This is bigger than my entire apartment in Chicago was, I thought to myself as I looked around the palatial room I’d been led to. Rooms, I corrected myself, noting that several were attached to the bedroom. I wondered if the quarters Gandalf and Pippin were sharing next door were this grand.
I crossed the room to kneel on the bench in front of the open window. The view was breathtaking. And a hell of a drop, I realized looking down. But looking to the north at the Anduin, I took in the picturesque sight of the mist-covered water colored orange by the sunrise, and looking at the sight, I could understand why Boromir had so loved this city.
It was too populated for my taste—but then again, Chicago had been too—and there wasn’t the vast openness of green that appealed to my heart; instead, it was unending stone and masonry. Beautiful in its mastery, but it didn’t appeal to my heart.
But the view. The view did. Looking out across the river-scape, I could see why Boromir had fought so hard. What he’d given everything for.
But it was too populated, I thought again as I rubbed my throbbing temple. I’d been able to withstand living and working in Chicago because I’d kept strict practice in maintaining the barriers that kept others’ thoughts out. And I was now sorely out of practice. I’d gotten spoiled from allowing myself to sink into the soothing thoughts of Legolas’s mind, and that indulgence now came at the price of my throbbing headache as the clamor of so many voices pounded in my head.
Time to do something about it, I told myself.
Tossing my pack and weapons on the overstuffed chair next to the bed, I proceeded to remove my weapons and then climb on top of the dark covers. I crossed my legs Indian-style, and closed my eyes, focusing my thoughts inward. Sometimes it helped to focus on pleasing sounds or light music as I did this, but just as living in my Chicago apartment, there were no chirping birds or pleasant sounds of a forest, which I preferred, so instead, I focused on my breathing as I controlled and strengthened the barriers that shut other minds out.
And eventually, I could hear only the soft inhale and exhale of my breath.
Yet all too soon, I heard another soft noise patting across the stone floor.
“What did you need, Pip?” I asked, not bothering to open my eyes.
“How’d you know it was me?” he asked full of surprise. The sounds of his footsteps increased until he was at the bed. And then the mattress suddenly depressed as the young hobbit hopped up to sit across from me.
My eyes popped open at his bold move, but then I smiled, realizing the innocence of the hobbits was something I loved most about them. To them, it was no big deal to hop up on a woman’s bed.
“I knew it was your footsteps because I recognize the sound of you sneaking around.” I laughed as his ears colored to pink. “Plus, who else your size and weight would be coming into my room unannounced?”
“What were you doing?” he wondered, gesturing to where I sat. “You looked almost like you was asleep sitting up. I almost decided to turn around and leave, but I couldn’t believe you could really be sleeping while still sitting upright.”
I laughed happily, the hobbit already lifting my spirits—and making me realize how much they needed lifting, and how lonely I was. “I was meditating.”
“What’s ‘meditating?'” he asked, repeating the word in a slow, drawn out way.
With a shrug, I tried to explain, “It’s where you focus on shutting the world and all its problems away, and focus on something like breathing. Mostly I do it to try and shut the voices out.”
Pippin gave me a startled look and stared at me as if I’d grown another head. I replayed what I said and it finally struck me. He was looking at me as if I was crazy and had just admitted to hearing voices in my head. I’d forgotten he hadn’t known about that. I’d gotten too comfortable in thinking my companions knew, but I guess it was just Legolas and Gimli that knew. Perhaps Aragorn as well. One of the other two had likely told him at any rate. But the hobbits hadn’t known. I wasn’t even sure if Gandalf knew.
“I ah—” I stuttered as I tried to word it properly. “I hear the voices of other’s thoughts in my head,” I finally spouted. Ah hell, not exactly what I intended, but then again, there probably isn’t proper wording for that kind of thing.
Pippin looked dubious as he leaned slightly back and peered up at me.
“I can feel your doubt Pippin,” I told him. With him sitting this close, I only had to let my barriers slip a bit to catch his feelings and thoughts. “You still mostly think in whatever language that is you hobbits use in the Shire—” At that, his look turned to surprise. “—so I can’t understand most of what you’re thinking, but I see the passing images of food and bits of thought in Westron wondering if Gondorians know about second breakfast or any of the other meals you’ve been missing.”
I braced myself for shock, horror, fear, resentment, or any other number of reactions, but I’d forgotten that the hobbits always seemed to surprise me. Pippin most of all.
“You can really tell what I’m thinking?” he asked, a strange sort of awe lighting his face. “What’s it like?” he eagerly continued.
The laugh caught us both by surprise. I hadn’t meant to, but it was a deep sound of relief passing my lips.
Through my softening chuckles, I managed to tell him, “Mostly it’s a pain in the ass, Pip. I’d give it up in a heartbeat. But it has been useful. I’d have never made it as a Marine in my world without it to give me an edge.”
“Oh, no doubt,” he eagerly agreed. “Why, I could use something just like that back home. If I knew what Diamond was thinking…” he trailed off looking embarrassed. “I mean, if I knew what Fatty Bolger was thinking, I bet he wouldn’t give me and Merry such hard times.”
I smiled, but didn’t comment on his cover-up.
And though Pippin was surprisingly accepting of my anomaly, I wasn’t much interested in talking about it. To change the subject, I asked, “So, what are you doing in my room, Pip?”
He seemed to search his mind for a moment. “Oh, right,” he finally responded. “Gandalf wanted me to go check on Shadowfax for him in the stalls. Says these Gondorians are a good sort and all, but not the finest horsemen. I thought you might like to come with me.”
Unfolding myself from the bed, I started pulling my weapons and cloak back on. “Sure,” I told the young hobbit. “I’ll come with you. Better than sitting around here. And I’m sure these Gondorians do well enough with horses, but since they don’t have the same need for them in a big stone city like this, I’m sure they’re nowhere near the caliber as the Rohirrim.”
Pippin nodded as we left my room. “No doubt there. I’ve never seen big folk so attentive to their stock before. We have some work ponies in the Shire of course and the big folk use them in Bree, but they’re nothing on the refinery of the horses I saw those soldiers from Rohan riding.”
As we walked outside down the street, a bell tolled three times clear and loudly. I paused for a moment, but then realized it was tolling the mark of three hours past sunrise, not three o’clock in the morning.
