The Hands of the King - A short story by Banui Rochon

Night had fallen, and covered Minas Tirith in a veil of gloom. The silence that replaced the ricocheting clamour of battle seemed uneasy, waiting for something. It hung over the city like an ominous cloud.
The Battle of the Pelennor had been won, true. But it was not over. Men lay dying all over Minas Tirith, some from mortal wounds received in the battle, and still others from a mysterious malady that had been termed "the Black Shadow" by the healers who could not understand it. The sickness had been in existence before the battle- long before- but never before that day had its reaches been so far; never before had it felled so many. There was, it appeared, no cure. Any man, woman, or child stricken with the malady had small chance of living. And it was for that that Ninniach wept.
She hastily wiped her sleeve across her tear-splashed face, drawing a long breath. She couldn't lose hope- not yet. The fever was young yet, and Thórod was strong. Perhaps he would be one of the few that managed to fight it off.
Then again, and far more likely, he would not be. And after only half a year's marriage, Ninniach would become a widow.
No, she ordered herself, gritting her teeth. She wouldn't let her thoughts go that way. Thórod would live. He would live because he must live.
She should be glad- he could have been slaughtered in the assault on the City, as so many others had. At least this way, he had a chance.
Chance? the despairing part of her queried bitterly. Ai, if one could call this a chance. In the battle, he could fight against his adversary, fend off the assault. But the Black Breath was not something that a man could face.
Every few moments, the memories would return: Thórod, looking so proud in the livery of Gondor, kissing her goodbye and swearing to return. His face was graver than usual, and his laugh did not ring true, but both pretended not to notice. Ninniach had watched him go, her eyes fastened desperately on his disappearing figure, licking up the sight of him hungrily. If this were the last time she saw him, she wanted the memory to be vivid. She did not turn to go back into the house until he was completely gone from her vision.
She had paced the house all day, looking fearfully out the windows, her heart leaping into her throat every few moments as the clang of the battle reached her ears, and praying that the enemy would not get into the city.
The battle had raged for several days. The borders of the City itself had been under assault, soldier and citizen alike. Watching the fleeing refugees coming to take shelter in the deeper part of Minas Tirith in which she lived, Ninniach prayed desperately that that the enemy would not break down the Gates, and that here she would be safe. Only hasty tidings of the battle's progress reached those left behind, mostly bad news, brought by those who were fleeing their homes. Even when a great host rode from Rohan to the aid of Gondor, the number was still small, so small, compared to the never-ending armies of Mordor. It did not seem likely that they could do much more than hold back the tide for a while. And men were falling, dying, constantly slain in what looked to be the last defence of their homes. Women comforted each other as they prayed their kinsfolk would be saved, though what good that would bring them, alive in a city overrun with the minions of the Dark Tower, Ninniach couldn't guess. Still, she had been so worry-ridden for her husband that if given the chance and the means, she would have grabbed a sword and hastened to be at his side in the thick of the battle. And gotten herself killed in the bargain, she told herself. Anyhow, even if she had fought for him, she could not have fought off the assault of the Black Shadow.
And she could not fight for him now.
She jerked up from her place at the window. Why must she keep torturing herself with memories? She could not blame herself for this; it would only add guilt to her burdens.
She wiped the remaining tears from her face hastily, turned, and hurried off.

