The dust kicked up by my horses feet tickled my nose and made my already gritty eyes feel worse. The horse underneath me snorted tiredly, his coat white with sweat. The sun beat down on both of us making my mouth dry and skin feel cracked. My water skin was bone dry and there was no water for another 2 miles.
Ahead of me stood a glimmering city, it's whiteness almost blinding in the stifling heat of the day. Banner dropped on the turrets as no wind stirred on the scorching summer day. Guards who from this distance looked like ants scuttling along the tops of the city had already spotted me. The lone rider in the distance trotting along the deserted road to Minas Tirith. I had pulled out of my bag the small banner I used to approach city and it was well known in these parts. The banner of the Stewards was not to be missed, neither I, the personal messenger rider of the family, could be mistaken for anyone else.
I kicked my spurs into my tired mount who obliged me by breaking into a steady canter. The young brown horse underneath me was near exhausted and I couldn't blame him. I felt the same way having made the trip to Dol Amroth and back in just 5 days. The young horse had done well though and I was impressed enough to have him join my small string of horses.
My name is Devera and I am the personal messenger of Lord Denethor, the Steward of Gondor. My father had been the personal weapons and horseman tutor of his sons as younger men. Originally from Rohan, my mother passed away when I was a small girl. My father back in Rohan had a similar position teaching the King's guard. To escape his grief he packed our small belongings up and ridden to Gondor within a week of my mother being buried. He'd marched into the throne room of Lord Denethor unnoticed and simply asked for the position. Initially turned away from it, the gods must have been smiling upon us. A mere day later a summons had been received from Denethor and my father had the job. With no mother and no other siblings to keep an eye on me I had to tag along with my father at work. Boromir and Faramir were already young men and took delight in becoming brothers to me. Thus my connection with the family started.
When we moved to Gondor I was already an accomplished rider. As soon as I could sit upright as a young babe I'd been sitting in front of my father in the saddle. This resulted in my riding skills not going unnoticed by the time I was a young woman. With no substantial dowry and no real marriage prospects as my father seemed to scare most of them away. Denethor had taken pity on me and started asking me to run messages for him. The small amount of extra money had been a welcome independence and soon turned into a full fledged job. A messenger had been sick and I had jumped at the chance to ride to Osgiliath. From there, I hadn't looked back. After my father died 2 years previously Denethor had been kind enough to let me stay in the palace. Perhaps kindness was not his main priority, of late I'd been roused out of bed at all hours. In the last 2 months I'd spent a mere week at home and I was in desperate need for a break.
The huge gates of Minas Tirith opened up in front of me and the guards greeted me politely. I slowed my horse down to a walk to maneuverer through the busy streets. As always, even in the midday sun, the markets were alive with activity in the lower circles. The air filled with various smells of exotic spices, fresh bread, cooking meat and some other less than savoury scents. My favourite stall was close to the gates and I did my customary stop. The old lady who's name I never knew greeted me with a kind smile. Her teeth long gone with age and her wrinkled face always seemed to light up with kindness no matter what customer she had with her. She handed me a carefully wrapped sweet bun without me even having to ask. The smell of honey and far away spices filled my nose and my stomach grumbled instantly. I fumbled around in my belt pouch for the required money and as always came out with the right amount. The old lady waved my coin away with a gentle smile.
"This one is not as fresh as it should be, no coin today."
As always I tried to protest but she pressed the bun firmly into my hand and waved off my protests. I always paid her for her amazing baked goods however there were some days where she refused payment. It always made me feel guilty as she was living on one of the lower levels of the city. It was notorious for the poverty and rough living until you reached the 4th ring where the lesser merchants started to live. Like her name, I had no actual idea of where she lived, nor what her life was really like. My life in the upper levels may have been more privileged than most. A roof over my head and hot meals when I needed them were a luxury for some. I was very fortunate to have both.
