The stained stones kissed...|
Summary: A pair of Ithilien scouts find themselves in dire straits above Minas Morgul…
My partner’s yell came just too late for me to leap as the world dissolved and the ground beneath our feet rolled sickeningly like a wave. A low roiling boom of thunder hit and I stumbled, something hard and sharp grabbed at my ankle. I had just a moment to think ‘earthquake?!” before an insistent pair of hands pushed hard upon my back.
I tumbled, cartwheeling down the slope, choking on dust and leaf and a metal-tinged thin loam, before coming to rest in the upslope bole of a tree.
What in all the fires of Angband had just hit?
I righted myself, wincing as I stepped with my right foot. Must have rolled it badly for it hurt the blazes and Morgoth’s teeth my boot was ripped. Coughing out what seemed a sackload of grit I looked up through the thin, scraggly pines and my stomach promptly fell on its knees.
The ledge my partner and I had just stood upon was gone.
“Malec! Malec! “
Heart pounding in my chest, scrambling as fast as my ankle would allow, I made my way unsteadily toward the spot I had occupied just moments past. The whole space above was filled by giant blocks of grey, jagged stone. The earthquake had made the precipice give way and even now smaller pebbles pinged and bounced across the top. The whole haphazard mass looked bizarrely as if a child had angrily knocked their castle down.
Panting hard from the awkward climb I reached the lower face and began gingerly to search. “Mal!! Are you there?” I called, over and over, desperate, knowing time was of the essence, pausing every few feet to listen close, straining to hear through the blocks’ groaning, ducking as the last of the small stones hurtled down.
A bare ten feet from where I stood there came a noise.
I lunged as fast as I dared to where a longer rectangle of the fissile stuff had made a natural lintel of the stone. Without a thought to the consequence I squeezed into the hole as far as my broad shoulders would take me. It was getting on to dusk, had taken us all day to lay down a unfollowable trail, leaving the putrid floor of Morgul Vale behind, and now so late, with the stone above my head, I could barely see. Peering through the dim, dust-filled light I saw something decidedly not grey: a lock of dirty, chestnut hair and a grazed pink cheek.
And a pair of blinking, pain-glazed eyes. It was Malec, my partner. Trapped.
“Tor… Torgil?” came the shaky whisper…
Blessed Yavanna! For a moment I was so elated I thought my heart might beat right out of my chest. ‘Here…here I am toren. ” I wriggled a little farther, stretched out my arm and touched gingerly at his face. Twisting with care I felt around the little cavern. It was perhaps two feet high but sloped: it narrowed down past his hips to where his knees and legs were lost in the dark. Mercifully Malec’s chest and head were free but it was unclear if I could get him out without moving an awful lot of rock.
“Can you move? Is your left hand free? “ I asked, shoving some smaller lose pebbles and sharper shards away from his face and neck. Along the far side he was pressed right up a giant slab of grey.
“I…I can move my hand a little, ” came the unsteady breath. That at least was good. His right arm lay under a smaller block and with some cautious shifting and shuffling, and a cry of joy I freed a forearm . Shaking fingers grasped desperately at mine.
“What about your legs?” I asked, heart in mouth. He blinked up sluggishly and a little disoriented and I wondered if he had hit his head. “Can you try?”
There came a hesitant nod and after a moment of obvious strain a pained groan sounded and the first note of panic tinged his voice. “I can’t move them Tor. I can’t feel my feet.”
Oh Valar. My first thought had been Nienna he is alive. Now, the thought came unbidden: oh Nienna he is alive. Pinned by tons of solid rock.
Fighting down a rising sense of panic, I felt cautiously along his chest. His breathing was shallow but did not seem too pained. There were a myriad of smaller cuts on his arm and face and one larger graze that bloomed like a rose against the pallor of this skin. But it, alarmingly, was not the only red in that little space. As I peered at the dusty earth down past his hips an ominous small pool of red was visible in the dim. I had to get him free and fast.
