16. Chapter 16: Promise
The day that followed came as a blighted light, marred sunrays dripping from the branches of the trees. Even in their secluded life they could not ignore the threat that hung on the pale air.
Closer and closer they march. The rock is afraid. The war is near. Rest, sleep. It will not come, we will not care. It will not come.
I ignored the voice, I ignored the soothing that tried to push me back into my dreams. I drew myself up, sitting on the grass. It was early in the morning, the dew of the night still humid on the grass; but the city had stirred, a ripple of excitement through the stones. They were preparing themselves, they were arming.
They'll ride to the city. They'll sally forth. They'll fail. They'll die.
When I lowered my eyes on Faramir, he was already awoken. His blue eyes were hard and empty, chambers shut against a fell wind. He lifted a hand to caress my cheek, and its touch was cold. I took it in mine, and kissed the palm.
"Is it time already?"
If birds dwelt in this garden sown into stone, they hid themselves. There was no sound but a soft rustling in the grass as he rose, and I followed him.
"If you do not wish to come, there will be no need."
"I will come with you, as far as I can go."
One look, and he took my hand. He held it as we crossed the deserted halls, where behind locked doors the healers arranged the tools of their craft. The walls murmured tales of things that had been, of things they remembered.
Blood, blood again; blood on the cloth, life running on the stones; vain strife for Men too weak…they'll fall even as we do.
I heeded them not. Out of the portal the white streets were bathed in the same diseased light, a pale sheet dropped over Men and houses alike. The sounds were muffled. The armour of the guards shone dull.
Chainmail and breastplate, vambrace and helm; Elves of the wood never wrought them, Elves of the wood never wore them. Our people died on the fields of battles long past and swore never ago to ride out to meet peril. But this was the war Men had learnt from the High Elves, and to such a battle Faramir went. Expert fingers knotted the laces, and the Captain was coated in iron, the White Tree carved upon his breast.
They brought his horse, and as he waited he looked at me, and I knew not what was in my eyes. When he had mounted I gave him the helm, and doom fell upon his face with its shadow.
I took my own horse, and remained by Faramir's side as the riders assembled. The animals neighed softly, the silence in the air too heavy to be broken by any other sound. When to the last one they were there, Faramir spoke, and his voice echoed with the weight of centuries in the day when the city was closest to fall.
"Men of Gondor! Oaths you have sworn, and promises you have made; but what does it count, if you defend them not? What does it count, if your heart be weak?"
A shiver ran through the ranks, his words a challenge.
"They have sung of victories, and never of defeats; but what does glory matter in a day like this? What does glory matter to one whose house, whose land, whose very own blood and flesh are in peril?"
The horses perceived the tension of their riders, and beat the flagstones with their hoofs. The neighing became louder.
"I do not say to you that we will ride to victory; I do say to you that we will ride to conquest. I say to you, ride with me! Ride, to the darkness and the end; ride, and if lightless Death be waiting for us, so be it! But in one last charge now we go, for all that we call beloved beneath this pale Sun, on this forsaken Earth!"
It was as if one throat had answered his call, and dark rang the voice of the Men. Down through six levels we came to the great gates, a slow pace of solemn march; the people of Minas Tirith came out of their houses then, a mournful wing of black and violet for mourning by the side of the road. Carven in the stone of their city they were, a fixed omen waiting to be confirmed, or against hope proven wrong. We stopped as the gates were opened, and then Mithrandir approached Faramir, as if to speak; but no words could leave his lips, not before this.
I understood then, for the briefest of moments, the terrible beauty of the strife of iron and steel, the majesty of Death in such a morning, and the blinding splendor of such a deed. I understood why Men wished to remember in song and writing this valour, even if useless; and as I understood the city came alive, and I listened and saw with the ears and eyes of its stone.
But it was a moment; for the gates were opened, wings of steel revealing the empty plain that yesterday alone had brought us to safety beyond hope; and the dark shape of Osgiliath waited on the river, a monster crouching. Its fallen beauty was now forever lost. Faramir looked to me, and his glance went past that day, as if he could already see past the edge of this life. Cold filled me; and the city was dead. My short understanding was crushed, and my heart rent in pieces as I watched the riders leave.
