Well, here we go. I said I'd revise this puppy and bring it into compliance with what I've written since. I'm not attempting any major plot revisions, just tweaking things a bit here and there, doing some long overdue spell-checking of the earliest chapters and cleaning up the odd clumsy transition. Any commentary, suggestions or things that I've missed can be brought up in my forum.
We watched the Darkness rise up over the crest of the mountains, and our hearts felt the chill of a long-expected doom fall upon them. But we were the Rangers of Ithilien, soldiers of the greatest Captain of Gondor, and there was work to be done. We gathered about him, silent, bows and spears to hand, and waited upon his orders. Anduin murmured in what should have been the morning light, and we could dimly see Cair Andros, a darker shape in the grey gloom.
Faramir lifted his head and looked eastward, his rough-cut black locks stirring in a sudden, fitful breeze. Those fine grey eyes, piercing enough to wrest the secrets from ancient texts or a man’s soul alike, looked as distant as if he sought, as some said his father the Steward did, to compel the very Enemy himself to reveal his stratagems. After some moments he sighed wearily, the lines bracketing his mouth deepening, his knuckles whitening briefly on the hilt of his sword. Always sensitive to his moods, I watched and waited, knowing what he was going to say next.
“Ithilien has fallen,” he declared, looking around at all of us in turn. “Not by any fault of ours, my friends. No one could have been more forward or fell in battle than the Rangers of Ithilien, or more cunning and crafty against our larger Foe. But we have known all along that what we did here was but a delaying action, and now the long-awaited time has come. The Enemy comes in great force, and we may not oppose his armies here. Our strength is best spent in defense of the White City herself. Anborn, you will lead the Rangers down to Osgiliath and join with the forces there. I must go to Minas Tirith and report to the Lord Denethor. How many horses have we here at present?”
“Four, my lord,” said Barathen, whose charge it was to care for them. “Your own Teilyn, and the three courier mounts. Unfortunately, one of them is that stunted, misbegotten, black-hearted stud that Hethlin rides.” Despite the grimness of the hour, chuckles ran around our company, and the Captain smiled as he looked over at me. My heart gave a rather painful thump, and I smiled shyly back.
“Then Hethlin at least must ride with me. Hethlin, Mablung and Lorend. May the Valar guard and guide the rest of you. I will return as soon as I can.” And he moved among them with an arm-clasp here and a shoulder touch there, as Barathen saddled Teilyn the tall and beautiful, and the three of us he’d chosen prepared our mounts.
Arcag’s rear hoof lashed out at me as I approached, and his ugly head snaked around more than once, seeking my flesh as I saddled him. He was not one of the horses we’d brought from Minas Tirith-I’d pulled him from the burning barn of an orc-raided farm. It was said among the Rangers that the fact that the orcs themselves would have nothing to do with him, including eating him, should have been a warning to me. He was dirt brown in color and scrawny, with a skinny neck, huge head, and a ratty tail upon which little hair grew. Why he was still a stud was a mystery, though perhaps it was simply because no one could get close enough to him to geld him. Any self respecting Rohirrim would have shot him at once, and fed him to his hounds. His vices were many and his virtues few. He bucked, he reared, he bit and kicked, both people and horses, and would roll in a stream or rub you off on a tree given a moment’s chance. He was hard-mouthed, rough-gaited and surly to an extreme.
Still, he was a horse, and I’d been happy to be mounted again. And I discovered over time that he did have some good points. Arcag was strong, incredibly enduring, faster than he looked, and could live on next to nothing. And he was fearless. Orcs, large or small, he took as a personal insult, and he would bear me even right up to the side of a Mûmak, which most horses will not endure. Because the Mûmak is covered with tough and armored hide, the only way to kill one is to shoot it right in the eye, but that is difficult to do on foot, for though they are vast and mighty, they are also swift, and you have their huge feet and their noses, which they also use like great clubs, to deal with, and the trees and limbs which they trample in their passage can trip you up or fall upon you. If you can shoot well from horseback, and can find the rare horse that will close with a Mûmak, the deed becomes almost possible. Arcag and I had two Mûmak to our credit.
