43. Not By The Hand Of Man
Not By The Hand Of Man
Merry almost laughed out loud at how silly his thoughts were on this, the most unlikely of mornings for silliness. But true to his Hobbit nature, he was, even in the last few minutes before what he assumed would be an abrupt and bloody end to his brief life, ruminating on food—or more accurately, on his relief, for once, at the lack of it. His somewhat corpulent father Saradoc Brandybuck and his extravagant mother Esmeralda Took Brandybuck would never have believed it possible that their fully grown but still youthful Hobbit son could ever be happy that his stomach was empty.
But this was not a morning for wasting one heartbeat worrying about whether one's breakfast was going to stay put, and not come lurching out at some truly inopportune moment—such as at the sight of men's severed heads, impaled on wooden spikes, looming out of the mist; or at the stench of death and smoke; or at the chilling sound of a thousand coarse Orc voices chanting some unintelligible curse, over and over. Better to feel a little hungry than to vomit all over the braided mane of the plunging, galloping horse you found yourself desperately clinging to as thousands of smelly screaming men galloped on their smelly horses on every side of you. Far better to force the acid back down your dust-dry throat than humiliate yourself even more than you already had.
That he could still remember laughter, and things like breakfast, and his parents names—all good signs, when he considered the circumstances. After losing count of the days on horseback and in one crowded camp after another, Merry, in his seat on Windfola before Éowyn—or Dernhelm, as Harmund insisted the rest of the men call her—was finally going into battle. The Rohirrhim had crossed the expanse of the Mark, entered Anorien, and finding the main road held against them, had been guided up and over a shoulder of the White Mountains on twisting paths through a thick forest. Théodred had massed them at the edge of the woods and rapidly laid out a plan of attack. But even Merry, who, though he'd seen plenty of frightening scenes since last September, had never actually seen a real battle before, could see from their position on a small ridge overlooking the Plains of the Pelennor that the word attack was something of a boastful overstatement.
And hence, the Hobbit's queasiness, brought on by the simple fact that he was terrified. The vast numbers arrayed upon the field between where the Rohirrhim had emerged from the trees and the great walls of the burning, smoking City, just a few miles away, defied comprehension. We aren't attacking them; we're just going to annoy them for a few minutes before they slaughter us… Why, oh why, had he been so certain that he should come on this adventure? He'd felt out of place before, had been mortified by his own inexperience and fear, felt so ridiculously young amidst the rest of the Fellowship. He'd only ever felt older and maybe just a little wiser than Pippin...
And now, even that was in doubt. For at least Pip had been brutally honest with himself. He hadn't pretended to be braver than he really was. He didn't fool himself into believing he might somehow rise to the occasion and do something heroic and brave and prove Gandalf was right, and not just indulging a whim…
And then his ruminations suddenly ceased, for they were moving—and then they were racing, then flying. The wind whipped around the curved cheek-guards of the small helmet he wore, whistling in his ears. His eyes stung with dust and smoke, and his head buzzed with the general din—thundering hooves, braying horns, and murderous yells from the Riders on either side of him, and from the one nearest him, too. 'Dernhelm' was behaving just like all the other warriors, careening at full gallop with a deadly weapon held high, slicing through the acrid air. If she felt frightened or daunted or full of self-doubt, Merry thought, she was hiding it brilliantly.
So I'd better hide my quaking heart, and at least pretend I belong here… He gripped the saddlehorn and leaned forward. He drew his small sword, and sucked in a breath—and let out as loud a yell as his lungs could muster.
Eowyn laughed gleefully; Merry heard a wild note in her voice, like the untamed scree of a hawk on the wind. "Aye, my little friend!" she shouted in his ear. "Give it your all—strength, heart, spirit! Give everything you've got—this is our last chance, the only chance!"
He didn't know how to respond to that—and anyway, there wasn't time, for in the next instant Merry gasped and ducked as Eowyn's great sword swept over his head and into the neck of an Orc warrior that had suddenly leapt right in front of them. He stared as the thing tumbled backward, dark blood spurting from the hole…and in the next instant his dagger stabbed all on its own into something ugly and brutish, and he joined in, screaming and swinging and killing.
Merry wasn't sure whether a day or an hour or just a few minutes passed, nor had he any idea how many times his own small weapon made contact with something alive and spilt its blood. All he knew was that some time later, when the gloomy skies suddenly broke apart and a real morning Sun appeared, hovering above an ominous bank of clouds in the East, the fighting around them slowed.
The moving thrust of men riding behind Théodred's rippling green standard had driven a wedge through a thick wall of Orcs, scattering them. Merry could see the Prince on his black stallion before them and to their right, some dozen Riders between them. Harmund rode at Théodred's right, and the standard-bearer pressed hard to keep pace with them. Merry looked around, trying to see where they were positioned, and how many Riders followed.
The Prince's company had pushed through the enemy lines swiftly. The rest of the Rohirrhim were splayed out behind them in three vast fans: Grimbold's two thousands to the left and Elfhelm's to the right, but none had advanced as far as Théodred. The companies were slowly separating as the cavalries engaged foes between them and the City, slashing their way through lines and formations, and driving off the troops that guarded siege-engines and catapults.
The Hobbit's gaze narrowed at a Rider in plain green livery but whose silver helm was affixed with a distinctive white horse-tail, bobbing and floating behind him. The man's eyes flicked back and forth between the Prince and Windfola—on Windfola's rider, more to the point. Éomer! Merry thought. He had heard, of course, the talk among the men of Éomer's shame, how the sister-son of the King had been demoted from his position as Third Marshall. Isn't he supposed to be riding under Grimbold? Éomer wove through the others, making his way closer to his sister. Merry watched for a moment, then turned his head forward. He's worried about her, I suppose, wants to be close to her… He wouldn't say anything to Éowyn. She'd be annoyed, the Hobbit knew, at her brother's hovering protectiveness. No need to distract her—she's got plenty to think about…
And as proof of his thought, in the next moment an eager shout went up and they all started galloping again. Merry tried to see what was happening ahead, but he couldn't make out what had caused the commotion.
"What's going on?" he shouted.
"See the black Serpent?" Dernhelm cried, as she brandished the blood-stained sword she still gripped in her fist. "Southrons!"
Southrons…I wonder if there will be Oliphants, came the brief thought as he gripped the pommel again. I'll have to tell Sam if I see Oliphants… Merry focused on the flapping red standard surrounded by tall horsemen in red and black livery. It seemed that the Haradrim were aware of them now, for a distant shout went up and the host beneath the serpent standard began moving. Green and Red were galloping toward one another. Soon he could pick out more detail—the men's helmets were painted leather, and they carried black-hafted spears. Their faces were the color of roasted chestnuts and their long black hair was braided and adorned with red beads. For a fleeting moment he looked right at one of the scarlet-and-black riders. The young man's lips twitched with amusement, perhaps at the sight of the small fighter who had caught his eye. Merry found himself suppressing the urge to grin back or wave… And then their lines crashed together and the noise of war that had for a few moments subsided started roaring again all around him.
Éowyn screamed. "Stay down!" He flattened himself forward over Windfola's neck as her sword whooshed in a great circle. The next moments were deafening and terrifying as she grunted and swung, as her blade clanged into other blades. He felt a hot splash on the back of his neck. Windfola snorted and surged onward. Merry twisted to the side of the steed's neck to catch a glimpse of the battle. A hundred yards ahead he saw Théodred in a sword-duel with the Haradric chieftain, both men astride nearly identical shining black stallions. They had outpaced their competing standards, which dipped and swayed in the brilliant sunlight just yards from Dernhelm and Merry.