“Nine o’clock we’d call it in the Shire,” Pippin remarked. “Just the time for a nice breakfast by the open window in spring sunshine. And how I should like breakfast! Do these people ever have it, or is it over? And when do they have dinner, and where?”
Looking down at his consternation, I laughed. “Still worried about where your next meal is coming from?”
“Surely,” he eagerly attested. “I can’t affect what’s going to happen with the battle to come. I can’t help Frodo and Sam anymore. I can’t even help these big folks prepare for battle. So why worry overmuch about those things? But breakfast, that’s something I can still hope for.”
“The practicality of hobbits,” I wondered with a shake of my head.
Glancing up, I noticed a man dressed in the black and white of the citadel guard coming towards us. He was obviously intent on us, so I stopped to wait for him.
“You are Peregrin the Halfling?” he asked, surprising both Pippin and me by speaking directly to the hobbit. “I am told that you have been sworn to the service of the Lord and of the City. Welcome!”
He held his hand out for Pippin to shake, continuing to introduce himself as he did so.
“I am named Beregond son of Baranor. I have no duty this morning, and I have been sent to you to teach you the pass-words, and to tell you some of the many things that no doubt you will wish to know. And for my part, I would learn of you also. For never have we seen a halfling in this land and though we have heard rumor of them, little is said of them in any tale that we know. Moreover you are a friend of Mithrandir. Do you know him well?”
“Well,” Pippin started, obviously pleased with the man’s rapt and avid attention. “I have known of him all my short life, as you might say; and lately I have travelled far with him. But there is much to read in that book, and I cannot claim to have seen more than a page or two. Yet perhaps I know him as well as any but a few. Aragorn was the only one of our Company, I think, who really knew him.”
“Aragorn?” Beregond repeated. “Who is he?”
Pippin realized his slip and stammered, “Oh, he was a man who went about with us. I think he is in Rohan now.” Pippin turned to me and waved up at me as he tried to distract the man, “But Lane knows Gandalf—I mean, Mithrandir, too. She’s travelled with our Company as well.”
I fought the urge to elbow the hobbit as the man’s attention finally settled on me. I’d been more than fine with being an easily overlooked woman.
Now, his attention lingered on my strange appearance. “I had heard there was another traveller with Mithrandir and the halfling, but I had not heard your countenance was as strange as your companions. What business, pray tell, does a woman have to be so dressed and in such company.”
With a nonchalant shrug, I said, “I’m merely a traveller. And in these dark days, it’s unwise to travel about bound in skirts to herald your identity for any rogues to see.” Not exactly true, but it seemed to be something Beregond could at least swallow.
I gestured to the building that had the apparent look and musky smell of a stable. “I’ll go check on the horses, Pip. Take your time with Beregond; I’m sure you two have business to discuss.”
As I walked away, I almost laughed at the relieved look on the man’s face. I wondered if I should tell him that I didn’t need to eavesdrop on him telling Pippin the pass-words for the various levels of the city, that I could pluck it from the minds of the guards at every gate.
I’d been in the stable tending to my own horse for only a few minutes when Pippin and Beregond came in, still chatting happily. Beregond seemed completely enthralled with the young hobbit—not that I could blame him, I often found the hobbits enthralling myself—and was eager to follow Pippin around and learn what he could from him. I had the feeling that he was a man who yearned for the freedom to travel afar, but had never been given the opportunity. I’d known people like that before. Either too fearful, or without the means to travel as they wished, and so they eagerly followed about those who had, trying to live vicariously through their tales.
Pippin was peering up into Shadowfax’s manger, trying to ensure he had enough hay, but I realized that Pippin wasn’t all that sure about how much a horse might need.
“Don’t worry about it, Pip,” I called over to him from my stall. “I’ll tend to the horses; you go on your way with Beregond and learn what you need to know.”
He popped over to my stall, standing in the opening as I rehung the bucket of water I’d filled for Lightfoot’s stall. It hadn’t been empty yet, but he’d taken enough to lower the level by half at least.
“You sure, Lane? You don’t want to come with us?” Pippin asked, oblivious to the frowning man behind him. I doubted the man had any idea I was as travelled as any man in these lands was, and could tell stories that would make even Pippin wonder, but they were mostly tales from my own world. And though I wasn’t offended, I knew that Beregond had no desire to spend time with a woman. In his eyes, I didn’t seem nearly as exciting and exotic as a hobbit.
Biting back a grin, I firmly told Pippin, “Yeah, I’m sure. Go ahead. I’ll take care of the horses and wander a bit by myself.”
“By yourself?” Pippin repeated, seemingly worried for my safety. “Are you certain?”
Now, I did laugh. “I can take care of myself, Pip. Go. Learn your duties. I’ve gone my own way more than once on our journey you know.”
“Yeah, but Legolas asked me and Gandalf to look after you. What if something happens?” he explained, his brow deeply furrowed.
That did surprise me, I hadn’t realized Legolas had even spoken to the pair before we left, but he’d obviously managed at least a few words. “Legolas knows I can take care of myself, Pip. He shouldn’t have tried to burden you or Gandalf with the task. Besides, what’s going to happen to me here in the city?” I tried again explaining to the hobbit who still didn’t seem convinced. “It’s not like we’re out in the wilds, or even in a city whose language I don’t speak. I’ll be fine.”
He finally seemed mollified by this. “I guess that’s true enough. Besides, I do have my duties to learn. Shall I see you this evening? Perhaps for the evening meal?”
“We’ll see. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again. Go have fun exploring and learning your responsibilities,” I told him with a wave, watching him and the man walk out the doors of the stable.
I spent the rest of the day wandering about the city just as I told Pippin I would. The hood of my cloak was once again pulled forward, so passersby would have no notion that a woman was beneath.
Wandering the city, I wasn’t surprised by the lack of women, I had known they had been sent away for the coming battle, but I was surprised by the number of children still present. Or rather, young boys. Some played for a time in small groups, but all seemed to come and go, most likely running errands for their fathers. I knew it was their rite of passage so to speak, their step to becoming men, but I mourned it just as I’d mourned the boys in Rohan now made into men. I could only pray that the boys here would be spared from yet having to pick up swords, hoping they could remain message-runners.
