There is yet another rule of warfare that touches more on superstition than survival. It is said that you invite bad luck if you go into battle having failed to mend a quarrel with a sword-brother. Fate or Chance or Misfortune or whatever you want to call it, is believed to delight in striking down one half of a quarrel, leaving the survivor to suffer with regrets for the rest of his life. This is supposed to apply only to quarrels between friends, but some people take no chances. There were a couple of Rangers in the Company who absolutely loathed each other, and delighted in verbal sparring and insults whenever the occasion presented itself, though their conflict never went beyond talk-the Captain would never have stood for it. They would always make a point of very publicly mending their quarrel before a patrol or action-and resume it with renewed vigor upon their safe return, thus having the best of both worlds.
What had passed between Faramir and I was not a quarrel, and I did not think that he was truly angry. Certainly, I was not wroth with him. I knew that it was his anguish at what he had had to do that had made him speak to me in such a fashion. Anguish, and a desire to preserve what innocence he rather foolishly believed I still possessed at this point. But never before had he chastised me and never before had I defied him, and our formerly easy comradeship was out of joint. And there was no time to do anything about it.
Looking upon that day now with the clarity hindsight gives, it is very apparent to me that the only reason Lord Faramir got us almost to the Gate of Minas Tirith was that the Black Captain let him to do it. His host was too vast, and there was too much of it pouring into the Pelennor, and we were not so far ahead of them for me to believe that they couldn’t all have simply converged upon the very broad, very obvious road we were traveling and obliterated us. But obliterating us down by the Rammas, where none from the City could see and sorrow, would not have served his purpose half so well as watering the stoop of the City with the blood of the Steward’s heir and his men, using the horror of our deaths to spread despair amongst those who were holding the walls.
Perhaps part of it was that he fed on terror as well as inspiring it. When a cat seizes a mouse and wounds it, it is a foregone conclusion the mouse will die; but the swiftness and manner in which the cat dispatches the mouse determines the amount of entertainment the cat derives from its demise. I believe it suited his purpose best to allow some of us to almost reach the Gate, to believe that we were going to make it into the City, to allow us to hope before he deprived us of hope and life alike. But he didn’t need all of us, and he spent the day amusing himself by whittling our numbers down in the cruelest way possible.
Never were we allowed to rest, for there was always a force of some sort nipping at our heels. And it was always a force of a size that we could vanquish, and always once we had vanquished it and were finally pausing to draw breath and rest our arms, another force would be there in its place. They came from the right, from the left, from the rear-but they never came between us and the City. My arrows were gone by midday, and there were no more to be had, so I had to go to my sword and the shield, which I’d had no training in. However, when my life is at stake, I’m a very quick learner, and one of the things I discovered was what a boon companion a fully trained warhorse can be-he lends strength to his master’s blows, and can sometimes even savage and overbear an opponent’s horse. The dark bay of Dol Amroth saved my life at least twice and I didn’t begrudge him the breakfast I’d given him that morning the least bit.
The Black Riders were up above the clouds but ever present all day, crying their cries, casting a pall of doom and despair over us all. The day wore on, and there were fewer and fewer of us unscathed. As we had done at Osgiliath, we made them pay, and pay dearly, for every step backward we took, but we were so weary that mistakes were made and wounds were taken. I saw a City Guardsman fall where he stood without a wound upon him, from exhaustion alone, and I think he may not have been the only one. Mablung, whom the gods must have loved, bore a wicked slash up the side of his neck from a sword point, but though it was deep, it had somehow touched nothing vital and he was fit to fight. I was cut below the knee on my sword side-a vulnerable area for a horse soldier. It was not deep, but my boot was ruined, which did not improve my mood. Eventually, most everyone still living had some sort of injury, and we had some wounded that had to be carried. Our progress became slower and slower, and our foes pressed us harder and harder.
Faramir fought as one possessed, as if the survival of every man there depended upon his prowess alone. Never had he fought mounted with the Rangers, we had used our mounts only for courier duty or to ride to Minas Tirith, but watching him that day, I suddenly realized that he might actually be a better fighter mounted than afoot. And realizing that, I tried to imagine what a wonder Boromir had been, that he had been deemed the better warrior of the two of them. Anyone, orc or Southron, that came against Captain Faramir died, it was as simple as that, and he did his slaying with a dark and feyly dangerous look in his eyes.