Then the sunlight dimmed, and the shouts of rage and battle-frenzy turned to wails of horror. A great shadow fell from the sky and the warmth of morning vanished, replaced by a frigid wind. Southron and Rohirrhim alike cried out in fear, and the horses of the plains of Mark and of the desert nomads screamed and bucked. Merry lifted off the saddle and into the darkening air; he thumped to the ground. His helmet clanged and rolled off, and for a moment, everything went black.
* * *
Gothmog seethed as he took to the air again, the beast's bridle clutched in his left fist and his right hand gripping the throbbing hole in his thigh. The wound burned with some sort of ancient curse—Elvish, or Tark-ish, maybe, surely an older and deeper sorcery than these Gondorians of later days could conjure. From whence had that terrible blade come? What unseen, mighty enemy had he overlooked in the Courtyard of the Gate while his attention was focused on the Steward and his son? The Nazgûl pushed away his sudden fear that with every drop of blood that dribbled through his fingers, the promise of eternity was oozing away from him. No! he snarled to himself. You were promised—your Ring is more powerful than their feeble magic. The Master is greater than all of them!
His dim vision availed him little, for the sky was bright now, and the rising Sun drove the shadows into hiding. He could see but vague shapes upon the fields below. But that was enough for him to realize that the northern third of the Pelennor was overrun with a new force—glittering shapes, bright with vitality, flowing swiftly like a flood of green and gold. He marked their Horse standard waving in the wind, saw the second standard with its familiar Serpent shape. There. He dug in his heels and turned the beast's great head. He would find the newcomers' commander, and he would tear him to pieces.
* * *
Éowyn had heard men speak of the heat of battle all her life. And now I have felt it… Wave after wave of blind, excited fury had propelled her through her fear, had given her strength she never suspected she had. When the morrow came—nay, if it came—she thought with grim amusement, her arms and shoulders would ache as never before. No drill or exercise was adequate preparation for this—for a real battle. And it had only just begun.
She had tried for a short time to keep track of the numbers of living creatures she killed. No point in it… Pointless, too, to think about the gore and blood spattered on her face and tunic, or to worry too much about the safety of the Holbytlan seated before her. He would have to look out for himself, and for the most part her small companion proved surprisingly capable, putting his beautiful dagger to good use and dispatching no small number of Orc-monsters.
Éowyn had done her best to keep up with Théodred, but the Prince had spurred forward to engage the Southron chieftain while she was entangled with a tall snarling warrior. Her opponent cursed and jabbed, and she snarled back in as deep a voice as she could produce from her raw throat. She gave silent thanks for all the hours of sword training she'd endured, for her skill was the greater, and another foe fell to her blade.
Just as the bronze-skinned warrior's black eyes rolled into his head and he pitched backward, she felt her heart thud inside her with dread. Sudden dismay clutched her—and then the light of morning was shut off and the air was frightfully cold. Windfola snorted and reared; the Holbytlan tumbled and she felt herself flying. She landed flat on her back and for a moment her breath was gone. The horse bolted in terror as the dark shadow loomed above them. She gaped at the sky, without comprehension at what her eyes beheld: flapping grey-black leather, a dangling sinuous leg and an outstretched talon. A horrible stench came down from above as she rolled quickly to one side and scrambled as fast as she could, out of reach of that razor-sharp claw.
Dark-haired and golden-haired men alike lay strewn about in the pool of icy darkness, some dead, staring at the sky, some writhing in agony, some groveling and moaning, stricken with horror. Their sensible horses had, for the most part, fled the terror, though one great roan stallion—Guthláf's mount, she recognized—lay dead across his master's broken body, the man's fist still clutching the standard of Éorl. Théodred was nowhere in sight, nor Harmund. Would that the Prince escaped this madness, she thought, as she fought the retching and shuddering gasps that wracked her body. She was on her hands and knees, scraping forward through the cold mud. Some hideous thing was hissing foul words and cursing behind her. Rise, daughter of the House of Éorl, Morwen Steelsheen's Heiress, stand and see whatever fell thing has come, find your courage and turn to look into this monster's face…
Éowyn forced herself to stop crawling away. Trembling, she stood, and turned. She could not help but flinch with horror. A huge bird-like thing, with the neck and head of a snake, but with a snapping mouth full of dripping, yellow teeth, was crouched on the ground. It faced to the side, its great wings partly folded, its focus away from her. On the creature's back was a cloaked, hooded man—or, some thing shaped like a man, but that her racing heart told her was nothing like a man.
She heard someone speak, on the far side of the beast, in a hoarse voice. Who is that? That voice—I should know it…
"Turn and face me, foul Dwimmerlaik! Face your death…"
Cold, cruel laughter came from the hooded head. "My death? Fool! It is you that looks on Death—for I am Gothmog, Besieger of the great City, enslaver of the Steward and his Heir! I bear one of the Nine Rings that grant life eternal! What can you do to me, pathetic Strawhead, puny soldier, you little…nothing?"
The unknown Rider returned the bitter laughter. "Me? How right you are," he croaked. "I am nothing… I am no one… And thus, I have nothing to lose!"
Éowyn heard a squeal of pain; the beast flapped its huge wings and tossed its head from side to side. The cloaked figure hissed, and from within the black robes withdrew a heavy mace. The spiked ball flew up.
"I will crush you, fool!" the figure said. Metal scraped on metal, and someone groaned.
She shuddered with fear, yet she steeled her nerve and took a step, her sword drawn and raised. The beast shifted and jerked backward a step—and then she saw who had fallen to one knee before the monster and its fell Rider.
"Éomer!" she screamed, as she rushed forward. His face turned, and his eyes flew open as he beheld her.
"No—run!" he cried hoarsely. "Eo.. D…Dernhelm, I beg you—fly, now!"
Éomer's shattered left arm dangled uselessly; his shield lay dented in the mud. Before him, his silver-hilted sword lay in fragments on the ground. His helmet was gone; red streamed down the side of his plaits and over his cheek. He was gasping in pain, but still he held his spear firmly braced against his right side, the butt end of it planted in the ground behind him and the tip fending off the swerving, swinging jaws of the beast. The foul creature's left eye had been gouged out, and black liquid oozed down one side of its horrible head.
The cloaked figure, its hood now tossed back, turned toward Éowyn. She choked back a gasp as she saw that between the black-robed shoulders of the thing and its steel helm, nothing at all was visible. The wraith now regarded her with a vicious laugh.
"You should have heeded your friend's advice, and fled while you still could. Now, you shall stay at my command…" She felt dreadful power in his cold voice, commanding her to obey. "Stay, and watch… until your turn comes!"
She found herself rooted to the spot, horrified at her sudden immobility. She strained to take a step toward Éomer—but her legs felt encased in lead, and her arms were too heavy to raise. Éomer dodged to evade the beast's ravening jaws. He tried to jab it again, to pierce it in the mouth or the throat, but his aim wavered, and she realized with growing terror how weak he was, how his sight was failing. The wraith muttered and hissed, urging the beast to strike, to bite, to rend his flesh. Still she could not force her limbs to move.
