This is all a dream. Rowanna shook her head to clear it, paced to and fro a little in the small room, and with a shiver returned to sit by Míranna once more. It cannot be real; soon I shall wake up, and be in Mother's house on the Fifth Circle, or back in my room in Rivendell...
The Houses of Healing floated in an eerie quiet above the besieged city. All was still; far below in the darkness fires were burning, and if Rowanna opened the window there were distant shouts, rumbles like faint thunder, and always in the distance the grating shrieks of the Nazgûl. On the outer wall and in the First Circle, they said, there was frantic activity in defence of Minas Tirith; yet here at its summit, the City was frozen, seeming barely to breathe just as Míranna hovered between life and death.
"But – if there's battle below, then where are the wounded?" Rowanna had asked one of the Healers in the hallway. The young woman had been as puzzled as she, until the grizzled one-legged sergeant who had been put in charge of the Houses' defence had overheard them as he hobbled past on his crutch.
"Siege warfare," he grunted, and then as they looked blank, "We're besieged, not fighting open battle. All our men are within the walls or on 'em, and can't do more than look on those dark devils and try to get a bowshot off. If they break through you'll have wounded enough – for the few hours it'll take 'em to fight their way up here." And he limped on without a backward glance, down the staircase to check on the makeshift barricades he had ordered prepared in front of the Houses. Rowanna and the young Healer had looked at each other with shocked, widened eyes, and then grimaced and gone about their tasks, for what else was there to do? But as the hours went by and no more than a trickle of wounded came in – men burned trying to put out the fires which the Enemy's flaming catapults were starting in the First Circle, a few limbs crushed by the falling roofs of damaged buildings – Rowanna could see the same thought behind the Healers' eyes that whispered insidiously to her: If the defence is broken... all here are trapped. Even if there is some way out - on to the mountain – how can we move the wounded? The Enemy would rise up the circles of the City like a black tide, until...
Despite the Warden's stern injunctions to give no credence to rumour and to get on with work, speculation and whispered messages flew around the Houses like wildfire, growing steadily grimmer as the helpless dark hours passed. The Lord Faramir was dying. He was dead. The Lord Steward was dead too – no, he had lost his mind for grief -
With so few injured as yet to tend, one Healer or another was still coming from time to time to look at Míranna, take her pulse, and offer Rowanna whatever comfort they could. Hearing one of the daybells in the mid-morning, Rowanna had wandered a short way along the corridor to see who might be on their way, when a rising shriek of anguish from below froze her to the spot. Wishing she had never heard, and yet feeling that not to know would be even worse, she crept to the head of the stairs to look down into the hall.
One of the young women who, Rowanna thought, worked in the Houses' laundry was sobbing hysterically, the Warden and two of his aides struggling to restrain her as she beat her fists against the wall till they bled, screaming incoherently. Another laundry-maid, her grey apron awry and her dark curls slipping from their kerchief, backed away up the stairs with her shaking hands pressed to her mouth and collided with the horrified Rowanna.
"What is it? What is wrong?"
"Oh, mistress -" the girl was trembling so hard she could barely speak, and Rowanna tried to steady her - "oh, mistress, it's poor Morwenna; she slipped away at the end of her shift to go down to the lower circles, to try to get word of her Hamdír who was with the rearguard out at Osgiliath. Of course she shouldn't o' done it, but the poor thing was desperate, and talked one of the lads who's all hot head and no sense into going with her. They got nearly to the First Circle, and – and then..." She took a sobbed breath. "It's not rocks those foul creatures are firing over the walls with those catapults, mistress; it – it's heads. The severed heads of all those brave souls who were on the out-walls and beyond, and were hewn like so much kindling. Morwenna found Hamdír's head, his poor brow all branded with a horrible red Eye, and... and... I think she has lost her mind..."
Cruelty beyond measure. Somehow, Rowanna had got back to her mother's room without being physically sick, and sat shaking at her bedside. It is not enough to defeat us, not even to grind the Free Peoples into the dust. They want us not just dead, but mad with the horror and the grief before the end. They feed on our despair...
"Then do not let them have it." She heard Legolas' voice so clearly in her mind's ear that she gasped. "Stronger than the Shadow; if only we do not lose hope..."
