While the battle rages northward, far to the south in the White City, friends and family wait for tidings...
There was nothing more oppressive than Urimë in Minas Tirith. The Shira Desert of the Great Eastern Expanse was delightfully pleasant, with its clean white sand and dry heat, when compared to the White City, limp in the mid-day sun with its stuffy, still, humid air. Bardhwyn knew this for fact; she'd spend many weeks in that desert and could still recall the taste of the scorched air and the smell of the lotion used to protect the skin from the sun as she travelled with Eastrons sympathetic to the West and keen on bringing down the tyrannical rulers who oppressed them...
But she was no longer in the East; she was no longer with the Royal Bowmen of Dale on a mission for the King of Dale. She now sat perched on a windowsill in modest rooms overlooking the second and first tier of Minas Tirith with the north-west corner of Pelennor spreading out before her. Far in the distance she could see the occasional flash of sun on polished steel from the North Gate; despite the heat the City hummed with activity as merchants and farmers goaded their teams of oxen and donkeys down the long road to the Great Gates. Being from the North, however, Bardhwyn found it impossible to do anything; it was her second summer in the south. She prayed it would be her last.
'Bethellys' was the name she took when she arrived; her mother's name and she lived as wife to Lysandros, Master Bowmen of Dale and, now, Master of Archery for the Tower Guard, Commander of the Dale Contingent, careful to conceal the truth of who she was. 'The scar?' she'd say, when anyone would ask what happened, what horrible accident marred the left side of her face ( which was a rare occurrence; Gondorians were so very polite). 'The Easterlings,' she'd lie. 'During the attack on Dale; it was so terrifying. And then there was the fire, I burned my arm terribly. It's ugly to see; I must keep it covered...I'm sorry, I'd rather not talk anymore about it.' And with that, the sympathetic nods would ensue and the questions would stop; the inhabitants of the White City knew such stories all too well.
The Master Archer also quietly pursued the delicate matter of Bardhwyn's pardon, for she was, still formally, and exile and traitor. The pardon was officially presented to the High King from the King of Dale by Lysandros' own hand, but, thanks to the demands of protocol and etiquette and the dictates of Middle Earth's most ancient and interminable civil service (that of Minas Tirith), the pardon's approval was stalled.
So, she waited and 'Bethellys' became known to the new 'Dale Company' of the Tower Guard as a sister to all ( or daughter for a few of the older members), a woman to reckon with and, and, on several occasions, an excellent instructor of archery and hand to hand combat.
The waiting was hard, however, and Bardhwyn - or 'Bethellys' - soon felt the stone of Minas Tirith become harder, colder and more confining with every passing day - despite the heat of summer.
A slight breeze eased in to the room, passing over her as she sat in the window; one of the rare wafts of cool air that dip down from the mountains behind Minas Tirith. Bardhwyn closed her eyes and did her best to imagine the view from the bedroom window she had as a child - the summer house, with the small river that meandered nearby and it's clear view of Erebor. The breezes were always cool that came down off the Lonely Mountain...
The door opened and Lysandros entered, sweating in his black woolen tunic. The mithril embroidered tree and stars flashed and glittered despite the damp patches of sweat. She groaned; she hated cleaning and pressing those damn tunics.
"Hello to you, too," Lys replied while hanging up his sword belt and weapon.
"No, it's just your tunic," she answered with a shameful smile. She slipped off the windowsill and stretched. "Hello. Welcome home. Here, let me launder this.." she asked, walking to him.
"No, no, I know how much you hate it. I'll take it to Guard laundries," Lys replied, peeling off the damp tunic. "You'd think they'd have a summer uniform," he added, his voice muffled as he struggled to pull himself free from his clothes.
"I don't think they'd part with the extra mithril," Bardhwyn said with a grin, helping him.
"I'll tell you a secret," Lys announced as he pulled his head free. "If you promise not to breathe a word of this to anyone, ever." He handed off the tunic and peeled off his cotton undershirt, leaving him shirtless; Bardhwyn returned her attention to what Lys was saying. Her mind had wandered - Lys had a way of making her mind wander when he was half-naked.
"What?" she asked, smiling. "What secret?"
"It's not pure mithril," Lys replied. "It's 5 parts silver, 4 parts nickel, one part mithril."
Bardhwyn pulled in her shocked expression. "It's not!"
Lys nodded and went to the wash basin. "It's true," he replied, splashing water onto his face and beard. He collected the bar of soap and worked up handful of lather. "Only the King's personal guard wear the solid mithril; they have to sign for their tunics at the beginning of a duty shift, sign it back in afterwards, at which point the tunic is carefully inspected before being locked securely in a treasury vault. Think about it; would you entrust some of the louts in my company with enough wealth on their backs to purchase a small free-hold in Rhovannion? I wouldn't."
Bardhwyn had to agree; there would be blank and threadbare tunics by the dozens, each carefully picked free of every spec of mithril and sold for drink and gambling debts - were it solid. She settled back and watched Lys finish his ablutions; he made, again, for a pleasant distraction.
