Nienor sat on the ledge of her window, observing the white city below her and the Pelennor fields beyond with a far-off gaze. The cool stone of the citadel was growing colder as the sun hid behind the horizon, making the distant Ephel Duath peaks turn to an angry red, the colour of blood. From her vantage point, it was impossible to make out the details of the mountain range and the darkness beyond it but regardless of where she looked, distant fires were blazing, signaling various groups of warriors preparing for another night they hoped to survive. On the walls of Minas Tirith, the lights were light one at a time, each tier of the city erupting in dancing flames. Further in the Pelennor fields, small fortresses connecting the outer wall flickered into existence, the beacons of hope. Hope that was dwindling fast in the realm of Men.
Hugging her knees to her chest, the young woman allowed her tumble of black hair to fall over her face, obscuring the view. Four years...She had always pictured herself to be a warrior, to gain valor on the battlefield and be sung into the legends of old. From her first lesson with the sword, she had an unexplainable longing to hold the weapon and stand shoulder to shoulder with her brothers in arms, rising up against the threat of the East or the South, pushing back tides of Easterners and Corsairs. She had been looking forward to her first tournament, her first opportunity to prove her worth and her skill. She trained each and every day to be the best, to bring honour to her uncle and to be ready for whatever was to come. What childish dreams those were! An angry tear managed to race down her cheek, leaving behind a hot wet trail. Four years ago, the world was different…
Now, Nienor was ready to hang up her sword. She was ready to forget the vile scent of men and monster insides spilling onto the ground from the swing of her sword. She wanted to stop burying her friends and looking at the wounded, knowing there was absolutely nothing on this Earth that would save them. Four years, she had seen men - brave, fearless soldiers - leave the gates of Minas Tirith, few to be seen again. Most were ripped apart, those wounded were dragged away. The few who came back couldn’t even be called deserters for how could anyone blame them for wanting to fight another day? Slowly, the ancient defenses of Gondor were starting to fall as the Wrong spread from the East, climbing over or under Ephel Duath and Ered Lithui, destroying everything in their path. Fire and swords only stopped them for so long yet each night, the hordes came back, relentless as they pushed forward.
In the fading daylight, the distant city of Osgiliath cast shadows towards the dark mountain ranges, barely visible against its backdrop. The sight of it made Nienor’s heart tighten - the old city, rebuilt by her predecessor King Aragorn II, was once again under constant siege, its magnificent walls covered in marks and stains, reminders of the fights gone by. If by some miracle the city would stand the Wrong until the end, she wasn’t sure the stains would be removed but would remain for generations to come. All but the soldiers have already been evacuated from the city-fortress, some staying in Minas Tirith but most continuing to the Western lands of Gondor and South to Dol Amroth. As Beren had told her a few years back, Osgiliath now resembled the camp his own predecessor struggled to protect in the late third age during the War of the Ring.
A cool breeze flew through her open window, ruffling the fine silk curtain and pulling at her dress, slipping under the skirts and causing goosebumps to cover her legs. Shuddering, the young woman turned away from the darkening landscape, looking down at her clasped hands, grasping the cord of her Palantir fragment, the smooth piece of blue glass-like material echoing the shadows from the outside. The thin leather cord that usually attached the stone to her belt wrapped tightly around her wrist, resembling a crude bracelet. Slowly, her voice barely above a whisper, she heard herself remembering an old song she loved so much.
Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing;
the last whose realm was fair and free
between the Mountains and the Sea.
The verses were old, a story tied to a time when Osgiliath was barely a century old and Minas Tirith was not even a fleeting thought. Gil-Galad, an elven king of old, a lord among his people, a friend of Men and a protector of the right. Gil-Galad who died in the Battle of Mordor, leading the last alliance of men and leading up to the initial destruction of Sauron who took years and years to come into some sort of consciousness. A hero who faced the dark straight on and stood side by side with all who fought the fight. Now, a new threat has arisen and with it new heroes. Men, elves, dwarves...orcs and goblins and Uruk-hai. There was distrust and hatred, blood feuds stretching to the end of the third age but a common enemy has forced an alliance of armies for the mere survival of middle earth.
His sword was long, his lance was keen.
His shining helm afar was seen;
the countless stars of heaven's field
were mirrored in his silver shield.
She had learned the heraldry of every single noble house from across Gondor and even most of the orcish clans at this point. In a war against mindless monsters, the armies coming to aid were friends no matter where they came from. A few times help came to her from Uruk-hai, their vicious nature and grotesque forms making her stomach turn but she stood shoulder to shoulder with them, pushing away any logic she had to survive the Wrong. A few times, she came to the call of the horn that sent goosebumps running down her spine, remembering the same call in Orcish raids in the past. As soon as the Wrong disappeared, both groups patched up their own and left, rarely exchanging any words among themselves. The most she ever spoke was with a young Uruk Hai warrior but even then, there was a huge level of discomfort.
