Healing the Healers by Rhymer

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Story Notes:

This was written for the March 2015 Teitho challenge, on the theme of Sickness, where it placed first.


His first thought was that the king had fallen. The king was sitting by the fountain in the falling snow, and there was something slumped about him; something that Faramir had never thought to see in his king. His step faltered for a moment, and then he was striding across the courtyard, hurrying through the slush and the melting snow.

"My lord?" His breath steamed in the cold air, barely visible against the leaden sky.

The king did not look up until Faramir addressed him, and that in itself said too much. He looked deeply weary, but his eyes were lucid. Faramir felt his shoulder relax, and the muscles of his neck release their tension, just a little. "It was a long day," Aragorn said. "A long day spent inside in one sick room after another. I wished to enjoy the fresh air for a while."

"Not very fresh," Faramir said, mustering a faint smile. The winter was unending: not one of cold, crisp, sunlit days, but one of grey skies and sleet and unrelenting cold.

"No." Aragorn returned a smile of his own. He looked older than Faramir had ever seen him. "But it is enough."

There were guards around the courtyard, of course, but they kept their distance. In the first few months, the king had forever been surrounded by guards and officials and anxious servitors. They had been so terrified that their king, so miraculously returned to them, would be snatched away again, that they had wanted to dog his every move. But in the end, Aragorn had made his will known, and they had granted him space.

For the first time, Faramir wondered if this was a good idea. If the king had really been sitting wounded in the courtyard, would the guards have stayed at their posts, safely at the prescribed distance, and failed to take action?

"You are cold," Faramir said, and Aragorn did not deny it, and neither did he do anything to stop Faramir from summoning a distant servitor and sending him for a glass of mulled wine, warm and sweet.

After that, Faramir was content to wait.

"It is worse," Aragorn said at last, into the long silence. He raised one hand, and watched as the snowflakes landed on it, melting as soon as they touched his skin. "This sickness is worse. I am doing all I can, but…"

The mulled wine came. Faramir took it with a nod of thanks, and pressed it into the hands of his king. His fingertips touched Aragorn's, and he felt how cold they were. He saw, too, that the lines of Aragorn's hands were dyed faintly green from the juice of herbs. He caught the fleeting, aromatic scent of healing from his king's hands.

"Thank you," Aragorn said, raising the glass to his mouth. The steam from the hot liquid was fierce, and snowflakes melted as they neared it.

Faramir wished they could speak of happier things, but he was the Steward of Gondor, and this was his king. The needs of Gondor would always come first for them. "There were twenty dead today, or so say the reports."

"Only twenty, some will say." Aragorn cupped the wine glass in both hands. "Most who suffer from this sickness survive. It is usually only the very old and very young, the very frail, who die. I do what I can. I cannot heal all ills. I cannot cure this, but I can ease it.  If someone is far lost in fever, sometimes I can call them back."

As you called me back, Faramir thought. Of course he did.

"I have spent every day this week in the Houses of Healing," Aragorn said. "It is not enough."

"I wish--" Faramir said, but it was a selfish thought. I wish I, too, was of the blood of Lúthien, and could play my part! But although he was of the blood of Númenor, he had little skill with healing, beyond the skill that all warriors possessed, who cared for fallen comrades in the field.

"It is not enough," said his king.

******

Salabeth was too weary to move. When someone offered her a bowl of lukewarm stew, she took it, only to set it down on her lap, too exhausted even to raise the spoon.

"I wish…" she said.

"What?" said Laegon, slumping down beside her.

Salabeth shook her head. "Nothing." She managed a single spoonful. It was the first thing she had eaten all day, and it should have tasted wonderful. Instead, it tasted like ashes.

"Only two dead today," said Laegon.

"Only two?" She rounded on him, suddenly furious, only to find that she was too weary for fury, as well. "That is two too many," she said quietly.

"I know." Laegon pressed his hand to his brow, fingers kneading his temples.

Only two. But the other hospitals in the other levels would each have their own twos and threes and fours. Even the Houses of Healing, so far up above them, would have its deaths. But the Houses of Healing could not house all the victims of this winter contagion. Many suffered in their own homes. Others came to the makeshift houses and hospitals which had been set up in the lower levels to treat the overlooked sick. Salabeth had no idea how many such places there were. All she knew was this one place. All she saw in her life now was the confines of these four walls.

" Salabeth?" someone called. "We need you!"

"Of course you do," she murmured, and found that she had the energy to stand, after all.

******

Somewhere in the city, a bell was tolling. Another one dead, Faramir thought. He was wrapped in furs against the cold, as damp snow fell around them, melting as it touched their clothes.

"The healers in the Houses of Healing labour ceaselessly," said his king, "but the Houses are not the only places of healing in the city."

"No," Faramir agreed.

