After the gate had closed behind me, and I’d caught my breath, I looked about the courtyard and spied Damrod. He looked me up and down as I came over.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Just a cracked rib. How’s Lorend?”
He waggled his hand. “Could go either way. Slashed to the bone he was. He’s with the fort surgeons now.”
“Do you need me on the wall?”
“In a bit perhaps. Go see to the lad-it will make him feel better. And give us news of him and any other Rangers when you return.” I nodded, and went off in search of the surgery, which I found by simply following a stretcher. The smell of blood was thick in the air, as were the cries and groans of the wounded, but it was no worse than a battlefield, and I went in cautiously so as not to step on anyone, but without hesitation.
Lorend was already in the hands of the surgeon, who was cleansing and sewing his wound. He was groaning quietly through clenched teeth and his hands were tight on the stretcher, but he ceased making noise when I arrived, or perhaps I should say he ceased groaning.
“Ah Hethlin, tell me the truth, I can take it. Is my beauty marred?”
“Your beauty? You’re a fine one to be talking about your beauty when poor Anborn’s over there waiting to get his cheek sewn up.”
“Oh, that’s an improvement for him. It will make him look sinister and dashing. Maybe the girls will look at him now.” Anborn, the best archer in the Company and a man of somewhat grim humor, snorted and then winced.
“Well, judging from how this is placed, you have less to worry about your beauty, and more about your future offspring. Which just proves that great good can come even from great evil.”
“Hethlin, you are cruel! Almost as cruel as-ow!-this fellow! Hold my hand, please?” he gasped suddenly, and I did. He squeezed my hand with great force for a while, then finally swooned, after which the surgeon’s job was much easier. I sat with him till the surgeon was done, then asked the man if he thought he’d heal. He had little more to say than Damrod had done.
“He is young, and strong, but he’s lost much blood. And something there is here which seems to sap the strength of the wounded. I think it is some working of that fell creature that captains the black army. If we can get him to the City, he should have a chance. We have wains ready to carry the wounded. I must find the time to speak to Captain Faramir about when he wants to send them. Is he still well?”
“He was but a short time ago.”
“Well, may the Valar protect him then. And us all.”
“Aye to that indeed.” I spoke to Anborn then, and learned that he and Lorend were the only wounded, but that we’d lost three more Rangers. Since the surgeons were very busy, I helped pass water out among the wounded before I returned to the wall. The surgeon who’d tended Lorend gave me a grateful wave as I left. Another important rule of war-always get on the healers’ good side. You never know when you’ll need them.
Sitting down for any length of time had been a bad idea, I discovered as I made my way back to the battle. Every muscle in my body had stiffened, and I was knuckling sleep from my eyes. I paused to give Damrod the report he’d requested, then made my way up onto the ramparts. The Enemy, for whatever reason, was hanging back at present, and we were merely making a cordial exchange of arrows. Mablung was there, overseeing the archers.
“How’s the lad, then?” he asked, as he tossed me a full quiver.
“Still with us. The surgeon couldn’t tell me aye or nay.” I unslung the black bow from my shoulder and strung it, grimacing as my rib twinged.
“Well, let’s hope it’s aye then. Here you go. Shoot three quivers, and make them count, then go get your supper.” He tossed another quiver to one of the City archers, then yelled down into the courtyard for the gleaners to pick up the pace.
“Anborn’s going to have a scar on his face.” I nocked, moved to the wall and drew.
“Did they get an eye?”
“No.” I waited, looking for my target. My rib was still aching, but at least it was a change from the headache.
“Then it’s probably an improvement.” There it was, a dark spot in the wavering torchlight, the orbit of an eye beneath the brow of a helm belonging to an orc in the first rank. I loosed, and the orc threw up his arms and fell backward. Some time passed and I had knocked, drawn and loosed five more times before Mablung came back over and spoke again. Four more orcs had died, and the one who hadn’t wasn’t going to be swinging a sword anytime soon.
“Heth. Have a care you don’t aim too high.” I was searching for orc number six.
“Oh Mablung, it was only the one. The others went right where I wanted them.” Orc number six died.
“That’s not what I’m speaking of. I’ve been a Ranger long enough to know what direction the wind’s coming from.” He gestured to an archer to leave the wall, and another took his place. “Heth, he’s a prince in all but name!”
I drew again, and waited my chance, but my cheeks began to burn red. “Mablung, you know not of what you speak. The Lord Faramir is my Captain and my friend. But if I were inclined in such a way, then know this-my father was an archer too, and he taught me that if you must choose between high and low, then choose to aim high. Aim high, and even if you miss your target, you may hit something in the second rank. Aim low, and miss, and you hit naught but earth.” My arrow sang as it went and another orc fell; not dead, but he’d be running no races.
