Writer's Note: This isn't the most exciting chapter, but almost all of the main LotR characters are fighting and Maddie isn't, so sorry about that! I promise it'll pick up next chapter. As a note too: I have altered the summary of the story to say "semi-realistic" as we have obviously moved far beyond the realm of realism. I mentioned this at the start of Chapter 9, but Maddie would be dead outside Bree if we wanted to be true to realism here, not to mention the depression and anger of culture shock for a couple thousand words. No one enjoys that, so I've striven to write a story that is more realistic than most girl-falls-into-ME stories, but isn't entirely realistic because that would suck.
Also, as "Popthepuff" pointed out, Maddie calls the beasts the Ringwraiths ride "dragons", but they aren't actually dragons. She just calls them that because they are vaguely worm-like with wings. Tolkien didn't actually give them a proper name, instead calling them Fellbeasts, Hell-Hawks, or Nazgûl-birds. Maddie isn't quite that creative though.
EDIT: A big hug to benny on Ao3 for spotting a big continuity error. Pippin says he doesn't know how Gandalf knew Boromir was alive and that's entirely wrong: Gandalf and Pippin were both with Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli who all knew Boromir survived. So obviously that's how Gandalf knew. I've altered the line to fix that. Thanks again to benny!
Disclaimer: I make no money from this work. Anything recognizable from The Lord of the Rings belongs to J.R.R Tolkien.
Home With the Fairies
Chapter Twenty-One: The Smell of Napalm in the Morning
The sky was clouded over with ominous dark grey clouds throwing everything into shadow. The air had a metallic tang and hung heavy with tension and fear. I lay in bed looking at the corner of the sky I could see in the window, wondering what today would bring. We were reaching the climax of the story—a lot was about to happen and all at once.
I'd woken just before dawn when the first catapults were launched. The great booms and concussions of falling rock from where the stones broke the city walls was loud enough that I doubted anyone was still asleep by sunrise. It set my blood astir with nerves and dread at the battle about to begin. I hadn't been able to lay still any longer after that.
After lighting some candles to brighten the dark room, I went over to my bag in the corner that had been thoughtfully left there. As I dug through I realized that of my dresses I seemed to have lost two: the travel worn one I left Edoras just days ago in, and the one I had worn from Lothlórien. I must have left the latter in Éowyn's room before leaving, and the one I came here in had probably been taken for cleaning—or more likely thrown away. That meant I only had a thick winter one and the Elvish dress left.
I pulled out the woolen dress dubiously and laid it on the bed. Compared to the fineness of the guest quarters it looked particularly drab: the ends of the sleeves and skirt were tattered, thread poked out of the hems, and the brown color was all faded. After a moment of thought, I reached back in and took out the lavender Elvish dress, laying it alongside the woolen one on the bed. There couldn't have been two more different outfits.
The Elvish one had survived a year in the bag without a wrinkle or tear, and with a little patting and smoothing down it looked nearly as fresh as when Arasinya gave it to me. It was in the same human style as all my others, but the color was a dead giveaway of its origin. The only people I'd seen wearing any kind of bold colors were hobbits and Elves, and while this one was pastel, human clothing tended towards more earthy tones. While the fanciness of the Elvish dress was certainly more appropriate given the halls I was in, it would also generate a lot of stares.
I looked back at the winter dress and then the Elvish one again, before rolling my eyes to myself. It was either look like a servant or look like a stranger, but either way I was going to stick out here. I should at least look nice doing it.
I rolled up the winter dress and put it back in the bag. I pulled on the Elvish dress, the material light but strong, falling around me in much smoother lines than any dress I'd worn in years. I laced up the front easily, and miraculously it still fit after all this time. I longed for a mirror, but there wasn't one in this room. I washed my face and hands in the shallow bowl of water and did my best to look presentable. Thankfully Elvish dresses had a way of doing that without much work.
Once I'd pulled my hair into some semblance of order and pulled on the slipper shoes I'd worn as a maidservant (the traveling boots were very dirty and ill-suited for such a nice dress) I poked my head outside to see an open door across from me.
There I found Pippin, wide-awake and standing on a small balcony facing outwards of the city. He was wearing a dark tunic that fit a bit awkwardly about the shoulders, with dark matching trousers and silver armguards that went to his elbows. He reached just a head above the railing.
"It's begun, Miss."
I could see the dark sky ahead of him, full of roiling clouds, and in the far distance, like sunset on the horizon, were the fires of Mordor. There had always been a dull red glow from there, but now it looked like all the forges in the Black Lands were working at full strength today. Or perhaps the wrath of the Eye lit up the sky that way.