As the days went by, they were increasingly on their own in the upper levels of Minas Tirith. Lords had left the unhealthiness of the city, and gone to their estates in the countryside. Few came to the king's audiences, and there were no festivals and banquets. Éowyn and Arwen were in Emyn Arnen, where the house of the stewards had been thrown open to the young and the frail of Minas Tirith, as many as could be accommodated there. Éowyn had not wanted to leave, or maybe she had not wanted him to leave her, but in the end, she had accepted the need for it.

"The Houses of Healing have many chambers," Aragorn said, "and many healers. They have stores of herbs built up over many years, and whole rooms full of books of herblore and learning. The other houses have so very little, but the needs of the people within them are just as great."

Faramir knew what was coming. Of course he did. He had come to know his king only too well over the ten years they had known each other.  "And the Houses of Healing have you," he said.

"Yes." Aragorn met his gaze. He knew that Faramir knew what he was planning, and he offered no apology for it.  

Faramir might have argued. He did not.

******

Pressing her hands to the small of her back, Salabeth turned her face towards the sky. It was grey, with little light in it. She had no idea if it was the grey of evening or the grey of dawn. Or perhaps it was noon, and this was all the light that was left in the world.

They had lost another one just hours before: an old woman, whose husband had passed away the previous evening, although the woman had been lost in fever then, and never learnt that she was widowed. Salabeth had been holding the woman's hand when it happened, but had not noticed her slipping away. It had taken Laegon to tell her, tapping her gently on the shoulder and helping her ease her hand away.

What am I doing? she thought. Who was she to attempt this thing? She had some small skill with herbs, but until the last week, she had never plied them outside her own family. Would the woman have died if she had been tended by a proper healer? What if she--?

"Salabeth." Laegon's voice dragged her out of her thoughts.

Salabeth kneaded her weary brows, scraping the heel of her hand across her eyes to try to chase the sleep from them. "Yes," she said. "I'm coming."

"No," Laegon said. "Someone else is coming. There's…"

What? she thought, as she watched the party approach. There were only eight of them, and they were well wrapped in cloaks against the sleet, but she could tell by the way they were walking that they were not in need of help. Which is just as well, she thought, because we haven't got beds for them. A tall man led them. Some in the group had boxes and bags, while others… Well, just by the way they carried themselves, she thought that they were soldiers. They were shrouded, wrapped in their hoods, but she could see their eyes, glittering and alert.

A lord and his party leaving the city, she thought. They had left in droves, running away to their mansions in countryside, because they could. But why would they come this way? They must be lost. She drew back into the doorway, standing where she could feel both the warm, stale air of the sickroom, and the cold damp of outside.

But the party came nearer and nearer, stopping only when they were facing her. "We have come to help," said one of the shorter men, one of those carrying a box. "We have herbs, and men and women who know how to use them."

He was speaking to Laegon, and not to her, but Salabeth was the one who answered. Who are you? she wanted to ask. Where do you come from? But because there were people inside who sorely needed healing, all she said was, "Good. Come inside, and get to work."

The shorter man had done the talking, but the tall man entered first, stooping a little to pass under the low lintel. Even when he was inside, he did not remove his hood.

******

Faramir had never seen the Citadel so empty, even in the dark days of the siege, when his father's grief and madness had made it a cold and cheerless place. Without lords to tend to, the servants were idle, and so the king had sent them to the Houses of Healing to fetch and carry, and to perform such tasks as could be done by those with no skill at healing.

Faramir would have gone himself. He still wished to, but Aragorn had been adamant. The role of the steward was to rule in the absence of the king. When the king was rash enough, foolish enough, to venture into a hotbed of death and sickness, then his steward had to stay behind. He had to stay well. He had to wait here, alone in an empty hall, in case questions arose that needed instant answering.

His footsteps echoed on the stone floor. The statues of ancient kings stared unseeingly down at him as he walked through the slanting shadows.

"Foolish enough," he murmured out loud, echoing his earlier thought. But although Faramir sometimes felt that he was cursed with a liege lord who gave too little thought to his own well-being, he could not truly believe that judgement. Aragorn had the gift of healing, and his people were in need. What better task could there be for a healer king than to go out amongst his people and heal them?

But what task did that leave for Faramir? Alone in an empty Citadel, he felt as if he himself was the fool.

******

The tall man was an excellent healer; Salabeth had to grant him that, at least. Crossing the room with a pile of blankets, she found herself pausing to watch him tend to a young child. He was good with the child's mother, too, reassuring her with quiet words that Salabeth could not hear.

He had still not removed his hood, though. Salabeth almost asked one of the other healers about it, but decided not to. Perhaps he was badly scarred, and ashamed of it. It mattered not. When it came to healing, she judged a man by the skill and gentleness of his hands.

