March 6, 3019
Outside the Houses of Healing, one tall, dark-haired Swan-knight shoved his younger, taller brother Swan-knight toward the Houses’ door.
“It ju-just needs ssalve and r-r-rest!” exclaimed Pengail quietly, resisting even as he cradled his left arm in his right.
The elder manhandled the younger through the doors.
“I’ve had enough, Pengail,” Sirifast said, his typically jovial face uncharacteristically stern. “You’re going to have it looked at. You don’t know everything there is to know about healing. These people do. Now go.”
Pengail, his wavy ebony hair caught back in a low ponytail, scowled. “You so-sound like Fin,” he muttered. It was meant as an insult.
The elder brother barked a grim laugh. “May it be carved on my gravestone: ‘At the last, he was responsible.'” He looked around, over the heads of the attendants, for an available Healer.
As the two knights entered a page in customary white and red sprinted up to assist.
“Hello, sirs!” he declared, giving a hurried bow. “May I direct you along?”
Pengail remained silent, and cut a sullen look at his brother.
“Ah, yes!” said the elder, brightening, perfectly used to speaking for Pengail. “I am Sir Sirifast. This is my brother, Sir Pengail. He has an injury to his shoulder that needs attending.”
“Oh, just a moment!” said the page before sprinting off. He returned a few minutes later with Healer Alduial in her red cowl and red dress, mopping her hands on a handkerchief. Her nose had clearly been broken, and though swollen, the bruising was concealed heavily with makeup.
“You did not show them a room?” she was asking the page as they walked.
“Well I didn’t think-”
Alduial held up a hand to silence him, and gave the two men a sharp look. Her gaze settled on Pengail, sharp and incisive. “Shoulder or arm?”
Pengail blinked at the Healer. Not at her nose. Nope. He pulled his eyes quickly away from the injury, and stood cradling his arm.
“…Left shoulder, mil– ah. Healer,” Sirifast supplied, along with a charming smile. He chivvied Pengail forward as one might a reluctant (and very tall) child.
Alduial began to lead the way to a back room and then paused, looking at Sirifast.
“Are you also injured, my lord?” she inquired, looking him over.
Sirifast looked perfectly fit. Both men were dressed in their under-armour leathers, as if having come straight from training or a sparring match.
“Oh, I am sound, milady.” He winced. “Apologies. Healer…?”
“Healer,” Alduial acknowledged and, pausing outside an examination room, looked at Pengail. “Do you require him to speak for you, and do you wish him to remain in the room?”
Pengail looked from the woman healer to Sirifast and back. “…No,” he said.
Sirifast cocked an eyebrow at Pengail. Alduial looked between them, and then gestured for Pengail to go into the examination room. She snapped the door shut behind them. Sirifast was cut off mid-objection.
“I do thi–” He backed up swiftly so as not to catch a door in the nose.
“So, what did you do to your arm exactly?” Alduial asked, looking Pengail over.
With a faintly strained breath, Pengail sat upon the hard little bed. If he were to stretch out on it, his feet would dangle a good six inches off the end. With head bowed, he struggled to say, “…I s-s-s…strained it, mmmil-…”
He sighed, his brow knitting with mortified frustration, swallowed, and tried again.
“…Strained it,” he said, soft and slow, unlike most of the knights, who spoke with an authority that typically bordered on arrogance. “That’s… all, H-healer.”
“And what were you doing when you strained it?” Alduil asked shortly, drawing supplies from a small cabinet before returning back and looking him over. “We will need to have your shirt off to look at it. I can help or you can see to it yourself.”
Pengail obediently began to unlace the front of his gambeson.
“…Sparring,” he grunted, with some discomfort, as he pulled the padded shirt off one-handed, sideways. Apparently it was common practice now for him to disrobe thusly, evidence of a chronic condition.
Though tall and broad-shouldered, the young knight was slender of build, young enough that he only just was layering on the heavy, well-defined muscle typical of his profession. An impossibly long torso slouched leftward, allowing his left arm to relax in his lap and simultaneously take its weight off of his shoulder, which upon inspection under his arm, was a mangled mess.