It took me a moment to move my frozen limbs, but when I walked over to stand beside him I could feel my muscles twitch and tremble at the sight below. Just as Pippin had said before, the armies of Mordor looked endless. Orcs in ordered formation outfitted all in black stretched into the hazy horizon. Huge wooden towers and catapults dotted their numbers, and there was the sound of drumbeats echoing from below. The glint of thousands of guardsmen's helmets occasionally caught what little sunlight there was, but otherwise the masses of black overshadowed them. I wondered where Faramir and Boromir were.
As we watched, a great burning stone arched high over the lower walls and plummeted to earth with a great crash that sent up a cloud of dust and stone. On the lowest level there were fires, the smoke and bright red and orange of the flames very visible against the white of the city. I thought with dread of Rylan and Adelaide's home. The city had been evacuated so it was unlikely there was anybody on the bottom two or three levels except soldiers, but it didn't look like the family would have much to come back to. The thought sent a sickening lurch through my belly, and I had to step away.
Pippin seemed struck by the sight for a moment longer before he too left the balcony. I saw that on the front of his black velvet tunic was the silver tree with seven stars of Gondor, and behind him on the bedside table was a helm with the spread wings engraved on both sides like the higher level guards. For some reason he looked right in that garb.
"Good morning," he managed after a moment, voice a bit thick. "Or rather, a poor morning, I think." His eyes flickered back outside, but he didn't say more about it. "I've heard there's a nice garden near the back of this level."
The thought of sitting meekly in a garden pretending the people of the city weren't down there fighting for their lives made me recoil. "No, I want to go to the healing houses. Fastred is there."
Pippin looked relieved. Neither of us were soldiers, but he didn't seem to like the idea of sitting quietly either. "Well I know where those are, and I don't think it's too busy yet. There's just been catapults since before dawn." I nodded along as the hobbit led the way through the halls, taking us out what must have been the guest quarters and into a large stone courtyard with a fountain in the center surrounded by flowers. I'm sure it was more beautiful in sunlight; right now it looked rather dreary with the dark sky and the empty city.
In the courtyard we could hear the dull thuds of the catapults and the echo of the shouts of the soldiers. It made for an oppressive quiet, and I found myself struggling to break it. "I like your clothes."
"Ah, you look very beautiful too, Miss Maddie! I don't like being useless, and when Boromir told me Merry was going to war well…" Pippin trailed off a bit before perking back up. "I asked Boromir if I could serve him to pay back for saving Merry and I. So I've been made a formal member of the guard. 'Course, Boromir gave me guard duty of you." Pippin smiled up at me, not as brightly as the day before, but it made the vacant courtyard a little warmer. "Boromir told me you have a tendency to throw yourself into a fight, so I'm to stop you."
I completely forgot my offer of congratulations on his appointment to laugh at that. Faramir had said the same thing, so it sounded like Boromir was spreading rumors. "Until I met Boromir I did no such thing. He's a terrible influence." I winked at him to make sure he knew I was joking.
"Boromir taught us—I mean, us hobbits—a bit about sword fighting while we traveled. He would always jump right in to protect us though." The curly-haired hobbit sobered some then. "That's what he did when those Uruk-hai attacked. I saw the orc shoot him in the shoulder with an arrow just before we got taken." Pippin's voice had gone soft, the light tones gone. "I'm glad he survived. He's very brave and loyal."
"Yes, and I'm very glad he's here too."
"Is it true you brought him here on a steed like Shadowfax?"
It took me a moment to place the name Shadowfax, but then I recalled Gandalf's white horse. Fastest in Rohan or something? He was a special horse, I knew that much. "Thunor would probably appreciate being compared to Shadowfax," I joked, wondering what had become of my destrier. After visiting Fastred I would go find out. "But no, Boromir was coming anyway. I just tagged along."
"He said you saved his life," Pippin replied with a cheeky grin, and I felt my face pink a bit.
"He saved mine so we're square."
"What?" Pippin guffawed loudly, and it took me an embarrassing moment before I realized my mistake.
"Sorry, 'square' means we're even. There's no debt between us."
"Why is it a square?" he asked, chuckling as we entered a busy open hall. The healing houses looked well prepared for the inevitable influx of the wounded later—for now, it was still quite empty. There were beds lined all around the walls of what seemed to be the largest ward, each bedside with a small table. There were boxes and barrels of gauze wraps and cloth, wine for numbing the pain, and sharp instruments I didn't want to think about set out on wooden tables. There were a number of people running back and forth putting away supplies and laying out the sheets. At the far end I could see a handful of soldiers in bed, but thankfully not many.
"Oh! Pardon, pardon," one woman said as she stopped before us, wearing an apron like the other nurses in the room. She glanced down at Pippin and then at me, and she looked flabbergasted, which I attributed either to the dress or to the hobbit. "Why, you're up, milady! Lord Boromir brought you in just two days ago!"