Ninniach was glad the Warden had offered to let her stay in the Houses- Valar knew she couldn't go home and leave Thórod here; her pacing the floors, sleepless, with her every thought directed towards him, and her every moment spent in the desperate hope he would get well.
She was doing much the same here, of course, but at least if anything happened-
More cruel thoughts surfaced. Every minute detail of the moment they brought Thórod in burned into her memory. She had been asleep- how could she have slept?- when the fateful knock sounded on her door, and she had sprung to her feet, running to open it, but afraid to do so and know.
"My lady," she heard, as soon as the cold Súlimë winds hit her face. A tall guard in the livery of the Tower stood before her, clutching at his sword nervously. In one horrible moment she knew his errand. Thórod was dead, and he had come to tell her. Feeling as if the world were caving in and dragging her with it, she clutched at the doorframe desperately.
No, he was not dead, the man told her, and her heart began to beat again; she began to take a breath.
He had been stricken by the malady known as the Black Shadow and lay ill in the Houses of Healing- and her heart stopped again, her breath came out a choked rush, and she grabbed at the doorframe wildly as if she might fall.
She never knew how they got her to the Houses; she had only vague recollections of being hastened through the streets as the Sun began to set. The battle had only just been won, but the victory lightened her heart little. The next thing Ninniach knew, she had been brought to Thórod's side as he lay ill in the Houses.
"They sink into an ever deeper dream," the Warden recounted the all too familiar symptoms, "and then pass to silence and a deadly cold."
Thórod looked so alien, lying there, his brow damp with sweat, his lips murmuring snatches of delirium, his face pale and worn, with a grey tint already beginning to creep across it. Ninniach could not bear to see him this way, and yet could not bear to turn away.
Someone had tried to distract her by recounting the victory at the Pelennor: how, when all seemed darkest, a great fleet had come down the Anduin, and upon seeing the black sails, all men's hopes were shattered, believing them to be the ships of the Corsairs of Umbar, and therefore the battle was lost. But then a banner was seen flying from the foremost ship: a banner bearing the signs of Elendil that no one had borne for years uncounted. Then a new hope rose, and it was said that the Heir of Elendil had come again, and men's hearts were encouraged, and in their sudden rejection of despair and the aid of the fresh armies from the ships, the armies of Sauron were defeated.
Good tidings, yes. But they had only brought more tears to Ninniach's eyes, as she thought how she and Thórod would be exulting over this victory if he were only well.

Why she was letting herself remember these things, Ninniach didn't know. She paced up and down the hall, without any other task to occupy her mind. If she only had something to do besides wait, she might be able to fend of her thoughts. But alone, she had nothing to keep her from falling into them.
The Steward was dead. In a fit of insanity and despair, he had tried to burn himself and his only living son, Faramir. The wizard Mithrandir had managed to save Faramir, but for the Lord Denethor he was too late. Now Faramir lay dying in these very Houses. And the King of Rohan, he too was dead, and his niece, the Lady Éowyn, who had slain the Captain of Mordor, also lay slipping away from life inside these walls.
So much woe. All the good tidings were countered by the dark ones; the victory overshadowed by the losses.
So much death. The Steward was dead, the King of Rohan was dead, the Lady Éowyn and the Lord Faramir were dying; so many others had perished. And Thórod was dying.
There. She had thought it. Dying.
Thórod was dying, and there was nothing she could do to save him.
A fresh onslaught of tears sank her down by the wall again.

Soon, Ninniach was pacing the floors again, trying to exhaust herself beyond weeping. She tried to counter the cruel memories with the beloved ones, tried to pretend Thórod was not dying. She couldn't try not to think about him.
They had first met on a spring's day, when all the worry of the years and the fear of impending shadow were lost in the world's rejoicing at the death of the past cold winter. Climbing down from a tree where she had been gathering its flowers, she had accidentally dropped the basket she bore onto his unsuspecting head. A surprised "ow!" echoed from below her, the man below her hastily putting a hand to his new injury and staring up at whence it had come. Mortified, Ninniach had frozen halfway down the tree. She had not noticed the man passing; her back had been to the road, and now look what she had done! For several seconds she considered staying where she was, afraid to face the man she had just inadvertently injured. She concluded she could not stay in this position comfortably for much longer, and she certainly owed the man an apology. She climbed to the ground, and somehow summoning up her courage, shamefacedly approached the man, who, to her surprise, was busily engaged in gathering the spilled blooms back into the basket she had dropped.
"I'm so sorry," she stammered, dropping to the ground and hastily gathering up the remaining blossoms. "I must learn to get over my childish ways!"
The man looked up, a smile flitting across his face. "Oh, it's quite all right. It didn't hurt. I might have deserved it."
Ninniach managed a shaky laugh; immensely relieved she had not offended him. "Perhaps you did, but all the same, I shouldn't have been climbing."
"It's quite all right," he repeated, taking her basket and standing up. Ninniach followed suit and he handed her the flowers with nod of his head and a smile.
"Thank you," she said, smiling back. "The flowers are so lovely; I couldn't resist. My mother always tells me my impetuousness would get me in trouble someday- I suppose I shall have to tell her she has been proven right."
"And I see that would bring you great pain."
Ninniach glowered at him, but the storm was soon gone from her face. She had almost forgotten her mishap, and the man's friendly manner had her completely at ease.
Thórod- for that was the name her victim soon gave- insisted upon escorting her home, "lest you drop something worse on another innocent bystander's head." In the weeks that followed, she found herself often crossing paths with him in the city- it was not until after their marriage that Thórod confessed their meetings were not as accidental as he feigned them to be. Their meetings grew more and more frequent, and Ninniach soon realised how fond she was beginning to grow of him. The thought sent a jolt through her emotions. Did she- She cut her wonderings short, half afraid of what they might signify.

