9. Chapter 9: Stone-city
When they smelled the stone the horses stopped. Countless riders had done what we did now, the rhythm of hoofs on road stopping for the shortest moment. Bittersweet nostalgia on the tongue, for those who were now coming home. In front of us it rose towards the sky, seven crowns cut into the rock, Minas Tirith the Fair, tower of guard without gardens or birds.
The Eldar don't build cities after the fashion of Men; no longer. All of our cities were exhausted long time ago in Tirion the Beautiful on the hill of Tùna on the other side of the seas, Tirion like pearls and crystal cupped into a green hand. But that was the city of the Noldor, and of this the Wood Elves of my kind have no memory. When the Valar called, we stayed behind.
We soon left behind the last traces of the forest, and uneasy was my mind as I gazed at the slender shape of the tower, a spear thrust against the skies. My spirit lingered with tree and leaf, for I had no love for such greatness. Beautiful some might have deemed the city, and beautiful perhaps it was, in the motionless grace of hewn stone; but the only beauty I knew and desired was that of living wood, changing tree and life that runs like blood in the veins of the world. Cities of stone are dead.
The guard at the gate saluted Faramir, son of the Steward, and the captain answered bowing his head. As the shadow of the lintel fell on his face he darkened, and he urged his horse forward, his mouth setting in a hard line. As I followed him I felt for a moment the eyes of the guard watching me in wonder, before remembering his duty and looking away.
Six circle we were to tread before reaching the citadel, and before each gate the same wonder filled the eyes of those who saw me. I had learnt Westron in talking with Faramir, and many time I heard repeated the words designating the Elves. Whispers followed me, of awe and amazement and fear, and I understood that for a long time none of my kind had been seen, and as I rode among the Rangers the curiosity of the people was aroused.
But even as they looked at me, I looked at them, and marveled. The sole Men I had known were fighters, and their fear and their despair stood balanced on the point of a sword. Because they warred, because taking life was their trade, the illusion lingered upon them that they still had a say on how long the frail thread of their life would be spun ere it were cut. But those I saw in the white streets of the White Tower were no fighters, but women and children and old men, and youths made sour by their disgrace. Armed guards moved among them with careful steps, on them the shadow of a near fate. In the city Death was closer.
A gloom hung on Minas Tirith, and it cloaked its inhabitants in resigned hopelessness smelling of doom. Too long had they watched the shadow, charting its growth, striving in vain to hem its black tide; and with the conscience of their long struggle was joined a pride whose roots were deep and strong, that held their head upright, but made them blind. They believed themselves to be the last shield of the Free People, and that the weight of the World lay on their shoulders alone. Their faces were pale, their countenance marked, for they knew their strength was fading, and that the moment of their final stand grew near. Their life was choked in this fear they deemed a certainty, and the walls of their tower became an invisible jail.
All this and more would I come to understand during this day and others, as I talked and watched with the keen skill of the archer who follows her quarry, studying it. For now my fate hung with theirs, and much I wished to know those with whom one day I could come to perish. That first morning beneath a clear sky like a dome above our head I saw the fairness and nobility of our kind dimmed and wasted, and I grieved for them.
We reached the barracks on the sixth level, close to the last gate. Our party, five all told, were greeted by the man in charge. Our horses were taken away, and the soldier asked eagerly for news of the march whence we came. Faramir answered briefly but kindly, then he said: "I shall ascend to the citadel immediately. Take good care of men and animals alike; for the summons were urgent, and we rode in haste."
Only then did the man look at we others, standing respectfully apart.
"Captain – "
"You shall prepare for the lady a chamber of her own, however small. She will come with me now."
"Of course, my lord."
One last glance at me, but he did as he was told. Soldiers of Men, obeying orders, asking not what they wish to know.
"Come, my lady."
I followed Faramir as he led me out of the courtyard and up to a gate guarded by Men dressed in silver and black. Many of the tales of Ithilien in ages past concerned the Kings of Men, and they told of the White Tree they had brought with them from their isle beyond the sea. But now the Tree was dead. Its sadness lay in its faded beauty, as it bent over a deep basin of clear water branches like begging hands. Its tormented trunk spoke of a tiredness long drawn in agony before the end. Faramir looked at it, in his eyes a melancholy tinged with regret, as if he wished he could have seen it in flower in the days of its glory of old. Times of hope now lost and gone.
Great double doors stood before us at the end of a short flight of stairs, and a Man came out to greet us.
Men would have said Faramir looked much alike his brother Boromir, eldest of the Steward and heir; Elves would have said there could scarcely be more difference between two of the same blood. Where Faramir was quiet, often silent, thoughtful with cares far beyond his years to carry, there Boromir appeared assured and restless. Looking at him it was easy to see why Men would follow him, trusting their lives to his command; looking at his hands one could imagine them moving in combat, brandishing swords such as my kin had never used.