He looked up, and saw her watching him. After a few more soft words to the mother, he stood up and came towards her. He was over a head taller than her, and she suddenly felt very small.

"You are weary," he said.

"Yes," she said. "Of course." A blanket tried to slither out of her grip. She heaved them up into her arms again, and her breath caught on their damp musty smell. "We've been working ceaselessly since the affliction began." She was just saying things as they were, no self-pity in her voice. "The extra hands today have really helped. Can we keep the herbs?"

"Of course." The shadow beneath his hood was not so deep that she could not see him smiling.

She had places to go; a hundred and one things to do. Instead, she found herself asking, "Where did they come from? Where do you come from? From the Houses of Healing, I expect. Someone with your gift must have come from there. But how can they spare…?" She let out a breath, too weary for further wonderings. "I don't care. It doesn't matter. You're here. That's all that matters."

"Yes," the tall man said.

Someone cried out across the room. Salabeth started forward, only to realise that the cry was a cry of joy. A young man, lost in fever for several days, was awake and apparently lucid. "…thirsty," she heard. "What's the time?" His sweetheart was the one crying out with joy, pressing her hands to her mouth as tears poured down across her fingers.

"You tended him earlier," Salabeth said. "I saw you."

"Yes," the tall man agreed. He moved closer to her. You are weary," he said again. "You should rest."

She shook her head. "But I need to--"

"No." He took the blankets from her arms, and she thought she would resist, but somehow found herself letting him take them. "It can wait." He led her into the back room, the room they were using to catch what little sleep they could. "Sit down." He took one blanket from the pile, and wrapped it around her.

"But I…" She shook her head, just shaking it uselessly from side to side. "People have been dying. I'm not a real healer, not like you. I just have some small skill at herbs. Until last week, I only ever used it on my own children, until they left to have children of their own. I'm not good at this, but someone's got to do it, and I haven't…" Why was she saying all this? She was still shaking her head. Now she yawned, as tears welled in her sleep-starved eyes. "But the need is there," she said, "and in my own small way, I can do something about it, so I have to. I have to, don't I?"

"Yes," he said, "and you have made a difference; never doubt that. I saw it as soon as I entered, and I have watched, and I have listened to those I have tended. You are the heart of this place. Many live because of you. Those who died, died despite your care, and their passing was eased because of you. But now it is time for you to rest. I will tend to your charges as you sleep."

******

Faramir waited up late until his king returned. He watched him from a high window, his hand pressed against the icy glass. The healers had returned to the Houses of Healing. Aragorn entered the courtyard alone. He had consented to take two guards along with him, but they must have returned to their guard house. The guards on the night watch saw him arrive, but true to their orders, they did not approach him.

My lord! Faramir wanted to throw open the window and call to him, but the moon was sinking in the western sky, so he knew that it was well past midnight.

The king was well, and he was home again. They could talk in the morning.

******

It was unambiguously morning when Salabeth awoke. Through a gap in the dingy curtains, pale sunlight was visible, although outside her blanket, the air was still cold. "How many?" she murmured. "How many today?"

She hadn't known if anyone else was in the room, but Laegon came scurrying over with his distinctive irregular gait. "None," he told her.

"None?" She struggled into a sitting position. Something felt different, and she realised that for the first time in days, she was awakening feeling fully rested. "None dead?"

"None." Laegon was smiling. "Several have left us, well again. We have two empty beds!  It's going to be a long, hard road for many of them, but…"

"The other healers?" Salabeth asked.

"Gone," Laegon said, "but they have left something."

Hope, Salabeth thought. "Herbs?" she said.

"Yes," said Laegon, and she thought, suddenly, that he was answering both the unspoken question and the one she had said aloud.

******

He was summoned not long after dawn. The servant said nothing, merely telling him that the king wanted him. Faramir was up already, dressed for the cold. He followed the servant through the empty hallways, their steps echoing strangely in the hollow spaces between the high stone walls.

"Something… isn't right," Aragorn said quietly. He was dressed, sitting in the chair beside his bed. From the mud splashes on his boots and a green-tinged spillage on his sleeve, Faramir judged that he had not undressed since getting home the night before.

Cold fingers began to creep across his heart. "What is it?" Faramir asked, but he knew; of course he knew. "You are sick."

He closed the gap between them in a few swift steps. Aragorn was pale, and looked icy cold, but when Faramir touched his skin, he realised that he was burning. "Keep it quiet," Aragorn whispered, as his eyes slid shut. "Please, Faramir, keep it quiet."

******

He had to tell the Healers. How could he not? He chose one who was both skilled and discreet, and had him come to the Citadel on the pretence of reporting on the progress of the sickness. "It is beginning to ease, my lord," the healer said. "The sun came out this morning; did you see? Perhaps at least we're seeing the end of this horrible damp cold. It breeds infection, you know. It spreads in the damp air."

