25. The Lords of Gondor
The Lords of Gondor
The Captain-General of Gondor seemed to hardly require sleep. He and Imrahil had talked long into the night. But before the next day's dawn bell he rode to the northwesternmost extent of the Rammas Echor, the final segment of the wall to be repaired. The work was nearly complete.
"Aye, my Lord, the earthwork will be done by evening," Ingold said.
From his perch in the saddle, the Steward's Heir gazed up the broad road toward Anorien—and Rohan. It was still dark, but torches lit the workmen rebuilding the crumbling wall. "There are no pikes here," he snapped.
"Nay, sire, for we hope to see the Rohirrim come this way, and soon…"
"We have no guarantee of that," Boromir said. "Curunir makes war on Théoden. Foes may use this road as well as allies." He turned to his young companion, Maerod. Commander Baranor had plucked the man, not yet twenty, from the ranks of the Citadel Regiment to serve as the Captain-General's squire, clerk, body-guard, messenger, and when necessary, his desk. "Have you parchment, and a pen?" The man dug in his saddlebag, producing a square of folded parchment and a stubby length of charcoal. Boromir smiled. "That will do. Turn round, lad…"
He leaned forward, and using Maerod's upper back as a writing table, he sketched for a few minutes and tore off a piece. He handed the square to Ingold.
"Have your men make these, as many as you can, and lay them on the road and for thirty feet on either side," he said, indicating the drawing. His hasty sketch showed rows of sharpened pikes attached to a long low beam, and at either end of the supporting beam were wheels. "If there were time, I would order them forged of iron, but sharpened wood will do in a pinch! Configure ropes to them, and keep an eye out. At the first sign of Rohan's Riders, pull them aside. I'll trust you to do your best, Ingold."
Ingold saluted, and grinned as the cleverness of his Captain-General's quick design sunk in. "We'll start on it immediately, sire!"
Maerod spurred his horse beside Boromir as he galloped off in a rush. The youth was Boromir's only escort; he had convinced Commander Baranor that extra soldiers to guard him were needed elsewhere. The Captain-General felt the weight of urgency heavily on his shoulders. "Arda herself holds her breath. It is the final hush before the storm… I feel it in my bones."
"Aye, my Lord."
Maerod barely spoke, so in awe of the Captain-General was he. It became Boromir's private game, to try to nudge his youthful guardian to smile or produce more than three words at a time. Anything other than 'aye, my Lord' or 'nay, Captain-General'…
But that day the Steward's Heir did not succeed in drawing out more speech from the young man. Maerod remained silent and obedient, scribbling notes, nodding enthusiastically and generally hanging upon his Captain-General's every word. While they galloped southeast from the West Rammas toward the Causeway Forts, a feeble imitation of dawn came, bringing little light and as little hope.
Boromir peered with a scowl out upon the ancient East Road toward the ruins of Osgiliath. He had just inspected the garrison that clung stubbornly to both sides of the River there yesterday. It was from here, he knew, that the main forces of Mordor would come, and thence onto the Pelennor between these ramparts. Satisfied that the troops of the Causeway had done their best, he turned west. He rode through a forest of iron spikes set in great sweeping half-circles, angled outward, over the Pelennor—additions he had insisted upon since his homecoming. The tall spikes were arranged thickest near to the Gate. He and Maerod wound through a maze of deep trenches, designed to snag and delay the advance of wheeled siege towers. These would be hidden by flexible woven mats, and the mats scattered with heaps of straw to further conceal them. Soon, only the defenders of the City would know the safe route through.
Upon curving, interwoven strips of turf left open for attack—and retreat--the knights of Dol Amroth performed a morning exercise with their counterparts from the City Guard. Boromir waved and nodded to Imrahil as he passed by. He worried for the dozenth time since he had ordered the trenches dug whether he had not sealed Faramir's fate in doing so. What if the returning Captain of Ithilien came with foes on his heels? Would his brother be caught in the snare meant for their enemies? But no—surely he would by now have read encrypted messages warning him of the changes wrought on the Pelennor. If all had gone as planned, he should be well prepared.
By mid-morning they cantered to the great Gate itself to inspect its various protections: new machines designed to fling projectiles; great bins of stone and metal scraps for the tossing; and a pair of heavy iron bars, rolling on wheeled carts from the City's largest forge, to be fastened behind the closed Gate. Boromir and Maerod rode up the main way. The shadows of her high walls made the lower circles of Minas Tirith as dark as twilight, yet everywhere was a frenzy of activity. The streets rang with the clash of metal, shouts of men and the grinding of stone upon stone.
In the days since the return of the Steward's Heir, ten thousand wood-shafted arrows, a thousand spears, and scores of new catapults had been hastily added to the stores of weapons already set aside, and more arms were being assembled, even now. The First Circle, vulnerable to fire, was newly stocked with barrels of water at every major intersection.
