August 3016-Boromir swore. He swore because of the sweat trickling into his eyes from beneath his helm, he swore because of the glare of the pitiless sun beating down upon the valley below him and into his eyes, but mostly he swore because of the advancing column of Haradrim that were wreaking havoc upon his men down in the valley with a giant Mūmak that advanced before them. The beast was trampling any who got in his way while the archers in the war-tower on his back rained arrows down upon their foes. He swore with much violence and great imagination, and it was not until he paused to draw breath that he remembered who was up on this vantage point with him-his aide, Gethrin and a couple of his captains, who were more than used to his tirades. But there were also two Rangers present with horses from Cair Andros to act as couriers to his brother Faramir, who was across the valley under the cover of the forest, harrying the Haradrim from the left flank. They probably never heard anything of the like from his grave, courteous younger brother, so he gave them an apologetic grin.
"Sorry, Ranger Lorend." The older of the two, sharp-featured and with lighter hair than was usual among Gondor's soldiers, grinned right back.
"That's all right, my lord. It's not every day you get to see a master of profanity in action."
Boromir turned his attention to the other Ranger, the one he would have never cursed in front of had he been thinking, for Hethlin was a woman, though that fact was unknown outside of the Rangers. Certainly she passed easily enough for a lad-broader shouldered than most women, flat of chest and with a husky voice that he actually rather liked.
"My apologies, Ranger Hethlin."
Though she was a little pink in the face, she met his gaze straightly. "'Tis all right, my lord. Captain Faramir says that I should try to learn new words every day." Gethrin and the other captains chuckled at that, though Boromir shot them a warning glare.
"I don't think those were the words he was thinking you should learn. In fact, I think you should try to forget them."
"'Tis all right, my lord, truly it is," she repeated, and ducking her head, set to checking her horse's girth.
There was a sizeable ring of empty space around the animal, which had to be the meanest, ugliest creature ever to wear an army saddle blanket. Faramir had written to Boromir some months back about how the Rangers had come to rescue what looked to be a misbegotten, vile-tempered, uncut scrub of a Dunlender hill horse and had foisted it off on the garrison at Cair Andros. The tale had been an amusing one and had lightened his mood at a time when it really needed lightening. The horse, named Arcag, had been pressed into service and had proven to be a courier horse of iron endurance, as well as serving as a useful punitive measure for Cair Andros's miscreants, for the roughness of its gaits was as legendary as its foul temper.
Hethlin, who had ridden horses on her Anorien farm almost since she could walk, actually liked the vicious creature, and was one of the few who could do anything with it. Having fastened her girth, she now stood stroking its neck with one hand-while keeping the other firmly fastened upon the bit, for Arcag bit as well as kicked.
Boromir turned his attention back to the battle and swore again. "Valar, I hate those things!" The Mūmak was plowing through a company of his men, leaving wreckage in its wake.
"Can the Rangers not deal with it?" Gethrin asked, training his spyglass upon the scene.
Frustration was apparent in his voice, and the two Rangers cast looks in his direction.
"Faramir is doing just as he ought," the Captain-General said in a tone that brooked no argument. "He is targeting the archers in the tower and the drivers. We don't need that thing running mad because it's wounded. His men have no armor-I won't send them in to close with it. They'll be shot or trampled. And you know horses won't abide Mūmaks, so our cavalry is useless. We're just going to have to take our medicine on this one, Gethrin. Give the signal to fall back. Maybe we can trap them further up the valley where the walls close in. I'd have set up there first, if I had thought they would have walked into the trap. Too obvious, but maybe they'll follow us in if they think they have us on the run. We can go up the slopes and hold the high ground. Mūmakil don't climb all that well."
But before the aide could signal, one of the other captains, who was also watching with a spy-glass, said, "Sir! The Rangers are advancing! At least some of them are!"
Boromir snatched the glass from Gethrin, trained it on the left flank, and cursed most vehemently once more, for he could see his brother in the small party of archers pressing towards the Mūmak.