“Mal, “ I said, starting to shuffle back , “hang on and I will get you out…” I was far from certain, and the noise would be a danger too, but I had to try. Pushing at the rock from inside the hole might bring it all crashing down. The only hope lay in removing the pile from up above. I took off my cloak and rolled my tunic sleeves up.
At first I made a little bit of progress. Careless of the cuts to my own skin, I grabbed the lose blocks first and tossed them off, stepping carefully, being sure not to dislodge the larger stones too suddenly. I began to gain some hope. A gap in the pile steadily appeared and I worked hard, grunting and cursing at the effort, biting my cheek each time my ankle twinged. I was going to get them off but then all too soon the bigger blocks, the ones that formed Malec’s cavity, defeated me. I could not shift them. They were too big, I needed leverage.
Glancing wildly around I noticed branches amidst the stones. The fall had taken a small pine tree out. Yes! I could use the trunk for leverage.
Elated, I carefully wedged the trunk’s end below the topmost block, one that would not pull all the others down. Grunting and straining, I pulled down on my makeshift bar. The tree slipped and I stopped to wedge it farther in. Another heave but nothing moved, other than my feet.
“Come on you bastard,” I pleaded, putting all my weight and every muscle that I had into another concerted push. The blasted tree just snapped in half.
“Aiighhh!” I threw the broken end violently into the trees and sat down hard, panting from the exertion. Hot salt rained grief and frustration through my scrawny beard. This obviously wasn’t going to work and the reality was stark. There was too little time. Even if I left, went to find help, Malec would bleed out before any from our company arrived. Our mission had taken us to the farthest range from the refuge that we had attempted in a long while. Even if I could even run (which was doubtful) I could not go too fast for I would be avoiding Orcs the entire way (if I hadn’t already alerted them with my noise) and I dared not be careless and lead them back. Disguising my trail would slow me down the more and at best it would still take a day, not hours, to reach the closest out-patrols.
Wildly, for a moment I flirted with returning the way we came, marching straight back down to the vile Enemy’s doorstep and rustling up the help of one of nightmare things we had espied. Please sir can you lend me a troll or two? I have some rocks to move. As if. My arms and legs would be pulled right off before half the sentence had got out.
I wanted to howl. Sweet Eru, my best friend was trapped and it looked as if the slide would become his tomb.
“Torgil?” A thin, pained voice brought me back to reality with a jolt. How long had I just sat in misery?
I forced my panicked heart to calm down, turned and crawled back into the hole. This time, worried about crowding him I lay flat upon my stomach, let my long legs stick out of the hole. It was awkward, there were some jagged pieces poking into my ribs, but nothing like his pain. The pool of red was not much larger, he was bleeding slowly, but the wound was beyond my reach.
As he caught my thought, a light of knowledge flickered in his eyes. “Tor.. you’ve got to finish the job. Get word to the Captain ‘bout what we’ve seen.”
“I can’t…” ‘Leave you’ was what I’d been going to say, but we both knew eventually I would, though every moment in the open risked discovery. I swallowed hard. He was right but a few more hours delay would not matter with the buildup that we’d see.
“I will Mal, I will, but first I need to make you comfortable. “
Or as comfortable as I could while we waited for the inevitable.
“Are you cold?”
“Nay, ” he lied, but I could see he that was shivering, from shock or chill.
I retrieved my cloak and wadded one end to make a pillow, threw the rest across his chest for warmth.
“Are you thirsty? In pain?” I asked, reaching without thinking at my back. Cursed cock of kinslayer of course my pack was not there. It hadn’t been there when I doffed my cloak. It must have fallen off down below.
“Aye..” was the hesitant reply.
I needed the pack for water and for what bandages I had. “Mal, “ I said, “ I have to go get my pack. Supplies. I have to leave, but just for a moment. Will you be ok?”
“You are going? ” Fear and pain leaked out of that normally deep voice. “You will come back?”
