I stumped down through the City cursing.
Bad enough that I had been stuck in it for over a fortnight, while Lord Denethor ignored my request for a hearing, for justice over my wagon and mules being “requesitioned” by his Guard, along with my load of bargained goods.
In truth, I had enjoyed being sent on my own by my grandfather, all the way from the Lonely Mountain to Gondor’s White City, and much had I learned. But little good that knowledge did me, or my folk, since I had no way to get it to them! I brooded angrily on these Men stealing my wares, even though I knew that by the time we finished with them, fair recompense would be given. But here I was, the only Dwarf in embattled Minas Tirith, and those idiotic Guards would not allow me to help! I was very young to be so far from home, but I didn’t think that even the Steward knew that, and while I am no engineer, still I can tell the best way to brace a gate against a battering-ram! What did Men teach their younglings? I had pleaded with the officer in charge to allow me to help, and he had refused. I had gone all the way to the Citadel on the Seventh Level, and found it even more chaotic than the streets, for no one seemed to know where Lord Denethor was or whom he had left in charge. I had asked for Captain Faramir or Prince Imrahil, only to be told that no one knew where they were either…but that Mithrandir, the Istar whom I knew as Thorkűn, had been seen in the City, stiffening the defender’s resolve to resist in divers places. If I could find Gandalf, no mere guard would dare go against the will of an angry Wizard, and I knew that he must be furious at all this confusion.
So I was searching, level by level, and had gone as far down (again) as I think the Fourth one, when I saw her.
What in Arda a Woman was doing out in the street in the middle of a battle, instead of in shelter or preferably far away, I had no idea. But there she was, surprisingly tiny, pulling a small cart of all things! The ill-fitting harness crossed her shoulders over reddened brown cloth where it had scored through the skin beneath her gown and shift, and a mass of pale hair tumbled down. Inside the cart sat what I thought at first was a child, until I saw the short beard, and the gnarled hands on his crutches. Despite the breadth of his shoulders, I somehow knew that he was not another of my Kindred, but a very short, crippled Man.
A large Man in a merchant’s furred robe ran past, knocking her roughly aside. She fell to her knees, and immediately began to struggle to rise. Such valiant courage touched me; I hastened to her side.
“Let me help you, my lady,” I said, touching her arm to draw her attention, so focused was she on her task.
Dark eyes in a strained white face blinked at me, taking in and dismissing the strangeness of being accosted by a Dwarf. “The Houses—I must get him to the Houses,” she panted. “Too steep inside…”
“Please let me help you, lady,” I said again. Drawing my belt-knife, I slashed through the harness, dumping it into the cart onto the crutches and legs of its occupant. He smiled at me, mouthing, “Take care of her!” before shutting his eyes in his bloodstained face. Clearly, a valiant Man, and judging by the lines graven in his broad brow, an intelligent one used to suffering.
It took more careful cutting to free one small, crudely bandaged hand from one shaft, and I half-lifted her out of the way so that I could take her place. ‘Which house?” I roared at her over the tumult.
“The Houses of Healing,” she answered, wavering with exhaustion. I could not steady her, but she laid her left hand on the shaft by mine, and we moved forward. Even as slowly as we went, to accommodate her weariness, it was as much as she could do to go, forward and upward, step by staggering step. My admiration of her increased. She would have gotten him to shelter if she crawled!
But at the gate between the Fifth and Sixth Circles, the only one tenanted by members of the guards, we were stopped by two guards and their leader. “Nobody allowed!” he shouted.
“We need a Healer at the Houses,” she said desperately. “Please let us by!”
“No! Get out o' here! Them’s our orders!”
One of the guards peered into the cart. “’Tis just that little cripple.”
“No matter, then. Be off with you!”
I set down the shafts carefully, climbing out from between them.
“You’re a Dwarf, ain’t you?” one of them asked. “Dwarfs is rich. Mebbe worth a pouch of coin, hey?”
“You aren’t worth bribing,” I snorted. I could almost hear Dáin saying, Mind you cause no great fights or brawls with the Men of Gondor! Many tell me I should send someone else, and make you stay here for the next few decades. Be not hot-headed!
I had kept, and would keep, that promise, I reminded myself.
But then the greasiest of them said, “An' mebbe a cuddle with the wench, ugly though she be.”
Killing them probably wasn’t a good idea, so I resolutely left my axe on my back. However, a long piece of wood lay nearby on the ground—I have no idea of its purpose—and it only required a few steps to pick it up and sweep it around. It made a satisfying crack on two of their noggins, and they fell like seven-pins.
The officer gaped, then came towards me, waving his sword. The piece of wood had broken under my blow, but I still held the end of it in my hands, so it was easy to drive it into his gut. He folded over it with a squawk, and I reversed to hit him just enough over the head that he would stay down for a bit. Then I stooped for the shafts again. “After you, my lady.”
Wide-eyed, she picked up her skirts and tried to hurry, and I followed.
It must have seemed an Age to her before we reached the Houses of Healing. No one stood at its gates either, but as we crossed a courtyard toward the main building, a Healer came out of the door in his white robe.
I lost count of the times I fell, or cowered briefly under the agony of those cries—but each time, fear for Jehan’s safety drove me back to my feet. I had no room for anything but continuing…And poor Rimbor! But I dared not think of him, lest the pain in my heart from abandoning him render me unable to see and cause a worse fall than any I had yet had…
I had fallen yet again when a deep voice spoke over my head. “Let me help you, lady.”
Who would allow a lady to be outside in this nightmare?
