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End To Innocence, An: 4. Desire And Despair
"No," she said, "and yes. Yes."
He unfastened the clasp of his cloak and drew it around the both of them, pulling her near. "Nay, I am not," he said. "I think you merely need warming. Come, lay back," and he pulled her gently with him to the ground. "A poor bed I may be," and she could hear the humor in his voice, "no softer than the stony ground, but perhaps not so cold. Sleep now," he said. "The morning comes too soon, and none know what the day brings."
She was silent for a moment, her cheek resting in the hollow of his shoulder. Then, "Boromir," softly.
She hesitated. "None know what the day brings," she said at last, "you're right... but...." and unsure of herself, she fell silent again, then felt his lips on her brow.
"Speak," he said gently.
"If ... if we're parted tomorrow," she said, and stopped again.
He stroked her shoulder, reached over with his other hand to capture hers and brought it to his lips.
She curled closer about him. "'Love is not all,'" she murmured to herself, "'it is not meat nor drink, nor slumber, nor a roof against the rain....' That's from a poem I read years ago," she said. "By Edna St. Vincent Millay. I've had it stuck in my head today, I don't know why."
She felt his thumb caressing her hand. "I listen to the songs men sing," he answered. "But I've had little time for books, or poetry. Can you remember the rest?"
"Not all of it," she said. "But the last part. 'It may well be that in a difficult hour,'" she recited, her voice low, "'pinned down by pain and moaning for release, or nagged by want past resolution's power, I might be driven to sell your love for peace, or trade the memory of this night for food. It may well be. I do not think I would.'" She lay quietly then, in his arms, feeling the rise and fall of his chest. "I know," she said finally, "that we're not - that - that things aren't simple. And love is a bigger word than it looks. But whatever happens, tomorrow or after, I just wanted you to know that with you, here, right now, I feel... whole." She turned her face up towards his, kissed his throat. "You are the noblest of men," she said softly.
"Oh, sweet," he replied, "nay, I am not. You do not know."
"Maybe we have to define 'noble'," she said, smiling. "Because in my book, someone who loves his people as much as you do, would sacrifice for them as much as you would," and she paused. "You are," she said finally. "You are."
The day dawned cloudless, but the sun was veiled in haze, and behind it came darkness, as if heavy stormclouds followed out of the east. Boromir had helped her lace on the leather and chain mail arm guards that Éowyn had lent her, and the leather and chain corslet, but the day had grown warm too quickly and she sweated beneath the unfamiliar armor. She'd moved both knives to boot sheaths, since there was no good way to wear the arm sheath over the armor, and the Glocks rode on her hips as always. Boromir, Legolas, and Aragorn had taken some time with her that day to practice with the weapons - first unloaded, then, sparingly, with live ammunition. They'd ridden some ways away from the rest of the company to do it, so as not to frighten the horses, and Legolas, who after examining one of guns refused to touch them again, held their mounts and spoke softly to them as the other three worked.
"They are surprising," Aragorn called over his shoulder to the Elf, pleased by the laser sight, which showed well in the hazy light of the day. "Are you certain you do not wish to try them?"
"Nay, Aragorn," Legolas called back. "I'll keep to my bow. My arrows, I can retrieve and use again, and the noise of those things is not to my liking."
"It's true," said Boromir, "the weapons are dependent on the bearer's ability to find fresh ammunition. It limits them."
"Yet the - the laser sight?" Aragorn turned to Maggie for confirmation and she nodded. "The laser sight gives even a novice the chance to wreak heavy damage on an enemy. Mayhap they are only useful for a short time, but for even a short time, they will be a help."
As they rode back towards the company, Legolas said to Maggie, "So, have you named them yet?" She caught the trace of a smile in his voice.
"Well," she said. "I hadn't. But then it came to me today. What I should call them."
"And?" he said.
"Desire and Despair," she answered, smiling.
He laughed. "Fitting," he said, "two sides of one coin, each as dangerous as the other, in its own way. Which is which?" he asked.
"Desire is on my right - it's the one I reach for first," she said. "Despair is the one I take when Desire runs out."