Twice I saw Pippin from afar, once with Beregond, and the other time with a boy I assumed was his son Bergil. But I remained where I was, wandering in the shadows as I made my own explorations of the city. Pippin appeared to be having fun, especially with young Bergil, but with battle hanging on the horizon, any of the youthful play left in me had fled, replaced by weariness. So on I continued. Surveying the city and doing my best to know my surroundings. The scout in me knew the utmost importance of knowing your surroundings well before the battle was begun.
At some time in my travels, I had acquired a small purse of gold coins. I think Andreth had packed them for me in Lothlórien—a gift for which I was most grateful. The streets were mostly deserted, but there were a few vendors selling food still. I’d spent time in various markets throughout my own world, so haggling and bartering for goods was not unique to me, but paying with gold coin for currency was different. Blessedly, speaking in soft, one-word sentences and keeping my hood up, prevented the denizens of Gondor from realizing I was a woman.
I finally found a place along the wall on the lowest level where I could quietly sit and watch the troops marching into the city. Great numbers from outlying areas marched in, one group was even led under the Ship and the Silver Swan banner I knew to be Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth’s people.
But just as the anxious citizens of Gondor fretted, I too worried if the influx of troops would be enough.
Battle in this world was not the same as battle I was used to. The advent of guns, explosives, planes, helicopters, and a thousand different advances had so changed the face of war in my own world. Wars were no longer won by sheer numbers and brute force there. Tactics I knew played as large a role in this world as it did in my own, but they were different. Here it would be where to best use each company of men. In my own, we relied more on where best to send drones, explosives… and snipers.
I sighed. Not since shortly after arriving in this world had I felt useless. In our travels and in my bid to learn the weapons of this world, I had not had the idle time to worry about what use I could be here. There had only been time for action—for learning. Even at Helm’s Deep, I had been distraught emotionally for thinking Legolas had been lost, but once he’d returned, the battle had been joined so swiftly. There had been no time to consider what place or what use I could be in the warfare of this world.
I preferred action.
Determined to no longer sit on the wall idly letting my mind wander over topics that could not be changed, I decided to follow a bit of Pippin’s advice. His quarry had been food, but I would seek a different kind of distraction.
In my own world—while I’d still been an active Marine at any rate—I had spent many hours at the sniper shooting range. There I could hone my skills and close off thoughts I didn’t want to consider. At the time, it had been a great way to avoid a husband and marriage I knew had been falling apart since the words “I do.”
But now, I would find an archery range and work on honing skills still far too new to me. Skills that had been battle-tested yes, but could always use improvement. Only this time, it wasn’t a misbegotten marriage and husband I was avoiding, but rather, dread of the battle to come. And a future unknown to me.
I knew the battle would be won in Minas Tirth. No matter what my presence in this world might have affected, the ripples could only carry so far. But I still didn’t know my own future. I knew what I wanted. But I feared that the story would end just as it had been written. That Legolas and Gimli would sail for Valinor. Alone.
And maybe it was for the best. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be here.
“Ugh!” I groaned to myself out loud. “I’m getting sick of this introspective, quavering bullshit! To hell with fate or the way things were written, I’ve always done things my own way and that ain’t stopping now.”
Hours later, I returned to my room, pleasantly sore from hours practicing my archery.
Darkness had fallen. Not the usual kind that came with the end of day, but a gloom and ashen cloud settling over the sky.
I knew day would not light the sky again for some time.
But even with the darkness that had fallen, I’d managed to find a lonely and deserted archery field. It looked to have once been heavily used, but with the soldiers of Gondor busily following their orders, and the field not being overly close to the citadel, I was able to practice in piece and solitude.
The halls of the citadel were softly lit by sconces, but I encountered no one in them as I made my way back to my room.
As I slowly slid the door to my room open, I saw that candles were lit throughout here as well.
And that the room was not empty.
My fingers instinctually slid my knife soundlessly from my belt, inching forward towards the soft sounds coming from the sitting room off the small entryway into my quarters.
But then, I realized the soft noises I heard were the fretful mutterings of a woman and her feet scuffing softly as she paced. Holding the knife out of view, I peered around the edge of the stone doorway and caught the sight of my trespasser.
An adolescent girl wringing her hands nervously as she paced back and forth.
Sheathing my knife, I cleared my throat to get her attention.
The slip of a girl gave a shrill scream and pressed her hands to her neck.
Cringing at the noise, I asked, “Is there a reason you’re in my rooms?”
She tried to speak three times before she could force more than a squeak past her trembling lips, causing me to feel like an ass for so obviously scaring the girl out of her wits.
Finally, she managed, “Are you the lady called ‘Lane?'”
“Yes, and I’m sorry for scaring you like that, but what are you doing here? It’s late and I was going to get some sleep,” I explained in a carefully soft voice, afraid that if I spoke too loudly she’d jump out a window with how tightly wound she seemed.
“Forgive me,” she immediately apologized. “I am to serve you during your stay within the citadel. I have been searching the city for you by day and night, and could not find you. I feared I had failed my task in guiding you and tending to you and you were lost in the city,” she continued in a rush.
“I’m sorry,” I apologized again to her, feeling like a real heel given how upset I could sense the girl was. Did she think she was going to be thrown in the dungeons or beheaded just because I’d wandered around the city by myself? “I didn’t know there would be anyone looking for me. I spent the day familiarizing myself with your city.”
Her head immediately dropped in a dejected manner. “Forgive me,” she begged brokenly, “I have failed to tend to you properly.”
I stepped forward and lifted her chin with the side of my forefinger. “Hey, no big deal. I was fine.” As her face rose to meet mine, I saw the tears sparkling there. Great, and I make little girls cry too. “What’s this? No tears, you’ve done nothing wrong. And I’m sorry for startling you, I’m a mean, grouchy old woman and I shouldn’t have come in here and snapped at you.”
She shook her head. “Nay, ’tis my own fault. I was given the opportunity to serve in the citadel, but I have failed my task. My mother’s mother said I was not yet ready to serve the great ones that reside here.”
Still grasping her chin and not letting her turn away in embarrassment, I said, “Hey, if you’d been assigned to serve anyone else, like someone who knows how to behave as women are expected to in this city, I’m sure you’d be doing a superb job. It’s as much my fault as yours. I should have realized they’d send someone up to help me out.” They always seemed to send someone to serve ladies. Wish they’d wake up and realize they’re way off their mark with me.
The girl sniffed delicately, and I released her chin to let her wipe at her eyes and nose.