"Um, well…" I wasn't sure what to say, but she hurriedly went on anyway.
"How do you feel, milady? Any tiredness, soreness, hurts? Is there anything we can get you? If you're hungry I can get the kitchens to bring you up something nice. There are gardens in the back that are quite safe for you, and you can take a lovely breakfast there."
"No, no, I'm actually looking for Fastred. He's a soldier from Rohan. Lord Faramir said he was here." I squashed the mild insult at the option of breakfast in a garden like I was on a picnic and some delicate maiden. Medieval chivalry had its downsides.
"Oh! Of course, my deepest apologies, milady." The woman fluttered her hands around, and I felt rather baffled by all the circumstance. She called me "milady" at least twice more on the way to Fastred's room and seemed particularly deferential to both Pippin and myself. She even referred to the hobbit as "his majesty" once before Pippin embarrassedly corrected her.
"There was a rumor that I was a prince of the hobbits," he admitted with an insolent smile about his mouth when she was finally gone, leaving us outside Fastred's door. "I may not have told them I wasn't." We both laughed under our breath, mindful of the silence of the halls. While it didn't look much like a modern one, this was the equivalent of a hospital and there was that same hush over it. "Everyone thinks you're a wizard like Gandalf."
I had to stifle a cynical snort at that, remembering Faramir mentioning the name Lady of the Secret Fire too. "I'm certainly no wizard and before you ask, I don't know any secrets about fire." Not unless gunpowder counted.
"It probably started because of the torch and Gandalf. I didn't see you, but Beregond told me you were ashen when Boromir carried you in." Pippin's voice dropped a bit, but I didn't understand.
"Ashen?" Did that mean black? Covered in ash?
"Grey. Sickly. Terrible. But Gandalf did some magic over you and your color began to return. Boromir brought you here and you woke for a bit but then fell asleep again." I didn't remember any of that, but I couldn't help lingering a bit on the thought of Boromir bringing me all the way up here.
Embarrassed now, I pushed all that away and knocked on Fastred's door. There was a muffled reply from the other side, and Pippin and I entered.
The room was smaller than the one I had been in and starker, though I suppose that was to be expected in a hospital. There were two large windows on the far wall and a wardrobe and a desk. Fastred was lying on the bed, but he sat up and offered me a familiar smile on his tired face when I walked in. He still looked a bit thin with rings around his eyes, but he seemed genuinely pleased to have visitors.
"The Lady Maddie, it's good to see you."
"Fastred," I smiled back, steadfastly not looking at the outline of his legs in bed where one lump was obviously shorter than the other. I wasn't sure I wouldn't be swallowed with guilt if I looked. "How are you? Have you met Pippin?"
I made introductions and Pippin was thankfully very chatty and quick to tell Fastred all about the Shire when asked. Fastred hadn't met Merry, which Pippin declared a right shame, but the hobbit's affable nature complimented Fastred's, and the two got along well immediately. Breakfast was brought by not long after we arrived—the flustered nurse probably tipped off the kitchen—and the two enjoyed a friendly argument about Shire ponies versus Rohirrim draft horses. Unfortunately I couldn't contribute much because I hardly knew anything about draft horses except that Clydesdales had furry feet.
"I would bet your Thunor has cousins who are draft horses," Fastred commented between bites of fried egg and toast. Pippin was working on a second helping at the moment.
"I wouldn't be surprised. He's awfully big."
"You should find out his pedigree if you return to Rohan."
"What?" I had to pause while spreading jam, trying not to drip on the sheets. Pippin and I had our breakfast trays on Fastred's bed and were sitting on either side of him. I had stolen a chair from across the hall.
"Do you plan to stay in Gondor?" He asked, and he sounded a bit disappointed. I was confused though.
"No, no, I don't know what I will do after the war. But I don't understand what you said before. Find out what?"
Fastred gave a dry laugh, and while it wasn't the same as his laughter before, it was a welcome sound nonetheless. "You have improved so much in Westron I forget what you do not know. Pedigree. It is the lineage of a horse. The family."
"Oh! I suppose Thunor is not that fancy otherwise someone would own him," I replied, shrugging over my breakfast. I didn't much care for high breeding and such. My family was big dog people, but we'd always had mutts from shelters. I didn't know if similar rules applied to horses in Rohan, but I could guess as much.
Fastred looked rather surprised by how nonplussed I was, and he shook his head into his drink. "You're people really do not use horses, do they?"