“Of course…” I reached and squeezed gently at the shoulder I could reach. Touched his cheek briefly when pained eyes turned my way. “Don’t go running off for a pint while I’m gone.”
That at least brought his usual rueful snort.
After anxious minutes scrambling down below I found it. The water bottle was there, and bandages and tucked into an inner sleeve I had stitched myself: a small leather bound vial.
Praise Este-the poppy. I had not thought of it before. We were scouts, spies, whatever word you chose to put to it, but it was the straight out truth. The Captain had issued the precious stuff to us just for this mission. No words, just a grim steady look that said using it was up to us. If we were captured by the Enemy t’was certain we would receive the ‘special’ treatment reserved for spies.
And there were fates much worse than death.
I opened the leather case, hurriedly, carefully, buoyed in the knowledge that here at least was something I could do to ease his way. What I found made me swear a streak. The vial was cracked. The thick syrup had leaked out and soaked into the heavy leather. Mal’s pack was unreachable and this was all we had.
Morgoth’s balls. Could fate not pity us a bit? The thought of Malec in pain, in torment from his injuries, dying slowly while I sat by was all too much to bear. I poked a finger into the case and found at least some of the sticky substance stuck to my questing fingers.
Perhaps at least I could ease his pain a bit.
I scrambled back. “Malec, Malec here.” I said, smearing some of the dark stuff on two fingers and brushing them on his lips. “Lick.”
He did as ordered, making a sour face. “Gah that stuff is bitter..”
Yes, yes it was, but also startlingly effective. I fed him as much as I could scrape up and even as I tipped the water flask carefully, making sure not to choke him, some of the sharper lines in his face began to ease.
I glanced. The red patch below his leg was broader now. Stop it Tor you can not think of that.
I took out my first aid kit and bound up the few cuts that I could reach; opened a little enameled jar and put Ioreth’s famous arnica paste daintily on every bruise.
“How’s that? All better?“ I asked, trying to keep my voice light and positive though it sounded like horse-pucky even to my own ears. I was the close-lipped, brooding lump-Malec was the sunny one, always saw the glass half-full.
He smiled weakly. “Oh aye…t’were the parchment cut that were paining me the most.”
I laughed. Oh gods, even in the face of disaster he could always crack a joke. “What else can I do?”
“N’owt. Just stay.” The words were soft, but no less heartfelt. In the small and dusty space I thought I could hear both our hearts clench hard and for a moment there were no more words.
“Tor, I am not afraid.”
“of Orcs?” I mused into the heavy quiet.
“No you ejit.” A loose fist thumped my arm. “I am going to die.”
“No you’re not.”
“Of course I am. And I am imagining it.” He was? I blinked. I had not known him for a morbid turn. He was a Nimrais man, small and wiry, with a smile that lit the sun and graceful limbs like the birches of of his White Mountains home. Elven bright and full of wit and vinegar….
“Beyond the halls of Mandos it must be wondrous fair. “
I sighed and hunkered down, shifted so a pebble bit more gently at my hip. No one knew what happened to Men after their time of waiting, they went somewhere, but If a little fantasy eased his mind, I would force my lugubrious self to play. “Oh aye. You’ll walk amidst green hills and cloud-free skies and the streets paved in gold. There’s all the food and drink a man could ever want.“
“The beer is good?”
“Oh yes…. and the whiskey. Ambrosia. Better than Anborn’s swill. And everywhere is warm and there is only the gentlest bit of rain.” This last brought a smile. It had been a soggy winter. We were all tired of the refuge’s damp and chill. The pained eyes brightened for a moment.
“Poor buggers the Elves. They just get reborn. Don’t get to see that haven for themselves. It’s just for Men.”
I was about to open my mouth and speak when another low rumble started up. Dear gods it was another shake. Without thinking I threw myself across his head and chest, felt a rain of loose pebbles across my back, and braced for the worst. After a second or so the lighter shaking stopped. An aftershock. Nowhere near as bad as the first but frightening still.