It's all very well for you to say that, she told him in her head. You had better be coming! For without the Chieftain, what hope do we have? But she took a deep breath, felt a little steadier, and reached down to take hold of Míranna's hand.
The hideous night dragged on, and on. Nothing could be made out on the Pelennor far below, save the angry red light of the Enemy's fires. As the last night-hour struck, Rowanna jerked guiltily upright out of an uneasy, exhausted doze, and looked at once towards the bed. Míranna was chalk white, bluish around the lips, and icy cold to the touch. Rowanna reached for her wrist and tried, past the wild thumping of her own heart, to detect a pulse. Nothing. She swallowed hard. Be still! Still nothing. Then, just as panic was about to engulf her, she felt something; the barest whisper, so irregular she had to sit for almost a minute before she was certain, but it was there. She heaved a shuddering sigh of relief.
Would I know? The question had been haunting her ever since she had brought Míranna to the Houses, and now it was painfully real. Would I know from one moment to the next, Mother, whether you had died? Her mother's hold on life seemed so tenuous, her spirit so very distant, that Rowanna found it hard to say how she would be sure; yet somehow, she felt, her heart would tell her. You have not left me yet, I know it, far away though you are. And I will not leave you!
Wondering whether while she slept anything had changed beyond the confines of the little room, she pushed the shutters open and strained her eyes and ears into the murk. The tumult below came up only as a muted roar, waves on a far seashore; yet she thought it was louder, more urgent than before. While she slept more of the Enemy's huge siege-towers had been brought up against the walls, although beyond the City wall she made out a few of them tumbled in ruins, the humped shapes of huge bodies lying beside them.
The noise from below suddenly grew both louder and more rhythmical, a relentless chant which sounded like a word or name, though Rowanna could not catch it. There was something approaching out of the darkness of the Pelennor; some sort of huge structure, like the siege-towers but lower, longer, a flicker of red light like fire around its forward edge. Long lines of torches flowed on either side of it, and Rowanna felt an icy shiver down her spine; all the malice and hatred of the hordes before the City seemed concentrated into that one black device. It halted before the great gate, half out of her view in the shadow of the wall; the chanting grew and grew until it climaxed in a great boom like a clap of thunder, and for a moment the flames dancing all over the first Circle seemed to blur. Then she understood. Some kind of huge ram. They're trying to force the Gate.
Wanting to shut the fearful image from her mind, she returned to the bed and took Míranna's hand once more. The sound of the City's doom, though, would not be shut out. Again it came, and again. Míranna's pulse was barely perceptible, and Rowanna tried to force herself to breathe steadily.
Then at last there came a huge, rending crash that shook even the walls of the Houses, and her heart sank into her boots. That must be it. The Gate is gone. For long minutes everything was still: no screams of battle, no chanting, no crashing of the ram; the City held its breath, and Rowanna knew her mother's heart had stopped.
Into the stillness came one faint, utterly unexpected sound; a cockcrow. Somewhere in the city, in all that maze of darkened desperate streets, a cockerel was crowing - but for what? She looked up, and gasped aloud.
The whitewashed wall above her mother's bed was glowing rose-gold, faintly at first but then stronger and unmistakable. She leapt up, and looking out saw a band of paler sky spreading from horizon to horizon, beneath the leaden clouds of Mordor's darkness, lightening from palest green to pink to gold; dawn was coming. And it was then, as the slender line of brightness on the wall spread and filled the little room with light, that she heard the horns. A sound so familiar it pierced her heart; the sound of defiance cried clear to the skies, the war-horns of the Mark.
"They have come!"
She fell on her knees beside the bed, chafing Míranna's hands. "Mother, do you hear them? Éomer and Théoden King; the éoreds have come. Do not dare leave us, not now! Can you hear me?..." She paused; and as she squeezed Míranna's hand she felt the faintest of pressures in response. She snatched at her little metal mirror, cursing her own clumsiness as she knocked it to the floor, scrabbling to retrieve it – it clouded. There was no doubt, her mother breathed. She laid her hand lightly on Míranna's chest and felt it rise and fall repeatedly, more surely minute by minute as Rowanna sat there, the tears running freely down her cheeks.
How the first hour or two after dawn went she could not have said; the day-bells passed her by, only the growing strength of Míranna's breathing and the increasing colour in her face marking the time. A kindly Healer who had been looking in several times a day hurried by, paused to put her head around the door, and declared herself pleasantly surprised.
