12. Chapter 12: Edge
The days that followed were covered in a mist. The edges of things were blunter, the talk subdued. The Rangers laughed no more, nor talked about their homes. Their hearts were locked into stone, their faces set with grim resolve. Slaughter was their outlet, and hunting Orcs became their only pleasure. The mourning of a warrior for his captain is a bloody thing to watch.
Faramir wandered far from me, in regions I could not access. I had no siblings; I knew nothing of such a love, and such a loss. Sometimes he would come to me, late at night, and lie in my arms unsleeping till the dawn. No words would be spoken, and he would rise with dry eyes. His eternal sadness thickened into a hard pain, and I feared for him.
I feared, for I could see that all hope was extinguished in his eyes, and that he considered himself alone, alone without relief. With all the warmth that remained in me I tried to reach him, and make him feel the love that had kept me back. But the spirits of Men are chained to their flesh, and when they grieve the chains become stronger. No thought, no words could pierce the armour his grief had woven around him, and touching him I felt I was touching stone.
It was with this uncertainty hanging heavy upon me that I received his request to lead a party of Men in the Southernmost part of Ithilien, waiting for the convoy of Haradrim that scouts had reported to be fast approaching.
"Try at your best to hinder their progress, but do not show yourself. They will have scouts or Mordor guides, and if you can, take them down. Keep them from the main road, herd them into the wood. When they have taken the path we desire, lead the Men back."
I nodded my agreement, and he turned as if to leave.
"Faramir," I called in a whisper. He paused, but did not turn. I hardened my voice, pretended my next words were not a plea. "Do not forsake prudence."
"War is never a prudent thing, my lady."
He left. As the Men of my party prepared themselves I sought out Mablung, one of the most experienced among the Rangers. Of him I requested in a stern tone that he watch over his Captain, my expressionless countenance a frail mask for my unspoken fear. He looked at me long, before answering: "You are of a strange people, Mìriel of the Elves. But you seem to understand. None of us shall leave our captain unprotected, even from himself. Good hunting in the South."
You are of a strange people, Mìriel of the Elves. Perhaps he was right. But indeed, I was beginning to understand. Life as lived by Men is a raw and a vivid thing, such as Elves may have only known thousands of years ago, in forgotten ages before wisdom became too much and we began to fade.
The Mûmakil marched past us, filing into the glade with a crashing sound. The ground shook, echoing of their mighty steps. When the last one had passed, I nodded to my second in command that we could leave. Silently we disappeared among the trees, leaving behind us the knifed carcass of the Southrons' last Orcish guide.
We had approached their convoy during the night, driven them away from the road with arrows. They had not been able to find us, we had taken down their tracking Orcs first. Trusting in the sheer strength of their war mounts they had taken to the wood, smashing their way open. In the confusion of their retreat seizing what remained of their Mordor scouts had been easy. The duty we had set out to accomplish was done.
We started on our way back by other ways, and only when the evening came I gave order to make camp. As the Men let down their tension for a moment I could not sit, but climbed a tree, disappearing from their sight. They thought I was scouting, and heeded me not.
In truth, I sought the peace of the trees, the soothing charm of their still, ancient life. I sought the openness of the sky and the brilliance of undying stars, diamonds set above all darkness. I sat on a high branch contemplating their beauty, and sang under my breath, however painfully. Stilted had been my voice since Boromir's death, a dark presentiment choked it in my throat. I struggled to find again the consolation and power of the notes, but rarely could my will attain them.
Too soon my song died. The stars were dimmed. During the day a conscience of evil unknown had been growing in my mind, and I had shut it away, an ignored threat during the simple dangers of war and ambush. But now that my limbs were set at rest, now that my mind reached out to the beauty untouchable of the World, now I perceived it more clearly. A new menace had reached us, and it was shapeless and black.
Not many of the Eldar can see the future; but all of us can feel the change. Something loomed ahead I had no power to stop or steer, and all of our fates hung on the balance. The edge of doom was now sharp. That night I did not sleep, I did not leave the treetops. The leaves whispered to me of the same evil that made the air tremble, but they could not tell me what it was. Unknown to us, nameless, unknown. The ground remembers, the rocks feel fear.
I watched the clouds gather, and the stars twinkled one last time in farewell before being cloaked. A dull dawn climbed over the edge of the world with tired hands, and the birds were silent. The trees had spoken, the danger was near. A tension unnamed thickened the pale light, and I descended from the tree to find a messenger from Faramir, tired after a long run.
"The Captain calls you. Osgiliath is under siege."
He had not finished speaking that the Men were standing, their weapons at hand.
I went before them, my feet quick over the earth, my mind pondering, unquiet. When I looked behind at the file of Rangers following me I saw on their faces a warlike spirit awoken. Osgiliath was their last defence; beyond the river, only a plain. And then, the Tower of Guard.
As we crossed Ithilien the pain of leaving it rose inside me, it clutched at my heart with long claws. It beat, it hurt. Doubt tried to shake me, bearing with it a fear that I had not felt before. What if you fell far from your wood, Mìriel. What if your last blood was spilt over a sterile ground that remembers you not. Elf of the forest, would you die defending the ruins of a city of stone?
