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Hands of the King: 19. Fire
Minas Tirith, Early December, 2975 T.A.
As Denethor had expected, the streets were rapidly filling with people who left their homes to see why the alarm bells and horns were sounding. The fourth circle in particular would be near impassable if they used the street. The messengers in the upper stables would be useless. The fastest way down was by the King’s Stair.
Even in the dark, Thorongil had no difficulty keeping up. They bolted across the main way of the sixth circle and quickly scaled the sixth wall. Up, over, drop to a rooftop, run over the tops, jumping gaps in between the houses, and there was the drainpipe and a hard landing in the fifth circle.
As they scrambled up the fifth wall, Denethor called out, ‘How many?’
‘Three thousand at least,’ Thorongil said back. ‘Too many torches.’
‘And more to follow.’
At the top of the wall they could look out across the Pelennor and see the torches of Morgul in the bare lands just east of Osgiliath. They raced along the wall towards the stone pier, coming to the climb along the rock above the fourth circle. Denethor yelled, ‘Watch!’ as he lunged upwards towards the hidden handholds, scrambling as quickly as he could to clear the way for Thorongil. He spared a single glance back – the captain was following. Once at the top of the arch, they edged along the narrow lip of stone above the circle.
‘They’ll charge the bridge. The garrison is low.’
‘More there than you think.’ Denethor said a word of thanks that he had moved a number of the North Ithilien rangers down to the garrison for the year-end feasts and to visit their families. It tripled the number of archers Halmir could call upon. But they needed more. ‘Morvorin!’
‘Yes!’ They said no more until after they slid down the watercourse and landed on the rooftop. ‘His archers. Brought a hundred. In the first circle.’
Over the fourth wall. The City was in an uproar. Men were running downwards towards the garrison at the foot of the mountain while others took to the walls. Some cheered as Denethor and Thorongil tore past them, but most were concentrating on their own tasks. The climb down the face of the fourth wall left his hands scraped. Denethor was thankful for the overhanging buildings and the narrow lane that allowed them to leap from one side of the third circle to the other, avoiding more climbing up and down.
‘Take them. Archers. Extra men,’ he shouted back.
‘…on the ships, yes!’ Thorongil finished. ‘You hold the bridge,…’
‘…bring Morgul in…’
‘…attack from river…’
‘Right, surprise them!’
The third wall loomed. Once to the top, they had to push some guards out of the way to get to the next handholds down to the rooftops that led to the ledge over the second circle tunnel. This ledge was wider than the one over the fourth circle and did not slow them much. In a few minutes they were to the second wall.
The Fire. Denethor recalled the Dragon Fire with a jolt. Belegorn was at Osgiliath with the casks, and Denethor had sent Borondir there with a locked casket containing packets of the ignition powders three days ago. We can use the Fire. They clambered down the wave carvings at the foot of the stone pier and hit the ground running. In all, it had taken less than twenty minutes to descend from the Citadel to the first circle. The square before the Great Gate was a melee of armed men, all heading out the Gate towards the practice grounds before the walls. Thorongil bellowed for the soldiers to give way.
It only took a minute to find the lieutenant. The man had the garrison soldiers firmly in hand, barking orders and getting the men into their ranks despite the dark and confusion. To his relief, Denethor saw that Morvorin was already outside the walls with his archers drawn up in good order. Denethor yelled to get the young lord’s attention, and Morvorin hurried over, accompanied by the lieutenant.
‘Captain Denethor!’ Morvorin saluted him. ‘Where do you wish my men?’
‘With Thorongil. Go to Harlond and take ship upriver. He’ll explain.’
‘Lieutenant, I need oarsmen and soldiers,’ Thorongil ordered. The man turned, let out a piercing whistle, and waved up one of the ranks of soldiers. Thorongil shook his head. ‘More!’ Another whistle, two more ranks. There were three hundred soldiers of Minas Tirith to match the hundred bowmen of the Ringló Vale.
‘Four hours, Captain!’ Denethor said. ‘In four hours, I let Morgul into Osgiliath.’
‘We’ll be there.’ Thorongil called out orders, then set out at a lope. The men fell into place behind him, the archers bringing up the rear. They soon disappeared down the Harlond road.