It was a starry evening not long after her realisation that the two of them walked together among the silver-spangled grass.
"Look, there's a grove of trees," Thórod pointed out teasingly. "Perhaps we should climb one and get our bearings."
Ninniach elbowed him playfully. "I swear to Elbereth, I will never climb a tree again! Think of what trouble it got me into last time!"
"It turned out well, didn't it?" said Thórod in a tone that made a delighted shiver run down Ninniach's spine.
"Perhaps it did," she replied, dropping her eyes.
"I think I shall always remember you that way: flushed, with a flower in your hair, on your knees begging my pardon."
"I was not on my knees."
Thórod stooped and plucked a bit of wild niphredil from the grass. Tilting Ninniach's face toward him, he fastened it in her loose dark hair. "There," he murmured. "It makes your eyes sparkle, lothen {my flower}."
Ninniach felt a blush creeping across her cheeks, and the sensation was oddly pleasurable. "Perhaps it is not the flower," she said softly.
"Perhaps," Thórod whispered, and cupped her face in his hands. Gently he tilted her chin up and set his lips over her own.
Ninniach was too surprised to pull away, and when she had got her senses back, she found that she didn't want to. It seemed an eternity before he released her, slipping an arm around her waist. "Ninniach, could you find room in your heart- " He could not finish his sentence, only looked at her expectantly with his heart in his eyes.
For a moment Ninniach was speechless, and had to fumble to get her bearings. "Thórod- " But she, too, could say no more and instead lay her hands in his, clenching them tightly as if she could never bear to let them go; as if nothing could break her love or take her from his side.
Except death.

Ninniach almost wished he had been slain in the battle, for then she would know he was dead and would be able to resign to the fact. But as the Black Shadow devoured him, all she could do was cling to false hope.
She had returned to his bedside, holding a silent vigil, clenching his still hand as if by clinging to his body she could keep his spirit from fleeing.
Suddenly she leaned forward, her heart stilled in her breast. A second glance confirmed her frightened realisation. Thórod's face had gone pallid; grey. She chafed his hand, but it had gone so cold. She could feel his pulse beating faintly beneath her fingers, but the onset of the deadly cold and silence had begun.
Suddenly the thoughts she had held back all this time were unleashed. She tried to imagine what it would be like, living the rest of her life without her husband. Never to bear his children. To carry on the rest of her days alone. To have no hand to help her bear the burdens life was prone to drop upon her shoulders. To live without Thórod- that was not living!
She buried her head in her hands and sobbed.