"He can't abide the lives we're losing. He's going to try to take it down! Ranger Lorend, get down there and tell him we're falling back! NOW!" Lorend leapt upon his horse, wheeled it about and booted it into a canter, heading down the slope behind Boromir and his captains to go around the valley. At the same moment Hethlin leapt onto her horse and kicked him into motion down the front of the slope.
"Ranger, get back here!" Boromir bellowed, but he was disregarded. The girl had bow in hand and was riding down the steep slope guiding her horse with legs and weight alone. I didn't know she could ride like that!
"What's that madman doing?" Gethrin asked.
"He's going to try for the Mūmak. You pricked his Ranger pride, Gethrin," the Captain-General growled. "But he won't be able to get close enough. And if he survives to make it back up here, I'm going make him regret it."
Lorend will never make it in time to call the Captain back! was the first thing that leapt into Hethlin's mind when she heard the Captain-General's order. The next thing was a picture of what was happening below, for after a year spent with the Rangers she knew that without having to see it. The Captain would have asked for volunteers for the suicidal mission and of those who had offered, he would have taken the best. Mablung. Anborn. Damrod. Angrim. Feredir. And himself of course. The ones who might possibly be able to do the impossible. The ones the Rangers could not afford to lose.
So when the Captain-General sent Lorend, she found herself in the saddle and riding downhill almost before she knew it, with only one goal in mind. I have to get there first! I have to take the Mūmak down, before the Captain and the others get trampled!
But as Arcag leapt nimbly down the hill, she began thinking again, rather than acting upon pure instinct.
She heard the Captain-General shouting behind her, and knew that she was in a lot of trouble for disregarding his order. Also, that what she wanted to do was impossible. Horses could not abide Mūmak, that was but one of the many things that made the great monsters so formidable. A horse was fast enough and nimble enough to keep you out of the way of the tusks and the trunk and the feet, so that you might get close enough for an eye shot, which was the only way you could kill a Mūmak with an arrow. But horses would not close, and if you went against the Mūmak on your own two feet, you were more than likely doomed.
Faramir, she knew, had tried once on Teilyn, his beautiful, Dol Amroth-bred war mare. The Prince bred the finest war-horses in Gondor, but Teilyn, though she had gone closer than most, would not get close enough for Faramir to take his shot. Others had tried, on seasoned war-horses, with the same result. Now she was going to attempt the feat on a wretched scrub stud of no pedigree. Hethlin wouldn't have bet a copper on her chances of success, but she had to try. There was no way she would let her comrades be killed if she could prevent it!
Arcag hit the bottom of the slope and galloped on to more level ground. She rose in her stirrups a little to get off his back and lay low over his neck. They were closing upon one of the companies of footmen, and she cried out a warning so that they would clear her path. They obligingly scattered out of the way, obviously shaken by the presence of the monster. Up ahead, she could see the great grey mountain that was the Mūmak. If Arcag cleared the company and still seemed willing, she would ready an arrow.
Boromir watched Hethlin's progress through the spyglass, and pondered a day that had gone totally to ruin. Not only did this battle look to be becoming a rout, but the odds were good that he would not need to hear his brother's chastisement about allowing the Ranger girl to charge the Mūmak, because the Mūmak was probably going to kill both of them!
He was glad he wasn't riding the stud as he watched it. That jarring gait was obvious even at a distance. But the girl rode calm and quiet on its back. They galloped through one of the scattering companies and were within long bow range of the monster. He was going to have to go down on to the field soon himself and try to stem the confusion, but for now he watched, fascinated. Would the ugly brown horse actually go close enough to do any good?
Arcag flew through the company and onto a piece of open ground. Then they encountered more men fleeing heedlessly from the huge beast, and twice Hethlin had to draw rein on the stud and slow him to avoid running them over. Arcag pinned his ears back and slung his head when she did so. Over time, she had found that he usually went better if she did not touch his mouth much, for it had been abused by his previous owner. So once they had wended their way through the men, Hethlin dropped rein again, and coaxed him with knee and weight to the left, towards the Mūmak. She would not attempt to make him confront the beast by force.
