[personal profile] martasfic
Title: When Winter First Begins to Bite
Words: 2,780 + Notes
Rating: General
Fandom: Lord of the Rings
Characters: Eowyn, Ioreth
Betas: annmarwalk
Challenge: fanfic100 #94: independence; advent 2010 series

Summary: Several years after the War of the Ring, Eowyn seeks out an old healer-woman to whom she owes a debt of gratitude.

***************************

Éowyn made her way up the dirt road and pulled her horse to a stop as she reached the courtyard. Or, what passed for a courtyard here: ‘twas only a horseshoe of dying grass, buttressed on one side by the house with its sunken roof and the copse of barren apple-trees on the other. But she had expected no great welcome. This was not Minas Tirith, or Osgiliath, or Dol Amroth, or even Pelargir; there were no grand houses in Imloth Melui.

Indeed, the closest Imloth Melui came to adornment – to say nothing of the pomp of court – were the flowers that covered the hills at Midsummer. Thick as carpet out of Harad, they grew, and merchants and soldiers often brought their beloveds to see them, as a sort of honeymoon. Now, though, it was a fortnight past mettarë, and the flowers were long dead. Even the grass was turned brown with the frost, and Éowyn’s breath hung in the air before her, a testament to the cold. The Rusty Teapot – the public house situated at the crossroads a quarter-mile off that had been built to serve those summer visitors – would be near deserted, except for Éowyn’s escort.

She had left them there and had ventured the last stretch alone. This business was her own, borne from a debt she had acquired before she ever became king’s sister or steward’s wife. She would not begin today’s task under either standard’s authority. Dismounting quickly, Éowyn grunted to herself; she often forgot her age, and her knees sometimes had to remind her that they did not belong to a younger woman. She looked around once more for a stable or, barring that, a post she might tether her mare to.

The door to the house creaked open, and Éowyn turned around at the sound. An old woman stood in the door way, her wool shawl pulled tight around her face against the wind, but even so Éowyn recognized those features immediately. “Who are you, and why have you come?” the woman asked suspiciously.

Éowyn studied her for a moment. Two decades had passed since they had first met in the Houses of Healing, but most Gondorians recognized her on sight, or at least claimed to. Her flaxen hair was not easily forgettable. But no; as she looked closer, she saw that the woman’s eyes were clouded over, and that she stared not at Éowyn but over her shoulder. The woman was blind. Éowyn had heard rumors of her failing health, but had never imagined things had gotten so bad.

“Are you Ioreth, formerly of Minas Tirith?” Éowyn asked. “Gilboron, the innkeeper of the Rusty Teapot, put me on this road, and said I might find you at its end.”

“Who are you?” the other repeated. Then, sneering suspiciously, she added, “You’ll find nothing of value here, if that’s your thought. Not all in Minas Tirith live as the high do, and fewer still leave while they still have coin. And my cousin’s son will be home soon, a fine strong lad and with some training at the sword.”

Éowyn smiled gently. That was Ioreth all right, prattling away before she understood the nature of things. A gust of wind blew up of a sudden, mercilessly cold. “Please, mistress,” Éowyn said. Strangely, she found herself reluctant to give up her name. “I have not come to steal your things. You once healed me, and others I love besides. I only want to thank you, and to see what needs you may have. I heard of your retirement from the Houses and thought I might help you. If nothing else I hoped you might welcome a bit of company.’

Ioreth’s sneer left her face, though she still looked suspicious. “As you will,” she said. “We’ve no stables here, for we cannot afford a mount. But there’s a post round back where you can tie up your horse if you like. Or you can let it run free if it will come when you call; the country’s safe enough.”

“Very well,” Éowyn said. “I’ll be in shortly.” Ioreth returned to the house, and Éowyn set to work unbuckling the saddle. She retrieved a curry comb from her saddle-bags and quickly brushed the burrs out of her mare’s fur, patting her neck reassuringly. “I’ll give you better later, before we set off again,” she promised her. She produced a carrot out of her pocket and fed it to the horse. ‘But for now, the wind’s cold and I ache to get out of it for a while.” The horse cocked her head at that. Sometimes, Éowyn wondered whether she understood human words, but that was a mystery to be pondered another time. She struck the horse’s flank, not gently but certainly not cruelly, so that the horse trotted off behind the house, and at last she made her own way to the house.

Hanging her cloak on a hook by the door, Éowyn saw Ioreth sitting over by the fire and curtsied toward her before she remembered that Ioreth could not see her. “I thank thee for your hospitality, mistress,” she said. “May I sit?”