But in the end, even Faramir couldn’t hold us all together. Overcome by terror, small bands of men would break away from the main host and flee up the main road by themselves. Sometimes we were able to intercept them and cajole or command them back into the formation and sometimes they got away. I know that some of them actually reached the City, but many more were attacked and slain within sight of us, and I suspect that many others fell prey to roving bands of the Enemy. After we were halfway up the Pelennor, and the City could actually be seen, the problem became more acute for a while, and then it stopped; for all that finally remained were the seasoned warriors, the veterans who did not have to be told that their best hope of survival lay in staying together, Rangers of Ithilien and City Guardsmen alike.
Time after time, we horsemen formed and charged upon our foes, keeping them off the foot troops. Not only were we weary, many of our horses were blown and close to foundering, but we had no choice except to spur them back into battle. One Guardsman’s horse dropped beneath him, its heart burst, but he was able to kick free and joined the foot with hardly a moment’s pause. I kept the Captain in sight, though chances of battle often separated us. We were within hailing distance of the Gate before I actually came to be riding knee to knee with him. We galloped back to the foot and turned, and set ourselves to charge once more. He looked over at me and was quite a sight-his fine livery slashed and bloodstained, his face grimed and sweaty. I was sure I looked no better.
“We’re almost there, Hethlin,” he panted. He looked almost hopeful. We could hear the people on the wall calling encouragement to us.
“Once, maybe twice more, and we’ll see them home.” I nodded, and he looked at me gravely. “I apologize for this morning. I had no cause to speak to you in such a manner, no matter what the circumstances.”
I was on his shield side, so I really couldn’t touch him, but I smiled. “There is nothing to forgive my lord, I-”
There was a great shout that drowned out what I had been going to say. All of a sudden, a vast host of orcs and Southron cavalry surged towards us, seemingly rising out of the earth itself, screaming and waving torches. Faramir turned in his saddle and called to the captain of the foot, “Go! Get you to the Gate! We will try to hold them here!” He looked at me, and I knew that the brief moment of hope was gone, and that he would spend his life here if he had to, within the very sight of his home, to see his men safe. I looked back at him, lifted my chin, tightened my grip on the reins and nodded. He ordered us to the charge once more, and we lifted into a gallop with a defiant shout.
As if odds of ten to one were not enough, with a wash of putrid air and deafening shrieks, the Black Riders fell upon us at last. I could hear the terrified screams of the men behind us, but was too busy myself to look back. My horse swerved and almost stumbled when they screamed, but we were engaged with the enemy by the time the Riders stooped, and for once they seemed not to affect our horses much. Perhaps they had some way of aiming the fear they threw off, and concentrated on our foot so as not to hamper their own cavalry, for the Haradrim seemed not to mind their presence. Our opposing forces crashed together fiercely, and the Southrons were eager for battle and hot for our blood. I saw what was undoubtedly the captain of their horse, a huge man with a great scimitar and much gold upon him. He spied that ridiculous winged helm of the Captain’s and spurred towards him, crying challenge. Both of their stallions reared as they met, bugling, then their battle dissolved into a whirl of blurring, slashing motion. Which I could not properly appreciate, as I had problems of my own.
As I have said before, I don’t remember much about battle as a rule, but I remember the arrow. I had just dispatched a cavalryman, and saw a flicker of motion up above, and my eye followed it without thought, with the long habit of one who dodges arrows for a living, and knew that that one was a concern, that it was coming close. And I can tell you, as one of the better archers in the Company of Ithilien, who has the skill to trace an arrow’s flight back to the archer so that I may kill him, that no matter what Mithrandir said about it later, that bolt fell from the sky.
It came, and I saw it come, and I fancied I heard the thud when it entered the Captain’s left shoulder, right over the rim of his shield. One horse-length away from him, I could see the surprise on his face. Then his eyes rolled back in his head, his sword fell from his open hand, and he pitched backward over his horse’s rump. The Southron captain cried out in triumph and spurred his horse forward to trample his foe. I drove my heels into the bay, and we rammed into the shoulder of his horse, momentarily deflecting him. He snarled in anger, and then I found out just why he was captain of his company. His scimitar snapped out, fast as the serpent on their standards, and crashed against the right side of my head. My helm saved me from death, but my ears rang, my vision dimmed for a moment, and my cheek was cut to the bone. The back-blow was just as fast and came in onto my left shoulder, and I managed to get my shield up and partially block it, or it would have been broken. He finished me, or so he thought, with a shield bash that had all his considerable strength behind it. I felt myself blacking out, going limp, sliding from the saddle, and fought it, fought it desperately, for a man down on the battlefield is a man as good as dead.
I lost my horse, but kept my sword, and fell, as chance would have it, across Faramir’s legs. He groaned. I shook my head to drive the darkness back, saw above me a looming shadow, and struck up from my knees, no style, no thought, just desperation and survival instinct. His horse screamed, slashed across the chest, and shied back, and I screamed back, all rage and fear, and staggered to my feet. The weight of the shield was agony to my bruised shoulder, so I dropped it, and went for my long knife as he came back in.