Maggie rode alone most of the day. The others - Boromir, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli, the Hobbits with them - had ridden to the front and had remained there with the king after their target practice. Boromir, discreet, had left her with barely the touch of his finger to her cheek, and a smile, but it warmed her as much as his kiss. Théoden had taken a liking to both Hobbits, especially Merry, and she was glad of it. She'd worried that Merry and Pippin might be sent to Dunharrow, and though she knew their current path was more dangerous, she also knew neither of them wanted to be shipped off like refugees, nor be separated from their companions. She herself, though, preferred to stay near the back, she wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the King's guard; maybe it was that she could imagine herself nothing but a soldier, here at the back, out of the way, where no one spoke to her but no one minded her presence either. Far ahead, if she used the binoculars, she could see the others, see Boromir riding to the left of Aragorn, the sun glinting from the metal of his gear. And Aragorn, to the left of Théoden. She wondered how Boromir could surrender so easily what Maggie thought was a defensible claim on the throne of Gondor, but watching them ride together, the way they inclined towards each other when they spoke, and how the two of them would ride a little ways ahead, then back together - they seemed as natural as brothers. She wondered if it were Mira and she in a similar situation, would she dispute Mira? would she challenge her? She thought of her friend's easy way in training: strong, yet gentle; charismatic, capable, generous. She'd trusted Mira with her life, over and over again, as Mira had trusted Maggie. No, she wouldn't challenge Mira. But neither did she think Mira would challenge her.
As late morning moved to afternoon, with it came dark clouds, and the lowering sun was the red of fear, seeming to tip the Riders' spears with bright blood. Nearby her, one of the Riders was singing to himself, and the sound of his voice was soothing. She'd finally gotten used to her mount's gait, and no longer feared she might fall off at any moment. She let her mind drift, the Rider's song slipping in and out of her consciousness like cool water.
As the red sun dipped below the horizon, the company of soldiers ground to a halt. Maggie pulled Annin to a stop, and raised the binoculars to her eyes. Ahead, in the vanguard, she saw a newcomer speaking to Théoden, saw him fall to his knees and offer his sword to the king. Gandalf had ridden ahead, and she could see him shining white even in the crimson glow of the ending day. He rode back swiftly, and she heard his voice carried on the wind, but couldn't tell what he said; then Shadowfax sprang away and he was gone. Shortly thereafter the company moved again, but in a new direction - southward, and Maggie wondered what had happened to pull them away from Isengard. She paled at the idea of riding to the fore to ask, but then she heard the murmur of voices, news traveling back among the soldiers, and the wave of it reached her: Théodred had fallen; Erkenbrand was drawing what remained of his men to Helm's Deep, and the host was riding to his aid.
They rode on into darkness, and here and there as they rode Maggie could see shapes moving in the shadows - fleeing before the Riders could reach them, or archers shoot them. She kept her guns holstered, but loosened the knives in her boots. She didn't know much about horses, but she was pretty sure that taking pot-shots at fleeing enemies in the quiet dark was not the way to keep the animals calm. Still, she didn't know when one of those shadowy shapes might come close. The pace of the column slowed as the darkness deepened and the path climbed into the foothills of the mountain. Behind them, they could hear singing, and it was not the songs of Rohan. They'd climbed far into what Maggie had found out was called the Deeping-coomb before they turned to look back, and Maggie's blood chilled at what she saw: scattered torches illumined a massive army, writhing towards them like beetles over the plain. Here and there they were setting fires, though whether to homes, trees, or what, Maggie couldn't tell. She wished, almost desperately, that Boromir were with her, so she'd know he was safe, and would know he didn't regret the kiss, regret being so kind to her that she'd actually used the "L" word, but he was in front, hidden in the darkness, and she rode with the rearguard. "No way out but through," she murmured to herself, for the second time since finding herself in this world. 'What else is there to do?' she thought. 'You fight, and maybe you die and maybe you don't. Or you hide, and die later, and harder, and probably alone.'