She watched helplessly as the beast swung down and inward, avoiding his spearthrust. Éomer released a great cry as it sank its teeth into his right shoulder. The huge snake-like head shook and snarled, and the teeth tore loose with a jawful of his living flesh. A torrent of blood pumped from the gaping hole in Éomer's upper body; his arm dangled from the beast's mouth. The wraith crowed in triumph as Éomer fell forward.
With a grunting cry Éowyn burst loose from the spell and lunged forward. Gripping it in both hands, she swept her sword in a great circle and struck with more force than she had ever before mustered. The snake-head tumbled to the ground, and the beast twitched and jerked, its cloven neck spurting. The wraith fell back into the crumpled wings with a roar of rage. But Éowyn cared not for its wrath as she let her sword and shield fall and knelt at her brother's side.
"No, no! My dearest one," she said in a choked whisper, as she clutched his bleeding body to hers. "Éomer… Don't leave me…"
"Must…run…beg you… Éowyn…" His voice was faint. She saw that his eyes would no longer focus on her face. Hot blood soaked through to her skin; she felt it pulsing against her. "No!..." She yanked off her helmet, clasped his head and drew him to her. "I could not move… Éomer, no!" she sobbed.
The darkness and cold suddenly deepened. She shivered as a shadow fell over where she knelt, holding her brother's body. Her heart began to labor within her and her mind went blank with terror.
"How curious," an evil voice sneered from behind her back. "Rohan must be desperate indeed: sending its women to war as well as its men!"
Éowyn clamped her eyes shut and fought the surge of bile that rushed into the back of her throat. His laugh stabbed her like knives of ice. She was drenched with cold sweat. She continued to grip Éomer's unmoving form to her; a part of her mind registered that his flesh was growing cooler, that his blood was congealing into a sticky mass.
"Very touching," the wraith said scornfully. "Was he your lover? Or perhaps… Your brother?… Yes, I see the resemblance now… Such a pity you were not strong enough to save your poor, dear brother… A headstrong female, attempting to do a man's job, and failing miserably… And he is the one made to suffer for your willful arrogance… At least, for now…"
The darkness stepped closer and hovered above her; she felt its frigid breath on the back of her neck. His insinuating accusations drilled into her and took root in her anguished soul.
"Foolish woman… Think not that you shall simply follow him in death. Nay, you shall be taken eastward, to the deep places beneath my City, the chambers some have fancifully named the Houses of Lamentation…"
Gothmog chuckled as she shivered in horror. He went on in an eager whisper. "Lamentation, indeed… For your crimes—of daring to strike my steed, of venturing beyond your place as a subservient female, of rebellious warfare against my Master—for these transgressions you shall live out your remaining days as a plaything for me, and for my Orc servants to do with you whatever they will… And after decades of of torment and violation, even death will not release you, for when the long years of lamentation are ended, you shall be enslaved as a wraith to me for all time…"
While his hissing voice drove like icy splinters into her brain, she struggled to focus on the weapon she had dropped nearby. Carefully… slowly, slowly… She eased up her grip on Éomer and began to move her right hand, hidden from view behind her brother's back. Think of nothing but what you must do… Heed not his voice… She reached for the sword, just a foot away…ten inches… four inches… Yes! She had it! Her hand clasped the hilt; she tensed, readying herself.
* * *
Merry had awakened lying on his side on the cold mud of the field. He opened his eyes and groaned softly; his head pounded. A few seconds passed while he struggled to recall where he was and why his head should throb so—then it all came back to him: Rohan, and the Lady Éowyn, or rather Dernhelm, and the ride through daylight and darkness and into daylight again, and the storm of violence and mayhem and sudden darkness falling…
He blinked and sat up. The daylight was gone—had hours passed? It seemed strangely quiet. He heard a few moans and some mumbling and whispering, but the sounds of battle had ceased. Shivering, he got to his feet and pulled his cloak closely about him. Maybe it was evening, the battle was over, and everyone had forgotten about him. Like old Bilbo—I've had a bump on the head in the middle of some battle where I don't belong and landed out of sight, and now no one knows I'm out here…
The bodies of men lay all around him; the ground was sodden and torn up. Slowly he wheeled about, gaping at the dead soldiers in green and gold, and others in red and black… Then his stomach lurched and he froze. Cowering, he collapsed to his hands and knees. A Black Rider!... A Nazgûl stood with his back to the hobbit, his black cloak fluttering in the cold wind. Nearby some sort of giant monstrosity of a creature lay crumpled in a reeking pile. And right in front of the wraith, Merry could see two golden-haired Riders of the Mark, one kneeling, grasping the other to his chest. He stared at their faces; one was too blood-smeared to recognize, but the other… beardless… youthful…
That's Éowyn! The voice of the wraith reached him. He shook with fear, for the thing was saying vile, terrible things to her, making horrible threats, to do awful things… You've got to do something, you can't just hide, she called you her friend, she is the only reason you're here… Do something!
Merry began crawling. He raised his eyes only enough to see the bottom of the wraith's black cloak. Focus on that hem… He slid his knife out of its sheath very carefully, not making a sound, and got to his feet. Quietly… He crept forward, foot by bare foot.
Suddenly there was a flurry of movement as Éowyn leapt up, her sword clenched in both fists.
"Foul murderer!" she cried hoarsely as she stabbed out and forward.
But Gothmog was too quick for her; he sidestepped and flung the mace. Its sharpened points pierced and gouged her left arm; she screamed and stumbled back. Limping and growling, the wraith moved toward her. The head of the mace swung back and forth as he leaned into a crouching stance and readied it for another blow.
"Strawheaded witch! You dare raise your hand to… Aaghh!"
The Nazgûl staggered forward and crashed onto his knees, cursing in agony and fury. The mace clanged to the ground as he grasped the back of his right arm. Dark red flowed from the black sleeve, hissing as the drops hit the ground. Éowyn looked up and saw Merry standing behind the wraith, his blackened and smoldering dagger clutched in his shaking hand.
"Éowyn, Éowyn!" he gasped.
She shook the fog of pain from her head and gripped her sword. With a roar she lunged, plunging the point of her blade at the space between the neck of his cloak and the bottom of the steel helm. The helm tilted and spun toward the ground; the black cloth fell inward. A wail rose to an impossibly high shriek that faded to silence.
The Lady Knight of Rohan slumped to her knees before the empty armor and robes of her enemy. The sword slipped from her numb fingers; it smoked like a burning branch and vanished. Her eyes fell on her brother's torn body, and with a choked cry she threw herself over him.
"Éowyn…" His whisper was barely audible.
The pulsation was weak against her breast. His jaw went slack. Then, the pulsation ceased.
Éowyn released a wail of desperate grief and fainted.
Merry blinked in the sudden sparkling light of morning. His right arm was cold and numb. I hope someone remembers I'm out here, he thought. Wearily, he slid to the ground, lay on his side once more and let the darkness take him.
* * *
Faramir rode next to Baranor at the head of the cavalry of the City. Every horseman within Minas Tirith, Dol Amroth's silver and blue knights in the majority, had burst from the broken Gate and led the counterattack, and were now at work scouring the fields. The City Regiment and the amassed forces of Lebennin, Fornost, Lossarnach, Pinath Galen and the other fiefdoms had streamed out behind them, wains for the wounded rumbling in the rear. By the second hour from dawn, the Orc battalions between the Gate and the ruins of the Causeway Forts and the Rammas had been routed; those that were not dead on the field were fleeing eastward toward the Great River.
