Chapter 1: Prologue - 3002
The meadows were his place to be, out in the fields of his parents and their friends was where he used to play. It had never occurred to Marcus, the son of a righteous Gondorian farmer, that anything should change about this. Together with the other children he would climb in the hay barns and clash their wooden swords beneath the warming sun.
His parents told him: don't go away too far and return by sunset; he would never dare to disobey them. Why would he want to go far away when there was so much to discover in the fields right before their doors? The smell of hay, corn, earth and dust was his life, why would he leave it to strive towards the looming mountains in the East?
It was the East that his parents looked towards with a dread that he never understood. The mountains were dark, but hadn't both heroes and cowards of the past days conquered the large rocks? They were rocks, they could not be alive was what 8-year-old Marcus knew. He couldn't understand why the adults and the older children would fear them.
That was until one fateful afternoon in late summer; the day that did not help him understand but made him fear.
The sun was a glowing ball hovering above the horizon, about to go down in roughly two hours. It was the time of harvest when the air above the fields would always be heavy and filled with thick dust; the brooding heat only adding to the effect of tiring everyone who was up and moving that day.
When Marcus had left for the fields at the hour of noon his parents had been casting looks into the East that held more dread than he was used to. Upon his request what it was that made them so afraid his mother had shook her head and gently patted his head.
“Something very distant you don't have to be afraid of, dear,” she had said, shushing his father who had clearly wanted to disagree and start a lecture. From overheard conversations Marcus knew that his father wanted to make him 'tougher', as rough times were coming. Marcus couldn't tell what times he should be talking about; and besides, he thought he was pretty tough already.
The little sword-fight with Aldor, the neighbour's boy, had quickly made him forget about the incident. How could you worry when you were chasing a friend out into the fields, with a triumphant grin on your face when you managed to make them surrender and wrestle you into a pile of fresh hay?
The two boys, soon joined by the smith's daughter Mya, exhaustedly lay on the dusty ground and watched specks of dirt and dust around their heads as the crickets started their beautifully obnoxious chirping. It was Mya who first blew her nose and sniffed the air.
“Where could that smoke be coming from?” she thought loudly.
“Mya, where should there be smoke?” asked Aldor lazily. He was chewing a stalk of grass that had somehow not dried away.
“There is smoke, I can smell it!” Mya announced and sat up.
“Look, it's coming from over there!”
“You're seeing phantoms, Mya!” exclaimed Marcus. Smoke was for fire and fire was for crispy winter nights and feasts. She was only five years old, not to be trusted in her perception anyway. But Mya kept insisting.
“Look, over there!” she cried out.
“There's fire! There's a feast for sure! Can't we go?”
“Mya...” the boys sighed in the same second. Marcus sat up with a sigh.
“Why would they be feasting now?” He had wanted to add something, but his words stuck in his throat as he beheld a thick column of smoke rising up from the roofs of their village. In the second he turned his gaze towards it flames burst out from the gable of the largest house in the village.
When Aldor shot Marcus a questioning look they could hear the first screams.
“We have to run!” Marcus exclaimed, scrambling to his feet. Aldor came up behind him, dumbfounded when he saw the fire. Marcus' grabbed Mya's hand, who was staring at the village like paralysed. He pulled her with him, away from the village over the dusty fields where they could hide in hay piles. Her little legs couldn't keep up with his longer ones and so he picked her up as he ran, followed by Aldor.
Recalling this moment in the future Marcus wished he would have been afraid, scared to never see his parents again or about their future. He wished he would have had a plan but none of it was true. He couldn't even think as he was running, except the one thing: you have to get away.
They were running too fast and their legs would give in soon. Back pressed against a pile of dried hay Marcus breathed and listened and pressed the loudly crying Mya to his chest. The little smith's girl was shaking in fear and Marcus could not do anything about it. They hadn't even gotten far away from the burning village, so they could still hear the screams sounding from there.
After what seemed like an eternity Marcus suddenly froze and his breathing ceased. The sound of thundering hooves was coming close to them, accompanied by voices and cries and screams that sounded like...
“Mother! Father!” he cried, gently putting Mya into the other boy's arms and jerking up.
“We're here! Mother!” He waved and screamed and his parents came closer and closer without noticing them. The hay piles were high enough to hide his little figure, but from high horseback they had to see him.
Finally they stopped, abruptly, to change their course towards the screams of their son. As Marcus' mother jumped from horseback tears were trailing through the dirt on her cheeks. Her dress was singed and partially ripped and as she wrapped her arms around Marcus she smelled like smoke. His father's arm was bandaged, blood was on his face.
“We're going to Minas Tirith, dear,” she whispered into her son's hair.
“There we'll be safe. We'll tell you everything when we get there.”
“But what about Elen and Ben?” Marcus asked confusedly. His mother's eyes filled with tears at the instant, and to Marcus' bewilderment there were tears shaping in the eyes of his father as well.
“You sister and brother unfortunately can't come with us, my dear,” his mother whispered.
“Will you... will you take us, too?” Marcus could hear a tiny whisper behind them and turned around to see Mya and Aldor, who were staring at the incomplete family with fear.
Five people rode towards Minas Tirth a mere minute later to seek shelter, in their backs their burning homes below a fiery sky.
Chapter 2: A Stranger by Night
“Shut the gates! Shut the gates!”
The hour of curfew was approaching fast, as the night fell the gates to the city were closed and all guards withdrew behind its walls. The terror of beholding the eastern mountains and the always fiery sky above them without shielding walls would not be bestowed upon any of the guards, as strong as the men might be.
A man of the night's watch that day was a young soldier, having seen 24 summers, 16 of which in this city. The playful child that had fled the burning village had grown into a proud young man whose wish it was to defend his homeland. It had been dark forces that had burned down his home, and he had sworn not to allow the proud white city to fall to the same fate.
Next to two fellow watchmen Marcus stood by the first gate of Minas Tirith as it shut slowly, accompanying the setting sun in its movements. But seconds before they could completely close the gate and the bars that kept it shut, a voice from outside was audible clearly.
“Hold on!” a man cried. Hooves approached the gate, and the confused soldiers stopped what they were doing.
“Who walks there?” asked the chief watchman.
“A wanderer,” came the reply, “who seeks your city and your Lord to hear him. Foul things are coming from the East. Let my words be heard.”
There was a creak as the door reopened, only a small gap to enable the chief watchman to pass through it. To Marcus' surprise, he looked at the unexpected visitor and then gave him a gesture to come in.
“Marcus,” he said quietly, walking over to the young soldier, “accompany this man to the steward and give him a room if it is his wish. You may find him a tavern.”
The man who now entered the gate on an old, brown horse looked ragged and tired and yet solemn and proud. His brown hair was messily cut short and covered by the dark linen hood of his long cloak. He wore time-worn leather boots and a plain, unadorned belt. The unimpressive appearance however was made up for by his proud an upright way of sitting and – after getting off his horse – standing.
“Come with me,” Marcus told him, approaching.
“I will bring you before the steward.”
The streets of Minas Tirith lacked life, especially in those hours of night. Marcus had heard tales of past days, in which the men of Gondor would light up the nights and make them day; of celebrations and night watches consisting of beautiful and stern soldiers. These days were long gone.
As Marcus had come to this city there had been people at work by night, people crossing the streets from lit house to lit house, from tavern to tavern in groups. Nowadays everyone seemed to dread these hours when the shine in the horizon would grow brighter and the smouldering fires seemed to come closer. The only people on the streets were the ones who left the now-dark taverns to come home into their cold homes. The majority of the houses in Minas Tirith were without inhabitant nor light.
The higher they ascended into the city the more quiet it became. No shady creatures hung around in the upper rings; the only living beings they encountered were watchmen and stray animals. The sky was so dark that there was no change of light when they entered the sloping tunnel that led to the seventh gate.
“Who walks there?” a watchman called to them as they were half through the tunnel. A light flamed up at its end and a watchman with a torch came towards them, stopping them way before the heavily guarded gate.
“The chief of the first gate's night's watch commands me to bring this man to our steward,” replied Marcus, facing the guard who looked at him with suspicion.
“He claims to have important news for Lord Denethor.”
“And how should I know he speaks the truth?” the watchman asked, stopping to lower his torchlight.
“The steward is a busy man these days. He cannot be bothered with unimportant travellers from the-gods-know where.”
Much to Marcus' irritation the until then silent man stepped forward himself, eye to eye with the strict watchman.
“Do you not have orders from your Lord and Steward to welcome me, should I ever come?” Without waiting for the reply that would likely have been confused, if not angered, he straightened his back to stand tall. The words he spoke were not his but rather a quotation.
“Behold this man,” he said, “ and remember him if he should return, for he will bring grave tidings to our halls. And these tidings shall be of great importance for our folk and the whole Middle Earth. Turn not away from him!”
Still the watchman with the torch did not seem to have changed his mind. He opened his mouth for rough words of rejection but was interrupted as one of the other soldiers jerked suddenly. He was significantly older than the first speaker, yet lacked his proud stature.
“I remember clearly!” he cried out, quietly.
“It must have been fifteen years since it happened, and this man has changed, but we do have the explicit order to bring him to the steward as soon as he sets foot into this city.”
The first man's face was like stone as he answered.
“Do you swear this? You know the wrath of the steward if we are mistaken.”
“On my life,” said the older watchman and lowered his head.
“Great is the foresight of our steward, and great is the memory of this man,” meant the first soldier as he turned back to Marcus and the traveller with a swing of his torch.
“I shall open the gate for you. Go to the great hall, and if you cannot find the steward there ascend to his bedchambers. If you speak truly, the guards there will remember you.”
Marcus thanked him and remained silent as they passed through the gate, only the two of them now as the watchmen had given the order that the horse should be left with them. The young soldier wondered what urgent tidings the traveller, who looked beyond ordinary, should bring to their steward. He did not ask.
In silence they crossed the court of the fountain and Marcus could not miss the shadow that fell on the stranger's face as he beheld the withered white tree. He shut his eyes and averted his head while the Gondorian himself looked up to the white tower in awe.
By day the tower would glimmer and shine, reflecting the sunlight like fine metal, diamonds or pearls. By night now it was a mere grey silhouette against the pitch black sky. In the East there was the omnipresent fiery shine which hung above the mountains and filled the hearts of Minas Tirith with dread; but in the window of the highest chamber there seemed to be a faint glow of a dark red that could not be fire.
The guards of the hall stopped them but allowed them through with a remark that the steward had left his seat and had gone up to the very top of the tower where he often would dwell. The guards in front of the steward's very door finally recognized the traveller and knocked on the door heavily.
“Who disturbs my peace?” came the steward's voice from within and it frightened Marcus how rough and spiteful it sounded. The last time he had been this close to the steward had been on the day he'd sworn his allegiance to him, and even though years had passed since then, Lord Denethor had withered all too quickly.
“It is I, the traveller you have been waiting for to bring grave tidings, my lord,” said the stranger before any of the watchmen were able to speak. There was a rumour inside that sounded like a chair and table being moved, cloth scraped over the marble floor and then the door opened to reveal only the shadow of the steward.
“Come alone,” he muttered as he allowed the stranger in, leaving Marcus outside with the guards. He would not have wished to go inside.
“My lord, I have been travelling for months and so my tidings shall be belated, but...” The steward seemed to shush the voice that was only a whisper through the thick wood of the door and from now on it was inaudible for Marcus.
“Who is the man?” he whispered to the guards.
“I wish I could tell,” sighed the oldest of them, a man rivalling the steward's age.
“He appeared here one day, it must have been fifteen years, nobody knew how he got into the hall but the steward chose to hear him and to welcome him whenever he should return. If it is true what he hinted, then this is the turning point.”
“What turning point?” asked Marcus shuddering.
“Of the war, my son,” the old man replied gravely.
“This was the calm before the storm. Now it will go down on us every moment.”
Marcus retreated a step into the shadow as he comprehended the words. The man had to be well above thirty and an important figure, maybe even a spy, if he could bring such important news. But the calm before the storm? The steward's sons and all the other soldiers had been fighting for years, but lately it had grown even worse. New refugees from the burning villages came every day, many fell and even more were wounded gravely. They took every man they could find into the army, Marcus remember his father so well.
They had arrived in Minas Tirith after a ride of two days without food and drink, only with fear. They had moved into an empty house and as Marcus' mother had asked his father, a baker, how they could live on now he had sighed and told her of her decision to become a soldier.
“But you cannot fight!” she had exclaimed in fear, pointing at the slightly lame leg his father had been born with.
“My dearest, they need every man. Even a useless fighter is better than no fighter at all,” his father had replied and kissed her deep. Two months later he had been dead.
Marcus shook the thoughts away and looked at the old guard.
“You do not know his name?” The guard shook his head.
“This is the street of the taverns,” Marcus announced as they entered the dimly lit, broad, plastered street.
“I am certain you will find accommodation here.”
“I thank you for your company,” the stranger said and it sounded genuine. Marcus stood next to him for a few seconds, uncertain whether he should walk away. Then the stranger spoke up again.
“How does it look for Gondor?” Surprised as he was Marcus had to gather his thoughts ere he could answer.
“Not good,” he said honestly.
“We are losing more men every day and there is no hope for us. The steward's son has gone out to seek the hidden elves but we cannot expect them to aid us, as we can expect no help from Rohan. If this was only the calm before the storm then I fear we are lost.”
“Will you give up?” the stranger asked. Instantly Marcus shook his head.
“None of us will. If we surrender we will die, and with us the hope of all Middle Earth.” For some seconds he was silent, but then his curiosity caused him to speak once more.
“What will you do, now, that your news are delivered?”
“I shall go to the Houses of Healing and aid the healers there,” he said thoughtfully.
“We need every man to defend our land,” Marcus said. The stranger laughed and Marcus meant to feel some bitterness in this laugh.
“I am an entirely useless fighter,” he said solemnly.
“We need every man,” Marcus repeated.
“One skilled healer might make up for a dozen skilled fighters or more, if he can only treat them well,” the stranger said, smiling mysteriously. He lifted his hand for a last greet. It brushed Marcus' hair. Then he was gone.
Chapter 3: Sorcery
Marcus hadn't forgotten about the strange traveller with the strange wish to become a healer in a country of war, where every man was needed to defend the walls of the city that was the wall between darkness and light. He was also certain he would never meet him again, for it would never have occurred to him to search for the other.
It was two days after the night they'd first met that Marcus visited the Houses of Healing, as he did whenever he found a free hour to look after his mother that withered away in these houses. The healers spoke of age and a strange sickness, but his mother wasn't an old woman yet and Marcus knew that the grief that had been slumbering within her since his father's death - always carefully hidden - had caused her to do strange things at times.
It had been four months since Marcus had first said goodbye to his mother to aid the troops in Osgiliath. He had been afraid, would have been foolish not to be, but his mother had been to certain about his death that she had left the safe city to seek their old village once more.
It was there, in these withered, burned, sick lands, that the Shadow had fallen over her. She was able to return to Minas Tirith, to where Marcus had returned to find his only family withering away in the Houses of Healing. He'd prayed for her health and safety, had found it to be futile and ceased. The only hope he had left was that she would wake up once more before her death. Maybe he only hoped that she would die quickly; it was said that those under the Shadow felt nothing but pain and sorrow in their trance.
Ioreth, the oldest healer in the Houses, pitied him with her looks each time he came to visit. She probably understood why he came so frequently, but was tactful enough not to speak to him. He was familiar with her, as any soldier was, for there was a high chance that their lives might one day depend on her wisdom and experience.
Marcus felt an uneasiness whenever he crossed the lawns close to the tunnel to the Citadel to enter the Houses. As much hope as they meant they also stood for death and there was no other place, except the Silent Street, where death was so present in this city.
Upon entering the front door today he was welcomed by the usual busy silence. Healers were here and there, tending wounded soldiers and respecting their need for silence. Every conversation was low, almost a whisper, as to not disturb healers or patients. Marcus walked the well-known path through the corridors with his head down as he suddenly could feel himself colliding with another body.
"I'm sorry," he muttered under his breath, ready to continue his way. He stopped, however, as he saw that he was facing the stranger from two nights ago. He didn't look quite as tired before as he had been given a healer's robe. The lines on his face that Marcus had thought to be signs of age seemed - partially at least - to be of a different nature, as far as he could tell.
"It is good to see a trusted face," the other said and Marcus laughed dryly.
"Am I trusted yet?"
"Oh yes, and very trustworthy indeed." This brought a smile to Marcus' lips and he dared to look the other into the eyes. He'd been correct in his assumption of them being cool and stern, but there was also a kindness within.
"So, why are you here?" the stranger continued.
"My mother is here," Marcus replied.
"I should not tell you her story, you must be busy here."
"The head of the Houses told me they need healers desperately, but she doesn't seem to fully trust me yet," the other man replied.
"So no, at the moment I am not busy. If you do not mind I would have you tell me her story, I still struggle to understand the cause why most people that are not soldiers are so gravely injured."
"Most of them come from sacked villages from the East or South," answered Marcus, "as does my mother, yet her cause is rather different from others. We came from a destroyed village many years ago, and my mother choose to go back there. The Shadow fell upon her."
"The Shadow..." the other man repeated thoughtfully and seemed not to understand.
"The Shadow is a sickness that the Black Riders bring," Marcus explained quietly.
"It began when they came, and wherever they roam people will fall into a strange trance, they will grow cold and distant and are lost in a dark, painful dream world from which they will not awaken again until their death, which can be seconds or years later."
"I see," said the other and his words carried an unspoken question.
"It's been three months," Marcus replied quietly and, as a sign that he wished to say no more, he nodded towards the stranger and continued his way towards his mother small sickroom, confused by how much this conversation had affected him.
His mother was as pale and frail as he had left her, she was breathing lightly but showed no other signs of life. The hand he held was cold and she showed no reaction as he spoke of the week that had passed since his last visit, of the stranger and of the past that would never come again. As he looked into her aged face he couldn't help but whisper a prayer to the gods that they might release her.
He was startled by the soft knock at the door and surprised when he beheld the stranger again.
"Why are you here?" he asked, harshly but with shaking voice.
"I am sorry for disturbing you," the man said.
