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End To Innocence, An: 11. To Bring One More Soldier Home Alive
"We must use every advantage," he replied. "The Enemy's forces are almost at our walls, and we have nothing which can discourage them."
Maggie felt her heart start to beat faster, harder. "We - I thought we'd decided not to." Images of home, memories of Janet’s face when she’d told them how Saruman had laughed. “We decided.”
"No, we did not," he said softly. "We acknowledged the danger that may lie in the future. Will you come with me now, and see what danger is at the Gate this night?"
She frowned. "Seriously?"
"Get your cloak," he said. "You would not wish to be a shy flower, kept in a hothouse, protected from the world," and he kissed her palm. "Nor would I have you be. So you must understand what we face before we discuss whether a mad wizard's laughter is reason enough to dismiss arms which might be our salvation."
Maggie hesitated only a moment, then quickly pulled on her boots - she'd gone to bed fully clothed, and had never wakened to undress - then took her cloak from where it lay on the chair and followed him out of the bedroom. Haerendil, Meylari, Janet, and a Ranger Maggie thought must be Haerendil's brother sat by the fire. The men looked haggard, and Meylari and Janet were seeing to their injuries, a bowl of steaming water between them. Maggie smelled herbs, jasmine and new grass.
"Captain," said Haerendil, looking up."Have you need of us?"
"Nay," and Boromir shook his head. "I take the lady to see the Pelennor. She must understand the threat." Haerendil hesitated, as if he would speak, but then nodded, and Janet watched Maggie wordlessly.
Outside, a chestnut mare waited. Boromor swung wearily into the saddle, then held a hand to Maggie and helped her mount. When she’d settled herself, he turned the mare’s head towards the Great Gate of Minas Tirith and urged her forward. They rode in silence for a while before Maggie spoke. "You said Faramir doesn't wake,” her voice soft in the still night air. “How badly is he injured?"
"He seems whole enough, at first glance," Boromir replied. "He was struck by a Southron arrow, though the wound is not severe. But the darkness of those cursed Black Riders," he went on quietly, shaking his head. "I saw them first at Osgiliath, before I left Gondor." His voice was low, and bitter. "They have power to turn men's courage to foul despair, and their influence..." but he didn't finish. Then finally he said, "After our defeat at East Osgiliath I saw a man sicken, fall into nightmares, and die, from no more cause that we could find than being too long in that foul creature's shadow." Maggie thought of the beasts that had flown over the City the day that Faramir had returned, and she closed her eyes against remembered fear.
Finally they reached the First Circle of Minas Tirith, and the Gate. Soldiers were on the walls, more in the street, and Boromir halted his mount near a staircase that led to the battlements. He waited for Maggie to dismount, then preceded her up the stairs and stood beside her while she turned her gaze out over the Pelennor. For a moment, all the despair she'd felt at Helm's Deep came rushing back, and her breath stopped in her throat.
Fires burned on the field. The grass they'd ridden across only days before now writhed with lines of soldiers digging trenches, the closest barely three hundred yards away. She could hear their voices, harsh, their accents gutteral and cruel, and their laughter pierced her heart. "My god," she whispered. "So close.... How can they be so close?" and she looked to Boromir, fear in her eyes.
"They entrench just beyond bowshot," he said. "See, if you can," and he pointed into the gloom, "do you see where they bring siege engines? With those, they can fire what they will. They cannot mar the walls, 'tis true," and she heard a dark humor twist his voice, "but they can fire within them, if they bring them close enough. And we can do nothing to stop them. They shall bring towers, as well, I wager, and if they can reach the top of the wall, the fighting will go hard." He paused, then sighed. "They need not attack at all, though," he went on finally, "but merely wait. No help can reach us, and to feed a city with what we have within the walls now would be an impossible task. We might die tomorrow on the blades of their swords, or we might die months from now, weakened from the hunger that comes on a city besieged, and cut off." She stood beside him, watching the armies on the Pelennor, watching the fires burn, and the sickly glow of those fires on black armor and steel. "But I do not think they will wait," he said at last, and he sounded to Maggie as tired as she'd ever heard him. "They could starve us out, but they are eager for blood. I do not think they will wait. Do you see?" he said then, turning to her. "Do you see why the laughter of Saruman is less a deterrant to this action than the foe that awaits us is a lure?"