The Captain of Ithilien had never been a soldier to love war for its own sake. Faramir had understood, but never succumbed to the blood-rage that overwhelmed many men in the frenzy of battle. To kill a Khândian or Haradric warrior was a necessity of this bitter and ugly conflict, never something to glory in. Oft in the past he had felt a strange pang of regret, even in the slaying of Orcs—for, if the legends writ in the old histories of the Elder Days were true, were not Orcs pitifully mutilated and altered Elves?
But all that was in the past. This day, he had hewed down any foe that came into his sight, taking vicious pleasure in the slaughter. These enemies were the servants of that foul creature, the Nazgûl Commander—the beast that had slain his father and nearly killed his brother. They deserved death, and the more of them he could dispatch with his own hands, the better.
For the moment, the Wraith had fled. The men on the walls had seen it take to the skies again, but no one knew where it had gone. Other wraiths swooped high above the field; their fell voices sent chills down the Captain's spine. But though the Black Breath still clung to him, he wished for nothing more than to find the Commanding Nazgûl and challenge the thing—nay, to slay it himself. Only then would his father be avenged; only then could he feel at peace again and not drenched in blood, soot and horror.
He and Baranor had swiftly pieced together what had transpired before the shattered Gate. The Steward had two wounds: a deep gash in the side of his chest through a blackened tear directly through his mailshirt, and a clean knife-thrust to his heart, slipped beneath the lower edge of his armor. Boromir's hand—the Mercy Stroke, Faramir had realized with crushing grief.
The Captain-General's flank wound, also through a smoldering rent in his mail, just might be survivable. They had found the cursed Morgul splinter in the Halfling's bloody hand in time to see it bubble and melt. It was Faramir who noticed the slice across the Perian's fingers and palm. Baranor shouted and stamped, and a cart was found to transport the living to the Sixth Circle as quickly as could be; Faramir directed an officer to take charge of the Steward's body and see it safely to the Citadel and the care of Master Hûrin. Then they found their mounts, assembled the cavalry and the real clean-up work began.
They were cantering toward the line of rubble that now marked the Rammas, with Mablung and Aratan nearby as always, when the Commander spoke and interrupted the Captain's brooding thoughts.
"About time we saw them," Baranor snarled.
Faramir glanced up. "What did you say? Saw who?"
Baranor pointed to an Orc carcass. "See the livery? Skull defacing a Moon… Morgul rats… Been wondering what was holding them up… Not that I missed the vermin, mind you…"
Faramir slowed his horse and got a good look at the next body. His mouth went dry as he recalled the reason why the Morgul Host had been delayed. He considered whether to inform Commander Baranor and rejected the idea. Too difficult to explain… I could never tell him how the news came to the Steward… The thought suddenly came to him, that no one but he—and Boromir, if he survived his wound—might ever know of Mithrandir's fate. I must record this knowledge… His deed should not go unsung… Yet such a thing would have to wait, for the outcome of the siege was still in doubt. Despite the coming of the Rohirrhim, hosts of enemies were unfought. And it remained to be seen whether the wizard's action would prove worthwhile. The Halflings have many perilous leagues to cross, even if he has given them the chance to pass in safety through the Ephel Duáth…
A coarse roar from just over a slight rise to the east and south disrupted Faramir's musings. Morgul Orcs, very much alive and snarling, suddenly rushed toward the horsemen. A deadly shriek, then another, came from the clouds as four Nazgûl circled above them.
"More clean up, lads!" Baranor shouted as he spurred his horse toward the enemy lines. The standard bearer rode beside him, the black fabric emblazoned with seven concentric white circles—the emblem of the the City Regiment—flapping in the morning breeze.
Faramir and Mablung veered toward him. In the nearby fields, the Steward's younger son glimpsed silver on blue—the Swan of Amroth, and farther away, white on argent—the slender Tower of Ecthelion upon silver, the flag of the Citadel Guards. He had refused Baranor's urging that he display the plain white standard of the Steward. Not so soon, after Father… and while Bori's life lies in the balance… And none have seen Gondor's true colours upon a field of battle in years beyond count…
And then he was lost in the lust of bloodshed, as one foul Morgul fiend after another fell screaming to his blade.
* * *
Harmund gently pried Guthláf's dead fingers from the haft of the standard pole and lifted it, the green cloth snapping in the morning wind. He heard the choked sounds of grief nearby. Blinking away his own tears, he handed the colors of the Mark to another of the dozen knights nearby and instructed him to raise it. Then he turned to where Théodred now knelt beside his two cousins: Éomer, his blank eyes staring up from a ghastly pale face; and his sister, draped over him, her left arm matted with dark blood, her mailshirt caked with red. Before them, the winged creature lay crumpled, its jaws still gripping Éomer's arm. And almost unnoticed save for the chill and horror that clung to it, was a pile of black cloth, a steel helm that had rolled to one side, and a mace.
"What madness took me when I allowed her to come?" Théodred cried. "'Tis I who should lie here, in punishment for my folly, not these two! Grief enough that my cousin has fallen, and in such a hideous manner, but Éowyn…!"
His hands were clenched in fists as he rose stiffly to his feet. Harmund gasped at the dreadful look of reckless anguish on the Prince's face.
"Ill-chosen was my father's trust in me… I deserve it not," he muttered. His eyes fell then on the standard rippling nearby. He caught his stallion's bridle and swung himself up. "There yet be foes unfought—deeds undone! Éorlingas! Ride with me, to war, and to death! To death!"
The remaining knights of his éored mounted and repeated his grim call. But Harmund stared at the fallen, and his heart misgave him. Something felt deeply amiss. We should not leave them here, like carrion…
"Sire," he cried, "grant me leave to stay and guard your kin… They should lie in honor in yonder high tower, and not here on this tainted ground near that… that fell thing…"
Théodred gazed at his second coldly and sneered. "Do what you will, Harmund—but use not the honor of my kin as a shield to hide your cowardice…"
His officer flushed. "Cowardice…! My Lord, no, I…"
"Ride, now, Éorlingas!" Théodred cried, ignoring him. The black stallion leaped forward and the Riders galloped away, their Prince in the lead. Harmund's breath caught in his throat as he watched them thunder into the last shreds of morning mist; he soon lost sight of them.
Sudden doubt shook him to his core. Had he erred? What's done is done… Yet I follow my heart, as I did at Helm's Deep… In his current mood, the Prince might well doom his second to exile for such insubordination in the middle of a battle. But Harmund was a man who knew his own mind, and whose will and wisdom was the match of none in the Mark—not even those of the House of Éorl. And if Nana was right, the blood of that House runs in my veins, too… The once beautiful housemaid of Meduseld had whispered to her son, and then to her grandson, that King Thengel had sired a bastard: Harmund's father. And Harmund had never told a soul—not even his own wife. I can never know if Nana spoke true, or nothing but an old woman's fancies…
He stood beside the fallen brother and sister—be they my kin, as rightfully as the Prince's, or no, they died valiantly—and looked about the scene. What had happened here? The dead winged beast… The empty, horrible helm of evil… the discarded mace… Whose hand had laid these dreadful enemies low? The monstrous creature had given Éomer his mortal wound—that much was gut-wrenchingly clear. Therefore, his sister must have slain the thing… And then? Unless some great warrior had come and ridden away, no others capable of the deed were near, for all lay dead or dying… Could what seemed apparent be true? He swallowed hard. Had the fair maiden felled both the monstrous beast and the undead wraith?