He thought he had me. I could tell from the evil smile on his face and the mockery in his voice as he taunted me in Southron. But now it was the sort of battle I understood, Ranger versus Haradrim, and I was Hethlin Mumak-Slayer. I let him come at me, and took his swing against my ribs. I felt a couple break, but my armor held, and I moved into him, dropped my sword, and jumped up, clamping onto his sword arm with my right hand. He grunted in surprise and tried to throw me aside, and he was strong enough to lift me off my feet, armor and all. But I held fast, and when he did, I screamed with fury and pain and drove my knife into his armpit.
With an astonished look, he toppled soundlessly towards me, and I jumped back and let him fall, and swept up my father’s sword. Then I stood athwart my lord’s body, and slashed at anything that came near us, horse or orc or man, frantic to keep hooves and blades away from him, blood and tears pouring down my face. “Ithilien! Ithilien to me!” I called desperately, weeping, and it seemed that I heard Mablung calling “Heth! Hold on! By the Valar, you hold on girl, I’m coming!” And then I heard something else, a roaring sound that was distant at first but grew in volume rapidly, the thunder of many hooves, and many voices all crying, “Amroth for Gondor! Amroth to Faramir!” Then suddenly, I was surrounded by what seemed to be a wave of blue and silver, and it grew and crested and swept all my enemies away. And since the wave seemed to have matters in hand, and I was sick and dizzy and very, very tired of fighting, I wiped my blades on my cloak, sheathed them, and sat down beside my lord. I pulled his head onto my lap and patted myself to see if I could find something to staunch his wound, for I knew it needed tending, but I could find nothing, and that upset me, so I started weeping afresh.
So they found me, Mablung and the Prince Imrahil, with my tears falling on his face, and my hand stroking his black hair. And because I was weeping, they were afraid at first that he was dead, but then they saw that he still breathed. The Prince approached me as slowly and carefully as one might approach a wounded animal.
“Hethlin, isn’t it? May I see to him?” His voice was kind, and soothing, and I looked up and nodded. He knelt beside me, and looked up at the two of his knights who accompanied him personally. There were more of them forming a perimeter, a wall of blue and silver about us.
“Bandages, Liahan. Esteven, find the Ranger a horse. We must be about this quickly, for the sortie cannot go far.” Bandages were produced (apparently to be a Swan Knight was to be prepared), and Imrahil prodded carefully around the arrow for a moment. He looked at me encouragingly.
“Ah, this is not so bad. Not in very deep, and it’s touched nothing important. Here, you hold his hands while I draw it out.” I did as he directed, and he broke the shaft off, then pulled the mail back from Faramir’s shoulder, reached under it, grasped the remainder of the arrow, and quickly withdrew it. Faramir jerked, and gasped, and his eyes fluttered open for a moment. His eyes slid across my face, then his uncle’s and a little comprehension returned.
“Uncle. My men?” his voice was a whispering croak. Imrahil was packing a wad of bandages against his wound, staunching it.
“They’re going in the Gate now. You got them home, lad. You did just fine.”
“Good.” He looked back at me. “Heth.” It was the first time he’d ever called me as Mablung did. I smiled down at him.
“Yes, my lord?”
“So you already said, my lord.” He said nothing in reply, but seemed comforted by this. I lifted his body up a bit, so the Prince could bind the wadding into place by wrapping a bandage over the outside of his mail. He groaned, and his eyes went dark, and he whispered, “The king. I see the pale king.” Then he lapsed back into unconsciousness. The Prince looked at me, puzzled.
“Do you know what he speaks of?”
“No, lord prince.” But something nagged at my mind, told me I should know. I was shuddering now, long slow shudders that I couldn’t control, but I’d stopped weeping, and was slowly regaining command of myself. Mablung stepped to my side, and Esteven returned, bringing with him as chance would have it, my very own dark bay, who had stayed close to hand. Someone brought the Prince’s horse as well, and he stood, and indicated that Liahan and Mablung should lift up Faramir. We heard a horn from the City sounding the retreat, and Imrahil said, “We must make haste.” So he mounted his horse, and indicated that they should hand Faramir up to him, which they did. Then the knights mounted theirs, and Mablung looked at me.
