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6
The Pale King

The Houses of Healing were a-bustle, dealing with the aftermath of our retreat from the River. We were met at the door by a man dressed in the robes of the House who took one look at us, said “Walking wounded through the door to the right,” and then promptly forgot us, turning his attention to an incoming stretcher. We went where he directed, and found a sort of antechamber lined with chairs, the chairs filled with soldiers in various positions of repose. Most were in the black and silver of the Tower, but there was one dressed in mottled brown and green. It was Damrod and he hailed us and limped over to sit beside us, thigh bound with a bloody bandage.

“How’s the Captain?” was the first thing he asked. “I’d heard you all brought him in.”

“Prince Imrahil drew the arrow out,” I replied, speaking very carefully because of my cheek. I now knew why Anborn had sounded strange. Now that the excitement of battle was gone, things were starting to hurt quite a bit. The only good thing was that I was no longer thinking about my scalp wound at all.

“I was there when he did it. And he said that it was not very bad at all. But the Captain wouldn’t wake up again. The Prince said it was just because he was worn out.”

“Well, and he was right about that, wasn’t he? I don’t think the man slept at all the last two days.” He leaned over, and looked at my face. “Heth, it’s good you’re not the vain sort-you’re all black and purple.” Mablung looked at my face more closely as well.

“Get that helm off, lass-your cheek’s swelling up. How’re they deciding who gets help first, Damrod?” Damrod grinned.

“From what I’ve been able to tell, they choose two ways. Whoever looks worse, or whoever looks like they’re going to get up and start swinging a sword if they don’t get helped next.”

“How bad off are you?” I asked him. He gestured at his leg and tssked.

“Oh, this isn’t much. I just need it stitched. You could do it for me,” he suggested to Mablung. “Then we wouldn’t have to take up these peoples’ valuable time. I don’t even know why the two of you are sitting here.”

“We’re sitting here because I can’t stitch my own neck,” growled Mablung. “And I want Heth’s cheek stitched by someone who makes smaller stitches than I do. I don’t mind doing the back of her head. No one will see that. But whether she chooses to remember it or not, she’s still a woman, and the day might come when she’ll be glad she doesn’t have a big, red, ropy scar on her face.” I was touched.

“If I mind that sort of thing, I’m in the wrong line of work,” I pointed out to him. I pulled my helm off, and hissed with pain-blood had seeped under the coif, and it was stuck to my skin, and pulled on the injured cheek as it came loose. Released from its metal prison, the cheek started throbbing.

“Well, as it happens, I don’t think you’re in the wrong line of work. Tailoring now-that would be the wrong line of work! I saw what happened when you patched the elbow on your shirt, and you aren’t coming anywhere near my neck! So don’t go getting the idea this is all about you. I’m not going anywhere until I get myself fixed up. Then, if you haven’t been seen to,” he said to Damrod, “I’ll do your leg, and anyone else that needs a bit of stitchery.”

The helm finally removed, I sighed, leaned back, and wrapped my cloak about me. One of the healers came in, made a circuit of the room, stopped in front of me, looked closely, then gestured that I should follow him. Mablung crooked a finger at him, and the healer came over.

“Can you do little stitches?” The healer, somewhat offended, declared that his stitches were quite neat. Mablung patted his sword hilt. “See that they are then. I want that cheek to look as smooth as a baby’s....cheek, do you understand? This is the one that kept the Lord Faramir from being trampled to death by Southron cavalry today.” The healer looked at me dubiously. For my part, every portion of my face that wasn’t black and blue went bright red.

“Mablung!”

“Well, it’s true.” Soldiers near by, hearing this, looked upon me with interest. I heard a couple of “Good job!” and “There’s a lad!” remarks. Figuring that my dignity was best salvaged by a retreat in good order (and I knew a little bit about those now, didn’t I!), I picked up my helm and saddlebags and followed the healer out of the room.

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“Aside from your face, soldier, are you injured anywhere else?” We had gone down a long hall that was lined with smaller rooms. Apparently they were treatment rooms of some sort, for my healer led me into one, and there was a table there, a couple of chairs, and a cabinet filled with bandages and medical supplies. A woman brought him a basin of steaming water and some towels as we entered.

“A cut below the knee, a couple of broken ribs, and my left shoulder is hurt. I don’t think it’s broken, but something’s wrong.”

“Well, let’s save the worst for last. Show me the leg.” So I pulled my boot and stocking, and rolled up the pants leg.