Harmund knelt and reached out with trembling hands to touch the Lady's pale face. Then he started, for lo! She stirred and her eyes fluttered!
"She lives! The Lady-Knight lives!" Harmund shouted with joy, rising halfway to his feet. But no one could hear him; all the Riders had followed the Prince. He looked about wildly—he had to find someone, anyone who could help!
Éowyn groaned, and Harmund bent down again. Her brow wrinkled in a frown. Her eyes opened, and at once they overflowed with sparkling tears. "I failed… my fault…"
"Nay, Lady," Harmund said gently, laying his hand upon her brow. "You have conquered! You are as brave a knight of the Mark as has ever lived! The vile Dwimmerlaik and his beast are slain…"
"But Éomer… I… could not…move…in time…"
"Hush, speak no more of this darkness," he murmured. Her flesh felt icy cold beneath his hand. She is greviously hurt… I must find help… "Healing you first must find… Then shall your tale be told in full, and the honor you most assuredly deserve come to you…"
Harmund looked about, searching for anyone who might be sent for help. He could not leave her here alone, but word must be sent, and aid obtained. She must be borne thence, to their Healers… He gazed with a grimace toward the broken Gate and the smoking walls of Minas Tirith. "If indeed any leeches still live within that burning wreck," he muttered worriedly.
Carefully the Prince's second moved the Lady away from where she lay across her brother's dead body. When she whimpered in protest, he consoled her with the soft gentling sounds he used with his children. The man's heart ached in sorrow, for he sensed that the wounds to her soul were even more serious than those to her body. He had just removed his own cloak and placed it over her when he heard the thunder of hoofbeats.
* * *
The battalion of Morgul Orcs lay slaughtered, the survivors scattered, fleeing eastward. Even the skies had cleared. The lowering clouds broke apart, and the winged creatures with their fell Riders had retreated. Faramir dragged the back of his sleeve across his sweating brow, leaving a trail of black blood on his face. His horse stood, snorting and stamping, as he looked about. The field between him and the Rammas was choked with dead foes, jumbled piles of smoldering debris, and the wreckage of the wall. Only nine Rangers of Ithilien—Mablung among them—had stayed near him throughout the fell morning; they had become separated from the rest of the cavalry.
He gazed toward the Causeway ruins. There, the battle continued beneath the colors of Amroth and the City. He took in a breath to shout a command to rejoin the others, when his heart suddenly lifted with pure joy.
At once the morning Sun seemed to shine more brightly. From somewhere to their left, in the northern fields and away from the main battle under Baranor's command, Faramir heard the wailing call of a wraith. But it had lost all power to chill his blood. Even as he listened the shriek faded into nothingness. He looked at Mablung.
"Something's happened…" the lieutenant said hoarsely.
"Aye, something for the good!" his Captain replied, his face alight. "My heart soars, but for what glad cause, I cannot say…"
Faramir searched northward into the confused mass of moving men and enemies. Somewhere in that chaos of horse, Orc and man was the King of Rohan—if indeed, old Théoden had come himself and not sent another. A few moments passed; then he spotted a blur of green and white: the standard of the House of Éorl. He spurred his horse toward it. Mablung shouted a command and the company of Ithilien Rangers rode in his wake.
* * *
Harmund looked up and saw the small party of riders moving toward the Prince's standard a furlong away; they would pass directly by him on their path to Théodred. He jumped up and waved, shouting in thickly accented Westron
"Help! Here! Ah, help us, good men of Gondor!"
His heart filled with relief as the men in dark green with muted brown cloaks turned toward his voice and galloped up. Faramir gazed down from the saddle, his eyes widening as he caught sight of the helm and the tangled black robes. He stared in amazement at the beast's carcass and its severed head.
"Please, she is greviously hurt, I fear," Harmund pleaded.
"'She'?" Mablung said in surprise, as he dismounted and went to the man's side. The lieutenant leaned down and gazed at the fallen Rider; he straightened hurriedly. "What is this!" he cried in astonishment. "Does Rohan send its women as well as its men to our aid?
"Alas, only this one—she is the Lady Éowyn…"
"Théoden King's sister-daughter," Faramir said as he slid from his horse and joined them. "And this is her brother, young Éomer… I recognize his face…"
"Aye…" Harmund stared, wondering who this stern-appearing officer who claimed to know Lord Éomer's face might be, riding with so few in guard about him, with no standard, no mark upon his dun-colored livery; yet his manner spoke of command and nobility.
"Where is Prince Théodred? And the King—did King Théoden ride?"
"N…nay, sire," Harmund said. "The King had only just risen from his sickbed when the summons came… and the Prince…" His eyes drifted south and east toward the center of the Pelennor. "I am Harmund, second of Théodred's eored," he said with a bow. "I stayed here with the fallen while the Prince and the rest of our company rode on… I can say not how, but I did not believe, as Prince Théodred did, that both his kin were slain… I would not believe it…" He looked down on Éowyn's pale face. "Can you help her, sire?" he said in a choked voice.
Faramir knelt at the Lady's side and placed his fingertips on her cheek. Her blue eyes opened and looked up at him; but he could see that she did not focus upon him.
"S…so cold," she whispered. "Ah, Éomer…forgive me…" She sighed, and as her eyes fluttered shut, she seemed to drift more deeply into a dark sleep.
"We will do our very best, Harmund," Faramir said as he rose to his feet. "Mablung, old friend, no protests from you. I need someone I can trust utterly to see her safely to the Houses. And make certain that Master Túrin and Mistress Ivreniril know the details of this terrible scene," he said quietly. "Until the Lady can speak and tell us herself, I can only conclude that the Sword-Maiden of Rohan is a mighty warrior. But those who strike at one of the undead are themselves stricken fearfully by the Black Breath…"
Mablung nodded. "I will see her to the Sixth Circle. Then I will return to look for you on the field. Have a care, Captain," he said as he looked him in the eye. The officer gripped Faramir's wrist. "Until your brother recovers… Gondor cannot lose you too!"
"I will do whatever duty calls me to do," Faramir said. Then he smiled wanly. "But my thanks. I will remember your words."
Faramir directed two others to remain with Mablung and help; then he and the rest of the Ithilien knights mounted and rode east and south to intercept Théodred.
Harmund stepped forward and grasped Mablung's arm. "Who is your Captain, my friend?"
The lieutenant gave him a half-smile. "You have just met the younger son of the Steward of Gondor." His face grew grim. "And mayhap, the Steward himself—for the Lord Denethor fell in combat with the Nazgûl chieftain this very morn, and the Captain-General, Lord Boromir, lies gravely wounded in the Houses of Healing to which we shall now take your courageous Lady."
Harmund gasped. "The Steward!" He stared off into the distance, where smoke and dust spun into the bright air, obscuring the sight of the green and white standard of the Mark.
Mablung directed one of the Rangers to ride with all speed toward the Gate and fetch several wains. "For I deem more wounded lie about this dreadful site… and the honored dead should be moved to a less exposed and tainted place…" As the man rode off westward, Mablung told the third Ranger to search among the fallen for any that might yet live, and to move the dead of Rohan to one side away from their fallen Southron foes. Harmund hurried to help, while Mablung unbuckled a small pack from his waist. The lieutenant knelt at the Lady's side and began an assessment of her injuries. He quickly ascertained that the majority of the blood that soaked her clothing was not her own, but her brother's, for no wound was upon her to account for such huge losses. He slit her left sleeve and began staunching and binding the gouges from the mace when Harmund cried out.
