The rooms to which Lord Denethor’s servants brought us were in the lower part of the Citadel, and probably meant for the servants of dignitaries, but they seemed wondrous to me. There was a bedroom with two large beds, a sitting room with a fireplace in the center, and a third room on the other side, bustling with people bringing hot water to fill a bath. Mablung told Lorend to take his turn first, took a ewer of hot water and towels from one of the servants, and requested some sewing supplies. When they arrived, he set me down in front of the fire and cleaned and stitched my wound.
“’Tis not so small a matter as you said, Heth,” he said after he’d set several stitches, “It’s a dagger’s blade in length, and down to the bone here and here.” I merely grunted assent, dug my fingers into my breeches legs and tried not to swoon.
“I’ve had to cut some hair away to do this.”
“I’m not so fair that that will mar me much, Mablung,” I growled, then yelped, as having finished the stitching, he started to sponge the wound with something that burned like fire.
“What in the name of the Valar is that!”
“That, my fine Ranger, was some very good brandy that I was saving for a happier occasion than this. I didn’t get a really good look at those things (in fact, I was trying not to!), but they looked more like carrion-eaters than anything else. And you know the old saying-’Foul the bite of those who eat meat first-’”
“’-From those who eat it last, the wound is worse.’ “ I finished for him. By all means then, clean it as much as you like. Just remember, you’re supposed to be helping me save my hide, not scrubbing it off!”
“He’d be doing us a service if he scrubbed his own hide a bit instead,” said Lorend, who came back through the door looking damp and tousled, a towel around his shoulders, wearing a clean shirt and breeches and carrying some more clothing over his arm.
“There is all manner of clothing in there, even some boots and cloaks. Help yourselves to whatever fits, and get a couple of changes. I don’t think I’ll ever see my saddlebags again, my horse must be halfway to Harad, and you won’t get yours back either. The Captain told them to give us whatever we needed.” He hooked a chair over near the fire with his foot, sat down and began toweling his hair with a grin.
“Which is a good thing, when you think about it. I am a Ranger of Ithilien, and have spent years in the field, giving my all day after day for Gondor. I have needs.”
Mablung and I looked at each other with pained expressions. “You’ll need Mithrandir himself to protect you if you splashed water all over the floor, boy,” he growled, and got up to go into the bath room. Then he stopped. “I’m sorry, Heth. Do you want to go next?”
I started to shake my head, then stopped because it pained me. “No, I need to sit here a little while first.” A chill had come upon me, and the warmth of the fire felt very good on my back. Mablung went into the bath room and closed the door. Lorend looked over at me, and gave me a concerned smile.
“Is all well with you now, Heth?”
“Aye, Lorend. There’s none in the Company sews better than Mablung. Like a fine lady’s gown I feel, decorated with his fancywork.”
A knock at the door announced the arrival of our supper. To our very great surprise, given what the Captain had said, there was a roast chicken, a large bowl of stewed vegetables and potatoes, a loaf of the whitest bread I’d ever seen and a crock of butter with it, a small basket of apples and a small cheese. Three tankards and a pitcher accompanied this bounty, all borne in by a servant in the livery of the Tower, who looked down his nose as if he smelled something bad.
“Alas, we are in dark times indeed!” he grumbled as he set the table. “Chickens rare as they are, and a brace of them prepared for the Steward’s very table, for all the Captains and the Prince, and the dinner gone all cold because the Steward would question his son and that wizard when they arrived, keeping the Captains waiting, not to mention us kitchen folk. Not that it’s his job to worry about inconvenience to us, no indeed, great one that he is. I know that he has great troubles on his mind, but if he would just once pause to consider the scarcity of chickens, not to mention the rest of it, and the difficulty of setting a proper table in time of war for high lords who expect to eat well even if the world is ending...” Lorend and I looked upon him with bemusement, but he seemed to expect no reply, and continued on as if we were not there.
