The dust I was lying in was grey. The sky above me was grey, and featureless. It contained no clouds, no stars, no moon or sun. No breeze riffled the dust, no weed marred it. There were not even pebbles, large or small, to break the monotony.
I slowly got to my feet, and realized that I was unwounded. Turning carefully in place, I surveyed the entire horizon, and could find no hill or hollow, no mountain or valley. All was flat and featureless grey. I could see well enough but the dim light seemed to have no point of origin, and I cast no shadow. The air was neither hot nor cold.
“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!”
Thus had the Witch-King spoken, and thus had his will been accomplished. This was, I supposed, one of those worse than death possibilities that I had been afraid of. Was I even still alive? I suspected, because of my unwounded condition, that it was my soul that was trapped here. How long would my body survive without it? Was poor Mablung even now finding my cold corpse? And what of Faramir? Did he still live? How much time had passed, or would pass? If I could find my way out of this, would I come forth to find the Witch-King enthroned in the White Tower? Or would I find myself sundered from my fellows by time itself-lost in some past or future year?
The very possibilities were infinite, and torturous in themselves. I had to admire the subtlety of the vile being, even while I plotted the best way to thwart him. In the end, there was not much I could do in the way of planning. Two possibilities only seemed to present themselves-to remain where I was, and do nothing, or to travel, and see if I could find the boundary of this place, and win my way free. The thought of meekly sitting here till whatever end he had contrived for me came true had no appeal whatsoever. I was a Ranger, hardened to long journeys in the Wild. I would see if I could not come to an end of this place, and escape.
I had to have faith that escape was possible, and that Faramir would be alive when I accomplished it. Then I could find Mithrandir, and see if the wizard would aid him. My decision made, I got up and set out, the long, easy walking stride of a Ranger with much ground to cover raising small puffs of dust as I went. A direction was meaningless here-there were no stars to navigate by, no geographic feature to use as a reference point, but it occurred to me that I might walk one way a while, then return on the path of my own footprints, and take another direction, and thus avoid walking in circles. And so I strode out confidently, praising myself for my own cleverness-until I turned, and looked back, and found that though I’d originally left footprints in the dust, they were now gone, and it was as smooth and featureless as before. Then I began to feel very afraid indeed.
Two days I was there, they told me later, and it was a wonder that I did not go mad. For after a time, the silence and the grey sameness began to wear upon me. I sang to myself, as I walked, just to hear the sound of a voice, and it fell flat and deadened in the strange air. I told myself every story I knew. When I began seeing things, I had to stop, and pause, and take a hold of myself, and direct such fancies into daydreams of my own design. One that entertained me for quite a while was the selection of a new horse from the herds of Rohan. I built what I wanted in my mind, from the hooves up, and when I was done with one, I made another, and another, and a few more after that, and then I amused myself with breeding my hypothetical herd and evaluating their progeny.
When I tired of that, I tried to relive happy memories of my family, though that was harder-flashes of their gruesome fate tended to intrude at odd moments. Thinking of past battles fought was certainly no better. Only when my spirit was flagging, and I was beginning to despair, did I permit myself the indulgence of thinking about Faramir. With the deliberate slowness of a condemned man enjoying his last meal, I lingered over every look, every word, every laugh or act of kindness. I remembered him on a hot summer’s day in South Ithilien, pulling his hood and mask off, and ruffling black, sweat-soaked hair while laughing at one of Lorend’s absurdities. In front of the window of Henneth-Annun at sunset, staring into the West as if he could see clear to Elvenhome. Coldly beautiful and deadly serious one full moon night as we hunted orcs. Eyes half-closed in enjoyment of the words as he read to me in Elvish one evening. Bathing in the Anduin with the patrol one afternoon, while I kept watch up in the trees. That last one had me walking faster for quite a while.
Eventually, I pondered what I would do if I managed to escape this place and get help for him. Should I speak to him of how I felt? I’d never had any indication from him that his interest in me was other than friendship-unless the gift of his mother’s book counted. But that was a book of childrens’ stories, not a slim, scented volume of Elven love poetry. What did that tell me? I knew that he was my friend, but was I prepared to risk that friendship in the hope of gaining something more? What were the odds? What would I gain?
The Steward’s Heir of Gondor could not wed a barren woman. Faramir it was who had taken me to the healers soon after allowing me to join the Rangers, and he knew of my condition. Would I be his mistress? I had declared to him once “I am not a slattern.”. Would he even make such an offer? Most likely not. Faramir was the soul of honor. He would never dishonor a woman, and he was not a man who casually indulged his passions. If he loved a woman enough that he wanted to bed her, he would wed her and cleave only unto her.
And what was there about me that would make him want me anyway? I’d never had the opportunity to stare into mirrors, but I’d seen my reflection in water often enough. Tall and gawky, with big hands apt to a sword, and not much figure to speak of. A face not uncomely, but not beautiful either, too strong-featured, hawk-nosed and heavy browed.
My hair had possibly once been my best feature, thick and fine and blue-black, but I had always worn it chopped off rather raggedly, and now it was as white as an old woman’s hair. And my body below the neck was a diary of all that had been done to me. What man could look upon such a thing and feel aught but revulsion?