“I can’t stitch this-where it’s situated, it will simply tear loose again.” But he cleaned it very well, and bandaged it tightly. I pulled my boot on again, trying not to jar the injury. The healer frowned. “Careful how you take that off-you’ll tear everything loose again. Find a slipper to wear for a while.”

He went on to check my ribs, and I waited. It took him a little longer to realize what was going on than I thought it would, but then he’d been very busy for a while and was probably weary.

“You-you’re a woman!”

I looked down at my body in mock horror. “Verily, it is true! What vile sorcery is this?”

He frowned. “What manner of jest is this? Does your father know you’ve been playing the soldier, girl? Are you even of age?”

“My father was killed and eaten by orcs three years ago. I doubt that what I do is a matter of much concern to him now. And I have been a Ranger of Ithilien since that time, so it is no jest. And as for my age, it is of no matter, for I have no male kindred to take responsibility for me. If anything, I was under the guardianship of Lord Faramir, and he allowed me to become a warrior. Now, will you tend my hurts or will you not? For I am sure we both have much better things to be doing than talking about this.” He glowered at me for a moment in disapproval, nodded curtly, and began to dress my wounds, saying little after that except to explain that my shoulder was bruised to the bone, and that some such injuries were worse to recover from than actual breaks. He saved the cheek for last, and had me lay upon the table while he sewed it, which was a good thing, for I did swoon.

When I came to myself, he was gone already, and the woman who’d brought him water led me back out to the antechamber. There I found that both Mablung and Damrod were being treated, so I leaned back in a chair once more and fell asleep. They returned some time later, and roused me with great difficulty. Mablung inspected my cheek carefully, and pronounced the stitches tiny enough to spare the healer’s life. We took the time before we left the House to look in upon Lorend, who was sitting up in bed with his leg propped up, and playing the Hero of Gondor with one of the younger and comelier women that assisted the healers. Reassured by this evidence of his recovery, we then somehow made our halting, lame way down to the barracks that was reserved for the Rangers, which coincidentally lay nigh the buildings being used by the knights of Dol Amroth.

There was a roar of approval as we entered the Ranger barracks, and much clamoring to hear the tale of Captain Faramir’s rescue. But Mablung took one look at me, swaying where I stood, and refused.

“The Captain’s all right, not too sorely wounded, just really tired. He’s up at the Citadel now, with healers, and that’s all you lot need to know for now. Heth’ll tell you about it tomorrow, or maybe the day after. For now, she needs a bed.”

Very quickly, we were shown to a small room off of the main hall, meant to be a lesser officer’s chamber. It contained a bed, a chest, and a table with a washbasin and one candle on it, and nothing else. I thought it heavenly.

One of the Rangers brought me in a kettle of hot water, and poured it into the basin, and some soap and towels.

“You need some help, Heth?” Mablung asked, watching me with concern. I plucked vaguely at the hauberk.

“Get this off of me and I’ll manage the rest.” I unbuckled my sword belt, laid it on the bed, and leaned over, and he pulled the hauberk over my head, being careful not to touch my face. I straightened, astonished at how much lighter I felt of a sudden. I’d grown quite accustomed to it over the last two days.

“Mablung, you need to get some rest yourself. You’ve got to meet with the Prince tomorrow, remember.”

“I remember, lass, and I’m on the way now. You’re on the wounded list, Heth, so sleep you in as late as you like.” I nodded, and he went to the door, then paused.

“You did wonderfully well today, Heth. In case I didn’t tell you.”

“You did, Mablung. Just not in words. Good night.”

“Good night.” And he closed the door behind him. I sat down to pull my boots, thought to lie back for just a moment, and darkness fell over me in an irresistible wave. I barely had time to reach for my cloak, and drag it over me before I sank deeply into slumber.

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To this day, I do not like to think, or talk or write about what happened next. There are times when I think it must have been a dream born of fever, or the damage done by a Southron sword. There are other times when I know it was as real as the bannock I had for breakfast, or sun-sparkles on the Anduin.

It began innocuously enough. There was a point in time when I realized that I was no longer sleeping on my bed, that I was walking through the City. I had no idea how long I’d been sleeping, or if I was even now still asleep. Puzzled, I looked down at myself, and found that I was clad in my hauberk once more, my sword at side, my bow on my back, and wearing a grey cloak I’d never seen before. I could see the dim, shadowy forms of what must have been people moving through the streets with me, but I could not see them clearly, nor did they seem to discern me. Strange though that was, stranger still was when I made my way down to the first circle-and walked right through the closed and barred Gate of Gondor! Outside, the Enemy held sway. Orcs in great numbers were digging huge trenches about the City. At least I thought they must be orcs-their forms were squat and repulsive, even when dimly seen. Like the City folk, they took no notice of me. As I passed one trench further from the City, a fire was kindled within it, and it glowed redly, though I could not perceive any flames.

