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Lie Down in the Darkness, Rise up from the Ash: 36. The Road to Minas Tirith
Of a sudden, one of the riders broke from the company, urging his mount to the rear, ere he pulled up short to stare into the distance. Faramir stood in his stirrups, squinting as he surveyed the field. Not that he could see much, but at that moment, a second rider appeared in a dusty cloud: Damrod rode straight up to his captain, and came to a halt at his side, brutally curbing his terrified mount, cursing as the animal minced and trembled.
"They come, Captain, and quite a few they are. They are nearly upon us," the Ranger lieutenant panted, then swore again. His sweat-streaked face paled, and he flinched at the high, far sound of a Nazgûl looking on, calling, for all they knew, encouragement to those who hunted them.
Faramir's jaw clenched, but he nodded, turning his horse and making for the company he had just left. Sweeping past the knights bringing up the rear, he went straight for the head of the column of infantry, feeling eyes turn toward him as he passed, with Damrod hard on his heels. When he had reached the van and the standard-bearer there, he paused once more, and again turned his mount, so that now he faced the company. Raising his voice, he drew his sword and called out:
"Final orders, men!" Pointing beyond them to the City with the weapon, he cried, "The gates are nigh, and our enemies also. Rearguard, keep your shields on your backs. At the run, now, and hold formation—come what may, hold formation, and do not pause until you have passed the gates! Go!"
After which, Faramir leaned on his horse's neck and coughed violently, dimly aware of Damrod interposing himself between his captain and the men, and leading his horse a little ways away. Faramir simply clung to the reins, helpless against the spasm. His lungs ached and his throat burned, and he had given up on ever clearing his vision of tears. It had been bad enough when the ash had simply rained down upon them. But on the long retreat from Henneth Annûn, through Osgiliath and step by bloody step down the road to the Rammas Echor, passing armies had disturbed the layer of it that lay upon the ground, so that an eagle (were there one to brave the reek and arrows) might have marked their movements by the clouds of ash stirred up. Particularly when their enemies closed with them, the ash rose up thick as fog.
Within those clouds, it was a shadow world. Men squinted, for those four rows forward were indistinct shapes, friend and foe impossible to distinguish. Battle was a chaos under the best of circumstances, and these were far from them: Faramir did not want to think about the number of men killed by their own comrades in a panic of mistaken identity, as someone would come fleeing back into the ranks when a company broke, into the midst of startled and frightened men who, unsure of his name or allegiance, reacted exactly as they had been taught.
Meanwhile, he and his officers—whether of the Rangers or of Boromir's command at Osgiliath, or, lately, companies from the wall that had fallen in with him—were running themselves beyond ragged in the effort to coordinate the retreat: unable to see himself, he sent them in as close as they could to the fighting ranks to see what was afoot and report it back to him. Sometimes they returned; too often, they did not. He himself had tried to keep a watch on the central columns, but in the main, his orders were issued based on the reports of his lieutenants-turned-couriers—on their reports, and on pure faith that nothing had changed dramatically in the time it took for his men to grasp the situation, and return to repeat it to him.
Three days, Faramir thought wearily. It had been three days of purest unrelieved agony for those covering the retreat—really a rout at this point—and it might well be a fourth. In fact, it was probably fairer to say it was the fourth: though the sun did not show herself, he knew it was late in the day, for the Enemy's ranks were growing bolder. They at least seemed to know where the sun stood, even if the concealing clouds allowed them to walk abroad at any hour.
But Faramir did not want to think of a fourth day—three had been bad enough. This was his second horse; Damrod was on his fourth, and just last night, he had lost one of Boromir's last remaining lieutenants to a sudden charge from the right as the Enemy had pushed them from the walls and onto the fields. Since then, they had been running, ever and anon overtaken by the Enemy's light cavalry, who would rain arrows down upon them. Faramir had put those with shields to the rear, to cover their more vulnerable fellows, but in the end, it was up to his own mounted knights to drive off the raiders, and the slower companies that drew nigh while Faramir's men were otherwise engaged. Only thus had they any hope of reaching the walls and some measure of safety, but the ranks of horsemen were thinning... It occurred to him that they had not given, perhaps, their best account of themselves, but at the moment, he did not care. All that mattered now was that half a mile down the road were the City Gates, and he had to see the remainder of his infantry safely through them before the heavy cavalry could break from their enemies and end this nightmare of a march.
Which meant one more charge. One more charge to clear the enemy from their heels, and then Faramir could take his knights home. Just one more, Faramir told himself, attempting to rally his spirits even as he forcibly mastered the coughing. Damrod was beside him still, and Faramir blinked to find him holding out an unstoppered water skin. "May as well, Captain," Damrod said, sounding hoarse himself. "This is as calm as we'll see until we're behind the gates."