Teams of workmen constructed a high wall of rubble, with but narrow openings between buildings, cutting across the lowest third of the circle behind the Gate—in preparation for the awful chance that the gate itself might fall. Plans had been laid for the defenders of the First Circle to fill in the gaps in those makeshift inner walls with additional piles of stone. None spoke of the appalling likelihood that men as well as invading foes would likely be trapped 'tween rubble and Gate—but the City above might thus be spared. And those so doomed would have their work cut out for them, for Boromir had ordered that the stockpiling of spears, spikes, oil-soaked missiles and short-range catapults be thickest here, in the lower First Circle. The Enemy would pay a steep price indeed for passage through to the Second Gate.
Continuing upward, they stopped at intervals to dismount and climb onto the ramparts and see what progress had been made on the changes the Captain-General had ordered to the fortifications: razor-sharp, many-branched spikes to protrude from the sides of the walls; barrels of oil, ready to be set afire, and huge stone funnels to pour the flaming liquid upon the heads of any who dared to climb; great crossbows designed to fling three heavy bolts at once, and stacks of bolts at the ready.
Everywhere Boromir appeared, the spirits of the men he encountered rose at the sight of him. Tirelessly he encouraged and praised, returning their smiles and cheers with grins and hurrah's of his own. Every man he could reach he would touch, to clasp a hand, or grip a shouder or a forearm.
"My Lord, it is so good of you to come among us common soldiers…"
"Nay, friend, 'tis my privilege and honor to be among men like you!"
"The White City has hope again at your return, sire!"
"And the strength of the men of Gondor fills me with hope!"
Those who watched felt a surge of optimism pour forth from the Captain-General, as a lantern glowing in the increasingly gloomy day. While he was among them, they felt their hearts swell with courage. Their resolve held even after he moved on—for a while. But as the hours wore onward and the sky grew darker instead of lighter, their courage faltered. For if their Enemy could control the skies above their heads, what evil would He send upon the ground?
And their Captain-General could not be everywhere at once. The desperate longing he felt from every soldier he met troubled Boromir. I am but one man… They seem as whelps starved for attention… How long has it been since the Steward came among them? Now more than ever did Boromir long for his brother, for whereas he knew the men of Gondor respected and admired him, Captain Faramir commanded their hearts in a way no other could.
"Come home, little brother," he muttered to himself. "Come home safely, and soon…"
At the Fifth Circle, Maerod saluted and departed with his sheaf of notes to go over the Captain-General's last-minute recommendations with Baranor, who would shortly be meeting with the City Regiment's officers.
"Don't forget to remind him that I expect his report no later than noon," Boromir called as he rode onward. "Tell him I'll want the latest messages from Cair Andros and Osgiliath!"
In the Sixth Circle Boromir dismounted at the stables, for horses were not allowed within the Seventh Circle save on rare occasions. He gazed upward, trying in vain to gauge the exact hour.
"Has the midday bell rung?" he asked.
The stableman frowned. "Aye, Lord, though one would never know it by the leaden sky. Why, must be a terrible storm comin'…"
Boromir nodded grimly. "Indeed, the worst of our lives, and the lives of our fathers and theirs before them." He patted his horse's neck. "Take good care of him. I'll be needing him again before this day ends."
The Captain-General strode rapidly through the Sixth Circle, heading directly to a meeting with the Steward. He saluted every guard he met, hiding his anxious mood and meeting their smiles with his own. As he passed through the final gate and entered the highest Circle, the heavy pall of gloom seemed to lift a bit, and the air shifted. But instead of bringing warmth to his heart, an icy shiver ran down Boromir's back. Faintly, high above, he heard a piercing wail. Every man who heard that sound, even the doughty Captain-General, stopped in his tracks, clutched with cold fear.
"Nazgûl," he whispered. "On winged beasts…"
Frozen in place, Boromir felt a sickening sense of dread. He squinted upward; but the sky was thick with dark clouds. The wraiths could be heard, but not seen… Just like that night, on Anduin, at Sarn Gebir… Then he remembered the lightest touch upon his shoulder, and the warmth of hope that had flowed into him—hope enough to do the impossible. An amused, ancient voice echoed in his ear. 'You are the one wielding the bow, Captain…' A brief smile flickered over his face as he began to sprint. In a few minutes he ran past the dead Tree and the murmuring Fountain. He took the broad stairs two at a time. The Citadel guards thrust the great doors open for him as he sped by.
Denethor and Húrin, chief administrator for the City, sat near one end of the table in the main Council chamber where the Lords of the fiefdoms had met the evening before. Two of the dozen wall lamps were lit against the gloom, and a lamp stood on the table near a stack of papers. A pen, its nib newly dipped in ink, was clutched in the Steward's right hand. Denethor's eyes were closed, and his face was drawn into a grimace. His clerk had dropped his own pen and hid his face in his hands. Even Húrin, a man Boromir had never known to display a moment of fear, looked stricken.
"Father," Boromir called, his voice hoarse.
The Steward of Gondor opened his eyes. A shudder went through him; then he had control of himself. He turned his dark eyes toward his eldest son.
"You are late," he said sharply.
The Captain-General stiffened, then drew himself to formal attention, his eyes focused on the far wall.
"Lord Steward, your Captain-General begs leave to speak…in private." His voice was cold.
