17. Chaper 17: Fire
When the second gate was shut behind our backs all that remained of my archers fell on their knees on the ground. Their breath short, their body exhausted, they accepted a sip of water as a renewed hope. Since the morning they had not taken drink, or food. When one of them silently offered his flask to me, my body acknowledged the thirst in my throat with numbed surprise. I drank and gave back the flask, a nod all I could give as thanks. No sound had escaped my lips but the sparse orders that could be heard in the raucous din, the battle all around a ravaged eye of confused doom.
Some say that a battle is but a dance with death. If they be right, I cannot say; for in my eyes the chaos had been but a blood-stained dream. The clash of iron and steel had rung in my ears a music too deadly and too distant to dance to it, and my fight had been but a reflection of long training, an absence of thought. In the blankness of my mind when only clear-cut orders would take shape, my body had carried itself alive out of the day, into this night shaded with deepest red.
The memory of the hours passed unraveled before my eyes, a long tale of arrow and knife. Other shall tell of the fight on the battlements of Minas Tirith battered into ruin by the catapults, of the terror cloaked with courage that held them against the siege towers; others shall say of the flaming wolfhead of Grond, the ram that broke the doors of the city, and let creatures of nightmare stain with their blood the white stones of the streets.
Others shall say of our retreat.
Some have called a battle but a dance with death; but its hidden music had lain too deeply woven into the encounter of iron and flesh for me to hear it. The day had been one long-drawn breath, a plunge into an underground world that did not belong to time. Those who had survived to see this defeat now looked around with the dimmed eyes of those who have forgotten whether they be alive or dead.
I leant against the wall, tiredness a tide climbing up my body. A weariness that had nothing to do with fatigue clouded my eyes, clasped my throat, and my exhausted spirit refused to wake. The night was spent in a mist where thoughts had a dulled edge.
Mithrandir came to me as pale fingers of dawn tore apart the black, to be melted and chased away by new clouds. As the soldiers barricaded the gate against a new attack the wizard sat by me. Apart from us, the Halfling sat in silence, his small form clad in the severe silver and black of the Guard. He was shaken by equal waves of bravery and despair.
"He fears death."
"Not all have certainty of what awaits them beyond this life."
"And yet it is a destiny that I would gladly take upon myself."
"What do you fear, Mìriel?"
"I fear nothing more, for all that I dreaded has come to pass. What remains is an empty shell, and a duty to fulfil."
"Faramir may yet live."
"Don't cheat my pain with faked hope, wizard. On me your tricks are wasted."
"If my deeds or my words have earned your harshness, I will ask you to forgive me."
"It is I that I should seek your pardon, but today my words are useless, and all I do or say appears vain to me."
I rose and took my bow, ready to rejoin the archers. Until our arrows lasted, until our blades were sharp, we would stand. Brothers in arms. Good Men to die with. Mithrandir's voice reached me, a cold touch, but also a fullness of pity and compassion that still could not move me.
"The deepest of this darkness still lies ahead of you, Mìriel. I wish you may see that past it there is a light that can still be rekindled."
Many words or none were the reply to such a phrase; and I did not turn, nor stay my pace. The curved wood under my fingers was the last fragment of this world I existed for. Everything else was death undeserved and pointless strife.
One day poets shall sing of the war, and they shall say that with the Horselords of the Plains hope was reborn, and that in the hearts of the defenders a new light shone. The truth is that few had ease to look out from the battlements, few could suspend the battle long enough to know that help had come at last. To those who fought for the city stone by stone, the arrival of the Rohirrim was but a new clamour in a day full of them.
It was a different whisper and a different news that would come to shake me, tearing apart the numbness that had become my armour, my last defense against that bloodied day.
I had not listened to the stone since the battle had started, I had cut out its panicked shriek with those things I had no power to alter. But now, as I fought the great Orcs, my shoulders against the pillars of the third gate, a cry that was as clear and as hard as crystal or rock reached me, piercing my mind with fingers of fire.
Elvish maiden, if you won't run, he shall burn.
As my knife found the flesh of the Orcish warrior my heart throbbed, my mind sharpened into one question. The answer came fast, the urgency a darker streak in the voice of the stone.
The Lord's mind is consumed, he invokes death before the fall. He shall burn upon the pyre, his fire an unholy roar amid the silence of the Halls of the Dead, and his son shall go living with him into the smoke. Run, Elvish maiden, or aid shall come too late.
My calm unhinged, my armour shattered I ducked and jumped past the warrior that had come to avenge his mate, my blade a thin cut across his throat. As if a hood had fallen from my eyes and ears I perceived the battle for the first time, I saw the fallen, I heard the screams. Ash and blood and fear, the smell of a city in ruin filled my nostrils as I ran.
