14. Chapter 14: Defeat
They came at night. Like mist uncurling on the surface of the water they slipped over the river, and the stars hid their faces, refusing to watch. Guarding the shore was vain; for the darkness was a living and a blinding thing, keeping our eyes shut. We waited, breathing in the night, the fear a cloud of uncertainty around our hearts. The first arrow was a wound that tore apart the tense muscles of our will, and with the cry of the first sentinel slain the fear congealed into the hard foundation of our courage. Swords were unsheated as the archers took cover, and the first wave of Orcs was pushed back on their barges. In the dark all blood is black.
The shouts of the captains were woven into the cloth of the hours as the darkness wore on; years of secret war had ripened into this one battle among ruined houses. The arrows I shot were my heartbeats, the flank of the archers beside me the borders of my world. Wall by wall we fought, and our valour seemed for a moment never to yield. But the Orcs were a tide no dam could hold back, their numbers too many, their dead a pile under our feet their living kept even.
The night grew pale as our arrows ended; I was shooting the black shafts of the enemy when Faramir's voice sounded to my ear: "We retreat." I turned to him, meeting his eyes made opaque by the haze of too many hours without sleep. At the back of my mind an image had lingered for that long night, a vision of his body felled like a tree by wounds uncounted; and now that he stood before me unscathed relief was a wave I could not afford to enjoy. I touched the shoulder of the archer beside me, the only survivor of six that we had been, holding our position from the roof of a fallen temple; he slung his bow over his shoulder, and followed us.
Counting the dead would have been useless in the colourless light of an hour that called itself dawn. We hewed our way out of the battle, the price of our lives measured by the blood with which knife and sword were stained, by the cracks in armour and helm. Stepping lightly over upturned stones I left behind Osgiliath the Fallen, my shape a shadow among Rangers and soldiers on the run. The horses had been kept near the river, defenders appointed to keeping the last way out clear. With dilated nostrils they waited for us, their hoofs beating the rhythm of the lost battle on the broken flags of an ancient road.
Faramir gave me the reins of a white horse without looking at me, his gloved fingers holding my hand for the briefest of moments over them. My fear had been his; finding me alive was a prize he had dared not hope of such a night. The decision to retreat had lain with him alone, captain and son of the Steward, and the defeat would hang over his head in the eyes of Denethor. As the remnants of the force that had held the city mounted their horses I looked for words to speak that would not be vain; but a screech filled the sky, blotting out what weak rays the morning Sun had shed. The Nazgûl had come back.
Fear is an animal that preys on Eldar and Men alike, and the terror that shrieking instilled was a cold touch over our spirits. As we urged the horses to speed our minds were blank; the blood of the steed I rode pulsed with mine. I kept close to Faramir's own horse as we ran under the cover of the outskirts of the city; the flying monsters circled above our heads in frustration, but did not plunge. Ahead of us loomed the plain, a vast stretch without defense for Man and horse.
Faramir screamed, a war cry his men took up with harsh throats, their life never so vivid in their veins as now, as with a last sprint they left the shade of Osgiliath for the empty peril of the field. Screaming they galloped ahead, their voices a challenge to the cold call of the Black Riders. In silence I rode among them, in my mind the long years I had spent on this Earth beneath skies uncorrupted; my eyes were fixed ahead, and to my ears, made deaf by the beating of my own heart, every other sound was but a distant threat. Nothing existed but this moment, its rush, its terror, ahead the White Tower growing greater as I left behind the river, the wood, everything I had known and called home.
There is no thought of dying in one who flees; there is no thought but the haven that is his only goal. Again and again the Nazgûl came down, their claws closing upon horses and Men. Again and again, one with my mount, I avoided them. The moments lengthened into ages unknown as I realized that earth was still under the hoofs, that I was still running. I sought Faramir with my eyes, and he rode as I did, our group scattering wide, a wing of flying riders the beasts pursued one by one. Minas Tirith was near, but how many of us could have reached its gates I do not know; and my life, endless by the accounts of Men, so short for one of my people, could have ended in that plain, my body a broken thing on the burnt grass.
But the darkness was shredded by a light stronger and purer than the Sun herself could be, a light against which the power of Mordor was null. The radiance of the Blessed Realm was in it, and the call of the monsters was tinged with panic as they fled before it. For a moment our eyes were blinded, and even my Elven sight could not at first suffer such brilliance, and distinguish to whom or to what our deliverance was due. We kept riding, hastening for the city gates now open before us, promising safety. Only when we had almost reached them, and the light was among and around us, did we see who bore it: a white rider upon a white horse, holding aloft a white staff.
