Thank you all for still reading, and reviewing! (yes I read them all – like the addict I am) I'm still writing, but work is work.

What I would have

Ch 29: Heart of Stone

In Minas Tirith the storm grew worse, shaking shuttered windows and blowing in cold currents across the floors. Gilraen and Erendis gathered the soiled linens as a sleepy eyed chambermaid scrubbed the stones in the Steward's quarters. There came another subdued cry from the bedroom. Gilraen paused with a sigh. Behind her the bedroom door opened, Miriel came out with red eyes, adding more crimson stained sheets to a growing pile in a basket. "Poor duck, and him not to be found. Yet even were he is here, he's always so stern and fey." She turned to the other women, "are the boys taken care of?"

"Aye," replied Gilraen with a nod to a soiled bedshirt in the pile. Miriel sighed again, "I'd best go change then, I'll not be needing this dress for a while."

The two nursemaids clucked sympathetically and sorted in silence until she had left. Gilraen glanced at the bedroom door and spoke in a quite voice, "I'm glad I'm not married to a lord."

"Still, there are harder ways to earn one's keep." Erendis put in, "though some women are born to breed children and others hardly to the task. My own mother had five and barely laid down for the birthing."

"Aye, my mother had six and it near killed her. And her a strong country woman too, but my lady has always been delicate, and he should have known that err he married her."

"Men are not likely to think of what's at stake, only what they want." Erendis returned, though her ears were sharp lest she be overheard.

Gilraen shook her head critically, "We'll have to burn these, and the mattress too I don't doubt. I dare say t'was a fair miracle the last time with Faramir."

"Twill be a miracle now if she is not lost to us, though I heard the master healer say it was only a maid, for small mercies." Erendis replied. Then Miriel returned with two more women from the healing houses, and there was no more time for idle speech.

In Boromir's room the two boys sat listening, and waiting, still numb from the shock. Miriel's cries and the suddenness with which their private quarters had filled with various people had robbed them of any need for sleep. Doors slammed and muffled cries reached their ears, as though some one were being murdered, but under a pillow. Terribly faint, the cries of their mother, and then there were no more cries. Shortly after Gilraen had arrived to strip, scrub, and redress Faramir in the same distracted manner that cook fixed the birds for roasting. Faramir had been quietly crying, but he now seemed to have slipped into a frozen silence. He sat unmoving on Boromir's bed, his gaze fixed unseeing at the door. His breathing came in little gasps, his hair damp and skin pale. Before his wide eyes was his mother's pale face and dress soaked in blood. His paralyzed and rigid figure shook with the terrible foresight of Numenor, the secrets of the future that spoke of sorrow and loss and death. A dreadful burden pressed upon him, the knowledge that he could not save her.

Boromir placed his arm awkwardly around his little brother. He had heard the frightened shrieks of the woman fade to clucking, scolding and the savage tempers of the servants that always appeared when they feared for themselves. He had been told to go to bed, but he could not sleep with the constant running feet and whisperings mere feet from his chamber door. Eventually Faramir, though he had yet to utter a word, turned and buried his face into his chest. "Stop crying," he murmured, "it will be alright."

He felt Faramir's mouth move against his shoulder, "No," he sobbed, "it won't."

Then Faramir cried in earnest and Boromir wanted to howl himself, only such an action seemed unmanly. Eventually Faramir slept, curled beside him, his lashes wet and cheeks tear stained. Boromir sat back in the still and suddenly too close room with a sigh. The fire sparked fitfully, casting shadows that danced and shifted restlessly across the bed. Boromir was not tired; he disliked the waiting, the lack of action, and the uncertainty. His father had not planned for this outcome. He alone knew of his father's plans and, with the responsibility, he now felt the burden of decision. It grated against the world of soft linens and scolding nurses. He longed for someone to hit, to rage against, and instead he was stuck caring for his baby brother, surrounded by women who would tell him nothing, though they were as helpless as he was. He lay raging in the dark, fists clenched.