It was stone under my hurrying feet, but as I ran I was again the Elf I had been, and the rock was no longer thralldom, but ally unlooked and unhoped for in this hour of darkness. He lived still. And my life would never again be as frail, as strong in my veins as then, as I raced through the streets, the whisper of the city guidance to my running steps. Till the shadow undisturbed and the secret sleep of the houses of the dead.
The wings of the door lay opened wide, and from the mouth of the corridor voices rang in power and wrath. My blood coiled into lead as I dreaded what I would see, as the smoke I smelled took the fragrance of his skin. Wavering on the edge of pain unthinkable, without slowing down I crossed the threshold, and ran towards the blazing light at the end of the passage.
And the light came towards me, a screeching sound that filled the vaults, an echo of grief and maddening rage, and for the briefest of moments among the flames that engulfed him I saw Denethor, his majesty turned to folly, his eyes full of a swhirling darkness whose equal I would not know. But it was a moment, and I could not say whether in his pain and in his madness he recognized me, for his race brought him past me and into the pale light of yet another morning of war, to find his death wherever his harsh fate would lead him now. A painful compassion spread into my heart, but I paused not to heed it; and now my steps brought me into the great chamber where a thousand years of Stewards slept upon bed of stone.
A lit pyre roared with tall flames beneath a dome in the midst of the place, and soldiers and attendants strove with the fire, containing his rage. But I had no eyes for them, only for the prone figure that the Halfling held in his arms, and the wizard bent over.
My voice had no power against the sound of the fire, but my feet carried me for this last space, so brief and yet so wide. Mithrandir straightened and looked at me, the gravity in his eyes a boulder upon my spirit.
"Say not that he is dead."
"To you I entrust the Steward, for now this is what he is. The battle awaits me."
Without another word he left, but of no other word I had need. The Halfling surrendered the burden to my arms, on his face the shadow of an uncertain smile.
A weakness beyond words filled his voice, but his eyes were open. He was drenched in the oil that had fed the fire, and of a different fire he burnt: the fever raged through his body, and grief for the flaming death of his father dulled his eyes. But the heart that so many times I had listened to in his sleep still beat.
"It is all gone, all past. Rest now. Rest."
Sleep, my love. Sleep. Into my words was the power of the Elves, and after brief strife he yielded to it. The Men had succeeded in taming the fire, and it was to them now that I spoke.
"Arrange a stretcher. The Steward needs to be carried to the Houses of Healing."
Would they have broken through already, would they have reached the stone door? It did not matter. I would defend the entrance, stand with what breath was left me before they touched him again. But as we exited the tomb, as the fell cry of the Nazgûl came once more to taint our ears, only then we saw: that Mordor's was not the only army upon the plain, and that still we could hope.
We tarried not; and the guards returned to the fight, as I found again the healer, and together we strove to bring Faramir back upon the path of life. My promise had been fulfilled; for the city I had fought. Now with what skill my people possessed and I had been taught I would fight for him in the uncertain dominion of hurt and wound.
Slowly, the clamour that came from the windows and the gardens subsided, and a silence that was as pitched as the screams of the war was diffused upon the plain; but I did not care. I did not see the greatest and most terrible of the Nazgûl slain, I did not see his companions flee in fear, their power broken. I did not see Aragorn son of Arathorn, the King Returning, come upon the ships he had stolen from the Corsairs bringing victory upon his sword. I did not see the Armies of the Dead spread in the city, a cleansing glimmer of emerald light.
No, I saw none of this, and to me victory was but hasty news brought by the healers, and weak cheers on the lips of the wounded that flooded the Houses. I did not leave Faramir; I listened to his heart as it grew steadier, watched the tide of the fever recede. He did not wake again; but now his sleep was no raving darkness of illness, but the gentle wave that brings comfort and health.
Night fell, a blue cloak of velvet and silk upon Minas Tirith the Unconquered, and stars undimmed flickered emblazoned in the dark beyond the narrow window. I watched Faramir sleep, and my heart was at rest, tiredness and numbness equally forgotten. All that I had feared had come to pass; and in the mercy of the One had been undone.
It was then, as I caressed his sleeping face, that a gentle touch upon my shoulder called me. I turned to see the old woman standing over me, a tired smile on her lips.
"You may leave him now for a moment, lady," she said, "For his life is secure. And there is one here who comes asking for you, one of your own people, I should say."
I turned, and I asked myself whether Acharn had come back, denying the flight and leading a company of archers to this battle, this day where all had been lost and regained in the space of brief hours. But when I saw who waited on the door my heart was crushed even as it leapt, and my joy turned to dust as a savage need and a wordless pain shredded me.
For on the threshold, framed by the uncertain light of the torches, stood Legolas.