A ragged swath of scar tissue stretched from his elbow to his armpit on the underside of his upper arm, still pink and new, perhaps a year old. More recent surgical incisions had been made from his back into the end-point of the original wound, it would seem, where a bit of probing across the flesh there would reveal a hard mass near his lymph nodes. It was a wonder he had use of the limb at all. As it was, three of his fingers on his left hand (pinky, ring, and middle) appeared to be permanently curled in. His range of motion was limited; he winced and the flesh quivered if he tried to lift his arm above the level of his shoulder. The ugliness of the old wound stood out against his otherwise beautiful physique.
He waited in morose silence for the Healer woman’s inspection, obeying each of her commands. Alduial inspected with gentle fingers.
“There is a good lad,” she murmured, more out of habit than anything, looking over the surgical scars and the mass and his hand. She touched the mass. “Does this hurt?”
Pengail flinched, his shoulder muscles flexing defensively away from her probing fingers. But he muttered, “…No. T-te-te… just… tender.”
“Hm,” she replied, straightening up to look at him with clear green eyes. “How long have you had it?”
Pengail just sat, staring at the worn stone floor.
“Y-year and a… h-half,” he said, with the resignation of the chronically pained.
“These scars. Someone has tried to remove it, yes? And it has returned?” she inquired, still focused closely on his face.
Pengail shook his head.
“S-stayed. It’s le-lead.” He took a deeper breath, steeling himself for the explanation. “Shrapn-nel from a… wound. The Prince’s… su-surgeon tried to… re-r-remove it. H-he couldn’t. Said it… the scar ti-tissue is… d-doing this.”
He lifted his hand, showing her his curled fingers, locked in place by the interference of the scar tissue upon the nerves controlling them. Likely, if the surgeon were to nick the nerve, there was a large chance the young man could lose all use of his arm.
Alduial frowned again, examining the area, fingers gently brushing the lump of flesh.
“If we attempt surgery now, you will doubtless still be in recovery if–when it comes to battle. Our surgeons here are superior. I can give you a draught for the pain, but it will not see to the poisoning. It will let you fight though. Afterward… Well, you have already lost three fingers. What is the arm in exchange for your life?”
Pengail finally looked up at her. Gentle grey eyes, a paradox in a suit of armour, did not dare to hope. In truth, he had not thought beyond surviving the siege in whatever way he could manage. Was she offering him hope? That if he could manage to live through the war, he would not die a slow, excruciating death as the little lump of metal inside him slowly ate him alive?
Beyond that, what in the world was so important that he would even confront such a death for?
“So what will you have?” Alduial asked seriously, eyes on him. “The damage is likely irreversible but, well, assuming all goes well we can at least prevent it killing you. But, there is always the arm. It is likely it will not survive the surgery useful. Just remember that.”
Pengail looked away, struggling to stifle the sudden wetness in his eyes and the blooming of hope in his chest. He nodded briskly, swiping a long-fingered hand over his face. He took a deep breath, straightened, and cleared his throat.
“W-what’s an arm?” he asked with a chuff of a laugh. What was a limb to pay for living into old age?
Alduial quirked a small and encouraging smile. “What is an arm indeed? Now, in the meantime, I can give you a few doses of henbane. You are not permitted to overextend the arm but…if it comes to a siege, you may take the henbane, which will render the wound numb. Until then…I fear there is little else I can do for it.”
Pengail sniffed, exhaled, and nodded; as he’d expected. He pulled his gambeson into his lap to fumble it back on.
Alduial smiled at him encouragingly.
“It shall not get worse than it is, dear boy,” she offered, and poked her head out of the examination room. Ignoring Sirifast she whistled for a page nearby and whispered something to him.
Sirifast turned back toward the door from his pacing, but couldn’t get back fast enough before the door closed again.
“I am giving you two vials of henbane and a measuring tool,” Alduial said. “Measure to the second lowest line on the cup and take that no more than every four hours. It will keep you lucid and dull the pain. Can I do anything else for you?”
Pengail grimaced as he pushed his wounded arm into its sleeve, and settled his gambeson onto his shoulders. He left the padded shirt unlaced at the front.
“Nno, ma’am.” He stood (towered) and looked down at her. “Thank you.”
It was heartfelt. There was life again in his dark grey eyes.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
March 9, 3019
As he sat trying to read in the oppressive silence of the evacuated city, Pengail startled when Findegil dropped parchment, an inkwell, and a quill on the table before him.