“Ah me, and it’s not as if he’s taught his son any better. Down the Lord Faramir comes to dinner, finally, and sits him down with the Prince Imrahil and looks upon the chickens. ‘These look very good indeed,’says he, which is kind of him since they are not what they were when they were first served, being re-warmed and all, and ‘I wonder what my men are eating this evening,’ says he, and I answer, for I’m waiting the table, ‘My lord, they are getting the best of the barracks fare, turnip stew I think it is this evening, and very good it is too,’ whereupon he says ‘I am certain they would like one of these chickens better, why don’t you send one along to them and some of the rest of this as well.’.”
The man finished setting out the dinner, pushed three chairs to the table, laid out three napkins and stood regarding us with hands on hips.
“Well, I can do naught but tell him, shameful though it is, that these are the only chickens we have ready, and the Steward has ordered us to be careful of the food, and that I’m sure his men will be just fine. Does this end the matter? Oh no. He draws his dagger, he does, and just when I’m wondering if maybe he’s been out in the woods a little too long, he skewers the chicken on his plate with his dagger and drops it back on my platter. ‘Then give them mine, and the trimmings that go with it,’ says he, and the Prince Imrahil laughs and says ‘Kinsman, since they are so dear, I will share my chicken with you!’, and there was much hilarity, and all of it at the kitchen staff’s expense. So I hope you appreciate the trouble you’ve caused, and all I can say is I’m glad the Steward had not come down when this happened, for there would have been the most dreadful row, which is most upsetting to the routine.”
He harrumphed, and started towards the door, only to turn back and favor us with a final word.
“And what I want to know is-if the Lord Faramir is so friendly with that wizard, and he wants his men to eat chicken and cake every day of the week, then why doesn’t he just have him conjure up some chickens for you? And maybe for the rest of us as well! It’s not as if we don’t have enough work to do! And little enough food to do it on! So enjoy your dinner-you’re the most fortunate soldiers in Minas Tirith this evening. You’re eating from the Steward’s own table!”
“No, my good man,” said Lorend, speaking for us all as the servant went out the door, “We’re the most fortunate soldiers in Minas Tirith because we’re Lord Faramir’s men.”
I did not feel very hungry, but I ate a chicken leg and a little of everything else, and drank more than a bit of the ale. Mablung and Lorend, however, ate manfully-no, better than manfully, like Halflings!-and left nothing to be cleaned up but sticky cups and plates and apple cores. It was the best dinner I’d had in a very long time, followed by the first truly hot, truly real bath I’d had in years, followed by the opportunity to select new, clean, plain but well-made clothing, followed by a sleep all by myself (for Mablung and Lorend shared the other bed as a matter of course) in the biggest and best bed I’d ever slept in in my whole life. And I was weary to the bone from battle. Even with the pain of my wound, I should have been able to sleep deep and dreamlessly. Why then was my rest so restless, my dreaming so dark and disturbed?
The dawn was dim and dreary, because of the deepening darkness, and we slept until breakfast was delivered. Upon waking, we found that the mess in the sitting room had been cleared silently away during the night, and that breakfast had none of the magnificence of the night-meal, being merely small loaves of bread with some smaller bit of butter, and some ale. We also found that armory had been prepared for us during the evening-the jet-black hauberks peculiar to the Tower, tabards and shields with the device of the Tree and Stars, and helms, though the last were plainer than the ones used by the Guards of the City, and had no wings. The padded coifs and tunics used beneath them were also provided, as had been a bedroll and a set of saddlebags for each of us. We spent some time washing up and packing our new belongings into the saddlebags, then began to armor ourselves.
Never had I worn a hauberk before, and no sooner had I put it on than I was ready to take it off again, for it was heavy and encumbering. I could not imagine being able to run or fight in it, and despite some extra padding Mablung placed over my wound under the coif, the helmet hurt my head. But he was unmoved by my complaints.
