21. At All Cost
“What is it?” Círdan whipped round, frowning.
“It is a feint, my lord!” she spoke now in his ear, “A diversion, while they try to break out of the west gate.”
“How do you know this?” his face was intense, his mind already racing behind his keen eyes.
“A message was recovered earlier this evening, in cipher. My assistant has just this moment brought me word of the meaning.”
“Do you trust his ability?”
“Yes, my lord.” Her reply was firm.
He looked over at Gil-galad but the Elven-King was still pinned down.
“By Elbereth.” He swore quietly, “Sauron is a formidable foe.” He called for his squire.
“Fetch Glorfindel to me.”
“My lord.” The lad ran off.
Now he summoned a trumpeter. “Sound a rally. To my Elves and the Men of Anárion.”
He turned to Gildinwen, “Lift that banner high, let the Men see and follow.”
There was no time to be lost. They must risk a ride across open country to reach Anárion as quickly as possible. Mounts were brought for Círdan and herself. Glorfindel would take the rest of the cavalry on ahead.
Gildinwen mounted, lifting her banner, beside her Círdan, his squire at his back, looked over at his King. Gil-galad thrust at the Nazgûl, Aeglos tipped black with blood, forcing his enemy slowly backwards. The wraith was far from vanquished, however, his evil sword weaving and flickering. The armies of the east still fought fiercely along the north road, the hordes of enemy issuing from the north gate showing no sign of easing. The white haired Elf’s face was very grim.
“My lady!” It was Mardil. “Let me come with you.”
She thrust out a hand and he climbed up behind her.
Just as she wheeled her horse, ready to ride off, she caught sight of Elrond. Standing tall astride the barrier, his mighty bow at work in his hand, quiver nearly empty, cloak and hair lashing in the wind, heedless of the rain in his face. As if he could feel her look, he glanced round. Their eyes met for a single moment. An instant of quiet amid the clamour, a heartbeat of love, then she was off. Side by side with Círdan, blades drawn, banners flying, Men and Elves rising at their back, weapons ready, the flickering lights of torches in their hands. To the right, with a thunder to rival that of the sky, Glorfindel’s Elven cavalry pulled away to race ahead.
The storm beat at them from the outside and their fear from within. Círdan kept the horses at a stiff trot so that the footsoldiers could keep up. They could only hope that Anárion still held, that Glorfindel would arrive in time, that their numbers would be enough.
The ground was rough and pitted, treacherous with mud and hidden pitfalls. In front of Gildinwen, the white hair of the commander flickered and flew in the darkness, his battle standard wild in the hand of his squire. Behind them the red light of the torches danced and leapt, reflected in the wet armour and keen eyes of a thousand warriors. Shouts of encouragement from the Captains, the bark of orders from sergeants and friendly jibes between rival companies echoed hearteningly through the thrash of the storm.
A sickle of lightening slashed through the night, illuminating the Tower, jagged in the blackness.
Gildinwen felt her blood screaming to charge, her limbs prickling with impatience, but still the Elf-Lord held the pace. They must not outrun the soldiers. Splashing and spattering, the horses ran through the mud, at their backs the tramp of feet through the wet. Overhead the dark sky spat flame and roared its anger, while around them the icy rain flew mercilessly.
Come on! They must be nearly there by now. What was happening?!
A red glow began to emerge from the blackness. The pits flanking the west road.
As they steadily closed the distance, the silhouette of the battle became visible against the hellish light. The forces of Mordor, a seething black horde, filled the road from the gate to the line, forcing the warriors of the Alliance back. Sauron’s troops were still confined to the causeway, but they did not need to advance much before they could spill outwards and all would be lost. Step by step they inched forward, heedless of the cost. Soldier after soldier of the Alliance fell, the line thinning, their blood dearly spent in slowing the deadly onslaught, without hope of stopping it. In the centre, beneath the banner of the setting sun, Anárion fought like a warrior of legend. His bright armour red now with the blood of his enemies, holding his men in place by iron example and matchless courage.