I slung the Haradrim short bow that had given me my battle name on my back with a full quiver of arrows, and gave Arcag a hard knee to the belly. When saddled, he always sucked in air till his belly looked like some puffer fish from Lebinnin. He oofed, and I tightened his girth swiftly, avoided the inevitable snap with a boot to his nose, and swung on. Mablung tossed me a spear, then mounted his own horse, and once the Captain and Lorend were up, the four of us set out. Behind us, Anborn called out an order and the Rangers started south down the river, trotting at a pace they could keep up for hours, and that would cover more ground than one would believe possible. We went even more swiftly in their advance, heading for the Fords of Osgiliath, from thence to cross the Pelennor Fields and make our way towards the Tower of Guard.
We walked and trotted and occasionally galloped, and only the miles unrolling beneath our horses’ feet gave indication of the passage of time, for all was dark and drear above us. Our spears we kept ready, and our eyes traveled continuously, for we were all warriors, and the same thought had occurred to us all-- that the Sun was no longer a hindrance to the Enemy’s soldiery and that there might be scouting parties even now in advance of us. When we slowed to breathe the horses, our vigilance did not slacken, but we used the opportunity to speak to one another, mostly of simple things. Mablung and Lorend talked much of what they would do after the War-the trades they would return to, the wines they’d quaff, the women left behind who would welcome them home. I thought a victory over the Dark unlikely, but their stories cheered me nonetheless. I questioned the Captain about the Halflings, wanting to know if he’d ever read or heard of anything about them before we’d encountered them, and what he thought their chances were, traveling East with that skulking creature they’d acquired. But he had little he could or would tell me.
“Other than the rhyme which came to me in my dreams, I’d never heard of them before,” Faramir said quietly. “And the rhyme was so vague that I did not know if a Halfling was a person, a monster, or some other creature. I certainly never came across any mention of them in the libraries, and Mithrandir never mentioned them during his visits. Though I have no doubt he knew all about them, and would have been just the person you should have questioned, Hethlin. And I would certainly like to have been there when you did !” His eyes suddenly twinkled, which I was very glad to see, for it had been long since there had been much of mirth about him, but then he sobered just as quickly.
“Frodo said that Mithrandir had fallen while journeying with them. That is ill news indeed, if it be true.”
“Not everyone would think so, my lord,” said I, greatly daring. It was common knowledge among the Rangers, though we did not discuss it in the Captain’s hearing, that his association with the wizard Mithrandir was a small but significant part of the estrangement between himself and his father the Steward.
“No, not everyone would,” my Captain agreed.
“Will you be the Captain-General of the armies now, my lord?”
“Yes. With Boromir absent, it falls to me to take his place.” His face grew grim as he thought once more upon the vision he’d had nearly two weeks ago, of his brother dead of many wounds, being carried in an Elven craft down Anduin to the Sea. There were those of us who thought his visions sent by the Valar themselves, while others at times wondered if they were not sent by the Enemy to torture him. Hurriedly, I sought to distract him, while at the same time easing a worry that had been in my heart of late.
“Captain what will become of the Rangers now?” Mablung and Lorend, hearing my question, pulled up even with the Captain and myself, Lorend on my side being careful not to rein his horse too close to Arcag.
“I beg your pardon?”
“What is to become of us when you become Captain-General? You will command the whole army, not just our company. What are we to do then? Will one of us become the new commander? Or will you set another over us? Place us under the command of your kinsman, the Prince? What are we to do in a siege or a frontal assault? We are forest fighters, skirmishers.”
Faramir drew rein, turned to face us. “ So many questions, Hethlin!”
“Questions that have troubled all of us, my lord,” said Mablung, while Lorend added, “She speaks for us all, Captain. We do not dream, yet we knew this day was inevitable. We have fought back the Dark with you these last few years, Captain-are we to be shunted aside at the last?”
The Captain shook his head wryly., and looked at us. “For my part, if I have any choice in the matter, I will not be parted from my men...my soldiers,” he added with a glance at me. But anything I say may be overruled by my father, the Steward. Should he leave the decision to me, I will find armor for you all, and keep you close by me. For if this is to be the final battle against the Dark, and our destiny is to fall beneath it, then I ask no better death than the one I will find in the company of my Rangers, though even now some small corner of my heart refuses to lose hope. And as for how you will fight-I think you will find, Hethlin, that though this battle will be a different sort than you are used to, a fell warrior such as yourself will be as useful on the walls or in the fields of Minas Tirith as you were beneath the trees of Ithilien. A good archer always has a place, in any army.”
Mablung, Lorend and I all looked at one another and grinned, for we were all somewhat more than merely good archers, and we were greatly reassured that the Captain did not mean to leave us to another commander. Faramir merely smiled in acknowledgment, said, “Rangers, we have some miles yet to cover,” and signaled us to the gallop once more.