She didn't answer at first. Finally, raising her eyes to his, she said, "You told me once that I didn't know the things your soldiers face, or the risks you'd take to give your men an advantage. That you’d risk anything to bring one more soldier home alive, and the enemy defeated." She turned and faced the Pelennor again, but her thoughts were scattered, some with the soldiers behind the walls of Minas Tirith, some with their families, some with Aragorn's army which now, she supposed, had no hope of reaching them in time. She thought of Meylari, and her easy friendship, and the tender way she'd touched the cloth to Haerendil's battered form, cleaning the blood and dirt from his wounds. "Well," she said, "I may not know, but I'm getting a glimmer. If they get in here...." She paused, shivering from the icy finger of fear that trailed down her spine. "To hell with Saruman," she said finally. "If we can, we'll put the genie back in the bottle when it's all done, but if we fail here, and everything ends, then who'll be left to care what might have happened if we'd used the things? For that matter," she said bitterly, "even if we didn't fail, what would the families of the men who died have to say to us if they knew we might have saved them and didn't, just because one day, a thousand years from now, something might have been corrupted because of the weapons we were afraid to use?" She turned away from the field, and the sight of the enemy. "Take me back to Meylari's house. There's already no time to train your soldiers - I have to get home and see if I can talk Chip into sending a few more men than he originally offered."
At daybreak, Maggie and Janet returned with Chip, and with twenty of the forty-three men and women who followed him. “I’m sorry it couldn’t be more,” he said, “but we just can’t spare everyone.”
“It’s probably just as well,” said Maggie softly, glancing at Janet. “And I’m more grateful than I can tell you that you’re willing to come at all.” With that, she left Chip to organize his people and went to Janet, whose slender form was trembling with the strain of the work she did, though it seemed effortless otherwise.
Into the small list field that lay beside the stables, one after another Janet called the trucks with their cargo of weapons and ammunition to her, and finally, clutching the talisman tightly, her skin pale and glistening, she brought Maggie's teammates, and Michael. She sagged against Maggie then, who quickly slipped her arm under the other woman's shoulders and brought her gently to the ground. Meylari, who had come with her cousins, hurried to where the two women sat and pressed a hand to Janet's face and throat, then turned to Maggie.
"I cannot tell if she is hurt, or merely exhausted," she said. "She should go to the healers." She nodded to Haerendil, who quickly came and lifted Janet unprotesting into his arms. "I shall stay with her and send word when she wakes."
Maggie watched after them as they left, worried, and then felt a light touch on her back. She turned to see Mira. "Hey girl," Mira said. "You ready to get this show on the road?"
Maggie nodded, then reached out to take Mira's hand, uncertain. "Thank you for coming back," she said hesitantly.
Mira shrugged. "It's all good," she answered, with the smallest smile.
Maggie chuckled and shook her head. "Actually," she said, "it all sucks, but it sucks a lot more when you and I are fighting. I'm really, really sorry. I've been a jerk."
"You've just," and she paused. "You've been doing the best you can with some really freakishly strange circumstances," she said finally. "We both have. It's good, though - we're good," and she leaned forward and pressed her lips to Maggie's cheek.
"Well," said Chip, coming up beside them, "there went our ride," and he nodded ruefully in Janet's direction. "We're well and truly stuck now. So where's this army we're going to fight? We might as well get started."
Maggie nodded, then looked across the field to where Imrahil was talking with one of Chip's people, who was showing him a carbine with a mounted grenade launcher. "Prince Imrahil," she called, still not sure how to address him, but he looked up and came forward to where she stood with Chip and Mira.
"Amazing weapons," he said as he approached. "Like the small ones you carry, but so much moreso."
"Each weapon has advantages and disadvanges," said Chip, turning to Imrahil. "Chip Evans, at your service," he said, holding out his hand.
"Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth," he replied, gripping Chip's proffered hand. "You come to us in our time of need," he said, "and at great risk to yourself, to fight a foe which is not your own. Our thanks can never be enough."
