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Unto the ending of the world: 18. Patrol
April 20 – May 11, 3019
The tedium of the empty landscape of South Ithilien lent itself well to contemplation, Faramir found. This far south, the land resembled the dry lands of Harondor rather than the wild garden that was the north of Ithilien. It was the third day since the patrol had left Pelargir and crossed the river, and so far he had seen neither enemy troops nor evidence of recent troop movements.
While he was relieved that they had not yet found sign of an imminent attack, it also raised his suspicion. Did the Enemy have no troops available to press his advantage? Their own losses had been bad, but the Enemy had also lost many before Minas Tirith. Or could Sauron, now that he had his Ring again, crush their resistance at any time and was he merely toying with them? Faramir did not doubt he would find out soon enough.
Faramir let his thoughts stray back to the last days of Minas Tirith, and the unhoped-for arrival of the troops from the south led by Elendil's Heir. What kind of King would he have been, had he lived? Would he have inspired love or fear in his people?
Looking back further to the dream that had come to him the previous year, Faramir knew now that it had foretold the coming of the King, and he wondered whether events would have run differently if he, rather than Boromir, had gone to Imladris to seek what lay behind the words spoken in it. More importantly, what would happen now? For over a thousand years Gondor had waited, hoped, for the King to return, and now...
When Imrahil told him that the man who claimed the title of Elendil's Heir was no other than the almost legendary Thorongil, Faramir did not know what to think. As children, he and Boromir had both been fascinated by the stories about the previous Captain-General that soldiers were sometimes willing to tell them. Faramir recalled with acute embarrassment the time he had asked his father about Thorongil. At nine, he ought to have been perceptive enough to know it was a mistake, but he had still let Boromir goad him into it.
He also thought of how Boromir had once boasted to him that he remembered Thorongil, but Faramir had never quite believed his brother's claim. Boromir had been no more than a toddler when Thorongil so abruptly left Gondor, and all he had to offer was a vague recollection of a tall, dark-haired man who had come to talk to their father and argued with him. Even to his seven-year-old self the tale had lacked conviction and detail, but Boromir had been offended when his little brother sceptically pointed out that he had just described almost every grown man in the Citadel; the only defence Boromir could put up was that only a few men would dare to argue with their father, so it had to have been Thorongil.
Faramir had found some time to talk with the Elf and the Dwarf who had travelled from Imladris with his brother, and they had told him much more than Mithrandir had about Boromir, including close observations of his brother's slow fall to the temptation of the One Ring. Later, he had also spoken long with the Halfling who was now sworn to his father's service. Alas that Boromir had yielded to that evil influence, though he had at least in the end redeemed himself.
No wonder though that the Ringbearer had panicked and fled when he and his men stumbled upon him in Ithilien. Faramir sighed. Had there been any choice, the Ringbearer's companion would not have been slain, but taken to Minas Tirith to be questioned. It seemed such a small thing among everything else that had happened, but he truly regretted having given the order to kill the Halfling when he attempted escape.
Upon learning that Thorongil, Aragorn, had been Elendil's Heir through Isildur, Faramir at last understood his father's long unwillingness to discuss him. What he still did not understand fully was what had happened at the last Council in Minas Tirith, in combination with Denethor's behaviour at the pyre.
How long had the Steward known? And Mithrandir, what had been his goal? The wizard must have known who Thorongil was, even back then, yet he had said nothing. Had Ecthelion known, or suspected, and had that been why he so favoured the stranger? But why had Denethor first denied the claim, only to acknowledge it at the last, and then acknowledged not only that Aragorn was Isildur's Heir, but that his claim in Gondor had been valid as well? Faramir sighed. There were too many questions that he wanted answered, but those answers would not be found by brooding over the same points for days.
Faramir could not give credit to the whispers he knew were circulating among the minor lords, suggesting that the Steward had been driven mad by grief over the loss of his city. He did not understand his father's actions, but he was sure that Denethor was rational.
Returning his attention to the present, Faramir signalled a halt. They were no more than a few hours from the Crossings of Poros, and it was close enough to noon that they might as well stop now for a rest.