"I overheard you talking about the pain that these under the Shadow have to go through and I... I believe you..." He stopped and looked at Marcus who had gathered himself.
"You believe that I want her to be released," he said calmly and nodded as a confirmation.
"I could help you," the man said and stepped into the room.
"Could help her."
"Help her what?"
"Help her die," he whispered. Marcus stared at him with wide eyes.
"Who are you?" he whispered, much too shocked to admit that he would gratefully accept this help, as his mother had always wished. Just that he was too weak to do it.
If I ever wither, my boy, end it before I drown in quicksand.
The stranger shook his head and remained silent.
"Let us not speak about such things in these houses."
"How can I sure you do not seek do destroy her spirit with some foul sorcery?" Marcus asked, still whispering.
"You have to believe me," the stranger said, and Marcus saw something flaming up behind those eyes. A shadow of a long gone pain, perhaps, that was not as distant as it would be good.
"I am no foul sorcerer."
And for some reason Marcus believed the man. He wanted to save his mother from the pain she was going through. And if this was the way to go...
He breathed in deeply and nodded.
"Is there a way to make sure that nobody enters?" the stranger asked. Marcus shook his head in doubt.
"I would have to tell them that my mother is dying and I wish to spend these final minutes by her side, but you would not be allowed in then either," he said.
"Is there no way to tell them you explicitly wish for my presence?"
"I could try. A friend perhaps, or someone who knew my mother very well.." The other man nodded, encouraging him to say exactly this.
"Whom do I wish to stand by me?" he then asked.
"My name?" the other asked back, chuckling softly.
"Hansi, if it pleases you."
"Marcus," he said and nodded once before he left the room. Hansi... it did not sound like a Gondorian name, but then again, the man could not be from Gondor. Rohan, perhaps, or some more distant place?
As Marcus returned to the room he felt shaky and somehow unprepared. How could he have prepared for this, though? He'd always assumed his mother would fall asleep in peace or go down with the city as it perished, not that a strange man would ease her death after months of lying in trance.
Hansi was already kneeling on the floor next to Marcus' mother's bed as the young man entered again to announce that they would be alone. He could only give him his mother's name and watch him close the door and breathe in ere he kneeled down again.
He took both the woman's hands into his strong, rough ones and closed his eyes, as if to feel her skin. Then he let her hands down and placed his hands upon her face, index fingers pressing down on her temples, and began whispering words in a strange language that Marcus had never heard. He started to feel sick and feared to have made a mistake. What had led him to trust this man?
Hansi continued his strange incantations and Marcus could rather feel than see a light shiver going through his mother's body, slowly creeping from toe to head. The incantations were spoken more fiercely now, with the ferociousness of a dedicated commander on the battlefield. Still they were a whisper, though.
When the shiver had reached her head Hansi's voice softened as if he was speaking to a child in an attempt calm it. A stiffness that Marcus hadn't even noticed before fell from her body and Marcus could have sworn to see a shimmering, yet non-existent veil that hung on Hansi's fingertips as he approached the window and waved his hands into the South.
"You may hold her hand now," he whispered after speaking the final words in this strange tongue.
There were questions on Marcus' mind that cried for answers, a strange fascination that came over him when he looked at the other man. He dared not yet move, captured by the haunting presence of the incantations and the eyes of the man that confused him more than anything in his life. Marcus feared this man, but he was undeniably drawn to him and whatever he was doing. And he burned to find out more.
"I will have the watch upon the beacons tomorrow, at midday I will be alone," he whispered quickly before he looked away. He caught a nod in the corner of his eye and Hansi left the room, shut the door and released Marcus from his rigidity.
He sat next to his mother and watched her calm expression, her steadier breathing and heartbeat. There was nothing but a feeling that told him she was about to die, as it looked as if he was beholding a peacefully sleeping woman. He didn't know what to do until he remembered Hansi's final words.
You may take her hand now.
Marcus took both her hands in his. They were smaller and yet looked stronger, full of scars and blisters that healed away as she was lying. He could feel her breathing in her entire body. It seemed so full of life now...
"Mother..." he said, his voice still shaking a little.
"Can you hear me? It's me." Of course she did not hear him.
"I hope you can find peace now," Marcus whispered.
"I'm so glad you remained with me. I'll stay with you here, too. Until the very end."
Her breathing and heart rate slowed down, her formerly warmer fingers grew colder and he could feel all of it. The rapidity scared him but he did not let go of her hands, held onto them because he knew it was the last time he ever would. She was growing cold and the new life was quickly fading.
Then, all of a sudden, she opened her eyes and smiled, just a little bit.
"You're here," she whispered. Marcus was too stunned to say anything.
"You're alive. You'll be alive." She didn't phrase it as a fearful question but as a certainty, and Marcus finally found the strength to open his mouth.
"I love you," he whispered. His mother smiled just a little wider before she slipped away.
"Yes, what is it?" the head of the Houses said kindly. It was not often that one of the experienced healers came to her with insecurities, but she was glad to be able to offer her help.
"The woman that died at midday, the young soldier's mother... she was under the Shadow..."
"Yes?" asked Ioreth, awaiting the other woman to go on.
"We examined her body. There was no trace of the Shadow left. She appeared to be smiling as she died, to be feeling and awake. I cannot explain this."
Ioreth was unaware of her opening mouth. Her brain worked quickly, went through everything she knew about the Shadow yet always came to the same conclusion: it was impossible that anybody should be released from the Shadow in death, or so close to it.
"Ioreth?" the healer asked with concern.
"Sorcery," the old woman whispered.
"But..." came the shy voice of a young girl who had only recently joined the Houses, "if it was able to wake her and make her happy before her death, how can it be terrible?"
"I never said it was terrible, my dear" said Ioreth with less kindness in her voice than usually.
"Sorcery is not necessarily a bad thing, as you noticed yourself. We have to talk to the son, child, go out and find him however you might do it. If there is a way to release these people from their suffering then we have to know of it."
Chapter 4: The Beacons
Marcus could only enjoy the view across the wide, windswept Pelennor if he avoided looking to the East, where the shine of the fire that lately never ceased was glowing atop of the black mountains. While the wind, blowing heavily at this upper level of the city, swept through his hair he considered seriously dropping his watch to gather something to eat down in the city. He quickly discarded this idea, for in these days he always had to be watchful guarding the beacons. Help could become necessary at any second. In fact he was bewildered by the fact that nobody had reached out to Rohan just yet.
They already needed help. Marcus, at any other point faithful to his steward and his decisions, couldn't help but question the latest ones made - or not made. As he looked across the fields he could see Osgiliath. Small fires burned on the timeworn walls of the destroyed city, nobody could tell if it had been soldiers or enemies who had lit them. He could almost hear the clashing of swords by looking at the former capital that was a mere battlefield at this point.
Countless villages, like the one he stemmed from, were smoldering or lay in ashes and debris. The enemy was coming closer with every day that passed, it had taken Ithilien years ago and was raiding the lands west of the Great River now while fighting for dominance in Osgiliath. Marcus was no fool. He knew Gondors chances were small, even with Rohan coming to their aid. Without additional men Osgiliath would soon be taken by the enemy, and the day Osgiliath was lost would be the beginning of the fall of the whole Middle Earth.
His eyes were drawn to the city at the river now. He liked to imagine it in all its glory. His mother had always urged him to read as many books as he could in order to learn how to read, as she could not teach him. Marcus had taken a special liking in history books of Gondor and Arnor, and as a result he could never get the former glory out of his mind.
He bit his lips together as he remembered his mother but forced himself not to get sentimal. Deep inside he was a grief-stricken son, but first and foremost he was a soldier, and he must now show any signs of weakness.
Drowned in his daydreams of the Citadel of Stars Marcus had failed to notice the hour of midday arriving. He was alone at the beacons and there was no chance to leave for something to eat now, although he was close to starving. A young maid from the Houses of Healing had been at his door the second he'd gotten up, asking questions about the death of his mother and the new healer who had been present. Questions which Marcus did not know how or wish to answer.
"Ioreth, the head of the Houses, sends me urgently. She desires to learn about the circumstances of your mother's passing, for which I bring you my deepest condolences."
"What is there to tell?" he'd answered harshly.
"She's gone. The Shadow upon her has, at last, succeeded in taking her away from this world."
"Ioreth says that the new healer, the man, was present at her deathbed, together with you. She further suspects he might have done something to ease her passing."
"I cannot tell you anything besides that he was holding her hands and announcing the last forces of life were leaving her body."
"Why was he there?"
"I believe I told somebody, did I not? He is a friend of both mine and my mother. She would have wished for him to be there."
A partularly heavy gust of wind nearly swept Marcus off his feet. He looked towards the beacon and noticed he was no longer alone. The man, Hansi, had come, as Marcus had indirectly asked him to. He was burning to find out more about his strange abilities.
"Are we alone?" he asked as he approached Marcus with fast steps. He had taken off the healer's robe and returned to his dusty, old cloak which had probably seen more miles than Marcus could ever fathom.
"There's nobody here," Marcus said with a quick look around to make himself sure of this. He nodded towards Hansi who did not sit down as Marcus did.
"A strange place," he said.
"I have seen many things, yet I do not think I have ever set foot upon a manmade creation of such height and elegance."
"Minas Tirith is city of unexceptional grace," Marcus agreed as he looked down at the seven levels that stretched out underneath them.
"Even now that its former glory is gone it keeps its eminence." Surprised to see the other man chuckle he took a look at him.
"I have seen places in their greatest glory, and I can assure you that few of them are as eminent as this city in its, you say, passed glory," Hansi explained and spread out his arms.
"It has been a long time since I last visited this city. Many things have happened since then, but it stands unchanged."
"This stone does not wither. Say, are you a man of Rohan, not having seen this city in years?"
"I have passed Rohan before," meant Hansi, "but I do not come from there. More years have passed since I dwelled within these walls than the years that have passed since the last men of Rohan came here."
"You must have been very young then," Marcus said thoughtfully.
"Not much younger as you are now, I reckon," the other replied. Marcus looked at him with surprise.
"Age does not seem to change you, then."
"Oh, it does," Hansi said and looked almost a little sad.
"The change is simply not as prominent. Most of it happens within, anyways."
"Does that have anything to do with the... things you do?" Marcus asked sharply, paying close attention to the other's reaction. It was not too obvious, no shock or surprise was visible. The only thing Marcus spotted was a contemplating frown on Hansi's face.
"I cannot tell," he finally said before he laughed out again. None of this laughter seemed to truly be joyful or amused.
"Perhaps it does. Perhaps this kind of aging is a unique feature of my people. I cannot tell. I have not seen my people in many years. It was even before I last visited this city."
"So you have always been a traveller?" Marcus asked, new interest awakening in him. His interest in the odd abilities Hansi seemed to possess was slowly being swept away by the interest in the man himself.
"Almost since I can think," Hansi confirmed.
"Sometimes I wish to be a traveller." Marcus laughed softly, surprised by the words that left his mouth.
"But I doubt I would be fit for a life like this," he withdrew immediately.
"I am, as you could say, a compulsory traveller. Nobody is fit for this life. It chooses you and makes you fit for it."
"A compulsory traveller..." Marcus repeated slowly. Did this man, in the end, share his own fate? Hansi stared off into the distance, towards Osgiliath.
"This life is both a curse and a blessing," he said simply. Marcus said nothing more. He watched the other man whose eyes were fixed on the Pelennor. His hair seemed to have grown over these few days, as had the stubble on his face. Contemplating as he was, his eyes were no longer stern but held some kind of melancholy... and wisdom. It made the young soldier wonder how old the man that looked no older than five years his own senior really was.
"Are there any more of these... things you can do?" Marcus finally brought the conversation at its intended topic. Hansi only nodded in reply.
"Nothing I could show you right here. Most of it is intended to serve the purpose of helping other beings. These skills may be one of the main reasons why I have not settled anywhere yet. It was my sincerest wish to help in any way, and I can only fulfill this wish by travelling to where help is really needed."
"So you go where there is... war?" Marcus asked cautiously.
"War, fire, plague and death." Hansi nodded gravely.
"It's not a beautiful journeyman's life, I reckon. I wish for no one to see the things I have seen. But it is soothing enough to know I have prevented some people from a fate... like mine."
"Where do you receive these powers from?" Marcus looked at the older man with newfound admiration and fascination.
"It's always there," he said, a tender smile tucking at his lips.
"What matters is that you learn how to use it. I was lucky to have the master at the subject teach me, somebody who understands these powers like no other soul on this earth, except for a selected four, ever could."
"Where do... where did you find this man?" A grin, somewhat sheepish.
"It might seem odd, but I found his house by accident as a very young boy. Years later, when I started to live as a traveller, I remembered him and sought shelter. That was when he found a willing apprentice in me."
"Do you think any man can learn these things?" Marcus asked, again surprised at himself. Hansi shrugged.
"Any man and woman who carries the will and endurance - and is able to find this man."
"But could you..." Marcus ceased as he saw the bewilderment in Hansi's eyes. However, before the other could ask any questions there was the clear sound of a trumpet to be heard from the far distance. Marcus jumped up so quickly that he almost faltered.
The gates of Osgiliath were wide open.
"What is happening there?" Hansi asked, standing closely next to Marcus, who watched the happenings in the destroyed city. He hadn't even seen the strike coming during all the hours he'd been watching the horizon.
Fires had broken out within the walls and were raging wildly now. Marcus searched for the men of Gondor but could only see the compaies as masses, engaged in fights with the enemies. The clashing of steel was impossible to hear but it rang in Marcus' ears nevertheless as a memory from the one time he had fought in this city. The thick wound where a sword had cut through his skin had not completely faded into a scar yet.
The wind was blowing harder, preventing Marcus from hearing any words Hansi might have said next to him. He watched the battle he could not even see properly in a state of paralysation. Nourished by the fresh air that blew across the plains the destructive energy of the fires was increasing towards infinity. Previously small blazes united to form great fires, blown and hurled through the city as firestorms. It was as if Marcus could hear the screams of the men that burned in there.
He wanted to scream and shout something despite the uselessness of it, wanted to notify the inhabitants of Minas Tirith who had not altogether noticed. Trumpets were now being blown at the court of the fountain. He could see guards and women gathering at the walls of the individual city levels, their screams came to his ears through all the wind.
It was west of the Anduin that the firestorms raged, not quite reaching the water and the bridges yet. The soldiers of Gondor were bravely defending the passages across the water, if the enemy passed they knew they would be lost.
It had been almost six hundred years since the city had been burned to the ground; four hundred since it had begun withering. The ruins were unfit to be called a city and yet these sad reminders of glory long gone were the location where the fate of this world would be decided. Marcus' fingers held onto the low wall that enclosed the path between the beacons and the nearby watchmen's shelter. His face was as white as the walls and still he dared not move.
The fires were gaining height, rising up as large pillars that consumed anything in their way. The remaining stones did not burn but the ground was swiftly being turned into a sea of flames, driving both defenders and enemies closer to the river. It looked hopeless.
"Teach me!" Marcus shouted abruptly, turning around to grab Hansi's lower arm.
"Teach me whatever you can. The great war is coming. We can't lose."
"It's not as easy!" Hansi exclaimed, and from his expression Marcus could read that the shock had driven through his bones and marrow.
Before Marcus could plead again he was distracted by steps, audible through the abating wind. He looked up to see two guards in full armor storming up towards the beacons, followed by a significantly older man. Knowing what his task would be Marcus grabbed the torch that was in the holder at the shelter's wall and cautiously, as not to extinguish it, approached the straw of the beacon that would be lit brightly within seconds, causing a chain of fires to spread across the mountains to Rohan.
But the first of the guards to arrive at his side, a particularly strong man with thick, black hair, took the torch from his hand and haded it the older man who arrived belated.
"Leave him here. You're needed to defend Osgiliath as long as you can find," he said briefly.
"Does he know how to control the fires?" Marcus asked hastily. They could not risk to give this task to an inexperienced man, especially here, where no water was available anywhere. If the city burned down the war was lost before it began.
"There will be no fires," said the man.
"This is madness!" Marcus shouted in shock. Thousands of thoughts were clashing in his brain. How could the steward give himself to the illusion that they could hold this city without help? Aid from Rohan would take weeks o arrive, even if they called it now it might already be too late.
"The steward's order shall not be questioned!" the man reprimanded Marcus, silencing before he could protest in any other way.
The city was chaos. Horses were being made ready by every stable boy or woman they could find, every able man was being armed, no matter how inexperienced they might be. The population knew they had to hold Osgiliath at any cost, but what did these actions matter if their own ruler was leading them towards ruin?
Somebody pushed a horse's reins into Marcus' hands. He'd reached the fourth level and lost the guards who'd picked him up. He noticed that he hadn't had the chance to talk to Hansi again, to find out the secrets this man held. But his heart was set aflame.
The closer he approached the main gate of the city the more chaotic the streets became. The heavy wings of the gate of the gate were being opened wide, expecting the rest of the men of Minas Tirith to pass through them. If the enemy attacked Minas Tirith now there would be no way of holding it.
Marcus sat up his horse and pulled down the visor of the helmet somebody had put into his hand. It was too wide and smashed aganst his head when he moved. As he passed through the gate he could spot a lonely figure at the very top of the city, where the beacons were. No fires were lit.
Chapter 5: Osgiliath
The fires of Osgiliath were approaching fast, so fast that Marcus believed to feel their heat burning on his cheeks shortly after their departure already. The only sound to be heard was the dull sound of hooves on the fields, every soldier knew that the crashing of stone and the clash of weapons would mingle with the silence soon to finally take over it.
They were a small group to aid the forces in Osgiliath, and if the steward believed these few men - all that Minas Tirith could spare - would be able to turn the fate of the city he was gravely mistaken. Of course these thoughts should never be pronounced, yet Marcus could sense that every man around him thought the same. If they were to die it would be a brave death, yet in vain, robbing them of the chance to defend their capital when the day would come.
But of course Osgiliath could not be given up. Minas Anor had been sacked years ago, turned into a dreadful place full of dark magic and necromancy, torture and death. Osgiliath itself had been abandoned for centuries, yet it still stood tall as the final remaining bastion between Gondor and the lands of darkness to the East. Having been sacked and recaptured multiple times, haunted and robbed of all its population by the Uruk-hai and the plague, it remained a protection for the people of Gondor for as long as it could be held.