As I wound up through the various gates of the city my weariness increased. I barely noticed the activity around me. The daily motion of people passing in nothing but a colourful blur. The weariness I felt wasn't one just of body, but also of mind. Although I was never privy to all the information Denethor passed on I knew better than most the goings on of the gleaming walls of the city. I had outrun 2 bands of Orcs just the previous week. Although not unheard of to hear of smalls bands attacking travellers, this had become a regular occurrence. What was smalls bands, hungry and desperate were now well formed ranks. Disciplined and waiting for the ideal target to pounce upon. I was of little concern to them and they left me alone. My horses too fast and the small bow I carried could fire a warning shot easily. I was no expert shot with my bow however it kept the orcs well away from me and also served as an easy way to hunt dinner. The less supplies I carried the faster my horses could run.
One could call these Orcs attacks simply coincidence however the whispers of an approaching war reached many ears. The growing shadow from the land of Mordor had begun to nibble at the edges of Gondor. Villages in Rohan were under attack by well equipped and well organised Orcs and Wild Men. Theodred, the king of Rohan's son, had met me on the road several times on my trips to Edoras. Always grim and heavily armed these days, the light hearted boy I knew from my youth was gone. His reports were similar to those of everywhere else I had been. Little by little did these small bands of attacks nibble at the edge of everyone. Dol Amroth fought off Cosair attacks daily and had reported Haradrim seen to be moving towards Mordor. 6 months previously Denethor bade me to ride to Rivendell in search of news in the North. I made it to the first guard post of Rivendell before being promptly turned around by none other than the legendary sons of Elrond. Unperturbed by their actions I simply set up camp within what I hoped had been sight of their guard post. 3 days later they begrudgingly took Denethor's message to their father after seeing no signs of me moving. Within a day I had my response and rode long and hard for 3 weeks to get home. When I delivered the message to Denethor, he locked himself in his study and refused to come out for 2 days. In the end Boromir had broken down the door to get him out. It had taken nearly a week for Denethor to then speak to anyone.
After the 6th gate the stables were now in sight. I heaved a sigh of relief as my horse wearily stumbled into the courtyard. The sound of iron clad hooves on the pavers caused grooms to come running out of the shade of the stables. Dismounting I handed the reins to the groom and gave the young horse a long pat. He had done me proud and now deserved a break in the paddock. All of the messengers horses were regularly rotated from the city stables to a farm halfway between Gondor and Rohan. The lush pastures and rolling fields rejuvenated not only their bodies, but also their minds. My young horse had been at the stables for a little over 3 months now. Longer than I usually would like to keep a young one in training. I was hoping to personally ride him to the farm once he'd recovered sufficiently from his journey. While there I might also get a few days break.
After a kind word to the young stableboy I began what always felt like the longest walk of my life. If I had an urgent message I would ride straight to the palace and a groom would come to collect my horse for me. However the news from Prince Imrahil was not urgent and I would spare my horses legs for today. I paused only long enough to refill my water flask from the stable well and began the long walk. Unlike the lower levels of the city, the upper rings were quiet at this time of day. Ladies and Men of the court sheltered out of the heat only to emerge when the sun had sufficiently dimmed so not to wreck their fair complexions. My spurs jangled softly and my well worn leather boots creaked as they kicked up soft clouds of dirt. I had slung my saddlebags over my shoulder, they were on small concern today as they carried little more than a letter. My supplies long gone and the nights were pleasant enough to simply wrap myself in a cloak if I chose to sleep outdoors. I had nearly emptied my water flask within 100 yards of my walk. After a bitter long winter and a frosty spring, summer seemed to make the most of drying the country out while it still could. By the time I'd reached the 7th gate I was exhausted and sweating profusely. The guards shot me a pitied look as they let me through without question. I smiled in thanks and continued what could only be called a trudge to my quarters.
The palace, like outside, was quiet in the heat of the day. Only the occasional servant could be seen scuttling around in their usual haste. I ignored them except for a kind smile to the ones I knew and liked. Along the way to my room I passed Boromir's door. I hesitated slightly in front of it before knocking loudly. Pausing for a minute I waited for any sign of activity before shrugging my shoulders and moving on. It would have been a rare occurrence for Boromir to be in his rooms at this time of day. I wasn't even sure why I had bothered knocking in the first place.