"Any news," she asked quietly.
Lys snapped a towel free from a nearby hook and looked at her through the reflection in the mirror.
"Nothing since we received word the assault had begun." He tossed the towel back onto the hook and opened the bottom drawer to the wardrobe. Bardhwyn sighed heavily as Lys rifled through all the carefully folded clothing, jumbling them into a heap before finding the shirt of his choice; one made of light cotton in Dale blue. To her disappointment he pulled the shirt over his head.
"That was this morning, wasn't it?" she asked. Lys nodded but he looked perturbed.
"More news will come," she added, hoping to be of some assurance, but that was the most she could say. The attack on Carn Dum, the need for battle, it had come so quickly that no significant reinforcements could be gathered and dispatched from the White City - so much rested on the shoulders of the Mithril Knights; Minas Tirith seemed to be waiting, with held breath, as its fate was decided far away to the northeast.
"We'll see," Lys said flatly. "Culanir is all doom and gloom about it."
"He's doom and gloom about most everything, isn't he?" Bardhwyn asked playfully. "The Commander of the Pelagir Company of the Tower Guard is not known for his cheery disposition."
"He may not be cheery, but he's one of the best soldiers I've ever known and he's right; if they fail, if the Knights are defeated, we'll have a hell of a fight on our hands and it will come here. And we're not ready. The city is still rebuilding; the Great Gate is not fully repaired and won't be for the foreseeable future. Rohan is tired, the Elves number fewer and they're tired, as well. There is still a lot of grief. As for the Dwarves, they're all flocking to Erebor; too far away to be of immediate help..."
"The fight may go to them, and to Dale, before enemy eyes turn southwards," Bardhwyn quietly interrupted. Lys nodded in silent agreement.
"That's what I would do, anyway," Bardhwyn continued. "Why risk having an enemy force on your rear. Decimate Erebor and Dale and then move quickly south before the weather turns. A winter siege," she trailed off as her mind drifted into unpleasant notions of a freezing cold Minas Tirith, low on food.
"There will be no siege; don't forget there is a firedrake in play," Lys added grimly. "Archers! I've told them: You can't fight a dragon with a sword while standing on the ground!'
"The Knights are archers.."
"Not enough! Each Knight can use a bow, yes, but not just any archers - Barding archers! The best archers!" Lys cried, dropping into a chair next to the dining table. He dug and pulled at his beard; his usual habit when frustrated. He looked off into the distance, through the open window.
"It only takes one arrow," Bardhwyn said. "One archer."
"Yes, but there won't be any thrush on that battle field, not today," Lys grumbled. "He then dissolved into barely audible mumbles: "Mithril Knights... they're all glitter and flash... 'mithril'!"
Bardhwyn moved to the sideboard and poured Lys a cup of ale. She slid it across to him where he sat, still worrying his beard.
"They're keen warriors, and you know it," she said with a kindly chide. "They're brave, well trained, some have extraordinary skills, gifts from the Gods," she poured herself a cup. "Some say they don't even need words; they just know each others minds. Astounding. But, as you say Lys, they wear fine raiment, all very shiny and flashy. Tunics worked with mithril, or perhaps just a bit of mithril", she smiled faintly and poked a finger at Lys's Tower Guard tunic bundled on the table. "And the Mithril Knights have the High King's favor, much like another elite force I know of," at which she gave Lys' blond head a quick peck of a kiss. "No wonder our very own Dirk took to it, as he did?" She said before sipping her ale.
Sometimes, oft times, the subject of Dirk disconcerted the Master Archer but the worries of the day seemed to outweigh Lys' difficult relationship with his fellow Bowmen; Dirk was in the field and no doubt was on Lys' mind as much as her own.
Bardhwyn looked at Lys from the corner of her eye as she walked to the head of the table where, arrayed hilt upright, with points sunk deep into the oak table top, a selection of knives and daggers stood. She pulled a sleek, black bladed dagger with a handle of finely crafted oliphant ivory free and weighed it in her hand. Opposite from where she stood, over and across the table on the wall facing her were the signs of her intent: deep rents in the plaster. It was against that wall Bardhwyn practiced her knife throwing, or dagger throwing, sometimes her Easterling star throwing. She'd yet to get a hold of a pair of Haradim Shangos; large weapons with a multiple of curved blades that would bite no matter how it struck its target. Somehow she knew Lys would never allow her to practice indoors with those; they'd be nothing left of the wall.
"Now Dirk is a Barding archer, a 'real' archer, a Bowman of Dale." Bardhwyn said, taking careful aim at the small target made of straw that hung on the wall, haphazardly fashioned to resemble a human form. "Perhaps he will let loose the shaft that takes down ...'
Lys cut her off with a loud scoff. "He was Bowmen, yes...
"Once a Bowman, always a Bowman!" Bardhwyn interrupted, shaking the dagger's point at Lys.
He's a 'Mithril Knight' now. As for being an archer?" he asked, sceptically. " A passable one, perhaps.."