Observing the surrounding men from underneath his visor Marcus spotted many strange faces; young men of not even twenty summers that distinctively smelled of fear. And this was only the beginning of the war. If battles should increase in number and duration Gondor would soon be erased without help.
They were too far away from the city now for him to follow the movements of the figure that still had to be standing close to the beacons. The fires itself remained unlit, no light shone to be cast over the mountains, to start a chain of fires on the mountaintops that would finally reach Edoras.
"They're not going to light them," he heard a dark voice next to him. The stocky, black haired and -bearded man who had obviously noticed him staring back towards the top of the city slowed down the pace of his horse to align with the pace of Marcus'. He recognized the man, although he didn't recall where he knew him from.
The man seemed to feel the same, while he accelerated the pace of his horse to keep following Marcus he observed him thoroughly, not seeming able to get to a conclusion. He finally nodded briefly, a direct, hard way of wishing something close to good luck amongst the soldiers before battle. Then he was gone, catching up with the front lines of the group.
Marcus had fallen back, close to being the last in line he sped up his horse. Osgiliath wasn't far anymore when the man that seemed to be leading the group - a tall, solid soldier that seemed to be the oldest of them, yet far from being an old man - gave them the sign to halt. As the hooves ceased to hit the ground silence spread over the group, and with it came dread. It wasn't only the clashing of swords that could now be heard in the distance, there were other sounds coming from the mountains, screams that should not be loud enough to be heard from such a distance.
"Every man who has served as a soldier for at least five years will follow me at the front," the leader said, his strong voice echoed over the empty plains. Marcus grabbed the reins of his horse to follow many men that were much older than him to the frontlines. He knew that most young fighters had not been soldiers for long, for the number of soldiers necessary to defend the land had drastically increased during the previous five years. As a result there were barely any men in the city who were not soldiers; bakers, innkeepers and even blacksmiths were occupations now largely taken over by women.
Lining up in the second line Marcus cast his gaze over the roughly one hundred and fifty men in front of and behind him. Towards the end of the line he spotted soldiers that were mere boys, not full grown men. The commander seemed to be leading a short, yet heated debate with the man who had been talking to Marcus before, resulting in the man leaving the group to be the final one in line. The lining up had taken few minutes.
The commander gazed upon the men once more, doing his best to meet every eye with his iron gaze. Finally he nodded, closed his eyes before he drew his sword to cast it high into the air. He spurred his horse and rode forth with a battle cry.
"Gondor!" echoed one hundred and fifty men, thrusting their weapons into the air before riding towards the burning city as if hunted down by black riders.
The city was in flames, flames that licked on the former great bridge - a mere ruin - and threatened to take over the river towards the side where the companies of Gondor fought the enemies valiantly. The steward's sons were leading them, but in the rage of the battle they had faded to soldiers as everyone else. There was no face to be spotted, just death and ruin.
Marcus and his company entered the city through a decayed gate, seeming ready to crash down upon their heads at any second. The river's water had seeped through the streets, turning the city into a lake of five inches depth. Formerly green plants were now dead, trampled down and poisoned.
They didn't have surprise at their side when they joined the battle, yet nobody seemed to notice their arrival either, silent as it was. One of the men first in line was hurled through the air as his horse stumbled over a still bleeding corpse that had been dropped against a wall carelessly. The man's skull was shattered as it crashed against an archway.
Marcus' own horse neighed fearfully as it felt the dreadful presence that cast its shadow upon the men as well. As it reared he held on to the reins painfully hard, they cut in his flesh and the horse's neck, causing it to completely elope. He couldn't hold on anymore and was thrown to the ground, into the water, where his back hit hard stone. He suppressed a cry and scrambled to his feet, swaying slightly, as he was thrown right into the action of the battle.
An arrow hissed past his head, hitting an overgrown hole in a stone wall beneath him. He hastily sought cover behind this wall, almost ran into a duel between an orc and a man roughly his age. The man was breathing heavily, blood stained his crumpled helmet. He was so focused on his sword that he stroke again as the orc's head fell by Marcus' blade.
The soldier looked upwards. The higher levels of the city, ruins of towers, were swarmed with orcs already, all of them armed with bows and arrows. Marcus was trying to make out which of them could hit him fatally as the man he had just aided screamed in pain, an arrow stuck in his arm.
Without looking at the man again Marcus surrounded the piece of wall again, putting all his hope into the chance that the previous shooter would not expect his return. The water underneath his feet was gaining a red tinge.
Indeed the orc seemed to be gone, having descended a slippery stairway and dropped the useless bow as all his arrows had been shot. Marcus looked around to make sure that there was no other danger close before he, back pressed against the wall, approached the orc who had drawn a scimitar. He didn't allow it to fully descend the stairs but jumped onto the second one from the right, to where the orc had not looked.
It took him a precious second to gain a secure stand, a second in which the orc's blade had only barely missed his wrist. He crossed his blade with the scimitar's, fighting off the next stroke by forcing it towards the ground. Steel and steel grated in a battle of physical strength, until Marcus had to give in, shocking the orc which stumbled and fell onto Marcus, dragging him down into the bloody water with it.
Marcus struggled to keep the dirty hand from his face, but even as he felt that he could not lift his heavy long sword in this position its length aided him: with the slightest, uncoordinated movement it slipped, dangerously close to Marcus' own body, to scratch the orc's throat. It gave in to its confusion for a second which Marcus used to push it off and drive the sword right through its brain, if orcs had such a thing. It didn't make another sound before it died.
Marcus came to his feet as he felt the heat of searing flames right next to him. During his short battle with the orc the fight had been driven back, a sign that the dark forces had extended the area of the city which they controlled. The flames had completely taken over the river now, but through the raging inferno Marcus could see one of the lesser bridges that was unharmed, still occupied by Gondorian forces as their seemingly last bastion. Everywhere else the orcs had taken over, colouring the river red with the blood of men.
Fighters were surrounding Marcus now. He could hear groans and death rattles of his kinsmen and felt the rage of battle slowly taking over him. An orc, after slitting the throat of an old, grey soldier, got him in his sight. Marcus took the first step in the battle. The orc's obvious expectance of the opposite gave him a clear advantage. As his sword met the orc's - which he had likely stolen from a Gondorian and thus did not know how to handle - it crashed down to the ground, dropping out of the orcs' hands. It screeched as Marcus' blade cut off its hand. The limb kept twitching as the orc ran off, not coming far before being fatefully stricken by another soldier.
Marcus looked around him again. Despite his previous success of not being harmed he knew he needed to reach the bridge where Gondor still controlled this battle - unless he wanted to die. He stormed into the direction of the bridge from which he was separated by a wall of fire.
Suddenly he felt something crashing into his side, and before he could spot the orc that had caused him to fall a dull pain shot through his head. He could feel his helmet crack, hear the faint cry of the man who had accidentally hit him instead of the orc which now came to its feet. Marcus drove his sword into its heel where it seemed to have lost the steel shoe before he got up, his head still buzzing. The world divided into three shifting layers in front of his eyes.
Marcus closed his eyes, three layers reduced to two as he opened them again. Orc and man were gone, but other duels kept raging around him. An orc, covered in blood from head to toe, was smashing the skull of an already dead man with a heavy bludgeon. Blood and brain fragments squirted onto him, but Marcus ignored the thing that was out of its mind and would keep hitting the corpse until its death that was certainly not far anymore.
As Marcus ran past him he could hear screams from the bridge, if orc or man he could not tell. A loud groan was to be heard to his feet, a silent plead. As he made the mistake to look down he looked into the dull, grey eyes of a young man, not full grown yet. His weak hands clasped the lower part of a shattered long sword, trembling arms trying to lift it into Marcus' direction.
"Please..." the young man pleaded in pain. The upper end of his own sword stuck in his stomach, where his armour had been smashed. His eyes sought Marcus' who forced himself to look away, run further towards the bridge, followed by the desperate cries of the young man that kept echoing in his mind when he was already far away.
Passing the orc with the bludgeon he could feel the blood and brain hitting his armour. He considered striking the orc's head off when a sharp blade drove under the cracked visor of his helmet, a dagger placing a bloody cut on his cheek. He turned and stared into the face of yet another orc. Blood was dripping from his mouth.
Marcus dared not to move with the blade still underneath his visor, dangerously close to his eye. He stared into the reddened eyes of the orc, didn't breathe. Time seemed to be frozen in the middle of the raging battle. Then a jerk went through the orc, the dagger sliced Marcus' flesh and cut down to the bone. It was insane pain that shot through him, but instead of continuing the massacre its eyes turned in its sockets, leaving them white and empty. The dagger fell out of its hand, scratched down Marcus' cheek before it followed its owner dropping to the ground.
Marcus was facing the eyes of the stocky man with whom he had come here. He had lost his helmet, a large cut dragged across his cheek and forehead and his hair was soaked in blood. With a look into his deep, brown eyes Marcus suddenly realized him, and in the same second the other one said a name. Mya.
"She was with you, that day!" Mya's older brother exclaimed, grabbing Marcus by both shoulders.
"Not now!" Marcus hissed, despite nodding, as he fought off another injured orc. But the man didn't seem willing to give up.
"Where is she?"
"Safe," replied Marcus, praying that the other man would focus on the battle now. He had been hit on his head, and the effects were showing. Mya had indeed become a blacksmith, continuing her father's trade in Minas Tirith, a trade that few women had ever learned.
He was about to turn around and continue his way towards the bridge as a tremble went through the man's body. Blood suddenly filled his mouth and he choked, dropping to his knees. The responsible orc jumped at Marcus with its short sword, hammering the handle over his head. Marcus could duck in the last second, his sword pierced the attacker's brittle back armour. The orc, however, stroke once more, hitting Marcus' shin and making him go to his knees as well. As he fell its black, bloody blade pierced through the weak part of Marcus' armour, right into his stomach. Marcus screamed and, without hesitation, gauged out the eyes of the orc that was right beneath him, black blood staining his face as he finally reached the orc's throat to slit it.
As he turned back to his saviour and Mya's brother, the man was smiling faintly and reaching out to him. Marcus dropped down, clutching his stomach, took the other's iron gloved hand, and feverishly tried to think of words of comfort.
"I always knew she made it," the man finally said before he instantly coughed up blood again.
"She's a blacksmith now," Marcus told him quietly.
"She prayed for you every day."
"I always knew," the man said, smiling faintly.
"Would you... would you make her meet my daughter? She reminds me of her... so much. Search for my wife, Eola, at the Houses. Tell Mya I..." His rushed words drowned in the sea of blood that spilled from his mouth, and Marcus squeezed his hand as a sign of having understood what the man wanted him to tell Mya. As his brother in arms coughed up the last bit of life in his chest Marcus kissed his bloody forehead as the last farewell that would be given to him. Then he dropped the man's hand and led his own one to the blade that still stuck in his stomach, removing it in one quick pull.
Warm blood streamed from the wound and Marcus didn't hesitate to grab the thick, linen girdle of the shirt he wore underneath his mail to tie a safe knot over the wound. It would soon be soaked but the hoped that the compression would stop the bleeding.
The fire and smoke were all around now. When Marcus breathed in he coughed as ashes filled his lungs. the air in front of his eyes was black and red and blurry. He had to dodge flames as to escape them, get back to the scene of the battle. The horses that had been tied down at the edge of Osgiliath were screaming.
Marcus stumbled out of a thick wall of smoke, crashing into a puddle of blood. His brain was drained of oxygen, but he could still see the steward's eldest son, Boromir, leading the men that defended the last bridge. He lay still for a while until the world didn't spin around him anymore before he fought his way through the mass of bodies, alive and dead, that blocked the streets of the city.
The battle was centred on the bridge now, but it was clear that Gondor had low chances. Its soldiers on the western side having been slaughtered to a large part the orcs that had already crossed the bridge were swarming towards it to attack from behind. The orcs on the eastern side of the river were driving them back, right into their companions' arms.
In all the chaos Marcus could see Boromir, a clear leader, shouting commands at the confused and scattered soldiers, always trying to get some order into the chaos. He was failing. From behind, from the western half of Osgiliath, orcs were approaching, and Marcus ran towards the bridge. It was cowardice to flee, but it was survival instinct that made him flee from somewhat two hundred foes that he could never fight off alone.
The dead bodies formed a kind of shield between the orcs from the west and the defenders of the bridge, they impeded their advance. Yet the orcs' carelessness made them trample across the bodies, smashing bones and limbs, tightening the noose around the Gondorian soldiers. Smoke was thick in the air.
Then, suddenly, the steward's son looked over his shoulder. He spotted the orcs approaching, cast a gaze back at the ones that were urging across the bridge - and began shouting, in a tone that went over all the sounds of battle.
"Retreat!" he shouted.
"Retreat! We are retreating, back to Minas Tirith!"
Many soldiers caught his cries, repeating them in every corner of the city. But the step that followed was unexpected by many: with an exertion of brutal force Boromir and a handful of his closest and most loyal soldiers kept facing the orcs from the East alone, in blind rage killing so many that a wall of dead bodies was on the bridge. And it cracked.
The bridge broke down, bodies rolled into the Great River that was already drenched in blood, but the crack created an insurmountable barrier between the eastern orcs and the Gondorians.
Marcus, suddenly one of the first in line, stormed towards the west. The steward's son soon caught up, leading the troops again into the now severely outnumbered group of orcs from the west. Swords clashed and fire was raging as both sides stumbled through the fires and thick smoke. Men and orcs fell simultaneously around Marcus. A flame seared his armour.
Suddenly the orcs cried out: a second number of men had come around from the direction of the former Great Bridge, led by the steward's second son. The two brothers were now approaching each other fast, through the lines of the orcs, beating down many. The thrill of the fight had fuelled the soldiers of Gondor with new rage.
The orcs were dying in masses, even more blood stained the white stones now. Many of them remained, but the two commanders didn't think about finishing them carefully. Despite the feeling of success that had taken over now it was only a matter of time until the large number of orcs from the east crossed the Great Bridge, caught up with them. Osgiliath had been taken.
As the army stumbled out of the stone gates, broken and defeated, Marcus' was almost blind. Sickness from the smoke had risen up in his stomach, the world was blurring and turning, his lungs were drained of air. He coughed heavily, the coughing blocking his breathing function. His helmet was fully cracked, more blood was running over his heated skin. Then the sound of large wings echoed across the fields, accompanied by a screech that made his blood run cold.
The Black riders had come with their terrible beasts.
Pressing both hands to his ear Marcus hunched, his knees were close to giving in. His eyesight was covered by painfully bright points of lights, alternating with complete blackness, and he still couldn't breathe. Blindly he stumbled forwards to where he could hear the screams of other men, but it was impossible to find his horse. For a second he was certain that he - having survived this battle - would die now, suffocate next to the battlefield.
Then he could feel a hand in his. A strong arm lifted up his entire body as if it were nothing, he could feel that he sat up on horseback, two arms enclosing his body as they held the reins. A breeze of stunningly fresh air lashed into his face as they rode, ceasing the coughing, shooting fresh air into his face. The new clearness made him aware of the pain that burned in his stomach wound, a pain that now shot through his nerves and made him go weak in the stranger's arms, blacking out.
Chapter 6: Awakening
As the blackness within his mind resolved Marcus could feel brightness tearing through his eyelids. His head was dull and throbbing, the pain only strengthened by the ruthless daylight in the bright white room around him. Despite the agony Marcus was glad to be freed from the darkly veiled dream world he had dwelled in for so long now.
He forced himself to fully open his eyes and saw the milk white surface in front of his eyes sharpen into a wall, cracked here and there yet freshly painted. Ignoring the ache in his head he sat up a little, only to be greeted by more pain in all his body. Something in his lower abdomen twisted upon his movement and all his limbs were sore. He grabbed the rough blanket that covered him up to his chest and clutched the fold of the cloth until the pain had eased a bit. Only then did he look around.
He was, unmistakeably, in the Houses of Healing. The white walls and brown blankets were all too familiar. The wall to his left, so he spotted, was no wall at all but a plain white curtain, obviously placed there to separate his bed from another one. He obviously hadn't been granted a separate room; this was a luxury only for the high positioned or deadly wounded.
As he recalled the reason why he was here he felt a heaviness in his chest that had been there before. It intensified as he relived the scenes again, cut off sequences that haunted his mind like fragile ghosts. Orcs, blood, dead bodies were all he saw when he shut his eyes. Somehow he could still smell the smoke and feel the fire's heat.
Marcus rested his hand on this stomach, realizing the grave mistake when piercing agony shot through his whole body. He cried out, yanking away his hand, and tried to breathe calmly until the pain had been worn off. The wound in his stomach, he realized. he hadn't paid close attention to it in the rage of battle. The smoke had clouded his senses. Had it been the inability to breathe or the certainly severe blood loss that had finally caused him to lose consciousness? Marcus couldn't tell, and he couldn't care anymore when he remembered the ultimate moment of being wounded.
Beren, he remembered the man's name to be. A name which he had worn with joy, stemming from a tale as old as time that everyone had heard of and few could tell. Marcus realized that his body was clean now, wiped of all the blood, black and red, blood of the orcs and himself and the man that had died right in front of his eyes. When closing his eyes he could smell the blood.
Marcus realized that he was shaking. The ache in his head hadn't worn off in the slightest, had even been increased in its intensity by the bright sunlight. The sky in front of the window was blue, yet it seemed to be veiled, drained off its vibrant colour and almost faded to grey. A slow, creeping desperation crept to his chest. When fleeing he hadn't truly realized the significance of this battle, but now it crashed down on him: Osgiliath had fallen. They hadn't been able to hold their final bastion. Was the enemy in front of their gates now? Was it approaching across the Pelennor, like a black, dooming flood? Were the bold sons of the steward riding out to face it with the few men left? Had the beacons been lit? Or had the city fallen already, was it burning at this very second?
A rustling of the curtain that shielded him from the rest of the Houses made Marcus flinch. Was it him or were his surroundings deadly silent? Why would it be him that would be spared? There was a figure moving behind the curtain, if orc or man he could not tell. The thick linen was slowly being moved aside. With hammering heart Marcus held his breath as a face appeared - and breathed out as he recognized it.