I opened my room with an audible sigh of relief. Dumping my saddlebags on the floor beside my bed I flopped down on it in relief. Fumbling around I managed to kick off my boots. I groaned in pleasure as the leather was relieved off my feet and I could wiggle my toes freely. I knew I couldn't lay there for too long as I'd fall asleep. I desperately needed a bath to wash the grime of the road off. I groped around on the bed using the blanket to pull myself off to the other side. I fell on the floor with an audible thump and slid along the floor for a moment before coming to a rest. Anyone looking at me right now would think me ridiculous, but I was simply too tired to move. Propping myself up with my elbows I managed to heave myself into a sitting position with great effort. Another moment of contemplating my decision to actually have a bath, I was then on my feet.
I staggered into the bathroom and stopped dead in my tracks. A girlish squeal of delight left my lips before I could stop it. My bath tub had been filled very recently. The bubbles of my favourite soap still lingered on the bath. There was only one person who could have done this for me.
"Oh thank you Ina," I gasped in delight.
I didn't have a personal maid, well not one I could call my own. My rank in the household didn't allow me to have one. However Ina was the closest thing I could get to one. She must have heard I was coming and made sure I'd had a bath drawn. Ina took care of all my washing, mending, making sure I was dressed enough to not embarrass myself at official functions. She was the only female influence I had in my otherwise male dominated life.
She lived on the 4th level of the city with her husband and 2 children. A boy and a girl whom I loved to spoil with gifts whenever I could. Her husband worked as a weapon smith and was a kind man. I'd spent many nights having dinner at their place and confiding my worries in Ina. It was comforting to have the middle aged woman to lean on when I needed someone to talk to, or a shoulder to cry on.
Stripping off my clothes and leaving them in a dirty heap, I was about to lower myself in the bath before I caught my reflection in the mirror. I wasn't a vain woman by any stretch of the imagination. However what I saw in the mirror was not pleasing to my eyes. My long blonde hair was streaked with dirt, as was my face. My blue eyes looked far too big against my tanned skin and huge black smudges were underneath them. My lips were cracked from a combination of too much sun and wind. I was skinnier than I had ever been. My breasts looked non existent and my hip bones were jutting out. I could begin to see my ribs and my stomach almost looked hollow.
I sighed and turned my back on the emaciated creature in the mirror. I knew I was working too hard and spending too many long hours on the road. However I generally chose to ignore my body's complains of exhaustion. Standing in front of the mirror was a slap in the face reminder of how much toll it was taking on my body. I had never been anything but skinny. I'd glanced enviously of the woman at court with their beautiful curvy bodies as they sneered at my skinny body and feeble attempts to pad my own dresses out. Wearing riding clothes it wouldn't be hard to mistake me for a young man if you didn't see my face.
Slipping into the bath my thoughts were washed away as I gasped in delight. The water was still warm and it lapped at my fatigued body like a lovers caress. I submerged myself under the water until I couldn't breath anymore. Laughing to myself as I surfaced I began to scrub my body down quickly before the water got too cold. As usual Ina had outdone herself and made sure all my favourite soap and shampoo was there for me. The water was a grimy shade of brown once I was done. I'd only stepped out of the bath and was reaching for my towel when I heard the door bang open.
"Devera!" Ina was calling from the bedroom. She sounded frazzled which was unlike her. Usually nothing could upset or rattle Ina. For her to be sounding frazzled generally meant problems for me.
"Here," I mumbled not a second before she barged into the bathroom. Despite sounding frazzled not a hair was out of place on her head. The only signs of stress were the slight crinkles around her lips. I frowned heavily, this didn't look good.
"Lord Denethor requests your presence now," Ina stressed the word now. "And he has company."
I fought off every curse and swear word I knew and swallowed my words. Denethor requesting my presences usually meant he had a job for me. Him having company meant I had to be wearing something besides dirty riding attire.