Húrin rose without a word, tapped the frightened clerk on his shoulder and withdrew, closing the door firmly behind them. Denethor tossed his pen to the table with a snort.
"The armies of the Black Land approach beneath this shadowed sky. There is precious little time remaining for private conversation," he snapped. "This had best be something important."
Boromir shed all pretense of formality as he crossed the room to the table in swift strides. "It is," he said, as he grasped his father by his arm.
"What in Arda..! Do you take leave of your senses?"
"Stand up, Father," Boromir said fiercely as he pulled him to his feet. "Come to the window. Now! Or do I have to drag you?"
Denethor shook his son off and glared, but he stepped toward the tall windows that lined the East wall of the anteroom. Steward and Heir stood together, shoulder to shoulder, gazing out into the dim morning. The White Standard fluttered and snapped above them, while below, the guardsmen of the Citadel of Minas Tirith cringed at the fell voices that filled the air.
"Hear them," Boromir whispered. "You know who--what they are…"
Denethor's eyes closed again as his breath came more rapidly.
"It is said they cannot be slain, that their breath will freeze a man's blood… And now they come mounted on beasts of the air to harass us: the Black Lord's Vanguard of Fear…" Boromir turned from the window. "Logic might say that nothing can counter such evil. All evidence shows that Gondor has no chance of victory. Some might say we would do well to accept it, and give in to despair…"
Denethor flinched at the word. He opened his mouth to speak, but Boromir spoke first, his eyes flashing.
"But I say, there is only one weapon we have against such foes, and that is hope!"
The Steward's lip curled in a sneer. "Hope!" he hissed. "If by that you mean the fool's hope you placed in a plan designed by madmen, to be carried out by a witless Halfling…"
Boromir cut him off. "No! I will not hear such words! That Halfling has as much honor and courage as any man you or I will ever meet. I forbid you to insult him thus!"
"You forbid…!" Denethor choked.
"Listen to me, Father!" Boromir leaned close. "When I felt that poisoned arrow pierce me in Moria, I had no hope of survival—and yet, I did not die, due in no small part to the chief of those madmen you mention, one you have long reviled. And later, I had no hope that I, a Mortal Man, could bring down the foul beast that the Wraith rode to assail us at Sarn Gebir on Anduin…and yet, I did so. We might not have the weapons to slay the Wraiths, but we can kill their beasts. We might be outnumbered more than twenty to one…"
The Steward looked up in surprise. Boromir's slight smile was grim.
"I know you think me a fool—a brave simpleton, a soldier's soldier with no head for statesmanship—you always have… "
Denethor opened his mouth to respond, but his son pressed on.
"You think I do not see the reality we face, or know the numbers that shall soon be unleashed against us. You think I do not understand the odds that every last living thing within these walls shall be slaughtered, or that you and I will spared only to be dragged to the pits of the Nameless One…" His face grew hard. "I know, Father. I see, mayhap not with the burdensome clarity of foresight that you bear, but I do see." His hand closed tightly about the Steward's wrist as he stared intently at his father. "But I choose hope. I was offered a chance, to see the future…" His voice dropped to a hoarse whisper. "The Lady Galadriel has a Mirror that can reveal such truths… I did not look. I had no need to. My hope in Gondor is strong enough. And yours must be also, Father…"
Boromir released his grip and looked out the window again. "The Grey Pilgrim, whom you would name a madman, said it best: Despair is only for those who have seen the end beyond all doubt." The Steward's eldest son's eyes suddenly glittered. "Have you actually seen Minas Tirith fall, Father?" he whispered hoarsely. "In your visions, or dreams, or however you see things that others cannot, have you truly witnessed the end… of Gondor, and of us?"
Denethor's eyes met those of his son's for a long moment. Only someone who knew him well would have noted the subtle shift in the Steward's features.
Boromir nodded slightly. "I did not think so," he said quietly. "Come, then." His voice now was firm, yet behind the firmness was true warmth. "Come with me, now. Ada. We will go forth together and walk the streets and walls of Minas Tirith, from the Citadel to the Gate and back. We must give them hope. It is the only weapon that can counter… that." He waved a hand toward the darkened sky. "It may well all be in vain… It may make no difference.... But we owe it to them. We owe it to ourselves."
The Steward stood in silence as he stared out the window onto the courtyard below. Boromir strode across the room and flung open the door.
The Guardian of the Keys of Minas Tirith appeared from where he had been standing nearby. He bowed, his eyes never straying from Boromir's face.
"The Steward and I will go about the City to inspect her defences," Boromir said firmly. "Inform the Lieutenant of the Watch that we will require an escort of Citadel Guardsmen. Send a runner to Commander Baranor, and to the Gate-Warden, to tell them of our plans…"
Hurin bowed more deeply. "As you wish, Captain-General." He looked up. "My compliments, sire," he whispered. "I have been trying to convince him of the wisdom of just such an action… It has been weeks since he left the Citadel." Hurin could no longer conceal his smile. "Welcome home, my Lord."