"You're awake," noticed Hansi, in his healer's robes, as he stepped through the curtain. Marcus could spot a brief glance of the busy atmosphere in the Houses before it fell shut again. Upon Hansi's statement he nodded, not daring to speak just yet.
"You lost a lot of blood. It was great fortune that you managed to escape. the Valar must have been with you." Marcus raised his eyebrow. It had been long since he'd heard anybody in Gondor speaking of the old elven gods that were but shadows of a myth in this age of foreignness between the two people.
"It was the helping hand of my kinsman that brought me here," he replied quietly. His voice was still rough and his throat sore, but this did not prevent him from speaking; asking for the truth that he was afraid to know about, as he admitted to himself.
"How is the situation in the city?"
"They are worried," Hansi said.
"May I?" He gently pushed Marcus' hand aside to reach the heavy blanket and lift it up. Next he pushed up the linen shirt that they had dressed Marcus in, revealing a thick bandage. Blood had soaked almost every layer of it. He gave Marcus a sign to sit up.
"The steward's oldest son has ridden out to seek the elves," Hansi continued as he removed the bandage from Marcus' wound. He allowed him to lie down whilst he tended it. Marcus avoided gazing down at his stomach, not feeling ready to face the mass of dry blood, as black as an orc's, that Hansi was wiping away right now.
"Is there really no hope left?" he asked. He could feel Hansi looking at him.
"The elves are more than a myth, Marcus," the other man said and it was the first time Marcus heard him speaking his name.
"Lord Boromir had a dream, the same dream that came upon his brother's sleep. The elven lord of Imladris might be able to read this dream. Your steward's son would not have departed if he had not believed this dream to be significant."
"Elves and men are far apart," said Marcus bitterly.
"A people which will not call to its neighbours for help will not be able to convince the hidden ones to leave their shadow."
"They are not as far apart as you might believe," Hansi said. there was a contemplative depth to his words, but Marcus did not feel like questioning him. It was only now that he realized how tired he was, despite having slept for-
"How long was I...?" he asked, changing the topic.
"You have been here for five days and nights," the healer answered as he tried to tap around the edges of the wound. They were still red and aching, weak streams of blood continuously flowed from the cut. As Hansi cleaned the dried blood right from the edge of the wound Marcus gritted his teeth, not allowing the pain to make him cry out.
"How do you feel?" asked Hansi, and Marcus shrugged his shoulders.
"Tired," he said honestly. This seemed to cause Hansi some discomfort.
"Besides your wound, are there any further ailments?"
"Everything is aching," Marcus replied tiredly.
"My head and all my limbs. But nothing causes me pain without a reason."
"Can you recall in which ways you were wounded or otherwise hurt?" asked Hansi as he prepared a fresh bandage. Marcus didn't need to seek in the depths of his mind to give him an answer, but he did not expect the healer to want to hear about the loss that was shaking him so violently. He forced himself to delve back into the battle, relive all the cut off scenes.
"I feel various times," he could finally answer.
"I was hit on the head. An enemy crashed onto me. There really is nothing unusual for battle."
"And is there no heaviness in your chest, no desperation?" asked Hansi vigorously. Marcus, having been sitting up again, stared at him with a surprise that came close to shock. It had worn off, indeed, but the feeling was still sitting in his chest. His look appeared to be enough of an answer.
"The Black Riders," the healer said in a hushed voice before he turned his gaze away from Marcus to wrap the new bandage around his torso. It stung and burned where it touched the wound, but the pain didn't affect Marcus in the slightest.
"The Black Riders," he repeated, voice only a breath. The Shadow had grasped him now, after all. Now that he was reminded he could hear their terrifying screams once more, engraving into his brain as more than a mere sound. These screams were terror and death. The shadow that had robbed him of his mother had taken him too, in the end.
Hansi seemed to have read his thoughts and feelings, even though he had not been able to look at his face. He ran over the bandage carefully, and after convincing himself that it was placed and tied correctly he stood up again and looked at Marcus soothingly.
"It didn't take you this way," he said.
"Everyone who hears these screams will inevitably be under their shadow. Almost every citizen of Gondor must be. But it's not deadly. It's nothing but a scar."
Marcus closed his eyes and let himself fall back onto the bed again. He rested there for seconds without making a movement before he felt the blanket being pulled up over his chest again. As he opened his eyes Hansi was looking at him.
"Rest now," he said quietly, picking up the container with the bandage to be disposed. But Marcus held him back.
"What will you do, now?" he asked. Now that hope is gone.
"I will remain here, of course," Hansi said in all seriousness.
"Gondor needs its men. Gondor needs its fighters."
"And a single healer is worth a dozen fighters, if he can heal them," Marcus said, smiling weakly. Hansi nodded, the same smile spread over his face as he recognized the phrase. Having hesitated for a second he turned back then to sit down at the edge of Marcus' bed. The young soldier could feel his reassuring presence.
"Where did our conversation stop?" asked Hansi and Marcus, who looked at him now, had the feeling that he knew too well but had asked the other as he was sure he couldn't remember. And indeed Marcus couldn't remember. As he looked at the other man he could only feel a sting in chest. He knew too well that his chances to return to Minas Tirith had been incredibly low after everything that had happened in this battle. If he remembered all his life the only thing he would have regretted, had he died in battle, would have concerned Hansi.
"I think I was being curious," Marcus said and Hansi shrugged reluctantly. The two men fell silent, neither of them knowing how to carry on their conversation. Marcus didn't feel the need to talk to Hansi, but he knew that he didn't want him to leave his side.
Marcus' vision was blurring again, he forced himself to remain awake as he observed Hansi from the corner of his eye. He was sitting close to Marcus, almost but not quite touching him, but his eyes went towards the window. From his sitting position he might be able to spot the ground, even if Marcus highly doubted this. In this case he seemed to be watching the sky that had cleared a little, the veil having thickened into clouds at some points.
"Why have you become a healer?" Marcus suddenly asked, out of sheer curiosity.
"I believe I told you, once," Hansi said, appearing slightly startled as he looked back at Marcus. But the Gondorian just shrugged, truly not able to remember any of their previous conversations.
"I was tired of war, and of fighting, before I ever fought," said Hansi, and his steel grey eyes were overtaken by a darkness, a sadness, a heaviness.
"And I was heavily influenced by my teaching master as well. He is a great man, wise and skilled without ever choosing violence. He conceals his true abilities from anyone who might be willing to abuse them. I have learned many things from him, and amongst those are not solely his skills."
"A man so great must be rare," Marcus said. He felt the strong desire to know more about Hansi once more.
"He is one of a kind," Hansi said with deep respect.
"I could not begin to describe him."
"How did you find him?"
"By accident." Hansi laughed and brushed a strand of messy hair from his face. The sadness that clouded his eyes had not gone, only grown heavier. Hansi had resumed gazing at the sky and to Marcus' great surprise he found delight in observing the healer. Looking at him even gave him some sort of peace between all the troubled thoughts in his mind.
They lingered like this for a while, each of them lost in their own observation and thoughts, and Marcus felt his eyes growing heavy with the time. Again he felt tired and drained, slowly slipping away into a hopefully peaceful dream world. As Hansi noticed this he stood up silently.
"Wait..." Marcus muttered, half asleep already. One of his hands unconsciously reached out towards the other man. He cursed himself for not being able to fulfil his desire, to learn more about the man that was still a mystery. But there was one thing he could not neglect.
"I need you... I want to find someone. Need to. her name is Eola. She must be here, in the Houses..." Mya's brother's pleas had come to his mind again as he was close to falling asleep, the images plaguing him and announcing nightmares.
"I will find her," Hansi promised. His voice seemed to come from far away, and as he was gone Marcus couldn't tell if it had been Hansi's hand brushing against his, letting a feeling of electricity run through his veins. He had slipped into dreams within seconds.
Chapter 7: Hope and Memory
When Marcus reopened his eyes this time he could see the softly rose coloured sky in front of the window. Light shades of pink mingled with the soft orange-golden pigmentation of the glowing sun while the sky was already tinted in royal blue at its edges. A single cloud drifted across the horizon, soon leaving his perception.
Marcus leant back. He didn't feel relaxed or at ease, but at least the pain that had tormented his every move earlier this day had partially receded, leaving only slight muscle ache and a stinging in the stomach whenever he would sit up. There was no blood soaking through the bandage anymore, yet he preferred not to strain the wound any more than necessary.
With his back against the wall and cushion he reflected upon the short time he'd been awake earlier. A feeling of relief quickly spread through his stomach as he kept watching the sinking of the sun which showed in the colouring of the sky. The clearness of the heavens showed him that war had not yet broken upon the city, no ashes were hovering above his home yet. He burned to find out what was happening on the outside of the Houses of Healing, fighting back the strong desire of rejoin Gondor's defence just yet.
The steward's oldest son had gone, he remembered, gone to seek the elves, as pointless as it was. Even though Hansi did not seem to believe him he was more than certain that these people would not leave their hiding places to aid the estranged Men. On the other hand, as he had to admit to himself now that his mind was clearer, the threat of war concerned not only Men. If Gondor fell the entirety of Middle Earth would be next, inevitably leading to the destruction of the elves as well.
They had fled before, indeed, and they would flee again; across the sea, into the elysium which only one mortal man had ever reached. The mariner that had never returned was still crossing the evening sky, doomed to this fate for all eternity. When Marcus looked up he could spot the lone, bright star at the firmament and feel the gaze of his kinsman upon him. He closed his eyes, unable to find sleep, as he heard the curtain open softly, allowing the soft, buzzing business of the Houses that was fading into nightly rest to reach him for a second.
Between his half closed eyelids he could spot a silhouette entering the room, quietly calling his name after turning back from a conversation partner that was still waiting behind the curtain. The one who'd entered had been Hansi, and Marcus opened his eyes as he answered him.
"You're awake, that is well," said the healer.
"Are you in any pain?" Marcus shook his head.
"There's less pain than earlier," he answered truthfully.
"And I believe the wound has ceased bleeding. All the remaining pain has lessened."
"Very well, very well," said Hansi, nodding. Then he gestured towards the curtain.
"The woman you requested to speak to is here," he explained.
"Eola, that's her name. I have work to do, but if you wish to speak to her immediately I will allow her in. You seem to be in a condition to receive visitors."
"Thank you for finding her so swiftly," replied Marcus, smiling a smile that the other man wouldn't see in the darkness.
"I will gladly speak to her now. But say, can you tell me for how long my wound requires me to remain bedridden?"
"You have been awake for less than an hour and already ask for how much longer you will have to sleep?" asked Hansi, quiet amusement showing in his voice.
"But as far as I can judge you might be allowed to leave tomorrow already. Of course you cannot immediately return to battle or medium to heavy labour, but you will be free to go home. As you are my patient, your departure will be allowed by me, so you can be certain to leave tomorrow, as far as your condition does not worsen again." Slightly dissatisfied Marcus nodded.
"I cannot expect to find any sleep tonight, neither can I speak to anybody without breaking the nightly silence," he sighed.
"There are easy methods to relieve such issues," Hansi said with a mysterious smile that was lit up by the small lantern he had just lit and placed on Marcus' bedside table.
"But enough of this. Your visitor is waiting outside, and I do not wish to displease the lady." He waved Marcus goodbye, exiting the room to make way for his visitor.
The woman he perceived in the warm lantern light was slightly younger than he'd expected her to be, the sorrow on her face not concealing her obvious youth. Her skin was fair, yet a scar dragged across her forehead, from the roots of her hair to her left eyebrow. Her hair was golden, much like a woman of Rohan's would look, yet her eyes were distinctively Gondorian in their stern and noble greyness. This serious expression was only empathised by the strict way in which her hair was tied back; no strand fell upon her face or shoulder, the braid reached the middle of her back before her plain, blue linen dress was left uncovered.
Having put the curtain back into its original position she didn't stand insecurely for a moment, as many might have done, but placed herself on the windowsill that was nearly as high as her chest. Her legs didn't dangle, her stance was rigid and erect as she looked at him, immediately beginning to speak.
"You have asked me here to tell me of my husband's decease, have you not?"
"Yes, I have," Marcus said solemnly, feeling a sting in his chest as the final spark of hope dropped from her proud face. She didn't allow herself more than a second of shock, if you could call it so, before she nodded.
"My deepest condolences for you and your daughter," he said in the exact moment in which she started speaking, interrupting her sentence to listen to him. A hint of confusion mirrored in her eyes.
"How familiar were you with my husband?" she asked huskily. Marcus shook his head.
"I'd never met him before the battle. But there is a story connecting us... a woman, I must say, that goes back many years. I knew him long ago, but familiarity? No, I would not say so." The unconcealed interest in her eyes encouraged him to speak further.
"Did you talk much of his past?" he asked Eola, to which she responded with a shrug of her shoulders.
"He never liked to talk about it," she muttered.
"We have not known each other for more than five years, and in all those five years war has always been a direct threat and I could feel him shutting himself whenever I dared to ask him about his childhood. I was not born when he was very young. All I know is that he was not born in Minas Tirith... although I always believed that he was." A smile of melancholy played with her lips. She looked down to hide it in possible shame.
"He was born in a small village in the east of the Pelennor, closer to Osgiliath than to Minas Tirith," Marcus could hear himself say. His heart fought to suppress the words at the instant, unwilling to share these memories yet again, but he urged himself to follow what his mind told him was the right thing to do.
"I myself am from this village by birth," he continued, "and we both led a blissful childhood there, until one fateful day our village was sacked and burned. I myself, seven years of age, had spent the day in the fields and escaped with my parents and two of my friends. I never saw another inhabitant of the village again, and I assumed they all had perished in the flames." He swallowed hard as the scent of fire came back to him, floating from his childhood towards the present day.
"But one of the friends who could escape with me was a girl, five years old, and the sister of your husband..."
"The sister!" Eola exclaimed, nearly jumping from the windowsill. When she realized how loudly she had spoken she quickly covered her mouth and continued in a hushed voice.
"He believed her to be dead, but he hoped... he always told me he'd had a sister whom he hoped lived somewhere. He wrote letters to her, I believe, and scattered the ashes in the wind in the hope the Gods might carry them to her." Her cheeks flushed pink.
"I- I mean it was superstition, of course. But I knew about the sister."
"She is here, in Minas Tirith. A blacksmith. It was your husband's sincerest wish that she would meet your daughter," Marcus said, looking at the woman who was gazing upon him solemnly again.
"Was it his last one?" she whispered then.
"He died a hero," answered Marcus instead of a direct answer.
"Most importantly, he died thinking of you."
Eola smiled under tears which Marcus noticed only now. She slowly got up from the windowsill to stand by his bedside. She looked down at him thoughtfully, yet her eyes told him that is was not him she was perceiving there. Despite the tears glistering in her eyes she still stood proudly, would almost have looked solemn if it hadn't been for the loving, melancholy smile that softened her expression.
"Are you in a condition to accompany me outside?" she surprised him by asking. Considering everything the healer had previously said Marcus shook his head slowly.
"I believe that my being allowed to leave tomorrow puts me in a good enough condition to leave my bed," he answered, giving her a light smile. She nodded without smiling back, yet showing she had received this sign of kindness.
Marcus pushed back the blankets that had been covering his body for multiple days. He felt the weakness in his knees as he sat up, got to his feet carefully. Standing did not cause him problems, as he noticed, yet walking only functioned slowly. The woman however appeared willing to adjust herself to his pace as he followed her out of his little cell.
The Houses were silent, only few hushed voices were audible somewhere. Marcus could hear a child crying, a mother's calming words; two healers were talking in an adjacent room, their voices sounding through the walls. Restless sleepers were here and there, secluded from the main room by curtains such as had lined Marcus' sickroom. An older healer passed the pair, eyeing the bandage that was visible through his linen shirt, eventually rating him able to pass into the gardens of the houses.
The nightly air was warm, chilled by a soft breeze. Above the mountains which towered above Minas Tirith stood countless sparkling stars, a crescent moon shone above Dol Amroth in the Southwest. The East, as always, was dark and starless, the soft royal blue which the sky still held was blackened and tainted by a greenish shine that stemmed from the cursed city there.
Gazing eastwards Marcus shivered and perceived his accompanist to do the same. He turned away from the darkness and led his steps eastwards, Eola following by his side. The pleasant smell of herbs and flowers surrounded them, the latter more faintly, yet remaining distinctive. They passed multiple plant beds before reaching the balustrade of the wall that enclosed the gardens. Already slightly exhausted by the short walk Marcus leant against them, gazing down into the still lively city.
The gates, shops and markets of Minas Tirith had been closed, the hour of taverns and brothels had arrived to turn the city into a darker, less safe place. The Lampmakers' Street at a lower level stood out, every other street was only illuminated when a man carrying a lamp happened to pass it. The nightly patrols carried such lamps and thus it was easy to trace their paths from above.
"And so the darkness is coming," said Eola, stepping next to him. As Marcus turned to face her he discovered that her face was covered in silent tears. Her voice sounded choked.
"There is still hope," he muttered, even though he did not really believe it. It was something Hansi might have said, he realized, Hansi who believed in the utopian vision of the elven kind sending help to them. Hansi who understood it to soothe his, Marcus', soul.
"And where might that hope be?" she asked, and the smile she showed was a sad, almost bitter one.
"To the North, in Rohan, where our allies have to fight their own wars rather than being able to help us? To the South, where the dark men of Harad could reconsider their side in this war? Or does it lie beyond the gates of death, in a world far from our own?"
Marcus had to shiver at her words, and they made him contemplate.
"There is always hope in life," he said, "even in the final minute. Hope continues to exist even when the enemy has taken control and your fatherland has been destroyed, because then the hope to reconquer your country will remain in your heart. A man's hope in this word fades with his soul, when his body has already gone."
Eola looked at him and sighed deeply. Her tears continued flowing as she did not wipe them off.
"What is hope in a world in which young men have to give up their lives to preserve the ones of their mothers and wives who alone are nothing? What is hope when you are so hopelessly overpowered that you can but accept your doom and wish for it to come soon so you will be spared the pain of living with the knowledge?"
"What knowledge is it you are talking about?" asked Marcus softly, touching her arm with the faintest gesture. She did not face him as she answered.