Astonished that he had come so close, for there was nothing but open ground now between them and the Mūmak and arrows were beginning to drop around them, she pulled an arrow from her quiver. "Good lad. Good Arcag," she crooned over and over again, almost a chant. Her awareness narrowed and focused itself, on the sweating, pounding horse beneath her, the sun beating down upon her back and head, the feel of the bow and arrow and string in her fingers. And the mammoth bulk before them, drawing ever nearer. They were at mid-range now, and Arcag had still not shied off. The smell of it hit her nostrils, hot in the sun, animal but alien, unlike anything she had ever smelled before. This was the point, she had been told by Faramir, where most people lost the battle with their horses, when the smell hit them. Arcag merely snorted, blowing foam back onto her legs, shook his head-and bored on in.
"Do you see it, sir! Do you see it!" the captain with the spyglass was shouting.
"I see it, Hathol! That ugly bastard has gone closer than any horse I've ever seen!" Go, you horrible, lovely horse! Go, girl, go!
"Oh no, the Ranger's been shot!"
Alarmed, Boromir refocused the spyglass, then sighed in relief. "No, he hasn't. Just ducking behind the neck a bit, to shelter from the arrows. A nice bit of riding, that."
"What's that fellow doing in the Rangers instead of the cavalry?"
"Shooting that Mūmak, I hope!"
Gethrin, who had only his naked eyes to watch with, asked, "Orders, sir?"
Intent upon the spectacle below, the Captain-General said almost absently, "Hold on the retreat for now, Gethrin. If the Ranger actually takes the Mūmak down, then we attack full force. You can pass the word along, but I don't think you'll have to."
"Yes, sir!" Boromir could hear him moving off, but he kept his glass trained on that distant, swift-moving speck, that had incredibly not yet swerved or jibbed or shied. So he saw the moment when Hethlin got finally close enough and stood in her stirrups in the saddle. Saw the bow drawn full back to her ear and the snap of release. Knew in his bones that the shot was perfect, so perfect that he did not even bother to watch the Mūmak fall-the bellow of the beast and the triumphant cries of his men told him all he needed to know about that.
"Valar!" Captain Hathol shouted. "That's impossible!"
"I think I'm in love," Boromir muttered.
He kept the glass trained on the girl, and thus he saw the Haradrim arrows hit both her and the horse as the behemoth began to fall. The bow dropped from her hand as she slumped over the saddle, the stud crow-hopping in pain. Then she was enveloped in a wave of Gondorian soldiers rushing forward to engage the Haradrim. He sighed, and hoped the wound was not a mortal one. Faramir will never forgive me for this. But Hethlin has more than repaid my trust in her with this day's deed.
Closing the glass, he put it back in the case on his belt, and called for his horse. "Hathol!"
"Get that Ranger and that horse to the healers and see that they're cared for! I'll think of something appropriate for the man, if he lives. I've got a battle to fight." He did not wait to hear Hathol's acknowledgement, for he was already moving, planning in his mind how he wished for the rest of the battle to be waged.
The eye had been surprisingly small for such a large beast, about the size of the bull's eye on a target, and she had been shooting upwards. But Hethlin had known the shot was good the moment the arrow left string, and was already wheeling Arcag away, to the right and out of the path of the beast's fall. It was then that the Haradrims' last, desperately shot arrows found them. She heard Arcag squeal in pain even as something thudded into her left shoulder from behind and fire blossomed from the point of impact. Darkness danced before her eyes, and in desperation she dropped her bow, seizing the stud's ratty mane with her good hand and holding on blindly as he crow-hopped his way through a mass of men crying war "Gondor! Gondor!", heading towards where theMūmak had fallen.