“Well, as you can see, I made my way around the city just fine, and I’m not lost, so why don’t you get some sleep. I’m sure you could use it as much as I can,” I told the girl.
I was immediately met with adamant refusal. “Nay, I will see to your needs before you go to rest. It is my duty.”
Seeing her firm resolve—and preferring that too her tears—I nodded and started dropping my cloak and weapons on the foot of the bed. “Fine. How about you show me how to get a bath around here, and I’ll be ready to hit the hay.”
The girl disappeared into what I knew to be the bathroom from my initial exploration of the quarters I’d been assigned, and after I’d shed all but my shirt and pants, I followed the girl into the room barefoot. The stone was cool on my feet, but not as unpleasantly so as I’d expected of a stone floor.
“What’s your name? And how old are you? You don’t seem old enough to have stayed in the city when I know they’ve evacuated the women and children.” I asked the girl as she busily turned handles on the pipes of the large tub in the middle of the room. Surprisingly, as the water ran through the open tub, it soon started to steam.
She again looked flustered and quickly dropped into a curtsey. “I am called Nethiel, my lady. I have passed ten and three summers. My mother had wished me to leave with the others, but aid was sure to be needed in the Houses of Healing before the end is nigh, so I begged leave to remain. I was to have been a runner for the healers, sent to fetch and gather at their need, but word was sent that a lady had arrived in the citadel and needed a lady’s maid. I have longed to work in the citadel and begged to have the opportunity.”
I waved it away unconsciously. “Just Lane. None of the lady stuff. So thirteen, huh?” So very young. “And what does your father think of this?”
Her eyes dropped back to her task. “He does not think, my lady. He fell when Osgiliath was taken.”
“I’m sorry,” I offered, knowing nothing could ease that hurt. My eyes drifted back to the steaming water in the ensuing silence.
She saw my intrigued stare at the warm water and turned her attention there. Reaching into the tub to place the stopper into it, she explained, “The citadel has pipes which bring cold water down from high in the mountains and then pass through a large furnace to warm the water.” She pointed to the other pipe and began turning the nob on top of it, water coming out of it as well. “This is cold water which does not pass through the furnace. The citadel has many amenities which make us very coveted throughout Gondor.”
“I can imagine,” I agreed with a short whistle. “I’m coveting right now. I never expected to see indoor running water in Middle-earth. I don’t know why I expected that to be so far beyond this place.”
She looked curiously at me, but I waved it away.
“What does ‘hit the hay’ mean?” Nethiel quietly asked.
Laughing, I answered, “Just a strange expression where I come from. It means getting sleep.”
She looked curious and seemingly wanting to ask more about where I was from, but thankfully, the girl kept quiet, probably thinking it was out of place for her to ask. I wouldn’t have minded normally, but I hated trying to come up with a convincing lie.
As the tub continued filling, I saw her lingering glances at my pants and shirt. The girl seemed both scandalized and intrigued.
“Pants are a lot easier for traveling,” I finally offered, hoping to satisfy her curiosity even though she didn’t dare ask.
The girl ducked her head in embarrassment at being caught looking at my unusual clothes.
“No big deal,” I assured her. “I’m sure you’ve never seen a woman dressed like a man before.”
“Nay, never,” she quietly agreed. I grinned, thinking if she was back to working in the Houses of Healing when the battle started, she’s see another woman so dressed after the battle.
The tub finally filled, she turned the taps off and waited for me to climb in.
I didn’t want to offend the girl, but I also didn’t want a girl not yet even a woman seeing my scars and having to wonder—or worse, ask—where they had come from.
“If it’s all the same to you, Nethiel, I prefer to bath in private,” I gently explained.
She blushed and dipped her head. “I would take your clothes to wash,” she whispered.
“Naw, don’t worry about them. They’ve seen far worse, and I have more in my pack. You can get them tomorrow if you really want. And don’t worry; you’ve been exceedingly helpful to me already. I probably wouldn’t have figured out the water for the bath if not for you,” I laughed lightly to the girl. “And I think you’re doing great with this lady’s maid thing. Though I’m no expert since I’ve never had one.” I still didn’t count Andreth in Lórien. She’d been a friend.
The girl finally smiled at that, seeming content with the compliment. “I shall bring you morning tea then,” she offered with a curtsey.
Finally alone in the room, I settled in for a long relaxing bath.
When Nethiel came into the room the next morning, balancing a tray with food and tea, I was already awake, lounging on the bench by the large, open window.
I’d never been one for sleeping all that much, but in recent years, I’d gotten much worse, sleeping only when exhaustion forced me to, and even then, being tormented with my nightmarish past. Though strangely, in recent weeks, it had mostly been better. But then, I’d had someone nearby who’d offered me comfort I was just now beginning to realize.
Disgusted that I’d become one of those women sitting around pining for a man (well, elf) and letting myself become dependent on him, I swung my legs over the side of the bench and hopped to my feet, following Nethiel into the sitting room.
Just like Andreth in Lórien, I was finally able to persuade the girl into joining me in partaking of the mountain of food she’d brought me. Although, unlike Andreth, the girl was far shyer and kept mostly silent. I supposed it was the greater age difference between me and Nethiel than Andreth and me. And I immediately smiled to myself at the thought. Andreth was likely far older as an elf, so I amended my thought; it was probably that vast difference in maturity. Nethiel was still very much a girl, though I imagined on the cusp of womanhood to her people.
After we’d eaten and I’d dressed—and Nethiel had insisted on sending my clothes to be laundered—I ventured out again to explore the city more with Nethiel by my side.
It was better than sitting around waiting for the battle to come, but I would have rather done it alone. Yet, Nethiel insisted she come along, still fearing I’m might lose my way and the blame fall on the poor girl.
Though it was day, it was difficult to tell by walking around outside. A grayish light barely pierced through the dark cloud hanging over Gondor. It was easier to determine it was daytime by the flurry of activity from the soldiers still fortifying the city.
At least having Nethiel with this time did mean I had some conversation. She quietly told me about the history and uses of the seven gates and the seven walls and levels of the city as we walked down through those levels.
We received many curious looks as we walked about, for I kept my hood up to maintain the façade of masculinity. I suppose the Gondorians wondered about what the dark stranger was doing walking about with a young girl while they so busily prepared for a siege, but none had the time to question or comment on it.