He stared sternly down at Pengail.
“There’s no-nothing t–”
“I don’t give a damn what your excuses are. Do it. Now.” Fin jerked the book from Pen’s weak left hand. “I’m not leaving ‘til you do.”
Pengail sighed and squeezed at his temples a moment.
“…What do I…s-say?”
Fin made himself comfortable, leaning on the windowsill to frown up at the darkling sky.
“It doesn’t matter as much as you think,” he said. “It’s simply that you’ve done it. It doesn’t have to be flowery. Or even very long. But you need to tell her what you’d say if you never see her again.” He pointed at the parchment. “And she needs to be able to hold it in her hand for as long as she needs to.”
Laboriously, Pengail sat up and shifted the parchment in front of him, bending over it. One-handed, he screwed the top off the inkwell, then dipped the quill. It hovered over the parchment until the ink dried where it hung in the air.
“Start with her name. Jackass,” Fin muttered, folding his arms. He returned his focus out the window, to give his little brother the pretense of privacy.
Pengail scowled at Fin for a long moment, then redoubled his efforts against the dread welling in his stomach. Even the thought of her was a white hot sun. Too close and it hurt his eyes, burned him.
My Aramerillin. The city is evacuated. Only soldiers, healers, and needed laborers remain. We all feel it gathering, like a storm out at sea, and turning toward us. All that remains is to wait.
If I cannot write you again, I feel compelled to write a few lines you might read when I am no more.
I have no qualm or lack of confidence in the cause for which I fight. I think I am steady. I know how strongly Gondor leans upon a successful defense of Minas Tirith and how great a debt we owe to those who went before us in the blood and suffering of the Last Alliance. And I am willing to lay down my own happiness to help defend our freedom and to pay that debt.
But, my dear Merry, when with my own joys, I might lay down some of yours, and replace them with care and sorrows, is it weak or dishonorable, while the banner of my purpose floats calmly in the breeze, that my unbounded love for you, my wife, should struggle in fierce, though useless, contest with my love of country?
I cannot describe to you my feelings on this calm spring afternoon, when the city drowses, steadfast and impenetrable, in perhaps its last rest before Death creeps over its high walls.
Merry, my love for you is deathless. It seems to bind me with mighty cables that nothing but Omnipotence can break. And yet my love of country comes over me like a strong wind, and bears me irresistibly on, with all those chains, to the battlefield. The memories of all the blissful moments I have spent with you come washing over me, and I feel grateful to Elmeleth and to you that I have enjoyed them this long. How hard it is for me to give them up and burn to ashes the hopes of future years, when we might still have lived and loved together.
I know I have few claims upon Divine Providence, but something whispers to me. I pray it is your voice come over the leagues and mountains, that I shall return to my loved ones unharmed. If I do not, my dear Merry, never forget how much I love you, nor that when my last breath escapes me on the battlefield, it will whisper your name.
Forgive my many faults, and the many pains I have caused you. How thoughtless, how foolish I have often times been! How gladly would I wash out with my tears every little spot upon your happiness, and struggle with all the misfortune in the world to shield you from harm.
But Merry, if the dead can come back to this earth, and flit unseen around those they love, I shall always be near you, in the brightest day and the darkest night; amidst your happiest scenes and gloomiest hours always, always, and if the soft breeze fans your cheek, it shall be my breath. As the cool air fans your throbbing temple, it shall be my spirit passing by.
Merry, do not mourn me dead. Think I am gone and wait for you. For I pray we will meet again.
He let out an unconscious sigh as he laid down his quill.
“There,” Findegil rumbled, rousing himself from where he sat. “It is done.” He patted Pen’s shoulder firmly and went to the door. “Pray to Elmeleth no one ever has to deliver it.” He left.
Pengail’s head fell into his hands. For the first time since he had left Merry at the gate of their garden, he wept.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
March 13, 3019
Pengail stood on the first wall, watching with a grim look as Captain Faramir’s forces retreated across the Rammas Echor.
“Elmy’s bloomers,” Sirifast cursed beside him.
Pengail squinted, then swiftly turned to jog down the wall stairs to the stables.