"It is the knowledge that we are bound to go down," she said.
"My husband, along with hundreds and thousands of other men has sacrificed himself for this country, but while the enemy's forces are growing ours keep decimating. We are outnumbered, and our numbers keep going down. I shall hope for the day that we are wiped out, because this day will inevitably come, and I can not rest knowing that I shall lose my life and the ones so dear to me on this fateful day. I can not rest knowing that my daughter will never grow up peacefully, will never breathe the sea, will never wander the fields unmolestedly."
A deep breath that sounded almost like a sob, and she continued.
"And even if we end up free, what is the sense of this freedom if we have paid it with the lives of our men? We are but few in number, unable to defend ourselves and carry out many tasks of men. We are bound to go down with them, if they do, and we cannot save ourselves from this. The days of Gondor are numbered, I fear, and they shall be over soon, and we shall perish with everything that we have held dear."
Marcus again beheld the tears in her face, her erect figure as she leant on the balustrade and gazed towards the sea with unveiled melancholy in her eyes. In this moment he saw her beauty, but he also saw the steel she was forged of underneath. Above all, however, he saw her as who she was: a woman, a lover, and a mother; a lover in pain; a mother who could not bear seeing her fiercely loved child growing up in desperation and who would give everything just to ease any pain it might feel.
"We still have hope," he repeated, leaning his back against the balustrade so he could gaze northwards, where the mountains blocked his view.
"There are other peoples in Middle Earth, others who have no wars to fight of their own. We are calling out for help. We will receive an answer."
"We have not called out to our own closest allies for help," Eola said bitterly.
"If they do not aid us, then who will come?"
"Are you a believer, Eola?" Marcus asked gently and turned around to face her. She looked into his face steadily.
"I was raised to be a believer, but I have lost all my faith in this dark world," she answered coldly. A breeze of wind swept through the hair that now flew open in the wind. She ran one hand through it, trying to keep it on control.
"And you? Surely you must be a believer, uttering such words of seeming comfort."
"I am not a believer, indeed," Marcus said, chuckling joylessly.
"I have no reason to believe in inhuman forces that watch this world without doing anything. Surely the evil is one of these forces, but if others have existed they were magicians like him, deceivers, and not the ones that shaped this world. Whoever they were, they are now far, far beyond our reach and the only thing left to believe in is ourselves."
He looked her into the eyes as he touched her hand, speaking further.
"There is always hope for us, for Gondor. May it come from the North, may it come from the South, may it come from the West or even from the East. It might even stem from the heart of this very city. It will never die, and it lives in you, too, as long as there is something you will fight for, no matter the circumstances."
The smile she gave him now was the first true one he had seen gracing her lips. The shyness it showed proved her youth, yet the emotions it concealed showed him so much more of her. He could see hopelessness and will, love and hate combined, and the iron power that he knew it took to continued fighting. He had found this power in himself years ago, but it was not until this moment that he had ever voiced it, if to himself or someone else. Something had changed in his heart in the moment he had told her of a hope he did not have himself, using the words of a man who was foreign to the hearts of Gondorians, foreign to their struggles and their history of growing despair; a man who was kind and wise after all.
As his eyes wandered over the Pelennor and his hands rested on the cool stone of the balustrade he could feel a weight pressing down on his shoulder. Eola's head rested on his shoulder, yet her hand did not touch him, nor did her eyes regard him. She leaned against him in silence and he beheld her for seconds, trying to figure what it was about her that had changed his heart in this way.
He could not come to a conclusion.
Chapter 8: The Chalice Passed
The last bits of blue had faded from the sky, leaving it a pitch black bed for the perfect stars in the sky. The greenish gloom emerging from the mountains in the east remained, even more dreadful than when there had still been some remainders of daylight to smoothen it.
The gardens were softly illuminated by candles held by lanterns, placed upon pillars which had been put up so that they lined the gravel paths along the beddings. These gardens were a place of rest, healing and peace, and while many who had been gravely injured had been restored to perfect physical health in the Houses of Healing it had been their gardens in which their souls had found solace.
This was the reason for which Marcus was reluctant to leave the gardens for his sickroom just yet. Despite being deserted after his accompanist had gone on her way home (assuring him that she could well defend herself, carried a lantern with her and lived not far from the Houses) the confusion which had arisen in his mind lingered there and would only plunge him into deeper waters if he left this peaceful place.
Silently contemplating he wandered around, followed the path his feet unconsciously walked, and cared not about the wind that chilled him through his light shirt. He was well aware that Osgiliath had changed him, as it had changed everyone else in this city, but that another change of heart should come so swiftly...
His heart had been heavy and hollow only few hours ago. Part of the guilt of not being able to hold the bastion pressed down on his shoulders as well, and yet he could feel something blooming in his heart in this very moment, something that had not been there before.
He closed his eyes and recalled every second of the not-so-eventful time he'd passed in the houses. He remembered the words with which Hansi had tried to restore his faith and hope, words that had made no impact on him for he could not believe them to ever come true and hoping for something so impossible seemed foolish to him. And yet... now, after he had spoken to Eola, something was starting to stir and sprout in his chest. A little spark of hope seemed to have settled there with the will to start burning again.
He leaned against the balustrade again, gazed far into the distance where the Great River lost itself in the plains. Osgiliath, although otherwise deserted, was marked by a small yet distinctive flame. The Enemy was at work there, spying on the city which it had conquered, planning the attack on Minas Tirith after the last bastion between them had fallen. And yet it did not seem to fill Marcus' heart with only dread and hopelessness.
The fire in him was growing stronger, he could sense the determination of which he had spoken to Eola; the hope of reconquering what they had lost and carry forth victory after all. Wandering along the balustrade, his hand ever upon the smooth, cool stone, he repeated all his words in his mind. How they differed from what Hansi had said to him in first place. The only difference he could find was the fact that Marcus had voiced these impossible, laughable hopes himself, in his own words, had added to them from his soul and invented even more utopian scenarios that could but would never come.
And suddenly he understood it.
He stopped where he was walking, grasped by the realization for a second, then a smile spread over his features. Hope, he could feel hope, and it was no longer a sprout but a bloom. He had heard the fears and hopelessness of this desperate lover and mother, and had told her the hopes of a foreigner, but it had helped him understand.
He chuckled to himself and his heart was lightened. He did not perceive the air to be as cold anymore, nor did he fear the gloom beyond the mountains. The perils of the coming war remained, but the idle defeat with which he had awaited them was erased.
Having walked a little further Marcus stopped suddenly. Now that his laughter had died down he could clearly hear voices sounding from a distance, flowing towards him through a window. He was not one to listen to conversations of others, but the voices he could make out made him curious; especially because one of them belonged to the man he desired to speak to most of all at this second.
He approached the window and the voices grew more distinguishable. Undecidedly he stood at the side of the path, pretending to examine a particularly brightly coloured blossom while he listened to the heated conversation between Hansi and the head of the Houses, Ioreth.
"...you cannot expect me to share these secrets with you, as much as I regret this," said Hansi in this moment, firmly.
"And why can you not, seeing how very much we need this?" asked Ioreth piercingly.
"I cannot teach these abilities to anybody," he replied.
"It simply is not in my power, for they cannot truly be learned. A long history and many years of training connect me with these abilities, yet the one that you need most I dare not use for I fear what it brings to me."
"And despite this you keep insisting that it is not sorcery," the healer noted.
"And I will keep insisting on this," confirmed Hansi.
"I do not practice foul sorcery. My abilities have no evil to them, yet the things I fight with this particular power stem directly from the blackest source of dark magic and frankly, I fear anything that has to do with these powers. I can and will not take on any more people to liberate them from the Shadow."
Marcus could hear Ioreth sigh, followed by a long silence in which one of the two was pacing up and down. Finally the older healer spoke again.
"I see you are a man of principles, and while I can not expect you to give me a reason to understand-"
"If you wish for a reason to understand the way I act, I shall gladly give it to you," interrupted Hansi calmly.
"I have liberated three men from the Shadow during my life, the last one being the patient which I healed in these Houses. The other two have long passed into more peaceful realms, as has she, but what remains on these plains is their Shadow. Where does it go?"
"It cannot vanish into Nothingness, I can bespeak as much as that. It is me who carries this Shadow now, with all its sickness, and it takes a lot of my power to slowly defy it and made it fade away."
He had spoken firmly, but upon his words Marcus could not help but gasp. He had never feared these abilities, no, they had deeply impressed him - but he had never known about what price they carried. He remembered the day he'd set out for Osgiliath, how eager he had been to study these very powers...
"I understand," he could hear Ioreth say quietly.
"I believe I can now understand part of the way you act," she repeated.
"I cannot expect you to follow my orders of revealing the source of your powers. Law provides that you should be denied entrance into the Houses for denying your superior insight into your medical practice, but to a certain degree I believe that I cannot name myself your superior. We cannot lose a healer so skilled in times like these, and so you shall be allowed to stay. As opaque as you might be," she added.
"I am glad we understand each other," Hansi said softly.
"But let this one thing be said: you are in many, many ways my superior, and I shall not have the audacity to ever question the authority of a woman as skilled as you are."
"It is great honour to hear these words from a man whose knowledge reaches beyond the limited boundaries of Gondor's healers," she said.
"But for now, enough! I shall go and rest, as long as there are no emergencies. You should do the same. The war is coming. We shall soon be needed more and more urgently."
"Yes, my lady," Marcus could hear Hansi say before the lights in what must be the office of Ioreth were extinguished and the steps of the both of them left the room.
Marcus stood there in turmoil, not quite having gathered himself again when he could hear steps approaching and a hand placed on his shoulder.
"Now you know the truth, or at least a little part of it, about the powers I hold," Hansi said calmly. Marcus turned around and looked at him. He spoke calmly, and there was no anger in his steel grey eyes, no, they seemed to be illuminated by a shine of something close to relief.
"This raises more questions than it answers," he at last said carefully.
"Isn't it always thus?" Hansi asked, removing his hand from Marcus' shoulder to gesture towards the sky.
"When we have understood the significance of a constellation, will we not wonder who put it there, and why they did so? Will we not wonder whether its significance has come, or is to come?"
"We Gondorians are no astronomers," Marcus replied absentmindedly.
"Your ancestors were," Hansi said.
"I am not an astronomer either, but I know some things about the night sky. Let me show you something, can you see these stars that align as a sword?"
"I see them," Marcus replied, letting Hansi guide his hand over the constellation.
"Menelmacar," the healer said, almost reverently.
"The Swordsman of the Sky. The Lady of the Stars created this constellation to enlighten the awakening of the Eldar. Its stars were gathered from among the ancient ones, to signify the final battle after which everything will be wiped out and arise anew."
"I have never heard of this," said Marcus, but he spoke quietly, and his heart was strangely moved and hungered to hear more of this prophecy.
"It is said that one day, the ancient Enemy will break the Door of Night and thus his imprisonment, and start the final battle in which all that is will end," told Hansi. Hi voice had assumed a different tone, reverent and dreamy, as he gazed up to the stars.
"All the peoples of the world, Elves and Men and Dwarves alike, will fight in this battle, and the evening star shall break his course across the skies and descend to the earth again. The Great Enemy shall find his death by the hand of him who will avenge everyone he loved dearly."
Once again he paused, seemed to be losing himself in the tale he was telling. The way he spoke utterly captured Marcus.
"And in the end the great jewels of the First Age shall be recovered from their graves, the mountains shall be levelled and the Great Trees rekindled, and all that was shall end and rise anew; and there shall be a second Music and Creation of which even the wisest know nothing. All they know is that it shall be even greater than the First."
"And do you believe that this battle will come upon us... now?" Marcus brought out after a stunned silence. His mind was enchanted by the beauty and emotion the tale had conveyed.
"No, I do not believe this," Hansi said and smiled.
"This enemy is a mere servant of the Ancient One, he who was once amongst the greatest and wisest of the Ainur. This shall not be the end of the world, nor shall it be the end of Men, for those will fight in the last battle. It is written in the stars. The story of Men does not end here."
"Those words you told me, about hope..." Marcus began.
"I remember," said Hansi, and this time his smile was directed at Marcus. He gestured towards a low bench in an alcove formed as a small piazza, in the middle of which stood a quiet fountain. Marcus followed him to sit there, where they looked into the West until he spoke.
"I have found them rekindling hope within me. But not until I... I had voiced them myself, toward the lady which I met tonight. And I would never have believed that these words... the words of somebody so foreign to Minas Tirith and the pains of its people, could affect me in this way."
"But I, too, have felt the fear that you are facing," Hanis said. Marcus could only shake his head.
"How can you," he asked, "when you have not seen this place in so many years? You cannot feel the pain that a Gondorian feels when thinking of the doom of his fatherland, you cannot-"
"I myself have been in this place, even if you may not believe it," Hansi cut him off sharply, softening his voice when he noticed Markus had jerked back and muttered an apology.
"I ask your forgiveness," Hansi said, "my reaction was unsuitable. But the enlightenment you found is the enlightenment that I, too, found - many years ago."
"I was in a place where there was no hope for me. I was wandering aimlessly, in a time in which - by the measure of my people - I had just outgrown childhood and entered youth. I thought every encouragement fruitless, the gentle words were ashes in my mouth should I ever have repeated them. But then..."
He paused, looking at Marcus who silently asked him to continue.
"It must have been two years until I found others, with wounds fresher than mine, and I spoke to them these words that had never passed my tongue as I refused to believe there was a spark of truth within them. And slowly...slowly I started believing in them, too.
I have felt what so many Gondorians, I believe, fear the most. But the time came when I looked into the future a different way. I hoped. And instead of an eternal outlaw I became a man that would have been greatly honoured by my people."
"Who are your people?" asked Marcus in awe, who had seen a softening in his gaze as Hansi had spoken of his folk.
"They are no more," he said silently and looked down, yet he did not allow Marcus to react.
"I have spent years grieving them. Today I look back at them with honour and I have stopped being pained about the day that decided my fate. It was very long ago."
"You constantly speak of long gone times, but you never say a word as to when these times were," Marcus wondered aloud.
"You cannot be one of the elven folk, yet neither do you look like a man of Gondor or Rohan. Speak, where are you from, and what are these times you speak of all the time?"
"You are young, Marcus, and if you adjust my aging to yours then I do not count many years more than you. But 'tis true, I do not age as you do, and yet I am none of the fair folk. I have made encounters with the elves, but it is not them that I owe this to. It is connected to my powers, the nature of which I can and will not explain to you now. For now, settle for my telling you that I am not many years older than you are."
Marcus nodded, yet he was left in even greater confusion at the other man. His words had, once again, raised more questions than they answered. But something was drawing him to Hansi, giving him the desire to know as much about the other's past as it was possible to him.
"Then tell me of your land. Of your people," he demanded, but his tone was soft and friendly. Hansi leant back.
"My land... what can I tell you of my land? I was a mere boy when it was taken from me. I had never paid close attention to its beauties before, the only image that lingers in my mind is that of endless woods and fires, of cabins and furs which we slept on and of the lakes we bathed in. It was a simple life, but there was nothing more you could want.
We never noticed that doom was coming, for it came creeping slowly. We were a people that found no happiness in cities of stone; a people of the Earth and friends of all things that lived. But slowly diseases crept in, the water of the springs was poisoned and the woods grew darker and thicker. Before we noticed the darkness- had grasped us."
He closed his eyes and spoke no more. Marcus began wondering whether he had fallen asleep when he seemed to come back to his senses.
"I have seen most of the world," he said, " have travelled impecuniously with nothing but my voice and lute and knowledge to pay for my shelter and food. I have known more of nature than any other man, I reckon, and somehow I have always been... content. There is nothing I could have wanted more than helping and healing other living beings around the world. A healer and a bard, travelling from town to town... yes, the boy I was would have liked this way of living had he only known it was possible."
"I did not know you were a bard," said Marcus out of lack of other things to say.
"I have not seen the need to sing to anybody since arriving in this city, for my healing abilities have proved sufficient to help me persist here," Hansi replied simply.
"I sing to myself, of course, when I am alone. I sing the songs of mine and of others and play the lute which is carefully concealed in my chamber. But I have not felt the need to express myself to other people in this way."
He seemed to be thinking. Marcus did not wish to break the fulfilled silence that was between them by asking him to sing, nor did he want to push the other man. If he did not wish to sing for others, Marcus was certainly included.
He looked at Hansi's face, deeply sunken in thought, before he directed his gaze towards the stars again. A single cloud was drifting through the night sky, and in this moment Marcus felt a deep peace spreading through his heart.
Hope, he said in thought, and smiled. And in this very second Hansi started singing beside him, quietly as to not raise attention, but with a voice so expressive and emotional that the world faded at its tune.
In western lands beneath the Sun
the flowers may rise in Spring,
the trees may bud, the waters run,
the merry finches sing.
Or there maybe 'tis cloudless night
and swaying beeches bear
the Elven-stars as jewels white
amid their branching hair.
Though here at journey's end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.
He sang, and as he ended Marcus kept looking at him, suddenly longing to study every inch of the face of this man who managed and understood it to move, to shake his heart so deeply. He must have sung this song many times before, but every perfectly phrased emphasis on the words, every emotion he conveyed seemed to be springing directly from his heart.
Marcus was still frozen and open mouthed when Hansi's eyes sought his. He looked into them and saw passion in them, spotted the emotion that the song had transferred onto him. Every lyric had burned itself into his soul, had driven the hope to bloom even faster. The enchantments of the peaceful night now seemed so much more vivid to him.
He sought the soul beyond Hansi's eyes and for a short second it was to him that he could glimpse into it before he broke their eye contact, half ashamed at how deeply he had stared. But Hansi expressed no dismay, allowing the warmth in Marcus' chest to spread further.
"I am glad you came to Minas Tirith," he finally said. Hansi smiled, and then they said no more.
Chapter 9: Elanor
Time had passed since Marcus' release from the Houses of Healing. His wound had healed, torturing him no more, yet he had not left the city for another battle ever since being released. Spring was coming over the land, but no new hope for Middle Earth accompanied it: the war was ever threatening, always approaching swiftly.