Pippin looked interested at that, and I had to explain again that we had different means of transportation. I would admit to letting Pippin think we just used different animals for our carriages because otherwise it would get much too complicated. "Speaking of Thunor, do you perhaps know where he is? Or where the stables are, Pippin?" Fastred shook his head, and Pippin tore into what had to be his fifth piece of toast this morning.
"There are some stables on this level, so maybe there?"
"I want to check later."
There was some more talk of horses and animals in general—something about differences in pig farming, I wasn't really paying attention—but eventually the topic moved to every hobbit's favorite: food. "What do you eat for breakfast in your land?" Pippin asked me, cheeks stuffed full like a chipmunk. Fastred was marveling at just how much Pippin could eat in one sitting.
"Similar things really. Eggs, toast, jam, pancakes if you have the time." I had a wistful thought of cereal; thankfully, I had long lost the kneejerk feeling of homesickness. I couldn't remember when it had worn off, but I no longer thought of my home world as much anymore, not unless people brought it up. Two years apart from it did that, I thought a bit morosely, reminded of Gandalf's pointed questions about my desire to return home. But those questions were a problem unto themselves.
We were just finishing off the crumbs—well, Pippin was—before the lighthearted atmosphere was interrupted with the sound of bells tolling. It seemed to be an alarm or something, and when I poked my head outside the room I saw healers bustling at the end of the hall. It looked like some of the wounded had arrived.
Fastred only had to see my face to know what was happening. His expression seemed to withdraw, and I saw his left hand reach down for the leg he'd lost. "Is there any word on Rohan? Any news about the fight?"
Pippin and I both shook our heads. "So far there have been only the catapults that I know of. And nothing about Rohan yet."
Fastred sighed, and I didn't miss the way his eyes flickered down to the empty space where his leg below the knee should be. I bit my lip feeling guilty and helpless in the face of his injury. "It's a four day ride to Minas Tirith from Edoras, and an army is slow. They will come."
I nodded into my lap. I knew Rohan was coming, but until then Minas Tirith was on its own. "How are you?"
"I have been better," he admitted, and I winced but he waved it away. "I have always been a soldier. Wounds like these are not unknown to us when we choose this way of life. I will still be able to ride a horse, so my heart is not so heavy." My mind jumped to Boromir and Faramir out there, knowing they were equally likely to loose a limb or suffer some other permanent injury. All the good feelings of earlier evaporated, and I stared out the window into the grassy park behind the healing houses trying not to envision it and failing. My dream of cutting off Boromir's hand came back, and I felt a chill run through me.
The bells began to ring again, signaling another wave of the wounded. I felt restless all of a sudden, my blood jumping, and I stood up and put all of our used bowls, cups and utensils on the trays Pippin had retrieved. I didn't like this sitting around, not when a war was going on. It made my skin itch.
"I'm going to go and see if there's anything to do," I said without really thinking.
Pippin stood up immediately from where he had been seated on two cushions on a chair. "I should go with you."
I looked over at Fastred, worried he might be upset to be alone and unable to help, but he gave me one of his familiar worn smiles, though this one definitely didn't reach his eyes. "Go ahead. Ghost travelers are named for a reason after all. They don't sit much unless it's on a horse," he managed to joke.
"Ghost? I thought you were the Lady of the Secret Fire," Pippin said mischievously, and at Fastred's interested look I quickly clapped a hand down on Pippin's curly head.
"As I have told nearly everyone I've met, I'm neither."
"You're something special," Fastred said insistently, and I rolled my eyes, feeling uncharacteristically annoyed at this persistence on labeling me.
"I'm something lost," I replied with a bit more bite than intended.
"Three more bowls for the men on the end!" Someone yelled as they hurried by, and I quickly ladled more of the watery leek and carrot stew into the bowls Pippin held up.
The Houses of Healing's two main wards were both full of the wounded and they were starting to fill in the side rooms with as many men and cots as they could fit. Most came in with injuries from arrows or being caught under rubble, though some of the siege towers had managed to launch the orcs inside on the walls before they got knocked down so there were sword wounds too. This wasn't going to be the worst of it by far, and I kept my eyes fixed on beds, eyes, and wrapped wounds rather than any of the gore. I'd never been that squeamish, but TV and movies didn't capture the real horror.
Nurses and doctors were running back and forth wrapping cuts, rubbing ointment, pouring hot wine to disinfect, and cauterizing the worst wounds—I only saw the red-hot knives and was thankful for it. Most of the noise was the calling between nurses and the clattering of armor being dropped to the floor. That didn't mean the general din of a medieval emergency room wasn't punctuated by a scream of real pain or yells for mercy as doctors dug for arrowheads and knives seared wounds shut. Thankfully most of the big stuff was done in separate rooms.
Pippin and I both flinched each time we heard it, and even after a couple hours manning the pots of soup it didn't get easier.