"That's a natural sleep, I would say," she reassured Rowanna, "the fever's gone, her pulse is slow still but it's steady, and – do you hear, that nasty dry note in her breathing's changed? It sounds much eased. When I can next come by I'll give you a little essence of hawthorn, to strengthen her heart -"
She broke off at the sound of running feet and calls from the floor below. "Some other poor soul being brought in, by the sound of it – I'd better -" but before she could finish, one of the lads doing errands came racing up the stairs.
"Mistress Narwen! You're wanted, it's my lord Faramir!..."
"Faramir?" Narwen whirled and was gone in a flurry of skirts; the boy paused to catch his breath and gasped out the little he knew to Rowanna. "My lord's out of his senses, he's burning up – I know not what ails him but the guard who brought him in said his father the Lord Steward is dead, and the perian -"
"Perian?" Rowanna caught him by the shoulders and was on the verge of shaking him to get sense out of him, when over his head she saw a small, forlorn figure in Citadel black trudging towards them. "Never mind – go you, quickly, they will have need of you below." As the lad sprinted off again, she dropped to her knee and held out her arms to Pippin. He walked gratefully into her hug, and she felt him tremble for a moment before he mastered himself.
"Is it true? Denethor is dead?..."
"Dead – by his own hand." Pippin swallowed hard as Rowanna gasped. "He- he was going to burn Faramir alive with him, both on the same funeral pyre; he was mad with despair, I think, and certain the City was lost and all Gondor with it -" He took a shuddering breath. "If it weren't for Gandalf, lost it would be. And I can't stay, for he may need me again if I can be of any small use." He was about to turn and go when his eyes strayed to the doorway behind her. "I'm sorry – I almost forgot! Your mother?..."
"Out of danger, for now, I think," Rowanna reassured him quickly. "The Healer says she sleeps and her pulse grows stronger – I will tell you it all another time. Go, and be well." But for all her cheerful tone, she could not help but bite her lip as the little figure trotted away once more; out into the Powers know what peril, as our fates hang by a thread. Go safely, Pippin!
When Narwen brought the promised hawthorn a day-bell later, it was with tidings yet grimmer; the Rohirrim had indeed come storming on to the field, and it was said they had slain a great black king of the Enemy's forces, but at terrible cost.
"For their own King - Théoden, is it, they call him? - is dead, fallen under his own steed; and strange and sadder yet, there's a great princess of his line came to the battle in secret, in a knight's gear and armed – did you ever hear the like? - and is sore wounded and being tended below..."
Éowyn? Rowanna's hand flew to her mouth. Surely, no – but who else could it be? Could she possibly have - "Where is the lady, Narwen? Can I see her? Will she live?"
"That, I fear, it's too early to say," the other woman warned. "And no, the lord Warden says he won't have gawpers and gossips getting in his way, and has set a guard to her door while he tends her. Best leave be, and watch over your mother while she yet sleeps." With that she hurried away, leaving Rowanna to shed unexpected tears at the memory of a slender, white figure holding Edoras together against half the world.
She can't die! She was so fair, and so brave... She leant against the window frame, letting the breeze and the sunlight ease her aching eyes and head, too weary to wonder through her tears why all over the City bells were wildly clamouring and trumpets blowing.
She sat on the floor with her head against Míranna's bed, and must have dozed a little; for she came to with her mother's blanket rough against her cheek, and her neck cricked and sore. Míranna still slept, her colour improved and her breathing steady, and Rowanna breathed a sigh of grateful relief to the Powers as she got to her feet and stretched her cramped limbs. Pushing the door open, she realised that while she slept, the Houses must have been filling; she could hear a great deal more activity below, and Healers were hurrying up and down the stairs. One came down the corridor towards her, and Rowanna braced herself as she recognised Ioreth.
"It's as Narwen said, then," she observed after she had taken Míranna's pulse and looked her over, "your lady mother's fever's broken, and sleeping is the best thing she can be doing. So I came to ask you, my dear – now that they're bringing so many wounded off the field, we need every hand we can find; even though from what they say the battle's turned, and those black hordes are flying, there'll be many more yet to come in need of help. And since your mother's out of danger, and you could look in on her every hour if you would, I wondered -"
"I'll come." Not waiting for a pause in Ioreth's never-ending stream, Rowanna was already on her feet. "I am no Healer, but I know how to set a bone or put a shoulder back in place, so I might be of some little use; and I don't faint at the sight of blood."