“Despite your youth, you are seldom foolish, Hethlin. Do not be so now! You were the one who said it-the Lord Faramir is Captain General now. He will armor all the Rangers when he can, most likely when we are forced to retreat to the City. Until then, our brethren are but lightly protected, and we are so vastly outnumbered that the Lord must cherish every one of his men, and spend them carefully as he can. So he will use the unarmored Rangers as scouts and couriers, spies and archers, harrying the Enemy’s soldiers about their flanks without directly confronting them. For used so, he will obtain the most use from them with the least losses. But he himself will be where the fighting is fiercest, for he is not a lord that leads from behind. Without armor, you would not long survive in such a fight, and he would not permit you to try. So if you wish to ride at his side, as you know you do, then let’s have an end to this foolishness!”
He smiled, and patted my shoulder to soften the sting of the rebuke, and added, “Besides, I don’t trust these City Guardsmen to look after him properly. Un-blooded they are, most of them, with no more idea about how to fight orcs or Haradrim than their grandmothers have. He needs every Ranger with him he can get! So here, let me help you with this. If you set the belt just so, it takes some of the weight from off your shoulders.”
We went in search of Faramir the third hour after dawn, and were found instead by one of the boys who remained in the City to serve as messengers.
“The Lord Faramir gives you greeting, and says that he is leaving for Osgiliath within the hour. He asks that you meet him in the first circle at the stables immediately,” the boy chirped, then bowed and ran off.
“Within the hour! Well!,” said Mablung after he’d gone. “That was quick! I thought we might be going this afternoon, or perhaps tomorrow morning. We’d best hurry.”
“The Steward drives him too hard,” I said indignantly. “How can he expect him to fight with no rest at all?”
“We may none of us have the chance to rest before long, Hethlin, unless we’re resting as do the dead,” remarked Lorend, giving a little back-country flick of the fingers as a warding against misfortune spoken of. “But I’ll warrant Lord Denethor probably did keep him up half the night with the Captains, debating strategy.”
“There’s not all that much strategy to debate,” said Mablung, quickening his steps. “The only question is, do we fight at Osgiliath, or do we not? And I’ll wager the answer is we fight. They’d not need him down there to direct a retreat without battle.”
We reached the first circle after a brisk walk which did much to lessen any stiffness that remained from the previous day’s misadventures, and found the stables bustling with men grooming and saddling horses. Whinnies and shouted orders filled the air. Our Captain was standing in the middle of the chaos, speaking with another man who looked enough like to him to be near kin, and who was clad in the finest mail I’d ever seen, almost Elvish it looked, overlaid with a blue tabard upon which a silver swan-ship sailed. A coronet encircled his helm, and gleamed with blue and white gems.
Lord Faramir was arrayed magnificently for battle as well, in jet-black mail like unto ours, but his helm was winged, and his tabard shimmered with silver threads and crystals. A long black cloak trimmed in silver fell to his heels. I had never seen him clad thusly, in the full panoply of the Steward’s Heir, and I stopped in my tracks and stared at them both, till Mablung took me by the elbow and dragged me forward.
“There you are, Hethlin, that’s your first Prince there,” he said under his breath, “That’s Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. Uncle to the Captain, and a sweet lord and doughty commander, by all accounts.”
And without further ado, he walked us up to them, bowing low first to Faramir, then to the Prince. The Captain smiled at us as we approached, but his face was pale and his eyes shadowed with weariness.
“These are my Rangers, kinsman,” he told the Prince. “Three of the best, and that is saying something, for the Ranger Company of Ithilien is filled with mighty warriors.” I found myself blushing at the praise. “Mablung of Ithilien, one of my captains.” Mablung bowed again as he was introduced, as did Lorend in his turn. “Lorend of Lossarnach. And Hethlin of Anorien, called Blackbow.” I too bowed to the Prince, who nodded graciously in turn to each of us, then started a bit in surprise as he looked at me. I was surprised in turn, for I was tall as Lorend, broad through the shoulder and slim of hip, and what small breasts I had I had bound. It was a discerning eye indeed that would pick me out to be anything but a gawky, beardless lad, but apparently the Prince had done so.