So he said, and left unspoken the unwelcome rest: that they might not make the gates. That the Enemy had driven them this far, and was coming on with sudden speed and ferocity, and that this had to mean something. Drink up and know a little last relief—Damrod had no need to say it, it was in his face when he looked at his captain. Such was the logic of war, and Faramir hesitated only a moment before he took the proffered water skin and tipped his head back.
"Thank you," he murmured when he had done, and passed it back to Damrod, who himself took a few sips. Faramir for his part turned his mount back northwards. Above the ashy haze kicked up by his men, he could see the ramparts and towers of the Minas Tirith—close enough, seemingly, to touch. Between them and himself, a half-mile stretch of land and a company of infantry fleeing as quickly as order permitted. It was time. Turning once more, he glanced at Damrod, who gave him a nod.
Touching his spurs to his mount's sides, he urged the animal forward, to where the knights sat their horses in formation, anticipating his command. Damrod fell into place on his right, and Faramir raised the captain's horn that he rarely used in Ithilien to his lips. As he drew breath, he could see a new cloud forming on the southern horizon: cavalry on the move. His command went out, an incongruously sweet note:
Obediently, the horses began to move: first at a walk, and though Faramir had seen and ridden dozens of charges—half of them in the past three days, or so it felt—for some reason, this first stage seemed unbearably slow, as if the air had turned to water, or time itself had changed its substance and flowed no more freely but trickled by, each moment passing with an effort and an effort to pass for those who lived it. But at length, they built to a trot, and then to a canter; by then, the second file was shooting over their heads: the Rangers and few mounted bowmen of Boromir's company did not bother with aiming, they simply loosed what they had into the on-coming ash cloud in the hopes of whittling the enemy's numbers somewhat.
Answering arrows came back, and all along the line, shields went up. Faramir felt several of them strike his shield; others fell harmlessly beyond the ranks or passed through them without hitting anyone; but to either side, he saw men and horses fall away, heard the screams of wounded animals and men, and the curses of comrades seeking to avoid trampling fallen friends or being borne down by them.
And then there was no more time for observation. The shapes within the haze became men in red and gold and wild-eyed horses at the last moment—time enough for one good look, ere everything dissolved into chaos. A lance embedded itself in Faramir's shield, and he grunted at the shock of the collision, but did not hesitate: he brought his sword down hard and clove through a weak point in his foe's armor, just at the shoulder. Blood sprayed, and he ducked beneath a scimitar, kneed his mount to the right and caught a horse's flanks in a back-handed slash.
The first pass was over almost before he could think to give the command to turn, but the knights of Boromir's company knew their business, and the Rangers had learned it quickly in the retreat. Horses squealed as their riders commanded them to turn, and the entire formation wheeled, reversing itself to charge back towards the line of Haradrim, who also were turning. Valar be praised! some part of Faramir's mind thought, for the Haradrim might have continued; they might have decided to make their final run on the infantry, who would have slain some of them, certainly, but encumbered and exhausted as they were, and without the line of spearmen to bring down a cavalry charge, would have gone down to death within sight of safety.
Which meant only that it was his men who would die before the gates. He heard the warning call from the right: "They're flanking us!" And indeed, they were, to either side. Both Haradrim and Gondorrim had made their pass as short as they could, Faramir because he had to be concerned about his foot men, and so needed to keep the distance between his knights and the Haradric line as small as possible, that they might be able to catch their enemies before they could make more than one pass through the vulnerable retreating ranks. The Haradrim had perhaps counted upon this, and upon the fact that the shorter the distance between them, the more their numbers favored them: there was not enough space between them for either company to reach full speed, which meant Faramir's company would not have force enough to break through the enemy lines and retreat. The Haradrim would mob them, and between their numbers and the exhaustion of Gondor's men, there could be only one end to this tale.
All of this Faramir recognized in a split instant, and as he urged his men onward—for what other choice was there?—he raised his sword high, as the words welled up from some depth of his soul and came spilling from his lips unbidden:
"Rage, O spirit of Gondor—sing for us!
Enflame us, men of Gondor, to rise up now and ride:
For wrath and ruin and this day's ending! "
And then the Shadow fell. It was as if his very words had called the night upon them, and it came upon bat's wings, and screamed with a fell voice. Faramir's horse shrieked and went nearly straight up, pawing the air, while Faramir clung the reins with hands gone numb suddenly. Cold pierced him through and through, and nausea struck hard. He was not alone in that—he could hear someone retching nearby, and others weeping, calling out in terror as the wraith-fear stretched out its invisible claws to catch and shake them. Everything faded.
And then a horn call broke through the blackness, even as a coughing roar sounded, and the air roiled about them. Faramir blinked, and found he could see once more, found that somehow, he was still horsed, and that despite the terror, he was facing forward, forcing his shivering mount to stand.