“Did your father warn you that when you aim high, you can be blinded by the sun?” My next arrow went wide.
Mablung grunted. “I thought not. Sharpen up, Heth. Three quivers. And that’s the last I’ll speak of this, girl.” And he moved down the wall to chastise a sloppy shooter. I got through my three quivers, but did myself no credit. But then, it’s hard to shoot in the dark, by torchlight, with tired arms and eyes that keep blurring for no good reason.
I was at my supper when the Black Captain finally sent his troops forward against the wall. But there was not enough room on the ramparts for everyone, and I had finally reached my limit. So I sat down against a wall in the courtyard, chewing my food mechanically, listening to the roar of battle, and watching the occasional black arrow hiss into the courtyard. Then I fell asleep.
“Hethlin! Hethlin, wake up!” The place I was in was grey, and not very pleasant, but it was easier to stay there than make the terrible effort required to wake up. But the voice was persistent, and after a time was joined by a hand roughly shaking my shoulder.
“Could she have taken a wound somewhere?” another voice asked. “Is she dead?”
“No, not dead. Just weary like the rest of us,” said the first voice, which I now recognized, though it sounded a bit strange. The hand became even more vigorous, and my head banged against the wall, which bumped my wound. The pain drove the last vestiges of sleep away wonderfully well.
“If you don’t stop that, Anborn,” I groaned, “I’ll mark your other cheek for you.”
There was a snort of satisfaction. Anborn was a man of few words but many snorts.
“See, not dead at all. And still ready to fight.” The strangeness, I realized, was because he was speaking very carefully so as not to tax his wounded cheek. I scrubbed at my face clumsily, and opened my eyes. Anborn was hunkered down next to me, proffering a cup of water. Therin, one of our newer Rangers who’d come to the Company a year ago, was standing close by, watching with concern. Anborn looked up at him.
“Get you on out to the wains, and stand watch. Some of them may have come over the wall further down.” Therin nodded, and departed. I took the cup from Anborn, and drank deeply, suddenly realizing how thirsty I was.
“What’s the time?” I asked, finally pausing to take a breath.
“Somewhat past midnight by the air.”
“You let me sleep that long?”
“There wasn’t any ‘let’ about it, Hethlin. You were tucked away behind this barrel here, and Therin only noticed you about five minutes ago.”
“Oh, marvelous. You’re all fighting, and I’m back here snoring.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know what time you came off the wall. You’ve had no more than most.” He gave me a hand up. “And in a much less comfortable place. You know, there is a guardhouse. With blankets, even.”
I stretched. Stiff was not the word. I stretched again. “This was not my idea. It just happened.”
“It does, sometimes.” Anborn nodded agreement.
“What’s going on?”
“They’re still pressing us at the wall, but the Captain thinks something’s up. Some of them seem to have left for other parts. So we’re loading the wains with the wounded now, and getting them out while we can. I think the wizard’s going with the wains so the Captain can keep all his men here.” For Anborn, this was quite a speech.
“Where do you need me?” I picked up my bow and quiver, which were leaning against the wall.
“The Captain said something about needing you and Mablung a-horse later, so go see if you’ve still got that one the Prince gave you, and get him ready. Check on the Captain’s and Mablung’s too, while you’re about it. Then come back, and we’ll find something else for you to do. By the way, they’re giving out bread and ale over there.”
As ordered, I went to where the bread and ale was being distributed, got some and headed over to the stables. The Captain’s horse was already prepared, so I got Mablung’s mount and my own ready-after a brief tussle over possession with a couple of the City guard, who found our Dol Amroth horses preferable to the mounts they’d been issued. The dark bay, conscious of his superiority, demanded and got half my bread. It seemed only fair to give the other half to Mablung’s horse. I drank the ale, and stepped out the back gate to see if I could say goodbye to Lorend. There were many wains there, filled and overfilled with wounded men. It looked as if the loading was finished. Surgeons were making a final round, then mounting their seats. Mithrandir sat glowing nearby atop his wonderful stallion, talking to Lord Faramir. I found Lorend in the sixth wain, but he was sleeping or unconscious, so I merely tucked his blanket in around him, and said a little prayer to the Valar for his protection. I’d barely finished when the Captain gave the order, and the wains rumbled forward, Mithrandir riding at their side.
Faramir watched them go for a few moments, then turned, and gave me a tired smile.
“Good morrow, Hethlin. How was he?”
“I couldn’t tell, my lord. Asleep, I think. Which puts him ahead of his commander, from the look of things.” The Captain threw up his hands in mock supplication.
“Mercy, Hethlin, mercy if you please! I have an excuse.”
“Which is?” I inquired grimly with my hands on my hips. He gave me a very serious look, and when he replied, it was with the utmost gravity.
