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29
Till the Dark Lord Lifts His Hand

So, they are coming. Rowanna gazed out at the pinpricks of light dotting the darkened Pelennor, and shivered. Every time I look, they have multiplied like flies... At first she had thought the distant fires might belong to companies guarding the out-walls; but then Pippin, coming to see how she fared after a night spent cold and sleepless watching from the eastern wall, had brought her a grimmer explanation.

"The Rammas is breached," he said anxiously, "did you hear those rumbles like thunder just after the day-bells? Beregond says the Enemy blew great holes in it with blasting-fire, and there are black companies coming pouring through like water. Gandalf is out there, somewhere, but there's no news of him nor of Faramir who was trying to hold the Causeway Forts..." He swallowed. "And you? There is no change in Lady Míranna?"

Rowanna shook her head. "She is – so far away, Pippin, and so cold. Were it not that I hold that little polished metal mirror to her lips from time to time and see it cloud, I could not be certain even that she still breathes." She tried to keep her voice steady over the tightening of her throat. "I think I must have been like this, when Béodred and Dirgon brought me to Rivendell all that time ago; and only Master Elrond knew how to bring me back. Without him, I don't think anything is to be done but wait, and-and hope..."

"I think that is all any in the City are doing," the Hobbit agreed ruefully, "hoping for Faramir, for the coming of Rohan, for they know not what." He bit his lip. "It may not be long before the Healers need all those bandages you've been making."

For the last two days, while she watched over her mother's slow sinking into the dark, Rowanna's hands had been hard at work; she had been more than grateful for the steady activity, tearing linen into long strips and neatly rolling them, which prevented her endlessly pacing the room until she felt she would run mad. Mistress Ioreth had put her to work: "for every hand in the Houses that can be spared and isn't needed for more skilled tasks is turned to such as this, my dear, by the Warden's order. We are well provisioned enough in the normal run of things; but what we'll need in the days to come none can say. The herbmaster's had any lad who knows his plants out scouring every courtyard in the City for poppyseed or nettle, we've every straw pallet that can be found laid out in the halls below, and linen called in from all over for bandages." She sighed. "Whether 'twill be enough who knows; but at least it'll not be said that those black devils find us unreadied for lack of effort!"

On her occasional forays into the corridors in search of healers to look to Míranna, Rowanna had gradually come to realise how much larger the Houses were than their homely outward appearance had first shown them; there were large dormitories and smaller side-rooms, kitchens, laundries and linen-rooms, storerooms of all kinds. Where much of the City on her wanderings with Bergil had seemed deserted, the Houses were peopled, busy, preparing; another thought which made her shiver, when she dwelt upon what it meant. Many, many wounded. To say nothing of those who might be beyond help...

So she worked mechanically, all the while watching Míranna's bloodless face and trying to hear her breathing; much of the time she talked softly, both to fill the endless silence and because the Healers urged it, saying that one in so deep a faint could sometimes hear and be roused by a known voice even when they seemed insensible to all about them. She told her mother tales of Rivendell, of her journey southwards, of the Company; although she took care not to name their quest, not here, with the Enemy barely furlongs from the gates.

"Rivendell would bring balm to the most troubled soul; there was beauty everywhere, in the house and in the woods, and of course Elves fairer than any mortal face you ever saw. I wish you could have seen the Lady Arwen; to look upon her truly was as though you saw starlight itself, and she is as kind as she is beautiful. She sat for hours by my bedside when I lay there as lost and as cold as you seem now, and she sang to me; after I awoke I heard her voice, and I remembered the song..."

Rowanna began to laugh, then choked on a sob. "I cannot sing you to health again with my crow's-caw, that's certain! Oh, Mother, I wish Arwen were here, and Master Elrond! And – and Legolas. He was nearly the only Elf in Rivendell, except for Elrond and Arwen and the twins, who did not treat me as some sort of sickly child to be pitied – although even he made his mistakes!" She smiled. "I told you about all that business with Caradhras, did I not? But I didn't tell you what happened later: just before he and Aragorn and Gimli rode out with King Théoden from Edoras, and he found out that I was planning to set off down the West-road, and instead of trying to stop me he let me go..." She fell silent, remembering.

More than let me go; he wrapped me in his cloak, and gave me his blessing. If she closed her eyes she was back beneath the eaves of the houses in Edoras, feeling his kiss upon her brow. The grey cloak lay over the back of her chair; on impulse, she pulled it around her as though she could draw comfort from the warmth of its folds.

I think of you in peril and in peace. Do not lose hope... She came back ever and again to the message Pippin had faithfully relayed; for as the hours and days grew steadily darker, it did indeed seem as though hope was all that was left to the remnant of Gondor which watched the hordes draw nearer.

And hope is all I can do for Mother; that too I know, though I am not sure how. Oddly, even as the mood in the City grew more anxious, Rowanna found herself increasingly filled with a strange calm. I think all that time in the company of Elves must be rubbing off; what was it Legolas once said? "I trust that the Powers know how the Song will end at last, whatever the part I play in making it so." Well, there may seem no reason to hope; but does not hope go beyond reason? Then I shall choose to hope, since it seems to be all I can do to influence my fate – or yours, Mother.