Ninniach ventured out of the room for a moment and nearly collided with a passing figure. Stammering an apology, she took a step back. "Really, I'm sorry," she repeated, feeling disoriented. She recognised the woman she had just smacked into: Ioreth, one of the healers. She was an elderly woman who often spoke proudly of her daughter, a seamstress pregnant with her first child. Something had lit Ioreth's face up, and even as she was accepting Ninniach's frantic apologies, her face looked as if it were longing to break into a wide grin. Ioreth was a good-natured woman, and was seldom seen without a smile on her face, but a more radiant excitement than anything Ninniach had seen before appeared to have gripped her suddenly.
"My lady," Ninniach asked, confused, "has something happened?"
At first, words tumbled from Ioreth's lips so incoherently and excitedly that Ninniach couldn't make sense out of them. Tears began streaming down the old woman's cheeks as she clasped the younger one's hand, smiling and crying and trying to talk all at once.
"The Lord Faramir," she managed to say at last. "He's going to live!"
For one elated moment- though she found it hard to forgive herself afterwards- Ninniach forgot Thórod. A beam leapt to her face and she grasped both of Ioreth's hands in her own. "He's gotten well? How?"
Ioreth burst into tears again, tears like a spring rain that washes away the slush of winter. "The hands of the King are the hands of a healer," she sobbed, and her sobs became a laugh.
Thórod leapt back into Ninniach's mind, and guilt washed over her for feeling this joy as he lay dying. But- "King?" she asked, and suddenly remembered the whispers that had been going through the Houses when she arrived, though in her grief she had paid them little heed. The standard of Elendil that had flown from the Umbar fleet, coming to seize the victory and turn the tide of the battle...
"The hands of the king are the hands of a healer," Ioreth repeated, joyful tears obscuring her voice. "And so shall the rightful king be known. Thus the old saying goes. I didn't know at first- I shouldn't have had the courage to speak to him if I did! I didn't have the slightest notion kingsfoil had the virtues it does; it smells like something from far away, something I can't put a name on. And he healed him, the king did, and the Lord Faramir, he opened his eyes and he almost looked as if he had never been ill- my lady, you've never felt such joy as was in that room- and he named him first; he said the king had returned. I couldn't believe it, my lady, I couldn't. But there was no denying it was so. And they say he has healed the Lady Éowyn also- is everything bad going to be undone, I wonder?" She began to laugh again.
A small flame of hope began to flicker in Ninniach's heart. If the king had healed the Lord Faramir- could he not heal Thórod as well?
But, no- the duties of battle and such must surely consume his time. Why should he stop a few moments for a desperate woman and one of the Tower Guard? Faramir, now, he was the Steward, but if Thórod lived or died, what difference would that make to the state of Gondor?
Oh, but surely he could not be without a heart! Surely he could be persuaded! And the thoughts worked as bellows on the flame, and it grew stronger.
"Where is he?" she asked Ioreth, growing suddenly breathless. "I must find him- !"
"I don't know, my lady," Ioreth said, a crease in her forehead.
A sudden fear struck Ninniach: he had gone already, and there was no hope to persuade him. She squelched that thought, and directing a hasty farewell to the healer, she rushed down the hall.

