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31
Life to the Dying in the King's Hand Lying

Lamplight was flickering now on the long rows of straw mattresses and their bruised, bloodied occupants. One of the Houses' stewards was moving from bracket to bracket on the wall carefully lighting the torches; is the Darkness returned? Rowanna thought, in a moment of confused panic, before the fog of weariness cleared. No, evening is falling, that's all. The end of that seemingly endless day of chaos and death; and yet not over, for the needs of the wounded never seemed to stop. She had eventually discovered where Éowyn lay carefully bestowed, and on pleading acquaintance, had been allowed to look in upon her, white as her pristine sheets and seemingly lifeless. And not even her brother to keep vigil – but he must be needed on the field below. Powers grant he is yet alive and hale!

It was only when she exchanged a few whispered words with Éowyn's Healer that Rowanna had discovered, her heart plummeting, that Merry too had fought the Witch-King, and also taken great hurt. Not for another desperately anxious day-bell had she been able to snatch a few minutes to go in search of him; and when she finally found him, lying ashen-faced and delirious, she could do nothing of any use other than to hug the trembling and miserable Pippin, who refused to leave Merry's bedside, and promise to look in again whenever she could.

"Have you been let off yet, Rowanna?" Narwen caught her elbow as she passed her. "No, I thought not," as Rowanna only looked at her blankly. "We're each to take two hours' rest in turn, by the Warden's order, and sleep if we can – he says we'll be no use to any who need us if we're dropping from fatigue. Go you – the small room at the far end of the north wing's been set aside for us, and there are pallets there."
 
"Thank you, Narwen." Rowanna shook her head. "I'll go up to Mother's room – I need to watch over her, and if all's well with her I can sleep as well there as anywhere."

She passed Narwen the remaining rolls of bandages from her apron pocket, and left the great hall to trudge along to the staircase. She had hauled herself up the stairs, and was about to turn towards Míranna's chamber, when movement out of one of the side rooms caught her attention; she stopped, stared, and then rubbed her sore and gritty eyes. I must be dreaming. I'm so tired my mind is playing tricks.

When she opened her eyes again, Aragorn and Elladan were still there.

"Rowanna, my kinswoman!" Not until much later did it occur to Rowanna that the Chieftain had shown no surprise at all at the sight of her; either Pippin must have told him, she then assumed, or like the rest of us he had not a thought to spare for anything except going on till he dropped... Even through the weariness, however, Aragorn managed a faint wry smile.

"Timely met, indeed." He strode forward, Elrond's son hard on his heels. "Elladan and I are in urgent want of one who knows Elrohir by sight – he is down on the Pelennor helping to treat wounded, but we have need of him here. Will you find a messenger for me, describe Elrohir to him, and ask that he be sought on the field without delay?"

"Better than that, Chieftain," Rowanna offered. Suddenly, the thought of escaping the increasingly fetid, overheated Houses, where she had been mewed up for days – even escape to the aftermath of a field of battle – was irresistible. "I'll go for you myself -"
 
"Not without an armed escort," Elladan broke in. "The day is ours, but there may yet be stray Orcs and Haradrim being rounded up, wounded and dangerous -"

"And trenches, firepits and wreckage besides," Aragorn agreed. "There are guards now at the entrance to the Houses; find their captain and give him my request that one accompany you. Tell Elrohir to lose no time."
 
Weariness forgotten, Rowanna turned on her heel and clattered down the stairs.

 Arriving at the great front doors of the Houses of Healing just as the hour chimed, she found the captain, as Aragorn had said, supervising his change of guard. He gave a clipped nod at her breathless message.

"Haragond – yes, I know you were due to come off duty for a bell, but this is urgent. For the King -"

The King? Rowanna frowned, wondering if she had misheard. The Chieftain, surely – But there was no time to argue; Haragond was already stowing his pike and gesturing to her to follow him to the lower Circles.

"I'm sorry to take you from your rest -" she began.

"Oh, fear not, mistress, the Captain knows our grumbling's all for show. Truth be told, most of the Citadel Guard are feeling badly – all the other companies were on the walls or on the Pelennor, now half of them are in the Houses or worse, and we're supposed to stand around doing sentry duty?" He snorted. "Yes, we all know that if the Enemy had stormed the City we'd have died to the last man to hold the Citadel – but thank the Valar, it never came to that. And if what they say is true, my lord Steward is dead and Captain Faramir near it, without an orc ever getting past the Gate – so what use were we? Careful -" he kicked a pile of burning debris aside for her as they turned a corner - "I'm glad to be doing something, don't you fret."

The night was clear and cold; despite the acrid smell of damp ash which lingered everywhere after the day's earlier rain, Rowanna took great glad breaths of the cool air, her heart lifting at the sight of a thousand brilliant stars overhead. As they worked their way down through the City, the way grew more hazardous; roofs were fallen in, timbers across the streets, small fires still burning here and there. Men were labouring to clear the Gate, where only a narrow passage snaked between great heaps of wreckage.