As Círdan’s troops laboured towards them, a terrible dark horseman fought his way through the line, footsoldiers trampled beneath the slashing hooves and cut down by the deadly blade. With a ghoulish screech he urged his mount forward, a gloating cry to his followers as he opened the path. A shout of dismay rose from the breathless soldiers behind Gil, Mardil’s groan of despair loud in her ear.
From out of the blackness a bright lance arced, piercing the foul chest, spitting the wraith, the force of it flinging him backwards out of the saddle. A gleaming white horse, mane flying in the wind, legs and flanks slathered in mud and sweat, charged out of the wild night, his master’s hair a golden beacon to the following cavalry. Leaning down as he raced in, Glorfindel gracefully plucked his lance from the corpse, raising it high above his head, and lifting a shout of admiration and defiance from the throat of every Alliance warrior on the field. The cavalry set to work with a vengeance, lances flying, arrows raining down and blades flashing. Seeing their allies appear, the defenders took heart, and with a great roar they surged forward. Between them, Men and Elves, they managed to stem the advance, but barely.
With a cry, Círdan pressed his horse forward to a gallop, a roar of defiance rising from the soldiers behind him as they charged. He turned to Gildinwen and motioned to her.
“Go on!” he cried, his strong voice reaching through the tempest, “Take the Men to their lord!” She nodded. The Elf’s horse sprang away, leading his warriors to reinforce Glorfindel. Above her head the Banner was untamed in the wind, wet and leaping, as she pushed her horse toward the line. Reaching it, the melee was so thick she had to pull up, and from behind her the Men surged forward and past, shouting defiant warcries at the enemy, and greetings to their hard pressed comrades.
Mardil sprang down from behind her, snatching up a sword from the cold hand of one who would no longer need it. She dismounted after him, releasing the horse, blade ready, banner tight against hip and shoulder. The battle-weary defenders shouted cries of welcome to their fellows. Some, exhausted, fell back, to allow the fresh troops to press their advantage. Gil and Mardil advanced along with them. Pushing forward through the drenching rain, their goal the proud standard of Anárion.
As the reinforcements reached the line, the tide of battle wavered. Gil came face to face with a black Númenórean, his face haggard behind his visor, hair and clothes slick with water, his sword arm weary. Wasting no time she lunged, hacking at him, slashing out, forcing his retreat. Beside her, Mardil’s borrowed sword was just as busy, his skill rusty but sound. Soon they had reached Lord Anárion, Gil taking a place at his shoulder, alongside his own standard bearer. Dispatching another foe with a swing of his mighty sword, the prince turned to flash them a grin, teeth white in a face grimed in sweat and dirt, water dripping from his helm, the plume bedraggled and filthy.
“Welcome!” he cried with gusto, “Now we shall have them.”
The flow was reversed, and the hunter became the hunted as the Alliance pushed hard for victory. Back over the bodies of the slain, friend and foe alike, they pressed the forces of Mordor. Back up the road, retaking it foot by foot, every inch exacting a second blood payment. Filth and gore, stinking and foul, underfoot and covering clothes, hair and skin. The noise deafening, wind howling, thunder crashing, the screams of battle-locked enemies, the clash of steel, the piteous cries of the wounded, man, elf and horse. Wind and rain lashed at them, howling around the towers of the citadel, hissing and steaming in the hot, red pits flanking the road.
Back, still back, over the tumbled remains of their barricade, till at last the foe broke, fleeing to their dark shelter, stampeding across the drawbridge, trampling one another in their haste to reach the iron doors. As the gate closed behind them, leaving only a litter of dead and wounded strewn over the rain and blood-soaked ground, a roar of victory and defiance rose from the Alliance. A great wave of sound, bolstered by the crash of swords on shields, the thump of Anárion’s wardrummer and the exultation of trumpets.