Boromir returned the nod with a grin. "Lord of the Keys, you shall accompany us and ensure that the Steward and his Captain-General visit those who do not bear arms but labor on behalf of the realm in other crucial roles…"
Boromir turned on his heel and crossed to where his father stood waiting near the window. A flurry of activity began in the hallways of the Citadel as the Captain-General of Gondor snapped to attention and saluted his Steward.
"My Lord," he said in a clear voice, loud enough for all to hear. "At your command, I shall accompany you on your tour of the White City and her defenses." He bowed once, then stepped back a pace and stood just behind his father.
Denethor drew himself up. Over his shoulder, he muttered, "You may have momentarily outmaneuvered me, Captain-General, but think not that this battle is finished…"
Boromir's lips twitched. "Indeed, sire, I know it is not," he whispered. "But reinforcements are on their way, even now!"
Denethor's face stiffened with anger. Then, to Húrin, who stood watching from the doorway, it seemed that the Steward's features fell, and revealed for one moment the depths of the anguish he held within. The moment passed, and all was again hidden behind the mask of cool pride. Denethor the Second, Ruling Steward of Gondor, adjusted the great sword of the House of Húrin that hung at his belt, lifted his head and stepped forward.
The Steward and his Heir strode together through the halls of the Citadel, with Húrin of the Keys behind them. Boromir shouted orders to fetch the Steward's sable cloak, and for the Citadel bells to sound. A stream of men followed as they came forth from the great doors and descended to the courtyard, and cheers broke out, drowning out even the deadly shrieks of the Ringwraiths that flew unseen above the clouds.
* * *
Imrahil watched his eldest son Elphir as he swung the saddle from his sweating mount. They had returned from the fields before the Gate to the stables in the First Circle when their horses—and more than a few of their knights—had been unable to continue the morning's exercise. The young man did his best to conceal his shuddering, but at the repeated sound of the Nazgûl voices, the Prince's Heir closed his eyes and clutched the stallion's mane. Elphir's breath caught, and he swallowed hard.
The Prince remembered well when he had first heard that vile call: he had been but a year older than Elphir, on patrol with the Regiment of Osgiliath. Denethor was Captain-General then, and Ecthelion had been Steward, and his father Adrahil had yet been Dol Amroth's Lord. Every son of the House of the Swans had, for centuries, served in the ranks of Gondor's army. He could still recall the cold fear that had clutched his soul that night as they crept through Ithilien toward the cleft of the Morgul Stream. The Wraith had not shown itself as a man-like thing, clothed in black robes; it had remained unseen, and thus, perhaps, all the more terrifying.
Denethor had roused him from the paralysis that had threatened to force him to his knees. Heed them not! His future brother-in-law had gripped his shoulder and whispered in his ear. They are nothing but foul shades—once men like you and me, now shapeless slaves to their Master's will. We should not fear them, but pity the loathsome things. Heed them not. How, Imrahil had wondered, could Denethor master his dread? Or, perhaps, he did not feel it—was he that courageous? Was his heart that steely?
Long years had passed, and Imrahil knew that Denethor's heart was steel indeed. But steel can break, if it grows cold enough… And the Prince had learned to master his own fear—or to hide it more skillfully.
His son drew in a deep breath and released the horse's mane. His eyes fluttered open, and as Imrahil watched, his Heir seemed to recall his strength. Elphir would have been assigned to a year of training with the Osgiliath Garrison this coming summer had not the outbreak of war intervened. He is too young for this, the Prince thought. Younger still were his other two sons—boys, really, the youngest, Amrothos, just sixteen--but they had insisted that they were old enough to come with their father and his knights to do their part. And he could not deny them, knowing the reality of it: that if Minas Tirith fell, Dol Amroth would offer no safety from the encroaching Darkness.
"Wretched creatures," the Prince said, as he brushed down his own horse. "As Denethor said to me, years ago, we ought to pity them. Imagine the misery of their existence: not dead yet not truly alive, doomed to an eternity of enslavement…"
"I suppose you are right," Elphir said hoarsely. "Though it is hard to find pity for something that makes one feel like… like ice water is running in one's veins." He shivered, and managed a thin smile. "Do they make you feel like that, Ada?"
"Of course they do--as though hope and courage had never existed. Even the Lord Steward Denethor feels it."
Elphir's smile grew a bit broader. "I didn't think anything could frighten Uncle Denethor!"
Imrahil crossed the stable and placed his hand on his son's shoulder. "Your Uncle the Steward is one of the bravest men I know. But he is a man, after all, and no living man could hear those fell voices and not feel dread." He smiled. "I have heard that Elves have no fear of the Ringwraiths… So, perhaps, we Swans have the advantage, if the old tales are true!" He nodded toward the open doorway of the stables. "Come, let us find your brothers and see what mischief they have caused Master Ulbar this morning."
Elphir chuckled. "Amrothos and Erchirion squeaked about the unfairness of it, that they should be left behind for sword-drills whilst I was allowed to ride with you…"
"Ulbar will put them through their paces," Imrahil said. "I was younger than Amrothos when the Swords-Master taught me to appreciate the value of practice. Your brothers have but a few more days to hone those skills, before they will need them in earnest."