Rohan had broken the siege of Helm's Deep, yet accounts of this battle spoke of magic and suspicious circumstances. The steward's son had not returned, and Lord Denethor himself kept hiding away in his fiery chamber, always emitting glooming red light by night. He was growing even grimmer, still refusing to call Rohan for aid. The storm was coming for Minas Tirith.
With a sparse breakfast in hand Marcus was sitting at the wall, at distance from his companions; he watched the Pelennor in the grey light and found it more peaceful than sharing these early hours with other deeply troubled soldiers.
The air was chilly despite the absence of wind, the fields covered in dew drops that would glitter in the morning light for a short time until the sun vanished behind the veiling clouds that already hung above the horizon. As for now, though, the fields lay asleep in dim twilight, without any trace of life upon their plains.
A single fire burned in Osgiliath, to warm the men that had taken on the night's watch. The Companies there were now under the authority of the Steward's younger son, whom the Lord did not seem to trust even half as much as he had trusted his older brother. Both brothers, however, possessed the love and loyalty of the soldiers and had proven to be strong leaders.
Marcus watched the dark eastern side of the Great River as the line of unclouded sky above it began assuming the colour of sunrise. The enemy had withdrawn from the bank, but it kept lurking in the shadows and Gondor did not possess the strength to start an offensive with the purpose of reconquering it.
He lifted his eyes from the horizon and looked down at the lower rings of the city. The people of Minas Tirith were waking up slowly, soon to go after their daily tasks. But Marcus also knew that this would be the last day in the city for many. Since the leave taking of the Lord Boromir the people had started fleeing the city, deserting all hope. Marcus could not help but feel with them. But where were they to run if Minas Tirith fell?
He sighed and took a bite of his apple, failing to realize the approaching of footsteps behind him. When he perceived a figure leaning against the wall next to him he moved startled, almost stumbling over a step that led down from the city wall.
He did not realize the raven haired woman next to him until she laughed. The dimness of the light blurred her features but her laugh had remained the same through her entire life, from her childhood until the day he had last seen her.
"Mya," he said, joining in her laughter over his own jumpiness.
"How long has it been?"
"Too long," she said before she stepped towards him and embraced him. It felt good to have her arms around him again, like a sweet memory of lighter days conjured from the depths of his mind. As they broke the embrace they continued standing close to each other, so that their bodies were touching.
"How are you?" he asked and she gave a shrug.
"You know all the things that happened," she said.
"I've come to thank you for giving me this opportunity... this little light. Everil is just like my brother, you see? I am convinced that he somehow lives on within her..."
It took Marcus a second to follow her. When he realized that she had to be talking about her own little niece he put an arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. She rested her head on his shoulder and told him all the things she could not find the words for.
Mya was naturally shorter than Marcus, her body was small but hardened from her work. She had learned to dress like a man from her father, who had never desired to have a girl but had loved her while raising her like he would have raised a son. From her mother she had learned a woman's crafts, but her passion had been her father's occupation since she had observed him in his shop.
Marcus could recall how hard it had been to find a blacksmith willing to teach a female apprentice. She had been five when they fled to Minas Tirith, had been raised by Marcus' family until she was old enough to help as a waitress. She had been thirteen when Marcus' father had persuaded a blacksmith to take her in, and her previously acquired skills had served her well. She had learned quickly and had become the mistress of the forge after her master's unexpected demise. Since that day they had not met in person.
He smiled at all these shared memories.
"I saw you last night," she suddenly told him.
"After I finished work I came to the Houses in the hope of finding solace there, in the gardens. I don't know what it was that made me think you could be there... it was a feeling, really."
"I was there, but I must have left already by the time you came," said Marcus surprisedly, but his friend shook her head.
"No, you were there; but I didn't want to disturb you. Or well, frankly, I was rather surprised myself upon seeing whom you were speaking with..."
"You knew him?" Marcus uttered.
"I believe I do, although it seems impossible. Can you not recall having seen him before? A man, hard and proud yet gentle and kind. He lived with us for two moths before we had to flee, departing a mere week before the attack. He looked exactly like this man does, the man in the healer's robe you were talking to last night."
"But I never saw him..." Marcus said again, falling into deep thought. Could it be that Hansi had indeed lived in the same village as he had, without knowing him? And what would it mean if he had known Marcus as a child already?
He tried to recall any memory of Hansi that might still be there from his past days, shook his head as he failed. Quietly he withdrew from Mya's touch, well knowing that she kept observing him.
"There are many strange people in this world," she said silently.
"In these times I would dare to believe in immortals that wander the earth. But you seemed to be entrusted with him - tell me, who is this man? I might be able to connect him to the man I knew in my childhood, or I might not."
"This man is a mystery," Marcus said, a soft laugh accompanying his sentence.
"I met him when he entered the gates close to nightfall, desiring to speak to the steward alone. He stood by my mother on her death bed and by me when I was injured in battle; we have shared many words but I cannot claim to know him.
He is stern and solemn, rather restrained in a way, but incomparably kind and wise. Every word from his tongue seems to stem from an elven-like creature, his eyes are the ones of the Fair ones, yet he is closer to the struggles of Men than the ones of any other kind. He has travelled the world, I cannot fathom what horrors his eyes must have seen, but all he ever utters is hope.
His voice tells stories so vividly as though you were witnessing them, no matter if sung or spoken; he knows more than I could ever hope to study within my lifetime. I really do not know as much about him as I would like, but I know that my mind and heart yearn for his company and his words because... I cannot tell a reason, Mya, but you must meet him."
"You seem deeply impressed," she said and smiled. Her hand rested lightly upon his.
"As a child, of course, I did not understand much of wisdom, but a man like this can only exist once in this world, can he not?"
"He truly is one of a kind," Marcus agreed. They lingered next to each other in silence, each hanging after their own thoughts while the sun was rising slowly and the silver trumpets of Minas Tirith announced the dawning day.
With a sorry smile Mya said farewell and embraced him once more, promising to visit again as soon as she could make it.
Marcus was making his way through the city to enter upon his vigil at the gates. Before he could reach them, however, he could perceive from the small back alley through which he was passing a swirl of white entering the gates, accompanied by surprised cries of the guardsmen. He accelerated his pace, running towards the gates where unrest had broken out.
"Marcus!" one of the guards he was better acquainted with called for him upon spotting him.
"Take on your watch here, now! I must go after the cause of this disturbance!"
"What is the cause?" Marcus dared to ask. The other ignored him, one second later scales fell from Marcus' eyes. There could only be one rider so swift and daring as to pass by the gates in a hurry. It was the wizard, Gandalf they called him, whom the lord Faramir had adored since childhood and whom the lord Denethor despised with every fibre of his being.
Faramir had not returned yet. His absence was painful for the city, he was needed anywhere in Gondor. He was a great leader, one whom the soldiers would follow out of love and not sheer duty. The soldiers would fight for him, not only in his command. Minas Tirith was sorely missing its certainly noblest son.
While the white horse that had brought the wizard arrived upon the Citadel Marcus took on his watch. Injured soldiers from battles north, south, east and west passed through it with their last strength. Their corpses were carried into the city by young folk who should not live to see such things. Amidst all the despair Marcus sat still, wondering what the wizard might have come for, and silently begging the steward to accept whatever counsel he might be given.
Rumours were spreading throughout the city swiftly. He comes with a halfling some said. He brings us news of the lord Boromir But Boromir was dead and his body would never be recovered. His broken horn had sounded over the plains of Rohan and Gondor and the proudest son of the White City had fallen and was never to return to its grounds.
It was halfway through his watch, when Marcus shut the gate and shut his eyes from the gruesome image of a soldier who was dying, burned and bruised and libs torn apart, that he could hear a trusted, deep voice calling out his name. Hansi appeared to be in a hurry as he hastened towards him.
"Is it true what the people say? That the wizard has arrived in this city?"
"I saw a white rider passing through the gate, yet I myself saw not the face of the wizard himself," Marcus told the half breathless man, grasping his wrist gently. Hansi did not sit down next to him.
"Has he gone to the Citadel, then?" he breathed.
"I believe so," answered Marcus, holding back Hansi who seemed to be about to leave him again.
"What is your business with the wizard, Hansi?" he asked, lowering his voice. The other man's pulse under his healer's robe came through the metal of Marcus' armour.
"If he is truly here then times cannot be as hopeless as they seem," replied Hansi.
"I much desire to speak to the wizard again, to consult him once more about certain methods of his, as we used to do when I was much younger. Mithrandir is his name, he is closely akin to my master whom you have heard about before. I wish for nothing but his counsel, should he remember me."
The following day brought grief over Minas Tirith.
It was Gandalf, the wizard, clad in white, who rode out and pierced the darkness of the ring-wraiths with the light of his staff. It was Gandalf, the wizard, clad in white, who carried Denethor's son through the gates of the city more dead than alive. It was Denethor, the steward, who decided to give his son one day to recover and muster the men necessary to defend Osgiliath.
He was going to go into battle again.
The thought alone numbed Marcus. Adrenaline was flooding his veins, he was eager to fight this war and defend his country to prevent it from destruction but something had changed in his mind and in his heart and he did not wish to leave Minas Tirith again so soon.
It was a cold night, yet anywhere except in the East it was a clear night. The herbs of the gardens of the Houses of Healing were giving the air a pleasant scent. It was an hour after dusk, the hour at which Marcus had set his meeting with Hansi two days ago was approaching swiftly. Marcus wondered why he found it so particularly hard to find the words to tell his friend that he was going into battle. But the moment that he spotted Hansi walking along the wall at which he leaned Marcus knew the reason why it was no longer his dearest wish to go into battle anymore.
The other man looked more tired than ever and older than he actually must be, but his stormy steel grey eyes shone at Marcus as he greeted him.
"Have you found counsel from the wizard?" Marcus asked first.
"I have, and I have found it to be valuable." Hansi smiled at him and let out a deep breath.
"But tell me, what is troubling your heart today, my friend?"
Marcus, astonished at how openly his emotions seemed to be, did not reply for a second. He was struggling to find the words and he sighed heavily.
"I am unable to find the words with which I can bring these tidings to you," he confessed, avoiding Hansi's piercing gaze.
"Osgiliath is weak, its men have no more power left. Our lord Faramir, rescued from battle only today, is to set out for the defence of the city the coming morning. Many men have been assembled, and alas! I must be one of those to accompany our lord into the greatest and most significant battle we have ever faced. I fear the fall of Osgiliath will come tomorrow."
"These are indeed grave tidings," Hansi answered and for a moment his expression was blank with shock, but not surprise. Then he put a warm hand onto Marcus' shoulder, warmth spreading through the linen shirt he was wearing.
"But tell me, do you not feel the hope and the eagerness that I hoped to have filled you with?"
"I feel the hope," Marcus said, "I feel it deep inside but fear overshadows it. Fear and doubt are clouding my mind. I was eager to ride into battle for my homeland, and still I am eager to defend it, but my heart has changed and does not wish to depart from the object it has attached itself to."
His heart was beating heavily as he spoke, hoping at the same time that the other man would notice the confession in his question and that he wouldn't do so. Hansi's hand lingered on Marcus' shoulder as he nodded.
"Loyalty and love are two most conflicting things," he said, a heaviness in his voice.
"I know this myself…" His eyes went northwards before he looked at Marcus again.
"When are you to depart tomorrow?" he asked.
"Before noon,"Marcus answered truthfully.
"We do not know how long the men in Osgiliath can hold the city. It is most necessary for us to depart early, but we do not have enough time for the muster by far. The lord Denethor has given us the morning, but we must depart ere noon or our final bastion shall fall with certainty."
As he looked at Hansi, however, Marcus felt a lump in his throat. He wasn't going to cry, he reprimanded himself, he was a soldier of Gondor. He would stand and fall for his homeland. And yet, looking at the still so mysterious man from far away, his heart screamed against his loyalty and wished for nothing but this night to last forever.
Sometimes, lately, Marcus had thought of running away. Of hiding away with the very man next to him, running from the fall and hiding until the demise caught up and consumed them. He wanted every possible moment with Hansi, he wanted to know everything he other man had to tell. He wanted to understand him and stand by his side until the bitter end. But he could never speak this.
"My love for my master and my craft defied the loyalty I still felt for my people, once ago," he could hear Hansi whisper all of a sudden.
"Rather than pursuing the shimmer of hope to find remainders of them alive I remained with my master and studied the craft. There has not been a day where I have not been glad about this decision, but neither has there been one where I have not regretted it - until most recently…"
"What do you mean by most recently?" Marcus asked quietly, shuddering as he slid just a little closer towards the other man who was gazing northwards again. Hansi did not turn towards Marcus as he spoke.
"I was bitterly alone throughout more years than you could ever fathom," he said and his voice shivered.
"This was the bitterness that came with my decision - the eternal solitude, or so it seemed. I was a wanderer without a home, doomed to never find a place to settle. Doomed to roam alone after I had lost the one I loved sod early and lost my heart with this one. But after so many years I realized that they had never taken my heart with them but that I had, instead, locked it deep inside my chest, fearing to allow it to break free. But recently it has deeply struggled within its prison and finally has broken free - because the one I thought to be the one might not have been the one all along."
"Yours was a long journey," Marcus muttered. His voice was trembling heavily now, so close to Hansi that he could feel his body and his warmth. He could see every inch of his face from the side and he found that he had never looked upon a view more mesmerizing. He swallowed.
"But I have perceived that your years of roaming might be over now."
"They might be over if I take one more step," Hansi said, and now he slowly turned towards Marcus.
"But it might also continue tomorrow, this time for eternity. Over this the gods only can decide, for it is the fortune of battle that influences my destiny. It is whether you will return - or whether you will not."
They were facing each other now, their faces only inches apart. The moon was shining through the gap between their lips. Marcus could see the sparkle in Hansi's eyes and felt overcome by a wave of a violent emotion he had never before experienced. Then the older man leant in and their lips softly brushed each other. Marcus did not allow Hansi to break away after this softness.
They kissed deeply and from the bottom of their hearts, and their fingers entwined. Tearing apart from each other they gazed into the other's eyes, when Marcus whispered breathlessly:
"Run away from here with me."
Hansi smiled sadly and brushed a strand of hair out of Marcus' face. He shook his head.
"You wouldn't be happy running away from the defence of your country. If Gondor falls the shadow will take us too, and it will take us swiftly. We must fight our battles in this war, now not only for the future of Gondor but the future of ours."
Marcus saw the depth and truth in Hansi's words, and so he embraced him again and let his kiss seal his lips, letting strength for the following battle pass through his veins, letting himself be convinced of what he was fighting for. Because he would fight.
Chapter 10: Osgiliath Invaded
The last touch of his friend's (now lover's?) hand lingered on Marcus' cheek as he mounted the tall, proud, grey stallion that would bear him into battle. He was riding in the company of lord Faramir who seemed to be weak in his knees still. Marcus left with a heavy heart, searching for Hansi's eyes in the crowd in vain.
They had said their goodbyes in the morning, hoping they would not be farewells. The women of Minas Tirith were dropping bundles of herbs into the streets, bundles of herbs that should ensure victory and safety. It was superstition, Marcus knew, for without aid the fall would come, if not today then in the future. Their men were too few, they could not stand against the enemy, and no matter how hard they prayed they were alone. The beacons had been lit, but it was far too late now for the Rohirrim to arrive in time.
The farther they were from the city the more he realized how bravely he had to fight now. Each and every man would have to sacrifice all of his strength, give all he could give to defend Osgiliath and Gondor. He was a soldier of Gondor. He would stand strong. He would not give in until his death.
"For Gondor," he whispered to himself and closed his eyes as his horse bore him farther and farther away from the place his heart lingered. Loyalty was stronger.
Since the earliest morning of the following day the Houses of Healing had taken in the newly wounded. Provisional beds had to be set up, more and more of them for the floods of wounded soldiers were too great for the usual capacities of the Houses. The healers were busy, not allowing themselves a single second of rest as they hastened through the corridors, trying to save every life not only for the sake of the people but also for the sake of Gondor. They needed men.
They needed good men. Good men like Marcus, young and tall and strong and loyal and with a certain amount of pride. It was no surprise for Hansi that the young soldier had been one of the first to be mustered from Osgiliath. The wound Hansi had once healed him from had left nothing but a scar and Marcus was a good soldier. He could and would fight for his fatherland.
Hansi was not of Gondorian descent, yet as he looked into the eyes of the people with all their desperation but the glimmering hope underneath he recognized himself in them. His own people had perished in the flames of the dark lord who was now threatening to consume Gondor and the whole of Middle Earth. Even though these men and women were not of his kin he knew he had to do what he could to save them and to save their country.
He was praying to the Valar as he was with patients, constantly praying to Tulkas to lend him and the warriors strength. The people of Gondor had unlearned faith with the ever looming shadow in their back, but he would never forget what he owed the Valar, for everything that he was had been made possible only by their guidance. Without faith and the aid of one of their most faithful Maia servant he would have lost himself on the road and would have passed to Mandos with or shortly after his kin.
But he was here today, and he could not only be grateful. He had to help the people of Gondor. And the best way he could help them was here, healing their soldiers. It was a cruel thing to heal them just to send them back into battle. The endless war was breaking them. But there was no other choice, no other way to try and win this war.
Still Hansi was praying predominantly for Marcus. Marcus, whom he had learned to love so deeply in such a short time compared to his previous life. He knew that the other man must know about his past, but for now it was enough that he knew about this feelings. Hansi knew that this was the day that his fate would be decided - between life and death, finally. For he could not bear to know that all the rest of his long, long life would be in solitude.
He prayed and he healed. His hands were on the stomach wound of a tall, black haired man; held the arm of the young man that was almost a boy whose hand had been severed and who was screaming in pain; wrapped bandages around the huge sword cut in the upper arm of a man who must be way beyond sixty and held the hand of a boy who was expiring in his arms. He could not save all of them, but he gave what he could give.
Constantly there were new arrivals.
As Hansi was standing in the doorway to a room close to the entrance hall, hoping to catch breath for two seconds, they carried in a man who could barely be of Marcus' age. Blood was dripping from his eyes, eyes which had assumed a milky white colour, his leg was twisted in an unnatural way and deep wounds and bruises covered his skin where his armour had been torn apart and stripped off him. Only his helmet and iron gloves were left.