There was that evil in the air, and it tempted to rash decisions, despairing counsels. I resisted. If my doom awaits, I shall meet it. If this be my destiny, I shall embrace it. My choice is made, my lot cast. I won't abandon the Men of Gondor. I glanced around, tearing my spirit once more as I looked at tree, stream, glade. I kept marching. What if this were the last time, Mìriel. What if the darkness spoke of your death.
I did not listen. I quickened my pace, led the Men forward. Mordor was strong that day, its hosts had moved. The air was tainted, treason closer than ever before. In such hours shall hearts be tested, their true fiber uncovered. Faramir, I thought. Could you stay behind, could you let him fight alone? Green eyes, and a promise. But my path had been clear long before I gave my pledge.
One last step, and I had reached the edge of the wood. I led the Men out, marching into the naked plain.
Faramir was waiting for us on the outskirts of the destroyed city. As I came face to face with him I saw that something had changed, that his eyes sparkled with a feverish light. And yet it was not joy that lit his features, but a grim decision, and a brooding triumph that held no beauty. He directed the Rangers to their companions, and taking my hand led me to a house most of whose walls were still standing.
Inside, the strangest sight awaited me. Guarded by two Rangers there stood three small creatures. Two of them were dressed with cloaks of Elvish fashion; one was well fed, with a plump face that seemed made for merrier times than this. The other was pale, and he looked ill. He slumped against his companion, his eyes half-closed.
"Halflings," I murmured, and Faramir beside me nodded.
"From a place called Shire, far in the West. You knew of them?"
"Not of the Shire. Some of their kind lived North, along the river…some of my people have met them. And yet I thought they were all gone, when I was still young." I looked at him: "Why do you guard them? They are harmless creatures."
"Not all of them."
He beckoned and I looked, more closely now, at the third one. His height was similar to that of the Halflings, and perhaps he had been one, once; but something terrible had happened to him since, mutilating him, consuming him, corrupting his shape into something fearful. A bottomless misery and an equal malice fought on the features of the third prisoner, and his wide eyes were filled with a despair such as I had never guessed could exist. A despair devoid of dignity, the very end of all that is good and luminous in a living creature in Arda, however marred.
A small, pitiful creature, a living thing ruined by the mischief of the Enemy… A crawling, debased animal it would look to you, and yet deadly can be his skills, grown murderous under the Shadow…
The words of the Dunadàn, so many springs before.
"Faramir – "
He went out again, and I followed, however reluctantly. The third prisoner had cowed away from me, spitting and cursing at the sight of an Elf; and the pale Halfling seemed too far from this world to stir. But his companion had sought my eyes with his, and as Faramir disappeared beyond the door he called: "Lady…"
One of the guards bid him to keep silent. I went out quickly. Faramir's face was still under the ill light of his excitement, his voice was full of it.
"We found them yesterday, after we dealt with the Southrons. Travellers in these ill-times…only the two Halflings, though, at first. We took them prisoners. When questioned they answered they had been till not long ago with a company of other seven. One of them was Boromir."
His face clouded at the name, the grief came back in his eyes. But he shook it away.
"They had parted before he died, they knew not how he had met his end. They would not reveal why they travelled this way. We kept them in the Secret Chamber. At night their companion, that strange creature, was caught in the Forbidden Pool. And from him I learnt what these Halflings carry."
No he came closer to me, his voice barely above a whisper: "Legends talked of it, but they also said it had been lost. The One Ring of Sauron."
Wonder filled me, but also a fear that was cold and harsh. In the bleak light over the ruined city the evil unnamed that had poisoned the forest was now revealed. As I looked into Faramir's eyes I saw madness. Many Rings were made, Elven Rings to protect, Dwarvish Rings to hoard; but the One Ring had as only purpose power. Power; the thing Men shall crave to their undoing. The Man King Isildur had fallen because of that Ring, and now in the eyes of my love the same curse was repeated. I shook my head violently: "Faramir! Where did they carry it?"
He shrugged. "They said it had to be destroyed…but no. This is a gift. A mighty gift for Minas Tirith, and an unexpected aid for its Steward."
Then his eyes sparkled, and love and compassion tore at me as I understood. Never would Faramir seize the Ring for himself; but for his father this would ransom and repay all his years of unworthiness in his eyes. I looked at him, my mortal, my frail love, and I wished I could give my eternity, my skill, all that I was to lift this endless pain from his shoulders. But such wishes are made not to be granted. The edge of doom was sharper than even my fear had guessed.
"Faramir – "
Words of wisdom and counsel were ready upon my tongue, in my heart the resolve to stand before this folly ere it were too late. But before I could utter a word a small voice, pitched to a height of anger and indignation, interrupted me: "You can't take the Ring! It will ruin you and twist you, as it did with your brother!"
We turned. On the threshold of the house, a guard that tried to restrain him, stood the plump Halfling, his cheeks flaming. Faramir's eyes were crossed by uncertainty and grief, and emboldened by his silence the small, valiant creature went on: "He tried to take the Ring! He swore he would protect my master, but he –"
The Halfling, whose words gave me hope for Faramir as they added to my mourning for his brother, could never finish. For in that moment a fell screech filled the empty sky, and a shadow fell like a blanket over our hearts, while one cry echoed through the defenders of Osgiliath:
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