Denethor gave a nod to one of his knights and the man threw his shoulder against the ancient wood. The door broke inwards and the whole company passed swiftly into the ruined hall. The first knight stumbled on something soft and went down. The room was dark as midnight, and it took a strangely long time for the dim light to make its way inside. Under their feet, the hard floor was uneven and slippery, cloth slipped beneath their boots, and a nauseating odor rose to meet them.

Denethor, as usual, was first to recover his senses. Metal glittered in the dark, and he ducked his head inches from a dart that struck the wood beside him. Then there was a rush and the shrieking high-pitched wail of the Haradrim. A score of men, lined on either side of the hall, rushed upon them. He brought his sword through the neck of a man before him and turned in time to push a man past the exposed back of the knight beside him. An arrow grazed his helmet and deflected. The men of Gondor had now gained the room, and they ran between the columns on either side. The ambush was now itself trapped between double lines of sharp swords.

Then Denethor saw a dark shape move at the far end of the hall. It looked like the shadow of a mighty knight; yet, no knight stood to give it form. As Denethor watched in fascinated horror it began to move back and forth, its head shaking slightly, the dark shadows around it bending and reaching like craven slaves. It slunk down into a side hall and Denethor ran in pursuit, yet even as it disappeared before him he suddenly dizzy. His feet stumbled and tripped. He lurched forward, and gained the passageway at the end of the hall. There the figure appeared again and it again began to shake, and to move back and forth. He heard as though from far off, bitter and empty laughter. He watched as the thing shambled at the end of the hall, and realized it moved as though dancing in glee. Even as he moved forward to pursue it the figure seemed to lengthen and fade and stretch into the shadows themselves. Denethor burst into the next room, heedless of any ambush, but he found the room empty. A cold blue light stole through the window slits. Snow traced its way across the stones like sand, trackless. His foe had escaped, and it had been no man.

Denethor's heart was pounding; his stomach was in his throat. He longed to sit, to rest. He grasped for the wall beside him. It had been no living thing he pursued. For the first time he came to face to face with a claw of the very hand of Mordor. Familiar since childhood, and yet he never before had beheld such a thing with his own eyes. His vision cleared and he grew steady on his feet again. He had pursued a shadow of death itself. Behind him, faintly, he heard Imrahil call. He weighed his secret and decided to keep it. He returned to the hall.

There he saw his knights had gathered, and were silently looking about them. With a sinking heart, he now looked to the floor. There were the slain bodies of the enemy, dressed as the corpses they had found before, their fresh blood steaming in the cold. However, the floor was not the pale stone of the ruined tower. Beneath his feet was the frozen and twisted body of a woman, hands still raised to ward a blow. All about them were men, women, and children, frozen rigid as they had fallen under the merciless swords. Many of them had been savaged, but despite their blue lips and hacked forms they still looked terribly alive, faces distorted in terror, hands held in mute pleas. Denethor raised his eyes from the scene to the gathered knights.

"Why here?" one murmured.

"Doubtless they fled that accursed band and later the storm; they were cut off from the river." Imrahil replied shortly.

One by one, the men removed helms, looking over the slaughter in disbelief.

"Tis half of Ithilien," one young knight muttered, moving swiftly with distaste as he saw that he trod upon a small corpse.

"That's why we could track them, they have simply been herding the villagers, driving them from their homes."

"It would not take many men," Imrahil mused, "these are all peasants, untrained and unarmed."

"Unguarded and entirely unprepared." Denethor spat in disgust.

Imrahil watched out of the corner of his eye as the brief rage passed from Denethor's face like light on polished stone. The features returned to calm and resolve, constant and cold. Some of the knights had begun to move, automatically lifting the rigid bodies, laying them in rows. Their clothes had frozen to their forms though, making it impossibly to cover their faces. As they made their way among the sad remains many of the men began to weep, and one man kicked the corpse of one of their foes in rage.

"Make ready to ride." The single wretched command fell cross the hall. The men looked up at Denethor, grim and black as the wraith they had pursued, and on many faces now faint smiles of revenge flickered, eyeteeth were bared. Only a few of the men cast a despairing final glance at the dead. They filed out, and mounted, ready to ride into the very heart of Mordor itself.