Hansi hurried towards them, helping to carry the young man to a remote corner of the Houses. Whenever anything slightly touched his leg he would scream in excruciating pain and his blind eyes would roll in their sockets. They lay him down on a straw mattress and Hansi kneeled next to him, having brought in his supplies.
First he wiped the blood from the man's eyes, covering them with a salve and clean, white bandages after taking off the helmet and putting it so that the soldier could lay a hand upon it. Then he wiped the remaining wounds clean, tying bandages around the ones that bled terribly. As he began stabilizing the leg the young man started crying again. Hansi laid a hand onto his forehead.
"What is your name?" he asked softly.
"Timor," he pressed out between clutched teeth.
"What happened to you, Timor?" he asked, still softly.
"Talk to me, please," he added, "it will help you to ignore the pain that is to come."
"Osgiliath," he whispered and Hansi's heart jumped in his breast.
"They're taking the city and taking the men. They took me too, they took me with them and they-" He gasped for air, clutching Hansi's hand that was about to stabilise his leg.
"They pierced my eyes, they broke my leg, they cut me so they broke all of me. I... I wish I would have died in the battle, instantly. I wanted to fight for my country but I failed, and I cannot stand this shame, this failure. I cannot stand having to go through life broken." He sobbed. Hansi held the hand of the young man, stroking it with his thumb.
"You have done your best," he muttered soothingly, "and your sacrifice has not been in vain. Every man is valuable in every second. You have done everything you could. With men like you, Gondor will make its stand and it will never fall, Timor. It will never fall."
"But they're taking the men. They're winning. We cannot win this endless fight, we cannot win anymore. Gondor is too weak. They are coming for us all and they are taking us, soon there will be nothing left."
"Do not despair," Hansi said, fighting back the tears as his heart sank to the ground of the Pelennor. Marcus was in Osgiliath. The battle for his life was being decided and it was not looking well for him.
Marcus' eyes were blind beyond a veil of red. He did not know if his own blood or the blood of another soldier was blocking his view, but it was streaming and streaming and streaming and it continued if he wiped it away so it had to belong to himself.
He had known from the beginning that this was a useless fight. They were outnumbered by far and their men, even the ones who had not been there to initially defend Osgiliath, were weary and hopeless. The orcs had pushed close to the city's shore in their boats, coming silently through the mist where nobody had seen them coming until it was almost too late.
The soldiers had hidden behind the ruins of pillars ere the break of dawn. The sun was no longer at its peak now. There had not been a single second for them to catch breath. Their men were falling, dying like flies. Their blood was colouring the Great River Anduin, transforming its clear blue waters into and ocean of red that would flow into the sea, as salty as the tears the women of Gondor would cry.
Marcus' bones were weary, he felt as if he could not stand for another second, let alone fight. But he pushed himself up again, for his will to return home to Minas Tirith, to his lover, was not stronger than the exhaustion yet. He wiped the blood from his eyes and flinched in pain as he touched the broad cut on his forehead, the source of the bleeding. Having wiped the blood away he could only continue to fight.
Right when he had been distracted and orc had approached from the left side, raising its short, crooked sword to sting through Marcus' armour. He swang his own sword and the rusty orc blade crushed under the pressure the steel put on it. The sword's pieces clattered on the ground, and while the orc was still trying to comprehend the breaking of his blade Marcus smashed his head with a blow of the dull side of his sword.
He ran back towards the bridge they had defended the last time he had been here, the last time they had lost the fight for Osgiliath. Or had they won? They had retreated, but the city must have been recaptured during the time he had been in hospital. Or had the retreat not meant a loss? Marcus could barely remember the day of the battle, the fevered haze it had been. He shuddred as he thought back, shutting his eyes from the memories-
-when he suddenly felt something heavy crashing into him, causing him to stumble and fall upon the dusty, stony ground. He felt an incredible pain as his face hit the ground, blood shot from his nose which had, as he realized, most likely been broken. He coughed, spitting out sandy particles, struggling to come back to his feet. The thing which had crashed into him had been a body, he realized, a Gondorian's body with his head severed that had been thrown from one of the decayed watchtowers.
Marcus was unsafe on his feet, swaying like a distorted leaf in the wind. He felt a blow to his side, parried as well as he could. It was enough to prevent a fatal blow but not enough to keep the blade from scratching his armour and cutting a wound close to his collarbone. The cut burned but Marcus blended it out. The blood of his forehead wound was running into his eyes again, blinding and burning as well. In addition he was unable to blend out the increasing pain of his broken nose.
He stroke for the orc that had cut his collar, his sword barely touched it but was able to cut deeply into its throat. It screamed, the cry drowning in his own blood as it suffocated and fell behind to form a black puddle on the white ground. Before it fell it had thrown its weapon at Marcus, hitting his chest with the heavy mace it bore. Marcus stumbled back and coughed up warm, red blood.
He tried to breathe but some blood was still in his mouth so he coughed again, trying to cough out the blood until he almost blacked out from lack of oxygen. He remembered how his eyes had burned in the smoke the last time he had ridden into battle. Now his own blood was hurting him in every way.
He leaned onto a wall, sliding down against it as his power left him. Still grasping his sword he tried to wipe the blood away again as he suddenly beheld a great and terrible orc storming towards him. Marcus tried to get to his feet but his knees failed him and he sank back. Desperately he clasped his sword, held it in both fists to try and strike the orc back. It was futile.
The moment the orc blade struck his sword it fell out of his hand and landed on the ground, out of reach of his weakened hands. Night was slowly falling around him. It was dusk. How much longer would the men be able to hold on?
Marcus was left with no time to wonder as the orc lifted up his mace and struck him down with a blow to his head, making his eyes go black, buried under a shocking, sudden pain that consumed his consciousness.
In Minas Tirith where the healer had taken a break of ten minutes because he threatened to black out Hansi could physically feel the blow to Marcus' head in his heart. He gazed over towards Osgiliath with pain in his eyes, for his heart seemed to be floating away into the distant land beyond the sea to linger as a shadow, a ghost, with the spirit of his beloved.
He covered his eyes with his hands and his body used up the last energy it held to form pristine, crystal clear tears to stream from his eyes like a fountain. Hopeless silent sobs showed the pain that he attempted to suppress and bury, but could not hold in. He had known from the start that this life, this world was not for him. That he was now doomed to wander in solitude for all eternity. That his heart would never be whole again.
The soothing presence of Marcus in his head was gone and he was sure, so sure, that it was gone forever. Not for the first time in his life he wished he could not have felt his heart shatter the moment it had happened. It was one of the curses his abilities gave to him... Do not give your love to something that is human and will perish thus, his master had often said, his master who had given his care to plants and birds and animals. But could you choose the path of your heart?
He tried to fight back his tears and his exhaustion but he failed. He had to work, to help, to cure- but why and how should he, now, that his only reason to stay loyal to this country, this city, was- gone? It's your duty towards humanity, he tried to tell himself, and still he was unable to fight himself back onto his feet.
His powers had never left him since he had been a regular human, a human just like Marcus, yet in this moment they forsook him and sent him crashing down at the wall of the city's sevnth ring, in the gardens of the Houses of Healing where he had kissed Marcus two mere days ago and he was sent into a slumber that was so dreamless and empty as his life was doomed to be now.
Chapter 11: The Eyes of the White Tower
Pain was something that every soldier needed to endure, some of them more and some of them less of it. But the ache that Marcus felt when he slowly returned to consciousness seemed to rule out every other pain anybody must ever have experienced: dull at first the ache exploded in his head when he opened his eyes to find light streaming into them. It was the light of day, yet the sun that it stemmed from was thickly veiled behind clouds of smoke and dust.
Before he had the chance to retrieve the memories of where he was an how he had ended up in this (which?) place there was a strong pull to his shoulder, dragging him over a wooden ground to his feet. Unable to stand Marcus dropped to his knees. The blurred, scarred face of an orc appeared in his field of vision as he dared to look up towards the sky. That was a second before whatever the gruesome creature grunted at him vanished in a lightning bolt of excruciation pain; he had stared at the place where the sun seemed to hide behind the clouds.
"What's going on there?" came a deep, grunting voice, screaming from somewhere in front of Marcus. The movements around him, of which he had previously been oblivious, ceased all of a sudden.
"This one won't walk," came a voice close to him. Marcus was still on the ground, writhing in agony. Steps approached, their heaviness shook the earth and shook Marcus' head where the pain was. He groaned.
"Won't walk, eh? We'll have something to make you remember who you are and who we are right here."
Marcus crouched on the dusty plain that stretched out beneath him. Slowly his vision seemed to come clear and he gazed up, careful not to meet the sun's burning gaze. In front of him lay the fields of the Pelennor, and far in the distance he could make out the white walls of the city he was here to defend. They are marching towards Minas Tirith.
The shock he felt upon this discovery only lasted seconds. They had taken his armour from him, Marcus noticed in the second the whip hit his flesh and he screamed. His back was merely covered by a linen shirt through which he now felt warm blood soaking, running from his back and dripping down into the dirt. Marcus ached, he crouched and could not move.
"Walk!" shouted the grimmer voice that had made the pack of orcs stop. Their leader, it came to his clouded mind. It did not occur to him soon enough that he was expected to do something. When the whip hit the open wound on his back, carving deep into the raw flesh, he bend over and screamed even more. The third time made him fall face down into the dirt, lying still with the feeling that his back was on fire, flames catching over to every part of his body. But now he knew he had to do something. He could not endure the pain of being beaten to death on this open field, not in this way, not without a last glance at...
Hansi. A wave of warmth, pleasurable warmth filled Marcus as he thought of the healer. If he could only make it to him, make it to the city, they would all be okay. Hansi would be able to help him. But for that he would have to...
Walk. Stand up and walk. Without the thought of a cure, a cure that surely only Hansi could offer him, Marcus would not have been able to take this step. But thinking of the other man gave him a wild kind of energy. He had fought for the city that was his home, and still he was devoted to its defence, but Hansi was the thing that made him strong now. Slowly Marcus pulled back his aching upper body to put himself into a seated position.
"Walk!" the orc leader shouted at him again. the fourth stroke of the whip threw him to the ground again, but the growing pain only made him angrier. Adrenaline in his veins, he dragged himself back up, going on one knee first before he could stand. His feet were shaky and blood was still soaking through his clothing, pressing it to his skin like the water of the lakes he would play in as a dreamy child. But he stood and he took a step forwards, towards the city where he would find Hansi and his home.
He was a soldier of Gondor. He would not kneel for its invaders.
Hansi was hurrying down the streets of Minas Tirith, away from the Houses of Healing and into the street of the smiths. He knew what blacksmith he sought, and people knew where they had to send him, for the only female blacksmith in town was a strange curiosity that everybody knew of.
Mya was not allowing herself a break. Even as the door was thrown open in a violent movement she continued to hammer and forge the sword that she was crafting at the moment. Her black hair had been cut short and she was wearing trousers and a soor-smeared shirt. Beads of sweat stood on her forehead and on her upper lip, her eyes were firmly fixed on the sword. She ignored the desperate words Hansi threw at her, ignored his presence altogether until she had finished her work and turned to him.
Her fine features reminded him of a woman he had known, not a long time ago but it were years that had passed. The only thing he remembered about the woman was that her eyes had not been as fierce as Mya's. Yet there was something familiar about the young woman, something he could not quite grasp until she turned to him and gasped.
"You!" she cried out in surprise that did not look negative.
"From the moment that I spotted you in the Houses I knew that it was you. How come you have not aged a day since you stayed in our house for company and work?"
And suddenly he remembered: the raven haired child in the small village, the gentle eyes with which the blacksmith's wife's eyes had regarded her, the strong and fierce father who spent his days in the forgery and his nights telling tales with his booming voice.
"Mya," he said, surprised himself.
"I remember, I do."
Another memory: sitting with the family at a huge, round table. Stew of lentils in their simply carved wooden bowls. It was a cool late summer evening and the daughter was still missing when they heard shouts of delight in the streets. The mother had run towards the door, welcoming her daughter and a scrawny looking boy with tousled, dark hair. Marcus, she had smiled and wrapped him in an embrace before sending him home and hushing Mya into the house.
Marcus... a young boy now grown into a man, whose days of manhood were perhaps over already. He had always known that his own age was significantly higher than that of Marcus, but he had tried to push it away. Now he had to face it; he had seen him as a child, that golden day when his arms hurt from work, in a pleasant way. A glance in Mya's eyes told him that she was reliving the same memory in her head.
"Why have you come?" she finally asked. Hansi shook his head.
"I do not know," he said wearily.
"Perhaps it was the hope to find a sparkly of Marcus alive. He has gone into battle and I fear he shall not return." The sorrow in his face made her eyes widen.
"I seem to feel his pain," he said quietly, "and it is great. I should reckon he was dead already but something keeps me from holding onto this thought, even though I have little hope he might be alive. I came to..." He took a breath.
"I intend to fight for this city. For Marcus' legacy and for his sake. Once I believed Minas Tirith to be a place for which I could not fight for it was not my city. But now that the fates of me and him are interwoven the way they are..." His tongue failed him suddenly. For eternal seconds there was nothing but breathing to hear in the room.
"He is the only... friend I have found in all these years," he finally said.
"And now that fate has taken him from me I will fight against those who have done it. I came here in the hope that you might tell him, if he should return, where I have gone and for what."
Mya nodded in understanding and Hansi knew it was understanding of something deeper than the words he had uttered. But for now it did not matter.
"If you wish to fight for Gondor you must go to the Citadel where they arm the men," Mya said.
"They will give you armour and weapons there. And I must continue my work, for Gondor needs its weapons."
The linen shirt was sticking to Marcus' back as though it were glued to it. The blood had dried on the march that seemed to drag onward endlessly, the march the end of which was clear to everyone: the attack on Gondor's capital city.
Marcus had oh so foolishly believed that he would return to the city in glory, perhaps not the great glory that Faramir would earn but his own, simple glory. Now he was dragging himself through dust and pain towards a home that would never be the same when he returned to it - if he returned to it.
The possibility that the leader of Gondor's army might have escaped the battle of Osgiliath. Gondor would live through grave days with him gone as his brother was, robbed of two great lords within mere months. Boromir had been well loved by his men and Faramir no less, every single man including Marcus had adored and followed the brothers. Marcus would have followed this lord into death, and he was praying to the gods that the commons of Gondor had forgotten a long time ago that he might live. He was not praying for himself, for prayers such as these were hopeless ones.
The blood loss was making him dizzy, time and time again he stumbled and had to fight himself back onto his feet before the army would come to a halt to whip him again. He did not know whether he would survive another punishment as this. Whenever a gust of wind swept over the barren fields he would cringe in pain, for even this slightest of touches brought agony. If an orc's spear point accidentally tipped his shoulder blades his eyes would black out for a second.
Marcus did not know what was going to happen, only that he could never return to his life after this was gone. This was the decision. Gondor would stand or fall, the glory and beauty of Minas Tirith would eternally be diminished by the attack that would inevitably come. For Gondor could not fight back this vast army, stretching out over what was close to half of the Pelennor fields. Osgiliath had taken even more men from the army. Children and old men would be forced to fight and fall while trained soldiers were being held captive.
The steps he took were mechanical by now. When all of a sudden there was a sharp cry Marcus hardly realized that the entire army came to a halt at a distance from the gates of the white city. He started, stopped and stumbled to the ground from which, his feet having given in once, he could not stand anymore. Harsh words were uttered around him, then he felt dirty, calloused orc hands grabbing his weak arms and pulling him over the ground.
The movement, as soon as his body had turned, tore open the barely healed wound on his back. Out of his mind Marcus screamed and screamed, he screamed so loud that he was sure his screams must be heard all the way to Minas Tirith, to Hansi's ears who would come to save him. Even in his state he could laugh bitterly at the foolishness of such a thought. Nobody would come to save him from this place. Nobody could.
There could hardly be any blood left in his body. The pain was excruciating, sending him into a state of hazy delirium as he lay flat on his stomach atop of a wooden carriage that was loaded with something he could not quite see. But as the day grew darker and the shades of evening fell he recognized, through his clearing vision, the lifeless bodies of men he might have known once.
Soldiers of Gondor. Marcus reached out to grab the hand of the one closest to him- and drew back in horror when he could feel the missing pulse of the man's icy wrist. Corpses, he thought to himself, they've put me onto a carriage of corpses.
He could not deny that his strength was failing. And when night fell and orc soldiers came with their sabres, lifted up the dead bodies to cut through their throats and sever their heads with their faces frozen in terror he shut his eyes and yielded to his fate.
They had looked like regular stones at first, in the late dusk through the visor of the unfamiliar helmet on Hansi's head. But when the soldiers, the new recruits flew from the first of them and ducked away to avoid them, they saw that there were no rocks being hurled into the city with huge catapults. They were looking into the eyes of their fallen brothers.
Hansi was shivering heavily. He was afraid, afraid no longer of the attack that would follow after the current siege but afraid to stare into the dead eyes of the man he loved, hurled carelessly into the city like trash, helmet stolen and skull cracked.
"Come," whispered a boy besides him. He could be no older than twelve years old.
"Lord Denethor has commanded us to guard the gate of the first city ring."
Hansi took the hand the boy offered him, gazing into his fearful eyes with nothing but the same fear. How he wished to offer comfort in this city where all hope seemed lost. The steward's son lay in bed with the Shadow fallen over him, in a feverish haze, while the steward locked himself away in the highest chamber of the Citadel. Hansi glanced up to the window that emitted a strange, red gloom and felt a mixture of panic and anger soaking his bones.
Denethor was not a fit lord for a city like Minas Tirith. But here Hansi was no more than a mere soldier and healer, one that could not dare to stand up against someone so powerful, although he knew he was more than equal to the old man.
Sometimes he wondered what would have happened if the raiding orcs had never burned down the villages of his people. What would have happened if they had been able to conceal themselves, prepare themselves for the attack. If their homes had been invisible, if they had not existed too close to the ancient fortress of Dol Guldur where the dark and evil Sauron gad risen to new power. Then he would not be here.
Maybe Gondor would be in the same situation of threat now. Whether the forest people had been erased or not would not have changed anything about Sauron's rise to power. They had been nothing but a minor disturbance, like a swarm of bugs flying too close to the dark lord's windows. If the forest people had not been erased Hansi would be dead by now, and nor forced to endure this endless hopelessness.