"Mablung, send scouts ahead as far as the river," Faramir instructed his lieutenant. "And set guards so that all others may rest." After the last low hill ahead, the terrain was nearly completely open until the river and the scant cover provided by the mound of Haudh in Gwanûr. If they were able to continue beyond the river, this would be their last safe camp for a while.
As the camp grew quiet, Faramir lay back in the dry winter grass, allowing himself a few minutes of rest as well. It truly was silent here; except for the soft snores of some of the men, there was scarcely any sound to be heard.
"Captain. Wake up."
"I am awake, Damrod," he murmured, then realised that he must have dozed off after all, and opened his eyes.
"Captain. Herion and Balan are back," Damrod announced.
Faramir quickly stood up, and followed Damrod back up the hill. They met the two scouts just below the top of the hill. "What news?" Damrod asked them.
"The Crossings are in the hands of the Enemy," Herion replied. "We were not seen, but there is no getting across."
"Could you make out who are stationed there?" Faramir asked. He had hoped otherwise, but it was hardly surprising that the river crossing was well defended. Even if the Enemy was holding back for whatever reason, he would not willingly give away a major position.
"Men of Khand. But I did not recognise the tribal signs on their banners," Balan replied.
"Khand? Not Harad?" Faramir raised an eyebrow in surprise.
"No," Herion replied slowly. "Odd, that, now that you mention it, Captain."
Odd indeed, Faramir thought. He would have expected the Southrons and their Umbarite masters to be in the forefront against Gondor, even with the loss of the main Corsair fleet. "How many do you estimate there are?"
"We counted about thirty near the river, but their main camp lies further back," said Herion. "I expect around three hundred in all."
Faramir nodded. Two companies was a likely number and more than enough to hold the crossing. "Was there anything out of the ordinary to be seen?" he asked Balan, who merely shook his head in denial as they walked back to the camp.
Later, while the scouts were sitting aside arguing quietly about the details of their sketch of the situation at the crossing, Faramir wondered whether it would be worth having a look himself, but decided against it. With the road south blocked, their path lay north. He wondered how far they could go before encountering enemy troops there as well.
"Mablung!" he called his second, then continued when the other had come nearer, "For how many days do we have supplies?"
"Two weeks, more if we take time to hunt," Mablung replied.
That was enough to take the patrol north. "Mablung, send a runner back to Pelargir to report what we have found here, and tell the men to be ready to march north in an hour."
After instructing the man who would return to Pelargir, Faramir led the rest of the patrol north, at first cautiously, but later at some speed when he was certain that they could no longer be seen from the river crossings. The land they journeyed through was flat and bare until the third day when the landscape became noticeably greener and hillier.
Another day and a half saw them close to Emyn Arnen, and there was still no sign of enemy troops. Faramir was starting to wonder whether they were rushing into a trap when one of the patrol's scouts returned.
"Ambush ahead," Herion called out when he was near enough to be heard.
Faramir ran up to the front of their line. "Details?"
"Orcs. We slew most, and Damrod has gone after the others to keep them from raising the alarm."
"Lead us there, quickly," Faramir commanded, and after readying their weapons, the patrol followed Herion, until he slowed down and raised a hand to stop them. He turned aside, leading them up a slope until they reached a low ridge overlooking the road.
"This is where they were waiting for us," Herion said, "The perfect place for an ambush, or it would have been, if they had been a bit more patient."
"Luckily for us, that is their usual failing," Mablung observed drily, and Faramir could only agree with him.
A soft birdcall signalled Damrod's return. "The last one nearly got away," he reported to Faramir, "But I got him before he could warn his fellows. There will be more Orcs from here on, though. The woods ahead bear the scars of their presence."
"Then we would do well to abandon the road," Faramir said. "There are too many opportunities for ambush."