Rowanna shifted in her chair, then stood up and stretched her stiffening limbs; as she did so, she half-turned towards the window – then stopped dead, feeling her stomach lurch.

"Oh, Mother, they're everywhere," she whispered, gazing horrified at the rivers of flame now flowing from every direction towards the city walls. "They must be burning every barn and house and tree. Poor Lord Faramir - I hope Mithrandir can offer him some aid, or surely his company is lost!" She took a deep breath, and squared her shoulders. "They will come, Mother. Théoden King, and the Chieftain, and Legolas. They will come for us."

Pausing to bend over her mother and smooth the hair back over Míranna's brow, she took her latest basket of bandages and set off towards the storeroom where she had been asked to leave them. She was halfway down the central staircase when she heard the shouts outside and the rumbling of cartwheels; then suddenly feet were hurrying all about her as Healers and stretcher-bearers appeared from all directions.

"You, boy, run for the Warden," Rowanna heard one of the women call, "tell him there are injured men come in from the Causeway Forts; we need him at once. Then get to the kitchen and make sure they have water on – and find Master Linhir and tell him poppy syrup." She grimaced. "Plenty of it."

Reluctant to cross the hall and risk getting in the way, Rowanna stood frozen to the spot. Slowly, carefully, the first stretchers were carried in, and she swallowed hard. Any rider of Rohan saw broken limbs, plenty of bruising among the more reckless lads, the occasional dislocated shoulder, but this... She had to look away.

"Now it begins in earnest," a voice said softly behind her, and she turned to find a grim-faced Healer above her on the stair. "And these are only the more lightly wounded; those they thought could be saved. They are saying - " He choked off. "They are saying that the Lord Faramir slew by his own hand those too sore hurt to be moved, rather than leave them alive for the Enemy."

Rowanna nearly turned and fled; but if they can hold fast for those who need them, so can you, she told herself through gritted teeth. She waited till there was clear passage across the hall to the storeroom, left her bandages in exchange for yet more linen, and forced herself to walk with a steady tread back to Míranna's room.


***

Pippin came again in the late afternoon, released for a while from the service of the Steward, for Denethor was with his captains making some urgent plan.

"Have you eaten anything today?" he demanded, dropping a small sack from his shoulder. "No, I thought as much," when Rowanna admitted she was far from sure what day or time it was, let alone when she should have eaten. "Here's a bit of bread and cheese – pretty hard, both of them, I'm afraid, but better than letting yourself starve to death. And a flagon of small beer, look. Beregond is right – hardships and adventures make you appreciate how important it is to eat while there's food to be had!" He broke the bread, hacked at the cheese with his knife, and passed her half of both.

"It's getting worse, isn't it?" he added uneasily, seeing Rowanna's gaze keep returning to the window. "Not that you can see anything at all out there now, it's grown so dark. But the torches get closer and closer. Lord Denethor has been waiting all day for news of Faramir, I think, ever since Gandalf came back with the wounded from the Forts this morning; and the longer they wait for tidings, the worse they all fear it will be -"

Pippin broke off as faint shouts and sounds of running came up to the open window. "Something's happening – I'll go and see!" Not many minutes later, he came breathlessly back: "They're coming. The retreat's been sighted; there's a company still in marching order, they say, with horsemen in their rearguard, less than a mile out. Oh, please let them make it!" Rowanna pulled a stool over to the window for the Hobbit and they stood together, straining their eyes into the murk below and listening.


Distant shouts; the rivers of fire in flood now, converging on the ground before the Gate; then, making Rowanna and Pippin cringe even at this great distance, the grating shrieks of the Nazgûl. They covered their ears, turned away, forced themselves to look again. Suddenly a great trumpet-blast rang out, and far below from the walls a shout went up.

"The sortie!" Pippin nearly fell off the stool. "Gandalf and my lord Denethor talked of a sortie – oh, now I see! That must be the Swan Knights that Beregond talked of – Gondor's greatest horsemen – gone to rescue Faramir! Swan Knights, to Faramir!" There was a burst of blinding white light from below, causing more screams from the Nazgûl as they were driven off.

"Gandalf! Gandalf!" the Hobbit yelled. "He's done it again! Hurrah for Gandalf – see, Rowanna, the Enemy's troops are scattering, the Gondorrim turn on them! Gondor, Gondor!"

The trumpet rang out again from the walls, calling the companies back into their orderly retreat to the City as the Haradrim fled. Pippin and Rowanna could just make out the silver and blue banner which Pippin said was the banner of Dol Amroth, bringing up the rear.

"They did it!" Rowanna heaved a huge sigh of relief. "Do you think Faramir is safe?"

"I'll find out soon enough," said Pippin wryly, "for I'm bound to be summoned back to the lord Denethor - I must go in a moment. And the Nazgûl were well and truly routed, weren't they? - they seem to fear the White Rider's fire as nothing else." He fell silent a moment, looking thoughtful. "Rowanna... may I ask you something? You won't think it amiss of me?"