Mablung had been right, as usual-I had aimed too high, had not been careful enough, and now I’d lost my heart to no good purpose. For there truly was no future big enough to hold Faramir the Steward’s son and Hethlin the farmer’s daughter. A prince in all but name, he was, as Mablung had said, and fine and fair and gentle as well. Should Gondor survive the war, he would be most sought after by many lovely maids. Maids who were maids indeed, of highest birth and perfect, pretty bearing. Maids who could make him a shirt as well as mend one, keep his castle and bear his children. Maids who would jump at the chance to dust his library, put his papers in order, and make sure he wore a cloak in cold weather. He would choose one, for that was his duty. And Hethlin Blackbow would find herself back on the borders of Ithilien, pot-shotting orcs. For in the end, that was the only thing I was truly fit for.
A tear dropped into the dust, sank and was lost as if it had never been. Just like my pretty, pitiful dream. And I admit, it was followed by several more after that. But I was not crawling in the dust, as the Witch-King had predicted. Not yet. Faramir might never love me as I wished, but my heart had been given despite that, and I would save him if I could. I kept walking.
The voice came as a whisper, and at first I ignored it, for it had been a long time since I’d heard anything other than the voice in my own head. But then it came again.
“Hethlin. Hethlin, daughter of Halaran, come to me. Follow my voice, and come to me.”
I stopped, and looked around, wildly hopeful of a sudden. “I am here!” I cried. Was that a faint chuckle?
“See, I told you, brother. Come, Ranger, and hurry! I may not tarry here. Follow my voice.” The voice began to speak my name, and encouragements, and I followed the sound of it. Was that a lightening in the monotonous grey, over there? Yes, there was! I started to run then, my footsteps soundless in the dust, and the light grew, and strengthened. And suddenly, the source of the voice was there.
Like Mithrandir, he glowed, but even brighter, as if he were merely the clear vessel for a white flame. There was a star on his brow, and stars in his eyes. His hair was dark as night, his face pale and wondrous fair. I stopped in my tracks at the sight of him.
“None of that now, child,” he chided me. “I can come no further, and can stay no longer.” His beautiful voice was strained, and he held out a trembling hand. “Come to me, and take my hand. And then, Ranger, we must run!”
I did as he bade me, and as I clasped his hand, I was jolted by a surge of power. Strength seemed to surge through me. He groaned, and seemed to dim somewhat, but turned, and still holding on to my hand, began to run. We ran for what seemed an eternity, then, once again, I perceived another lightening in the monotony. My companion was starting to falter somewhat, and I linked my arm through his and helped him toward it. As before, a man suddenly appeared before us, as like to the first as the proverbial peas in the pod. No, not a man- they were elves, I suddenly realized. Actual, honest-to-goodness elves.
The elf who had come to help me staggered into the waiting arms of he who must have been his brother, and sighed in relief. “You owe me a forfeit, brother. I told you I could find and fetch her, and I did.”
His brother was not pleased. “A forfeit? A forfeit? That’s all you can think about? You nearly stopped your heart, Elrohir! Trying something only the oldest of us should attempt! What would I have done had you killed yourself? Did you stop to think about that? Gone home to Father and said, ‘I am very sorry sir, but we had this wager, you see.’? I think the hardships of our journey have unhinged your mind! I have half a mind to stop by Lorien on the way home and let Grandmother sort you out-I’m not sure I feel safe alone in the Wild with you!”
“Peace, Elladan,” my savior said into his shoulder,” And remember your manners. It is ill done of you to rescue the maiden and then complain of how much trouble it was! Imagine how that makes her feel. Besides, we’re not done yet, though the worst of it is over.” He looked over at me, and saw that I was frankly gaping. Reaching out, he pushed my jaw up and shut with a gentle hand.
“I am Elrohir, son of Elrond, and this carping fellow,” and he patted his brother on the shoulder, “is my brother Elladan. We have come to take you back.” He stepped back from his brother, and gestured that I should come between them. “There is still some way to go. Come thou then, and walk between us, for,” and he gave me a sideways, slanting glance full of devilish glee, “ he doesn’t feel safe alone with me!”
It had been, I reflected as I walked along with the sons of Elrond, a very strange week. I could not imagine how they had come to aid me in my plight, and told them so.
“Well as to that, you are a bit behind the times, Hethlin Blackbow, through no shame or fault of your own,” said Elrohir. “ You have been here for two days now. Minas Tirith was besieged yesterday, and much of the first circle burned.”
“The Black Captain broke the Gate this morning,” Elladan said quietly. “Fortunately, Mithrandir was there to oppose him. Then the Rohirrim arrived, and the vile creature vanished.”
“The Rohirrim? They finally arrived? But how came they here? The last we heard, their road was blocked by a mighty host.”
“They came by a secret path,” said Elladan. Elrohir added with a grin, “It’s become something of a fashion. In any event, they came, the Lord of the Nazgûl left to deal with them-and was destroyed by the White Lady of Rohan.”