I think we've done our fair share today, Arcag and I. Hethlin wanted to be away from this confusing chaos, so unlike the battles under the trees that she was familiar with. She wanted, in fact, to be under the trees, in the shade and away from the cruel sun, some place where she could stop Arcag and see how badly he was hurt. She held onto his mane and squeezed him with her legs and let him chose his own path. He seemed to share her opinion, for before long they had trotted and bucked their way out of the battle, up a slope and into a stand of trees.
There he stopped, head down, blowing, and she slid shakily off his back. When her feet hit the ground, her shoulder flamed anew, and she had to lean against the saddle for a moment until the pain and dizziness subsided. Then she cast her gaze over her mount. There was an arrow sticking out of Arcag's left haunch, but it did not look as if it had penetrated very far. Not wanting him to bite her, she gathered the reins as best she could one-handed and wrapped them awkwardly around the nearest tree, tethering his head close. He slung his head in protest a little, but the reins held.
"Good lad. Brave lad," Hethlin murmured. "Please don't kick me." Standing close to his side, she reached up with her uninjured right hand and closed her fingers around the shaft, yanking it out with a swift motion once she had done so. Arcag squealed, and his foot did lash out despite her entreaties, but it did so directly behind him and she was not in its path. The water bottle upon her saddle was almost full, so she took a drink, then poured some of the water over the wound. Arcag seemed to appreciate that and gave her no further trouble.
Having done what she could to succor her horse, Hethlin looked down into the valley where the battle was raging. She saw no sign of the Rangers, but she was not expecting to-they had been around on the left flank, and she was now on the right. Arcag needed to walk, he was hot, and she needed to rejoin her comrades. And she could not let one of the regular army's healers treat her, for then her secret would become common knowledge.
Surrendering to necessity, with a sigh she untied Arcag and began to walk him slowly along the slope under the trees towards where the Captain-General had had his vantage point, the first leg in her journey around the valley. She picked her way carefully, to avoid stepping in holes or tripping over roots and jarring her shoulder. They had a long way to go, she and Arcag, with neither of them in the best of shape. But there was no help for it but to start.
The aftermath of the battle-dealing with the disposition of prisoners, care of the wounded, the burial of the Gondorian dead and the burning of the Haradrim, took all of Boromir's attention until sundown and a little past it. The tusks of the Mūmak had already been removed and added to the spoils from the vanquished. The bones would be sold to a merchant who specialized in hides and bone and ivory. He would have to wait to claim his merchandise until the carcass had been picked clean by scavengers. Because of the carcass, Boromir intended to break camp the very first thing in the morning, and take his men far up the road. This particular area was going to be unbearable for about a month. Such was always the case when a Mūmak was killed in hot weather. They were too big to burn, so they had to be left to the scavengers of the wild.
When he returned to his tent, he found Captain Hathol, who informed him that Hathol had been unable to carry out the order regarding the Ranger. "He would have none of our healers, my lord, just stood there bleeding with that arrow sticking out of his shoulder and said that he only wanted Rangers touching him! I told him it was your order, but he did not listen. Why would he act in such wise? These Rangers get above themselves!" The captain was obviously offended; but Boromir, hearing his account, was relieved. If Hethlin had been on her feet and arguing, the odds were good the wound was not a mortal one.
He sighed. "Hathol, the lad was an orc captive once, and tortured by them. Faramir and his men rescued him and nursed him back to health. He trusts them, and very few others, particularly when he is hurt. I am sorry, I should have remembered that when I gave you the order." As well as the fact that the girl cannot be treated by a Healer outside the Ranger company! Hethlins wits are as quick as her bow!
"Truly? And after all that, he fights?" Astonishment was writ large on the captain's face.
"Because of that, and the deaths of everyone in his family, he fights."
"How old is he?"
Boromir thought for a moment. "He would be eighteen by now."
"Only eighteen? And he made that shot? Valar!" the captain exclaimed, obviously both impressed and appeased. "Are you going to reward him, sir?"
"Obviously. He saved the day. And that horse as well. I noticed the ugly fellow still had his stones-I wonder if I shouldn't find a mare or two for him. Girls with good gaits and better dispositions, of course. It would be handy to have some horses that would face Mūmakil down. I'd give a lot to know why he does it and other horses won't."