He quickly mastered his surprise, however, and said nothing of it. Instead, he asked us, with a twinkle in his eye, “How was the chicken?”
We laughed (though I felt greatly daring for doing so!), as did Faramir, and Mablung replied, “Good as a goose, Lord Prince, and more precious than one too, if you could believe the man who brought it to us.” The Prince chuckled, and gestured to a man in his livery who stood close by.
“I have told my nephew that I will provide you with horses from my remounts, for horses are almost as scarce in the City as chickens,” he said, and he smiled again. “Go with this man, and he will show you them.” We bowed once more, and did as he bade us, following the man to a section of the stables reserved for the Swan Knights of Dol Amroth.
The horse assigned to me was a beautiful creature, dark bay with a flowing mane and tail, tall and swift and like unto Teilyn, Lord Faramir’s horse, who was stabled hard by. It was said that Teilyn had been a gift to Lord Faramir from his uncle, and I could well believe it. The bay was without a doubt the finest horse I’d ever ridden in my life. His equipage too, was fair and well-made, and decorated with the swan sigil of Dol Amroth.
I took some little time to make his acquaintance, treating him with a bit of grain I’d found in a sack near the door, then I saddled him. Remembering that there were cunning fountains continuously filled with fresh water at the end of each barn, I thought that he might be thirsty, and took him around the corner to water him. He was, in fact, in need of water, and was drinking greedily when I heard voices. Faramir had come to see Teilyn, and his uncle with him.
“Rest, brave one,” I heard him tell her. There was a low nicker in response. “The master of horse says he thinks it will be several days before she’s fit to ride again,” he said to Imrahil. To have come close to such evil wore upon her as much as many battles might.”
“She is fortunate to have won free of that evil at all,” remarked the Prince, “and we will see that she is well cared for.” There was a moment’s silence, then he asked, “Faramir, did you know you have a woman riding in your troop?”
Was that a sigh, or a very quiet laugh I heard? “Since we found her on the banks of the Anduin with hardly a stitch of clothing upon her, yes, I do know that Hethlin’s a woman, Uncle. As does every man of the Company.”
“How came she to be on the banks of the Anduin, and then in your Company, with or without clothes?”
“It is a long tale, and a horrible one, and I have not the time to give you any but the gist of it. Hethlin’s mother and father were originally from Arnor, and moved south to Anorien to settle. Her father, it is said, was a Ranger of the North, and would never tell her why he left the Grey Company. Her mother was Dunedan as well. I know she fears some disgraceful secret. They lived in the Beacon Hills.”
“For long and long, she was their only child, and of a boyish bent. It pleased her father to raise her as one, teaching her bow-craft and the skills of the stalk and hunt, and the rudiments of sword-work. In short, he raised her as he would a lad being groomed to be a Ranger. In time, her mother finally produced a son, and then another daughter. The land was not the richest, nor their lives the easiest, but I gather she was happy there.”
“A deep-raiding scouting party of orcs from Mordor came upon the farm one dusk. By chance, she was out hunting, and did not return till after dark, by which time it was too late. Her father had fallen in a ring of foes, and the rest of her family were slain and being devoured by the orcs. She was captured in her turn, but being well-fed by then, they kept her alive, and force-marched her back to the Anduin.”
“I do not know if they meant to keep her as a slave, for Mordor is ever in need of such, and she is young and strong, or if it was merely more convenient to have their next meal walk with them, as an army drives cattle with them on the march. When at rest, they would sport themselves with her, (I thought I heard the Prince hiss, or draw a sharp breath) and when they traveled, they pressed her cruelly. Thus they came back to the Anduin, where they had boats hidden, and made to cross, trying for the Black Gate. By chance, we were upon the hither shore, and when the orcs came under fire, they decided to lighten their load to better their chances of escape. Into the River she went. We slew them, fished her out, and took her with us to Henneth-Annűn.”
