In the waning days of the Ring War, the only Dwarf in Minas Anor meets a woman transplanted from Ithilien.
Men will talk for decades about the Dawnless Day, but actually, after the first few hours, people put out many extra torches, and while they did not burn with a bright flame, still they did provide some light on the streets—and it helped greatly that the City was made of gleaming white stone. Had it been built of granite or some other dark stone, then there would have been many more falls in the dark.
I had gone up to the Houses of Healing on the Sixth Circle as a volunteer; all those years of nursing had taught me to be useful in a sickroom, and I was told that I could use a pallet in a small room set aside for those other female volunteers who had not fled to the mountain Refuges, once we began to get wounded to tend. In the meantime, I helped to prepare, and to teach some of the least knowledgeable some basic skills, going down at night to my own home with Jehan in the Second Circle. I heard the next day that Lord Denethor had insisted that Captain Faramir go to Osgiliath in a last, desperate charge, despite the Steward’s counselors advising against it, and all know now that Faramir was forced to retreat to the Causeway Forts.
Lady Mirieth, who had spurned my instruction (“Imagine, her daring to come and try to tell us how to do! You’d think she’d stay decently out of sight!” she had sneered all too audibly to some of the other court-ladies and merchants’ women. I simply ignored her, although inwardly it angered and saddened me) seemed to have a marvelous nose for rumor and gossip. She had stolen away, she and her cronies, to watch the knights and a few of the Rangers of Ithilien, riding down through the City with silent citizens who had stayed, especially women (and highborn ones, to have had flowers so early in the spring, and in these climes) tossing blossoms to be crushed under their hooves, or tucked into crevices in their armor. It called up a romantic picture in my mind, but I had wondered if an enemy weapon, piercing the armor, might drive some of the plant matter into a wound to its despite. Well, I had had to give up romantic notions a long time before!
I also overheard her saying on the following day once we began to get wounded, that the Pelannor was being overrun, and then that Captain Faramir had been wounded.
By then we were getting many men to tend, and while I wondered briefly why I had not seen him brought in, I had little time to do more than breathe brief prayers to Estë and whatever other Valar might be listening to mortals’ supplications, for all of them as we labored.
Dame Ioreth suddenly appeared beside me. Many years my senior, she was a doughty, tireless worker. “Here, Silma, go and take some rest. Mirieth, bring her that tray of soup and bread.”
Lady Mirieth was outraged. “You do not mean me to wait upon that—that low, despicable wench!” she said angrily.
Ioreth’s kind eyes were suddenly hard. “She has worked twice as hard, and twice as long, without complaint and more usefulness, than the rest of you ladies put together,” she said in her plain way. “Aye, I do mean it, or you can leave this instant—if you dare, in the middle of the night, and with such horrors as are outside. And if you leave, my lady, you may explain to the families of those who die from lack of care you might have given, did you think less on your family’s consequence, and more on the reason we are here, and you may rest assured that the Steward himself shall know who was faithful, I promise you!” Hands on hips, she glared at her fearlessly until Mirieth thrust it at me with a glower.
I took the bread, for the soup itself wasn’t even tepid by its look, with grease congealing on its surface—my stomach roiled at the mere thought. But I knew I could gnaw on dry bread without losing what I had, and I also could not bring myself to waste it. “My thanks,” I said distinctly, although I could not bring myself to add the honorific.
I left the ward, but then stopped and leaned against the wall, suddenly aware of how weary I was. Well, no wonder, after working since before dawn until—had Ioreth said the middle of the night? Then Jehan had been alone for many hours!
I noticed one of the Healers, a supercilious Man whose name I could not recall, standing at a nearby window. “A terrible sight!” he said almost to himself. “They must breed like maggots!”
I came forward until I too could look out, and gasped. The whole broad expanse of the Pelannor was a blackened, heaving mass of awful misshapen orcs, Southron Men and huge beasts I knew must be the oliphants, trolls and others of evil legend, lighted by trenches of fire and lurid torches, and despite the foul brown-blackness of the sky, blacker than that were the fell shapes that wheeled and screeched above—when they weren’t swooping down to lift some hapless soul from the ramparts, carry him high in the air, and then drop him, with or without some body part chomped out of him.
The Healer--my groping mind fastened upon his name--Suliden, glanced at me and sniffed. “Oh, it’s you. Why are you not doing something useful? Get back to work!”
Scant use to explain myself to him, even if I had had the energy, but he wheeled and strutted away, unfazed in his self-conceit even after that terrible sight.