Clouds veiled the moon and stars, and no light eased the darkness when they reached the stream that flowed out of mountain beside the road from the Hornburg. Slowly, the company passed through the breach in the dike, and Maggie saw, far above, what she guessed must be Helm's Gate, that she'd heard the soldiers around her talking about. One had said that the Hornburg had never been taken, as long as men defended it. She wanted very much to get there - behind them came that army, and the harsh sound of their song. All around her were the soldiers on their mounts, the animal scents of horse and leather and sweat blending together with the acrid odor of steel to form a heady incense, and she felt disoriented, cut off from anything familiar. The day that had passed seemed like a dream, and this the thin edge before the nightmare. Annin beneath her was real, and that was all. And then a voice, she couldn't see the speaker in the dark, called out: "Rearguard, stand, and keep the breach."
Beside her, a soldier spoke. "You are not part of the guard," he said. "You should fly to Helm's Deep, get you inside the wall."
She looked at him, and his face was shadowed.
"Go!" he said again when she didn't respond. "Get you inside. We are too few here - we cannot hold the breach for long."
"If I stay," she said, "maybe you'll hold it a little longer."
"The king would not have you die, I think," he said, "a woman, and not of Rohan, nor any land I know."
In her mind, she saw the faces of the Orcs she'd killed, and the faces of the men around her, apprehensive, brave, determined, and most of them, in all likelihood, doomed. And she saw Boromir, wounded, standing between the Hobbits and the enemy; felt his finger on her cheek, his soft voice. Do you not think your coming here may have had a purpose? "The horses," she said at last. "Are they scared of loud, sharp noises in battle? Like a - like the crack of a tree if you could snap it off in a second, or the sudden crack of thunder right overhead? Or flashes of bright light nearby?"
He frowned, and replied, "They would not be of much use if they were. Nay, they are steady beasts, the horses of Rohan."
"Then I'll stay," she said, drawing Desire and checking it. She caught his puzzled glance and said, "It's a weapon. Like a bow, only - louder. And smaller."
"So small," he said, "it cannot be but a toy for a child!" but he wasn't laughing.
She shook her head. "It's not a toy," she said. "It fires metal seeds that bloom death. They enter the body at greater speed than an arrow, and there they - they flatten out. They make a very small hole going in," she said, slipping the weapon back into the holster and drawing Despair, "do a lot of damage as they pass through," checking the weapon, "and make a very large hole coming out." She holstered the second Glock. "And I really hope I get the chance to clean the guns, finally, after this."
She sat astride Annin, the others of the rearguard lined up along the breach, soldiers to either side of her - bows ready, swords drawn, as the enemy advanced in silence. Their songs had stopped, and Maggie was almost sorry for it, the quiet becoming too much to bear. Then, beside her, one of the Riders began singing to himself. Next to him another took up the song, and soon, all of them were singing, low, a song in a language she didn't recognize, the tune neither mournful nor military, but stirring, longing. It curled around her like the glow of a candle, but as the army of Orcs and wild men continued to advance, the singing of the Riders faded into stillness, and they waited. Desire in her hand, Despair still holstered, she watched them come.
A hoarse command from down the line, and the archers drew back their bows; she took the meaning, and sighted down the barrel of Desire, holding tight to Annin with her knees. She trembled, but the horse was calm beneath her. Then with a great shout, the tide of the enemy came crashing forward - archers loosed their arrows and the noise of the gun was loud in her ears even over the clash of weapons. One after another, she sighted and fired, unsure where she killed and where she only wounded, the screams of enemy and friend ripping the air. But there were too many, and the rearguard began to fall back towards Helm's Gate. Annin danced this way and that, nimbly avoiding the soldiers around her, and Maggie clung on and continued to fire into the mass of foes that were approaching in a heavy black wave. They were breaking through. She saw a Rider take a spear to his throat, and screamed as she shot the Orc who had impaled him, both bodies jerking in shock as the bullet tore through the Orc and the soldier died on the end of the spear.
All around her seemed smoke and blood, and as Desire emptied she heard the voice of the commander, "Fall back! Fall back to the Gate!" She holstered Desire and drew Despair, and as she did so, she saw yellow eyes at her heel. She twisted savagely in the saddle and fired point blank into the face of the Orc who grasped at Annin's reins. Annin reared up, ripping them from the dying grip of the enemy, who fell beneath her hooves, but Maggie felt herself slipping from the saddle. She grabbed frantically for Annin's pommel, but too late, and fell hard to the ground.