“Why did you not then send her back to her kin, or to the City?”
“She had no kin in the South and she was too ill to move at first. For a long time, we were certain she would die, and even after we knew that she would live, her recovery took several months. Many strong men would have perished had they suffered what she did, but the Northern Dunedain, few though they are now, are hardy stock indeed. When I deemed her well enough, I told her that I was going to send her to Dol Amroth, to you.”
“Oh you did, did you?”
“I could hardly send her to my house, Uncle! Can you imagine what Father would have said?”
There was a soft chuckle. “No, I suppose you could not at that. How did she take your decree? For I notice that she never arrived in Dol Amroth.”
“She said that she had no interest in making beds or emptying chamber pots in a grand house-” I winced, but a merry laugh rang out from the Prince “- and no skills Dol Amroth could use, unless they were looking for a farmer or a hunter,” and here it was Faramir’s turn to laugh. “The Valar know she’s right about that-if I want my shirt sewn, or the dinner cooked, it’s not to Hethlin I go.” Embarrassment flooded over me, and I buried my face in the horse’s neck. “She wanted to do one of two other things-either return to her farm or join the Rangers. We had cause already to know something of her fighting ability, and Mablung insisted on a couple of the older Rangers testing her as we did all our recruits. He did so in an effort to persuade me to let her go home. She passed the test easily, and I was in fact sending her home, but then events fell out in such a way that she got involved in a skirmish and ended by joining us instead.”
“Not to teach you your business, nephew, but there’s a reason women don’t go to war.”
“There is truth in what you say, Uncle, but she had already been with us for many months before she became a Ranger, and there’d been none of that sort of trouble. She had always been most modest and proper, and the men came to look upon her as a younger sister, or daughter. And Elbereth knows she had as great a reason to seek vengeance as any of us! Greater than most, perhaps. So the Company debated it, and decided to give her a trial. And we have never regretted it. She has slain as many enemies of Gondor as any of us, and wields sword and bow featly alike. It was not to see her safely to the City that I brought her with me yesterday, it was because I needed someone at my back whom I knew I could trust not to fail me. And she did not. She kept her horse till he was killed beneath her, and she drew bow on a Black Rider of the air.”
“A great feat indeed. But I still like it not, that a young woman of such tender years should go to war.”
“War came to her first, Uncle. And truly, what difference does it make if she dies in Ithilien, or at Osgiliath, or on the Pelennor fighting with a sword? Would she be less dead if she perished in the City, or the Citadel, as all of our women will do if we fail, fighting her attackers with such womanly weapons as come to her hand? No, Hethlin has already seen the worst that war can do, and if she chooses to fight the Enemy more directly than do most women, I will not gainsay her. She may ride with me till one or both of us fall, or till she wearies of battle. And I will think myself fortunate to be in her company.”
“You know your own business best then, Faramir, and I’ll say no more about it. But have a care for yourself as well, will you? My grief for Boromir is still new-minted, and you are all that remains to remind me of Finduilas, whom I dearly loved. I would not lose you as well.” There came a chinking sound, as the two men embraced.
“I will try, Uncle, but it is hard sometimes, to strive so hard, and all in vain,” my Captain said, a ragged catch in his breath of a sudden. “I will never be what my father wishes, nor do I truly wish to be. But I would have his love, nonetheless, for myself as myself. And I do not think it will ever happen.”
A messenger came in then to tell them that Mithrandir was without and wanted speech with them. They left the stable, and I stood where I was, face still pressed into the horse’s neck, unable to move, so torn between joy at his high praise of me and pity at his plight that I knew not what to do, my heart thundering within my ribs while tears poured down my face. As a consequence, I was one of the last ones to join the soldiers who were accompanying him out to Osgiliath, and made sure to ride well back in the file, so that the wind of our passage could cool my face. We were halfway there before I’d sufficiently mastered myself to take my customary place behind him.