We crossed the Fords, passed the Rammas and entered the Pelennor Fields. Sunset was nigh, but I knew it more from the feel of the air than anything else, since the cloud cover had reached so far to the west. It looked as if we might actually see the Sun peep out from the clouds right before it set, and I was looking forward to even such a brief sight of it. As we drew near to the Gate, we urged the horses on once more, and they, sensing an end to their journey and that their suppers were near, surged forward with renewed energy.
They came when we were a scant half mile from the Gate. I felt them before I saw them. The short hairs on the nape of my neck stood up first, then it felt as if icy water was pouring down my back. One of them cried out, a call so full of malice and triumphant evil that it drained the very strength from my bones, leaving me clinging trembling and nauseous to Arcag’s saddle. A dark shadow swooped over me, and the downdraft from a pair of mighty wings nearly choked me, so foul was the stench that it carried. If someone had taken the reek of a battlefield, unburied and left for a week in the sun, and concentrated it, it still would not have been as bad as that smell.
My vision dimmed, and I swayed in the saddle. I heard horses screaming. Arcag made a funny sort of protesting squeal, pinned his ears back, took the bit in his teeth, and bolted. I could only hope that he was headed for the Gate, for I had not the strength to control him, or any way of telling where he was going. Another of the monsters screamed, but along with it another noise arose-Lord Faramir was sounding his horn. Whether he sounded it to call help from the Tower, or to rally us to him mattered not at all. Clear and silvery the call rose into the dark, and the sound of it put heart into me. My Captain was alive and well, and as usual, he’d kept his wits about him. If I could but reach him, I’d be all right too...I took the bit back from Arcag and urged him in the direction I’d heard the horn.
The creatures turned and came back around. How many were there? I couldn’t tell. Four or five perhaps-at least one for each of us. Their hides seemed like that of the Mûmak; thick and knobbed, they would be as difficult to penetrate with blow or dart as armor. Their vast wings were featherless and pinioned, more like those of a bat-or a dragon, if one could believe the descriptions of legend. I could not bring myself to look higher, at the black-robed forms that rode them, for they were simply too horrible and my eyes refused to fasten upon them.
As the monsters swooped low the second time, Mablung and Lorend’s horses, maddened beyond reason, threw them off and ran screaming into the darkness, while scoundrel Arcag bore me still, his breath coming in great, rasping wheezes. I started to rein back, Arcag slinging his head in protest, to return to the others. I could barely see a tall shape ahead that must have been Faramir, still mounted on Teilyn, who was snorting and shuddering in terror, but turning under her master’s direction, back under the black wings, back to his fallen men.
“Fly, my lord, fly!” I screamed. “Go on to the Gate! We’ll follow as we can!”
“Yes, Captain, you must leave us!” Mablung cried in turn. “They must not take you!”
Mablung was back on his feet and making his way over to Lorend, who was wavering on his knees, when one of the things stooped on him. He threw himself upon his fellow Ranger, knocking him flat as the creature passed over, missing them. Two of the vile horrors swooped down upon the Captain, who drew his sword, faintly glimmering in the dark, and smote at them as they passed. Cursing under my breath , I sought to spur to the Captain’s aid when Arcag leapt sideways of a sudden, screaming. He was not quite fast enough to dodge the creature that stooped on us from behind.
The aura of fear the things carried with them beat loured about me as it passed overhead, its putrescent belly gleaming. I bent low over Arcag’s neck, gasping and retching, and felt a giant claw rake a line of fire across my scalp. I shrieked, there was a downbeat of giant wings, and the serpentine tail of the creature lashed across Arcag’s head, but a hands breath before my face. There was a cracking sound as it impacted his skull, and he pitched forward, dead before he hit the ground. Stiff with the terror the things inspired, I was thrown over his head, and it was only by the merest lucky chance that I landed mostly on my side and shoulder, and didn’t break an arm, or my head or neck as well.
The fall knocked most of the breath from my body, and for a few moments I simply lay there, my hands digging into the earth as if to gain purchase. I was weeping, and pressed my face into the grass and dirt, and wished I could simply dig a deep hole, crawl into it, and bury myself to escape these awful things. Hoof beats approached, I felt them through the ground, then I heard the roar of Teilyn’s breath beneath the thunder of the wings, and my Captain’s voice, calm as if we were trading tales after a quiet supper in Henneth Annun.