The Prince and his son emerged from the stables into a side-alley and turned toward the main thoroughfare that led to the next level. At once, they heard waves of what sounded like cheering.
"A strange sound for a city on the verge of a siege," muttered Elphir.
"And while a siege of the air already begun…" murmured his father, as they walked into the street.
The princes of the House of the Swan came upon a remarkable sight. Both sides of the wide street were lined with workmen, soldiers and boys, all waving and shouting at once. Their shining faces were fixed on the road and on whoever was approaching from the Second Gate, just a few blocks above. Imrahil and Elphir were tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd. Elphir saw them first.
"Well, I never…" he said. "Look! It's Uncle Denethor…"
"…and his Heir…"
The two most powerful men of Gondor marched side by side, with a retinue of Citadel Guardsmen, City officials, officers of the Regiment of Minas Tirith, and the Lords of Lossarnach, Pinnath Galen and Lamedon. The similarity between the Steward and his eldest son was striking. But more remarkable to the Prince of Dol Amroth was the small but unmistakable smile that played on the Steward's lips—a smile he could not recall having seen on his brother-in-law's face since Finduilas had died.
"What's going on?" Elphir asked.
"I have no idea," Imrahil said. "There is but one way to find out. Shall we?"
They maneuvered through the crowd and into the street. Boromir noticed and signaled them to join the parade of noblemen.
"Join us, Cousin Elphir, Uncle! The Lord Steward is conducting an inspection of the defences of the White City," he said as he caught Imrahil's eye. "Our final task is to visit the Great Gate; then if you would be so kind as to accompany us, we turn round and make our way back through the Circles to visit the City's equally important unarmed workers: those who see that we have water, foodstuffs, clean sheets, and salve for our wounds when the need arises."
The Prince of Dol Amroth watched as the Steward took in the changes that his son had wrought on the lowest and most vulnerable part of Minas Tirith. By the look of contained astonishment on Denethor's face, Imrahil soon guessed that everything the Steward saw was apparently new to him. The scene in the courtyard behind the Gate was of orderly chaos: piles of stones, stacks of arms, and barrels filled with water. An engineer and his crew were hard at work with pulleys, ropes and levers, raising the heavy iron bars that had come earlier from the forge up to hastily constructed platforms on either side of the Gate.
"The bars will soon be in place and balanced, my Lord," said Harnion, the chief engineer. The gathered noblemen and Citadel Guards pressed in a circle about him. He pointed to pairs of broad, flat iron hooks bolted into thick wooden beams on either side of the open gate. "These will catch and hold them securely behind the Gate. We built the platforms high enough that the bars will slide downward—three men could shove one into place, though it might take two dozen to lift one bar up from the ground."
he Steward looked up skeptically.
"It seems to me that the weakest aspect of this new defence is those hooks, and the bolts that hold them. Were they tested? Will they carry the weight of these bars? And will not a battering ram simply tear the bolts loose from those wooden posts?"
Harnion had begun nodding halfway through the Steward's speech. "We've thought of those things, my Lord, and I believe we've accounted for every point. Yes, the hooks were tested, and they'll carry not just the weight of one bar, but of two. And what you cannot see is the iron columns set behind those wooden posts, driven deeply into the ground. These bolts go through that wood and are set right into metal, through and through…"
"And the final touch will be iron bands that will fasten those posts to the metal pillars more securely," the Gate Warden said. "We'll be adding those this afternoon, sire."
Denethor stepped forward and ran his hand along the top of one of the bars. At intervals of every few feet, half-rings of iron had been welded.
"And these?" he asked Harnion.
"Hand-holds, my Lord," the engineer said with a grin. "That was my idea, so the men could have something to grab onto when they're sliding them into place—or away, as the need arises." He bowed to Boromir. "The rest of the credit belongs to the Captain-General. It was his plan, and his sketches that got us started."
Denethor's brows rose. He nodded once toward his son, then turned to the engineer and Gate Warden.
"Excellent work, gentlemen. Where next, Lord of the Keys?"
"Much of the City's foodstuffs are in storehouses just above the Second Gate. We should stop there, and I suggest we tour a sampling of the City's waterworks, perhaps those in the Third and Fifth Circles," Húrin said with a bow.
They took a few steps when Harnion intercepted them.
"My pardon, Lord Steward, but if you please, while you are in the First Circle, might you visit Borthand's Forge?" he said with another bow. "He and his sons have been working day and night since Lord Boromir commanded these bars be made. But even before that, he'd 'prenticed nearly half the boys at the Old Guest House in making arrowheads and affixing them to shafts. They're still at it, and would be thrilled for you to see their work, Steward."
Denethor glanced at Húrin, who nodded in approval. Soon, the noblemen were surrounded by cheering boys who clamored to show off their newly made arrows. Boromir laughed and shook hands, tousled heads and clapped the taller boys on their skinny shoulders. The Lords of the southern outlands and the Princes of Dol Amroth joined in, and even the Steward smiled and pressed the hands of those boys brave enough to reach out to their stern ruler.