"Amroth for Gondor! Amroth to Faramir!" voices shouted, and a blue standard fluttered in the foul wind. Raising his eyes, he saw the fell-beast, its wings beating awkwardly as it struggled to stay aloft. There was an arrow just behind and beneath one great wing, and the Nazgûl that cried out were dismayed for once, as their fellow attempted to pull back. The Haradrim were calling out as well, one part of their formation attempting to turn to meet the onslaught of the Swan knights, as the others continued on towards Faramir's disordered ranks.
"Form up!" he cried, and seizing the horn, blew once more upon it. "Square up!"
Somehow, they managed to pull four lines together, stacked one behind the other. It was the best they could do with no time left them, and when the point of the Haradric formation collided, it met four ranks head on. The line bent, then broke, as Faramir's men—those he had managed to order—absorbed the shock, and line after line slashed and cut and bludgeoned those who passed through them. It was a bloody affair—momentum favored the Haradrim, and they took many down with them as they passed, but not without cost. Those who broke through in the end, lagging well behind the rest of the line, emerged bleeding and fatally slowed, as the more scattered remnants of Faramir's light cavalry fell upon them.
Then of a sudden, they were enveloped in blue and silver tabards, as the Swan knights arrived at last. "Faramir!" There was a buzzing in his ears, as if a hundred flies beat their wings within his head at once, and Faramir was dimly aware of himself, of his body as he raised his sword overhead, shouted some incomprehensible order, kneed his bleeding, gasping horse about. Within, he was reeling, as if sunstruck, and all the while his body continued as if by habit to play the captain's part. "Faramir-lad!"
"Get in line, form up, men, now!"
"Faramir," Imrahil's voice spoke from nigh at hand, and Faramir blinked at last, and then again, 'til the blue shape before him became the Prince of Dol Amroth. His uncle was looking concernedly at him, keeping a certain safe distance as he said again, "Faramir, answer me if you can. Are you hurt?"
"Am I...?" Faramir shook his head, winced, but he glanced down at himself and found nothing obviously wrong. No reason, certainly, to be breathing as hard as he was, surely. He sheathed his sword, and clutched the pommel of his saddle against a wave of weakness.
A gauntleted hand grasped his upper arm, and glancing sideways, he saw his uncle, now beside him. "Talk to me, lad," Imrahil murmured quietly. "Do you need a surgeon?"
"No." The word came out thickly, and Faramir shut his eyes, swallowed painfully. Breathe! Opening his eyes once more, he forced himself to sit up straight, not to sag in the saddle, and as if that habit of posture were some magical key, he felt his head beginning to clear at last. "I am all right, Uncle. Another pass and it might have been otherwise, but you came just in time."
"You are certain?" Imrahil asked, eyes worried still.
"Aye. Well timed, your arrival, and well-shot as well."
"The fell-beast, you mean? That was not our doing. I brought no archers with me."
Faramir frowned. "But it was not one of mine, either. I saw the arrow. At that angle, it came from beyond us."
"Then it must have been from one of the archers on the ramparts, though I cannot fathom the eye that can pick such a target and hit it," Imrahil replied.
"Nor I," Faramir replied, staring at the great walls of Minas Tirith. Then: "But we should return to the City now, while we can. How many men have I still? Where is Damrod? Mablung? Is Teldar here?" Faramir looked about, seeking his lieutenants. He could see his men, back in line again amid Dol Amroth's ranks. Faces grey with exhaustion and fear looked back at him, but they sat their horses nevertheless, awaiting their orders. "Damrod?"
"I am here, Captain!" Damrod appeared suddenly. He had a cut above one eye, and was walking a horse—not the one he had ridden earlier, but apparently his fifth mount. It seemed familiar, and Faramir frowned at it, and at the odd mass hung over the back. Grimly, his lieutenant continued: "I have Mablung."
"Ah." It did not hit as hard as it ought to have. Shock comes in many forms, but its common feature is the inability to feel. He had learned that once, as a lad still training for war. And he had found, in the years that followed such lessons, that shock had its uses. It let men continue when otherwise they might not. Shaking his head, he gestured for Damrod to mount up. "Let us get the men home. Come!"
So it was that the Swan knights and the knights of the City and the Ranger-dragoons returned to Minas Tirith. The men on the ramparts sent up a cheer for them, but Faramir scarcely heard it. He had enough to do to command his face as he sat and looked out over the pitifully reduced company he had brought home. And what of the infantry? he wondered. Catching sight of a pair of men standing upon the stairs near the gates, one of them in a torn, dusty, and bloody tabard of the City, and with a commander's badge still discernible upon it, he turned to Damrod.
"Get the men settled in the barracks on Rath Ennorin. If needed, they will be sent for, but my orders for now are to sleep the next two watches. Find the rest of the company and tell them likewise. Send someone to speak with the armory about their gear. Then go get some rest yourself, Damrod," he told his lieutenant.