As the soldiers stood in loud jubilation, the first of the missiles screamed down from the tower. Smashed into the victorious army, crushing and shattering vulnerable flesh and bone. Sauron’s wrath at being thwarted vented in a terrible hail of vengeance. The soldiers fled back down the road. Bolts and stones, rocks and fire, a deadly pique, a spiteful revenge. Crashing and smashing, crushing helms and breaking bones, showering sparks and flaming oil. Black darts stabbed evilly into limbs. Iron bolts like spears pinioned bodies writhing to the ground. The warriors ran for the safety of their trenches.
Gil’s breath rasped in her chest. Around her men fell, bloody and screaming. She forced her legs to move, the muscles burning. Beside her, Mardil loped unevenly, a terrible determination on his face. Rocks flew about them, whistling and dashing themselves to pieces. Spattering their faces with shards, and with other things.
Still they ran. Fifty yards to safety.
Her lungs were burning, her feet like lead in the mud. The banner dragged like an anchor on her shoulder. Forty. An iron bolt struck the road in front of her. She lurched sideways, stumbling to the ground. A large rock split the ground nearby. From behind her she could hear the terrifying approach of another. She scrambled to her knees, slipping in the mud. Then a hand was under her arm, lifting her up. Anárion. He dragged her along till she regained her feet, the Banner, wet and filthy, still clutched in her hand. Thirty yards. Whistling and rushing, the nearing missile challenged the wind. They ran for the shelter of the trench. Twenty yards. The rock hit. A thousand fragments exploded outwards. Gil felt a brief sting above her right ear as the force knocked her to the ground. Dazed, she lay motionless, one cheek pressed into the mud. Shards and slivers showered about her.
As quickly as it had begun, the savage attack ceased. All was quiet now, save only for the storm above and the plaintive cries of the wounded. A warm wetness seeped down Gil’s neck, and her hand came away from it red and sticky. She rose to her knees to look about. Anárion lay a few yards away. She crawled towards him, an icy fear starting to form.
“My lord!” she called.
Her heart chilled as she reached him. No. His body was crumpled on the ground. No. Blood seeped copiously from beneath the crushed helm. No. Thick and dark. No, no.
“My lord!” She grabbed his hand in desperation, in denial, a desolate wail rising unbidden from her. She fought to hold back her fear and let the healer come forth. Breath? There was none. Blood? She laid a hand to his neck but no life beat there.
Only one of his blue eyes was visible in the ruin that was his skull. Empty and lifeless. The light that had been the Prince of AnÍ³rien was extinguished. Crushed out of the world by the fury of the Dark Lord.
The first of the soldiers appeared. His silent, anguished question answered by the tears on her face, even before she shook her head in despair. Falling to his knees beside her, his cry of agony summoned his fellows. She lifted her hand and closed the sightless eye. A howl of loss went up from the gathering warriors, rivalling the wail of the wind. Echoing desolately across the field of death, as the grief passed from man to man.
Gil rocked, clutching her arms about herself, the sorrow welling up in her, threatening to engulf her. She fumbled with the fastening of her cloak, and dragging it off, laid it over him. The very act of covering that face for the last time, caused the loss to clutch harder at her throat. Gripping her heart in a cruel fist. Never again would those blue eyes sparkle, or the smile flash. She cried aloud. Keening her grief to the storm-tossed sky, her voice joining the dirge of many.
She felt a hand on her arm and looked round into Falcred’s grief-stricken eyes. He spoke no words, offered no comfort, only a sorrow shared. She laid her brow on his shoulder and wept. Blood and tears staining his cloak. He laid a single arm about her shoulders while his own shook with loss.
After a time, she collected herself and looked up. The Captains of the companies had gathered around their fallen Prince.
Falcred helped her to her feet. She wiped her face ineffectually with her hands, her scalp still bleeding. He took a kerchief from his neck and handed it to her without speaking.
“Thank you.” She whispered, pressing it to the seeping wound.
