"I think we must try to get her to the Houses," said Bergil earnestly. He had come for the second time that day as the bells were chiming the seventh hour – their clear notes the only way of guessing at time, under the unchanging gloom that now hung above the City – and finding no-one in the courtyard or answering his knock at the great door, had tentatively made his way through the house till he found Rowanna upstairs, hunched anxiously over the bed where her mother tossed and turned restlessly.
"The Houses?" Rowanna went on gently chafing her mother's cold hand as though she could will warmth into her. "Which Houses?"
"The Houses of Healing, up above us on the Sixth Circle. The Healers are very learned; my father says rarely is an ailment seen in Gondor that they cannot cure, or at least ease. They would know what to do!"
"But how on Middle-earth would we get Mother there, Bergil?" The flash of hope which had crossed Rowanna's face faded at once as she chewed her lip. "You can see how it is – even if she were to wake, she could not walk a step, I'm certain."
"We could get a litter," Bergil suggested, "beg one from the Houses, or make one with cloaks and staves if need be – though," he added doubtfully, "I'm not sure you and I could carry her safely, even if some of the boys from Mistress Berwyn's helped; we'll need grown men, which means Guards, really. If I just walk up to the Citadel and ask for help, there'll be all kinds of questions about who you are and how you come to be here. My father would help, though he might be stern about it – but he rode out to the Causeway Forts not an hour since, so he won't be back till sundown; I've just come from the stables - "
"The stables!" Rowanna gasped. "Bergil – was Gelion still there?"
"Yes, don't worry, and being well enough cared for -" He broke off. "You don't mean – surely your lady mother couldn't sit a horse, either?"
"She couldn't ride, that's certain," Rowanna agreed, "but I could carry her before me, for that short distance – Gelion is stronger than he looks, and the streets are good well-paved ground. If you and Iorhael or another of the lads would walk either side in case Mother were to slip, and we went slowly, I think it could be done without injuring her more." She swallowed hard. After all, Béodred and Dirgon carried me that way for weeks to Rivendell in what must have been much the same state!
"We'll do it!" Bergil sprang eagerly to his feet. "I'll run down to Lampwright's Street and get Iorhael – no, I'll find his father at the stables first and ask him to saddle Gelion, that'll save time. I'll be back soon!"
By the time they had walked Gelion with painstaking slowness up to the Sixth Circle Rowanna's shoulders and neck were hunched rigid; so tense was she both through trying to ensure her mother's still form did not slide from the horse's back, and waiting for a guardsman or some other official of the City to challenge their unlikely procession. But the only men they saw in the streets were either hurrying on their own business, or huddled in anxious knots on corners gesturing at the uncanny darkness above, and took no notice. When Bergil signalled to her to rein Gelion in, she let out a long, shaky breath she had been unaware she was holding. Now there is a sight for eyes weary of stone!
They stood in front of a lush green lawn, the first Rowanna had seen anywhere in the City; its boundaries marked by low hedges, guarded by several stately trees which would, she saw, fill the garden with welcome shade when their winter branches came into spring leaf. In the middle of the garden stood a cluster of white buildings with tiled roofs and many windows, some with little balconies; against the tall townhouses elsewhere in the Circle and the Citadel which towered behind them, they had a homely, welcoming look.
"The Houses of Healing," Bergil confirmed. "I'll find one of the Healers – not the Warden if I can help it, for he may ask awkward questions; if I can get Mistress Ioreth, she'll be too busy talking herself to worry about how you come to be here -" But they had clearly been spotted already, for Gelion was quickly surrounded by willing arms to lift Míranna carefully down onto a litter. Bearing her gently into one of the Houses was easily accomplished, for there were no steps up to the wide open front door, where a tall, thin woman of middle age in a spotless white apron stood to greet them.
