13. Chapter 13: Choice
The winged monster filled the sky. Shape of darkness, creature of evil unveiled. It bore down on the destroyed remains of Osgiliath on the echo of its own, unearthly call, a shriek that contained all the pain of a form corrupted to the means of the Shadow. Long claws that bruised the stone as it passed close to the ruined walls.
The Rangers took cover, Faramir pushed the Halflings back into the relative safety of the house. So small, perhaps the Nazgûl wouldn't see them. But for us it was time to fight. The Black Rider and his mount grazed the buildings near the river, where the soldiers of Minas Tirith were holding their own against the Orcs on the other shore. Victory before this had seemed impossible; now defeat came closer upon us.
I readied my bow, waiting for a clear shot. I would be granted no other opportunities; if I made a mistake, the creature would be upon me. And then, something strange and unforeseeable happened: a little stain on the edge of my vision, the pale Halfling began to ascend the stairs to the battlements. Beside me, Faramir saw it too. Before we could do cry, or run, the Halfling was in full view of the sky. Apparently unscared, he stood there, his hands fidgeting something that he carried around his neck.
It was then that for the first and the last time I saw the One Ring.
Wars have been fought for reasons so petty no tear, no blood should ever be shed for them; wars have been fought for no reason at all. Elves know appearances can be deceitful; and yet, that so great a blackness as that of Sauron the Treacherous could be locked in such a simple thing, it was hard to believe. That the fate of Middle Earth should hang on the smooth, glinting circle of gold the Halfling held, was a nightmare beyond all imagination.
But so it was. Shapeless evil made ring, a call and a repulsive threat. It sang a song of boundless power; doom and hope were woven together in its fell voice. A vision unfolded in my mind, hidden desires coming to light: the green vales of Ithilien cleansed anew, Faramir to share my eternity with me…and the voice, now alluring, now soft. A voice that knew me more deeply than I had ever known myself.
It could be true…if only you took me, if only you used me, Elvish maiden…
The darkness in my spirit rose and stirred, my heart struggled to remind me of what was right, that all the visions the Ring could grant me would turn to bitter ash and dust on my tongue. That these promises where the same that had led Kings to their death without glory in the mud, and had brought madness to the eyes of my mortal love.
But the power of the Ring was great. Even as it wooed me, even as it called me, it called to itself the Nazgûl too. Similar to a black wave rising the Ringwraith revealed the true meaning of his name, answering the call of the One, rushing where he sensed its power. And suddenly all visions and hopes and fears were swept away, and all that was left was that bleak light, and that Halfling too small, too frail before the living darkness of the clawed beast.
My hunter's senses were awoken, the thrill of the fight erased all other thought. My hands tightened around my bow, drawing its string as my eyes sought its target. An archer is one with the arrow he shoots, nothing else exists as it leaves his hand. With it it strikes. As if in a dimmed remembrance, the shadow of a dream I saw the companion of the Halfling throwing him to the ground, shielding him; my fingers let go of the fletching.
My arrow coursed across the sky, hissing through the air, running close to Faramir's own dart, that I had not seen him shoot. Green and brown arrows, messengers of wrath and pain. They hit the mount of the Wraith as it shrank away from the now hidden Ring, and its cry tore apart the clouds. Crippled and wounded the animal retreated, it flew a stilted, heavy flight towards the safety of the other shore. The cold fear the Nazgûl brought in their wake withdrew with it, and as the clamming hopelessness left my heart I turned to Faramir. There was no smile to grace his features, no joy in his eyes for the small victory we had achieved; I found there a worry that creased his brow, twisting his mouth in a grimace of uncertainty and disgust.
"The Ulaìri were once Men. Our legends speak of them."
I made no reply, watching him, seeing now a sharp, saddened sanity unfold where shortly before madness had reigned. The feverish light in his eyes was quenched.
"Men enslaved and consumed by the One Ring."
He looked to the Halfling crouching on the ground, he looked to the efforts of his companion that tried in vain to make him rise.
"Enslaved and consumed even as that little creature is. And yet he would have the courage to carry this weight to its destruction, or his."
His mouth set in a hard line, and in the hidden depths of his mind a verdict was reached. With long steps Faramir walked to the Halflings, and I followed him, my throat choked with a relief I dared not to show. I knew his heart, and I saw that it had changed. With gentle hand, he raised the fallen Halfling and put him back on his feet.
"Rise, Frodo Baggins," said the Man, his voice again subdued, echoing with compassion and a desire to help, "The peril is now gone."
"Captain – " began the other one, his round face lit by the same fire that had flamed there earlier; but his voice was tempered by a wordless appeal.
"Worry not, Master Gamgee," interrupted him Faramir, the shadow of a smile on his lips, "The lesson is well learnt."
The Rangers had gathered around us, on their faces the trace of the ordeal we had passed, and the lightless expectation of worse trials to come. Mablung spoke on their behalf: "Captain, the Orcs have suspended the attack, but there is no space for hope; we suspect they are only waiting for fresh troops. It is uncertain for how long now we shall be able to resist. If we are to bring the Halflings to the Steward, we should send them now, without delay."
"They shall not go to Minas Tirith. I will release them."
