Minas Tirith was no longer recognisable as the great capital of Gondor; the very air was tainted by the kind of darkness that turned what was once a place of beauty and life into shadows and ruins, haunted by the ghosts of the dead that lay everywhere.
Black tinged the once pure stone that long dead hands had forged into the prosperous city that was no more. Dark stains spread in pools across the ground, while rust-coloured splatters disfigured the walls and archways. The dead lay sprawled in undignified heaps, orcs together with soldiers, and then, further into the city, civilians slaughtered in hordes.
They walked in silence, struck dumb by the violence all around them. Aragorn studied each and every face, friend and foe. He did not rightly now what he was looking for; signs of life, familiar faces, or something else. It didn’t matter. He would know when he found something. It was tremendously difficult, though. These were his people, his to look after, to rule over, to care for.
His to protect.
He had failed them. The city, its people, Boromir – even Denethor, who had ruled in Aragorn’s stead while he was off to the north.
None of them had noticed Denethor’s corpse. It lay at the foot of the great tower, mangled, burnt and unrecognisable as human, let alone the body of the once great Steward of Gondor. In the end, Sauron’s hold over his mind had overcome any feeble connection he still had on his sanity. If not for Gandalf’s impeccable sense of timing, Faramir would have burnt with him.
By the time they reached the top tier of the city, they had almost become numb to the devastation, but it was still a shock to enter the great courtyard. It was very much dead, so full of death, in fact, that the very breaths of the three survivors seemed out of place in the stillness. This sacred place of Gondor had not been spared from the death; but the bodies up here were no mere civilians. What drew all their eyes was the tree – flames still consuming the branches. Between the dancing flashes of amber heat, something could be seen, stuck in the boughs.
Fire had licked at the soldier’s skin, burning, burning all that was good away. But his body was mostly intact, almost like –
“Like someone placed him there,” mumbled Gimli, frowning as he attempted to take in the scene in front of them.
Aragorn nodded. The placing of the man’s limbs, spread-eagled, held in the tight cradle of branches, was too precise to be accidental.
“He is meant to be a warning, an example.”
“Who is he?” Legolas walked carefully around the tree, the space free from bodies despite the carnage everywhere else.
“Look at the armour, the White Tree on his chest, the fineness of his clothes – this is no peasant.” Aragorn moved closer, reaching out a hand but pulling it back before he could touch the dead man. “His face, tell me, does he remind you of anyone?”
Legolas studied the features. Gimli could not bear to look. While fire and war wounds had disfigured at least half the face, it was not impossible to make out what Aragorn was getting at.
“Boromir,” Legolas breathed, his heart once again aching for the fallen member of the Fellowship.
“I am saddened to say that I believe we are looking at his brother, Faramir, Captain of Gondor.” Aragorn’s face was grave as he surveyed the body. “If this is indeed Faramir, I hold little hope for his father, the Steward of Gondor. I fear that this is the end of his line.”
Gimli stared, mesmerised, as flames frolicked about the tree, turning wood to ash, ash to dust, dust to wind. Fire held the key to many dwarven creations, heating furnaces, helping turn lumps of metal ore into something magnificent, and yet he had not witnessed the destructive nature of the element to this extent before. The savageness of orcs, the cruelty of monsters like Saruman and Sauron was nothing compared to the sheer ferocity of nature. Orcs they could kill, monsters they could fight, but nature was not so easily subdued. Although each race tried; dwarves carved their palaces deep underground, desperate to subjugate the earth; men trod their filthy footprints all over, leaving no natural place intact; hobbits saw the earth as something to use, a resource; elves were closest to nature – Rivendell, the beautiful palaces of Imladris, ethereal Lothlorien, Mirkwood – all built in harmony with nature.
Minas Tirith was now being reclaimed by the nature its founders had fought to control. And Gimli found that fascinating.
Legolas glanced at the dwarf, unusually still and calm. “Gimli?”
“Hum?” His gaze did not move from the crimson figures flickering in front of him.
“Are you alright?”
A hand appeared on Gimli’s shoulder, and the contact seemed to break the stupor he had fallen into. He blinked, and shook his head, coughing slightly.
“Oh. Err…I’m alright.” Legolas smiled slightly. Gimli noticed and reddened. “Of course I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be fine?”
“Shhh. Listen.” Aragorn put a finger to his lips, eyes fixed on an archway obscured by shadows. Legolas gazed at the empty darkness, eyes straining to see any flicker of movement that could have caught the Ranger’s eye. Nothing.