“Éowyn of Rohan was there?” this was getting more and more confusing. “How could she destroy him? How could anybody?”
“She rode with the Rohirrim in secret, and when her uncle Théoden fell and the Witch-King stooped upon him, she smote him, and he was destroyed,” said Elladan. “There is an old prophecy that not by the hand of man would he fall. Apparently, it was true. So now Éomer is King of Rohan.”
“We came with the King of Gondor, up the River, on ships we’d taken from the Corsairs of Umbar, using an army of the ancient Dead,” Elrohir added helpfully. “Is this making any sense at all?”
“No! There’s a King now?”
“Yes, Aragorn son of Arathorn, Chieftain of the Dunedain and Isildur’s Heir. He was reared in Imladris as our foster brother. We brought with us a great host from the coastal lands and won the day. The City is safe for now. And this is where you come in.”
“Aragorn will not permit himself to be crowned until the conflict with Sauron is won,” continued Elladan, “ but he is the true King, and as such, carries within him the gifts of kingship-including that of healing. Your Lord Faramir, Eowyn of Rohan, and the Halfling Meriadoc, who is a friend of Aragorn’s and in service to the King of Rohan, were sore wounded and their lives despaired of. But Aragorn came into the Houses of Healing and called them back, and they are resting peacefully now and will heal in time.” I sighed in relief to hear that Faramir was safe, and Elrohir smiled, and took up the narrative.
“Aragorn went back to the camp to get some rest and food. But he was soon beset by people begging aid for their kin and friends who’d been wounded in the siege, or the battle. So since my brother and I have some small skill in the art, he summoned us, and we set forth to do what we could. It was not long after we set forth that we were ambushed by Rangers! A large number of formidable men, all dressed in brown and green and bristling with arrows and swords, demanded that we come to the aid of one Hethlin of Anorien. They gave us many cogent arguments as to why we should heal you before anyone else-”
“-They surrounded us, and made us come,” put in Elladan. I closed my eyes, and groaned at the picture of the Company of Ithilien abducting the sons of Elrond.
“-So we came with them, and there you were, and the Valar themselves must have sent your friends to us, for it was apparent when we first looked upon you that you were too far gone into the realms of spirit to be retrieved by any normal means, or even by Aragorn. But we came up with a clever plan-”
“-YOU came up with the clever plan. I take no credit for it!-” snapped Elladan. Elrohir sighed.
“-Very well, I came up with a clever plan. We are twinborn, so I proposed that Elladan send his spirit forth as far as he could, and then anchor me, while I sent mine out as well. Thus could we double the distance.”
“And triple the peril!”
“You worry entirely too much, Elladan. It worked, did it not? And now the lady Ranger is with us, and we will return her to her body, and the large men in green and brown will be happy. And then maybe we can get some rest.”
“Return her we will, my brother, “ said Elladan somberly, his shining eyes fixed on some distant horizon, “But there will truly be no rest for anyone until this war is over.”
Gradually, the greyness began to fade away, become lighter and lighter. I began to hear voices. The sons of Elrond stopped, and turned towards me. “It’s time, Snowsteel,” said Elrohir, ruffling my white hair. “You do it, Elladan. I’m still weary from the retrieval.”
Elladan looked at me somberly for a moment, then gave me a smile of singular sweetness.
“No love truly given is ever to be pitied, Hethlin. Think you on what your love has enabled you to achieve thus far! And I will give you this much, for I am somewhat a dreamer myself-if we all win through this war, there will come a time when he will turn to you for something only you can give him, though it may be far in the future as you mortals reckon time. I know no more than that, but it may comfort you in the difficult days to come. Then again, it may not. I know somewhat more of mortals than most of my kind, but I do not pretend to understand them!”
He took my face in his hands then, and kissed my brow. There was a horrible lurch, and I was lying in a very soft bed, and everything hurt again. Ever so slowly, I opened my eyes. There was a stone ceiling overhead, and the flickering light of candles.
“Heth?” I turned my head, and saw Mablung sitting beside the bed, with Anborn, Damrod and several of the others standing about the room. The sons of Elrond were sitting on a couple of chairs beside the wall, Elrohir with his head on Elladan’s shoulder. Even in their corporeal forms, their eyes seemed to hold perpetual starlight.
“Is she all right? Why isn’t she saying anything?”
“She went farther than I would have thought possible for a mortal to go and return,” Elladan said softly. “She may be a while coming back all the way.”
Painfully, I lifted my hand, and made a feeble gesture in the direction of my cheek. I licked my lips, which were very dry, and emitted a faint, croaking voice.
“Look. Anborn. We match.”
Laughter erupted in the room then, laughter loud enough that it brought the Warden of the Houses of Healing down upon my friends, chastising them, and driving them forth under protest. He examined me briefly, owned himself amazed at my progress, gave a courtesy to the sons of Elrond, and left. They talked between them in very low voices for a while, then slung their cloaks on and went to the door, Elladan blowing out the candles as he went. I was alone in the dark with my thoughts and fears, dreams and wishes. But at least it wasn’t grey.