"Oh," Chip said, and shrugged, "get us good and drunk after the fighting's over, and we'll call it square," and he winked and grinned.
Imrahil grinned back and clapped a hand on his shoulder. "We shall drink to our new comradeship 'till none can stand but the serving maids!"
Maggie turned to Mira. "You can manage without me for now, can’t you?" she asked. "Y'all are the tacticians anyway."
"Go on," said Mira. "We can handle things here - go see your guy."
"My lord," Maggie said to Imrahil then, "I'm going to see if I can find your nephews - Boromir said he'd be with Faramir in the Houses of Healing this morning. Shall I send him to you if I can find him?"
Imrahil nodded. "Aye, we shall need the Captain as soon as he may come, but do not press him too hard. The day is not yet old, and he may be spared for a while yet."
As she turned to go, she heard Chip say, "Should I be calling you 'my lord'?" and she smiled to herself as Imrahil laughed.
"You may call me what you will, my friend," Imrahil replied, "for your world is not ours, and we do not stand on ceremony with one who risks so much to aid us."
The Houses of Healing were busy with people when she entered. Women and men hurried past her, and everywhere it seemed hallways lined with doors opened on more hallways lined with more doors, and she saw quickly that she'd never find anyone she knew just by looking around. Finally she touched the sleeve of a woman, who stopped and turned to her. "Yes, lady?" the woman said, impatient but not surly.
"I was looking for the Steward's son," said Maggie.
"I could ask which one," the woman replied, "but they are both together, so 'tis of no matter. Come, I shall bring you to them - these sheets are headed down that corridor in any event." She strode off and Maggie followed, pleasantly surprised that no one had asked 'are you family?' Shortly they came to a turn, and then another, and then the woman paused, and nodded towards a closed door. "The younger lies senseless in there, and the elder keeps watch over him, though I dare say he's needed elsewhere." Maggie felt a flash of irritation at the woman's tone, but it subsided quickly. 'She's as scared as everyone else,' she thought, 'and she gets to see the results of the war, up close and personal. No wonder she's testy.' By then her guide's footsteps were echoing away down the hall, and Maggie turned to the door she'd indicated. Stepping close, she hesitated, then knocked twice.
On the other side, a low voice said, "Come," and she eased the door open and peeked in.
Boromir sat by the bed in a high-backed chair, his feet tucked under it, leaning over his brother. Faramir was pale, covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and on a low table was a silver pitcher with a water glass, half full, and a bowl into which Boromir dipped a cloth, which he wrung out and then pressed to Faramir's face and throat. Maggie stepped into the room and shut the door behind her. "How is he?" she asked softly, and Boromir looked up.
"Maggie," he said, relief in his voice, and he stood and crossed the room to embrace her. "He is much the same," he replied. "He cries out sometimes in his daze, sometimes for me, sometimes for another comrade. Once for our mother, though more as if he spoke to her than asked for her." He turned then, and she followed as he went back and sat heavily in the chair he'd vacated. She moved to the other side of the bed and stood facing the brothers. "How went your errand?" Boromir asked, his gaze still on Faramir.
"It went well," she said. "We got everything we went for. Chip brought twenty of his people, and Michael came with my team, so we're up to twenty-seven now who can use the weapons effectively. I think the grenade launchers will play merry hell with those catapults."
He nodded absently, then looked up at her. "Grenade launchers?"
"You remember," she said. "I told you about grenades at Isengard. The things that blow things up. Grenade launchers launch the things that blow things up."
"Ah, yes," and he closed his eyes briefly. "I am sorry," he said, "my mind has been much with my brother."
"Well, y'know," she said, "it's understandable."
"Thank you," he murmured, then gave a little sigh. "Understandable, perhaps," he said, pressing the cloth to Faramir's face again, "but unacceptable as well. There are those here who will see to him if I but let them; who will see to my duties if I forsake them to play nursemaid?"
Maggie reached out a gentle finger to smooth aside a lock of hair from Faramir's face, marvelling again at the likeness between the brothers. "Nothing's going on yet, really," she said. "Mira and your uncle and the guys are getting the weapons down to the First Circle, and setting things up. You can be spared for a little while. Imrahil said so." She hesitated, then said, "Have you talked to your father today?"