At noontime, I let Nethiel persuade me into returning to the citadel for a meal. She slipped into the kitchens and then we ate quietly in a plushly adorned salon. I was certain if there had still been nobles about—and no battle on the horizon—it would have been full of lords sitting about on the soft couches drinking wine and discussing their fiefdoms. It was richly decorated with many colorful tapestries and paintings of far-told battles.
Even the day before, I’d have stopped to peruse the paintings, but today, the battle to come was far too pressing in my mind.
Instead, I wandered about the citadel, eventually winding my way to the Great Hall. It stood open now, Denethor meeting within with his advisors and Gandalf about the coming battle and the disposition of Gondor’s neighbors and whether they’d send aid.
Though Nethiel was too frightened to enter and waited nervously in the hall, I slipped inside the open doors and listened from the shadows.
Denethor knew a surprising amount about their neighbors in Rohan, asking Gandalf questions about the country’s state that he already knew, and not seeming genuinely surprised by news like the king’s nephew becoming his heir.
Gandalf often stared contemplatively at Denethor, and I wondered if the wizard knew or was beginning to suspect what was the seat of Denethor’s great knowledge.
But then, Denethor looked up and seemed to pin me in his gaze though I knew I was hidden in the shadows. He said nothing for several moments, and Gandalf—seeming to see me as well—spoke to Denethor and pulled his attention away.
I needed no further hints; I slipped back out the way I’d come before Denethor could think to try to call me forward or in any way draw attention to me.
Without a word to Nethiel, I led the way back out of the citadel and down to the lowest level of the city, finding the place on the wall near the gate where I had sat the day before. Nethiel seemed to sense my need for quiet and remained silent as she sat beside me.
“Lane?” Pippin suddenly called out.
I turned from gazing across the Pelennor to see the hobbit and Beregond making their way towards my spot on the wall.
“Hey, Pip,” I greeted, taking in the sight of his new livery of the citadel guards. “You look very handsome,” I complimented.
He tugged at his tunic and looked distinctly uncomfortable. “They keep calling me the Prince of the Halflings,” he whispered. “I’m no prince.”
Chuckling at his discomfort and obvious distaste, I told him, “Let them have their silly tittles for you. You certainly look like a prince dressed like that. If people want to think and hope that a great prince of the halflings is among them, let ’em. No harm in it.”
“I s’pose,” he grumbled, sitting a little ways down from me by the wall.
Beregond sat on his other side, but was starting to glance more speculatively at me now. I suppose he was beginning to wonder if I truly was just a normal woman like he’d assumed, or something more.
I wasn’t something more. But I was something else.
“I wish this darkness would finally pass. Or that something would finally happen. I’m tired of the waiting,” Pippin grumbled.
“You took the words right out of my mouth, Pip. I hate waiting, too. But someone once said, ‘We can only appreciate the miracle of a sunrise if we have waited in the darkness.'”
“Wise words,” Beregond grudgingly said. I fought a smile; Beregond wasn’t mean, cruel, or even demeaning in his thoughts towards me, but he didn’t begin to know what to think about a woman like me.
Beregond and Pippin continued quietly talking, but my attention was soon held across the field. My sight for long-distances had always been exceptional—even without a sniper scope—so I noticed the riders coming across the field before my companions did.
As well as the circling beasts that flew through the air chasing them.
Pippin and Beregond now stood as well, having noticed the beasts first and finally their quarry. But we all cringed and pulled away from the wall when one of the great beasts let out a shrill cry. Yet, on its heels was the trumpet heralding Faramir’s return.
Pippin remained frozen on the wall, but Beregond jumped up to run and offer what aid he could to his captain.
With a “Stay here,” thrown over my shoulder at Nethiel, I followed on Beregond’s heels.
We arrived at the gate in time to see Gandalf ride swiftly through them seated on Shadowfax. The Marine in me demanded to follow him and help soldiers in danger, but the beasts of the Black Riders called out again, causing me to shudder and shrink away from the blackness embedded in their very being, even in their call.
No, I couldn’t force my feet to willingly carry me any closer to those things. Perhaps had I not been telepathic and not been able to feel their very menace down to my pores, I could have recklessly torn off after Gandalf.
But I remained planted safely within the wall, telling myself that Gandalf was more than capable of handling this threat, and waiting for the men to make the safety of the wall as well.
Once Gandalf had driven away the Black Riders, he and the men raced for the safety of the wall. As they paused inside the gate, Faramir still talking to Gandalf, I saw one of his men start to sway unsteadily sideways in his saddle.
Rushing forward, I shoved at his torso and held him up in his seat.
One of the soldiers nearby called out, “He needs be taken to the Houses of Healing.”
And seeing no one else step forward to help the man, I decided they either meant me to tend the man, or for the man to tend himself. Without hesitation, I grabbed a chunk of the horse’s mane with my left hand, and swung up behind him, trying to steady him as I did so with my right hand. The man was larger than me, and nearly toppled off the other side of his horse as I maneuvered behind him, but finally, we were both seated on the horse, with him mostly slumped forward over the horse’s neck.
Stretching my arms wide to reach around the armored man, I grabbed the reins and urged the horse up through the levels of the city to the sixth level, thankful that Nethiel had been so eager to show me where she worked in the healing halls this morning.
“Hey! Injured man here!” I bellowed as I slid the horse to a stop outside the Houses of Healing.
A young male healer immediately rushed through the door and began helping me slide the soldier down from his horse. Letting the healer bear his weight for a moment, I jumped off too, and together, we slung the injured man’s arms over our shoulders. At first, the injured man was still somewhat conscious, but then he lost his hold on it, and went limp in our arms.
It was actually a blessing. The young healer was no taller than I was, so with the injured man slumped between us, we were more easily able to carry him into the halls, his feet dragging the ground limply behind us.
The halls were still quiet, only the healers bustling about as the prepared for the onslaught of injured men they feared would all too soon be brought here, so we turned into the first room off the hallway, and carefully pulled him up on the cot.
The young healer and I were carefully pulling armor off the man when he glanced up and exclaimed, “Are you bleeding?”
I glanced down at my side and saw it stained with red. “No,” I absently responded, lifting the man’s arm that had been slung over my shoulder and seeing the corresponding red mark on his own side. Pulling the torn tunic away from the wound, I exposed a deep gash in the man’s side.