Once again she nearly collided headlong with a figure, this time a slim maiden with a pouch of medicines. Ninniach once more apologised, then gasped, "Where is the king? I must- " The maiden wasn't sure; she gestured down a northerly hall vaguely and said she thought he had gone somewhere in that direction. Ninniach nodded her thanks, and was running down the hall before the maiden had even finished speaking. She was continually assaulted by the fear that she might be too late; that the king may have departed already, or Thórod had succumbed to the Shadow and even if she were able to persuade the king, it would be too late to help him. Fear lent eagle's wings to her feet, and she flew down the hall, and down the next, heedless of risk. Her heart had risen to her throat and she was like to choke on it- where was he?
Suddenly, she found herself face to face with the Warden of the Houses, and she slid to a rapid halt. "Please, my lord," she gasped. "Is the king still here? Has he gone? I must speak to him- " and she burst into tears.
The Warden, his brow crinkled in concern, tried to steady her. "I am not sure," he said, and Ninniach's eyes flamed with desperation. "I do not believe he has left yet," he mused, and Ninniach found a breath. "He may be in the northerly hall, but- my lady!" Ninniach was gone again.
She skidded through the halls, looking this way and that, breathless, panting, her heart threatening to beat out of her breast. Please, Eru...let me find him...spare Thórod... she prayed frantically.
She was beginning to lose hope- perhaps he had left already!- when she collided with a man departing a narrow door. Mortified that she had run into yet another person, she stepped away hastily, the heat of her blush rising to her face. "I'm so sorry," she amended desperately. And then her eyes really saw him: saw the grey cloak drawn over, but not quite covering, the emblem of the White Tree; saw the silver-white stone clasped about his neck; saw the light of his eyes, and the nobility in his face, though a narrow scratch marked the line of his jaw; and her hope flamed up again, but amidst her hope her nervousness rose as well. This was the Lord of Gondor; the King returned; Isildur's Heir. And I have nearly knocked him over!
At least, she reflected, she had not dropped anything onto his head.
"My lord!" she gasped out, her apprehension quenched by a wave of love and worry for Thórod. "Please- my lord, my husband- he is dying- the Shadow claims him- I beg you, please- can you not heal him?" Her tears were coming again, swiftly, and they obscured her words. She was babbling now, but at the moment, she was too desperate to care. "If you would but come," she pleaded, and suddenly felt foolish. Perhaps it was too much to ask; perhaps she was being irrational...
No, his eyes were kind. "Where is he?" he asked. "Bring me to him."
Ninniach's hope rose to drown her, and she was torn between laughter and tears. Somehow she found her way to Thórod's chamber, leading the lord down the halls. Ioreth was there, sitting beside Thórod's bed, pressing a wet cloth to his forehead. Another quick burst of fear gripped Ninniach- but no, he was not dead; his breast still rose and fell, though his face was a deathly grey. Ioreth looked up upon their entry and gave a small gasp, then moved quickly aside, dropping in a curtsy as she did so. Ninniach, clenching her hands in front of her so tightly they tingled, hovered close to Thórod's bed as the king knelt beside it. She wondered what she should do; if she should just stand there and gape, or if she should offer to do something. Without realising, she chewed her lower lip nervously.
The king placed a hand on Thórod's brow, dark hair falling across his face. A probing expression grew on his face, as if he were calculating Thórod's condition. His eyebrows tightened, then he looked up. "His ailment is not as dark as the lord Faramir's was," he said, directing his eyes toward Ninniach. "Do not lose hope, my lady. I will do what I can." Ninniach smiled with trembling lips. The king leaned over Thórod, the jewel around his neck hanging forward and glinting in the little light there was. Once more his hand went to the sick man's brow, his face tensed, concentrated. He took a long breath, as if he were a diver preparing to make a plunge. Then his entire body went rigid; tense; some struggle written in the lines of his face.
As he leaned forward again, the jewel caught the full of the light and blazed up suddenly against the emblem of the White Tree, then dropped from the light and quieted its brightness. Ninniach's eyes were drawn to it- a fair thing it was, delicate and finely shaped, like a flowering star, like- like the evening star blazing with sudden light in the night sky. It was Elvish-made, Ninniach realised, though she was not quite sure how she knew. Perhaps it was the gracefulness of its shape, or the way it caught the light, or perhaps it was something quite different altogether, and she could not put her finger on it.
She cut off her musings- this was no time to reflect on mysterious jewels. Please, Eru...let him heal Thórod, she pled silently, her knuckles white from the iron clench her hands were locked in.
"Awake, and put sorrow behind you." The Elfstone's voice- for that was what he had unconsciously become in Ninniach's mind, suddenly- echoed clearly on the walls of the small chamber. Ninniach sprang forward, one hand reaching- for Thórod was slowly opening his eyes, the ashen look draining from his face. He blinked several times, bewildered, as if he could not understand where he was. Ninniach let out a small cry, and bounded to his side, grabbing at his hand that was no longer deathly cold. The Elfstone's lips curved up in a weary smile and he drew back, straightening.
"My lord," Thórod whispered, his voice faint as if he were just finding it after looking for it a long time. Then his roving eyes turned to Ninniach, who felt such an intense burst of joy at feeling his gaze again, at seeing life in him again, that she began to sob, clutching at his hand, half afraid to let him go lest he fade away into some vague dream. "Lothen," Thórod whispered, tears roughening his voice. "Lothen..." His fingers curled around hers, at first loosely; then his grasp became as tight as hers, as if he were trying to draw some of her strength into himself. His gaze shifted to the Elfstone again, disbelief reflecting from his dark grey eyes. "My lord," he said again, trying to pull himself up, and bend his head in some apology of a bow.
"The hands of the king," Ioreth was whispering behind Ninniach as the younger woman dropped to her knees beside her husband, tearfully wrapping her arms around him, touching him, not believing he was real. Thórod's hand came up to stroke her hair, and Ninniach pressed her cheek against his, their tears mingling. He was alive; he would get well; they would spend their days together; discovering each day anew together; and there would be children, someday, and they would raise them together; it mattered little what else the years brought, as long as she had Thórod to help her bear her burdens, and she his...
She raised her head, suddenly. "I didn't thank him," she said, the first intelligible words to come from her lips, as she turned towards the foot of the bed. "The Lord Elfstone..."
But he was gone, disappearing back into the shadows whence he had come.

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