Ioreth snorted. “We’ll have none of those fine airs here, milady – for you are a lady, your custom shows that plain enough. But if you’d do me a real honor, you might tell me your name. These old eyes do me no good these days, and so you have me at a disadvantage.” She paused, and then continued, “But you needn’t do it standing, and if your bones are anywhere near as old as mine, they’ll thank you for the rest. Take the chair by the fire, but watch the left armrest. It came loose last week and Haldarion hasn’t mended it yet.”

Éowyn sat down in the chair, grateful for the fire’s warmth – and grateful, too, for the respite that last comment had provided. “Haldarion?” she asked.

“My cousin’s child that I spoke of,” Ioreth explained. “He’s off chopping wood at the inn, but he’ll be back soon enough to help with dinner.” Ioreth turned her face toward Éowyn’s voice, a gesture that must be meaningless since those eyes could tell her nothing. Éowyn remembered the fearsome gesture Ioreth would fix on her more recalcitrant patients, to get them to go along with her treatments. Éowyn guessed that she still retained the stare for that reason. “But you are avoiding my questions, milady,” Ioreth said. “Who are you, and why won’t you tell me?”

Éowyn sighed to herself, but answered Ioreth’s question without further delay. “I am Éowyn,” she said. Then, deciding she might as well do the job properly (for even a blind nursemaid would know all this), she added, “I am Éowyn, wraithslayer, White Lady of Rohan and Princess of all Ithilien – and a woman sorely in your debt.”

Ioreth’s mouth dropped open a little, but then she promptly closed it again. “Milady, pardon my poor manners earlier. I never imagined…” Her voice trailed off.

Éowyn shook her head in protest, and it took her a moment to realize that the gesture would be lost on one such as Ioreth. She thought for a while on how to respond to Ioreth’s words. In truth, Ioreth had behaved poorly, if she had known she was addressing one of the most high-born ladies in all Gondor. To deny that fact would insult the old woman’s honor, to say nothing of her dignity, and the only way to explain away her ignorance on this matter was to call attention to her infirmity – something Éowyn guessed that Ioreth would appreciate even less.

Instead of answering the point, Éowyn marched right on to the reason for her visit. “I owe you a debt of gratitude,” Éowyn said. “Twenty years ago you pulled my lord husband back from the Shadow-lands, when you reminded the healers of kingsfoil. You saw to his healing – and by Bema, I cannot see how you found the time in those days – and you returned him to the living, hale and whole once more.” Éowyn saw that Ioreth’s usually pale cheeks had taken on a rosy color, and she wondered whether the older woman was even aware of the fact. “I simply wanted to thank you, that’s all,” Éowyn added after a moment.

Ioreth seemed at a loss for words, for once in their long acquaintance. Éowyn did not mention the other boons Ioreth had given her over the years, for Ioreth already seemed overwhelmed that one such as Éowyn would honor her with the words she had already spoken. But sitting in this small house, with its fire crackling jovially on the hearth and with the rafters hung with cooking herbs and the corners piled high with vegetables, those other memories came back to Éowyn without her willing them to.

She remembered the whispered instructions, when the servant-girl had brought in the water for the Standing Silence, allaying Éowyn’s confusion and preserving her pride in one fell swoop. Ioreth also had found her useful tasks to do in those dark days before Mordor had fallen, and had told her precious details about Faramir when he first began to court her. To say nothing of her daughter. If not for Ioreth’s letters, Éowyn would not have known how to care for her own daughter Findhwen, who had lost her hearing in one ear from a childhood illness. Faramir was a great lord, and would have spared no expense for care or treatment, but it was Ioreth’s letters, her advice on teaching the child how to compensate for the loss, that served as a balm for Éowyn’s heart. Even now, the memory of those letters made Éowyn smile.

After a long moment, Éowyn became uncomfortably aware of how heavy the silence seemed. Ioreth could not read her face, could not see the yearning expression as Éowyn looked around the room, so the task fell to Éowyn to break the quiet that had settled over the room. So she asked the only question that sprang to mind, before she could think better of it.

“How are you making out here, Ioreth? Truly? It is not my concern, I suppose, and I don’t mean to pry into your affair, but this cottage seems a mean estate for one who spent her life caring for Gondor’s sick and wounded.”

Ioreth first nodded her head and then, inexplicably, chuckled softly to herself. “True words, milady, if Gondor were an equitable place. Were I a man, I might have earned a fine pension. Or were I a widow, or a wife, for I could have kept the wealth in my husband’s name. But I was never married, and Gondor’s law is plain on that point: a woman unbound may own no great store of wealth.”