From the forge of Master Borthand they made their way through the largest and most populous Circle. The streets of the First Circle were a tangle, and soon a crowd of cheering and boisterous citizens followed.
Up the broad main way of Minas Tirith they walked, through gate after gate, ascending slowly. They visited warehouses filled with grain, oil, cured meats, roots and dried fruit. They inspected two of the seven great cisterns and pumping stations that brought fresh water from massive reservoirs high in the mountains to each Circle. In the Fourth Circle they visited one of several open-air ovens with bakers hard at work producing stacks of fragrant brown loaves. Beyond the next gate they brought beaming smiles to what seemed an army of women who, according to Lord Hurin, had remained to help provide clean linen.
"And," Hurin said, "I've heard that more than a few of our fair laundresses have been promised a betrothal, once better days come…"
As the noblemen walked through the Sixth Circle, they visited a spacious house where women, and men too old or infirm to bear arms, were at work in support of the Houses of Healing, preparing simple herbs, cleaning linen, and cooking vats of nutritious broth. The Prince crossed the open room where a half dozen well-dressed ladies were cutting scraps of fabric and rolling it into bandages. He leaned down with a smile and kissed his wife's cheek. Elphir was at his side, embracing his sister, Lothiriel.
Boromir and Denethor stood nearby. Boromir bowed and took his Aunt Gwaeleth's hand.
"The entire House of the Swans has come to the aid of Minas Tirith," he murmured. "You have our eternal gratitude, Aunt."
The Steward bowed solemnly, his hands clasped behind his back. "Lady Gwaeleth, we shall do our best to protect you and your daughter from harm…"
"Protect the realm, Steward Denethor," Gwaeleth replied firmly. "That is all any of us can ask."
Boromir sent a runner forward to warn Master Turin of their imminent invasion. The Lords veered from the main way toward quieter streets tucked between the great pier of stone and the outer walls, and came to the Houses of Healing. They were met on the threshold by the Chief Healer and his new assistant, Lady Ivreniril.
Turin bowed. "Welcome, sire, to the Healing Houses." He studied Denethor's face. "It is good to see you again, my Lord," he said quietly. Turin had been apprenticed to the great Healer, Master Salaphir, when the Lady Finduilas fell ill. Imrahil reached out and silently grasped the man's hand between his own; he remembered young Turin's gentle, somber manner with gratitude.
"Please, my Lords, come within," Turin said as he gestured for them to enter. "There are not many in residence at the Houses at present—men still recovering from the latest skirmishes across the River; the two surviving workmen of those burned in in that horrible accident with the oil vats…"
Boromir and Húrin nodded solemnly, but one of Denethor's grey brows rose. The Steward's pale face colored slightly.
"Accident?" he muttered to Húrin. "Why was I not told of this?"
The Lord of the Keys flushed red in his turn. "We did discuss it, my Lord," he whispered. "Last week, the very day of the fire… I am sure you recall…"
Denethor frowned as he stared at Lord Hurin. His son spoke.
"I have visited the men in your stead, Father," he said quietly. "I told them that the Lord of the realm has sent his deepest regret at their injuries and his wishes for their speedy recovery."
Son and father's eyes met. Boromir's face was impassive, but the Steward swallowed hard. His eyes dropped and he gazed at the floor.
Ivreniril, who stood out of range of hearing the muttered conversation, spoke. "We also house four women too close to the date of their confinement to travel south with the wains. The midwives thought they would be safest here." She nodded toward Boromir, gracing him with a small smile. "Captain-General, I'm afraid you have two new citizens of Minas Tirith to defend, and two more on the way, this very evening, I suspect…"
Boromir gazed at her in astonishment. To be born on this Dawnless Day, hearing those shrill voices… and to bring new life into the world, under such darkness!… He bowed to her. "Please tell the ladies and little ones that I shall do my best to see to their safety."
The noblemen followed Master Turin as he led the way from the large entry through a double doorway and into the main hall. They paced slowly, waiting for the signal from the Master before peering into or entering any of the rooms that lead off from the main hallway.
They visited a large "L"-shaped room lined with windows, where more than a dozen soldiers recouperated from wounds received in Osgiliath, in skirmishes across the River in Ithilien, or at the fortress upon Cair Andros. The first several men, nearest to the door, smiled and sat up, eager to meet their visitors. One man's eyes were swathed in white, and his nearest neighbor reached out and touched the fellow's arm to warn him as the Lords approached. The Steward paused at each cot to press the man's hand or grip his shoulder, while the other noblemen dispersed through the room to greet and converse with the injured soldiers.
As Boromir passed the fifth bed and stood at the corner of the room, his eyes suddenly lit up and his mouth curved in a wide grin. A piping voice, much higher in timbre than those of the men, came from between two cots. There, a frowning young man swayed unsteadily, seeming to balance on one foot.
"Go ahead," the muted voice said, from somewhere near the floor. "Lean on my head…" The man's hand seemed to press down on something hidden. "I'm about the right height to play your cane today, Bastir…"
"I'm not hurting you, am I?" the young man said.