Scrambling to her feet she glanced around in a panic, weapon still in her hand, and quickly drew the knife from her left boot. From the corner of her eye she saw a dark shape slicing down from above, dropped to the ground and rolled beneath the blade as it whistled through the air where she had been. A black-booted foot stamped heavily down on her right arm, trapping her, and she grunted in pain, and saw the heavy figure of an Orc above her, his outline limned in red from the light of the distant torches. He grinned, raising the sword, and she twisted towards the leg that trapped her arm and sliced hard with the knife in her left hand, feeling flesh give way as she cut deep into his thigh where the greave left it exposed. She felt hot blood spurt onto her hand and cheek as he gave a yell and leapt back away from her. Barely able to move right her arm, almost numb from the force of the blow to it, she fired anyway, the bullet striking too low and wrenching a howl from him. He raised his sword again, and with shout she came to her knees and lunged forward, hitting him hard with her shoulder and driving the knife upwards between greave and corslet, into the flesh of his groin; he shrieked and fell backwards heavily, the impact disloging his helm - the mark of the White Hand flashed as it rolled away. Maggie pushed up into a crouch and flung herself astride the creature's barrel chest, her knees pressing his biceps hard into the dirt, and in the instant she saw his face she realized to her horror, this was no Orc - it was a man. Not a man of the Riddermark, not a man who'd mistaken her for a foe, but a man who wore the black armor of Saruman's forces, who'd born the mark of the White Hand on his helm. He started to sit up, too strong for her body to be much impediment, and without thinking she thrust savagely downward with the knife, the force of the blow driving him back down as the blade stabbed through his throat and into the ground beneath. He gurgled, eyes wide, trying to reach for the knife but blocked by her knees, where they still pressed the weight of her body against him. Switching the gun to her left hand, she pressed it to his forehead; his eyes locked on hers and she felt her lips pull back from her teeth in an animal snarl as she fired. His body jerked hard, convulsed, and lay still, and she saw the wet grey mass that had been his brain, now glistening on the muddy ground.
For a moment she sat without breathing, staring at the motionless corpse beneath her that moments ago had been alive and human and filled with passion and hatred. Then, as though breaking the surface of the ocean after too long below, she gasped and surged to her feet. Switching the gun briefly back to her right hand she reached down with her left and yanked the knife from the man's throat, wiped it on the heavy fabric of her pants and sheathed it quickly, then switched Despair back. Her right arm barely under her control, she knew she had a better chance of hitting what she aimed at, even though she'd not practiced as much with the left as she now wished she had. She found Annin's reins, pulled the horse around and hauled herself into the saddle again, then tried to get her bearings - this way, the breach, overrun; that way, Helm's Gate; there, a soldier pressed by an Orc - she aimed and fired, catching the creature in the shoulder and staggering him, and the soldier brought his sword down in a dully gleaming arc, gore flying from the blade as he cleaved the Orc's neck almost in two. The Orc fell, and was trampled by the hooves of another soldier's steed as the soldier drew the other up onto his mount. He spun the horse around to face her and shouted "The Gate! Get to the Gate before they close it!" She spurred Annin in pursuit of the pair, and up the long causeway and the ramp they galloped, Maggie clinging tight to her mount, Despair still clutched in her left hand. The entered the gate with the last of the surviving rear guard, and she heard it drawn heavily shut behind her.
"Come," a woman took Annin's reins and Maggie threw her leg over and dismounted, staggering a little against the mount as she holstered the Glock. "We're taking the horses to the caverns. Are you injured?" she asked.
Maggie shook her head, although she wasn't sure. "Boromir," she said, "do you - or Aragorn - are they here?"
And suddenly she heard Boromir's voice, and looked up to find him. He was across the wide hallway, coming towards her. "By all the gods, woman!" he said as he reached her and grasped her in a fierce embrace, then just as quickly pushed her away and took her face between his hands, furious. "Why did you not ride to the Gate? What held you?"