"Yes," he replied wearily, "Denethor came to ask after his youngest son."
Maggie waited for him to continue, but he didn't. "How'd that go?" she said finally.
He cocked his head slightly. "As well as might be expected, given that the Steward is yet unwell himself."
"So, I'm guessing he's not always like this?" she asked. "I mean, the things he said in his chamber, when - I mean, before you clocked him and left - he's not usually so harsh?"
"Not usually," he replied. "Not usually quite so harsh. Though rarely tender, and more rarely yet with Faramir, for all my brother deserves his father's tenderness, and regard." Faramir shifted slightly then, and Boromir caught his breath, taking his brother's hand in his own. But Faramir didn't wake, and Boromir sighed, absently stroking the hand he held. "No, Denethor has always been hard with his youngest, but never - " and he stopped then, and after a moment's pause, went on, "never has he spoken to me of him as he did that night. Never, at least, before I left for Imladris, and this wretched errand that took me so long from here. What he has been like with Faramir during the months I have been gone, I cannot tell, and Faramir did not enlighten me before he was sent away."
"So," Maggie said hesitantly, "when you say it went as well as might be expected, how well do you mean?"
He smiled then, a wry smile, and glanced out the window. "I mean that our father came to ask me why I sat with my dreaming brother when there were men with their wits about them who needed my presence. But," he went on, "he also did not suggest that we should - " and he hesitated again, and Maggie realized he didn't want to speak so in front of Faramir, regardless of whether the man was conscious. He turned his gaze to her then, and she nodded, understanding. After a moment, Boromir motioned towards the door. "Fetch someone to watch over Faramir," he said. "It is past time I saw to my duty, which Faramir would not love me for forsaking, even to sit by his bed."
Before midday, all was as ready as Chip, Mira, and Michael thought it could be made. Twelve machine gun turrets were set up on the wall, six to each side of the Gate. Between the turrets there were six M4 carbines with mounted grenade launchers supporting and supported by them, and a seventh covered the Gate itself. Five men armed with machine guns were free to move along the wall, and three rifles, of whom Maggie was one, were also free to move where they were needed. Imrahil and Boromir stood together, watching the quick and efficient movements of Chip's team, and of Mira and Maggie's other teammates, who'd been woven into the procedings more easily than Maggie had thought they might. "They are truly soldiers," said Imrahil as Maggie approached, "for all their clothing and weapons are strange."
"Yeah," she said, and grinned, giving a little hitch to the rifle slung on her shoulder. "We thought it'd be best to bring soldiers, instead of, say, politicians."
"I meant no offense, lady," Imrahil replied quickly, "only to remark upon their discipline."
"Oh, I know," she said, reaching out to touch his arm. "I wasn't offended. It just struck me funny."
Imrahil smiled then, and said, "And indeed, you made the right choice, for we have far too many politicians in Gondor as it is."
"At least one too many in the City at the moment, for my liking," Boromir said, glancing at his uncle, and he wasn't smiling. "Have you spoken to the Steward today?" he asked.
Imrahil nodded. "Yes, and he is in an ill temper."
The younger man smiled wryly. "An ill temper. Yes. A temper too ill for the Lord of the City; I preferred him cold, to this angry unrest. Would that he were sick abed beside my brother, that I might not worry for what he will yet do.” He hesitated, then finished quietly, “I should not have told him of the heir."
Imrahil answered Boromir's smile with his own. "What’s done is done,” he said, “and surely no ill will come of that for a time. But pray do not wish him beside your brother, for surely they would not both live out the night, trapped together in the same room."
Boromir laughed softly. "Ah, Uncle, forgive me. I should not speak so of the Steward, for he is your brother-in-law, and my father, and more, the lord of us both."
"And as he is my brother-in-law, and your father," said Imrahil, draping an arm over his nephew's shoulder, "we might allow ourselves to speak of the man as the man, not only as the Lord Steward." He paused, then added, "At least between ourselves."