Though the land did indeed bear the signs of the passage of Orcs, and they were close enough to hear them several times, their progress was steady and unseen. Faramir wondered what pleasure the Enemy's servants took from the wanton destruction that nearly always marked their trails. Orcs could move with stealth if they had to, that he had learned long ago, but only if their captains enforced their brand of discipline even more harshly than they normally did.
They were within an hour's reach of the Osgiliath road now, and that night as the Rangers set up their camp, Faramir took Mablung apart. "After we reach the road tomorrow, if it is clear, I want to take two men with me and see what can be learned nearer the Morgul Vale. You can then lead the others to the Cross-roads." Faramir half expected his lieutenant to protest at the suggestion, but Mablung remained silent, so he continued, "I will take Anborn and Damrod, unless you would suggest others."
Mablung nodded his agreement, and then asked, "How long do you expect to be gone?"
"No more than a day. If we are not at the Cross-roads by the evening of the second day, return to Pelargir."
"The third day," Mablung said.
"If we are not back by the second evening, I doubt that we will return at all, and it is more important that the Steward learn of what news we gather here than that any rescue attempt be made."
"True enough, Captain," Mablung acknowledged, though he looked more than a bit unhappy at the idea, "But with all respect, were we to give up even an hour too soon if you are missing, the Steward would send us straight back out here to make certain there was indeed no hope."
Apart from a stern look, which Mablung chose to ignore, Faramir let it go. Mablung understood the importance of any information on the Enemy's movements well enough. Besides, if it came to it, he would not be in a position to enforce the order, so there was little point in pursuing the point.
The next morning, the three Rangers set off well before dawn, in the hope that they would be back that day. The three proceeded in silence, easily falling into the routine of countless patrols in these lands. Anborn had drawn his sword and moved slightly ahead, while Damrod and Faramir followed, both with bow in hand and a half-nocked arrow ready. Faramir could already see the road in the east as it climbed towards the mountains beyond the Cross-roads.
Far in the distance they now heard what could only be an Orc troop on the march. Anborn had stopped, and was waiting for Damrod and Faramir to join him. At first, Faramir could not yet make out where the Orcs were, but then he saw the glint of sunlight on metal from the road towards the mountains. They were coming from Minas Morgul or beyond, and most likely going to Osgiliath or Minas Tirith.
"Captain, we should head closer to the road, so that we can see them," Damrod suggested, and they quickly turned more to the north. It was not long before they reached the road, and found a place that gave both cover and a good overview. Faramir did not expect or intend a confrontation, but the unexpected could always happen, so he had Damrod take up position on the other side of the road. It was not much of an ambush, but it would be better than nothing.
Even with the time it had taken to get to this spot, it would be at least another hour before the Orcs would come by. As they settled down to wait, Faramir could still hear their noise, but after some time he realised it was receding into the distance, rather than coming closer.
"They are going north," Anborn, who had also noticed, said, as Damrod returned from the other side of the road.
"To the Cross-roads then," Faramir said. It was quiet again, but he dared not risk the road, so they headed back into the cover of the trees.
After some time, he could see the tall trees that marked the meeting of the roads ahead. Signalling the other two to be careful following him, Faramir slowly crawled the last distance to the edge of the height that surrounded the Cross-roads.
At first all seemed in order, but then Faramir looked to where the statue that had stood in this place for so long should be, and all he could see was a great pile of rubble. Damrod, who had come up beside him, drew in a hiss of breath at the sight, and Anborn softly muttered a curse. Though he was as shocked as the other two, Faramir found he was not surprised; the statue had suffered much mistreatment over the years, and while the Rangers invariably tried to repair the worst of the damage, it had always been a losing battle.
"So, it is gone," Damrod now said. "Is it known who it was for, Captain?"
"No," Faramir replied, "There may still be an old scroll or book in Minas Tirith that could tell us, but all I have ever found is that it must have been here for some hundreds of years already at the time of the Kinstrife." At such moments, Faramir could not help but feel regret for all the knowledge that had been lost in the mists of time, even in Gondor. Of course, knowing in whose honour this statue had been placed here was insignificant in itself, but it was one of so many things they no longer knew, including much that would have been of use as well as merely interesting.
