19. Chapter 19: Black
The riders of Rohan had camped outside the walls, their tents a green sheet over the blackened battlefield. Parties of soldiers were gathering the dead, burying the fallen beneath great mounds. Orcs and servants of Sauron burnt on pyres untended by mourner or tear, and the air was thick with the smell of charred flesh. No carrion bird would come to feed on this tainted banquet. A strange silence hung in the air; the Rohirrim looked to their horses, gathered their weapons. Yesterday's victory was forgotten, tomorrow's battle promised a worse fate.
The guards let me pass, marvel in their eyes, uneasy glances as I stepped over a fallen spear and made my way through the tents. The King was still in the citadel, I was told, he was holding council with Aragorn. My wait was spent in the white light of a Sun that played with shreds of clouds, that made the armours of the dead shine sickly, a wall of steel as their companions carried them away to be buried.
I held my pain back behind the mask of a blank face, looking for numbness, hoping in vain. Raising my eyes to the darkness that loomed East. A lucidity hounded me in this morning that no detachment would come to soften. The red light of Sauron had not been quenched, the dense clouds veiling it a were a cloak gathered around a wounded animal. An Enemy undefeated bid his time to spring again.
No victory in waiting, no victory in marching. Aegnor's choice had not been different. In this doom my grief became null, it disappeared among the ruin of our times. In the host of those that marched away, one sorrow would be drowned among a thousand. So small we are, so meaningless; and yet we believe that our pain and our joys are the edges of the world.
There were no trumpets to announce the king, he came surrounded by his marshals, on his grim face engraved the challenge that lay ahead. He had taken his crown on the battlefield where his kin had died, and on him like a shadow was the mute question that no man dared to utter, that the thirst for bloodshed could not erase.
The Man before me knew that his reign could prove to be but the dominion of one day.
"I greet you, King of the Mark," I said, and his eyes found me with a brief spark of surprise. "Short is the time before you march to war again, short and painful as you bury the friends that yesterday died, as you ask yourself whether in the Houses of your fathers you shall soon meet. I will steal no long time from you, Lord of Horses, but an answer to my question."
"Your countenance is grave, lady, and it is with wonder that I recognize in you one of the Firstborn. Valiantly has your kin fought with mine, and to the request of one of the Elves I owe a reply even in this hour of haste."
Valiantly has your kin fought with mine…Words have edges that those who speak them know not. Perhaps my pain showed itself, a dark flicker upon my face; the walls of my mind crumbling after too much strain. But I mastered it, a beast that should wait to feast on my bones.
"I thank you, lord; and what I ask is a simple thing to grant or refuse. Tomorrow you shall ride to war, and I ask of you permission to come with your host."
I waited, and what passed in his dark eyes, on his features I could not tell; a pain whose source was unknown to me. He looked at me, and I knew he did not see an archer or an Elf, but a maiden too small in comparison to the weight of this hour without light.
"Would you go to war, then, maiden of the Eldar? Would you gamble your life with ours? Is it thirst of glory that bids you abandon the walls of the city, illusory safety perhaps, but safety still? Your life was made to be endless, and it seems hasty to me to throw it away so."
"King of the Mark, I do not know what thoughts cross your mind, what grief awakens in your heart. No thirst for glory compels me, no oaths sworn nor promises made. My life was long ere you were born; and you have seen that the shape of the Elves betrays nothing of the time they have spent on this Earth, nor of their strength in strife. For I was raised in a land that was always in peril, and in war secret and void of glory I have spent my days, when alliance of Elves and Men was but a legend and a dream. I have fought for the city in the hour of its darkness, and now this war I would follow to its last stand."
"Short are the days of Men, and I see now that your memory goes back to times that no Man alive has known. I have seen the worth of the Eldar in war, and that they may endure and fight beyond the resistance of mortal warrior, however mighty. But I did not think that they would train their maidens to wield sword."
A smile that spoke of sadness flowered on my lips as images of my far childhood came to my mind, a gentler pain, a regret of times when Orcs were rare nightmares in forest unspoiled, and the skill of the hunter untouched by war.
"No sword I wield, but bow and knife. None of my kin there are that know not how to live in the wood, for among the trees we wander together, and a maiden shall know how to shield herself and others from peril. Do not wonder, Lord of Horses; I shall be of no burden to your march, and what aid I can give, you shall receive."
He shook his head.
"I see that no words that I can say shall shake you, and indeed you were a fighter long before I was taught to brandish spear and sword. But if I cannot dissuade you, let me at least ask why you shall not ride with Aragorn the Elf-friend, and Legolas his companion."