“Let me help you, lady,” said that deep calm voice again, and someone touched my arm. I blinked up into the face of a rather large Dwarf, with auburn hair and (rather shorter than I expected for one of the Stone-folk) beard below deepset, kind dark eyes.
“We must get to the Houses,” I said in a voice I scarcely recognized as my own. If only I had been able to take Jehan up the inside way—but it was even steeper, and in places had steps, and how could I have carried the candle, and what if it collapsed…
In an eyeblink of time, it seemed to me, he had detached me from the cart and taken my place, effortlessly lifting the shafts of the cart and beginning to move forward. I tried to help, too out of breath from the climb and the smoky air to speak, as we moved upward. I did not even marvel at how one of the Children of Aulë had apparently sprung up out of the ground!
My heart quailed when the Gate guards refused us entry. We were so close! But the Dwarf seized a pole and dropped the two guards in their tracks and then knocked down their officer in almost no time at all. He had not even changed his expression. Giving me a courtly bow—so much for the so-called bluntness of Dwarves!—he said, “After you, my lady,” and I found myself hurrying (for a few paces), with him coming after.
In the courtyard of the Houses, Suliden, the Healer who disliked me, was coming out the front door when we came in the gates. I strongly suspected that he had been doing little, for how else could he keep that white robe so pristine?
“Who’s this, then? What are you doing? Oh, it’s you—where’ve you been, stupid woman, deserting your post!”
“We fetched my husband,” I gasped. “He’s been hurt. Please help him!”
He leaned over Jehan; for the first time I noticed that deep red dyed the neck and shoulder of his nightshirt from a wound on the side of his head. Straightening, the Healer said coolly, “Too late. You would do better to get back to work. We are overrun with real casualties.” Turning on his heel, he stalked back inside.
“He’s right,” Jehan whispered, and with an effort opened his eyes.
“No!” I took his hand.
My love looked past me at the Dwarf. “Please…”
“I will. Come, lady, we will take him over there.”
Together we conveyed him to a small shed nearby in the garden, lifting him from the cart to the wide shelf I hastily emptied and padded with the blankets. I leaned over him, holding his hands and smoothing back his hair, too numb to weep.The signs were all too clear, but how could I prevent it? We had battled death before; why not this time?
Jehan smiled up at me. “The most perfect day of my life was the one we wed,” he said softly. “Never thought I’d make bones as old as these. I'll wait for you in the Halls of Nandos.”
“Forgive me,” I choked out. For not being a better wife. For not giving him a child. For dragging him up there, receiving his final hurt on the way. For all my omissions and faults as a wife…
“Forgive me,” he whispered. “Live, my darling. Find joy again. Be well.”
“Jehan, please—“ I begged.
Somehow he managed to touch my cheek with a fingertip. “Love…” And closed his eyes, his spirit leaving his body with a tired sigh.
I wiped my eyes with my bandaged hand, gently disengaged my other hand, stroking his face.
The Healer sneered at her, gave a cursory glance at her husband, and said curtly, “Too late.” Then that puffed up toad had the nerve to tell her that she would do better to help real injured, and before I could grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him into some kindness of heart (probably not possible, but the desire was there), swept back inside and slammed the door.
Reluctantly I released my impulse to hack it down and break him over my knee, and turned my attention to the couple he had so casually repulsed. Jehan looked at me, his face grey with approaching death, but his eyes clear and entreating. “Please…” he whispered to me. I knew immediately what he wanted to say: Please take care of my beloved.
“I will,” I said over a lump in my throat, knowing that this was indeed a good Man, and that our brief exchange had the finality of a binding Oath. Her face was so ravaged by grief that I glanced away, then added hastily, “Come, lady, we will take him over there.”
So we took Jehan to a small hut off to one side in the gardens, and after she hastily cleared off bags of soil and boxes of empty pots from a workbench, I held him while she moved the blankets to pad his resting-place. I took the opportunity to whisper to him in Westron, “I pledge she shall not go uncomforted, and you shall be avenged, my friend.” For I knew that we could have, would have, been friends had the Valar allowed us the time.
Then I withdrew to the doorway, to afford them some semblance of privacy, and to ensure that no one disturbed them, for I would not put it past that obnoxious Healer to try to drag her in to work in one of the sick-rooms. I almost wished he would, for it would have given me much satisfaction to dissuade him from any such notion.
Yet in my heart, I knew that I was trying to hide from myself that something profound had happened to me, something I must deal with soon.
I glanced at them, at the small Woman bending over the smaller Man, and knew that if I heard her sob I would completely lose my own composure. And I a Dwarf, supposed to be gruff and dour!
I stepped a few feet away from the hut, clenching and unclenching my hands in an effort to regain my aplomb.
“Dalf! Dalf! There you are!” Rannich, a merchant’s guard I had met some time previously, came running into the courtyard. “I’ve been looking all over for you! Gandalf the White summons you down to the Second Circle gate to help brace it, since the one in the First Circle has been breached.”
“Fools! If they had listened to me—“ I fumed. Gandalf the White? Since when had he been anything but the Grey?
“Well? Come on!” he said impatiently, as I half-turned, hesitating, towards the hut.
The woman stood in the doorway, somehow possessed of more calm than I felt. “I thank you for all your kindness, Ser Dwarf,” she said. “We—“ her voice almost broke, but she steadied it and went on, “We will do, now. The Valar bless you and Aulë protect you!”
I bowed, wishing I had my hood with me to do it properly, but could not speak, not with Rannich pulling impatiently at my arm. So I went, and I have regretted it ever since.