"That is a shame," Anborn commented distractedly, as he stood up to have a better look. He did not move for some time, then asked softly, "Do you hear it too, Captain?"
Faramir listened closely. Yes, he did hear something.
"Another company on the march, I think," said Damrod, "But still far off."
"Then we should cross the road now; we still have further to go," Faramir said as he too stood up. He looked around carefully, then quickly slid down the embankment and ran across the road, and up the embankment on the other side. He raised his arm to signal he had made it across without problems and that the next man could follow. He could only just make out Anborn at the top of the bank as Damrod ran across. Anborn was slower to follow, as he had to make sure that all traces of their passage were erased.
Faramir decided it would be best to wait here to see where the company they could now clearly hear approaching was headed. They would not have long to wait either; judging from the calls and shouts he could now distinguish, the Orcs were marching at speed.
Soon the first lines came into view, and Faramir was surprised to see Uruks, rather than any of the smaller Orc breeds. He waited to see whether they would head for Osgiliath or turn north, as the company they had heard before had done. His question was answered almost immediately as the Orcs headed north.
"Why would they be going north?" Anborn asked.
"Rohan, of course," replied Damrod.
Faramir was not certain that was so. If they were, it would be quicker to cross the river at Osgiliath and go through Anórien, unless... No, the Enemy would not allow rivalries between his lieutenants to frustrate his effort. But where were they going then? Further north? Either way, he would have to let them go without discovering more. He could not spare the time to pursue these companies to find out where they were headed.
By now the noise of the passing Orcs had faded into the distance. Faramir cast an impatient glance at his men as they carefully made their way further east along the edge of the road; they would have to move faster if they wanted to reach the Morgul Vale and return in daylight. At first the road ran level, but it was not long before it started to climb towards the edge of that dark valley.
Soon they heard another company approaching from the valley and they had to wait, watching from what little cover there was until the Orcs had passed. If they could go on just a bit further, they would be able to see into the vale up to where Minas Morgul lay amidst the mountains. Faramir was about to get up when a horn blared shrilly from the valley. That had to be a signal of some kind. Had they been seen? Damrod threw him a worried glance as they waited to see what would happen. There was no point in moving; there was little cover to be found other than where they were now.
After some time, just as Faramir began to consider going on after all, they heard what had to be yet another company on the march. Most likely they had not been spotted then. Faramir still felt strangely uneasy, fear creeping up on him as the sound of the enemy troops came nearer. He could hear horses now, too, and as the company came into view, he understood his fear. A Nazgûl led this troop.
Resisting the urge to run, Faramir pressed as low to the ground as he could, but kept looking as the dark shape of the Ringwraith rode past. He recalled the previous time he had been this near one, when they lost the bridge at Osgiliath the year before. At least this time the Wraith was just passing by, he told himself as he tried to resist the paralysing feeling of dread that came over him. He could only hope they were not seen, for they would be helpless against the Nazgûl.
Slowly, as the Nazgûl rode into the distance, Faramir felt his fear recede to the point that he was able to move again. There were still enemy troops passing by below; he counted at least five more companies in addition to those they had already seen, and not just Orcs this time, but Men as well, from deep in Rhûn by the look of their banners.
Faramir looked at his companions. Anborn lay face down, shivering uncontrollably, only coming to himself when Faramir sat down next to him and softly put a hand on his shoulder. Damrod was pale and clearly badly shaken, but had kept some control over his fear.
They could not linger here long. If they moved now, they might still rejoin the others before nightfall, and after their near-encounter with the Nazgûl, Faramir was certain that they should not spend a night this close to Minas Morgul.
Leaving Damrod and Anborn behind to recover enough that they would be able to go back when he returned, Faramir went ahead on his own. He too was still shaken from their close brush with the Wraith, but one of them had to attempt to reach the Morgul Vale, and the others were worse off than he was. Almost too soon he reached the entrance to that accursed valley, and found a viewing spot. Rows and rows of tents and campfires stretched to the back of the Vale. There had to be close to five thousand camped there, Men and Orcs both. He could only hope these armies were not meant for Pelargir.