The shadow of the Tower was then upon us, and finally the hoofs resounded on the stones of its threshold, and the heavy gates were shut behind us. The far cry of the Nazgûl was now an empty menace, and as our hearts slowed down and the impossible truth of our survival touched us, I turned to thank with what words I could find the rider. Upon me he fixed eyes at first benignant, then wide in surprise; eyes that were mirrors of my own, as I recognized Mithrandir.
The Gray, he had once been called; but now his raiment was snow-white, and the light that was upon his face was but a shadow of the power that we had seen displayed. The Wanderer of many countries and many ages that I had last seen six years before in Mirkwood, on his errand that had brought me news such to change and reshape the whole course of my days, was now revealed in the splendor of a lord even among those of his kind. I bowed my head in reverence; and yet I could not believe what I saw.
"By what name should I call you, Mithrandir?"
"By the name you always used, Mìriel of Ithilien and Mirkwood. Rumours that your people had returned to their land had reached me, and yet I was led to believe you had all come back."
"So many have done, or should I say all. I remained."
"The love you bore to the woods of your birth was then great indeed, lady."
Dismounting from his horse, Faramir came near to us, and his smile shone as he took my hand.
"You are indeed known in many countries, Gandalf, and there shall not be words enough in the tongues of Men or Elves to thank you. Always strange and unforeseeable were your comings and goings, but now to your timeliness we owe our own life."
The wizard looked from me to him, to the hand the Man held with a familiarity none could mistake; and even as he answered his words with a smile his eyes questioned me. He had known of my bond with Legolas, a bond by all acknowledged, and that we had never tried to conceal. A question was in his eyes, and to that question I answered with an imperceptible nod of my head. War and grief such as had dominated the last days had made the pain of my choice farther from my mind that it had ever been; but now it was brought back in full. And as the memory of what had been stung me, marring the simple joy of being still in this world, still under the uncertain light of that day, Faramir let go of my hand and moved a step towards a small creature that had just appeared.
"Not the first you see, I should say, Faramir."
I dismounted, and looked to the short figure that had just joined us. Small as a child of Men; but whose features and traits betrayed an older age. Clad in the same Elven cloak of the two we had seen and left the day before.
"No, indeed. Just yesterday – "
The tale came out in its simplicity, Faramir's words hiding none of his doubts, none of his uncertainty. Worry and then relief came on the face of our listeners, but with the name of Cirith Ungol Mithrandir's face clouded.
"Frodo did not lie: the quest was desperate. Nine were the companions that set out from Rivendell, and there came a time when I was myself lost. I was saved beyond all hope, and I wish there had come safety for your brother too. But the Ring is strong."
"I have felt its power fully, and there is no telling of what the Dark Tower shall be should it come back to its master. The Halfling has gone with our blessings and what aid we could give – but the road ahead of him is the most perilous he has encountered yet."
Faramir shook his head, and now his smile had disappeared without leaving trace.
"You need not my words to tell you what times are these that we face, Mithrandir. I wish I could have done more. But my duty kept me to Osgiliath, even if a day alone has been enough to show that it was a doomed allegiance. Doubtlessly the Steward awaits me, and I have to answer of my choice and alike of my defeat."
He took again his horse, and urged him on the road to the citadel, without looking back at us. Anxiously the Halfling – Pippin was his name – began asking of the Ringbearer, but Mithrandir silenced his words, and raising him he put him on his horse.
"Quiet, now, Peregrin Took. It will be better to see what Denethor shall have to say. Mìriel, you have fought valiantly; perhaps you should rest."
"Mithrandir – "
I paused. The question had been on my mind since the day before, the memory of the words of the Dùnadan haunting me.
"The creature Gollum – "
"Yes, lady. It was the same I hunted with Aragorn son of Arathorn through the wilderness. Our chase had success, but too late. When we brought him to Mirkwood you had already departed, but it was not long before his cunning found for him a way to escape."
He mounted behind the Hobbit, and his last words I could have guessed. Heavy was my heart, but as guess became certainty it sank as lead.
"The messenger that brought the news to the Council travelled with us as a companion. Legolas Greenleaf left his realm before your people came back, Mìriel. He was with Aragorn in the kingdom of Rohan, two days ago."
He did not wait for my reply, and he left, his horse devouring the white road of the first level. The Rangers called to me, knowing not what had come to pass. Their voices spoke of barracks where to eat, and drink, and lay down to rest. Barracks where to wait for Faramir to come back, and ease the grief his father would have brought to him anew. But to the voices I gave no answer.
For now my spirit felt trapped in the circle of the stone walls, and a new anguish was upon it; knowing now how fate can be a strange thing, and a mocking one. Of the promise I had broken, of the choice I had made, Legolas knew nothing.
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.