"Nonsense, lean all you want, I'm stronger than I look…" That raised a few laughs from the men nearby, who were all watching with intense curiosity at the proceedings. "Oh, very well," the high-pitched voice said, "I'm strong enough. Now, see how much weight you can place on the left. Master Meneldil has cushioned the socket with extra thick padding… Go on, ease into it… Give it a try… You're doing wonderfully…"
Boromir, Imrahil and Denethor moved slowly toward them until they stood just three paces from the wounded man. The youth blanched when he noticed his visitors. He made a valiant attempt to stand at attention. But his face contorted in pain, and he leaned heavily to one side. At last, Boromir could see the top of the soldier's "cane": a curly head, just over four feet off the ground, and a pair of small pale hands reaching up to grasp the man's wrist.
"Not to worry, Bastir, I've got you… Steady…"
"My Lord!" Bastir gasped, as he gave a trembling salute. "And Captain-General! I… I…"
"At ease, soldier," Boromir said warmly, as he stepped forward and gripped the man's arm firmly, supporting him. "Still a bit tender, eh?"
"Aye, Captain-General," Bastir said hoarsely.
"Perhaps you should sit for now, my boy," Denethor said quietly.
The young man suddenly tipped backward and flopped onto his cot. He grit his teeth and clutched his left leg above the bindings. Pippin knelt quickly and leaned in to unfasten a leather strap that secured a wooden post beneath the man's bound limb, which ended just above his left knee.
"Pippin," Boromir said, "There is someone I would like you to meet…"
"Half a minute," the hobbit replied in a muffled voice as he reached beneath the injured man's leg and adjusted his bandages. "There, Bastir, how's that?"
"Thanks, Master Pip…" Bastir whispered. He stared pointedly at the hobbit. "I'm fine! Go ahead, stand up, turn 'round!" The man tilited his head toward the waiting visitors.
But Meneldil's newest apprentice was not to be rushed. He figited and fussed, tugging and straitening the white fabric. Finally, Pippin was satisfied with the wrappings. He stood and turned, taking in the half-circle of tall, stern appearing men with a smile.
"Oh! Hullo, Boromir…I mean, Captain Boromir! And Prince Imrahil, how nice to see you again!" he said cheerfully.
"Prince Peregrin, it is my pleasure," Imrahil replied with a smile.
The Steward peered at the stranger intently. "It seems I am the only man in all of Minas Tirith who has yet to be introduced to the famed Ernil Pheriannath…" he muttered.
"Allow me the honor," Boromir smiled. "May I present Peregrin Took, a Perian, and one of my traveling companions from Imladris in the North…" He gestured toward his father. "The Lord Steward Denethor…"
All color drained from Pippin's face as his mouth fell open. The Steward stared coldly and waited in solemn silence as the hobbit stammered.
"Oh!… er… my apologies, sire… I, uh, didn't know you were waiting…" He bowed clumsily. "Pippin…er… Peregrin Took, of the Shire… er, of Arthedain, in the North… I mean, of Arthedain of old, your M..Majesty…"
Denethor stiffened at the word. Boromir winced, and the Prince of Dol Amroth frowned. Pippin flushed, realizing his error too late.
"'Majesty?'" the Steward said icily. "There are none in Gondor who can claim that title, Master Perian..."
"…an easy enough mistake to make, for a stranger," Boromir interjected quickly. "Pippin, I see you've found your place in the Houses of Healing…"
"Uh…yes, I… uh, Meneldil was kind enough to take me on as an apprentice in his workshop…"
"Ah, then you were trained in the healing arts in your own land, in the North?" Denethor asked, with a trace of ice remaining in his stern voice.
The hobbit flushed again, more deeply. "Me? Oh, no… I'm nothing but a farmer's son… I…I'm not even of age…"
Denethor's gaze narrowed, and he seemed about to speak again, when Meneldil spoke from where he had quietly appeared, behind Imrahil.
"Don't let him fool you with such talk, my Lord Steward," Meneldil said. "If Master Took has no training in healing, then he must come to it by blood. There are some skills that cannot be taught: compassion, a gentle touch, and a trustworthy heart. He has shown uncommon skill in helping those men who must adjust to the new realities of their physical losses..."
The young soldier, Bastir, nodded emphatically, as did a few other men listening in the room. Boromir caught Pippin' eye and winked, and the Prince bowed his head toward the hobbit with a slight smile. One of Denethor's brows rose.
Pippin swallowed hard as he met the Steward's shrewdly appraising gaze. He looks a bit like Gandalf, with that steely, searching glint in his eye… but without a bit of friendliness behind it…I wish I could ask old Gandalf what's the best thing to do right now, or Frodo, or Merry…but they're all far away, and I've got no one to ask but myself…
The hobbit stepped forward and dropped to one knee. "My Lord Steward, I'm no soldier, and I might not have much training or skill, but I'm prepared to work in the service of these Houses, and of your City. I'm just a guest in Gondor, sire, but know that here is one who would like to pledge to do…well, to do whatever he can."