The boy was leading him through the vastness of city streets. Empty windows everywhere, forlorn faces huddling together for comfort and a last bit of safety. Women and girls waving their sad hands at the passing soldiers. A young girl was begging an equally young man not to leave her, crying on her knees. Tears were in his eyes as he kissed her goodbye and left her weeping. It was no longer the calm before the storm. It was the first gust of wind breaking over the city.
Hansi felt their desperation catching as he though of Marcus. If he was here now - would he also be begging him not to leave? Would he have gone with him to the gates already? Hansi did not know, and Marcus was far, perhaps far beyond the ocean in the West already. At this thought his heart clenched painfully. He loved Marcus, he saw, despite everything that seemed against such a union. He only wished he would have told him once.
In front of the big city gate soldiers had gathered, awaiting the storm in stillness. The boy lingered next to Hansi, fearful and shuddering. Hansi, too, dreaded what was behind these gates. But as fear reached for him with its cold fingers he stood stiff and tall.
He was a soldier of Gondor now. He would fear nothing in its defence.
Chapter 12: The Battle of the Pelennor Fields
Fool, he thought as the men around him clutched their spears, their swords and shields, held their weapons drawn and held their breath as the shouting and roaring from outside the gates made way to a heavy silence, caused by something those behind the gates could not see.
Hansi had never been a fighter. He had warded off hostile beats with fire and a wooden staff, had defended himself against soldiers by using only words, offerings and promises. He had gone into this war in a rush of heat and was already beginning to regret his decision before even facing a single foe of his own. He wondered where Marcus might be now. Was he still fighting out there? Had he been captured by orcs and tortured like Timor had been?
When Hansi thought of the young soldier he could feel a pang of regret in his heart. He was letting Gondor down by fighting, he thought, he should have honoured its soldiers by saving as many of them as he possibly could. But was fighting not a honourable thing to do? Not if you were useless at it, he thought grimly.
The rattling of swords and spears rose outside. This time there was something else accompanying it... a rattling of chains, a rolling of wheels and a deep, ominous chanting of the same word being uttered over and over again. Only listening to the chants made a deep shiver run through the rows of Gondor's soldiers, unease spreading like a deadly disease. Hansi felt the dread running through them. It was before dawn.
The Rammas Echor stood still and proud before them, towering above the men of the first city ring which it enclosed and protected, shielding the whole city. It had never fallen, nor would it ever fall, so the men of Gondor spoke. Yet every wall could be broken. And as Hansi thought of this, he suddenly could decipher the word being chanted outside the city walls.
The name sent dread seeping through his veins like a slow poison of fear, unsettling his nerves and paralysing his limbs. The Hammer of the Underworld was it that bore this name, a weapon from tales as old as time, the war hammer of the first dark lord that his master, even his powerful and ancient master had spoken of with fear trembling in his voice. It could not have survived the centuries, yet it was possible that an equally deadly weapon had been built…
There was a loud thump against the city walls.
Grond. Grond. Grond, Grond, Grond.
The chanting continued, continuous and almost calm, as the first soldiers inside started and drew back in fear, lowering their weapons. Faramir was nowhere to be seen, the army was without a leader, watching in terror as the cracking of wood sounded through the city gates. A battering ram.
If the first crash had sent fear through the soldiers, the second brought unbelievable panic. Men were throwing their weapons into the dirt, making ways through rows of their brothers who still stood strong. Hansi clutched his weapon and gave back the gaze of terror that the boy next to him cast over to him. There was nothing to be said.
But in this second a voice rose above all others, clear and old and strong. It reminded Hansi of his master, and truly the man calling was closely akin to the one who had taken him in and taught him. Mithrandir, the White Rider, was sitting on his horse by the gate of the second city ring, towering above them all.
"Fear not the darkness," he said and he said it strongly.
"Whatever comes through this gates, you are soldiers of Gondor! Whatever comes through this gate, you will face it!"
Deadly silence fell upon the men. Then, a first battle cry, sounding so glorious and full of hope that Hansi joined in his screaming. Like a fever the cry caught over the halls, stopping the deserters in their motion, making hopeless men pick their weapons back up and put them against the gate in defence. For the first time Hansi felt what the glory of old Gondor must have looked and felt like, even if this army was a mere shadow of what once had been.
Then the gate came crashing down. The cries fell silent with the splintering of wood, made way to screams of surprised pain where the sharp pieces were hurled through the air and the visors of men. The snoot of a large beast seemed to be peeking through the hole in the wooden gates; it was the face of Grond, the battering ram that must have been named after the most dreaded weapon of Arda. The beast pushed forward, revealing glowing, burning red eyes that the men faced in dread as the destroyed gates swung open. When they saw what was coming they could no longer scream.
The pure dread that filled their bodies as they beheld the highest of the Nazgul could no longer be put into words. It numbed their limbs and thoughts and made their minds scream out in fear, even pain at looking at such a vile creature. The witch king approached coolly, seated on a large winged beast that looked even more terrible than Grond, albeit by far not as terrible as its master.
The men were fleeing in every direction. Hansi stood tall, clutching the sword they had given him as hell broke loose around him. He was determined to make his stand, to not give in to this fear that could not be greater than his fear for Marcus - but then the ring wraiths invisible eyes were on him, met his gaze through the blinding chaos and before he knew it he was on his knees, begging for mercy to the gods of whom he knew that they had deserted even him. The fear was so great he thought it might be his death.
He did not know what was going on around him, failed to realize anything. The running men around him were blacked out, he was alone and locked in in his own mind and his own, paralysing fear of which he believed he would never get out. Crouched on the dusty streets of Minas Tirith Hansi once again suffered what he believed to be the worst moments of his life, surpassing all the previous pains he had ever endured.
And then, the cry of a rooster, pure and innocent and untouched by all the horror around him. It seemed to be the sweetest sound Hansi had ever heard - but a mere second later a horn came to his ears, the tune of a battle horn so blissful that tears welled up in his eyes and suddenly he was on the street again, beholding the fell beast rising into the air with a foul screech and the terror being lifted from his heart.
Light was pouring over the Pelennor, and with the light came thousands of swords and spears and blond braids under helmets that glistened in the early morning sun. Where they had come from he did not know, but aid from Rohan had arrived at last and in the last second. The riders came over the fields, way beyond the enemy's lines, and Hansi saw the Gondorians shaking their spears again, wakened from their mindless dread.
The army of Gondor poured through the broken city gate as the riders of Rohan stormed at the armies of Mordor from behind. Unprepared for an attack the orcs and the men turned to darkness could not stand and broke under the attack. Hansi grasped his sword, pulling it from its sheath where it had landed again when he had kneeled. This was the hour of his destiny.
Confronted from both sides the dark armies were in confusion. There was no order in their rows, there were scattered and crashing against each other. It was a matter of time until they would get back in order but until then Gondor and Rohan would fight as best as they could.
As Hansi's sword pierced the throat of an orc, fresh black blood splashing over his armour, he felt a tingling, hot sensation in his body. It was the rush of a battle he was experiencing, the bloodthirst that sent him running with adrenaline in his veins, attacking instead of defending himself. He did not count the orcs he killed, for it were far too many and his mind was clouded by bloodshed.
It was not long until he could no longer count on taking the orcs by surprise. From his frequent use of the staff he had learned how to parry, but a sword was different from a staff and by the time he had realized he could use more force with the steel than with the wood he already had scratched armour and a bleeding cut across his nose.
He was duelling a man in black armour with dark, dead eyes when he was yanked off his feet by a sudden blow to the head from behind. the orc had not struck well and Hansi remained conscious, but he was sent falling and the crash pulled the helmet off his head. With a quick look around he tracked the weak point of the orc's armour and slew him by landing a strike where the armour was cracked already.
Now the man was above him, one feet perched firmly atop of Hansi's chest, taking away his breath. He forced himself to breathe calmly and watch the man's eyes, whom he suddenly perceived to be breathing heavily as well. An examination showed blood leaking slowly but steading from his armour, it must be filled with the fluid by now. Hansi looked into the man's eyes.
"You are dying," he said clearly in the Common Tongue. To his surprise the man nodded calmly.
"And I take you with me," he said in broken Westron. But he lingered a moment too long to draw breath, and Hansi could push his slightly weakened leg away, sending him falling to the ground. He bent above him.
"I doubt you will," he said breathlessly, his foot resting on the man's stomach wound. Then he slashed his throat and turned away, ran, only few metres until he faced the blade of the next orc. It was one without experience, he noticed as his sword stuck in the orc's stomach and he pushed the body away to gain it back.
Around him were countless duels, dying breaths, blood was soaking the dusty fields and colouring them red. There were men in rage and men in tears, dead man and uninjured men, and it was all so pointless. Hansi had grown up learning that there was no true good and no true evil in men, and perhaps that was true. But these orcs were not men. And they were evil. And what were they all fighting for? In this second there was no more cause, there were only their naked lives left to defend.
Hansi pierced his blade through the skull of an orc whose short sword was lowered above a panting man. he could not help the other Gondorian to stand up as his head lolled back and he lay there, exhausted or dead Hansi could not tell. He continued fighting. The tables had turned now, he was the one to defend nothing but his own life. He had forgotten even why he had gone into this battle in the first place. Everything was gone.
A sudden crash against a foreign body sent him falling into the dirt again. Hansi did not perceived the face of the man, his calloused hands looked like an orc's but there was something human about his fine limbs that convinced Hansi of his humanity. There is no true good in men, nor is there true evil. In a sudden fit of disgust for himself he threw the man away from him with all the strength he could bring up and ran from him.
There was an orc again, peering at him over the dead bodies of men that were crushed under the wheels of something wooden. Hansi stepped towards the orc quickly, raising his sword to end his life when his gaze rose, distractedly, above the orc's back and beheld him.
Marcus was sprawled out on the load area of a wooden carriage, his shirt stuck to his back with dried black blood. His face was turned so that Hansi could behold him, his eyes were closed but his eyelids flattered just the slightest bit as shivers of breath went through his body, as if he were struggling to remain alive.
Distracted by the image of his lover Hansi felt the orc's blow too late. It struck his skull from behind and before he knew it he was kneeling in the dust with a ringing head and shifting images in front of his eyes. The orc jumped at his helmet-less head and struck his temple with the hilt of his sword, the cut came just a second later. Hansi was powerless against him. The blows came and came, piercing his armour and slashing his skin, until a particular strike into his chest took his breath away.
The orc, miraculously, turned and ran from Hansi. The air had been driven out of his lungs, stopping his breath for maybe ten seconds. That had saved him. But now his own life was no longer his first priority. He remembered why he had come to fight. Not for Gondor, initially. For Marcus. His Marcus.
Ignoring the chaos of battle around him Hansi crawled through the dust, dragging himself over to the carriage and somehow heaving himself onto it. As he reached for Marcus' hand a trembled went through the other man's body and with the faintest bit of strength Marcus clutched Hansi's hand. Hansi took a deep breath before he pulled himself even closer to Marcus to fully take his hand into his own.
Already the power he had left was seeping through their connection and into Marcus. He could feel the other's faint heartbeat growing stronger, but he did not have much power left to give to his lover, especially as the other's pain poured into his body. had he had the power, Hansi would have screamed. But he was almost numb of exhaustion. Lying there on the dusty carriage and feeling himself fading away Hansi made a decision: he had no more strength. He would give him memories instead.
Marcus felt the strength, he felt the presence of something strong flooding into him. And somehow, even though his mind could not quite grasp it, his heart felt that it was Hansi there, who had found him at last. And then the blackness before his eyes was turning into an undertow, sucking him downwards into a dream world, a dream world that had once existed…
The leaves were a luscious green, the huts simple. Mouths smeared with berries. A mother's warm smile and her embrace, a kiss on top of the head of the child through the eyes of which Marcus was seeing. A father, strong and bold, a hunter who kissed his wife and held his child on his arm. Kisses and love.
Then, fire. The straw-topped wooden huts were consumed by the licking flames. A mother perished in an orc's foul embrace, a father was impaled by a burning pole. A young man's feet stumbled through undergrowth and bushes, through the dark woods, where he did not know and did not care for. Away, away from the burning settlement, away from the life he'd never know again.
Eyes opened into a strange cottage of potions and an open fire in its middle. Leaves peered through the sunlit windows, curious animals surrounded the bed in which he was lying. An old man's brown and wrinkled face appeared, hair a mess topped with a brown hat, a kind smile on his lips despite his serious eyes.
Radagast, whispered Hansi's voice into his memories that were now Marcus' also.
Marcus beheld the miracles that Hansi was taught to do, beheld the astonishment with which he regarded himself in these following years. He beheld endless plains and vast mountains, the eternity of the sea and a city on a lake, years of travelling without a home for body or heart.
And then he beheld Minas Tirith, and the starlit night that had been so fateful for the two of them, beheld his own face through Hansi's eyes, beheld it glowing, beheld it as the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen. And although Hansi said nothing more the emotion that filled Marcus was the deepest love, making his heart overflow and almost burst with the beauty of it. He knew that none of them would ever let go, for as long as they lived.
They were living. they were weak, too weak to stand up, but strong enough to crawl closer to each other still, to huddle close in absolute silence. Hansi kissed Marcus, covered his stained and broken face with kisses, kissed the eyelids over his eyes that were so terrible hollow. They lay pressed against each other in the middle of this terrible battle, not worrying about a foe finding them alive as their hands entwined.
They had found each other again. They would never let go, for as long as they lived. Marcus' head was on Hansi's chest and Hansi knew that this was his destiny finally being decided.
Chapter 13: Epilogue: The Grace of the Valar
"Is it true?"
Hansi started. Deeply sunken into thoughts he had not heard the steps behind him approaching, and if he had had he would not have suspected them to be Marcus, whom he had left behind only an hour ago in ongoing unconsciousness, with no movement except for the heaving of his chest.
"I do not reckon you should be walking or even standing up just yet," he said, his mouth dry. Hansi was anxious, to put it simply. Marcus was bearing his own memories within, and with them the knowledge of Hansi's past and his long years spent on this earth.
Marcus said nothing in return. He stepped closer to Hansi, next to him, gazed over the plains of the Pelennor. None of them spoke a word for a very long time as his eyes searched the fields, nor did their hands or bodies touch. The silence was neither comfortable nor uncomfortable.
"The East does not seem quite as dark as before," Marcus said after time had passed.
"The East is not quite as dark as before," Hansi said. He spoke softly as he turned to gaze at Marcus.
"A lot has happened since you fell into the shadows. Sauron is defeated, Marcus, and we can now speak his name without having to tremble. The King of Gondor has returned and will be crowned shortly. The days of glory for your country are about to be renewed."
Joy sparkled on Marcus' face, yet his lips and eyes kept bearing sorrow. He stared into the distance, then turned back to the Citadel. The land he so loved was saved and could return to its glory, yet there was something else that had taken the place of his love for Gondor.
"Where are the lords of Gondor? Where have they gone?"
"The steward Denethor is dead, he cast himself down the seventh ring with his body in flames, or so I heard. The King, Elessar is his name, has healed the lord Faramir and made him prince of Ithilien. Things are different now, as I have already told you. Many things have changed."
Marcus gave him a glance, and even though he distracted himself from the revelation Hansi could read the desperate question that tormented Marcus' mind. He turned away in shame, not knowing what the other wanted him to say. Again they did not speak.
The sun was climbing high above the Pelennor. The dark lands to the east were still crowned by darkened clouds, ashen rain was covering the plains of what had once been Mordor. The fateful mountain in the heart of the country was almost invisible now that its tip had burst off and sent thousands of splinters to the ground as rocks. No grass would grow in those lands for centuries, but under the reign of Prince Faramir perhaps Ithilien at least would blossom again.
"Is it true?" Marcus repeated himself at last. Although he did not say it Hansi knew what he was talking of.
"It is true," he said, swallowing hard and not daring to look at Marcus.
"You are an... immortal wizard, then?" Marcus' voice was insecure with the incredibility of his own words. Hansi laughed, exempt.
"By the Valar, no, I am not. I am not my master nor will I ever be of the blood of the Ainur. I cannot live forever. But the powers which I have studied have allowed me a lifespan that is far longer than that that was initially given to me. I do not know how far I can stretch it. It is tedious, really, all these years in complete solitude."
"You must no longer endure them in solitude," Marcus said quietly and his blushing was audible. He stared to the ground and Hansi said nothing as his heart overflowed with relief and love for the man next to him. But as he looked at Marcus there were tears in the other's eyes.
"Will you not touch me anymore?" Marcus asked, his voice a fearful whisper.
"What do you fear, Marcus?" Hansi asked gently.
"Do you fear me?"
"I fear nothing but the prospect of being without you."
"Why would I ever wish to be without you again?"
"I am a youth compared to you. I know so little. Maybe a simple soldier of Gondor is not worthy of you. That is my fear."
"Do not fear this," Hansi whispered as his thumb brushed over Marcus' cheek.
"Promise me, dear, that you will bury this fear. For there is nothing to fear from me."
"Are you speaking the truth?"
"I am." Marcus turned to face Hansi at last, who now cupped his face with both hands and looked into his eyes. The gardens around them were empty, they breathed in the smells of healing herbs and earth.
"What time is given to us both on this earth, I do not wish to spend it without you."
"But what about you?" Hansi asked then.
"Do you not-"
"I could not care less about who you are and for how long you have roamed this earth," Marcus interrupted him.
"For I know that I want to spend my lifetime with you, and you alone, and I want to know you. I want to be with you. I want to be yours, unconditionally. Forever."
A cloud passed above the sun. When its golden rays once again poured over the heads of the two men, their lips were united in a long and deep kiss. There was no one to see, and if there had been anyone they would not have spotted them, sunken into a world where there was nothing but the two of them in bright, white light.
When they at last broke the kiss their eyes faced each other; wooden brown eyes met gray and proud ones, and both pairs sparkled.
They stood there for a long time with their hands entwined. Marcus' head leaned on Hansi's shoulder as they watched the sun go down at last, they breathed each other in and stood in each other's calming presence, for they had all the time in the world together.