The healer hissed through his teeth and finally glanced up at my face. He gasped again and seemed more shocked to find a woman across from him than when he’d thought I might have been injured as well.
“You-you are a woman,” he stuttered.
“Yeah, A plus for you on the gender identification.” I jerked my head back down between us. “Bleeding man,” I reminded him.
The healer tore his gaze away and returned to stripping the paldrons that covered the man’s shoulders and arms, though he continually stole glances at the decidedly unmasculine face my hood had fallen back to reveal.
When we removed the breastplate and backplate, I could see that he’d been cut somehow where the two pieces of armor joined. Likely in raising his arm to block a blow.
Finally, as we removed the last pieces of his armor, other healers entered the room and took over from me. I stepped back and readily let them. I was trained in first aid and battlefield medicine of course, but I doubted I’d be much help here. Their instruments and herbs were wholly unfamiliar to me.
Still, I had brought the man here and couldn’t bring myself to leave until I knew his fate.
I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but I was suddenly aware of another presence in the room. As I looked up, I saw Faramir silhouetted in the doorway of the healing room. He came forward and quietly spoke to one of the healers, asking after the fate of the soldier under his command. He was weary I could see, but I admired his need and determination to see to the health of the men under his command.
However, I doubted the intelligence of me remaining in the room and catching his attention, regardless of my own desire to ascertain the man’s status. So as Faramir leaned over the healers to hear their words, I slipped silently out the door he had entered.
I was partway up the street towards the citadel when a voice called out.
“Wait, you are the man who brought my soldier to the healing wardens?” I could hear the voice growing louder, and stopped until he had stepped in front of me. “I would thank—”
His words died in his throat as he took in my face.
“Yeah, I’m a woman,” I replied irritably and started forward again. The shock that I was a woman was wearing thin.
Faramir visibly shook himself as he started forward again, falling in step with me. “You are the woman my father spoke of? The one so strangely clad and who arrived with Mithrandir and the halfling? Do you know who I am?” he added.
“Yeah,” I sighed, answering both questions with that one word. “You look very much like Boromir—and your father as well for that matter. But no mistaking you and your brother as being siblings.”
He lightly touched my elbow as he came to a stop, asking with the gentle touch if I would stop as well. I did so, my face turning up to his in silent question.
“I have been told you were with those present when my brother fell. I have heard the story second-hand now from my father, Mithrandir, and others, but wonder if you would be willing to tell me of what you know?” he quietly asked. His eyes wouldn’t meet mine as he gave his request. I could see the hero-worship in his tremulous gaze, and the reluctance, but determination to hear the truth of his brother’s last moments.
All day I had managed to keep my barriers in place, shutting the thoughts of others out, but the day had been long, and I had grown weary with the waiting, so Faramir’s troubled thoughts flowed over my subconsciousness.
It cannot be as Mithrandir told. Boromir was oft reckless, but he could not have sought to take the ring from the hobbit. Let the things they all speak to me have been false. Let not my brother’s great prestige be so tarnished.
I saw the images in his mind flitting through my own of the meeting that had just taken place with his father, Gandalf, and Pippin, their voices sounding as though I’d actually been in the room.
He would have stretched out his hand to this thing, and taking it he would have fallen. He would have kept if for his own, and when he returned you would not have known your son, were Gandalf’s harsh words.
You found Boromir less apt to your hand, did you not, Denethor had roughly returned. But I who was his father say that he would have brought it to me.
I yanked myself from Faramir’s anguished thoughts, shaking my head to clear it. “Come,” I told him, gesturing to a low wall overlooking the lower levels and the Fields of the Pelennor.
Faramir leaned his back against the low wall and let his feet cross in front of him, bending to brace himself with his elbows on the wall as he watched me and waited for me to speak. Instead of facing him, I choose to lean forward on the low wall, bracing myself on my forearms as I clasped my hands and considered my words.
“I wish I could lie to you Faramir and tell you what you want to hear. But it would be a disservice to you, and a disservice to your brother’s memory.” He looked startled by my bluntness, or perhaps that I had guessed what he wanted to hear, but remained silent, waiting for me to continue.
“Your brother was a good man. An honorable man,” I finally said, still trying to figure out how to tell Faramir this tale. “But he was a flawed man, as I’m sure you well know.” I waited a few beats of my heart to let my words sink in. “When someone dies, we have a tendency to avoid talking about their faults, thinking that it means we’re speaking ill of them if we do, but making them out to be perfect is not doing them any kindness either. Perfect men never have to overcome mistakes, and it’s the men that fight to the last breath to redeem themselves for a lapse in judgment who are the most honorable. Too many men make mistakes and simply shrug it off, saying ‘Oh well, mistake made. There’s no way I can undo it.’ But that wasn’t your brother. He made mistakes, but in the end, he gave everything to rectify it. And there’s nothing more honorable than a man who rights his wrongs.”
I turned sideways from the wall, standing straight and looking Faramir determinedly in the eye as I continued. Resolute to show him with my own gaze the voracity of my belief in what I was telling him. “Your brother did try to take the ring from the ringbearer. But when the temptation was removed from him, he was instantly overcome with regret and grief. He could not atone himself to Frodo for his actions, but he could atone himself to Frodo’s cousins and do his best to defend and shield them from the Orcs coming to take them. He fought valiantly even when he had been pierced by many arrows, and he died with his honor restored.”
Faramir looked away, trying to shield the tears in his eyes from my sight as he crossed his arms over his chest. “Boromir was indeed an honorable man who shall be sorely missed in leading this battle in the days to come.”
At the raw pain in his voice, I laid my hand on his folded arms in comfort, and was once again privy to the tormented thoughts in his mind.
Do you wish then that our places had been exchanged? Faramir had whispered to his father.
Yes, I wish that indeed, Denethor had viscously returned. For Boromir was loyal to me and no wizard’s pupil. He would have remembered his father’s need, and would not have squandered what fortune gave. He would have brought me a mighty gift.
I let out a shuddering sigh at his guilt and inner torment, jerking my hand away from his arm to break contact.
“I know you let Frodo and Sam go, Faramir, and whatever second-thoughts or doubts you’re having, and no matter what seeds of doubt your father plants in your mind, you made the right choice. Bringing that thing to this city would have ended in disaster. For everyone.”