“Up with you, Hethlin, it’s time to go, and I have need of you. Can you walk?”
Had he called to me in that voice from the depths of the Sea, or a tall mountain’s height, or the heart of Mordor itself, I would have come. Trembling, I rolled up onto my knees, and from thence to my feet. Looking up at him, I could see that he was shuddering despite the calm of his voice, his eyes fixed on the sky and his sword at the ready. Mablung and Lorend were running up.
“Aye, my lord, I can walk.”
“Can you run then, Hethlin? For I really think we need to leave this place.” I could dimly hear, off in the distance, horns blowing calls of alarm and even the faint shouts of the guards on the walls.
“Aye, my lord, I can run as well.” And run I did, somewhat shakily with Mablung and Lorend, not the distance lope of a Ranger on a long journey, but a flat-out sprint towards the Gate. As I ran, I unslung my bow from my back , and groped in my quiver for an undamaged arrow, for I could hear the creatures returning, and something else as well-a deep voice crying out in a language I did not understand. With my face averted from them, and Faramir at my side, some measure of calm had returned to me. I did not know if I would be able to shoot if I turned to face them again, but I knew that I would have to try...now, for the loud beating of wings indicated they were upon us.
They’re tough of hide, like a Mûmak, I thought to myself. No use shooting the belly or flanks. The eye’s a possible target, but it’s small and surrounded by bony ridges. The mouth, when it opens, or the base of the wing or leg where they join the body-the armor may be thinner there.
I stopped, turned, and knocked arrow to bow. Out of the corner of my right eye, I saw a white glow from which the deep voice seemed to emanate, and for some reason it heartened me-till I looked up upon my foe, and the horror came upon me again threefold. For I finally crossed the glance of one of the Riders, and though it had no eyes, or even face, that could be seen beneath the dark hood, yet the malevolence of its regard turned my very bones to ice. My fingers trembled upon the string, I dropped the arrow, and it seemed to me that I could hear a hissing, mocking laughter as it dived upon my lord.
Then, much to my surprise, something deep in the core of me awoke again, perhaps same stubbornness that had kept me alive when my family had been slain, perhaps something else. For my parents had been Dunedain of the North, and the deep part of me seemed almost to recognize an ancient enemy. With steady hands I set another arrow to the string, and drew. Having no magic arrows, or Elven bow, I had the feeling my shot would be wasted against the Rider, so I chose my target and released at its flying mount with a shout of “Elbereth!”.
And as I cried that name, and my arrow sped towards its target, lightning seemed to crackle up from the ground to attack another Rider, one that seemed to be attacking the source of the light. The lightning struck the other Rider, while my arrow thudded into the base of the wing of the beast I had selected, just in front of its Rider’s leg.
The Rider the lightning had struck wailed in dismay, and broke off the attack. The beast I had shot staggered in the air, then joined it, flapping raggedly, along with three others. Calling their dire calls, they spiraled up into the darkness and disappeared. Faint cheers rang out from the walls of Minas Tirith, and men from the City began to pour out to meet us.
The light brightened and intensified, and I turned as the source of it rode forward to meet my lord. An old man he seemed, dressed all in white, long of beard and tall of hat, riding without saddle or bridle the most beautiful stallion I had ever seen. But something told me he was no dotard-the light seemed to come from him and shine through him, and he bore both sword and staff with the air of one who knew how to use them. Therefore, I was unsurprised when I heard how Faramir addressed him.
“Mithrandir! All unlooked for, you are well come in a dark hour!” Relief was apparent on my lord’s face.
“Timing, Lord Faramir, is one of a wizard’s greatest gifts.” The wizard’s eyes, set deep under bushy eyebrows, still glinted dangerously with the fire of battle as he reached to clasp arms with Faramir.
“You have gifts more than mere timing, I think. I had heard that you were slain.” Just for a moment, Mithrandir looked surprised; then he suppressed it with the air of one who does not like it known that he’s been surprised.
“The teller of that tale was in error. But I would know who told it to you.”
“And I will tell you, Mithrandir. But not here, not now.” Guardsmen from the City were surrounding us, calling the names of my lord and Mithrandir. “We should get within the walls.”