"Dernhelm's little Holbytlan! I had forgotten him!"
Mablung looked up and gaped. Another Perian? How many are there? This one's curls were a darker shade of brown, but unless every Halfling resembled the rest, surely he was close kin to the Captain-General's remarkable little friend Peregrin, whom they had found gripping the Morgul-blade splinter. Harmund supported this one's shoulders as he sat, and the lieutenant of Ithilien noted that this Perian was dressed in the livery of Rohan. But his face is ashen-grey—the Black Breath, no doubt…
"Master Meriadoc," Harmund said. "Are you hurt?"
The Perian groaned, and Mablung noted how he tried, and failed, to raise his right hand to the scrape on his brow. "Hullo, Harmund… Don't think I'm hurt… Uhnn… Can't move my arm, ever since…since I…" The small warrior shivered, and his glance fell on the Lady Éowyn. "Oh, no! Not the Lady… Is she… Please tell me she's not…"
"She's alive, lad," Mablung said. "Barely." A heavy cart, pulled by a pair of thick-limbed mules, was approaching quickly. "Both of you will now be borne to Minas Tirith, to the Healers. And if I am not mistaken, Master Perian, there you shall be reunited with an old friend…"
Merry's eyes drooped and closed as he leaned heavily against Harmund; but a half-smile appeared on his pale face. "Pippin… Oh, Pip, I've so much to tell you… so glad you're safe… we're both safe, now…"
The dark eyes of the lieutenant of Ithilien and the bright blue ones of the Rider of Rohan met, and the glance they exchanged was grim.
* * *
Faramir and his men arrived in the midst of a frenzy of sword-slashing and spear-thrusting as the Rohirrhim broke through the vanguard of another enemy army. The Rangers added their deadly blades and piercingly accurate bows to the attack. The Khândian chieftain pulled back to regroup beneath his standard of a tawny lion upon a field of blue, and the fighting came to a momentary halt—a lull sufficient for the renewal of old acquaintances.
"Lord Faramir," Théodred said as he gripped the Captain's hand.
The Prince's features were grimed and bloodied, but beneath the filth Faramir saw the man's grief. "Théoden King sends his greetings to the Steward Denethor…"
Faramir bowed his head in reply. "Alas, my father the Steward is dead, slain in defence of the Gate of his City at dawn this very day. His Heir, my brother Boromir, lies wounded in the Houses of Healing, and his life is in the balance…"
"Ill news, Lord; your father was a great man and your brother is a valiant warrior… My sincere hope for you, sire, is that your losses shall be less than mine this grim and futile day…"
"Yet great though your losses be, Prince, they might be less than you had believed," Faramir said. "I just came from the place where tremendous deeds were done—the winged beast, and its fell Rider, slain—and there saw your kinswoman, the Lady Éowyn…"
Theodred clamped his eyes shut and groaned. "Aye," he whispered, "Remind me not of my own folly, sire…"
"But she lives, Theodred! The Lady-Knight lives!"
The Prince's eyes flew open. "What! What say you…!"
"It is true, Prince. Had not your second, Harmund, stayed with her, I fear she would surely have died before any found her. But she was alive, indeed. I heard her speak… She will have by now been brought by cart to the City, and thence to the Healers." Faramir reached out and grasped the Prince's arm. "Have hope, my Lord. All is not lost…"
But as if to mock his words, in the next moment a great cry of alarm and dismay sounded, from near and far across the Pelennor, and alarm bells and shrill horns sounded in the distance from the City.
"The Corsairs! The Corsairs!"
"Ei! Look, the Corsairs of Umbar are coming!"
Faramir and Theodred turned south toward the quays at the Harlond, now less than two miles from where the Riders of the Mark had pushed forward into the lines of the Easterlings. There, upon wide Anduin, their black sails billowing in the strengthening wind that had shifted to the south, a fleet of ships plowed through the glittering waters. More than fifty ships approached, with sails at full, and with many hundreds of oars splashing and plunging.
"It is the last stroke of doom!"
Théodred cried out to his eored, and the Riders quickly formed into a line, for no more than a furlong's distance from them, the Chieftain of the Lion was rallying his troops and cavalry. Their roars for vengeance carried on the wind as they began galloping with renewed fury toward the Rohirrhim.
Captain Faramir stared in silence at the approaching ships. His thoughts were for the late Steward, Denethor son of Ecthelion, grandson of far-sighted Turgon. Ah, dear Father—it is better, after all, that you did not live to see this in reality and not just in the shadows of that fateful glass: the terrible Doom you bore alone all your life… The Steward's son drew his sword, and it rang as a death-knell. If the Doom of Gondor is to come this day, let it come; I shall not shrink from it…
He turned defiantly to the foremost and largest black ship, and raised his sword flashing into the sunlight. Then a great cry of joy and laughter burst from him, for a standard unfurled upon that ship: a field of sable, with a White Tree shimmering in the sunlight, and above it was the high Crown of the Sea-Kings, and encircling the Tree were arrayed Seven Stars.
Bori's friend from the North—his hope is fulfilled!
"The royal emblems of Gondor and Arnor!" he cried. "Elendil! The Heir of Isildur and Elendil has come!"
* * *
The south wind was so brisk, it was all Halbarad could do to keep his hold upon the Standard. He rode a horse's length behind and to the right of Aragorn upon Shadowfax. His kin and Lord, he noted, had at last found the strength to raise Andúril. And he is putting it to good use… We'll have to find the Old Ent and thank him for his potion when all this is done… The Heir of Isildur and Elendil rained terror and death upon the foes that awaited their landing at the quays, personally smiting so many that the mere sight of the shining blade now seemed sufficient to send the toughest looking Orc wailing in retreat.
The Grey Company, at the head of a newly formed army of men freed from enslavement in the Corsair ships and the gathered forces of the fiefdoms, swept through the forces of Mordor like scythes through grain. The farthest southern extent of the Pelennor was now cleansed of enemies—though the field was hardly won, for the middle reaches of the battlegrounds were still crowded with foes. Standards tossed in the wind: black, emblazoned with the Red Eye; green dragon upon blood-red; a grey Oliphaunt, white tusks dripping blood, on a field of dusty brown. And against these, the lieutenant of the Northern Rangers saw the white stallion on green, the silver Swan of Amroth on sea-blue, and the banners of Minas Tirith.
A sudden gust of wind blew the dust into a swirling wall, and his horse snorted and slowed to a hesitant trot. Halbarad's eyes stung and watered as he struggled to keep his Lord's banner upright. For his is the greatest of them all… Aware he carried the makings of history in his hands, he thought on how many long years had come and gone since the symbols of both Dúnedain Kingdoms had flown. An Age—three thousand years… And even Elendil's banner had not been as priceless as Aragorn's: hand-wrought in secret by an Elven Princess. Nor, I deem, stitched with as much love and care as this piece of cloth…
When the dust settled, he blinked and looked about. Shadowfax and his Rider were far ahead. Aragorn was now separated from his standard-bearer by a hundred yards. Elrohir upon his grey stallion and the rest of his fellow Rangers, as well as the Wood Elf and the Dwarf, had eluded the blinding dust and kept pace with their leader. He was alone! This won't do, he thought. The Bearer is supposed to be ahead, or at least by the side of the Commander....