“There were no good barrels on my side of the fort.” I groaned, and he chuckled.
“You saw me there, and just let me sleep like that?”
“Had I been the one behind the barrel, wouldn’t you have done the same?” He clapped me gently on the shoulder, and we walked back inside. “Let’s see if we can’t give the wains a chance to get away. If we can just hold until dawn, I think that will be enough of a start for them.”
“My lord, we are within the fort, and the Enemy are without. Why do you believe we can only hold until dawn?”
“Because I think they’re going to grow tired of playing with us soon, and scale the wall away from the fort, and so come in behind us. They may already be on the Pelennor, but so far the Rangers I’ve sent out have found nothing.” He paused to stretch and yawn for a moment. “Did Anborn tell you I wanted your horse ready?”
“Aye, my lord. It’s done, mine and Mablung’s. They’d already saddled yours.”
“Good. We’re going to need all the horsemen we can get today.” He paused, and took my hands in his. “Be well. Be careful. The Valar protect you, Hethlin. I’ll see you later.” He gave my hands a squeeze, turned and walked swiftly away. I went to see if I was needed on the wall.
Lord Faramir was right about the Enemy’s intention, but wrong about its execution. The Black Captain did nothing so subtle as send soldiers sneaking over the wall. At dawn, in a display that was intended to daunt and dismay us, he blew great breeches in it at many points. Whether he used sorcery, or some vile concoction of Sauron’s, none were ever able to tell. And it didn’t really matter, for however he had done it, he made it necessary for us to abandon the Causeway Forts unless we wished to be surrounded and ultimately overwhelmed.
The noise of the blasts was deafening, and the shock of them threw the unready to the ground. Men cried out in fear, horses screamed, horns sounded the alarm, and commanders started ordering their troops to evacuate according to the plan determined upon by the captains. The foot was to go out with the archers in their midst, while the horse stayed close to hand, ready to lend support wherever needed. Despite bone-deep exhaustion, the host assembled and moved out swiftly, knowing that great numbers of orcs and Southrons were even now pouring through the breeches.
I made certain I had a full quiver, then went and mounted my horse. Mablung was with me, and he held Faramir’s mount. The foot had gone out the gate, but the cavalry held there waiting, and the Captain did not come.
“Have you seen him?” I called to the captain of horse, who was just now mounting himself.
“He’s in the surgery,” he called back. Mablung’s eyes widened in some sort of realization and he uttered a curse and started to dismount, but I was faster and tossed him my reins.
“Heth, damn it all, let me-”
“I’ll be right back!” There was another boom, closer this time, and Mablung had his hands full with three suddenly skittish horses, and had to desist. I heard him mutter “They’re just playing at it now, curse them!” as I pelted off. I was halfway to the surgery when I realized that I’d apparently become used to the hauberk, that I was running at full speed without thinking about the weight.
“Captain! My Lord! We must leave now!” I was calling as I came, and running so fast I almost skidded past the doorway. I caught myself against the jamb, looked into the room and froze.
Faramir was standing in the doorway, and blood dripped from a blade he held in his hand, and tears were streaming down his face. And he spoke to me in a voice I’d never heard from him before, a voice of deepest, coldest anger, a voice that froze me to the bone.
“Hethlin, why come you here? Get you from this place at once! Get to the horses and bide there till I come!”
I looked past him into the room and saw men, deathly wounded men and saw that some of them were new slain and I knew what had happened. These were the men so sorely wounded that they would not have survived the trip across the Pelennor. We could not take them with us, and he would not leave them to possible torment and defilement at the Enemy’s hands, so he granted them the only mercy he could. He saw the direction of my glance, and his expression grew even darker.
“Did I not give you an order, you disobedient wretch?” he snarled. “ Get you to the horses!”
Fear of his disapproval had always been greater for me than fear of death, and I trembled for a moment beneath his wrath. But then my own anger rose up to meet his.
“There is nothing you can tell me about fates worse than death, Faramir of Gondor!” I snarled back at him. We were almost nose to nose. “If you have somewhat to do here, then be about it, and I will bide here and guard till you be finished! But be swift! You endanger the living by lingering!” He jerked a bit in surprise, then turned on his heel and went back into the room without a word. I stood with my back to the doorway, sword in hand, and waited, tears in my eyes. There was very little sound-a quiet whispered prayer and once perhaps a sob-and it did not take long. He returned, and we ran to the horses silently. He said nothing to me, but to Mablung he promised, “We will speak of this later.”
Mablung looked at me and frowned, and I frowned back at him, lifting my chin, and the captain of horse frowned and gave the order to ride out. There was another explosion close to hand, and we could dimly hear the mocking voices of our foes upon the wind as we left the Causeway Forts.