"Have a care, my lady-" Haragond held his torch high to light their way as they headed out on to the Pelennor - "there are pits and trenches all across the field..." There were dark heaps of bodies too; Rowanna shuddered as they skirted one, turning away as a dead white face caught the torchlight. How many thousands? Of Gondor, Harad, Rohan? Not to mention the Orcs and those... things... Bile rose in her throat at the stench as they passed a huge black shape, fallen on its side, and Haragond had to catch her arm as she lost her balance on ground slippery with blood.

The guard hailed various sentries and officers to whom Rowanna described Elrohir as best she could; after several false starts, she was beginning to grow anxious when the sergeant in charge of one small group, directing the pitching of tents, nodded and pointed them a little further out. "See the tent, there, flying the black pennant? Your Elven-lord's close by there, or was a little while back. Fair hands he has on him – he splinted my best bowman's arm and bound it, and the lad swore afterwards he could feel the pain draining out of it before even the bandaging was done."
 
A little way off from Aragorn's tent a ring of torches had been set in the ground, making a circle of light in which a man sat carefully propped against the remains of a catapult. Next to him knelt a slender figure whose braided black hair, escaping from its leather tie, gleamed in the flickering light.

"Have no fear, my friend, you'll not lose the eye – and with my stitching, you may even 'scape much of a scar!" drawled a familiar voice. "Just some salve now against infection – hold still, this will sting – there, 'tis done." He sat back on his haunches to clean his gear, holding his needle in the flame of the torch for a moment.

"Elrohir?..." Rowanna stepped forward into the torchlit circle, and had the momentary satisfaction of seeing the son of Elrond, as he turned to face her, utterly staggered.

"Rohiril?... What in the name of all Middle-earth are you doing here?" Elrohir leapt to his feet; for an instant she thought he was going to sweep her into an embrace, but he checked himself and offered her instead a comradely clasp of arms. His glance swiftly took in her dishevelled, bloodied state. "And are you hurt?..."

"I'm well enough," she reassured him hastily. "I've been helping in the Houses of Healing – and you're wanted there, in haste, by Elladan and Aragorn. Up on the Sixth Circle of the City -"
 
"I'll go." Elrohir reached for his pack, quickly stowing a small leather roll which she guessed held his stitching needles. "Will you walk with me?"

She was about to assent when a great wave of fatigue swept over her; she staggered, and would have fallen but for Elrohir's swift arm.

 "On second thoughts, dear horse-lady, you walk no further than that tent," he declared. "Can you wait, my friend?" he enquired of Haragond, who nodded. "That's well. Rohiril, go you and rest a little – Gimli will be glad to see you, though he'll be as loath as any Dwarf ever is to admit to it! Till later -" and with that he dived neatly between the torches and was gone, racing over the ruined Pelennor as easily as if it were the meadows of Rivendell.

Haragond gave her his arm as far as the entrance to the tent, but would not come in, preferring to stay on watch outside. Rowanna ducked her head beneath the flap and slid within.

"Gimli!" The Dwarf was indeed inside, grumbling as he inspected his axe in the light of another torch.

"Only two days since I put the edge back on this, and it's notched in three places – Lass!" Beneath the great mass of braids and beard Rowanna saw a grin spread across his face. "Is it you? This day grows ever stranger! So that mad tale of Legolas' was true?..."

"Legolas?" Her heart leapt. "Gimli, where is he? Is he -"

"Sleeping." The Dwarf grunted, indicating a huddled form towards the back of the tent. "Oh, fear not, you'll not wake him – I doubt all the orcs of Mordor could do that, tonight!"

Despite his assurances, Rowanna eased herself on to the bare ground alongside the motionless figure as softly as she could. Legolas lay curled on his side on a torn brown cloak, head half-pillowed on one arm; so still she had to look twice to be certain he breathed, his normally gleaming hair darkly matted. His tunic sleeve had been hurriedly ripped off at the shoulder so that his upper arm could be roughly bandaged, dark blood showing through.

"Gimli?... His eyes are closed! And his arm – is he all right? Is he badly hurt?"

The Dwarf put down his axe carefully by a bedroll and stumped across to her. "Foolish, isn't it? - months I spent feeling uneasy at the way Elves sleep with eyes wide open, and now they're closed, that feels more unnatural than before! Aragorn says not to fret; Elves do sleep so, when they're utterly spent, too weary to dream. And spent may he well be -"

"Why so?" She reached out towards the injured arm, then drew back, fearing to disturb him.

"He fought like a mad thing, all day." Gimli squatted down beside her. "Oh, I know he can mow down Orcs twice as fast as any of us, at need, but I've never seen him like that; once or twice I caught his eye and I could swear he knew not where he was, or who he was. He was like one possessed. He emptied a full quiver, and he broke the blade on his long knife. Mind, he's been in a strange mood ever since Pelargir..."