“Do you need some help, Heth?” I looked up at the height of the saddle, took a deep breath, felt the stab of my ribs, and the ache in my shoulder, and nodded. “Yes. Please.” So he came over and gave me a leg up, then mounted his own horse. I straightened up as best I could, and we set out for the Gate. The foot preceeded us, in command of themselves once more, stepping proudly, then our horse, then the Swan Knights, then two grubby Rangers of Ithilien flanking the Prince of Dol Amroth. The crowds cheered them wildly, as well they should have-there had been such valor and bravery over the last two days as was well worth many a song. But their joy turned into dismay as they saw that the Prince bore Faramir before him, and cheers turned into wails. The wails reverberated strangely about the stone walls of the City, and reminded me of something.
“The Riders,” I croaked. “What happened to the Black Riders?” The Prince looked at me, surprised.
“Mithrandir rode before us, and drove them away. Did you not see him?”
“No.” I paused, and thought about it for a moment. “No, I don’t remember him at all.”
The Prince looked at me, started to say something, then apparently thought better of it, and shifted Faramir a little higher onto his shoulder. His head lolled slightly, but he did not move, or speak and he was so starkly pale that he looked as one who was dead.
“Will he be all right now, lord Prince? He has not wakened since you pulled the arrow.”
“You must remember how weary he was, Hethlin-how very weary you all must be. I think he will be well enough once we get him to the Citadel, and his father’s care. The City’s best healers will attend him.”
As we had mounted into the higher circles of the City, the hubbub at the Gate had faded away, and the crowd had thinned. We’d left the soldiers down in the second circle, and now all that remained were the Prince and his personal escort. The noise of our horses’ hooves was the only sound. Occasionally, we would pass someone hurrying home to their supper or upon some other late errand, and they would pause, vaguely curious at first; then horrified as they realized who it was the Prince of Dol Amroth carried.
The Guards at the Citadel saluted sharply, and threw open the gates with dispatch, expressionless, but I turned back to look after we passed within, and saw them craning their heads after us, and talking excitedly among themselves. We paused in the courtyard, and the Prince Imrahil proceeded alone to the door. A man stood within the arch. The Steward of Gondor had come to welcome his son home. I could not see the Steward clearly, nor hear what was said between himself and Imrahil, but I felt a sense of unease as household servants brought out a stretcher and the Prince surrendered his burden to them. I shivered, and Mablung looked at me in concern.
“Are you all right, Heth? Can you still ride?”
“Yes, and yes, Mablung. Would you say I was mad if I told you I would rather the Captain were being taken to the Houses of Healing than home to his loving father?”
He looked at me grimly. “As one who’s ridden with him years longer than you have, I would say that for someone who’s been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders, you make perfect sense to me.”
The Prince of Dol Amroth returned to us then, and gestured to me. I reined the bay over, and he smiled gently.
“Hethlin of Anorien, you have done my house a service this day, and I will not forget it, though some time may pass before we can speak more of this. For now, I think you and good Mablung here need to seek healing yourselves. Liahan will escort you to the Houses of Healing, and take the horses. Captain Mablung, I would speak with you about the disposition of the Rangers tomorrow after the noon hour. I will send a runner to you with the location. Until then, I thank you once again and give you a good night.” He nodded graciously to us, we bowed in our saddles (I did so very carefully because of the ribs) and we departed with his knight.
“A very fine lord that one is, and no mistake,” commented Mablung as we left the Citadel. I looked at Liahan, and saw a smile fighting to manifest itself at the corners of his usually serious mouth. We were not the only ones, it seemed, to serve a lord worthy of great love and respect.
“He is indeed,” Liahan replied softly, and we said nothing more till we reached the door of the Houses of Healing. I unfastened my saddlebags, and slid carefully to the ground, then handed the bay’s reins to Liahan, and stroked his sweat-crusted neck one last time. My trembling had finally ceased, leaving naught but a numbing weariness.
“It goes ill with me to leave his care to another,” I told the knight. “Particularly when he knew his business better than I did this day. T’was I who put him in this condition, and ‘tis I who should mend it.”
“Lady, he will be well tended, and rested for some time to come,” Liahan assured me, “None of us think you a sluggard. You were injured sorely on the Lord Faramir’s behalf, and we of Dol Amroth love him too. Allow us to do you and Captain Mablung this small service in repayment.”
“Please thank your lord the Prince for the loan of him.”
“I will, my lady, but there is no need. The Prince would tell me to thank you for using him so well.” And he saluted us, and departed. Mablung, who had also surrendered his horse, but without the flowery exchanges, just shook his head.
“Fell fighters they are, and no mistake, and very glad I was to see them today. But so fond they are of speeches, it’s a wonder they ever manage to get anything done.” Seeing me swaying on my feet, he lent me an arm, but I could tell he was none too steady himself, and in the end, we were leaning on each other as we passed into the Houses of Healing.