“Mal are you ok?” I asked worriedly, feeling gently at his face. The cavern did not feel any smaller but if the blocks on his legs had shifted more…..
“Yes..yes Torgil. Fine. Fine.”
Oh right. Fine. The hopelessness of our situation bubbled up like a bitter spring. This could not be happening. We were the best. The best of the best, actually. Part of the hardiest, toughest, smartest company in all of Gondor and we were its elite scouts. The only ones entrusted to slip in and out of Morgul Vale without bringing all the fires of Mordor down. And we had. Oh Valar we had done it and it felt too cruel that a ruddy earthquake should have shorn that feat of any happiness.
‘You should go..it’s not safe,” Mal whispered, blinking fresh grit out his eyes and looking warily at the rocks of his craggy prison . He was not wrong. But there nothing that could make me leave him now. I shook my head and tipped the water flask for him again, took a swig of my own, feeling more than seeing what I did. The dust was slowly settling down but the little space was darker for the nonce.
“How’s the air up there?”
I could not decide to laugh or cry. This was our private joke. Torgil- tower to the stars. I was much like my name: tall, almost as tall as Madril or the Captain and dark-haired and grey-eyed. Somewhere back I had a little Numenorian blood and Malec always joked I could touch the stars, like the tower of my name.
I squeezed his hand and ducked my head, trying to hide another errant tear. Like me he was a bachelor. No sweetheart to pine for, just a sister and his brothers in the company. In that we were not so very different. Otherwise-well we were like chalk and cheese. Damrod had taken 10:2 on us killing each other in the first week, but our Captain, Faramir, saw something that none other had. That we could overcome our differences and work. He’d been right. In point of fact we more than worked, we clicked. Came to be like a single man, easy as breathing, slipping like ghosts in and out of the Enemy’s own lair. I could track and he could move, could suss things out better than anyone; and quickly we had eyes on the back of our heads and a sixth sense for each other.
“You think the Captain has the right of it…?”
“The vale?” I asked, confused.
“No his dreams, Tor. I should have liked to see a King. “ Our beloved leader had shouted more than once in his sleep about a king. In the confines of Henneth Annun everyone could hear and superstitious to a man, we had not said a word. In case we jinxed what we dearly wished to pass.
“You and me, toren. You and me.”
For a while then we talked of nothing serious. It was growing darker. In the dim he was slowly bleeding out. A night bird called. It was a thrush. That hurt, almost beyond breath, for in another glade, a little slower and a little higher, that call meant “Man down.”
Somewhere about at the first rising of Earendil he started to put his affairs in meagre order.
“Tor I’d leave you my best dice but I can’t.”
I shook my head with a rueful small half smirk. “You’ve promised them to Will?”
“Nay I was worried Damrod would use them while I was gone so they’re here. Somewhere in my pack.”
“No matter then.”
“But you get my best bow and all my books.” He was always more learned than I. “Promise you’ll keep on studying. Captain’ll help I’m sure.”
Oh certainly. Captain Faramir had nothing more important to worry about right now than one semi-illiterate sergeant. But I did not demur. If it made Malec happy to think any of us would survive the hellstorm that was about to rain down, who was I to disagree?
“You’ll tell Lindel? “
“That I love her and the lads?”
“Yes.” His sister and her little boys were his everything. Next to us of course. Being a Ranger of Ithilien was the proudest thing that Malec had ever done.
A trembling, too cool hand squeezed a little harder… “Tor…”
I drew in a ragged breath. Nienna I knew what he was going to say but I could not do it. Could not sit there and hear him pour out his heart. Call me brother and truest friend, partner and the one who had his back. That he loved me too….
My heart was already breaking, jagged splinters carving off with every word; anguish pouring out over the red-stained stones like the inexorable trickle of his blood.
All at once I could not stand any of it anymore. Somehow it had to stop.