"Yes," Faramir said. "Yes," and bade the healer follow him.

The healer stopped on the king's threshold, and let out a sharp exhalation. Then he recovered himself, and hurried to his patient's side. The king was propped up on a pile of pillows. His skin was burning, and his eyes were bright. He was deathly still in his fever, not tossing like some men did. Neither did he babble; Faramir knew that much from the time he had spent with him earlier. When the light was good, he looked as if he was merely lying back, thinking. But when the light faded outside, he looked…

Dying, Faramir thought, unable to stop himself.

"He… he must have succumbed to the sickness yesterday morning, if not before," the healer said, when he had examined the king for a while. "It normally takes time to progress to such a high fever."

Yesterday morning. Yesterday morning, when his king had expressed his intention to go out into the city to minister to the sick. Yesterday morning, when Faramir had done nothing to stop him. "He was out with the sick all day yesterday," Faramir said. "He came home late. So he was out all day, suffering--"

"It can creep up on a person unawares," the healer said. "He might not have known. He is a gifted healer, but it is easy for us healers to confuse the weariness of the sick room with the first symptoms of our own sickness."

"But what can we do?" Faramir asked.

"Wait." The healer raked his fingers through his thin grey hair. "It seldom kills the strong, although it is a rough ride that they have to endure. We can ease their symptoms, but there is little we can do to cure them. But for those who are deeply lost in fever…"

His words trailed away. "What?" Faramir demanded, although he thought he knew the answer already.

"Sometimes he can call them back."

******

Faramir knew was it was like to wander lost in the darkness, and to hear the voice of his king calling him back to life. I wish… he thought.

He did not possess the gift of healing, at least not in an uncommon way. Healers came and went. At times, Faramir had to leave his king, and venture out into the audience chamber, to make rulings in the king's name for those few who still came to seek his justice. Keep it quiet, Aragorn had begged him, and so Faramir did. He knew the importance of hope. The people of Minas Tirith were suffering, and if they knew that their king was lost in fever, they would despair.

He had nobody to confide in. Not for the first time, he wondered if he should send a messenger to Emyn Arnen, asking the queen to return. But then Éowyn would doubtless come to, and oh, how he wanted her to! But Éowyn was pregnant, and in this affliction, pregnant women, like the young and the old, were most at risk of dying.

Was he being selfish, then, not to send for the queen? But the healer insisted that there was little threat to the king's life, and surely Arwen would sense if her husband was in true danger, and come for him herself.

I… don't know what to do, he thought.

The healers had gone, one of them to fetch fresh herbs, and one for water. Faramir sat alone at his lord's beside. Aragorn lay completely still, despite the fever that consumed him. In two days, he had barely spoken, but those words that he had said were lucid and sensible: stray questions about food and the light and the situation in the city. Even in sickness, it seemed, his iron will prevailed.

"I don't know what to do," Faramir said out loud. He took his king's hand in his own. It felt ferociously warm.  

He remembered his own fever, when he had been lost and despairing after the dark arrow had struck him down. The memory still came to him in dreams, at times. It was a dark memory, but it was a good memory, too, because after the dread, there had come healing. Alone and lost, he had wandered through a dark, blasted land, but then a voice had called to him.

Called to him…

I wish… he thought, as he remembered hearing that call.

He sank deeper into the memory. The call had come through the shadows, and he had turned towards it. He had not known his king at first, but had responded to the command in his voice, and to the gentleness that lay behind it. He had turned towards it, and reached out his hand, and… and…

I took his hand.

In memory, he took his king's hand.

And he led me out.

Holding his king's hand, they walked side by side out of the darkness.

And then I opened my eyes…

He opened his eyes, and his king was looking at him, his eyes bright and lucid.

And then he smiled.

******

The epidemic was fast fading. Although the people of Minas Tirith would never know it, their king was one of its final victims. The damp snow stopped falling, and weak sunlight penetrated the thinning clouds, warming the chill of winter.

"You called me back," Aragorn said. He was still weak, but only those who knew him well would see any sign of it. The lords were beginning to return for their audiences. They saw nothing amiss.

Faramir shook his head. "I have no skill…"

"At healing?" Aragorn finished for him. "You called me back."

"I was only thinking…"

"It was enough," said his king. "Many years ago, a link was established between us when I healed you. It still remains, although for the most part, it sleeps. By remembering it, you awakened it, and now it sleeps again, until it is needed. I was…" He looked down for a moment, almost shy, then looked up, fearless. "I was lost for a while, but I heard you calling. It was like a light that guides a weary traveller home from dark places."

"But…" Faramir protested.

"It was enough," said his king.

And it was enough.




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