But long ago he rode away,
and where he dwelleth none can say;
for into darkness fell his star --
“In Mordor where the shadows are,” Nienor whipped around, startled by the melodic male voice finishing up the third couplet. Leaning against the door frame, a tall man crossed his hand over his chest, watching her with amused blue eyes. The plain uniform of Gondor was misleading, a bow strapped to his back and a sword hanging from his belt. “I thought I would find you here.”
“It is my room - where else would I be?” The young woman raised an eyebrow. Laughing, the giant walked forward, pushing his golden locks out of his eyes.
“I see your good mood has not returned,” Beren chuckled, stopping beside her and looking out into the dim landscape. For a few moments, the pair observed the view, each thinking about their own. “I haven’t heard you sing since Hilgard passed a month ago. His death affected you hard.”
“Each death affects me the same,” Nienor shrugged before looking at her friend. “His aligned with a great many burials.”
“If you are asking me to believe he was just another death for you, you are lying only to yourself,” his blue eyes met her green ones. “Do not lie to yourself, Nienor.”
“If I do not, how can I carry on?” her words were no more than a whisper. “How can I continue knowing that one day soon - tonight, tomorrow or in a fortnight - one of us may not be coming home? How can I allow myself the time to grief when each night there are fewer and fewer who return?”
“You cannot hold onto that grief forever,” Beren looked down, breaking their eye contact. “One day, I will grow old and withered. I will draw my last breath and perish. You - you have the blood of the elves running through you, Elessar blood. You will live for years after. If you hold onto that grief, you will be miserable.”
“I have as much a chance as you to die before that ever comes to pass,” Nienor responded with a sad smile. “With this plague to hit the land, no one can be certain how long they have anymore.”
“Another reason not to hold to grief and to enjoy each day as it comes. Are you joining us on the walls tonight?”
“Aye, in a bit,” she waved at her current wear. “One of use does not get to attend the White Citadel court dressed for war.”
“I’m sure your uncle would understand given the reality,” Beren offered, fixing his tunic. “After all, you are more often out with the rest of the men than attending a banquet.”
“His majesty wants the court life to continue in a manner that gives light and hope. I cannot blame him for his attempts to raise morale,” Nienor moved so that her bare feet landed softly on the carpet covering wooden floors. Standing up, she took one more look into the night sky before closing the window, blocking the cool air from entering the room. “Soon enough, what remains of our old life will end. He is planning to send us to Dol Amroth with the rest of the refugees. Minas Tirith will become the next fortress after Osgiliath.”
“Just get dressed, milady,” Beren smirked, tossing her the tunic draped across a chair as he headed back to the door. “I will see you on the walls.”
“Bumbling half-troll,” Nienor swore half-heartedly. Standing up, she stretched before locking the door on the inside, a light precaution to avoid anyone bursting in as she began to change. Although she doubted anyone else being as bold as her friend to enter her chambers without knocking, depending on the night and the war, messengers from her uncle would arrive at all hours, banging on the doors and averting their eyes when she greeted them in her nightshirt. Struggling with the ties for a few minutes, Nienor finally loosened the top dress enough to shimmy it off, ending up in the under gown. That one came off easier and she slipped into her usual gear, sliding the tunic atop of her chainmail and sliding her sword over her back. Grasping her Palantir stone, she slipped it over her head, tucking it under the chain main. Grabbing her arm guards, she left the room at a brisk pace.
The halls of the White Citadel felt abandoned - it seemed that life had been drained from within the ancient walls, sapping at the lifeline of the elder halls a drop at a time. Her steps echoed in the tall corridors, passing closed doors and dimmed lights. The eerie silence was unnerving - Nienor could hear her breathing bouncing off the walls. Trying not to let it get to her, the young woman picked up her pace, pushing into the courtyard. As she turned towards the path leading to the lower ring, she glanced at the White Tree, rising tall in the courtyard. Smiling sadly to herself, she turned away, continuing to the lowest walls of the city.
As she passed by the streets, people stopped and moved out of her way. A few reached out to touch her armour. Smiling and nodding her head in acknowledgement, stopping to grasp the hands of a few elders gently and exchanging a few words with them, Nienor remembered the first time something like this had occurred - the people of the city wanting to touch her as though she was a ghost. She felt uncomfortable and bewildered as hands reached out, trying not to break into a run to escape. It wasn’t until she brought it up to her uncle that he explained to her why it was happening - people wanted assurance. Assurance that someone could go out and return and who better than the king’s beloved niece? After that talk, Nienor took some time to think but now, she tried to talk to as many as she could, reassure and inspire all that wanted something real to hold onto. On some nights, her walk to the wall took twice as long as she took the time to support her people.
“The gods watch over you, Lady Nienor,” the old woman grasped her hands with her old frail ones, shaking slightly. The young lady felt tears pricking her eyes but she held strong, only nodding in gratitude as the elder slowly let go, hugging her black shawl closer around her frail body. She didn’t stop by as she continued on, walking briskly towards the main gates of the white city. As the guards saw her approaching, they brought out a horse, saddled and ready to go, snorting in the night as his ears twitched, catching distant sounds. Running her hand down the velvety nose, Nienor looked up at the flag of Gondor, flapping in the wind, snapping as it straightened with a distinct echo, resembling the flick of a whip.