After leaving Fastred, Pippin and I had managed to get back to the main ward only to find chaos. I didn't even ask Pippin if he wanted to help, I just collared the first nurse I could catch and asked if there was anything we could do. She'd looked dumbfounded at the request, eyes flickering between my lavender dress and Pippin's short stature, but when I'd rolled up my sleeves and Pippin repeated the question, she'd handed us off to her superior. That's how we'd ended up passing out soup bowls and cups of water to the ill, since neither of us had any medical experience.
Pippin ran two of the bowls down the hall and I filled a third and fourth and followed behind him. One nurse stopped me and I handed it off to a man in bed with his torso swaddled almost completely in white. His eyes were wide as I handed it to him, but it looked as though he'd barely seen me. The man next to him asked for the second bowl, and I had to carefully place it beside him on the bed because his right hand was wrapped tightly in white—it looked like two or three fingers were missing.
Then it was right back to the pot to ladle out more while Pippin filled cups of water. The routine was comforting as the two of us repeated the exercise for most of the morning. Sometimes I was stopped to hold gauze while a nurse wound it around someone's chest, or asked to bring back more supplies or clean sheets and move cots. Either way, I found dashing about the healing wards to be the most satisfying work I'd done in Middle Earth. I felt a kind of grim fulfillment at each task I was given, and it went a long way towards suppressing my fears for the men in the war. I couldn't worry about anything if I had to ferry soup and water back and forth.
It was late morning when we got sent out of the healing wards to bring lunch to some soldiers and their ward. There were guards on the seventh level that couldn't leave their posts, and after someone spotted Pippin in his uniform we were delegated to the task.
"At least the guards don't have to get that bland soup!" Pippin's hobbit stomach didn't much approve of thin leek and carrot soup, even though it was made with the weak stomachs of the ill in mind. "We should see if we could get a bowl of this potato soup ourselves before going back."
"We had bread and butter not long ago Pippin," I reminded him, a little breathlessly as we climbed the stairs. There was no such thing as Tupperware in Middle Earth, so we had to be careful not to jostle the open bowls of soup on the trays.
The quiet outside was a bit of shock after the activity in the wards, and the walls were too high to see how the battle was going. The thudding of the catapults was all but gone, but it wasn't silent: there was the hum of men fighting below. I wished I could see just to get an idea of what was going on. Outside the healing wards I felt terribly disconnected, like I was at the top level of a stadium and the game was a thousand feet below. Only this was no game; real men were dying.
I mulled over this as I followed Pippin, who had been directed up to the seventh level a different way than how I'd gone to visit Faramir, and it looked like the wing we approached was more residential. There were fine windows with boxes of flowers underneath, and another fancy garden not quite as stiff and geometrical as the one I'd seen. The guards here didn't question us, I imagine because of Pippin's uniform, and they stood still as stone as though all was normal.
There was a guardroom near the side of one of the buildings, and at our approach the door opened and a guard with a bit of extra flair on his pauldrons and helmet stepped out. He had a dark grey cloak that set off the steel and chainmail he wore and stood a solid half-head taller than I.
"Beregond!" Pippin cried, and made to dash forward before remembering the tray of food in his hands. "The kitchens have sent us up with soup and bread," he said instead, lifting the tray as though the guard might not have seen it.
"Things must be bad if they are sending guests on errands," he joked. He had a surprisingly deep voice but it was also softer than I expected. He turned to me, pulled his spear up tight with one arm to his side and straightened before giving me a deep bow. "Greetings, Lady Maddie, may you be welcome in Gondor and bring us good fortune."
My eyes were probably as wide as saucers. Not only did he recognize who I was, but he'd also greeted me with such formality. The guard behind him was also looking over from his post, and I felt the burn of blush rise up on my cheeks again. I couldn't believe how awkward this all was. "Really, that's not necessary, please. We've only come to bring lunch."
"It's not much," Pippin cut in thankfully, "but they don't have many folks in the kitchens. We tried to get you something better than just bread and soup, but—"
"It's more than enough, Pippin," Beregond said, and set aside the spear to lift the tray out of the hobbit's hands easily. His armor clicked as he carried it inside the guardroom, calling back: "My guards can finish your errand." I wasn't sure whom he was referring to, so I followed him into the room.
The guardroom appeared to be a large closet for the odds and ends of the soldiers up here. There were pieces of armor and clothing scattered about, and boots dumped in untidy piles. There was a weapons rack on one wall with almost a half dozen spears there, lethal silver tips pointed up, and a smattering of swords and daggers propped up against furniture and the wall. The whole place smelled like a locker room, all old sweat and metal, and I wrinkled my noise. The smell was a strong reminder of high school gym class. I certainly didn't miss public high school locker rooms, and yet I felt a weird nostalgia for that shared experience that no one else in Middle Earth would understand.
