that he told me the truth."

Still smiling, Anwen continued her way to one of the sickrooms, and only when Grimboern, swearing under his breath, caught her attention, Éowyn realised that she had been staring after the girl. She turned towards him and found him vigorously wiping his eyes. Sensing her gaze, he looked at her. "I never could stand seeing a woman suffer, and that little girl..." He shrugged. "You certainly know you are facing dark times when the only important promise a man can give his sweetheart is a fast and clean death."

Annotations:

éored: (Old English/Rohirric) A fighting-force, most likely cavalry units of 120 men.

Cynesweoster: (Old English/Rohirric) King's sister

heart's ease/ three faces in a hood: viola tricolor; wild pansy

In herbalism used against cough, chest complaints, whooping cough


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