"Heavens above, now what have we here? A faint? No broken bones? Well, no bleeding at any rate – I'm afraid we shall have to bear her upstairs, my dear," after Rowanna had managed to get a few words in to describe her mother's condition, "for the halls downstairs are all prepared for men from the battle when it comes, by the Warden's orders, and that'll be no place for her even if I were allowed to take up a bed there. But there's a little room at the end we could use, that's normally where the Warden's clerk sleeps but he's joined the soldiery, and away out at the Causeway Forts -"
It's Edyth all over again! Rowanna thought confusedly as she was ushered into the cool of the House; but just like Edyth, Ioreth seemed to get on with the task in hand even as she talked on, and several calm and competent Healers had soon borne the litter upstairs, installed Míranna on a low bed as comfortably as could be contrived, and sent for the Warden.
To Rowanna's relief the Warden, who clearly had much else on his mind, confined his questioning primarily to matters that might bear upon her mother's condition; the news that Rowanna had but recently returned to the City in search of her mother, found her already weary and weak, and that she had worsened much since yestereve, was all the circumstance he seemed concerned with. "And so she was, of course, too ill to leave the City as the Steward had commanded? Unfortunate," he went on before Rowanna need reply, "but not to be helped now, and indeed the journey South would have done her no good at all. You say she grew worse yesterday evening?"
"She seemed much weaker around sundown," Rowanna confirmed, "and coughed more, as though the very air itself was wearing on her. And – and today, since we woke to this strange twilight, she has not really roused at all, and has been cold and pale as you see her now, for all the heavy heat of the day. I wondered - "
"It – it may sound foolish, but two evenings ago she spoke of the darkness to come, and said she felt it already sapping her strength. And I -" Should I tell him? But if it can help Mother - "Last spring, in Rohan, I – I was struck down by a roaming black horse that was thought to have come out of Mordor, and I lay cold and faint, just as Mother seems now, for many weeks. Do – do you think what ails her is to do with this horrible darkness that is flowing from the East, that has veiled the sky and the sun all day?"
"'Twould be most strange," mused the Warden, "and I know not by what means such a sickness might come about; for although the murk in the air might account for the patient's cough and the ragged breathing you describe, and is already beginning to weigh on the spirits of many in the City, I cannot see why it should make her thus insensible and cold. If it is so, then I fear there are powers at work that we cannot begin to guess at." He frowned. "You say you yourself underwent such a sickness in Rohan, my lady? Might I ask how you were cured?"
"I - " Rowanna closed her eyes. "I was brought back by a great healer, far from here; one with all the wisdom of the Elves at his disposal."
The Warden raised an eyebrow. "That, I fear, madam, we cannot call upon in these our Houses, much though we might have need of it in the days to come. We can but keep your mother as comfortable as may be, and watch for any change. I will have our healers look upon her each hour; call upon them in the meantime if she wakes, for then we will try to feed her a little tonic cordial to warm her innards – and call also if she seems to worsen, or if you have any other fears or needs."
With that he bowed and left them; and a moment later Bergil, who must have been watching from the hallway for his departure, knocked gently at the half-open door to see if there was anything further he could do for Rowanna.
"It's growing ever darker," he said ruefully, " even though there should be hours till sundown yet. If I were showing the City to Master Peregrin the Perian today, he wouldn't get to see very much!"
For a moment Rowanna, who had turned back to her mother, barely registered his chatter; then she turned sharply.
"Perian? Bergil – what did you say?"
"Oh, I am sorry – we were more concerned with Lady Míranna earlier, and I didn't think to tell you all the news from the Citadel and the Gate," the boy explained. "He came down to the house in Lampwrights' Street yesterday afternoon, while the sun was still shining – a perian, a Hobbit he says he is called, from far in the North; he rode in yesterday morning with a great white wizard called Mithrandir, on the finest grey stallion you ever saw!"
"If that was Shadowfax, then it is true, not even the royal stables of Rohan ever saw a finer!" Rowanna replied, still slightly dazed.
"How did – but you know of them, then?" Bergil looked confused.