All I could think of was Jehan, especially after seeing in the next breath, some machine of war—a trebechet? I wondered from some long-ago book of my brother’s—fling up a long arching shower of great rocks, which exploded as they fell downward inside our walls. That must be some fell magic, for stone to burst into burning shards. It looked as if the worst damage was near the main gates in the First Circle. But was the Second affected as well?
Jehan! Jehan, alone and far more helpless than he was willing to admit!
Then I was running, taking the most direct way out of the Houses, along the streets to the gate between the Sixth and Fifth Circles.
And there I was halted by a guard in an ill-fitting tunic, his mate’s helmet slipping over his balding pate. “Where do you think you’re goin’?”
“I must get to my husband!” I cried.
“Get yourself back into some shelter, more like! You can’t pass here! Them’s orders!”
I had no time to argue, I knew, so I bowed my head and ran along a side street. Now, there have been active lads (and drunken men) who have challenged themselves to climb up the stone between levels, and it is a standing order (laxly enforced in previous times, but I doubted not it would be without exception now) to feather them with arrows shot from the bows kept at each gate and at the guard-posts of each inner wall.
However, there are many secrets in an ancient city….
I went to a street of old mansions, many clearly deserted, windows and doors sealed and dark; some were obviously crumbling with neglect.
One of the fell creatures was just overhead, shrieking its horrid cry; I felt as if my blood was congealing in my veins with terror, as if my head would burst with the discordance of the sound, and I huddled on the pavement, arms wrapped vainly around my head in an effort to blot it out.
The sound retreated a bit as it flew in a wide spiral; I lifted my head, then bowed it, shivering as it came closer again.
Somehow, I managed to time my movements to it; the next time it went farther, I ran for the side of the road, diving into an alcove. Heedless of bruises and torn skirts and sleeves, I knelt at a wooden window painted to resemble the surrounding stone, found hidden studs under my fingers, and pressed in a certain sequence.
The window swung inwards, and I tumbled inside, landing with a grunt on bare stone. I jumped up to push it back into place, felt my way (sneezing in the upstirred dust) along a passage until I rounded a corner, and took a candle-stub and my firestarter from my pouch. Softly I made my way along the narrow tunnels. Above me the vast house stood empty—except, perhaps, for old ghosts I did not want to alert, and rats and who knew what else—and I gave thanks that one of Ornemir’s ancestors had been so enamored of clandestine activities that he had made these arrangements….my late first husband and his formidable mother had been uninterested in the old documents of his House, but I had read all of them.
Soon I was going downward, and came to a grid; again I pressed hidden studs, opened the aperture and went on, and on, keeping count and opening and closing each entrance, ever making my way downward through the Circles…
Finally I emerged in yet another cellar, right next to familiar laundry tubs. I fastened the portal behind me, and hurried up the steps to the ground floor, then up the stairs to the fourth story, drew the key from my pouch, and opened the door—just as a great crash shook the entire building. Inside the main room, to the left where the partition wall between us and our neighbors’ rooms should have blocked all light, I saw through eddying plaster-dust, a rift. Near me, facing the front window, sat Jehan in his chair, our big dog Rimbor pressed against it, whining a little.
“Jehan!” I shouted over the noise of destruction, but had to touch his arm before he was aware that I had come in.
He raised startled blue eyes to mine, pulling up the blanket he had wrapped around himself. “My love, why are you here?” he shouted back, or so I surmised from the movement of his lips.
“To get you, of course,” I yelled, and moderated my voice in a sudden lull. “Have you eaten last night or today?”
“Aye, I scratched together meals for both of us. You look exhausted; are you working too hard? Should I not stay here?”
“With all the hosts of Mordor on the other side of the Gates?” A deep boom punctuated my words.
He cocked his head. “They will break in soon. I don’t like you being here, and where would we go?”
Both of us avoided saying what the Pelannor must be like, or any mention of his family’s small farm, no doubt flattened beneath their engines. Everyone knew what the yrch did with those beings to fall into their hungry grasp; it was whispered that they didn’t always wait until their prey was dead before devouring them, whether or not they bothered to cook them. I shuddered at the thought of his kin’s probable ending. We had not been close to them in years, to my distress, but both Jehan and his older sister Josia were as stubborn as Ents and Dwarves combined! I had begged him to reconcile many times, but this was not the time to resume my pleas. Instead I answered, “Up, to the Houses.”
“How can we get there, through all this?” he asked as I hurriedly bundled together some clothing for him with his medicines, tying them into some blankets in a big bundle that I threw through the door onto the landing.