I walked for a long way, backtracking the very route I’d taken up the Pelennor earlier that day. I felt no pain from my wounds, nor did I grow weary. Orcs ran past me, drawing wains of supplies, and a Southron cavalry patrol passed, their horses suddenly restive and jumpy. Apparently, they could sense in some fashion that I was there. Once a Mumak passed, and it too seemed to see me in some way-it bellowed and flapped its great ears.

I tried to stop once, to go back and return to my bed, and it was then that I found that I was being compelled to walk this path. I struggled, but found that I was unable to resist the summons of whatever had brought me forth. On and on I walked, past troop after troop, host after host, setting camp, bringing up siege engines, walking sentry. Ceaselessly, they poured through the breeches in the Rammas, a foul, dark flood.

Halfway down the Causeway Road, there was a low hill hard by which gave an overview of a good part of the Pelennor. It was to this hill that I was being drawn. An aura of horror and dread hung over it, which grew ever stronger the closer I approached. Once more, I struggled to escape the coils of whatever held me, and once more my now frantic attempts proved futile. The shadows of men and orcs moved up and down the hill, always moving much faster down than up.

There was a darker shadow to the left, at the bottom of the hill, and it was huge, and formless. As I drew near, it raised its head and I saw the gleam of red eyes and knew that it could see me in truth. A pang went through the wound at the back of my head. It made a strange cawing noise, lifted its wings with a leathery rustle, then bent its head to its supper. Fortunately, I could not see what it was feeding upon. But I knew then what it was that had me, what I was about to face. Panting with fear, I tried to dig my heels in, to move more slowly, but my feet continued on their inexorable path up the hill.

As I climbed, I began to see a putrescent glow between the shadows of what must have been captains and commanders. They scattered suddenly, leaving nothing between me and he who was their master. My traitor feet continued to carry me forward, until I stood trembling before him, then my knees gave out and I sank upon the ground. In this strange, dark world, his was the only light, but it was an unhealthy one-a glow of corruption and decay. The enshrouding robes that made him the Black Rider, the Black Captain, were gone. What stood before me was Faramir’s pale king.

If ever he had been a mortal man, he’d been one of huge stature. His great frame looked skeletal and wasted now, his face sere and haggard. A cruel spiked crown was upon his brow, a hauberk of ancient make armored him, a great sword hung at his side. Robes of glowing mist shrouded and moved about him, his lank hair lifted in some unfelt breeze. I will never forget the sight of him, and it was not a vision I sought. His mind seized upon mine as I knelt before him, and ruthlessly forced my head up, up until I was forced to meet his eyes.

The slightest glancing look upon a Rider had nearly paralyzed me on the Pelennor. This was a hundred, a thousand times worse. I felt as if my heart were going to explode from my chest in terror, I started screaming and could not stop. His mind entered mine, stripped it bare, raked through it with bony fingers, picking over the parts that interested him most. All my secrets were laid out for his perusal, there was nothing of me he did not know. I knew now why his followers would slay themselves at his command; I wanted to die then and there, to loose his grip upon my soul.

Then, as suddenly as he’d entered my mind, he withdrew from it. His long-fingered hand made a casual, arcane gesture, and the terror simply stopped. Released from his compulsion, I slumped back on my heels, whimpering, shaking, grateful to be released from the fear, and hating myself for feeling grateful to such a fell, evil thing.

He took a couple of long strides away from me, then turned, fingering an amulet that hung, one of several, from his belt. It looked like a bird, perhaps a hawk or eagle, carved in some black stone or wood. I found that whatever it was he had done, I could bear to look upon him now-it was still unpleasant, but not unbearable.

“Your house has fallen far, child of the Eagle. Far indeed, that it has naught but a woman-child to send to war.” His voice was like a wind over the grass upon a grave.

My voice was trembling like the rest of me. “Why have you brought me here? And how?”

“I have brought you here to give you a choice. As to how-I was a sorcerer when I was still but a man. And when I was sundered from the flesh, I was not sundered from my skill. In Angmar, long ago, one of your forefathers swore himself to me, body and soul, and with his help was Arnor dismayed and the king, Arveleg, slain. I scented the blood of your house spilled upon the battlefield this evening, and using the bond I once had of him, I drew you to me. To offer you a chance, in remembrance of his service, to survive and prosper in the new age to come.”