Gimli listened, but his hearing was nowhere near as powerful as elven or Dûnedain ears.
But soon, even he became aware, in the not-quite-stillness of the night, of a small sound. A whimper, a moan, a cry – the first sound they had heard other than their own voices in hours.
Aragorn crept towards the opening. However focused he might seem, however tunnel-minded, he was always aware, his perception of the world unhindered by his emotions; he noticed the bodies he was passing, but did not register them. He didn’t need to, not when there was something else alive here.
Legolas glanced one more time at the broken body of Faramir, before following in that quiet way that only elves and rangers could. His hand slipped off of Gimli’s shoulder, and the dwarf turned as if to keep the contact.
Once shadows had swallowed them all up, all became very still, the air close and stifling. It was hard to breath, the darkness burning up all the oxygen available to them.
The devastatingly weak cry grew louder, yet still so small within the confines of the great city.
There was no reprise for them through the archway, no reprise from the death that threatened to get the better of their emotions.
Legolas was the one who found the source of the mewling. There were more civilians up here; mothers, children, families, that had done nothing wrong except live in the wrong city. Many people had died in the many wars that had been fought in Middle Earth – many cities destroyed, many lives ended, many innocent lives – and yet, nothing ever changed.
A woman lay curled on the floor, blood congealing from the wound in her stomach. The cries were coming from behind her. Legolas knelt by her side.
“So much pointless violence,” he murmured. His hands were gentle as he rolled the woman onto her back. She would have been beautiful in life, long ginger hair rolling in curls to her waist, eyes that used to sparkle with mischief and love. Except for the large gashes across her face, chest and stomach.
And there, clasped protectively to her side with cold, ashen hands, was a bundle. It was squirming and crying.
“A baby,” wondered Gimli in amazement. “How did it survive the orcs?”
Aragorn carefully extracted the tiny child, his hands huge around the baby. The tenderness that came over his features fell as soon as he picked it up. “I don’t think it did.”
He turned the baby to face Gimli and Legolas. It was wrapped in a white cloth, red splattered all over, originating from a puddle over the child’s chest. Aragorn gingerly unwrapped the cloth, holding the baby as if it were the most precious thing on earth. It could not have been more than six months old, and yet, its lifeblood was already draining from its tiny veins.
The wound ran deep along its skin, so strange and alien on the paleness of its skin.
“It’s a girl.” Legolas stroked her tuft of blonde hair, trying very hard not to let her see the tears that threaded their way across his face.
The death of children was never easy to stomach; she would have had a good life, full of happiness and love, had she not ended up one of many sacrifices that Sauron and his armies made to secure their victory.
“Can I - ?” Gimli held his hand up to touch the girl’s cheek. Aragorn smiled sadly down at the dwarf, and nodded. He reached down and placed the baby into Gimli’s arms. She even looked small in his dwarven hands.
The three looked down at the girl as she wailed in pain. There was a bleakness in their faces that no rays of sun could lighten.
“What are we going to do with her?”
Aragorn shook his head. There was only one way to deal with this child. If she were not injured, it would be another story entirely. But now...
“No. I will not let you take her life,” Legolas growled. He took the baby from Gimli’s unresisting hands and walked away from them. He cradled her to his chest, one hand stroking her back, while the other supported her head. “She is just an infant, innocent. We can stop the bleeding, use kingsfoil to help heal her wounds. She can live. You do not need to kill her.”
Aragorn said nothing, sorrow marking every step he took towards Legolas.
“Gin iallon, Aragorn.”
Gimli, his head bowed, spoke up. “Legolas, my lad.” The seriousness in his voice made the elf glance away from Aragorn. “There is nothing we can do. She will not survive the night.”
“We cannot take her with us. Ha-an cerin.”
Legolas looked suddenly lost, his eyes, staring into the blue whirls of purity, were suddenly too big for his face. It pained Aragorn to see his friend so heartbroken. He took the baby from Legolas, his fingers limp and hopeless.
The elf stood, his arms still hugged to his chest, blank and emotionless. Gimli went to stand by him, his turn now to place a hand on Legolas’ knee in a gesture of solidarity.
Aragorn turned away, the girl’s cries quieting as he rocked her. “Shhh, my darling, Lellig. Govano i nothrim în adh i mellyn în mi Mannos.”
Legolas closed his eyes and silence fell.
 I beg of you
 It must be done.
 My daughter. May you join your family and friends in the afterlife.