“You’re not going to die Mal.“
“A wizard will appear to help me dig you out.”
“Tor?” A faint strengthening came in his thread thin voice, a little hopefulness. Oh but I loved him. Blessed man he was going to play along. Help me when I could not help him.
I settled down more comfortably down upon the rock, held his hand tightly as I dared. The stars shone down in mute but flickering sympathy. Whoever said they disdained the Edain’s plight did not know the beauty of their blanket on a chilling, frightened night.
“Yes… Mithrandir will come. From whatever blessed tower is his home and the rocks will simply disappear.” I had no idea. This was utter rot-he’d not been seen in months. For all I knew he was locked in Barad-dur but the Grey One was most powerful thing I knew. Next to the horror that lived up the up road.
“He’ll wave his staff and fly us back to the City.”
“On an Eagle?”
“Yes and we’ll give our report straight to the Steward himself and the Captain and Captain-General when he returns. They’ll be a party in our honour …”
His dull eyes lit up at that. “Like the ’18?”
The ’18 was the byword among the company for a feast. After the great victory in west Osgiliath the Captain General had arranged for a now legendary party in the streets. The best food from the Citadel, wines from Dol Amroth and Gelin both. It was what we dreamed of when we munched hard tack in the sleet and rain. “What’ll you have first? The roast boar or the pheasant.”
“The boar,” he replied in a now slightly breathless voice. “And queen of puddings and honeyed figs and little treacle tarts.”
I tried to smile. He had a sweet tooth my partner did, where I’d always preferred the tart. "It'll be in your honour, Mal, so this time don't be too shy for the dancing."
That brought a sudden coughing fit. I cradled his head in my hand and raised him up, hoping it might help him breathe. He sputtered for a moment but weakly waved the flask away, eyes shining at the challenge. He had always been the first up when the tunes began; as graceful there as he was slipping past hapless Orc patrols. I, on the other hand, was hopeless. And a fabled wallflower too boot. “As long you don’t step on my toes.”
Oh gods, I laughed so hard it hurt. He was remembering our one and only dance. I was a giant un-coordinated lout and he was smooth as silk. Wolf whistles had followed us round Osgiliath’s broad square that heady night as he had tried to teach me a step a two. It took one of our more un-official hand signals to shut the cat-calling up. I hadn’t cared. Laughing, drunk on survival and wine that had flowed like a river down the streets, my best friend’s green eyes twinkling above a jagged cut, it had been the happiest night in memory.
I squeezed the trembling hand a little tighter. “You’ll have to dress smarter this time.” The Steward, who had come to celebrate his “eldest’s great and glorious victory” had frowned in passing at the open rents on Mal’s uniform. Kind of hard to look pulled together when hours before one has been plunged into a stone- and arrow-choked, freezing river.
“All I gotta do is look better than you… “
“That’s not too hard.” Self-deprecation was my forte. It always made him smile and I leaned in close, straining to catch the now breathy whisper of his words and faintest quirk of his sunny-grin.
“Naw.. you’re prettier than…..”
The thought dangled in the darkened air. He'd paused for breath I thought.
“Mal?” I listened carefully. Above there was just the rustle of the leaves and ominous creaking of shifting rock.
I tried again. Into the ringing fractured silence my own hoarse rasp sounded sharply like shattered rock. There was no answer: the only sound was the quiet moan of the lonely wind and the quiet breaking of my heart. I looked down. The emerald eyes were closed, the face I knew better than my own was set softly in repose.
I dropped an unsteady fingertip but found no flutter at his throat. I bowed my head, and offered up a silent prayer. I pray thee Namo, guide him to his rest.
His pain had gone.
And mine had just begun.
The title is from Wilfred Owen’s elegy to brotherhood in arms. “Greater love”
“Red lips are not so red/
as the stained stones kissed by the … dead.”
Toren is Sindarin for brother. It is my headcanon that the Dunedain of Gondor use it too.