"So who are you guarding?" Pippin asked as we left the guardroom, and Beregond began to walk us down another hallway. "Counselors or something?"
It was hard to see Beregond's face behind the helmet, but he seemed uncomfortable with the question. We knew why the moment he opened his mouth: "The former Steward."
That had to be terribly discomforting, to be essentially a prison guard to the man who had been their king in all but name. I didn't think for a moment Boromir wasn't justified in taking over his father's position, but it was still a bad series of events. Pippin was frowning up at Beregond too before looking at me.
"I met him, you know, the Steward that is, but only for a brief meeting. He was… well… I guess Merry would say troubled. He didn't even believe Gandalf and me when we told him Boromir was alive. He said he saw Boromir's death and that was that."
"Gandalf told me. Some kind of magic." I replied, glancing at Beregond who was like stone. Pippin kept up talk of the former Steward though.
"Speaking of magic, it seems he had one of those seeing stones. Gandalf thinks it's what drove him mad."
"The Enemy drove him mad." Beregond said.
"He mustn't have always been that way," Pippin said. "He is Boromir's father after all, and Boromir turned out alright." Beregond's expression—what little I could see of it—hadn't changed, but I was getting the feeling he was uncomfortable with the topic. Pippin was oblivious to this though, and I was trying to think of how to change the topic when Beregond spoke up.
"I was too young to have ever met the Lady Finduilas, Lord Denethor's wife, but it is said he only grew cold after her death. It is not for soldiers to speak of what they see or hear of those they guard." That should have been the end of it, but Pippin was like a naïve dog with a bone.
"When did she die?"
"Pippin!" I said sharply, but he only looked at Beregond expectantly.
"I couldn't help noticing he didn't seem to much like Lord Faramir," the hobbit added thoughtlessly.
Beregond coughed, which was telling enough. Boromir had mentioned it in passing when he spoke of Faramir to me before. A million questions popped into my mind—was Finduilas killed in childbirth for Faramir? Was Faramir somehow involved in her death? Was Boromir just more similar to Denethor and thus preferred?—but none of them were appropriate.
"Lord Faramir has excelled in all his goals. No father could not love a son as great as he." Beregond should be a diplomat with his excellent deflection there.
We turned a corner as he spoke and the sight beyond was enough to forget the conversation entirely. We were on the top of one of the outer walls of the seventh level looking down at Minas Tirith. All thoughts of Denethor and his history flew out of my mind, and it was just the battle spread out below us—but it was impossible to forget Boromir and Faramir knowing they were down there somewhere.
Far below us lay the first level, now a ruin of black smoke and crumbled stone. The catapults had done significant damage there, though the walls had held. None of the siege towers from earlier could be seen, and I hoped that meant they'd all been destroyed. Now though, it looked like all the orcs were bunched up under the wall, while legions of archers shot into the crowd. Behind them a handful of our catapults were still working, and it seemed like the fighting hadn't yet spilled into the streets.
"How long can Minas Tirith hold out like this?" I moved over to the edge of the wall, the wind on my face as cold as steel. I had to squint so my eyes wouldn't water.
"The gates of the first level are made of thick wood bolstered with steel made by Men and Dwarves of old. It is said it's never been breached, and I'd like to see the armies of Mordor try," Beregond told me.
"Don't jinx it," I replied, but didn't look away from the fighting even as he glanced at me. The soldiers looked like ants, or characters in a computer game. It wouldn't have seemed real if I couldn't smell the iron in the air and hear the echo of a thousand swords clanging. "They will have to get down from the walls and fight sometime, won't they?"
Pippin came over on my other side, and I'm sure his face of worry mirrored mine.
"Yes. Captain Boromir will do his best to contain the fighting to the fields. When Rohan comes the plan is to surge out of the gates and crush the enemy between Rohan's cavalry and Gondor's infantry." Beregond indicated the direction Rohan would come from and pointed down to where the gate was to give us an idea of the plan. I didn't know anything about military strategy, but it sounded solid to me.
We weren't on the wall long, but it was as we turned away that we heard the piercing shriek of a Nazgûl. I felt my whole body seize up and my vision was blinded for a second with that horrible abyss of its face. I barely felt Pippin grab my arm and shake it asking, "Are you okay?" I could only tell he was speaking because his lips moved, not by his voice, as a second bone-shattering screech followed the first.
Over Pippin's head I could just see the swooping of the beasts the Ringwraiths rode and their black shrouded riders flying high above the ranks of men. I had to put a hand on the wall to steady myself, feeling horribly shaken at the sight. I'd take a thousand orcs over one of those.