"Oh, Bergil," Rowanna had to laugh, "it is the longest and strangest tale you ever heard, and I would keep you from Mistress Berwyn's till sundown and long past if you waited to hear it all! But yes – suffice it to say that I know Pippin well, from far in the North as you say, and even Mithrandir a little." Then Legolas was right – Pippin was safe! And Gandalf is in the thick of things, as usual... "But where is Pippin, Bergil? Could you get a message to him for me? I would dearly love to see him!"
"It might take me a while," Bergil said doubtfully, "for Master Peregrin was given a position at once in the Citadel Guard, in Father's company, and is serving the Steward himself, although he's shorter than I am!" He looked wistful for a moment. "He must be a great warrior, must he not, this prince of the periannath? Do you truly call him Pippin?"
"I do, for I knew him in happier times," Rowanna sighed. "And in those days he would not have called himself much of a warrior, doughty though he always was; but he has been through many perils since, and what they will have made of him I cannot tell. Will you tell him where I am, and send him greetings from me?"
"Gladly," said Bergil; "I'll go up to the Citadel now and see if any of Father's company are there and can tell me where Master Peregrin is, and when he might be at leisure."
"Oh, and Bergil -" he turned in the doorway - "I have been thinking... Iorhael said that all horses had been requisitioned for the errand-riders, didn't he? Are they – do you know, are they short of mounts?"
"Very, I think," he grimaced. "Minas Tirith has never had many beasts within the walls, and a few have been lost already out in Ithilien, to Haradric bowmen and the like."
"Then - " she swallowed hard - "would you send a message to Iorhael's father to lend Gelion to whatever rider is in most need? He is very swift, tell him, and biddable, but hardier than he looks." She bit her lip. "He has been a good friend to me, but he was lent me by those who would well understand the City's need of him now, and who would give any aid they could against the Dark Lord; I know they would not grudge him."
"I'll do it," Bergil nodded his approval. "Till later, then!" and he sketched a quick bow and was gone.
The afternoon wore away with little change; the Healers came and went, one of them bringing a boy with a little food and water, and urging Rowanna to eat, "for those of us charged with caring for the sick must keep up our own strength as we can for our task." Míranna neither woke, nor stirred from her deep cold faint. From time to time Rowanna looked through the window, but the uncanny darkness seemed only to grow, and the room was grey and drear; she was given permission to light a candle, as long as she closed the shutters when she heard the sundown-bells. So she forced herself to listen carefully for the chiming of the hours; she had long heard the tenth hour, and was beginning to expect the eleventh, when she heard soft footfalls in the corridor and a light tap at the door. Expecting the Healers again, she bid them enter – then gave a cry of delight as, instead, a curly head and a considerably shorter figure appeared.
"Pippin! Bergil got my message to you, then? Oh, how glad I am to see you!" She jumped up, then got down on one knee instead to embrace him, the embroidery of the White Tree and the mailed hauberk beneath it feeling strange beneath her hands. "You're all right? When did you last see the others?"
"I can't stop for long," the Hobbit began as he seated himself on the low stool she offered him. "Bergil told me your mother is sick, I'm sorry – is there any change?"
"None that I can see," Rowanna sighed. "It has been a long and weary day of waiting – what news can you tell to cheer me, Pippin?"
"Well, I'll have to try to be brief, or I'll never get through it all! Merry was well when I last saw him – we had all sorts of adventures with the Ents in Fangorn Forest and at Isengard, but I left him in Rohan after – well, never mind that now. Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas were with King Théoden on the way back from a huge battle somewhere called Helm's Deep – they won that one, against all Saruman's orcs, though Gandalf and the Huorns helped of course, and – oh!" He broke off, and Rowanna caught her breath during the welcome pause. "Of course – what an idiot I am! He must have meant you – but how did he know?..."
"Who, Pippin? Know what?"
"Legolas," said Pippin wonderingly. "When Gandalf and I rode off from Dol Baran in the middle of the night, and Gandalf wouldn't say where we were going or why, Legolas said something very strange about 'meeting a friend of us both at your journey's end,' and asked me to bear a message to her from him. He meant you – he must have done! Though I still don't understand – did he know you were here?"