Hal dug in his heels and turned his steed toward them. But at that moment, the mid-morning Sun dimmed. A fell shriek split the air from above, and Halbarad's heart thudded within him. His horse screamed and reared, and he was thrown. An icy shadow fell over him, and from the sky came the sound of wind whooshing beneath huge wings, and the stench of decay.
He rolled and regained his feet in a moment, though his head spun and his left shoulder thobbed mightily. He tried to move his arm—a spear of pain shot through it. Dislocated… Shuddering and breathing heavily, Halbarad leaned down, retrieved the standard and raised it as high as he could. He knew who had come. He had felt that deadly presence before, in the North. The fleeting vision revealed to him before the Dread Door to the Paths of the Dead materialized, right before his waking eyes.
"All right then, you foul thing, turn this way," he muttered aloud. Come to his standard. That's right, come over here… And my liege-lord and kinsman, and all our hope, I beg you: let Shadowfax carry you far, far away....
* * *
The Witch King had proudly delivered his captive to his Master, and had stayed at his Lord's command to grovel and give a full report of the 'victorious' but costly battle of Morgul Vale; then he had traveled the distance from Barad-dûr to the Pelennor with all speed. As he approached, he was suddenly aware of the fall of his subordinate, and for a moment he was shaken with doubt. Who among these weak mortals of later days could possibly have had the power to undo the spell that knit a RIngwraith's living soul to his undead flesh? Then anger—a black fury coursing through him from far to the East—had overwhelmed his fear.
From the skies, he surveyed with rising rage the turmoil of what was to have been an uncontestable triumph. Instead, everywhere he looked, the servants and allies of his Master were running in chaotic circles, and the forces of their enemies were gaining more ground by the minute. This is all Gothmog's fault… The fool had failed to control his perimeter! The Strawheads should have been stopped and mowed down before they arrived…
But more than Rohan had come to Gondor's rescue. What is this? Angmar's uncanny, otherworldly sight was drawn south, from whence reinforcements were to have arrived from Umbar. But instead of a flood of Corsair warriors, a flicker of silver shone there, wielding a fiery sword, and with him were other glowing sprites, of brilliant blue, and green, ruddy bronze, and gold. Who?... His eyes fell on the standard, and he hissed with hatred. None had dared display those tokens in thousands of years!
He growled as he turned the winged beast toward it; he bent his mind and will upon his fellow wraiths, commanding them to come to his aid. But first, he would personally rend that disgusting standard into shreds. The man who bore it would be forced to reveal the name and location of his lord—and would feel the bite of his blade. Then he would find the one who dared to claim descent from the spawn of forgotten Númenor and take him—and he would present another prized gift to his Lord. And the Master will be greatly pleased…
* * *
The Wraith's hideous steed landed just thirty feet away, its snarling maw snapping and its stinking wings half-folded as it crouched. Halbarad stood unbowed before it, and looked up at the thing's fell passenger without flinching. He could not move his left arm, and with his right he clutched the post.
Unarmed… No matter. I may as well die with my pride intact…
"Why don't you climb off that ugly beast of yours, and face me like the man you once were?" he said. He tried valiantly to keep any semblance of the cold terror he felt out of his voice—and almost succeeded. A hoarse quaver as a wave of pain twisted through his dislocated left shoulder betrayed him. The Witch King laughed. But to Hal's surprise, the wraith swung off the beast's back and stepped forward.
"Good, good," the wraith chuckled. "I like victims who display some spirit before I break them. Makes the entire process more interesting…for all involved."
Halbarad stiffened involuntarily as the thing took a step toward him. The air was frosty cold; he felt a weight bearing down upon him as the undead creature's horrible breath wafted toward him.
"Tell me, brave Ranger… yes, I know whence you come, Northerner… Indeed, perhaps I had the honor of slaying your father, or your grandfather…or mayhap all your male ancestors… Tell me—for which so-called friend do you so courageously hold up those colors? Where is he, the one who has abandoned you to your fate, turned tail and run while you stand facing your doom?"
Halbarad managed a sneer. "What makes you think I hold any colors but my own?"
Angmar laughed. "I am a King, fool—Kings do not carry their own flags. Such duties fall to underlings, to servants… To the dispensible ones, those who can be sacrificed to attract attention while their masters escape…" Steel rang in the folds of the black cloak, and a long dagger appeared.
"You don't know the first thing about me, or any of my friends…" Halbarad said hoarsely. He was shuddering badly; the wraith was just ten feet from him.
"Don't I?" the Witch King whispered. "I know this much, you stupid, arrogant Dúnedain: no living man may hinder me. One of your own precious Elvish friends said so... Whatever else you may be, you are a dead man, Standard Bearer… But before you die, you will tell me what I wish to know…"
Halbarad choked and stumbled backward, managing somehow to keep the standard aloft. But the wraith came on inexorably… The man knew he had heard the truth—he was a dead man. His blood was ice, his heartbeat was faint and erratic, his sight was dimming… Then he raised his head one last time, even as the wraith came within two paces of him--and from over the black-cloaked shoulder he saw something that at any other moment would have made him quail with terror and run, something that could not be overcome by any weapon, but that now made his heart rise up in sheer joy. Just as Angmar reached out to slash him, Halbarad laughed out loud—and with every last ounce of his strength, he threw himself to his right.
The Mûmak screamed and trumpeted as it thundered by, crushing the winged creature and smashing the cold thing in black robes into the hard-packed earth as it blindly stumbled onward. The Oliphant didn't even notice what it had hammered beneath its great feet, and neither beast nor wraith uttered a sound as they died. Green-feathered arrows protruded from the huge animal's eyes, and blood streamed down its agonized face.
By the end of that long and horrible day, the mighty Mûmak of Harad would trip and tumble, exhausted, over the bank of Anduin, and in despair and sorrow, let itself be taken by the swift waters and drown. None of the magnificent, intelligent creatures that had been brought to war that day would return to their forested homeland far to the south; but the legend of the Oliphaunt that destroyed the Witch King would live on among the men of Gondor, and among the Mûmakil themselves, who heard of it from the vultures and the ravens who circled over the Great Feast of the Pelennor.
* * *
Aragorn saw the winged beast circle and drop to the ground near where he knew Halbarad must be. His heart caught in his throat as the Standard of Arwen vanished behind the shadow. But he and everyone near him was, at that very moment, engaged in a fierce fight with a platoon of skilled Haradric warriors wielding gilded shields and razor-edged swords. In agonizing slowness, the seconds ticked by, marked by clangs and grunts, spurts of hot blood, shouts and death cries. Finally, Andúril came crashing down upon the helm of their chieftain, just as an Elf's deadly arrow pierced the throat of the standard-bearer. The banner of the Mûmakil warriors fluttered to the ground.
"Hal!" Aragorn cried, as he turned Shadowfax and urged the horse toward where he had last seen his kinsman.
"Aragorn, wait!" Elrohir shouted and lunged for his stepbrother's reins. Too late. The Mearas-King was thundering back to the shadow. The Peredhel spurred his mount and followed, and in seconds the entire Grey Company was speeding toward the Witch King.
"Look out!" Gimli bellowed as he leaned out from behind Legolas. "Aragorn, on your left!"
Shadowfax neighed, and his rider nearly lost his balance as the great horse sharply swerved to avoid the oncoming monster. The enormous grey beast galloped by them, ears flapping as it raised an obscuring dust. Its white tusks were stained with gore, and the shredded remains of a massive harness and an ornate saddle dangled from its neck and back. As the múmak continued it gave its brazen call, like a dozen horns sounded at once. In ten seconds it was gone from sight.