Maggie turned quickly to watch the troop movements with intense interest. "And one other," Boromir said, and reached behind Imrahil to nudge her.
"Hmm?" She looked up. "Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't hear a word either of you just said," and she smiled brightly. "Shall we climb up and see what the Enemy makes of our little installations?"
"After you, lady," said Boromir, and extended his hand towards the stairs. She mounted them, followed by the Prince and the Captain, and looked out over the protecting wall at the Pelennor. The armies below seemed to have taken no notice of the activities on the wall of the City, and Boromir smiled. "It appears they remark them not," he said.
"All to the good," Imrahil replied.
"What could they make of it?" asked Maggie. "I don't suppose they've seen any weapons that look much like these, nor people either. If you didn’t know them, you might not think they looked too threatening. Otherwise I wonder if they’d have already tried to pick a couple of our shooters off."
"Armor," said Boromir suddenly. "I would see that your soldiers are armored before too much longer, for safety's sake, in case the attack comes sooner than expected."
Maggie nodded, and said, "Let me just check on something first." Slipping past them, she hurried along the wall to where she saw Chip speaking with one of the women on his team. He turned to her as she approached. "Hate to interrupt," she said, "but I just wondered how y'all are doing for body armor."
"We're good," he said, nodding. "It's not new, but it works. We got it from JT's over on East Fourth Street."
"Yeah?" she said, raising an eyebrow. "He's not cheap."
Chip grinned. "He owed me. I saved his drunk ass from some Black Handers one night when he got a little too rowdy, and he wound up totalling my Camero with me in the back by way of a thank-you. I took it out of his stock instead of his hide."
Maggie laughed. "Man, you rock, you really do. I wish you were on my team."
"I am today," he said, and winked. "Listen, meet Tina." He turned to the woman he'd been speaking with. "Tina, this is Maggie, Michael's friend."
Tina smiled, and held out her hand. "Any friend of Mike's," she said.
Maggie took her hand, returning the smile. "Likewise."
"Tina's my best shot," Chip said. "She'll be working the wall with you and Gus. Have you met Gus?"
Maggie shook her head.
"He's over there," and she looked where Chip pointed. "The guy in the hat."
Far down the wall, past the Gate, she saw a tall man in a cowboy hat, carrying rifle like the Colt she had slung over her shoulder. She grinned. "That's Gus?" she said. "Christ, I see him all the time at the Halfway Point."
Chip laughed. "Oh, great," he said. "Well listen, whatever he's done, just don't shoot him until after the fighting's over!"
"Aw, he's a honey," said Maggie, chuckling. "He always stops if I threaten to break both his arms." With a quick clap on Chip's shoulder and a "nice to meet you" to Tina, she turned then and trotted back to where Boromir and Imrahil still stood.
"What have you learned?" asked Imrahil.
"They're fine," she said. "They brought their own."
Boromir sighed. "That is a blessing, for we have little extra, and in unusual sizes."
Chuckling, Maggie remarked, "Isn't that always the way of it? Just when you need a thing, they've only got 'em in someone else’s size, and next season's fashions are already turning up. It's cool though," she went on, ignoring their pained looks, "they're good. And y'all are clear on what everyone's doing, right?"
They nodded, and Imrahil said, "I will be eager to see the effect of these 'grenades' on the enemy's catapults."
"I don't think they'll destroy them totally," said Maggie, "at least not without using more ammo than we want to. But I think we can disable them with a few well-placed rounds. Same for the siege towers. They move on wheels, right?"
"Aye," said Boromir.
"Well, we'll just cut the wheels out from under them."
Maggie stood on the wall beside Michael, who carried one of the carbines. Together they watched as the Enemy drew catapults closer to the wall, though not yet quite so close as to be reached by their weapons. She felt her nerves tingling in anticipation, and she checked her rifle again, and sighted through the scope. The fierce face of an Orc came into the crosshairs, but she didn't fire. It was too early. Beside her, Michael adjusted the earpiece of the headset he wore, then said, "Check." He turned to Maggie. "We're going to wait until all of them are in range before we start taking them out," he said. "We start too soon, and Chip figures they just won't bring the rest close enough. He can't gauge how far those things can fling something, so we'll risk a few shots from them if it means getting all of them out of commission instead of just most of them."