Beregond was yelling something to the soldier down the hall before he turned and saw my face. "Take her back down to the sixth level, to the Houses of Healing," he ordered Pippin. With a push from Beregond I stumbled forward, and Pippin didn't let go of my hand as we ran back into the seventh level and through endless corridors and a garden before we reached a small, windy set of stairs.
At the bottom of the steps I felt winded, like an asthmatic that couldn't draw breath, and tugged on Pippin's hand to get him to stop running. I sat down on the second to last step and put my head in my hands, trying to get my breath back from my ice-cold chest and gather my wits. This didn't feel normal at all, and that frightened me as much as my reaction to the sound of the Ringwraith.
"Miss? Miss Maddie?" Poor Pippin looked just as scared and out of sorts too.
"I'm sorry Pippin," I gasped out, thinking I must be hyperventilating. It took me long minutes before I could get my breath back and calm my racing heart, but even then I could still feel that crippling fear. Had I really thrown a torch at a Nazgûl? You could hardly tell now, and I laughed, only to recognize the same hysterical sound I'd made after killing that first orc. That made me start to cry. "The face—It's just so wrong."
"I know, Miss," Pippin said, and his mouth was drawn so tight there was a white ring around his lips. He too looked afraid, and somehow that made it easier to deal with my own terror. I started to wipe away my tears, embarrassed at how easily I'd crumbled. I hadn't cried like that in probably a year. "When Frodo, Sam and Merry and I left the Shire we saw the Black Riders on the road. That fear… it isn't natural. It's worse now than it was." He shuddered, and without thought I reached out and pulled Pippin to my chest, hugging him for all I was worth. I didn't even feel the clunky hauberk he wore, just the touch of one scared person to another. His arms were just long enough to get around me, and I started to breathe easier; the impossibly tight ball in my chest where my heart was began to unknot.
"I wish I could say it can't hurt us; that's it's just a monster under the bed. But here in Middle Earth it's real." As I spoke I knew I wasn't talking to Pippin anymore, not really. I was talking to myself—the me that hadn't yet been erased. Gandalf was right to say I had changed, but not all of the old Maddie was gone. What little was left was the same girl that shied in the face of Elves and cried at every emotional bump, and she was showing her face now.
"It's okay to be afraid, but don't let it master you." Pippin said into my collarbone, and I had to pull back to look at him. "Master Bilbo taught me that."
"He's an awfully wise hobbit, isn't he?" My voice was choked, but at least I wasn't crying anymore.
With thoughts of Bilbo facing down a dragon, the Ringwraith didn't seem quite so terrifying—though not by much. Pippin offered me a handkerchief that I thankfully wiped my eyes with. It took a couple minutes to get my legs under me before both of us were standing. I was still feeling pretty shaken, but it has also been cathartic. I hoped, as Pippin and I walked back in silent solidarity to the healing wards, that when Éowyn struck down that Nazgûl they would all flee back to Mordor and rot. Until Rohan came though, Gondor would have to hold out—as would I.
And Gondor did survive.
We heard all the rumors at the Houses of Healing as the wounded came in—Pippin and I were right back in the thick of it cleaning tools and utensils in hot water. The biggest one by far was news of a great battering ram aimed at the main gate. According to the newly injured, it looked like the unfinished muzzle of some beast and was full of hellfire, but Lord Faramir ordered it doused in water, and the flames withered under the onslaught. Already there were stories going around about the magic of the well the water came from. Hearing that story cheered me up as much as being busy did, but it wouldn't last.
We felt the first wave like a sonic boom, rolling over everyone and causing the hair on my arms to stand up. I had the wild thought that it was an earthquake before a second followed, and you could hear the explosion of metal and wood even from the sixth level. I abandoned the tools in the water to rush out of the courtyard, following the crowd to the nearest garden where the wall was at its lowest. We packed up against the edge and those there first were already crying out in dismay. "The gate has been breached!" "A monstrous Ringwraith has struck it down!"
I couldn't see until it was over, but the word rippled around me: Gandalf had driven the Nazgûl back, but the damage had been done. Orcs were streaming into the city, overwhelming the forces right at the gate. It didn't look like much from this height, but the black forces were definitely funneling into the gateway, though the actual fighting was shrouded by dust and debris. If Faramir was down there ordering buckets of water dumped on gunpowder, then I feared he was in the thick of it.
The bells started to toll again, and most of the crowd rushed back to the Houses of Healing to deal with the new influx of wounded. The rest of us were mostly the lightly injured; those who couldn't fight but weren't bedridden. Pippin was standing on a bench to see over the barrier, and we watched the battle unfold. It seemed at first the orcs had completely inundated the front lines near the gate but then out of the cloud that covered most of the lowest level burst a line of cavalry, all in mail and one of them carrying a flag of black and silver. It was impossible to see any detail, but the cavalry pushed back the orcs and that was when the call of several horns echoed up to us.