As tolerated as I was for my unusual position as a woman, Denethor would simply not tolerate poor court manners. I'd had them drilled into me as a young girl when I first arrived to Gondor with my father. It had taken him mere days to realise I wouldn't survive without them. As much as I hated them as a young girl, I cherished the gift of those lessons now.
"Of course he does." I tried hard to keep the grumble out of my voice. It wasn't Ina's fault that I'd been home less than an hour and already wanted again. Ina flashed me a brief sympathetic smile before pushing me into my room.
I knew the drill well enough and quickly dried myself off while Ina pulled out a suitable dress. Giving it a quick flick to get rid of any obvious creases she'd then slid it over my head and fasted my ties. As she went about her work she chatted endlessly about the gossip that I'd missed while I'd been absent. Usually it was her children's antics and their mischievous ways always had me smiling no matter how foul my mood. Today was no different as she recalled the stories from the last week. Her boy Samuel who was nearly 10 had decided to gather as many frogs as he could find and leave them in his sister's bed hoping to scare her. Her daughter Tiana hadn't given the expected reaction and punched her brother in the face.
"She's going to be a handful your daughter," I laughed as Ina sat me down to do my hair. Ina pulled a face in agreement and went about doing my hair. I winced as she snagged the many knots in my hair as she ran the brush through it quickly. Ina opted to pull my hair into 2 braid today, with them joining at the base of my head with a few pins. A simple hairstyle, but also a practical one if I needed to ride out quickly. While she was doing my hair I dabbed ointment onto my cracked lips to soothe them as much as possible. It'd take a week to repair the damage I'd already done to them. However the ointment would make them look as smooth as humanly possible in the short space of time.
"Go," Ina pushed me out of the door as soon as she was done. I glanced over my shoulder guiltily at the mess I had already made in my room. Poor Ina, I was barely home an hour and my room was a mess already. Slipping on the pretty slippers by my door I hurried out of my room. The dress Ina had chosen for me was a sky blue one with a simple laced up bodies and full skirt. Although plain in decoration it would suit me well to look dressed as nicely as possible. I lifted the skirts and walked as fast I could without it being seen as rushing and unlady like.
I slowed down as I reached the throne room and smoothed out my skirts. I plastered what I'd hoped to be a pretty smile on my face as I stepped in. The room was nearly empty, save for Denethor and Faramir. The pair were sitting at opposite ends of the table and both looking sullen. It was Faramir who noticed me first. He jumped up out of his chair with a genuine smile on his face.
"Lady Devera," he smiled and bowed. I returned the greeting and curtsied bowing my head slightly.
"Lord Faramir, it is good to see you."
"And you, please sit," Faramir gestured to the empty chair to his left.
"Lord Denethor," I curtsied towards him warily judging his mood. Of late he could swing from near murder like rage to absolute delight in a matter of seconds. However today he managed to pull himself out from what looked to be a sullen mood to one of slight pleasantness. I let out a breath I didn't realise I'd been holding and glanced towards Faramir. His lips flickered in a ghost of a smile and shook his head just barely. It wasn't hard to tell the pair had been arguing. It was all Denethor and Faramir seemed to do for the last few years. The only praise to come from Denethor's lips were for that of Boromir. His eldest son the pride in his father's eyes.
Faramir held out the chair for me as I gathered my skirts and sat down. No sooner had my rear hit the hard wood, servants scuttled out from the sides. They set down a large lunch and left as soon as they'd come. Now I knew was Ina was in such a hurry to get me ready. Lunch was being delayed only by my own tardiness.
My stomach growled in appreciation. I was starving and had to refrain from making a glutton of myself. Still I piled my plate higher than was necessary and got stuck into my food. Silence stretched out between the 3 of us and except for the occasional glance at Faramir who'd offer me a wavering smile, the meal was disturbingly quiet. Denethor seemed lost in his own world, as was usual of late. It wasn't until the meals were cleared away that Denethor finally cleared his throat to speak.
"I need you to ride to Rivendell, Devera," he spoke as if he was asking me to deliver a message to a Lord's house simply 2 levels away. I couldn't help myself, years of courtly manners were squashed down by my anger.