It was her turn to scoff. "He's an excellent archer, one of the best - better than you ever gave him credit for." She let the dagger fly - a straight throw; it sunk deep into the right arm of the straw man.
"As good as a Barrel-rider will ever get!" Lys exclaimed.
"Yes, he's a Barrel-rider straight from Laketown," she agreed, pulling free a single bladed hunting knife. She spun it in the air as she spoke, catching it deftly by the hilt: "But that 'Barrel-rider' saved your life and mine on more than one occasion," Bardhwyn retorted.
"What's for dinner, 'Bethellys'?" Lys asked.
"Don't change the subject," Bardhwyn retorted. She released the knife, a spinning throw this time; the left leg of the straw man was impaled with a dull 'thud'. She smiled, pleased with her efforts. "Well did he or didn't he?" she asked, looking over at Lys. "And its stew, again."
Lys gave a non-committal shrug and a grimace, most likely at both the mention of stew and the memory of Dirk's aid on those 'more than once' occasions. "All right, he's a Barrel-rider, AND saved our lives on more than one occasion AND he his the son of the Witch King of Angmar."
Bardhwyn groaned. "You know I've always found that whole story hard to believe."
"He did have a serious 'dark turn' after that disclosure: attacked the city, wreaked quite a bit of havoc, tried to steal Leoba, lost a finger. I was there, remember. You were, too," Lys said with a mischievous grin.
"We all have dark times," Bardhwyn replied. "Lost times..."
"You don't wear black any more. Why is that?" He asked.
"You know why; it doesn't suit my coloring," Bardhwyn replied with a deep blush. She pulled a short handled knife free from the collection in front of her; a throwing knife from Dol Amroth, gleaming silver and hilt-less. Once again she eyed the target on the wall.
"I liked it," Lys answered, arching an eyebrow.
"That I do remember," she said, flatly. "I do like these the best," she added, looking down at the Amrothian knife.
Lysandros took the hint and changed the subject. "Why would the King of the Greenwood make up a story about Dirk so dark, so vile then give the boy a ring a power if there wasn't some truth to it all?" Lys asked. "Why would he lie?"
"Why would Thranduil lie? Because it suits him, that's why," Bardhwyn answered. "I've met him, remember. He's... how do they say it in Pelargir? 'A piece of work.'"
"That's not an argument, that's an opinion."
"All right, Thranduil would lie and subject Dirk to all manner pain and suffering as a means to an end - to seriously disconcert someone else, the High King, perhaps?" The Amrothian knife flew, another spinning throw and the target's left leg was completely severed. She flashed a grin at Lys and continued: "Elessar, newly invested on his throne, a new power to contend with and how better to get the measure of him? And Thranduil had a ring of power! Did Lord Elrond, or the Lady Galadriel know this?"
"Have you met them, as well?" Lys asked skeptically.
"No," Bardhwyn replied, irked. "I met Thranduil when I was fifteen and my father distrusted him severely. Perhaps Thranduil needed to create a distraction - a mighty big one - while quietly, somewhere else, he's was up to his conniving tricks," Bardhwyn said. "As they say down south, 'a piece of work'." Quickly she snapped up a knife and threw it, with no weighing, no considered aim. The knife sunk neatly in between the straw man's legs and she laughed.
"The way your mind works, woman," Lys muttered. "I should take you up to the top-tier, sit you down with the King's Counselors; they may learn a think or two - or commit you."
"You never doubted the workings of my mind when in the East," she replied with a half smile. "I 'thought' us out of a few scrapes."
"True," Lys replied. "We were fortunate to find you."
Bardhwyn paused and looked closely at the Master Archer; was he ill? Fatigued? He rarely offered heartfelt sentiments easily. She watched as he finally took up his ale cup and raised it, as if saluting the Bowmen through the open window, so far away. "We, Can and I, were fortunate to have all of you; we couldn't have accomplished the mission, otherwise. Themedes, Maeglin, The Scribe, Jiyadan, Givi..."
"Menon, Zar Calech, Thenie, and of course, Dirk."
"Dirk," Lys repeated before taking a long pull from his cup.
Picking up another knife, Bardhwyn mimicked Dirk's deep voice: "Throw throooough the arm, Bardy. Let the knife fly from your hand as if it an arrow knocked at your shoulder..." She threw the knife, a straight throw, and it sunk cleanly into the torso of the straw man.
A dense cloud passed across the sun, momentarily blotting the light. The room was cast into an immediate and deep shade of grey; the straw man suddenly dropped from the wall, sliding free from the knives that impaled it, and fell into a heap on the tiled floor.
Bardhwyn shivered, despite the heat of the day. She looked to Lys, whose gaze was firmly set on the horizon outside the window, and his eyes were sad.
Unbeknownst to either, their friend had just fallen.
As the cloud passed and the room brightened, Bardhwyn wordlessly slipped onto Lys lap and threw her arms around his neck. He held her tightly, in turn, and together they looked out into the open sky, each feeling a deep melancholy neither could explain.