"If you ask me, he was offended because the Mūmak was the only thing on the field uglier than he was!" Hathol declared with a snort.
Boromir laughed. "That's as good an explanation as any!" He then summoned Gethrin, who had some things he needed, and since there were still some more things that needed doing, went in search of the Rangers.
He found their camp as he had expected, up under the trees and close to a small stream which descended from a spring close by. The two courier horses were tethered under the trees. Arcag was tied on a fairly short rope, but he had a huge pile of freshly cut grass at his feet, which he was tearing into with great enthusiasm. A white bandage was stuck to his flank, and he had been thoroughly groomed. Rangers were gathered around campfires, drinking and eating and discussing the day's events. "Captain-General, sir!" Ranger Lorend hailed him. Other Rangers rose to their feet, murmured greetings, or nodded acknowledgement. A much more casual welcome than he was used to getting from the rest of his troops, but he knew that Faramir was truly the supreme commander here.
Thinking of his brother, Boromir looked about for him. He noticed that the wounded were being cared for in lean-tos and that the camp was exceptionally well organized and tidy to a fault. But Faramir was nowhere to be seen.
"Where is Captain Faramir, Ranger Lorend?"
"He stepped out a little while ago, my lord-said he had something to do. Can I help you?"
Boromir strolled over and handed the Ranger a sack. "The best oats in the camp. For that fellow over there who goes a lot prettier than he looks."
Lorend laid them near the fire. "Thank you, sir. We'll give them to him tomorrow-he's already had enough grain and apples and bread and such today to founder if he gets any more. Though I will say that it's sweetened his temper as much as I've ever seen it sweetened."
"Was he seriously hurt?"
"No, sir, just got struck in the flank. He'll be stiff for a bit, but nothing more."
"And Ranger Hethlin?"
Lorend threw a glance at Gethrin before he answered. "He's well enough, sir. Shot in the shoulder from behind. It hit the shoulder blade and lodged in the muscle, but Lieutenant Mablung got it out. He won't be shooting for a little while, but if it doesn't fester, he'll be fine in a month's time."
"Is he up to receiving visitors?"
"I think so, sir. The lieutenant hasn't given him any poppy yet. Shall I take you to him?"
The Ranger got up from the campfire and led them towards one of the lean-tos. On the way, Boromir asked, "How badly were the Rangers hurt?"
"We're fine, sir." Lorend shrugged a little. "Took some arrow hits and the odd slash here and there, but we didn't lose anyone. When the Mūmak went down, Captain Faramir drew back-he and the others never got really close. Then we went back to doing what you'd asked us to do in the first place, picking off the ones on the right flank."
"I'm glad you got off so lightly. The second foot company took the brunt of things-they lost half their men. But it wasn't a bad day all around-it could have been much worse without Ranger Hethlin and that horse."
Lorend nodded. There was a lantern hung in the lean-to, and by its light they could see
Lieutenant Mablung, who was whittling something as he sat beside Hethlin's bedroll. She was laying upon her right side, to spare the shoulder, and there was a book open beside the bed. Mablung was saying something to her in a low voice and she was smiling. Then she heard the approaching footsteps, looked up and her eyes widened. The lieutenant started to stand, and she to push herself up, but Boromir forestalled them both with an upraised hand.
"As you were, gentlemen." Mablung surrendered his place to the Captain-General and Boromir hunkered down beside Hethlin's bedroll, peripherally aware of the shadowy shapes of Rangers rising from their fires and moving to join Lorend outside.
"Are you comfortable, Ranger Hethlin? Is there anything you need?"
"Yes, my lord, and no," she said hesitantly, eyes searching his face. The reason for her unease was revealed the next moment when she asked, "Am I in trouble, sir?"