“It appears a quiet night today, my Lady,” one of the cornets approached her, the white tree emblem shining a pale silver in the night. “There have been no messengers from the Rammas Echor and no pigeons from the Causeway Forts.”
“Did Lord Beren leave for the Forts then?” Nienor asked, slipping on a pair of thin riding gloves. The cornet nodded, keeping a steady grip on the horse’s reins as the animal shifted back and forth. “Has there been any new orders passed down from the High King?”
“None my Lady,” the cornet declined, standing on the right side to hold her stirrup as the warrior swung up, waiting for her to find her comfort in the saddle. “We had a new eored arrive a few days ago - they are ready to replace the one currently at the Causeway. They asked to ride with you.”
“Who’s eored has come to take their stand?” Nienor stroked the strong neck of the dark bay, her eyes looking down into the man’s.
“Judging by the sigil, the eored of the lord of Fenmarch,” he responded, evoking a look of surprise from the girl. “Do you know him, my Lady?”
“We have met before although I know him poorly. Where are they waiting?”
“Beyond the gates. Good speed - I won’t hold you any longer. May the sun shine upon you in the morrow,” Nienor didn’t respond, the farewell weighing her down like a stone. Would the sun still shine tomorrow or would it plunge into eternal darkness like she so often dreamed, removing all hope for survival? She had spent hours looking at ancient books and manuscripts, trying to read about Mordor as it was when the dark lords ruled the East. There were tales of red clouds covering the sky, providing a shield from the sun for the dark swarms of Mordor, allowing them to move further away from the dark gates. Although it was claimed that the unnatural darkness belonged to the powers of Sauron and before him Morgoth, she wondered if the flying demon circling the remains of Orodriumth possessed the same attributes.
Shortening her reins, she pushed her horse forward, his horseshoes clanking on the stones of the courtyard as the heavy gates of Gondor opened for her to ride through, the men giving her the same sad looks that she had gotten so accustomed to receiving each time she rode out of the White City. In all honesty, she was just as guilty of giving those same glances to all who left for Pelennor Fields and beyond. As her mount brought her at an energetic walk out into the open plains, she tried not to think about anything but the next few hours, subconsciously gripping her stone under the light mail shirt.
“Hail thee well, Nienor daughter of Leod,” Nienor smiled, not turning her head as a band of men dressed in the green and gold of the Riddermark closed in beside her, one of the warriors riding up beside her, his helm making it difficult to make out his features. Only the mark of a leader made it clear who she was talking to.
“It has been a long time since I was addressed as such, Elftheort son of Elfdarn,” she responded quietly. “In these lands, I am referred to as -”
“As Nienor Elessar,” the man responded, reigning in his steed to walk side by side with hers. “I watched you grow up girl and you will always be a Rohirim by blood, like it or not. You were born in the saddle with the fair wind in your hair and the heart of a true warrior.”
“I am an Elessar,” Nienor countered, glaring down at her hands. “And darn proud to be one.”
“Surely stubborn as one,” Elftheort snorted. “Why you push away a part of yourself is beyond me child.”
“We’re wasting breath,” Nienor retorted, squeezing her horse into a gallop. The men were not a second behind, the sound of a hundred horses snorting and heaving spreading across the land. It wasn’t fair to say they were alone - the fields of Pelennor flat as they were provided a fantastic view to see other mixed groups heading out to the various defenses across the huge exterior wall. Seeing as the Causeway Forts were the furthest away from the city, most who so desired rode horses to ensure they could provide aid where it was most needed. Over the centuries, the Rammas Echor grew in size and strength, rebuilt and repaired as needed after the historical Battle of the Pelennor Fields. White and impenetrable, made from the stone of the White Mountains and fortified long ago by the dwarves of Erebor, the outer defences standing tall and proud against the Wrong. The last defense of Gondor.
“Make way for the eored! Open the gates!” As the cavalcade approached the Southern fort, there came calls and signals of lanterns, the inner gates opening for the riders to come in, gathering in the tight courtyard, horses moving against each other still fired up after the four league gallop. Turning her horse in a circle and trying to take in everything at once, Nienor saw the tired eyes of men and dwarves, a few orcs and even a couple women. As a warrior came to take her horse, she slipped off and started towards the keep, clasping hands with a few commanders as they followed her, most knowing that there would be a brief war counsel before the usual attack of the Wrong. She saw Elftheort follow along, hugging another Rider of Rohan as he went, the two conversing in their tongue.
“You finally made it,” Beren grinned from his seat near the head of the large table, feet resting on top the stone and lazily carving a piece of wood with his knife. From the embarrassed looks the officers already in the room gave her, it seemed that the young man was not in as good a mood as he seemed.
“What is it?” Nienor’s tone immediately became void of emotions, ready to hear the worst and determine the right plan.
“Shall I start with the good news or the great news commander?”