“But why?” Éowyn asked. She knew that in many houses of Rohan the women were accounted as little more than breeding stock for sons, but Faramir had often praised Gondor’s more enlightened attitudes when it came to women.

“Years back,” Ioreth explained, “in the first days of the Stewards, our councilmen decided against Arvedui’s claim to the throne – and in doing so, they decreed that no woman could lay claim to her father’s fortune. ‘Twas different in the days before, when the kings pointed back to Númenor’s ruling queens and so remembered that there was no shame in women accumulating wealth. But in the time after things changed, and men – well, they had the swords, and most of the coin anyway, so it was no great surprise – they wrote the laws a little too broadly for the likes of me. The Houses could pay me a stipend for my services, so I kept myself while I could still work, but I could not receive the allotment other healers received when they could no longer work their craft.”

This time it was Éowyn who sat mutely, unable to force her thoughts into words. It seemed so unfair, and so unfitting that one who had saved so many of the great and lowborn alike should live like this. She guessed that Haldarion did not chop wood at the public house for the traveler’s tales but for the coin that he and Ioreth needed to survive. At last Éowyn asked, “Is there aught I can do to help you, Ioreth? What do you need?”

Ioreth considered that question carefully. “We do well enough for now, but Haldarion is nearing his twelfth year. His marm lets him live with me for now, but soon she will find him a proper master. Which is right, for the boy needs a craft if he is ever to make create a home of his own. But I cannot survive here without him. I cannot earn my own coin these days. With these damned eyes, I cannot even bank the fire at night.” She looked down at her lap again, another habit retained from the days when she could still see, and then continued, “I could use someone else, an orphan lad perhaps who needs someone to look after him. If I can find one; they are growing ever rarer since the Great War. Otherwise my sister will insist I move in with her family, down in Pelargir. But Imloth Melui is my home, and it is here I should die.”

Éowyn’s first thought was to move Ioreth out to Ithilien, where she could be well cared-for and pass her remaining days at ease. That, it seemed, was impossible. But she would find another solution, somehow. Orphan boys could only do so much, even if they found a willing lad, and it was unfair to them besides. Perhaps Faramir could see some other way to help Ioreth, though. With the king’s return Pelendur’s Folly no longer seemed so pressing. Perhaps Faramir might petition the king on her behalf…

At the moment, though, those concerns seemed far removed. That in itself was a luxury, Éowyn knew, borne of the simple fact that it was Ioreth’s independence at risk rather than her own. Yet she would find an answer, she was sure of it. She told Ioreth as much, but all the time she was talking she never took her eyes off the foodstuffs gathered at the far end of this room, in what Éowyn guessed must pass for a kitchen. It had been so long since she had watched a soup-pot simmer, or kneaded dough with her own hands. The promise of that simple pleasure seemed nearly intoxicating in its sweetness, but also just out of Éowyn’s reach. How could she ask to stay?

Ioreth, though, beat her to that topic – whether by some foresight or just happy coincidence, Éowyn could not say. “I’m glad you came,” Ioreth said, “and gladder still for the company. But surely the sun must be setting, or near enough. You won’t ride all the way back to Minas Tirith tonight?”

“I had planned to stay at the Rusty Teapot,” Éowyn informed her, “and ride home on the morrow. My escort is there even now.”

Ioreth tssk’ed at that idea. “That inn is fit for merchants and common soldiers, and perhaps even a lady’s escort. But I’d not trust my own daughter to the hospitality of a place such as that, if I had one. No, you’ll sleep here tonight.” Then, realizing how forward that sentence must have sounded, Ioreth added, “Always assuming milady agrees to it.”

Éowyn smiled at that, for the herbs’ scent spoke to her of home, and Éowyn was powerfully drawn to the quiet comfort of Ioreth’s hearthside. “I’ll stay,” she said, “but only if you let me help you while I’m here. I’ll not be some useless noble guest you must serve on bended knee. What can I do to help?”

Ioreth looked a little scandalized by the idea, but she acquiesced without pushing the point. “There’s peas over in the corner,” she said, pointing over toward the sacks full of vegetables. “Shell a few of them, if you will, milady. They’ll make the start of a fine stew.”

Éowyn retrieved the basket and sat back down by the fire. As Ioreth began to hum a work-song to herself, Éowyn found her hands remembering the task of separating pea from husk without need of any great thought. For her part, Éowyn thought she could stay in this house for a long while. As long as Eärendil sailed the sky. ‘Twas a good feeling, sitting by the fire and listening to the older woman hum and the clink of peas in their basket – one that Éowyn had not felt the lack of until just now, but that she yearned for nonetheless.
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