"Captain – "
"My decision is taken."
The Men bowed their heads in assent, however doubtful; and the Halflings raised their eyes to his face uncertainly, as if they could not believe what he had said. But Faramir bid the Rangers bring him the third prisoner, and undo his bonds; then he dismissed them. His hand found my wrist, keeping me from joining the others.
"If I am a good judge of your voice as you were to speak before, to such a path you would have led me, Mìriel."
"You know me well. And yet I doubted not in you there was the wisdom to recognize the rightful choice yourself."
"Your trust in me is great. I hope never to disappoint it."
Caring not that others were there, he leant and kissed my hair; and the knots of grieving and fearing were undone, as my heart grew warm to the fire that shook itself from the ashes of mourning. Then Faramir turned to the Halflings, and lightly, as one from whose heart a weight is lifted, he said: "Follow me, Hobbits. I will show you the way out of the city."
He led the way through the ruins, past the Men that prepared themselves for the bitter fight to come, past the wounded and the scared, far from the turmoil of the last defense. Until behind a fallen wall the great mouth of a tunnel gaped at us; and there we stopped.
"This is the old sewer. It will lead you beneath the river and past it, to the woods." His voice was serene; and his duty fulfilled.
"Captain Faramir – " began the Halfling called Baggins, but his voice faltered and died. Mutual comprehension hung between them, a silent request of pardon, and a silent thanks. Hope was reborn where all hope had died; and no words needed be spoken of it.
"Go, Frodo, with the good will of all Men."
"And the blessing of all Elves." I looked at the creatures so frail under the shadow of their great errand, and wished I had the power to make my words a shield. Lacking it, they were but desires cast against a fell wind.
But the Halfling bowed, and his reply was courteous: "To meet one of the Fair Folk so far from all that we treasure and call good is a blessing in itself, my lady."
I smiled, and Faramir sought and clasped my hand for the briefest moment, before asking of them: "Which road will you take once you are in the woods?"
The Halflings did not answer immediately, but looked to their guide, who cowered forgotten against the rock.
"Gollum says there is a secret way into Mordor, above Morgul Vale."
Their voices were light, but they bore unconsciously a cold dread. My smile froze, tainted with the memory of whispered evil, and I sought Faramir's eyes. He, too, had understood. He, too, feared.
"Not the Stairs of Cirith Ungol – "
With a gesture that was as brutal and terse as the cold rage that turned his eyes to blue steel the captain grasped the creature Gollum by his throat, demanding if that was the name of the way he meant.
"Orcs don't use it – Orcs don't know it…"
The spluttered words were uttered but with difficulty with his strangled breath, and when Faramir let go of him he fell to the ground with a pitiful thud. I glanced at Gollum, and only then I saw fully the depth of the corruption that had ruined him.
"Orcs don't use it," I said, my voice sounding empty and sharp to my own ears, "Because no Orc, Elf or Man has passed Cirith Ungol for long years. An evil unknown and undefeated inhabits the pass, answering to no master but itself. You cannot go that way."
"But there is no other way!" The screech of Gollum was hurtful to the ears, a plead to the Hobbits. "Master says we must go into Mordor, so we must – we must try!"
"Frodo, don't. Not even the Elves have discovered what haunts the long darkness of the gallery into the mountain; and Halflings should do well not to try."
Faramir's voice was thick with his concern, but Baggins shook his head, a resigned despair engraved in his traits. "Our quest was desperate from the beginning. The Black Gate is shut. If no other way exists, this is a chance we must take."
"Are there no words I can speak to change your mind?"
"I fear not, captain, although my heart thanks you for trying."
"Then go. It is ill to travel in these regions at night."
With one last nod of goodbye the Halflings turned and left, their guide crawling after them, casting wary looks behind. But before he was gone Faramir grasped him again, and the words he hissed in his face had a cutting edge: "Lead them well, Gollum. Or my curse shall be upon you, and you shall die a dreadful death."
My hand on his arm, I restrained Faramir, and he let the creature fall. It shot one last glance at us before crawling away like an insect, and his eyes brimmed with an hatred that told of unspeakable pain. Soon he was gone, and the empty tunnel echoed of our words.
"That maimed being was hurt in many ways before this day, and his malice is not his own fault. You should not have tortured him further."
"Your heart is great, your understanding deep, Mìriel. But these are times of haste, and swift judgments must be passed. Gollum's misery was perhaps not his own fault; but the evil he has done out of it is."
Faramir sighed, a weak echo under the curved ceiling of the sewer.
"But it is too late now, and the Halflings have decided to follow his advice. May their steps thread light. And now, another war awaits us; one that I fear could never bring us victory."
"I shall be by your side, in victory or defeat, Faramir."
"And I by yours."
The light of that moment was extinguished, and the shadows closed about us once more. Our words were but a grim consolation. My knife hung heavy by my belt, my bow weighed down my shoulders. The grief of the days that had preceded this would be left behind; and new mourning would mar our spirits.
Yet such is the fate of a warrior in dark times, and lamenting it would be vain. Only the dead have seen the end of the war; the living survive but to fight another day. Faramir and I knew it well. Under the white sunlight we walked away, towards those with which we would challenge Death once more.
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.