Imrahil stood for a moment in silence, watching Denethor closely, for he knew no plans were ever simple with Denethor, nor were his plans ever swayed by desire or pity.

Denethor looked quickly over the corpses, many showed signs of travel, but in such weather, none could have lived more than a fortnight's journey. "We will send men back to watch the roads, take a sortie south, to catch any stragglers. It is plain this is not the full force of our enemy, they have dispersed, no doubt to do further mischief."

"And it's just as plain their leader has gone on the road to… the East," even Imrahil disliked to say that name, "We must make haste if we are to stop him."

Denethor gave a slight shake of his head, beneath his rage and horror he felt the familiar satisfaction. The month of uncertainty had passed; his foe's plans were again clear to him. "We already have. He has had to disperse his men. He goes back to gather reinforcements, perhaps other orders."

Imrahil exploded, "But if he escapes now he will…"

"He will return." Denethor finished. "He will return, and we will be waiting."

Imrahil sputtered in anger, "Is that it then? No justice, nor revenge?" He gestured to the corpses, "and to know we will see this again? Imrahil paced in frustration while Denethor stood grim and silent. "He will return and do this again, or worse, and you ask me to send my men back. My knights are ready for this battle. They need this battle."

"They are afraid." Denethor said quietly, letting a slight trace of contempt enter his voice.

"I am afraid!" Imrahil shouted, "I fear to lose them, to this horrid…" Imrahil paused. "How many empty villages will we find ere we return to the river, and I send them back, unavenged, with no words for themselves or the survivors, but that they must prepare to face all this" – he gestured to the mangled corpses – anew?"

Denethor watched Imrahil speak, but he himself felt somehow absent, as though he were fading away. The corpses ceased to disturb him, rather it seemed that even the dismay of those around him was fading as though in a dream. His features grew hard, his face expressionless. "They must arm themselves, we must strengthen our defenses, what will come shall be worse."

"At some point, if you flog a beast long enough, it will simply halt and die." Imrahil stated flatly.

"The people of Gondor are not beasts. If they wish to be men at all they must master their own wills." Denethor replied

"Not everyone has the will that you possess, my dread lord. They cannot help but feel this blow in their hearts. My men are weakened with almost a half-year of this darkness. To go back is now harder than for them to go on, let us seek out this battle, so all is not a total loss. I must think of my men, for too long they have suffered in pursuit of this demon. You will break their hearts."

"No. We will go back. Their hearts are not as important now as their bodies." Denethor replied.

Imrahil paused and his temper cooled. He looked across the corpses. "Know then what dreadful thing you ask of them. Many of the knights in your company are from Ithilien, for them this is a blood debt. They have kin among the dead. Do not ask them to turn their backs on this fight."

Denethor looked towards the east, into the blackness, angered. "I am fully aware of the men in my ranks. If they ride now for the sake of kin then others must die. One man's family or pride is of no account." He sighed, irritated with Imrahil for wasting time, for not being rational; yet Imrahil was right, if his heart was not behind the orders he gave his men, then they would cease to obey, and all would be lost. He continued in a quieter tone, "This display was intended to spur us onward. We do not have the strength for that assault. We will save who we can, if we move swiftly. The men will follow."

Imrahil looked once more at the scene.

Denethor looked at his clenching features, the tears unshed in his eyes, lips pressed tightly together.

"I shall give the order," he began to walk to the courtyard and said at the doorway. "And they will follow."

Boromir awoke with a start. Erendis was in his room filling a pitcher.

"'Tis a new day my lord, your breakfast his waiting" she said briskly.

Boromir looked at the hastily prepared gruel with distaste. Rubbing his hand over his eyes, he saw the sun had already risen.

"Where is Miriel?" He asked.

"Very busy," Erendis answered shortly.

"I wish to see mother." He replied, watching her closely. Her hands paused as she laid out his clothes, then quickly resumed their task.