A few hours later, she had nearly belied that last assurance several times.
Fortunately, she had eaten so little in the last few days that when the sight of a middle-aged Southlander with his guts half ripped out of him turned her stomach, she had nothing to vomit up, and only collapsed for a moment retching in a dark corner. Her shirt-tail was torn where she had had need of an emergency bandage: she was covered in men's blood, and her hair under its kerchief was sticky with sweat and dirt. But the wounded kept coming: and so, as the afternoon wore away over the exhausted White City, there was nothing to do, between dashes upstairs to check on her still-sleeping mother, but to go on.
In snatched exchanges with Healers and messenger-lads as they passed, Rowanna tried to make some sense of the chaotic hours. The captains on the field, they said, were getting all the minor wounds they could treated there; a few Healers had been sent down to stitch cuts and set shoulders, and to judge who should be sent up to the Houses and who was beyond help. The battle had been thought all but lost before noon, after the Rohirrim's King was slain, when a fleet of ships had come sailing up to the Harlond, bringing relief from the Southlands, and a great black standard been unfurled that glittered in the sun... Her heart leapt at that: did they come? But there was no time to wonder, and none to ask who knew more.
The Healers were run ragged, and Rowanna helped however and wherever she could. She ran errands, went for bandages, helped heat more water. She did, as she had offered to, help set bones, sticking jagged and ugly from shredded sleeves or torn-off breeches. Along with several of the Healers' lads, she held men down while wounds were stitched, crossbow bolts pulled or – in the grimmest case which saw Rowanna biting her lip almost as hard as the patient bit down on his leather gag – a destroyed leg taken off above the knee. Mercifully the Gondorian captain in that case shortly fainted, the little poppy syrup they could spare to give him less effective than oblivion against his agony.
Around sunset, Ioreth signalled to her from across the hall where they were working endlessly on the streams of wounded, and nodded her head towards a pallet near the door.
"I heard tell you speak that lad's tongue, dear, would that be so?" Rowanna looked across at the great mane of blond hair matted dark with dirt and blood, and nodded. "That's well. I don't think there's much we can do for him, poor soul; they said he'd been trampled by a Mûmak, and though we've set the leg it's my belief he's wounded sorely where we can't see. But he's frightened, and pained, and there's little I can say that will help beyond sounding kindly. Will you sit with him a while and comfort him?"
Rowanna swallowed hard, nodded, and threaded her way carefully between the neat lines of wounded men to the boy – he was no more – propped up a little against the wall.
"How is it with you?" she enquired softly in Rohirric, and the lad's eyes flickered open at the sound.
"Hurts..." His voice was a hoarse thread.
"I know. There isn't as much poppy syrup as they'd like, to go round. Here -" she reached for the pitcher of water on the small stool nearby and poured a beaker to hold to the boy's lips. He swallowed convulsively, then choked a little so that she had to stop; she put the beaker down and sat beside him, taking one filthy, bloodied hand in hers.
"What's your name?" she asked gently.
"I'm Rowanna." He turned his head a little, painfully, at that, and frowned.
"That doesn't sound – like – an Eorling..."
"It's a long story. But I was brought up in the Eastfold. Whose éored rode you in?" And so she talked on for a while, softly, about the horses and the land they both loved, about anything except the pain and the horrors of the battle that had brought him here, to the pinnacle of a strange city in an unknown land.
His face was chalk-white, and as she sat he paled yet further, bloodless lips bluish and his skin growing chill. She thought he was only half-conscious now, muttering now and again, beads of sweat standing out on his bruised forehead. Before Ioreth made her next round, he suddenly gripped Rowanna's hand painfully, turning on her huge bewildered eyes whose clear blue clouded as she watched.
"Mother! Oh, Mother, I can't breathe – help me!..." A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth, and with a pained retching gasp, Wulfdan died.
Rowanna closed his eyes carefully, smoothed the sweat-soaked hair back and kissed his brow: for your mother, since she could not be here for her boy, she told him in her thoughts. And then she clenched her jaw against the great wave of weeping that threatened to well up in her chest, and turned away, and went to find the next task to be done.