Denethor frowned down at the small stranger before him. How I wish I had never heard the word 'Perian'… Nothing was the same since his sons, in whom the foresight of the Dûnedain ran more truly than it did in him, had recited that accursed verse. He searched the Halfling's bright eyes. He is so young… But if Boromir's tales are true, those youthful eyes have witnessed much… The Steward became aware of the waiting silence. Every face in the large open ward was turned toward him. I wonder if this Perian's father has any idea where his son is on this dark day, or the odds against him ever seeing his heir alive again…
The Steward's stern face softened slightly. "Your pledge is accepted, Master Took," he said at last. "For now, you will serve Master Meneldil, and Master Turin. But know this: every man in Gondor—and, in these fell days, every guest, even an Ernil Pherrianath—may be called to other duties, as I and the Captain-General see fit." He paused, and a hint of a smile came and went on his face. "You may rise now."
Pippin released the breath he'd been holding with a sigh as he got to his feet. "It would be my honor, my Lord, to serve Gondor, her Captain-General, and her Steward, in whatever way I can." He bowed again, and this time all clumsiness was gone.
Meneldil rested his hand on Pippin's shoulder as the Steward, the Prince, The Capatin-General and the rest of the nobility of Gondor marched from the room. "Not bad, not bad, my boy," he said softly.
Bastir punched Pippin lightly on his arm. "Good work, Pip," he said. "You got him to smile!"
The hobbit smirked and rolled his eyes. "You call that a smile?" The men within earshot stifled their chuckling as Meneldil gave Pippin a scolding look. His new apprentice grinned and shrugged, which resulted in more laughter.
As they returned to the hall, Denethor found himself walking at the side of the Master Healer. "This House once felt overly large to me, Master Turin, when what I most desired within these walls was privacy," he said quietly. "Now I wonder where all those who will undoubtedly require your services might find room, once war begins in earnest. Surely there is not nearly enough space here, and in the adjoining Houses…"
Turin nodded. "I agree, Lord Steward, and the Captain-General and I have made arrangements for the use of four rooming houses in the First Circle that can accommodate many more wounded than we can keep here in the Sixth..."
"…and will be closer to the field," Boromir added. "Yet even those may prove inadequate. I have given thought to the raising of tents in the First Circle's market square, just above and west of the courtyard of the Gate. Commander Baranor has assigned an officer to take charge of amassing the necessary supplies." He looked at Turin. "Our main problem is more likely to be an insufficient number of skilled healers."
Turin's expression was grim. "I agree, Captain-General, and there is not time enough to train more. Yet, we will all do our very best."
They moved on and were steered by Ivreniril to the right. She bade the men wait in the hall while she slipped through a closed doorway. In a moment she reappeared with a smile.
"Two of our new mothers are resting within, my Lords," she said. "They have finished nursing, and would be delighted for a brief visit… Prince Imrahil, one of our ladies has kin in Dol Amroth and was most excited to know that she might see you…"
The room was pleasant and looked out upon a small garden. Both new mothers were very young, it seemed to Imrahil. He knelt on one knee near the young woman whose sister had married the son of a sea merchant. She pulled aside the soft blanket that covered her infant's head. The Prince extended one finger. The tiny girl grasped him in her pink fist, gurgled and made a cooing sound. Imrahil smiled and sighed.
"May I?" Denethor asked, as he gazed at the newborn boy cradled in the second woman's arms.
"Of course, Lord Steward. You've plenty of experience holding a bairn," she said as she glanced at the tall Captain-General and blushed fiercely.
The Steward of the Realm expertly held the infant on the crook of his elbow. His stern face softened. "What will you name him, young lady?"
The young mother blushed again. "We thought… my husband is in the City Regiment, and he's got such dreams, for our lives together… We'd planned to name him Estelion, sire… 'son of Hope'… But seeing as he's come to us in these evil days, I'm not sure the name is proper anymore…"
Her voice trailed off as she began to cry. Ivreniril came to her side and rubbed her shoulders.
"There, there, try to be brave…"
The young woman gazed up through her tears at the Steward. "Sire?" she whispered. "These fell voices from the sky… Is there any hope, do you think? Will there be a Gondor for my son to grow up in?"
Denethor looked down at the child and traced the tip of his finger over the baby's round cheek. The Steward gazed at her.
"What is your name, child?" he asked quietly.
"I am Aerin," she answered, her voice shaking.
"Then fear not, Aerin. There will be a Gondor," he said softly but firmly. "It is my duty, and the duty of my son… " He glanced at Boromir. "…to see to that. This darkness will not… cannot last forever. Morning will come again, and your son will live to see it dawn."
He leaned down and gently placed the baby back into the woman's waiting arms. Denethor hesitated a moment, then the Steward leaned forward again and planted a kiss on her brow.
As the entourage emerged from the nursery and made ready to leave the Houses, Denethor turned to find his son, his brother-in-law, his chief administrator and a handful of lords of Gondor's fiefdoms staring at him, all doing their best to keep from smiling too broadly. He scowled.
"What in Arda is the matter with all of you?" he snarled. "This City is about to be besieged! Cease this idle gawking! We have work to do!"
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.