From the edge of the crowd she saw Círdan making his way towards her. Mardil was with him, and Glorfindel at his shoulder. The younger Elf’s face was stricken. His eyes wide with horror and disbelief.
“Aye, my lords.” She nodded slowly as they reached her. “He has fallen.”
Mardil sobbed and she flung her arms about him, pulling him close.
The Elves looked at her, sorrow heavy on them. “What must we do for him?”
“He must be taken to his father.” The soldiers nearby nodded their approval. “Let his men build a bier and carry him.”
Long was the journey to Elendil, and slowly they walked it.
Lord Anárion, proud Prince of AnÍ³rien, Master of Minas Anor and commander of the army of the south, was lifted high, in the greatest honour. The Captains of his companies, Lord Brithiar among them, carried him carefully on their shoulders. His bier was that of a soldier, fashioned from the cloaks and spears of his men. At his side were laid his weapons, sword and shield, the blood of his enemies still fresh upon them.
In front walked his squire, the youth’s face bereft, his step measured, the battlestandard dipped in mourning. Alongside paced an honour guard of veterans, tears unashamed among the beards and scars of these seasoned fighters, their spears reversed, points downwards. Torches, red and ominous, were dotted among the silent, grieving troops. The slow, mournful beat of the drum rolled under the sound of their feet. Gildinwen walked among them, Mardil at her side, weeping together. Her banner lowered in salute, her heart aching for the loss to the world. Loss to the army, to father, to brother, to sons, to wife. Her sorrow intense, she let it flood her, called by the knell of the drum, drawn out by a silent keening.
The wind fluttered and snatched at the cloak tails on the bier, tugging at the grieving battlestandards, the rain pitiless on the heads and faces of the mourners. The dark sky alive with light and noise.
Behind the Men, the Elves followed, respectful and awestruck. The cavalry on foot, leading their horses, the warriors grim of face and slow of foot.
A horseman had been sent ahead, and as the sad procession came in sight of the north road, Elendil’s party were waiting to meet them.
A great victory had the Alliance wrought here too. The dark forces routed again, once more confined to their tower of stone and iron.
The King of Arnor and Gondor stood forth alone. Upon his face a terrible anger, in his eyes the deepest of sorrows. His back was straight, his bared head high, hair and cloak fighting in the wind. At his back stood Isildur, hair and eyes wild with grief, and Lord Gil-galad, silent and mournful.
“Alas!” Elendil cried, his voice raw. “Behold my son.”
Anárion’s squire reached his king, and weeping unashamedly, knelt and laid the banner at his feet. Elendil reached out a hand and placed it on his head.
“I thank you for this final service.” His voice was quiet. “Now rise, and stand by me.”
The bearers lowered the bier to the ground, and Elendil, king and father, knelt beside his son in silent honour and wordless farewell. After a few moments, Isildur joined him and together they mourned, while around them the soldiers wept and above them the sky howled.
At length Lord Elendil rose and with a great fire in his eyes, addressed the assembled warriors, both Man and Elf. His words echoed above the storm, piercing the heart of every listener.
“This day my son, your Prince and commander, has given his everything for our cause. Will we not also give as much, that his loss might not be in vain?”
A shout of approval roared from every throat.
“I say this to you,” cried the King of Men, “Take heart! For we are at the threshold of victory! Let us not lose faith now, when the prize is in our sight. You fought today, looked our enemy in his face. We may be cold, wet and filthy, but he is starving! Let the light of Anárion, that blazed at your head, shine now in your hearts. Be of good courage! Let us finish this, then we may go home.”
A cry of great feeling rose from the Men, grief and pride, determination and defiance.
“Tonight,” continued Elendil. “We mourn.” He looked around slowly at the assembled warriors, “Tomorrow, we fight.”
Wood was brought. Piled high under the bier, while all around the warriors sang songs. Laments for the fallen. Ballads of great victories. Ale was passed among them, horns raised in salute. Each man with his own thoughts, his own words. Stories were told, Anárion’s deeds on the battlefield, his acts of courage, his gentleness with his family, his love for his wife. Every bitter-sweet memory that could be brought out was shared, grief at the death mingling with thanks for the life.