"Cool," she said. "Thanks."
"I hate we only have seventeen of these damned radios," he said.
"It's cool," she answered. "Your people know the drill well enough anyway. And mine," and she chuckled, "mine don't take orders too well to begin with, though I'm glad to have y'all relaying them."
"It feels good to be working with the team again," he said. "And with y'all too, but... Y'know, when you say, 'your people,' it feels right. I've missed them."
She bumped him gently with her shoulder. "I know what you mean," she said. "When I first got here, before Mira and the guys found me, I felt like I was missing both my arms."
He nodded. "I used to hate depending on other people," he said thoughtfully. "When I was a kid, y'know. Thought I could rule the world, or at least the block," and they both smiled. "I don't remember when it stopped sucking to depend on other people, and when it started feeling like the easiest, best thing in the world."
She held the rifle in one hand and draped the other across his shoulder. "It was when you found people you could depend on," she said. She reclaimed her arm then, and raised the rifle once more. "Come on," she murmured. "They not close enough yet?"
"Patience," said Michael. "Wait for it."
The catapults drew closer, foot by foot, through the trampled, ruined field. Each one had Orc archers flanking it, and creatures Maggie didn't recognize - and didn't want to - pulling, pushing, heaving them forward.
"Ready," he said suddenly, and she sighted on the archers. There was a pause. "Fire."
And it began. From six spots on the wall of the City, grenadiers opened fire on the catapults, the heavy thump of the grenade launchers soft against the sharp crack of the guns that defended them. On the field, the archers were in a panic, their fellows falling to missiles they could not see, and where the grenades struck, the explosions threw the attackers to the ground, wounded or dead, and one after another the catapults began to list and collapse. "There," said Maggie. One of the catapults, not yet too disabled for use, was being loaded, its arm drawn back. Sighting, Maggie fired and dropped an archer who was returning fire, and then Michael's gun thudded and she saw the grenade arc towards the sling of the catapult. It exploded, tearing the arm apart, raining fire and burning wood on the Orcs who surrounded it. "Grenade didn't do all that," Maggie muttered.
"They're using explosives," he said, to both Maggie and the small microphone of his headset, "or something flammable. If they've loaded, hit the sling." He fired another round, missing the sling of the next weapon but tearing through a small cadre of Orcs who had rushed to prop it up where one of the wheels had been torn off. "Load 'em up, babies," he murmured, "just makes it easier."
It took the defenders barely a quarter hour to decimate the catapults which had been drawn forward, and the attackers retreated outside the range of the missiles. Bodies littered the field, and Maggie could see that some of those bodies still lived, if barely. Shrapnel and explosions had done bloody work, and here she saw an Orc with an arm torn off, staggering back towards the line of retreat and falling; there, one knelt shrieking on the ground, bloodied hands to his face, and she didn't want to see what would be revealed if he looked at her. Then he was struck by an arrow from one of his fellows, and he jerked and fell, and didn't move.
"How are we?" she asked.
There was a pause. "Garret was hit in the arm by an arrow," he said, "but they're getting him patched up. Hank in the shoulder, it's not so good. They're taking him to - what's that?" he said into the microphone. "The houses of healing? Long name for a hospital," and he shook his head.
"Shorter than North New Washington General," Maggie said with a wry smile. "They'll take good care of him there."
"We didn’t lose anyone, though, and the bastards didn’t get a single shot off," he said, turning to Maggie and giving her a smile and a quick thumbs-up. "Go us."
She smiled back, but before she could say anything, a soul-killing screech ripped the air, and Maggie's heart fled. Beside her, the blood drained from Michael's face, and Maggie looked up. High above, bringing despair and nightmare, the Black Riders came.
Note: Extra special thanks goes to the Research Triangle Science Fiction Society (www.rtsfs.org), for the members' swift and helpful responses to my questions regarding medieval and modern warfare. Any failures in this story regarding any aspect of warfare, tactics, or weapons may be ascribed to a failure on my part, or to artistic license, not to this wonderful group of people.
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