He rapidly made his way back to the other two, telling them what he had seen, and they hurriedly retraced their steps towards the Cross-roads. Faramir hoped the rest of the patrol had withstood the fear of the Nazgûl, but thought he would have heard if there had been a confrontation. Then, as they crossed a clearing that came just before the last stretch of the road before the Cross-roads, suddenly there were arrows flying and shouts from behind them.
Without thinking about it, Faramir dove for cover as an arrow struck a tree next to him, then looked around. Anborn was next to him, looking back, his bow already drawn. Damrod had stumbled as he reached cover; no, there was an arrow in his back. Faramir carefully made his way across to where the Ranger lay, only to find that he was already dead. Cursing under his breath that they had let themselves be caught unawares, Faramir paused beside Damrod to close his eyes, and then called to Anborn that they must continue quickly. At least one of them had to make it back. The news had to get to Pelargir.
They were about a mile away from where the others should be, and still on the wrong side of the Cross-roads. Even if they were familiar with the terrain around here, it was too far to run, and they could not risk betraying the position of the rest of the patrol. Also, it was already getting dark, and while that was to their advantage as long as there were no Orcs, waiting too long would allow their opponents to bring in reinforcements. They would have to be both quick and circumspect.
As they slipped away and made their way to the Cross-roads, Faramir listened carefully for pursuit. He could hear their pursuers now, but they appeared to be in some disarray. Yet even if they made it back to the others unchallenged, it was the end of the mission, as it would be too dangerous to stay in the area now. Faramir would have cursed their bad luck, but he knew that it could have been still worse. He shivered. At least they had not been spotted by the Ringwraith.
It took them about an hour to reach the Cross-roads, and the sounds of pursuit were getting closer. Faramir reckoned the Moon would rise soon.
"Do you think the others are there, Captain?" Anborn asked, as they stood looking across the road.
"Most likely, yes, and we cannot wait, or our pursuers will catch up," he replied. "We must cross the road now, and we will have to risk a signal as well, so they know it is us."
Anborn whistled sharply to signal their approach, and they quickly ran across the road, not waiting for a reply. Faramir looked back as they scrambled up the hill on the other side, and saw the first of their enemies descend on the other side of the road. At first the clearing at the top seemed empty, but then a low whistle indicated that they had found the rest of the patrol. A dark shape moved forward just as the Moon broke through the clouds.
"We must be away from here, now," Faramir said urgently, noting Mablung's glance at the two of them, then across the road, and the sudden understanding.
At that point the first of their pursuers came up the hillside, only to stumble back down again with an arrow in his throat. An Easterling, Faramir saw, as he drew his sword to engage the next enemy, the other Rangers of the patrol now coming back as well, some joining him to fight those who had made it up, others preventing more of their enemies from getting up to them.
Despite the darkness, the fight was ferocious, and it was not long before they had slain all their enemies. They had lost two more men themselves, and the likelihood of imminent pursuit meant that there was no time to give them any sort of burial.
Quickly Faramir gathered the remaining Rangers, telling them what he had seen, and giving instructions that the information had to get to Pelargir no matter what. They walked all night, profiting from the nearly full moon to put distance between themselves and any pursuit.
Along the way, Faramir heard from Mablung that the others had stayed at the Cross-roads, and that all the companies they had seen near Minas Morgul had turned north. Only Mablung and one of the men who had died had seen the Nazgûl from nearby, though all had felt the fear spread by the Wraith.
Around midmorning they rested briefly, as they seemed to be free of pursuit at least for the moment. Faramir joined Anborn and Mablung who were discussing how to proceed. Mablung favoured the Road and the possibility of more speed, while Anborn argued for the hills and stealth. Reluctantly, Faramir agreed with Anborn. He would not spend longer in Ithilien than was necessary, but he would not abandon stealth either.
As the patrol made its way back south, Faramir wondered what the things they had seen meant. Where were those companies of Orcs going, if not to Rohan?
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