Finally, in the darkest hour of the night, the pyre was lit. Flames leapt, red and hungry, bright against the blackness. And above the crackling of the fire and the hiss of the rain, Elendil’s bard raised his voice in elegy :
Oh whither away, proud victory day,
That dawned bright and fair with such promise?
The light has been dowsed, that showed us the way
Our Prince cut down by the Darkness.
On Gorgoroth’s plateau, he battled the foe,
Holding fast till the enemy rebound.
Till his touch and his breath, were as cold as the death.
And his life’s blood ran red on the hard ground.
As dauntless in battle as tender in love,
He fought strong and true against Mordor.
But never again, from the fields of the slain,
Will he come again to Minas Anor.
A song of the slain, in glorious campaign.
We’ll sing when the standard’s unfurled.
For all the brave fallen who’ll yet meet again,
Far beyond the horizon of this World.
Gil stood with Mardil, watching the fire catch. The flame leapt high and the heat wafted outwards, cleansing them, searing their grief. She felt a presence beside her and turned to see Elrond. Many marks of battle were on him, blood and sweat. Sorrow darkened his eyes and creased his brow. No stranger was he to death, and yet it had been many long years, even as Elves judge time, since the shadow had passed so close to him.
He looked around at the grieving men, and down at Gil’s tear torn face. The naked sorrow buffeted him as though it were a wind from the sea. The intensity of the grief surprised and dismayed the Elf, but deep within him, the blood of Man called forth with an answering note.
Gil lifted her hand to touch his arm in comfort. “Worry not.” She spoke quietly, “Soon our sorrow will be spent, and the healing will begin.”
The faintest shadow of a sad smile passed his lips and he reached his hand down to take hers, clasping it tightly, as they stood side by side, in a final farewell to a mighty lord.
They returned to their quarters as the cold, grey light of dawn seeped into the dark sky. The storm had exhausted itself, a sad drizzle the only remnant of its fury. As they neared, Gil felt a great hollow ache rise in her, and when she pushed open the door to her chamber, she pulled Elrond in after her.
Before he could utter a word, she launched herself at him, her lips crushing against his, pressing him back against the wall, her hands tangling in his hair. The taste of blood and tears was in her mouth.
“Gil!” he gasped, as she released his mouth to snatch a breath.
Her face was intense, wreathed in emotion, as she took his head in her hands, then came in for another fierce kiss. Inside her an aching emptiness clawed, desperate to be filled.
[If you are over 18 and want to see this scene in more detail, please refer to:
The Standard Bearer - Extra Scenes. Scene 4: A Darker Fire.]
After, as they lay together, he looked deep into her dark eyes, the fire receding from his grey ones, and stroked her sweat and rain soaked hair back from her face.
“And is this also an aspect of mourning?” he asked, as he regained his breath.
She settled into the bed, a feeling of comfort coming over her. “Yes,” she nodded. “Though I am not sure I could tell you why. A need to reaffirm, to re-bond, to reassure. A surge of overwhelming emotion finding the best release it can.”
“Well,” he grinned, wiping his brow, “now I have no secrets from you, even my darkest self has shown his face.”
She smiled, sated and replete, hunger satisfied. “I hope you will allow him to visit again.”
He laughed, a rich, full sound. “It is strange but I always thought of that side of me as being the human part. Darkest and passionate. I was wary of freeing him, not knowing where he might take me, or if I could tame him again.”
“And now?” she smiled.
“Now I see that he is as much a part of me as any other, that I should value every facet of myself as all have their strengths and weaknesses.”
“Oh, Elrond.” She marvelled at him, “I do love you so much.”
He pulled her close, to whisper softly in her ear, “And I you, my little sleeper, and I you.”
 Adapted from a little known version of Loch Lomond - a traditional Scottish lament.
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