He entered my mind again, this time not to dominate but to show me the ultimate fate of Gondor. Vast armies I saw, moving from the East and the South, as large or larger than what was besieging the City now. A huge fleet I saw as well, black-sailed, moving up Anduin laden with Corsairs hot for plunder. Despair struck deep into my heart at these visions. Against such numbers, Gondor and Rohan could not survive.

“My lord Sauron wishes that this combat be as short as possible, that damage to the City and its inhabitants is kept to a minimum.” His voice was quietly chill, and infinitely reasonable. “Towards this end, he requires a death.”

“With your Captain wounded, the Swan Lord rules the city. The Prince favors you, and would allow you close to him. Accomplish his death, and my master is prepared to be generous beyond your wildest dreams. He is lord of great kingdoms in the East and South. There are riches unimaginable, and realms to rule, for those who are faithful to him. There might even be favor granted, in the form of mercy for one who has offended him much, should your service please him.”

And again visions filled my mind, this time of the rewards I would receive. I saw myself somehow transformed, terrible yet beautiful, a warlord fell and mighty, commander of great armies. And I saw myself a queen, throned in majesty, with an adoring consort at my side. Faramir, his face soft with love. A pain struck my heart, and tears fell on my cheeks at the sudden realization of a long-held truth. It seemed a blasphemy to discover such a thing because of this creature, but that made it no less real.

“Imrahil for Faramir. A life for a life.” Amazing, how a voice could be hissing and coaxing all at once. “For your Captain will not survive otherwise. He has offended against Sauron, and I have my orders. I have not even to take the city to accomplish it. One so open to his dreams is also open to......other things.”

His will fell upon me once more, coercing, compelling, forcing me to submit. Though in the old legends and tales, heroes are always adamant in their rejection of evil, it was not so with me. For I was wounded, and weary beyond belief, and sick with fear for Faramir. And I was terrified at what the Witch-king would do, should I refuse him, for there are truly things worse than death, and I imagined he knew about most of them. For a moment, I wavered, though it shames me to admit it.

In the end, it was my memories that saved me, the random images flashing through my mind that he himself had dredged up. My mother and father dead, their bones stripped. My sister and brother, trussed on a spit like suckling piglets. The journey to the Anduin, the orcs sating themselves upon me and destroying my future in the process. The ruined farmsteads, the horror and brutality of war I’d seen since becoming a Ranger. The revulsion and sick disgust the Black Riders engendered.

And on the other side of the balance? A quiet voice, soothing me through many nights of pain and sickness. Faramir’s gentle grey eyes, glinting with amusement as he corrected my Elvish of an evening in Henneth Annun. Lorend’s ebullient youthful enthusiasm, Mablung’s wise care and concern, all the other Rangers and the fellowship we had shared. Mithrandir’s glowing might, the gallant chivalry of Imrahil and his knights, the hundreds of unsung acts of courage I’d seen during the retreat from the River. In the end, it was clear to me-there had never really been a choice at all.

Slowly, for it was as if a great weight lay upon me, I pushed myself to my feet. Head bowed, I closed my right hand upon my father’s sword. My left strayed to my belt pouch, unlatched it, fingertips creeping within to touch the pages of a book, the loving gift of a friend. Love and honor-it would be enough.

I raised my head, and raised my voice, and was astonished at how calm it sounded.

“I think, my lord, that you put too much faith in the blood of my house. For Angmar fell in the end-do you not remember? Do your worst to Gondor, but do it without me-for I do not consent!” There was a tiny, strange singing sound and the amulet in the Witch-king’s hand shattered. I felt a weight lift from me that I’d never knew I carried. He stared at me in disbelief for a moment, and then things became as bad as I had feared.

Like a heavy hammer blow, the terror returned, and he seemed to swell, and alter, his very face and form Death personified. I screamed, and fell back and he towered over me, and his voice was no longer quiet, but thunder and earthquake alike.

“So be it, you fool! Get you to the Grey Lands, where you shall feel your soul wear away to nothingness! And as you crawl crying in the dust, know this-I have set such a fire in his blood that naught will slake it! He will die in torment and agony, his soul forever lost, and it will all be your fault! Think upon that, in the time that remains to you!” He chanted, swiftly then, some dark words of power, and I felt myself whirled away, still screaming, to a place where all was grey.

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In the dark hours before dawn, the Rangers in the main barracks room were wakened by my screams. Anborn it was who forced the door open, and found me sprawled across the bed, cold to the touch and barely breathing. My father’s sword was in my right hand, my belt pouch under my left. And my hair had turned snow white.

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