"I was in the rear," she said, still trying to calm her pounding heart, trying to see through the haze of blood that seemed to cloud her vision. "I - he said the rearguard should hold the breach. The - there were soldiers around me, they weren't going to the Gate. I stayed." She paused. "That's all. I just - I stayed. To fight. To help."
"And fight well, she did," said a voice from behind her. She turned to see the soldier who'd led her to the causeway. "She has courage, friend; do not rebuke her for it."
Maggie saw Boromir's eyes darken, saw him start to answer the man, but then he hesitated, and said, "Yes," his hands on her face becoming gentle. "Our need is too great to chasten those who answer it." The man smiled and turned away, and Boromir faced her again, "No matter that we would have had her fly to the caverns instead, and have been searching for her since we realized she was not within the wall. I did not want to find you among the slain, come morning," he said, and paused, his gaze taking in her bloodied appearance. "What of this is your blood, and what the enemy's?"
She shook her head. "I'm not sure," she said, running her fingers over her right arm, testing for damage. "I think I'm all right."
"You've a cut on your forehead," he said, and she raised her hand to it and winced.
"Huh. I knew it stung like a bitch - I thought it was just a scrape." She took a deep breath and leaned against him a little, and he slipped his arm under her shoulders.
"Come," he said, and led her unprotesting to where a woman was bandaging a wounded soldier who couldn't have been more than sixteen. Boromir sat her beside the boy and motioned to the woman, who nodded. "When she's finished with you," he said to Maggie, "you go to the caverns with the horses." He paused. "Do as I say," he said firmly, kissed her hand quickly and then was gone, up the corridor towards the fighting.
When the woman had finished with the boy, she turned to Maggie. "Here, you're hurt nowhere else?" she said.
Maggie shook her head. "I don't think so."
"Let's clean you up a bit and see." But apart from the cut, all she found were the heavy bruises on Maggie's right arm, and further ones on the side of her left thigh where the Glock cleaning kit had dug into her leg when she fell, and on her knees. She supposed adrenalin had muffled the pain for a while, but now that she was safe, relatively speaking, and the feeling had come back to her arm, it started to ache, along with the other bruises. Her head hurt, and she wished for painkillers. The woman, whose name Maggie learned was Aronar, cleaned and bandaged the wound, then helped Maggie back on with the arm guards and corslet. After thanking her, Maggie walked half a dozen paces in the direction Boromir had gone, and sat down wearily, her back to the wall. She looked around, but saw no horses, nor anyone who looked like they were heading to any caverns, so with a sigh, she unzipped the pocket of her pants where the little cleaning kit rested, grateful it hadn't been torn away during the fight. Then she unholstered Desire and set about cleaning it.
She was just finishing up Despair when, from the Deeping Wall, the sounds of battle came to her. She wondered how long she'd been hearing them, as she'd sat there cleaning her weapons, oblivious to everything but the steel in her lap. She finished loading the guns and slipped them back into their holsters, Desire on the right, Despair on the left. She flexed her right arm, and discovered it worked fine again, if painfully. She wanted to stand, wanted to find her way out there. She knew Boromir would be angry if she did, but she also knew that if the enemy overwhelmed them, she'd rather die under the sky with the defenders than be hacked to death inside stone walls, trying to get away. And that if she stayed back from the battle, if she could fight and didn't, could help and didn't, the memory of it would never leave her, and she'd never sleep without waking from dreams of blood and the dying.
Inside the corridor where she sat, men were beginning to move, and she heard shouts and a great boom and shudder. In the distance came a cry over the noise, and then the voices of many men shouting. Though she couldn't make out the words, there was joy in their tone, and she got to her feet. For an instant the face of the man she'd stabbed in the throat swam before her, but she shook her head and banished it. "Not now," she muttered.