At first I thought it was just another orc horn since many punctuated the battle, but then the Horn of Gondor, whose sound was richer and clearer than any other, followed it. I'd heard it too many times not to recognize Boromir's horn immediately. The very walls of the city seemed to shake at the sound, and I felt my heart leap in a rush. Only Boromir blew that horn—he was still alive.
There was the sound of more people joining us at the wall now, and those of us who could see were yelling down. "Rohan has come!" "The Rohirrim are here!" "We're saved!"
In the distance we could see them, like a swelling tide charging in on the western and northern flanks, the Rohirrim cavalry had arrived. I flinched as the first line of horsemen slammed into the orcs, recalling many a movie moment of just that, and then everyone was mixed up in the fighting. The battlefield west of the city quickly became a mess of black orcs and riders, but the tide of Rohan didn't stop. The horse-lords pushed forward, and soon you could see the shape of the army cleaving like an arrowhead through the amassed armies of Mordor. That was when renewed cries around Pippin and I started and everyone seemed to realize that the Gondorian army had surged out of the gates, led by their own horsemen, and were cutting a wide swath in front of the lower wall. It looked like they were trying to join up with the Rohirrim, cutting the orc army in two and driving the enemies around them into the walls where archers could shoot them down.
"Look! There's Gandalf!" Pippin cried out suddenly, pointing down into the masses near the gate. I had to strain to see, but sure enough there was something all in white down there right in the middle of things. There was no way anyone but an Elf or a person of magic could maintain that kind of white clothing in a bloody battle like this. Everybody felt the renewed surge of hope at the sight of our allies and soldiers routing the enemy troops.
Unfortunately battles weren't as quick as that. The fighting continued, the grounds always changing, and I couldn't help flinching each time the Nazgûl shrieked. As I glanced around at my fellow spectators, I could see the way we all were hanging off the banister and over the edge, hooting and cheering, and the stadium analogy jumped to mind again. I'd been to big sports games before—Cliff had been a serious baseball fan, and I'd gone to at least two games with him—and leaning over a balcony railing in the cheap seats trying to see the action was exactly what I'd done then. It bothered me suddenly that I was doing the same thing now, and I consciously stepped back from the edge.
I could still hear the roars of battle, though far away, and it was almost possible to imagine it was cheering fans rooting for their team and not men dying and screaming. Pippin turned around then and jumped down from the bench, looking at me with concern. I just shook my head at him and started back to the healing wards.
When we made it back inside things were, if possible, more chaotic than before. Men with minor injuries were sitting on the ends of occupied beds getting treated while the more wounded slept. Everywhere there were nurses running about, doctors hollering orders, and at the ends of the hall I saw soldiers carrying out a body wrapped all in black.
"This is no place for you, milady!" A woman yelped at me when I took several steps deeper into the room. She had blood on her apron and the sleeves of her dress, and her hair was falling out of the neat bun it must have been in earlier.
"Is there anything we can do to help?" I asked, ignoring her words.
Luckily one of the younger nurses from before spotted us and after a moment's hesitation jogged over. "Milady, if you've got the time there are rooms in the east wing that we'll be needing. If you might be so inclined, I'd ask you kindly to put these on all the beds and—" I held out my arms and the overwhelmed woman immediately handed me the pile of sheets in her hands and Pippin the stack of linen for wrapping wounds. The other nurse gaped, but didn't seem to know what to say. "Oh thank you so much, thank you really." She rushed through a curtsey and darted away, and Pippin called me milady all the way to the east wing to lighten the expression on my face.
The busywork did exactly what I hoped—the battle was never far from my mind of course, but I could focus on folding and scrubbing, straightening and cleaning, and forget for a little while that my friends and people as good as my family were down there fighting. But it wasn't even an hour later while washing sheets in the courtyard when one of those very people I was trying not to think about came to the Houses of Healing.
"Make way! Make way! Ready a bed!"
The bells were ringing again as two soldiers wearing royal blue cloaks decorated with the tree of Gondor and some kind of bird came rushing through, carrying someone between them. I noticed them because of their outfits, neither Rohirrim nor the city guard but clearly of Gondor. I only saw the armor of the soldier they were carrying until the men were nearly past, and that's when I recognized the hair: long, wavy, golden hair nearly dragging on the ground—too long to be a man's.
I dropped the wash and rushed up behind them to see the soldier's face: it was pale as death—no, ashen—and one I most definitely recognized.