“Indeed. Your father awaits your coming with much impatience.” The magnificent stallion began walking toward the Gate, and Teilyn fell in beside him. The three of us followed, occasionally having to push our way through the crowd which parted for the two of them, but then pressed inwards in the wake of their passage. There was much shouting and cheering-the people of the City were acting as if some great victory had been achieved. But I knew that there was no victory, that the four of us had been brought alive from under the wings of death only because of the chance-met presence of the wizard. The wound in my scalp burned, and I could feel the blood soaking into the neck of my tunic. The two riders dismounted at the Gate, and men took their horses to well-deserved rest in the stables of the lower circle. I thought of poor, brave, ugly Arcag, food for the ravens on the Pelennor now, and my eyes misted. We passed into Minas Tirith.
As we entered under the gate-arch, to our amazement we saw yet another. Another Halfling, this one clad in the livery of the Tower. When Faramir asked from whence he came, Mithrandir said he had come with him, and that they had much to talk about and do. It seemed more and more unlikely that the Captain would get much rest this evening. Mithrandir commanded the Halfling to accompany us, as he was apparently in the Steward’s personal service and due back on duty. Mablung, Lorend and I all looked at each other, trying to imagine what use the formidable Lord Denethor could make of this Pippin, as the wizard had named him. Pippin for his part seemed to admire my lord, which made me kindly disposed towards him immediately. I deemed him younger than Frodo, more of an age with Frodo’s manservant Samwise, and therefore full-grown, though he seemed the veriest child in dress-up armor as he hurried along beside the wizard. But when he turned once to look back at us as we took the upwards road, his eyes were troubled and shadowed though his smile was sweet, and I knew that, unlikely though it seemed, this one had seen battle and was a warrior in truth.
“Where are they all coming from?” Lorend whispered to me, and I could but shrug, having no answer.
I’d been to the White City several times before on courier duty, but I’d never liked it. Born and raised in Anorien, having lived and fought in Ithilien, I was a child of the Wild and the walls of the City seemed to close in around me as we passed beneath the Gate. I was dizzy and the ache in my head increased, the wavering torches in the street caused my eyes to see strange things, and though the fear and horror caused by the Riders had passed, it had left a heavy, hollow place within me, a despair. It dragged at me as we ascended the road to the Citadel, and I found myself walking more and more slowly as the way became more steep. Mablung it was who noticed that I had fallen behind, and dropped back to steady me with a hand to my elbow.
“Hethlin, what is wrong? Have you taken some hurt?”
I passed my hand before my eyes to clear them. “It’s nothing. Merely a scalp wound. Bled enough already to clean it, I think. Don’t trouble the Captain with it, please, Mablung. We’ll dress it as soon as we get to the barracks.”
“You should have told me you were injured, “ he chided as he walked at my side.
“There was no time then, Mablung, and it’s of little consequence now. A small thing, easily mended.”
”We shall see about that.” His eyes followed the trail of blood down my shoulder up to its point of origin, and he cursed softly and fluently, in the language of our people with occasional interjections of Rohirrim, a rolling, earthy tongue well-suited to such a use. Lorend waited for us to catch up, was told the story, then took my other arm. Up ahead, the wizard and the Captain were deep in conversation, Pippin at their side.
Before we entered into the Citadel proper, I shook my two supports off, and hissed at them, “Say nothing of this! You know the Lord Denethor-he’ll keep Lord Faramir on his feet half the night like an erring child, questioning all his actions, berating him for what he cannot help-that he is not more like his brother Boromir. He’ll get no rest at all if he is worried for any of us.” Unhappily, they agreed, though Mablung made me promise that if, when he examined the wound, he felt it beyond his ability (most Rangers had some basic leech-craft, but his skill was much greater and it was not the first time he’d sewn a wound for me), that I would send for a healer from the Houses of Healing, or allow myself to be taken there.
Pippin ran off to attend to the Lord soon as we passed the door. Servants came to Faramir, and he gave them orders regarding us. He spoke with Mablung ere he left with Mithrandir to see the Steward.
“I have housed you in guest quarters in the Citadel tonight, rather than the Guard barracks, for I do not know what my further orders will be, and I want you near to hand. I would serve you all the best feast on the City if I could-but I am told that food is strictly rationed now that we expect a siege. I have arranged for hot baths and clothing and such armor as they can find. Rest you well.” He turned and started to walk away, then paused, turning back to us with a weary smile.
“Oh, and one more thing. Hethlin? That was a shot to sing of.”
I watched him leave with a face glowing suddenly red and hot as Mount Doom. My comrades in arms chuckled cruelly as we followed one of the Citadel’s servants to our chambers.