Faramir jerked his head around as he stood straight. Nearly the height of his own brother, he towered over me. “You speak as though you know my very thoughts,” he stated, surprising me that though there was suspicion, there hadn’t been any accusation or condemnation in his tone.
“I’ve heard that before. A woman’s intuition, I suppose.” Yeah, just this woman’s.
“Nay, ’tis more than mere intuition.”
I looked away, tired, and partly angry with myself for having felt the need to comfort Faramir’s anguish. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have given myself away so easily.
Too tired to keep up pretenses, I gave a long sigh. “No. More than mere intuition,” I agreed. I leaned back against the wall as Faramir previously had been, facing the stone city.
“Your brother gave me his fur-lined cloak when I crossed over Caradhras and the others went under the mountain through Moria,” I told Faramir, startling him by the seemingly sudden change in subject. Nevertheless, he mimicked my posture and returned to leaning his back against the low wall, looking back towards the city as I did. It made it easier to continue without looking into a face so reminiscent of Boromir.
“The mountain pass was freezing and it never stopped snowing,” I continued, “as you can well imagine living near these mountains,” I said, gesturing before us to the very one this city was built into. “And I wasn’t dressed quite properly for such a cold journey. I would have surely died if not for your brother’s generosity.”
Silence lapsed for a few moments, but Faramir didn’t press me on where I was going with my story.
“He struggled with the pull of the ring for so long before he succumbed to its call at Amon Hen that day. It taunted him with nightmarish visions of his beloved city falling, of his people and city turning to ruin. It tantalized him with promises that if he took the ring, he could protect his family, people, and city. His love for you all was his doom in the end. Though I can think of no finer doom than his.”
“You say that the ring taunted him with these things, made him promises, yet, I know my brother, he was not one to burden others with his own troubles and struggles,” Faramir responded, finally turning his head to regard me.
I answered the unasked question. “No, he wasn’t one to do so. Though, once, I was finally able to get him to admit to some of it.”
“Then how did you know all these things?” he pressed.
“I saw them in his mind. Heard the whispers of the ring echoing in his thoughts just as I heard the echoes of your father’s words in your own mind.”
Silence lapsed again. I was amazed that Faramir didn’t turn to me in anger or suspicion or revulsion. As others before him had.
Finally, I continued, trying to articulate why I had decided to tell Faramir what I had. “I can’t help but think things might have been different for Boromir if he hadn’t had to shoulder his burden alone. If I had told him I knew what was in his mind, perhaps I could have helped him resist the taunts of the ring. He was a proud man, he never would have asked for help, but if I’d given it anyway, I could have at least helped him talk through the guilt that was plaguing his conscience. Perhaps he wouldn’t have descended so far before finally falling. I can’t help but feel I could have done something for him. Something to repay all that he did for me.” I had known at the time all the reasons for why he had to descend into madness and set Frodo on his path, but looking now at his grieving brother, I couldn’t help but wish I had acted differently.
“So to assuage your apparent guilt over my brother’s downfall, you admit to me that you hear the thoughts of others?” A look flashed across his face I couldn’t name, but it was there and gone so quickly.
I nodded. “I could have and should have done something more for your brother. I know this doesn’t change anything, except to show you that I am sorry for what happened, and do regret my choices.”
He laughed. A bittersweet sound. “Perhaps you came to know my brother, yet I think I knew him better. Even had you shared with him this truth, he would not have allowed you to help him bear his troubles. You are correct, he was a proud man, as proud as any I have known, and if he had realized you saw the turns of his mind, I fear you would have only brought him to feel more shame.”
“You know I hear your thoughts,” I pointed out.
“Perhaps I am less proud a man than my brother,” he bitterly rejoined.
“The three of you are more alike than you would guess,” I informed him with a chuckle. “All honorable men, though honorable and wise in your own ways. You and your father are more alike than either of you realize, too.”
He frowned, obviously dubious and skeptical of my words.
“You are. Your father is hard on you in his grief, and I’ll admit that he’s wrong to do so, but grief rarely listens to right and wrong. Boromir was obviously his favorite, but mostly it’s because a part of his mind knows how very much you two are alike. Even if neither of you can see it. It’s what makes Boromir his favorite. The one that was different from him, the one he wishes in many ways he could be more like. Oh, Boromir had his faults, and even Denethor knows that, too bold and reckless for start, but a part of Denethor admires those differences. I’m sure deep down there’s a lot about himself that Denethor wishes he could change, and as a father, I’m sure it terrifies him to think that you might become even more like him—especially his faults. That’s a lot of why he pushes you away, trying to keep you at a distance from his own faults.”
“You are perceptive, though I am uncertain how much of what you say I deem to be certain,” Faramir thoughtfully replied.
I waved it away. “That’s fine. It’s hard to see things about ourselves and our family the way others do. But having been cursed with hearing the thoughts of others does give me perspectives others rarely see.”
He looked startled at the word cursed.
“No, I’m not cursed by some evil being or anything. I was born this way, just my own burden to bear. But it does allow me to see things about people that even they themselves don’t want seen. You, for example,” I said, flicking my fingers in his direction, “are so very much like your father. He used his grief over Boromir to get more information out of both Pippin and me than I ever expected. And you’re no different. You were going to seek me out, intending to find out about me what your father hadn’t been able to and succeeding admirably, wrapping yourself in your grief over Boromir until I couldn’t help but give myself away trying to comfort you. That’s what that look I saw several moments ago had been: satisfaction.”
“My grief is neither a cheap ploy nor façade,” Faramir argued.
“Oh, I’m not saying it is. But you’re as crafty as your father, using it to your advantage. Perhaps craftier in many ways. You got out of me more than he did.” Though, blessedly, I hadn’t told him that I knew or could “see” the future.
“Question is,” I continued, “what are you going to do with this information now?”
His face closed off and became expressionless as he thought. I could have dipped into his thoughts, but decided I wanted to hear his words first.
“Could this strange ability help in the battle to come? Or perhaps aid us in knowing the enemy’s plans?”
It was a cold, calculating question, but I couldn’t blame him for it. Had anyone in the Marines known, they’d have had questions that were far more calculating and many cold plans designed for me.
“Probably not,” I truthfully told him. “It’s not of much use once the battle starts; battle is too chaotic by nature for mind reading to be useful. And I don’t have the range to read thoughts more than about half-a-mile away, and even then, I don’t understand the Black Speech of Mordor or any of the languages of the Easterlings or the Haradrim to be of use in that way. Besides, picking out one voice to listen to over any distance in a sea of voices is nearly impossible.”