"Strange? How, strange? And what happened at Pelargir?"

"Strange? Fey." The Dwarf got to his feet and went to trim the torch-rag. "You know – Elvish." Rowanna suppressed a smile. "Ever since the battle for the fleet on the estuary there. Hasn't talked a word of sense since, just garbled stuff about gulls or some such..."

Something stirred at the back of memory at that, but she was too tired to catch the thought, and let it go. "And his arm?..."

"Oh, never fear for that – it's not much more than a scratch he got watching my back." Gimli grimaced. "He said he never saw it coming, but I've fought with him often enough now to know he has eyes in the back of his head – it's my belief he saw it full well and thought I wouldn't duck the downstroke in time, so he blocked it. Damn fool Elf." The Dwarf turned away, and Rowanna smiled again at his sheepish tone. "You know Elves – there'll probably be nothing to see by the morning, thank Mahal." He stretched, joints cracking loudly. "Well, I'm for sleep – there's nothing I can do for that axe tonight, not without a forge and anvil, it's beyond whetting. Will you rest here a while longer, lass?"

Rowanna shook her head tiredly. "I must get back up to the Houses of Healing, Gimli. There's work yet to be done, and besides, my mother is there – oh, worry not, she sleeps and the Healers say she is past the greatest danger, but I would not leave her too long..." Very carefully, she reached out and brushed an unravelling braid back from Legolas' cheek. He did not stir. "Till the morrow, Gimli. Rest well."

***

Guarded by the watchful Haragond, Rowanna trudged the long and weary way back up to the Sixth Circle without incident. I should make sure that Elrohir found his way here... It did not take long to track down the sons of Elrond; the Houses were agog with the coming of Elves, and the King, and strange tales of miracles being wrought with a few leaves of athelas. Reassured, she was returning from reporting to Ioreth when she found herself crossing paths once more with Aragorn.

"You did me good service, and those stricken by the Black Breath who needed all the help we could bring will thank you for it," he remarked, falling into step with her back towards the hall. "Has Mistress Ioreth, in between all her exclamations and explanations, given you leave to rest now?"

"She has," Rowanna sighed with relief. "But first I must go up and make sure all is well with Mother, though Narwen said she sleeps still -"

"Your mother? She is here, in the Houses?" Aragorn stopped short.

"Did you not – no, of course you would not know, there was no time – but that is why I came; by the time I reached the City a few days before Gandalf and Pippin, Mother was already ill, and the coming of the darkness made her worse and worse. We feared for her life -"

He caught her by the shoulders, grey eyes intent. "Show me. Upstairs?" He took the stairs three at a time, Rowanna stumbling to keep up.
 
Míranna had turned a little on her side, and seemed to be deeply asleep, breathing easily and without fever. Aragorn dropped on to the small stool beside the bed and took her wrists in his hands, never taking his eyes from her as he questioned Rowanna.

 "So her sickness and weakness seemed to grow as the darkness waxed? And the crisis came when?"

 "Just when all seemed lost; before dawn yesterday – was it yesterday? Today? When they broke the Gate with that great ram. Just before the cock crowed, and then all the horns of Rohan sounded, and the sun rose..."

"And she did not worsen as the sun went down tonight, as did the lady Éowyn and Merry and others of those stricken? Her heart did not weaken again?"

"No, I'm certain not." Rowanna shook her head, baffled. "From the moment dawn came, she turned back from the darkness, and the Healers say her pulse and breathing have steadily strengthened since then. Do you think – was it not the Black Breath that ailed her after all? They said that the others who had passed beneath the Shadow were weakening even as the sun westered..."

"They were touched by the evil directly," said Aragorn slowly, "even as you once were before you were taken to Rivendell; their malady was acute. Your mother, it seems to me, felt the shadow growing from much further off, for she had been growing weary and sick for days, perhaps weeks. It is a thing not unknown among women of the Dúnedain; I have seen it before..." He swallowed. "But even as the darkness reached her from afar, so from far off she sensed that it was turning, and she too turned - from despair."
 
Aragorn closed his eyes for a moment; when he opened them again, Rowanna was startled to see them brimming with tears. Leaning over Míranna, he murmured to her in the Grey Tongue:

"She gave Hope to the Dúnedain; but you held to hope for yourself."

He kissed Rowanna's mother solemnly on the brow. Rising to leave, he said softly, "Call me if she has any need. I will be below awhile yet," and saluting Rowanna gravely, ducked under the lintel and was gone. Rowanna found that, without fully understanding why, she too was blinking back tears. She felt she could go on no longer; there could only be a bell or two left before dawn. Rolling up Legolas' grey cloak for a pillow, she curled up on the floor next to Míranna and was instantly asleep.

~~~

Author's Note:

Aragorn's words to the sleeping Míranna are a variation of Gilraen's last words to him as reported in Appendix A of LoTR: "I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself".


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