"In trouble? Oh, you mean that little business about ignoring my order?" He gave her his best Supreme Commander stare, and fancied that he could discern her blush even by lantern light. Relenting after a moment, he grinned and said, "I think, given the way things fell out, that I might be persuaded to overlook your insubordination-just this once." Visibly relieved, she sagged back against her pillows and a little ripple of laughter rose from their audience. He laid a pouch close to her hand. It was of good size, and clinked as it was set down.
"A little bonus for your good work today." She nodded, laying her hand upon the pouch, but her eyes never left his face.
"Thank you, my lord." There was a murmur of approval from the Rangers.
"There is one more thing, Ranger. Gethrin, give it to me," Boromir commanded his aide, and Gethrin handed over his shoulder a long, narrow object swathed in a blanket. "This belonged to the commander of the Haradrim. It's one of the nicest bits of spoils we won today. Everyone thought you should have it."
He removed the covering, and exclamations arose from outside the lean-to, as the closest Rangers got a good look. What he held was a re-curve horse bow, made in a wood as black as pitch, ornamented with golden inlay and fittings. Glossy black leather wrapped the grip. The quiver and bow-case that Gethrin handed over with it were tooled ebon leather. There were no arrows with the quiver-they'd been used up-but it was as handsome a set as anyone could wish, with ornate buckles washed in gold.
"I've heard of these," Mablung said, interested. "but I never thought to see one! It's a Haradrim blackbow, Heth. Scarcer than hen's teeth, so they say. That wood is special, it grows way down south, and it's tough and flexible both. There's horn in that bow too. They make it like the Easterlings make theirs. 'Tis a princely gift, my lord," he said to Boromir. "You might have wanted to keep this one for yourself."
"You've obviously never seen me shoot, Mablung," the Captain-General said with a grin, "on a horse or off of it. It will serve Gondor far better in Hethlin's hands than mine. And he deserves it." He laid the bow on the blanket, and Hethlin's hand moved haltingly to caress the smooth wood.
"'Tis truly beautiful, sir. Thank you." She smiled, her eyes a bit glassy with the wound fever and he nodded, pleased.
"No, the thanks are entirely mine, Ranger Hethlin."
Applause and murmurs of approval rose from the Rangers, while Hethlin admired her prize. "It's got a ring to it, it does," Lorend commented. "Hethlin the Blackbow. Or maybe just Hethlin Blackbow."
There was a parting of the crowd, and Faramir suddenly appeared. He looked weary, as did they all, but he was clean and tidier than most-save for one odd ornament. Boromir stared at it in puzzlement.
"Brother, is there some reason you have a daisy stuck behind your ear?"
"Why yes, Boromir, there is," came the affable reply, but no further explanation was forthcoming. Boromir watched in astonishment as his brother's arrival with that stupid flower did what a sizeable purse of gold and one of the biggest prizes of the field had not-lit the girl's face until she was positively glowing, and laughing as well. The flower was apparently some kind of private joke.
That was significant in and of itself, for Faramir did not joke with people he did not consider friends, and he did not make friends easily. She needs to stay with your brother, had been the irresistibly strong impression Boromir had had back at Henneth-Annūn, and he'd thought at the time that perhaps the girl was destined to save Faramir in battle. Now, watching them together as the Ranger Captain admired her new bow and spoke to her of the book she was reading, he wondered if it was not because Faramir had simply needed another friend to help him weather a war he had never wanted to fight. Unlikely that it was that a battered, scarred girl half the Captain's age should become that friend, it seemed to have happened. Despite his earlier objections, Faramir had finally accepted Hethlin, not only as a Ranger, but as one of his friends.
Not one to storm heaven when more mundane means existed to achieve his goals, Boromir nonetheless sent a thought westward. Valar guard and guide you, Hethlin Blackbow. Be careful, be strong, be smart. Stay alive so that you will be there when Faramir needs you!
Aloud he said, "There's a keg of beer on the way for you Rangers! I thought you might want to toast the hero of the day!" Amidst their cheers, he inclined his head to his brother, the girl and Mablung, and left the Company of Ithilien to their well deserved rest.