"Eat your breakfast," she replied with a smile that did not extend beyond her lips, she quickly left the room.

Boromir dressed, feeling deserted. Faramir, he noted, was already up. He began an empty, anxious day. Healers passed gravely, and maids whispered, occasionally sneaking glances at him. Their private quarters filled with skirts and whispers. They were told to 'stay out of the way' but both Boromir and Faramir realized the women had little to do themselves, and there was nowhere for the boys to go. Finduilas was not to be disturbed. Boromir retreated to a corner and sat biting his lip in agitation. His father had warned him of dangers, but not to his lovely mother. He stole a glance at Faramir, the night's sorrows and strangeness seemed to have left him oddly untouched, and he sat with a picture book in the corner, a slight smile about his lips. Boromir sighed and fidgeted, attracting the attention of Gilraen as she hurried by with a pile of linens.

"Behave yourself," she said with hardly a glance. Her worried face not bothering to smile.

Miriel hurried past soon after with a bed warmer. Servants carried steaming pots. Boromir felt like he was roasting. He pulled at his shirt collar and thought of going out, but a storm was howling at the windows. Cook sent up apple dumplings with cream at noon. Boromir slipped his to Faramir, who had an appetite, and soon became both sticky and covered with crumbs. Boromir waited until Faramir had gone to take his nap before slipping on his winter cloak. He was trying to slip out of the room unnoticed when the doors opened wide, letting in a gush of cold from the hallway. It felt like a draught of cool water after the day of stale, hot air; but the women began to squawk and protest until they saw the figures in the doorway.

Tall, dark and imposing, two tower knights in silver and sable stood taking in the room. They wore cloaks and bright helms. Orderly, purposeful and stern, they stood in sharp contrast to the fluttering room. The women shrank back, but the bright eyes sought out Boromir. He felt his shoulders straighten under the gaze. One of the knights held out a gauntlet covered hand, his bright mail flashing. Boromir took that hand gladly.

Before he had time to think, he was already in the hall, trotting to keep up with the long legs of the knights. He was led through the courtyard at the same pace. As they left the outer courtyard he felt one of the knights throw his cloak about him, drawing the hood over his head. The black folds came over his eyes, obscuring his view. He smelled the stables before he saw them, then he was picked up by strong arms and placed into a saddle. In his heart, he felt great joy, to be doing something, anything, other than waiting in the stifling room. The horses were anxious and willing. He realized with a thrill that they were leaving through the back mountain gates, past the silent street. They filled the seldom-used path with the steady ring of hooves. Into the sharp and dazzling air, he rode out with the company of knights, into unknown and adventure. He was out of the city before he realized he had not bid his mother or brother farewell. He did not look back.

The road back was long for Denethor's company. They no longer rode in secret, for they traveled from one slaughter to another, and haste was needed. The clouds lifted, as though their fury was spent, and the cold sun shown down remorselessly on an emptied country. Visible now without the swirling snow were signs of desperate flight, abandoned possessions, footprints, and the occasional corpse; all left behind, unmourned, by those who so fatefully fled either towards fear and the river, or towards the safety of the ruins and death. Some of the men wept openly, for the dead they had seen and those they knew would follow. Denethor's thoughts strayed now to another ride he had taken in the past, one of doubt and shame, when he thought he knew pain and sorrow, but how much smaller those concerns seemed now. He wondered as he rode if someday these horrors would pale in the face of future scenes. With each rolling and heavy gallop of his steed he felt himself grown different, stronger, as though he were no longer a man. His knights seemed so frail and human, the horse beneath him quivering and exhausted. The road, though beaten through the centuries remained, the houses they passed had outstood the occupants. He felt more kinship with the battlements than the men who walked them. More dreadful than the shadow of Mordor itself, for had not the shadow fled before him?

They reached the river road, and he had begun to divide the men to secure Northern Ithilien and support his rangers when a shout announced the approach of riders. There appeared two sets of riders. Messengers of the rangers, clad in green quietly giving their report to his captain, and the unexpected sable of Minas Tirith. The dark clad men in sharp contrast to the white frost clad world around them.