When they could control their mounts they galloped forward, Aragorn again in the lead. His heart sank even as he gazed in astonishment at the sight before him.
The winged creature was trampled into an oozing pile of leathery skin and squashed limbs, its fearsome jaws wrenched open and its skull smashed. Before it lay flattened black cloth and scattered bits of twisted armor. An empty helm was cracked in two, and a long dagger lay unused on the ground. But Aragorn's eyes were drawn to the side of the carnage, where a Ranger in his grey cloak curled on his right side, the sable Standard fallen beside him.
He dismounted and dropped to his knees beside him. Trembling, Aragorn placed his hand on Halbarad's twisted shoulder. His lieutenant's flesh was icy cold, and he did not move.
"Ah, Hal…" He bowed his head. Dully, he was aware of others gathering around him: Elrohir, Indor, Legolas, Gimli. Silence fell, and for a few moments, war waited while the Grey Company stood in vigil beside their fallen companion.
Then Aragorn's eyes flew open, for beneath his hand he felt his kinsman stir! Halbarad groaned, and suddenly everyone was in motion as Elrohir joined his stepbrother on the ground, as hands reached out to help roll the injured man onto his back, as Legolas fetched Aragorn's saddlebags, and as Gimli ran to find a flask of water. Indor shouted to another Ranger to find the lieutenant's missing mount, and a line of guards planted themselves in a half-circle, protecting their commanders.
Halbarad groaned again and opened his eyes. Above him, Aragorn was grinning wildly and shaking his head.
"You idiot!" his Captain snorted. "What made you fall behind?"
His cousin coughed and winced. "Dust… Couldn't see you... Ouch…"
Aragorn's grin faded. "Where are you hurt? Did the Nazgûl…"
"Damned shoulder… It's out again…" Halbarad had dislocated his left shoulder more than a dozen times over the years, starting when he was in his teens. Aragorn himself had placed the joint back in place more than half of those times, and Elrohir—or Elladan—had had the honors for most of the rest.
The Peredhel snorted. "Your dislocated shoulder, again? Is that your only injury, after an encounter with Angmar himself?"
Halbarad chuckled softly, though his face remained twisted in a grimace. "Seems so… I didn't do anything but keep his back turned to the real danger… And speaking of that," he said, as he glared up at Elrohir. "When you next see Glorfindel, tell him from me that he might have been a bit more specific in his pronouncement… 'Not by the hand of man shall he fall'… I'd have like to have been more prepared! Almost didn't get out of the Mûmak's way myself!"
Aragorn made ready for the maneuver to ease his kinsman's dislocated arm back into his shoulder socket. But Elrohir interrupted him.
"Really, Estel," he muttered softly. "You ought to allow me to do this. You are, after all, the King…"
Aragorn bowed and smiled. "As you wish, brother…" He leaned in and whispered. "But make it quick…"
Halbarad grunted. "Good—Elrohir's technique is a lot gentler than yours, Aragorn." He looked up at the Peredhel. "Thank you for offering. Aragorn's way hurts like the devil…"
Elrohir nodded his head, then he stooped to remove his right boot. Halbarad saw him and groaned.
"Oh no! Wait! That's how he does it…"
The Peredhel grinned as he placed his bare foot in Halbarad's armpit and gripped the man's left wrist. "I am informed that speed is of the essence…"
With no further warning he yanked, and Halbarad screamed. But his arm slid back into place instantly. The lieutenant gasped and sat up, grasping his left shoulder with his right hand. Aragorn smiled.
"El, I don't have to tell you to bind that limb tightly. Hal, someone else will have to take over as Bearer…" He crouched down next to his kinsman. "I thought I'd lost you for a moment," he said in a rough whisper. "We're a long ways from done here, and I need you whole and beside me…" He grinned again. "Can you manage to keep up, and not get turned around in the dust this time?"
Halbarad smiled and clasped Aragorn's shoulder. "You'll not lose me, my friend and my King, until there's nothing left for me to do for you…"
"And as that day will never come, you look out for yourself, hear me?"
"I will—as well as you look out for yourself…"
* * *
By day's end, the field of the Pelennor was emptied of the foes of Gondor from the walls of Minas Tirith to the banks of the Great River. The Sun set over the White Mountains in a riot of red and purple, staining what was not already stained with blood with the fiery slanting light. As the last enemy troops fled across Anduin and the final surrendering prisoner of war was taken into the makeshift encampment, Faramir son of Denethor, Captain of Ithilien and acting Steward of Gondor, met Aragorn son of Arathorn and Heir of Isildur at the ruins of the Causeway Forts. Théodred son of Théoden was nearby at their meeting, and the Prince of Rohan marked the striking resemblance between them, and their scrutinizing appraisal of one another.
Formal greetings completed, the Commanders of the West sat on horseback and exchanged news of the days just passed. Thus did Aragorn and the Grey Company hear of the fate of the Lady-Knight of Rohan, and of her small companion, of the brutal slaying of her brother, and that their fellow travelers from Imladris, Boromir and Peregrin, were under the care of the Healers as well. The death of Denethor shook Aragorn with unexpected grief. Thorongil mourned the man who had never been his friend, had ever been his rival, and yet in so many other ways had been the brother he never had.
All marveled at the remarkable fall of both the Witch King and his terrible lieutenant—neither by the hand of man. Then Faramir asked to speak to Aragorn in private, and the two of them rode ten paces off.
"I have other news—news of great import, and of great hope, I deem," he said quietly. He told in brief of his meeting with three strangers, nine days earlier, in the forest of Ithilien at night. Aragorn's dark grey eyes burned into Faramir's, and the Steward's son wondered at what he read there—eagerness, yes, but terrible anguish, as well.
Aragorn spoke. "I also have news of one of the three friends of whom you speak." He hesitated; then, as he drew in a breath, Faramir interrupted.
"I know of…of Mithrandir's fate. My father… saw it."
Their eyes met again, and Aragorn's brows rose. "I understand." He studied the younger man before him and nodded slowly. "You are very like him, you know… like Denethor: like the best of him, and the best of Finduilas, as well..."
Faramir's gaze at the older man was equally searching. "Hmm… I have just realized something. You are Thorongil…"
Aragorn's mouth twitched in a fleeting smile. "Very astute. I am he."
Faramir smiled wanly and bowed his head. "I look forward to more conversations, sire, if the future we all hope for comes and these dark days pass. But now I must return to my City…" He stopped and frowned. "Minas Tirith is your City now, sire. Will you come now, and declare yourself, as your standard has already done upon the field of battle?"
"I will come, but not to make any claim or declaration—not this night. There is too much yet before us…" He gestured for Faramir to ride in the lead. "My standard shall be furled, for now, and I and my Company shall take shelter in tents in the fields tonight. But lead on, son of Denethor, for we both have friends and loved ones waiting in the Houses of Healing, and I am anxious to see them, as are my friends who have traveled far and for many months with me."
The White Standard of the Stewards flew over the Citadel that night. Those in the City, and the Rohirrim encamped on the fields wondered at it, for all had seen the White Tree flying above the battle, and the name Isildur's Heir was on the lips of many men.
Yet those who labored in the Houses of Healing gave no heed to the rumors of kings and legends and banners; for their work had only just begun.
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.