“Hey! Where’re you going?” Siri called, scrambling after him.
“He’ll ca-call for us,” was all Pengail said in explanation. “Tack up.”
Sure enough, minutes later, their commander swept into the Court of Tarondor.
“Knights! We ride to defend the retreat! Swiftly!”
The Court filled with starsilver and blue as Dol Amroth mounted up. Pengail reined in his gelding, Briar, and watched the great timbers come off the Gate.
“Siri,” he said quietly.
“What?” his brother asked sharply, edgy and anxious to move.
“That healer. Sh-she said…they could ge-get it out. The lead.”
Sirifast, and his horse, stilled beside him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked in an accusatory tone.
“Didn’t want to… h-hope.”
Sirifast absorbed this in a rare moment of silence.
“Well. Now we just have to live,” he said matter-of-factly.
Pengail nodded, his eyes still upon the gate as it gave a rusty burp and cracked open.
The sortie milled and wheeled under the gate for what seemed like an eternity. Pengail heard, or felt, the growing growl of the Enemy’s forces, like a hum that carried through the stone and dirt of the Pelennor and up into his horse’s hooves, making him prance and snort anxiously.
Pengail sat his mount calmly, soothing him with quiet, low nonsense. He’d lost track of Sirifast in the shuffle, but at least Findegil would remain behind, commanding his trebuchetiers from the safety of the walls.
Then a clarion trumpet call fell upon the court, and they were pressing out and eastward, rolling like one great charging horse down the Pelennor, and he could finally release the vise grip he’d held on the reins.
Briar sprang forth, eager to be spent of his nervousness. As they sprinted to Faramir’s aid, Pengail had time to realize that despite himself, he had begun to hope.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
He’d never been so exhausted. In the dark, he’d lost track of the days; in the lulls between terrifying action, he kept trying to tally backwards to the last time he’d slept. It always got fuzzy when he reached thirty-six hours; there should have been another dawn in there somewhere, but there hadn’t been.
He’d lost Briar, unseated when the great gelding had reared, screaming in fright, as the first oliphaunt had charged them. He’d risen from the bloody grass to watch the big grey tilt across the fields at break-neck speed, and knew it was useless to try to get him back.
He killed. Orc after orc after orc. Those were easy. They were inhuman in their slavering flesh lust and their bone-chilling screams. But when a unit of Haradrim had fallen upon him, all he could see was himself reflected in the whites of their eyes.
So after he’d finally run through a wiry Harad who just wouldn’t stop, even when he’d shattered the man’s knee with a savage kick, he tried to avoid the Haradrim as the man’s last, snarling curse rang in his ears. He knew enough Haradic to have picked up “white demon” and “gods’ judgment.”
As he wiped the gore from the hilt of his sword for the… fifteenth? thirtieth? time, he wondered what the Haradrim had been told about the white demons of the North.
Maybe the man had thought Pengail would take his daughters, rape them, kill the bastard children, burn them alive… Had he not heard the same of the dark-skinned mumak-riders?
Who had decided it was true?
“Up, Pen, up!” Sirifast’s voice reached his ears and he heaved himself up from the ground, swaying, bringing up his sword.
Filthy and flagging but whole, Sirifast slogged up the little incline on which Pengail had rested, waving off his defensive stance. “No, no! Look!” There was hope in his brother’s voice as the elder pointed across the broken Pelennor.
A swirling, translucent mist surrounded the last standing oliphaunt, dragging it to the ground. It flung up its massive trunk and bellowed, enraged and panicked, and dark figures flung themselves from the tower upon its back.
“…i-i-is it… ov-over?” Pengail dared to ask, his stutter worse with fatigue.
Sirifast slapped him on the back as the ragtag bunch of free fighters around them sent up a rusty shout of victory.
“It’s over, brother,” Siri said quietly. “We need to find our captain. Come on.”
The two brothers trekked slowly back toward the tower City, occasionally pausing to turn over a body clad in star-silver.
They trudged around another fallen mountain of oliphaunt flesh.
“Ugh,” grunted Sirifast. “The carrion birds will feast for mo– HEY!”
A dark little figure huddled over a fallen Knight, hands scrabbling over the star-silver breastplate. A Haradic boy straightened with a grunt of surprise and scrambled away, back toward the head of the great fallen beast.