"My lord," His captain rode to him quickly, "our scouts report, there is another column attacking the south."

Denethor frowned to see the emblem of the white tree. The men of the royal guards dismounted but despite having ridden to Ithilien, they seemed not at all eager to deliver their tidings.

"My lord," One of the messengers bowed, "your wife…" he swallowed and lapsed into silence.

"She sends?" Denethor asked in astonished disbelief, he could not imagine Finduilas ever putting herself before his duty, or asking him to. He remembered the resigned smile with which they had parted, he had never seen her so confident and strong

"Nay, my lord, the nurse does, your wife is… ill." The man finished his eyes turning down to the road as though it were of great interest.

A murmur ran through the men behind him. Denethor felt Imrahil's eyes upon him. Panic now flowed through him, freezing as an icy stream, settling as a pain about his heart. Behind Imrahil the men whom he had denied bloodlust sat in silence, their horses stamped and chomped their bits. Every man had his eyes upon their lord.

The messenger saw a slight widening of Denethor's eyes, an emotion that flickered there darkly, like movement under ice.

"She does very poorly my lord," he murmured, hoping to push the advantage, for he had been dispatched to bring his lord home

The words were misspent though, and at the softness, Denethor withdrew and hardened again into his usually stony gaze.

"And how is my presence to remedy that? I am no healer." he replied angry at his voice for deepening slightly. Irritated, he dismissed the messengers. He turned to face his captains again. Calmly he gave his orders. He felt the fear that had washed over him fade to nothing, leaving him cold, but numb. He could do nothing at home; he was needed here.

Then he looked into the outraged face of Imrahil, dark with blood and rage. But the moment of panic had passed, Denethor had mastered himself, he met Imrahil's eye dispassionately.

"Your house, it seems, might require your presence, my lord." Imrahil said acidly, his voice high with rage.

Denethor looked at the young man before him, thinking of his earlier passionate appeals. Imrahil had dark pits under his eyes.

"I had already planned for any... mishaps. The city is safe." He saw Imrahil swallow. The men were silent. "Return then," Denethor replied wearily, "yet take but few of your men. I have need of them."

He rode south without further speech, pursuing the scattered foes of Morder. The taint of death lay all around the land, but they drove its scattered agents before them. The marauding groups now fled in disorder, and they drove them as they had driven the hapless villagers before. With stony and grim assault, they dispatched them quickly upon the very banks of the river. Denethor hadn't lost a single man of his company, for without their captain the enemy was a wild and ragged band. Like monstrous children they each fought only for themselves, cried out upon the blades or sank in sullen silence. The first rush broke upon the disciplined and methodical swords of Gondor.

Finally, the land was cleared, but Denethor did not rush his return. They needed to be prepared for further assault. His knights began to draw their discipline from their lord, they now set to fortifying what positions remained automatically, and they searched houses quickly, without exclamation or shock. Denethor oversaw the digging of too many shallow graves, friend and foe alike beneath earth as hard as stone. Most of the peasants had eyes frozen open, aware, watchful, but never again able to weep. Denethor felt as though he were one of them, unable to look away, to change what was or would be. Only to watch the terrible battle between himself and the shadow unfold, across his country and his heart. He tried to feel pity for the slain but instead he found weariness. When he shut his eyes to think of his family, he only saw the pale corpses. He received no new messages from Minas Tirith, but he feared to return, lest his heart be as frozen there as on the hateful road. He stayed at his duties as long as he could, wishing himself home, but fearing his own dark shadow.

Finduilas rose through a wave of darkness into the conscious light of her room. She was burning with thirst; freezing with cold. She dreamed of pain and Faramir crying. Someone held a cup to her lips with a bitter draught inside, but she could no longer remember how to drink and felt the chilling liquid roll down her chin. After a while, she was aware of someone clasping her hand. She felt tears fall upon her face, but she felt no comfort in this, for tears meant Denethor was not yet returned and she was weary with waiting.