"What do you mean you want me to ride to Rivendell?" I replied tartly. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Faramir set his mouth in a hard line. This situation was not looking good. Denethor's face hardened at my sulky reply.
"You are to catch up to Boromir and return with whatever message he sends you home with," Denethor replied sharply. "He left this morning and if you ride hard today you will catch up to him. You know the way to Rivendell, Boromir does not."
"And why is Boromir riding to Rivendell?" I replied just as tartly as before. I was tired and my temper was starting to fray. It would take me a little over 6 weeks to ride to Rivendell if I was by myself setting a reasonable pace. Last time I'd been I'd nearly killed my horse in the mad rush to get home in 3 weeks. Boromir, though the seasoned warrior was no rider. Having him would simply slow me down.
"That is none of your concern Devera, you forget your place." Denethor's temper snapped as quick as my own. "You are to leave at once and not ask questions of me. Do you understand?"
His last words were shouted at me as Denethor leapt to his feet. His face twisted in a furious mask he sent a cup flying across the room. Faramir only just managed to jump from his seat in time to save being sprayed by whatever drink was in the cup. I opened my mouth to protest again but promptly shut it. Without another word I pushed my chair back so fast that it hit the floor. I gathered my skirts and stormed from the room not even throwing a backwards glance over my shoulder. I was too angry for words. I heard Faramir call after me but I ignored him and stomped back to my rooms in the most undignified manner I could muster. Faramir had only just managed to slip inside the door before I could slam it shut.
"You knew this was happening," I shouted at Faramir as soon as he was in the room. "And you couldn't even give me some sort of warning before I had to pack up and leave again."
I could feel my voice starting to choke with unshed tears. I was angry about being thrown into one of Denethor's crazy plans yet again. Faramar was the one who usually shielded me from the madness. But he'd failed in that today.
"Devera stop it," Faramir scolded me lightly.
That didn't stop me throwing a string of cursing in his direction. He simply crossed his arms and with his infinite patience waited for me to finish. Once I had stopped my cursing he simply raised an eyebrow at me. It made me scowl even further at him. Deep down I knew I couldn't be angry with him. It wasn't his fault I'd be riding out again a mere hour after I'd gotten home.
"Boromir only left this morning," Faramir said calmly once he was sure I was finished my tirade. "He said to tell you he'd be waiting for you not far from Osgilliath."
"But why now Faramir?" I practically wailed like a small child. "I'm exhausted I've barely been home these last few months."
"Devera." Faramir began but hesitated as he dropped off his sentence. The strained look on his face made my stomach drop. Whatever news he had it wasn't going to be good. It took him a few long seconds before he could get the words out.
"Osgilliath was attacked naught a few days ago."
The words were like a slap across the face to me. Silence stretched between us before Faramir started to speak again.
"I had a dream on the night before the attack. It said to me 'Seek the sword that was broken in Imladris' and Boromir volunteered to make the journey instead of me. It wasn't until Father had been told you were arriving he came up with the idea to send you along as well."
I opened my mouth to speak but no words came out. I silently shut my mouth and simply sat on my bed in shock. So the rumours were true. War was coming, it was just a matter of time before it actually struck. Attacking Osgilliath was a very bold move. Not something a rabble of Orcs could come up with themselves. The smoke rising from Mordor could only mean one thing. It was even too terrible to think about.
A loud rap on the door startled both of us as Ina rushed in before I could say enter. She shot me a not to subtle look about having the door closed with Faramir in there. I simply rolled my eyes. Being the centre of court gossip was hardly new for me and court manners were the last thing on my mind now. With a thump, Ina dropped my now full saddlebags on the door with a relieved sigh. Another reason for her harassed look earlier. She would have known before I did that I'd be leaving again very soon. The rush out the door to get me to lunch was a mere rouse to not raise my suspicion. I looked between Ina and Faramir and sighed in defeat. I was going whether I liked it or not. I gave the both a quick hug and smiled grimly.
"I suppose I should take Axis then."