The beast in my heart roared, a call I could not hide. Harsh was my voice when I answered, and thick with all I would not say. Another day, I silently begged of my grief, another day. Then forever you will hold me in your thrall, or I shall be beyond your reach.
"Ask not the reason why I choose to ride with you, king, for it is not my wish to tell. If you shall allow me to ride with the Rohirrim, I will be but one of them, and my different kin will be meaningless in common fight. Or if you shan't, say but a word, and I will depart."
He bowed his head, and his words were rough, but kind. For the shadow of pain was upon him even as upon me, and he understood.
"Forgive me, lady; these are days of mourning and uncertainty, and I wish I could shield all that remains of fair and beautiful on this Earth from the taint and the threat of war. But if your wish be to ride and defy death with us, so be it; and when the moment comes together we shall unsheathe our blades."
My triumph was a quiet thing as he went away, my victory a knot in the thread of a destiny too often strained. My steps were stitches holding together the cloth of Time, making it slower as I crossed the scarred plains, past the great carcasses of the Mumakil, past the abandoned banners and broken spoils.
Till the river. Till water that cleanses, and makes sacred.
Osgiliath downstream was a black shape, sadness in its abandoned form coiled across the Anduin. Fair I was, and mighty they made me; now I am in ruin. Before the Kings were gone I was lost. Shall they fail?
I shook my head. Faded was the voice of the stone, tired. It died away as I took off my clothes, the call of rock and ruined building losing itself in the gentle murmur of the river, Anduin the Great unbroken since the Sea was fixed. The first touch of the water was cold on my toes as my foot trod in the mud, and noiselessly I cut the surface, slipping under. Letting the dust and the remembrance of blood and war melt, and my pain fall asleep in the deep song of the river. Between my fingers the water was like curtains of silk.
When I broke the surface again the river was a mirror to mountain and sky; clouds swam beside me, white sweetness I could not reach.
It all passes, from spring to Sea. All is washed away.
Even this pain.
The voice of the king, the voice of the wizard. Before the Black Gates of Mordor their light was frail, the fell voice of the messenger a hiss that spoke of death. But I had no ears for it. In the moment before the battle I lay cradled in the Anduin.
The memory of the river, a brightness in the journey through darkness till the darkened memory of this scarred earth. The last warmth as we left Ithilien behind, the leaves unmoving on branches still in the motionless wait. The edges of all things cutting blades where all that remained of our dreams died.
In my eyes the journey had been but a shadowed land. None had hindered the march of those that went to their fate, banners flying in useless pride. The last gleam of the Sun on silver and black.
When the head of the messenger fell in the dust the water disappeared, the gray wasteland embraced me. Nothing existed but this marred dream, this ruined land that was prophecy of what would be if we failed. Death smiled from the crags of the ashen mountain as the Gate vomited its black armies to a sound of doom.
We had left the horses behind, and the soil beneath my feet felt dead. No life to accompany me to this last stand, no voices in the stone but a low rumbling, a threatening growl. I closed my eyes, and an echo of the wood reached me, one last rustling of leaves here, at the end of all things; and perhaps it was nothing but the whisper of my spirit as it bid farewell.
I did not listen to the speech of the King, my body felt it as my spirit looked out of my eyes on a world that was dull and silent. It sought the peace of the river even as the blood in my veins boiled, even as my fingers flexed, and my bow became one with my hand. And when I charged my soul was left behind, it remained standing alone on that plain, watching the body that had hosted it as a scream tore its throat, as mindless rage erased pain and love and fear, and it plunged into the fight.
Orcish blood on stained blade, pounding heart into the ears. Where is the land, where is the sky, where is the truce in this battle that has no end?
Black, all shades of black as I shoot the last arrow, endless black as the trolls come charging through rows of Men that fall like broken leaves. This is death, and yet it does not come; it holds me on its fingers, and with me it plays.
Another monster, marred life that dies, slaying that becomes breathing as the minutes lengthen, as time distills itself until it becomes meaningless. A tainted haven rises on this black day.
Is it Legolas that comes towards me cutting his way through the fray, can it be his the voice that calls? What does it say? It does not matter, for this is the end. There is nothing left but to lower this blade, in the red tide of time, smiling, to stop. Don't run, my love. It's far too late.
I do not feel the spear that pierces my skin. I do not feel the earth as it grows closer. The clouds have covered the Sun on the Anduin, and my last memory is a cry that tears apart the silence in my head.
Everything else is nothing but unbroken black.