"I can't imagine what you could ask that would offend me, Pippin! Ask..."

"You said, didn't you, that you are sure the Lady Míranna's sickness deepens as the darkness grows, and the Dark Lord's grip tightens?" Rowanna nodded. "And – and it was the touch of the Enemy, Elrond thought, through that black horse of Mordor, that had struck you down and made you sick when you were taken to Rivendell? Well, it's just that – here are the Nazgûl, and the Enemy in force around our walls, and -"

"You wonder, Pippin, that this time, though Mother is stricken, I seem to be hale and well?" The Hobbit nodded, cheeks growing a little pink. "I have been wondering, too. Perhaps, by bringing me back from the darkness that first time, Master Elrond gave me some strength to resist it; yet that cannot be all, for something happened later that proved that, even in Rivendell, darkness and despair could still threaten me." She thought for a moment. "But then ..someone else.. taught me our best weapon against despair; we can choose not to yield to it. When you hear those – things – screeching it feels, does it not, as though the weight and the blackness will go on crushing you forever?" Pippin nodded vigorously. "Well, my one defence is, I think, that I have learnt that they pass." Feeling suddenly very grateful for Pippin's presence, she gave him a fierce swift hug. " 'Loyalty, and friendship, and love can be stronger even than the Shadow, if only we do not lose hope'... Legolas told me that; and we must believe it, Pippin, we must. Aragorn, and Gimli, and Legolas will not desert us. They will come."

***

Gimli sat on the deck in the bows of the greatest ship of Harad's fleet, whetting his axe. Somewhere in the stern was Aragorn, giving orders, talking to clan chiefs from Lebennin and Ethir or some such names Gimli had only half-caught. The sons of Elrond were off looking to the sick and maltreated among the Haradrim's slaves, and those wounded in the battle for the ships; and taking command of the rest of the fleet were Halbarad and the other lieutenants of the Grey Company. Seamen they were not; but they knew Aragorn's mind, he supposed, and they would find captains enough among the freed folk of Gondor that would know how to bend these great ships to the Heir of Isildur's will.

The Elf, meanwhile, might for all Gimli could tell have turned into one of those trees he was so friendly with. Or a ship's mast, perhaps! Made of wood, at any rate... For Legolas sat neatly balanced on the rail at the very tip of the bows, gazing downriver into the blackness, utterly motionless. Barely a word had he spoken since they had come unscathed through that wild battle for the fleet, followed Aragorn up into the Haradrim's flagship, and thrown themselves down exhausted on the deck. Gimli had gone in search of food, water, had even dug the Elf's cloak from his pack as the night drew in; but Legolas seemed to feel nor hunger nor thirst nor cold, did not move and did not speak. At any other time Gimli would have gone straight to Aragorn; but anything short of life-or-death crisis seemed less urgent than the Man's many current concerns, and so the Dwarf could do little but worry and let be.

Shouts and the clopping of hooves rang out, and turning for a moment to look under the rail Gimli saw a steady stream of horsemen reining in on the quayside. Of course, there had been some messenger brought to Aragorn from – what was the Man's name? - Angbor of Lamedon, that was it, promising horses. Well, it seemed they had arrived. He gave a small satisfied nod, and turned his attention back to his axe.

"The edge on this was almost gone by the time we'd finished," he said conversationally, "not that I grudge it, mind you, breaking the chains of those poor devils. Not many of them that will be fit to fight for Aragorn, loyal folk of Gondor though they be – half-starved, some of them, though I grant you the oarsmen are in better case. Not much point in chaining a slave to a rowing-bench and then having him unfit to pull an oar, I suppose." He worked the whetstone steadily against the edge of his blade, throwing off an occasional spark into the darkness. Around him the timbers of the ship creaked as she rode at anchor on the low tide.

"Gulls, Gimli."

It was so long since Legolas had said anything, and he spoke so softly, that for a moment the Dwarf could not grasp what he had said. "What's that?"

"The gulls. Do not you hear them? I can hear nothing else." The Elf did not turn, nor move an inch, but went on gazing out over the water. "I wonder what they see, up there, and what we look like to them. I wonder what they think of..."

"I can get no sense from you," Gimli grumbled. "Not a word have you spoken since we came down to Pelargir, not even to Arod, and now you talk gibberish. The shades of ten thousand dead Men trouble you not at all, and yet the cries of a few gulls have you moonstruck and gazing down the river as though you were blind and deaf! Elvish nonsense of some sort, no doubt. Well, if you will say nothing and let me do nothing, I'm for what rest I can snatch, below out of the wind where it's a little warmer, for I daresay Aragorn will have us up at the first hint of dawn. For pity's sake don't fall over that rail in your dreaming, that's all I can say. Good night, Elf." With a final grunt he stumped down the companion-way, leaving Legolas silent, gazing out into the blackness.

~~~

Author's Note:

The idea that Faramir would end the lives of wounded men himself rather than leave them to torture at the hands of Sauron's forces originated (as far as I know) in Chapter 4 of Isabeau of Greenlea's Captain my Captain, and I found it too powerful and moving not to steal it shamelessly here.


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