"He knew I meant to try and get here, for I saw him in Edoras just before he and Gimli and Aragorn rode out with Théoden King to go to the Fords of Isen," Rowanna exclaimed. "Pippin, please – what was the message? What did he say?"
"He asked me to tell you -" Pippin closed his eyes and thought - "'that I think of her in peril and in peace, that she should not lose hope, and that we may yet meet again beyond the darkness.' It was a very Elvish thing to say, wasn't it? Don't you often feel as though Elves know an awful lot more than they will admit to, and then when they will tell you anything, they talk in riddles? Rather like Gandalf, really..."
"Oh yes, Pippin," Rowanna smiled. "I know exactly what you mean. But let us hope that particular riddle will read itself aright, for I should dearly love to see Legolas again!"
"And this horrible darkness to be over," the Hobbit agreed. "If we ever all get to sit together again and tell all the tales of our wanderings, it will be a fine day indeed!" Below in the City the bells began to chime, and he jumped to his feet. "Forgive me – I can't linger, for that's the eleventh hour, and if I don't get to the buttery and find something to eat before I am summoned back to the Lord Denethor then my stomach will tie itself in knots!" He embraced Rowanna quickly. "I am so glad you are here – it is good to see any friend in this gloomy city, though I am sorry to find you in the Houses. May your mother soon be well – I'll come again, or send word by Bergil, when I can."
"Indeed I am honoured that you wanted to find me even more urgently than to eat! Go safely, Pippin," Rowanna said as his bare feet pattered hastily back down the hallway.
She was about to close the door behind him, but thought better of it, for the air had grown still more oppressive and it began to seem hard to breathe. Wanting to catch whatever breeze there might be before the sundown-bells forced her to close the shutters, she opened the window as wide as it would go and leant out. The black clouds overhead loured more heavily than ever, and she realised that her head had begun to thump painfully. I haven't felt like this since that day in Rivendell, just before Frodo and the others were rescued, she remembered, that horrible moment when -
It came, at the same instant as the memory; the hideous, venomous screech that chilled her blood and sent her reeling back against the wall, covering her ears. Behind her in the bed her mother stirred and moaned faintly. They're here – already? Oh please, no, make it stop - Another cry, and then the distant high note of a horn; the screech again. Rowanna forced herself to the window, just in time to catch in the gloom of the Pelennor below a flash of white light. Then all was still.
She staggered back to the stool by the bed and sat, trembling, beside Míranna. High feverish spots of colour were burning on her mother's cheeks, though she still felt cold to the touch. At last, Rowanna heaved a shaky sigh, managed to get to her feet, and set off in search of a Healer.
In the entrance-hall of the House she found - not commotion, the House was too calmly run for that, but swift activity. "Two of the Lord Faramir's company are coming wounded off the field," one of the errand-lads told her as he caught his breath. "You heard those horrible screams?" Rowanna nodded mutely. "Those – things – attacked them as they rode back from the Forts; how they escaped I don't know! Someone said it was the White Rider, that wizard -" Gandalf! Rowanna remembered the flash of light. Thank the Powers – he would beat them off, if any could! "They say the war's really coming, now," the boy said, caught between excitement and fear. "But our Captain Faramir will save us -" He broke off as cheering and shouts carried to the hallway from the street. "They're coming up to the Citadel! I must go and see - " He dashed off, leaving Rowanna to find a Healer who was not needed for the injured riders and could come to Míranna.
When the Healer had felt Míranna's pulse and brow, tried to trickle a little willowbark infusion between her lips, and departed shaking her head, Rowanna got up and closed the shutters mechanically. She took up her station once more by her mother's side, held her hand, and tried to talk of inconsequential things, in case Míranna could hear her; but she trailed off into silence at last. The city bells told the hours one by one; Rowanna gazed unseeing into the steady flame where the candle still held the shadows back a little.
Do not lose hope; for we may yet meet again beyond the darkness.