“You little bastard!” Sirifast snarled, quickly drawing his sword.
Pengail caught his arm. “Wait. L-look at him.”
The boy had pulled a short, curved knife and held it high. He gibbered insults in Haradic, but his eyes rolled wild with terror. He was starvation thin, the robes of a mumak keeper hung limp and covered in offal on his frame. He was guarding the head of the slain oliphaunt, all he knew to do. The rest of his tribesmen lay dead around him.
Sirifast’s jaw flexed. “He was desecrating the body, godsdamned little rag-head!” he spat.
“He’s only… a ch-child,” Pengail said, watching the boy. “Stay,” he said to Sirifast, his weariness making the word a command. He stepped slowly toward the boy, whose voice rose shrilly.
“Abaq beyda eanni ! Sawf ‘aqtalak , sakhif aljald shahib!”**
Pengail knelt a good distance away and pulled off his helm. He raised a placating hand. “S-salam,” he murmured. “Salam.”
Behind him, Sirifast growled, “Pen, this is madness…”
“It’s all r-right, Siri,” Pengail said in the same soothing tone, the voice he used to calm his horses. “Hhe’s… scared.”
The boy looked wildly between the two Swan Knights, confused. He did not lower his knife as he bobbed back and forth on his bare feet.
Pengail didn’t have any food. He thought for a moment, then made an eating motion with his hands, beckoning to the boy. “We’ll… fi-find you food,” he promised.
The boy stilled.
Pengail wondered at his dark eyes, darker than he’d ever seen before. He nodded encouragingly, beckoning again. “You’ll b-be safe.”
“He’ll be a prisoner, Pengail,” Sirifast said low and sharp.
“Shhut up,” Pengail murmured.
The boy took a slow step forward, his knife now held at his waist.
Pen nodded again, and pulled his lips into a smile.
There was a sting, and hot wetness dribbled down into his gorget. Confusion bloomed across Pengail’s face and he thought he heard Siri scream, but it was as through a long tunnel.
The boy stood before him, drawing back his knife and turning to run. How had he moved so fast? He was just a slip of a thing…
He felt, or heard, or saw Sirifast rush past him as he fell back. He saw his brother’s face twisted with rage, his sword drawn high. He tried to reach out. No, don’t… But the words didn’t come, only a spray of pink foam.
He stopped falling. The ground rushed up to stay him. After spending two days in his armor, sweating like a boar, he noticed cold at the tips of his fingers, in his toes. It rushed up his arms and legs.
The sun darkened. No, it was Siri returned, hovering over him. He looked scared. More scared than when Pen had almost drowned in the pond when he was eight.
From Sirifast’s look, he suddenly knew. He could feel his body fighting on, clinging, but he couldn’t breathe, his lungs felt the same as they had when he’d half-drowned, heavy and wet. They wouldn’t work…
“Pen! Pengail! You stay here, godsdammit! You idiot!” Sirifast ripped off his gauntlet and squeezed at his brother’s neck. “What were you thinking?!” He looked up, all around, tears flung from his face with the fervid movement. “HELP! SOMEBODY! HELP ME.”
Merry. His lips formed the word, but there was no voice. He realized suddenly he’d let so many words remain unsaid, he’d hid behind his stutter. He’d had a voice; the stutter made his words more precious, not more meaningless. Now it was gone, too late.
Merry, I’m sorry. Merry, I love you. Merry, forgive me. Merry… Merry…
At least he got to see her once more. In the growing gloom, she stood in a sunbeam, smiling down at him. He reached, but his arm was so heavy. He was cold and on fire at the same time.
She knelt and kissed his brow. He went lax and was gone.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Hours later, pages sent to pick through the bodies for survivors found Sir Sirifast, slumped over the body of his dead brother, still weeping.
~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
* Pengail’s letter is blatantly plagiarized from a real letter: that of Sullivan Ballou, a Union Major who fought in the Civil War. Ballou said it far better than I ever could, so why gild the lily?
** “Abaq beyda eanni ! Sawf ‘aqtalak , sakhif aljald shahib!” = ”Stay back! I will kill you, f***ing pale skin!”
“Salam.” = “Peace.”