"Aye, my lord," Damrod replied, and saluted ere he hailed one of the healer's lads near the funerary cart to come take his horse and its burden.
"Sound orders, Nephew," Imrahil said, as he reined his mount in beside Faramir. "You should follow them."
"I cannot, Uncle, and you know it," Faramir replied, turning back to the pair of commanders upon the stairs. "Father will want my account, and there are things he should hear immediately." Faramir sighed as he undid the chin-strap and pulled his helm off. He had not thought overly much of Frodo and Sam since the beginning of the retreat—there had been no time, though when first the scouts had brought news of the oncoming army, he had spared them a thought, wishing them speed to escape Ithilien ere the Enemy's forces could take the land entirely. But now that he had a moment to himself, the need to report to Denethor about that matter returned full force, and dread with it, for he doubted not how his father would receive such news.
Which was perhaps why he clicked his tongue and urged his weary horse towards the stairs, ignoring Imrahil who trailed after him. Swinging down from the saddle, he handed his mount off to a handler, and took the stairs, his uncle right behind him.
"Captain," both commanders murmured, as they bowed their heads and crossed their hands upon their breasts in salute.
"Commanders," he replied, and he peered closely at the battle-filthy badge that the one bore. North Gate company, he realized, and the name returned to him then. "What news of the foot, Commander Ingold?"
"As many as last left you made the gates, and we await our orders, my lord," the man replied.
"Good man," Faramir murmured, relieved, and laid a hand upon the other's shoulder in gratitude. Then: "Speaking of good men, I would know who made that shot from the walls. Did you see him?"
"No, my lord, but—" Ingold began, but was spared the need to continue, for just at that moment, a small number of men clattered down the stairs, one of them wearing a captain's badge on his black and white surcoat.
"I have brought him, Captain," the newcomer said, and gestured then to a tall, lithe soldier who removed his helm to reveal pale golden hair. At that, Ingold stiffened, surprised, as the captain continued: "This is Legolas the elf, and glad are we to have him."
Legolas? For a split second, Faramir could not quite grasp the feeling of familiarity that that name brought with it. But the errand to his father brought it back swiftly enough: Legolas the elf, one of Frodo's companions. And so also one of Boromir's companions...
Beside him, Imrahil was speaking: "Long have we heard of the skill of the Elves with bow and arrow, but only in tales. I never thought to learn the truth of them. You have our thanks, Master Elf."
"You are most welcome, my lord prince," Legolas replied, and made him a polite bow.
"Yes, you have my thanks as well," Faramir said, remembering himself, and the elf nodded this time. "Is my brother here?" he asked, glancing about for Boromir's familiar figure, though not hopefully. If he were here, surely Uncle would have told me; surely, unless he were with Father, he would have come to greet me himself by now... To his surprise, it was not Legolas who answered, but the captain of the watch who had brought the elf:
"He has not come, my lord," the man replied, regretfully, and Faramir felt his dread deepen. Where are you, Brother? It was on the tip of his tongue to demand an explanation, but mindful of the anxious faces of the soldiers standing by, he bit back on the impulse, saying instead:
"That will have to wait, then. But we shall speak again, I hope, for I should like to hear your tale," he said to Legolas.
"As it happens, the lord Steward bid me present myself to him again, once you had returned. If I may," Legolas said, glancing at the guardsman who stood closest to him, "perhaps I could accompany you to the Citadel. We could speak after we learned the Steward's will."
Afterwards. Faramir considered this a moment, but then nodded. It has kept this long, the news can wait a little longer, whatever it may be. "Very well. Ingold," he said to the North Gate lieutenant-commander, "find Lieutenant Damrod—he shall tell you my orders. My lord prince," he said then, turning toward Imrahil, "you have command here until orders come saying otherwise."
"As you will it, Captain," Imrahil replied, and nodded, and if his speech was formal, his eyes were clearly worried.
"I am fine, Uncle," Faramir insisted in a low voice, as the two of them hurried back down the stairs and towards the courier stables for fresh horses.
"You have a strange notion of 'fine,' Nephew, if that is so. But enough," Imrahil said, silencing Faramir with a quick press of his shoulder. "I shall say no more for the moment, save that I hope your lord father knows well enough when to rest a man. Go now! I shall attend to matters here."
"Thank you," Faramir said, pausing a moment to watch as Imrahil made his way back to his men and began dispersing them to the wall. Then he turned to Legolas and his escort, who had followed at a polite distance to allow Imrahil and Faramir to speak. "Let us hurry, gentlemen, for there is much to tell and little time to tell it in."
Rage, O spirit of Gondor—sing for us!
Enflame us, men of Gondor, to rise up now and ride:
For wrath and ruin and this day's ending!
First line inspired by Homer, last line by Éomer (obviously). See the opening of "Iliad" for the former, and "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields," RotK, 131 for the latter.
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