Following the others, she hurried 'round the corridor and to the outer court of the Hornburg, and was brought up short by what she saw. Below on the Deeping Wall, chaos seemed to rule, until she looked more closely and saw that here men threw down a ladder that had been raised; there, they cut through grappling ropes or dislodged the massive hooks; and here, archers picked off enemies one at a time through clefts in the stone until there were no more arrows, and then they hurled down stones. She ran down the steps to the wall and found a slit through which she could fire. One after another, she picked off the enemy until her ammunition was spent, then, holstering the both Desire and Despair, she drew the knives and sent a quick but fervent prayer to God that she'd live to see the morning.
When finally the Deeping Wall was taken, and with many soldiers she retreated to the outer wall of the Hornburg, Maggie found a moment to stop, and breathe. Her body ached, and she had a long, shallow cut high on her right thigh that she'd managed to bandage by cutting off most of the ruined right leg of her pants. She stood, in a momentary break in the fighting, with her shoulders against the wall, eyes closed, breathing heavily. When she opened them again it was in time to see Legolas and Aragorn, armor gleaming in the light from the moon which had finally broken through, walking among the soldiers. As if feeling her eyes on him, Legolas turned to her, and a smile crossed his face, briefly. "You yet live, I see," he said, coming over to her. "Boromir said you awaited him in the caverns."
"Yeah, well," she said, shrugging. "And Boromir...?"
"Alive, when last I saw him. He will ride with the Eorlingas at dawn, with Théoden King."
"Ride where?" she asked frowning. "We're sort of hemmed in, aren't we?"
He glanced away, then back, and the faint smile appeared again. "Yes, well," he said.
She waited for him to continue, and then laughed. "Yes, well," and she resisted the irrational impulse to hug him.
Aragorn stood suddenly beside Legolas, gazing at her. "You were to be in the caverns," he said, and his voice was stern. She stared back at him, trying to figure out what she'd missed. "Your place is not here in the battle," he continued when she didn't respond, "no more than Merry and Pippin, who went where they were asked." He paused again, and still she looked at him, unspeaking, trying to find the words to explain why she was here instead of there, trying to fight down her rising anger. She was too tired, too sore, too confused to want to trade explanations and rationalizations with this man. "You have no sword," he went on at last, "you cannot even glean your ammunition from the dead as Legolas can. You -"
"Yeah? Well fuck you," she snarled, scowling, and missed the truly stunned look that crossed both their faces. "I'm not dead, I'm not - not helpless. Geezus, you'd think I'd been sitting on my ass powdering my nose all this time - what the hell do you think I've been doing? Just getting in the way?" As soon as she said it, she stopped and thought. "No," she said at last, "I've not been getting in the way. I may not be able to swing a big-assed sword the way you boys can, and yeah, the fuckin' guns are useless until - well, until forever maybe - but I've got my knives, and I can fight, and I can push down a ladder or throw rocks or help shove a grappling hook off the wall as well as any of the sixteen year old boys you've got fighting for this place. So don't give me any crap about how I should be in the damned caverns."
Legolas took a step forward. "You know to whom you speak," he said in a low voice. "You should hold your tongue and do as you're told."
She took a deep breath, but before she could decide how to respond, Aragorn spoke. "She gives no offense, Legolas," he said, and she started, half waiting for him to finish, 'She's not from around here.' He reached out and touched her hair, slipped his hand around to cradle the back of her head. "You fight bravely," he said, with a small smile. "I do not think otherwise. But you would be sorely missed if aught were to happen to you, and Boromir expected you were safe."
To her dismay, the mention of Boromir's name and the gentle touch of Aragorn's hand brought quick tears to her eyes. She didn't bother wiping them away, and Aragorn said to Legolas, "Go, take her with you to the horses. It will be time soon." He turned to Maggie. "You may not ride with us this dawn," he said firmly. "Your knives, so useful on the wall or on the ground, would not be so useful on horseback, but the son of Denethor will be there 'ere long, and it will do him good to see that you live."
She leaned forward and kissed him quickly on the cheek, whispering "Thank you," against his skin, and then "I'm sorry for being a bitch just now," and meeting his eyes just once, turned and followed Legolas.
Note: The poem quoted herein is by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one of the greatest poets of the modern - or any - age. Her sonnets are masterpieces. Read Fatal Interview, or Sonnets From An Ungrafted Tree. Or any of them, really.
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