He nodded, as if he had assumed much the same. “Then I see no need to speak of this to any other, not even my father, though he may deem me a lesser man for doing so. It is a secret you obviously guard preciously if you did not even speak it to Boromir for whom you obviously had some love. I am still uncertain as to why you chose to speak them to me.”
I looked at Faramir in surprise. “Love? I loved your brother as a friend, but no more than that.” He let one brow rise in challenge. “Truly. I loved him as a friend and comrade. But not in the way one loves a lover. And you’re not a lesser man, Faramir, even if your father cannot bring himself to admit it aloud.”
I expected him to shy away uncomfortably from the subject of love and lovers, as any other man would have, but he surprised me, dipping his head as he spoke with ease. “There is one you do feel love for as a lover does. I can hear the longing in your voice. Where is this man? He must be most unlike the men I have known to so allow you to arm yourself so and go about unfettered in times of such darkness.”
Choking back a laugh, and unconsciously spinning the ring on my left hand, I explained, “No, he’s not like any man. But he knows better than to put such restraints on my movements or choices. Or, at least he’s learning. He’ll arrive before this coming battle has ended.” Faramir glanced knowingly at the ring I idly twisted, but did not press further. For which I was grateful.
Silence lapsed again.
“Is your man going to be alright?”
Faramir jerked his head down once. “They tell me he lost some blood, and they shall know better by morn what his fate shall be, yet they are quite optimistic. I give you my thanks for tending to him and bringing him safely to the Houses of Healing.”
“Any time,” I offered companionably.
“Tell me of when Boromir fell,” he suddenly requested. “I know you have once told of it already, but you spoke not of yourself. I feel that there is more to the story than told, much concerning yourself I gather.”
“I was there at Amon Hen when he died, and fought beside him while I could,” I admitted with a jerk of my head. “And tried to push him from the path of the first arrow that sought to strike him, and did do so. Unfortunately, your brother was far larger than I am, and I fear I did not push him nearly hard enough to accomplish my task fully. He regained his balance and stepped in front of me to block my own body from the arrows. I wish there had been time to tell him that those arrows hadn’t been aimed for me, but for him, and he was struck again twice before I could regain my feet to reach him. We both knew with a glance that the wounds were mortal, so he told me to turn away and protect the hobbits, and then turned to cover our retreat. I left and chose to follow his last wish.”
“Then he died well,” Faramir breathed with a deep exhale, his eyes tearing slightly again. “And he would have been proud that you followed his last command.”
Placing my hand comfortingly on his arm—and bracing my barriers against more unwanted thoughts—I said, “I miss Boromir very much.”
My admission seemed to be the sign of approval for him to admit likewise. Reaching out, he covered my hand on his arm with one of his own callused hands. “I miss my brother very much as well,” he whispered to the night, not meeting my eyes but squeezing my hand.
Two near strangers shared a moment of comfort that night for the death of the man they had in common. And yet, I never knew that that moment on the wall would be the last I looked into Faramir’s eyes before I passed through the veil.
The next day passed as the one before had, with only the anxiety ratcheting up to mark the difference as we all waited for the enemy to come. Or for the Riders of Rohan to arrive.
Faramir had been sent out that morning for Osgiliath on an ill-conceived attempt to regain the ruined city. I had not the stomach or heart to watch him ride out, so I remained fitfully pacing within my rooms while Nethiel watched, waiting for Faramir to return to the city.
And that day bled into another. Waiting was becoming the bane of my trip to Gondor. I almost wished now I had demanded to stay with the others, riding with the Rohirrim or even braving the ghosts with Aragorn seemed preferable to the endless waiting and nail biting.
When news came that Faramir and his men had been routed at Osgiliath, and were now facing numbers ten times their own, Gandalf rode out again to offer them what aid he could. Yet, he returned some time later, saying he’d done what he could, leaving Faramir to bring his men when he was able, and then leaving to take counsel with Denethor.
I paced about my room and along the walls of the city, aching to finally throw myself into some sort of action, tired of waiting for it to come to me. So when the call came for the riders of Dol Amroth to join their prince in the sortie to give Faramir cover, I too saddled my horse and rode for the gates where their cavalry waited.
“What foolish plan is this, Lane?” Gandalf’s voice asked from behind me.
I swiveled in the saddle to see him approaching me on foot, his hands gripping his staff and looking years older than the last time I’d seen him.
“I’m riding out,” I simply answered.
“This is foolhardy,” the wizard sadly stated, though I noticed he didn’t try to forbid me.
“Perhaps. But I can’t sit in this city on my hands, waiting for the coming battle. I would rather ride out to meet it, even if I am only accomplishing giving small aid in seeing Faramir and his remaining men back to the city.” I pulled my hood further forward as I spoke, concealing my gender as best I could. My helmet from the battle at the Deep was still in my room with my pack, but I didn’t not want its bulk obscuring any of my vision as I rode anyway.
Gandalf sighed wearily and tired again, “This is the duty of those under the banner of Dol Amroth. It is not your place to ride with them.”
“I have no banner to ride under, Gandalf. I ride where I choose.”
“Legolas will be devastated should ill befall you here, and I admit to having a begrudging fondness for you myself,” the wizard offered with a sad smile. I could see in that smile that he’d come to have a begrudging fondness for many in this time. Many for whom he feared their fates.
“I’ll be fine, Gandalf,” I gently offered, touched by his words. “I didn’t ride this far to die now. I’ll be here when Legolas and the others finally arrive. Or damn the fates that try to bring me low.”
He laughed at that, his eyes losing some of the burden in them. “I cannot command you any more than any lord in these lands, I fear. So I offer only wishes that you ride safely, and let no dark blade or arrow find you.”
The trumpet called loud and clear, the signal for the horses around me to ride out onto the field. I held Lightfoot back a moment, though he eagerly rocked back on his back legs, raising his front legs briefly aloft from the ground as I called down to Gandalf over the din, “There are no better wishes to offer than those!” And I gave Lightfoot his head, feeling his front feet drop to the ground as he leapt forward and letting him carry us onto the field.
A/N: Well, I decided to cut things off there. The action of battle and more to come!
Thanks so much for all the wonderful reviews, and keep letting me know what you think!