And yet, as marked as the differences were, it bound them a deep love, similar to a light that lit the green irises of Boromir with joy in his strong face, such love as to shake away for a brief moment his eternal gloom from Faramir's brow. Their embrace was a tight and a long one, for for many months they had not seen each other, and I cast my eyes elsewhere. In that brief space, they were alone.
When they detached Faramir sought me with his eyes, and bringing me closer he said: "Behold, brother, the Elven maiden that fight for our land beside us."
Now the green eyes were perplexed, and I understood that for the first time he saw one of the Firstborn. Uncertainly he looked over my frame, slight as that of many of the Silvan Elves; and he looked at my small hands and wrists, apparently so frail in comparison with his own great limbs. But he had grown being told tales of Elvish wars against enemies far mightier than the ones he now faced, and doubt and respect flickered together across his face. But when he spoke, he only said: "Come. The Steward awaits."
When the doors closed behind us all I could see was white and black. Stone, stone alone for the Hall of Kings where no king had sat for a thousand years, and my heart ached for the passing of the White Tree, living thing which had succumbed to the despairing immobility of rock. Two rows of statues flanked the hall, stern faces carved into masks unchanging to hide natures long burnt. At the very end of the hall, past the white emptiness of the floor stood a throne, and on its lowest step, as a dog may sit at the chair of his master, the Steward sat on a seat of stone.
The Steward they called him, and yet he resembled closely the statues of the long lost kings, with a noble countenance and a fair face in his old age, even as sternness covered him like a shield. His eyes scanned me, and they were at the same moment absent and keen, fixed on me as if to discover anything I might wish to conceal. Yes, he was a Man worth fearing, formidable among others of his kind; and yet I reminded myself of his short years, of his near doom. I did not lower my gaze.
"So this, Faramir, Captain of Ithilien, is the Elvish warrior that has enriched our ranks."
"My lord – "
"Be silent. Let the maiden speak."
He shifted his weight, looking at me even more attentively. But nothing betrayed my face, it felt like an abandoned dwelling, my eyes windows made blind. I looked an empty thing. And indeed, smothered by stone, watched by the motionless eyes of the dead, I felt nothing. Stone myself in the city that had never been alive.
"Why did you remain?"
"To defend my land."
Boromir by my side stirred. This he could understand. This he could recognize, and trust.
"It is not yours along. It belongs to the realm of Gondor."
"My people dwelt in the wood when no city had yet been carved into the rock. Yours is the realm, ours the land."
"And yet they have all fled."
"They have joined ranks with our kin in the North. When the time came, I found I could not go."
"Admirable would be your courage and heart, Elven maiden, were it true that love of your wood alone has kept you here."
To this I gave no reply. Deeper and deeper his eyes bore into mine, but they could find no answer in them. Whether he guessed I could not say; and if he did, indeed the blood of the Nùmenoreans blessed with foreboding and insight spoke strong in his veins.
"Will you swear allegiance to me?"
"My fealty belongs to Ithilien, and I have sealed it choosing to stay. I shall fight with the Men of Gondor, and obey their captain; to them, brothers in arms, will go my loyalty in battlefield and ambush. But already I have a lord, and my allegiance in peace goes to no other."
"Clever and gracious words you utter, and yet 'no' is your answer. Should I trust such an elusive tongue?"
"Long I have fought the shadow, and for a longer time my ancestors died of Orcish blade then the memory of your people lasts; and if the Steward of the city forbids me to fight under the White Tree and in aid of his soldiers, then I shall fight alone and under no banner in the woods that ever were my home."
Long he considered and me and my words, long he thought; but then the fire of inquisitiveness that had lit his eyes burnt low, and he came to a decision.
"If any aid you can give, Elf-maiden, by scouting or spying or fighting or enchanting, however your people resisted before they fled in fear, such aid you may give. And if in doing so you should lay down your life, it would be a good death."
He said no more, but clear was his thought unspoken in words: a good death he wished for himself, and he doubted these times could bring him a different and kinder fate.
I bowed lightly, acknowledging his words, and he commanded: "Leave now, lady of bow and knife; words are to be exchanged here that do not concern you."
So he released me, and without a word I turned and left, free to abandon the breathing death of the hall. The Men I left behind did not turn to look at me, but I felt Faramir's spirit reaching out to mine, torn between worry and relief. The tension in Boromir was augmented, together a challenge and a call at arms. Denethor, lord of Gondor, sat silent on his chair, his head bent, the fire in his eyes ever lower, but not yet quenched.
I left behind the gloom, and was out again. After the cold of empty thrones and watchful statues the caress of the sun on my skin was kind. Walking lightly I reached the White Tree, and hoping for Time and Death to be merciful I touched it, feeling for a spark of life forgotten in its tired heart, one last flame to be rekindled.
But the bark was smooth and cool beneath my palm, like bone; and no life, no hope was left for this offspring of drowned land and lost blessing. I sat down by it, and for its wasted existence I wept.
The guards all around did not stir.