One by one the gate swallowed them, and motionless I stood there, until the doors were closed, and their doom sealed. Mithrandir approached me then; but I shook my head. My voice lay useless at the bottom of my throat. I left my horse, I remember not where, or to whom; and as one who dreams I trod back to the Houses of Healing. The streets were empty now; and the stones full of whispers.
I met no one as I crossed the halls, and when I sat again beneath the trees, their whispers surrounded me like a veil. With my fingertips I touched the flattened grass, and an echo of the night there passed came back, a wave of heat and life before this white death.
Won't you sleep? Won't you take rest, Elvish maiden?
The trees, their tired enchantment. I heeded them not. I waited, my eyes fixed on the emptiness past the high wall.
When they brought him back I was waiting for them on the portal. I drew aside as the stretcher-bearers walked past the threshold, I laid eyes that felt blind on the face of Faramir diffused with pallor. How many were the arrows that the metal plates hadn't held out? I did not count them.
My feet moved without thinking, in my ears the empty echo of the voice of the stone.
Fallen is the Captain, fallen! Ruin and fire, enemies on the march…
The whispers pursued me as I followed the healers, till the room where they lay him down to rest. The wizard checked his wounds, muttering words under his breath. When he saw me, his eyes glittered with something I could not name.
"There is no time," he said, "Denethor has lost his mind, and the host of Sauron is fast approaching. Will you fight?"
The only thing I wished for was to kneel beside his bed, lay my head on his abandoned hand. Relinquish the life of the Eldar as Elves will do when the pain is too strong. But there was one promise I would not break. And if it brought Death in its wake, it would be welcome.
"I promised him I would."
Mithrandir nodded, then straightened up. A tiredness and a strength beyond mortal power veiled him together.
"I will give you command of the archers on the wall. I will be with the catapults. I do not now for how long we may hold them from storming the battlements, but the gate is strong."
I nodded, as if it mattered still.
"Come with me, Mìriel."
His staff held high, he left the room. He would fight for this city stone by stone, wanderer turned into leader. Holding out for I knew not what. But this had lost importance, like everything else. My life was tied to a straw lost in a tempest; and my body was heavy.
Before following him I took a small flask from the leather pouch hanging from my belt, and gave it to the healer that had started undoing tending the wounds. I met her eyes, and she was the same, old woman of the day before. It was as if ages had filled the chasm between that moment and this, and in the worry in her eyes I saw reflected the change on my own face. But I cared not for whatever comfort she may offer me.
"The balm will help."
Without waiting for her answer I bent over Faramir, wishing I could reach him in the dark place where the fever had brought him. All I could do was kissing his lips, one last time.
"Wait for me by the Western sea," I whispered; the same words Lùthien had said to Beren when the world was young, and hope still green. The laws of Ea had bent for her.
Not for you. Carried by the stone, still the voice of the trees reached me. This was a story even they remembered.
"I know it well."
If the healer wondered to whom I was speaking, she hid it well. Without looking back I tore myself from his side, and walked away.
I took command of the Men, listened to Mithrandir instructing them to follow my lead. A few of the Rangers were there, their leather armour exchanged for an iron one. We shared brief looks that talked of years spent dodging the end between tree and bush, and a nodding said all needed be said, all that words could no longer convey.
Good hunting, whatever its end.
The sun had disappeared, a white light dulled the world into a uniform gray. The faces of the soldiers by my side where blenched bone under the weak protection of the noseguards of their helms. Their hands under the gauntlets shook imperceptibly on the dark wood of their bows.
Fear was a smell in the air, a hand grasping their hair. A call to go back, flee from this white hour, this blackened death.
Like a tide the first wave of Orcs drew nearer, my eyes now distinguishing their maimed features, their skin burnt and marred. Once, Elves not unlike me. The thrill of hatred had disappeared; I looked at them as through thick glass. Pity and hatred alike were now beyond my reach.
"Bows in position."
The archers obeyed. There is no shame in fear, no shame in hearing the appeal of a body which refuses to die; and bravery lies solely in not heeding the call. But on that day my body was an empty vessel, and my spirit a tired bird born by tainted winds.
Soon, now, the closely packed ranks would be in range. I looked up. The light was but a pale shadow above the thick clouds. No Sun to put fear in Orcish hearts, no Sun to shine on polished sword, glittering one last challenge in the face of death. The sky that day was an upturned shield over the Earth.
Ruin and fire and fall…
I did not listen. In the dark back of time, I was alone.
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.