“Why, the usual way,” I answered cheerfully, lifting him up. Our largest knife fell to the floor from his lap. Without comment, I tucked it into my belt before I handed him his crutches.
Once on the landing, I locked the door out of habit, moved in front of him, and helped him sling the sticks over his back from the straps, hoping they would not become entangled with our legs, and he leaned on my back, his arms clasped around my neck. Riser by riser, landing by landing, we inched our way down, with me kicking the bundle ahead of us and Rimbor going a few steps in front. Neither of us commented on the half-buried bodies of some of our neighbors. At the bottom, Jehan clung to the newel post while I took his small cart from the small side alcove, padded it hastily with the blankets and clothing, and hitched Rimbor to it. The entire building was shaking, the air full of dust. I dared not go into the cellar, even if we could have gotten the cart up through the tunnels. We would have to chance going outside. Between us, the dog and I got it down the outer steps, and presently, Jehan was established in the cart, his crutches propped beside him.
It was fortunate that my Browntail was so big and strong, and so well-trained, for soon we were dodging from side to side as we headed towards the inner gate to the next level. The way was strewn with great lumps of some rank-smelling stuff inside a stone casing that they were lobbing over the Outer Wall, lumps which would explode into fire that even seemed able to chew stone when it landed, mixed with rubble from buildings, and shapeless bundles of cloth that I knew were bodies. At the gate, for some reason briefly (I hoped it was briefly) undefended by any guards, I handed Jehan the big knife, and continued to encourage Rimbor to pull. Even the paving-stones were becoming uneven… I refused to give in to the unearthly shrieks above us, and our good dog followed my lead with touching faith.
It was somewhere in the Third Circle that some falling debris hit both Rimbor and me, knocking me to my knees. I stifled a scream of pain, and managed to claw the stones and bricks away from him. He tried to get up, and gave a cry that tore my heart. I caressed his satiny head and whispered into his ear, “Oh, best of dogs!”
He licked at the tears on my face. I drew the knife and slashed at the harness, seeing that some of the buckles were bent. Freed, he tried to get up but his hindquarters would not obey him. I felt along his back as lightly as I could, trying to extend my senses… And more debris rained down around us. I could feel the reverberation from the battering ram down at the Gates through the pavement under me.
Surely, if they were intent on conquering an entire City, they would overlook one dog?
I pulled him to one side, behind a set of elaborate steps, hoping the stoop above them would partially shelter and conceal him, petted him one last time, and turned back to the cart. I leaned over Jehan, wiping away a trickle of blood from a gash on his temple with my thumb. He seized my arm.
“Silma, give me that knife and leave me!” I could barely hear him over the noise all around us.
I leaned closer until our foreheads touched, and brushed back his hair. “I will not! And I’m bigger than you are!”
“Certainly more stubborn,” he said—how many, many times had we had that exchange, usually jokingly… And I kissed him.
“Please, Silma! Save yourself!” he begged.
“You are going to the Houses,” I told him firmly as I turned away to stand between the shafts. I settled the yoke of the harness over my shoulders, and reached down to pick up the shafts. It was only then that I realized that the fingers of my right hand would not grasp properly, that my hand was bleeding just above the wrist. Awkwardly I cut strips from my skirt and bound them around my hand, then bound it to the shaft, bending in an effort to keep Jehan from seeing. The dear man was shorter than I from his disease (and I not five feet in height, unusual for our folk), and stocky even before forced inactivity had caused him to gain weight, and the wooden cart itself was a sturdy one originally intended to carry an assortment of goods. But I had nowhere else to go; it was doubtful that even if anyone were in any of the nearby buildings that they would hear me knocking and unbar the door to let us in, and I had to get him to shelter.
No! I would not give in, not yet! If I could just manage to get the cart moving, even if uphill, then perhaps the momentum would help me keep going. It would be a rough ride for my poor Jehan, but better than waiting in defeat, at the mercy of our foes. Grimly I leaned into the harness and pulled, wishing I could extend my toes down into the paving-stones like those of the Onodrim in Fangorn Forest. I prayed to all the Valar and to Eru Himself, and at least one of them must have been listening, for the cart moved a scant fingerlength. I took another breath, and pulled again…
The scene in which Faramir's men process down through the streets on their way to almost certain doom, while those who did not go to the Refuges toss flowers at them always bothered me; it was March, for pity's sake! (I grew up in northern New Jersey, where we eagerly watched for spring). As for the tunnels--well, Minas Anor is the capitol of Gondor, with its harbor down below on the Anduin. With trade, can smugglers be far behind--or at least avoiding taxes?