‘Keep two thousand foot here,’ Denethor told the lieutenant, ‘and send the rest to Osgiliath.’ That would give him a little less than a thousand more for the garrison, which already had twice that many. He would take more, but did not dare leave the City so bare of defenders. Not waiting for the lieutenant to answer, Denethor ran to the stables. Someone was getting Gaerhûl saddled. There were three messengers, mounted and waiting for commands. He sent one to Anórien to put them on guard for a possible northern incursion through Rohan, one to Cair Andros to have the Rohirrim sent down across the plain, and the last on a long ride to Pelargir. Denethor feared there might be an attack coming up the river, no matter Morwen’s brothers’ assurances that Umbar would not stir.
Within an hour of seeing the torches, Denethor was racing along the causeway to Osgiliath, two hundred horsemen in his wake. There were one-hundred and fifty of the Swan Knights, the remainder comprised of the horsed lords of the City. Dol Amroth’s men had his confidence, for they were second only to the Rohirrim in their skill and discipline, but the rest of the pack he hoped he could leave on the western bank, as they were more enthusiastic than effective. The foot soldiers and archers were going to be more important in the ruins of Osgiliath and glades of Ithilien.
Across the slope of the Pelennor, Denethor no longer saw the fires. Fog was rising from the river lands. A messenger came charging west from the garrison, pulling up as he drew near.
‘Morgul, m’lord. Four to five thousand.’ Worse than we thought. ‘We got word just at sunset a small band was coming. Went out to meet them, and then there was a flood of them down the road. We’ve fallen back to a half-league beyond the ruins and hold firm. Halmir’s orders are to keep them on or south of the road.’ Good man. The ground north of the road inclined sharply and could be held by a few against many more. If Halmir can keep them pinned down, we can attack them on three sides, ruins, road and water. Denethor waved the messenger on to Minas Tirith.
The horsemen kept to one side of the road, allowing wagons and farmers from the Pelennor to flee west to the City. Soon they were past the Rammas and approaching the ramp to the fortress. Denethor called for the horsemen to wait in the fields to either side of the road as there was not room enough in the garrison court to hold all the animals. He also told the City lords to patrol up and down the river banks, ostensibly because they knew the land better, but mostly to keep them out of the way.
A shout went up from the soldiers on the wall as he clattered into the courtyard. After hearing that Halmir was still holding the enemy at bay, Denethor strode to his room. It only took a few minutes to be ready. A heavy leather jerkin to provide some protection but not weigh him down, bracers on his arms, his grandfather’s sword, his helm. The long bow would be waiting for him in the armory. That left one last thing.
Denethor took down the Great Horn from its hook on the wall. He slipped the strap over his head and under one arm, securing it to his chest. Once more, you shall call Gondor to arms. He collected his bow before heading up to the walls.
There was some mist upon the river and twining within the ruins, but not enough to hide the far bank completely. Sounds of battle came clearly, though distant, through the damp air. The enemy was marked by the orange and red glare of its torches and by the booming of drums.
‘Captain.’ One of the Lost saluted him. ‘There looks to be more than four thousands there, but mostly small Orcs. No horse. Not well organized.’
Still formidable, if only because of numbers. ‘More are coming. Where is the line held?’
‘In the middle cut and down towards the Morgul stream.’
‘Several dozen. Mostly at the start when they came upon us and overwhelmed the scouts.’
‘And where were the scouts that we had not better warning?’
The man looked uncomfortable at the question. ‘In their usual locations.’
‘Which obviously have become known to the enemy.’ The man did not answer. ‘Is Belegorn here?’ Nod. ‘Send him.’ The Lost hurried away. Denethor studied the pattern of light and thought about the lay of Osgiliath. We retreat back along the road and bridge, holding the northern half. They are drawn in to the southern portion, along the river. We must beware the bridge. Footsteps announced Belegorn’s arrival.
‘Are the catapults ready?’
‘From this point, how far can you reach?’
‘About a furlong. With accuracy, only two-thirds of that.’
That is too close. The river alone from the garrison to the edge of the ruins was almost a hundred yards. The Orcs would have to be drawn far into the ruins, which increased the danger of them attacking the bridge or taking advantage of hiding places among the stone ways for ambushes. But they had to be drawn into a trap, for they had not enough men to meet them in Ithilien, not at night.
‘We will be using the Fire as well as ordinary missiles. Only on my orders.’
Denethor shouted down into the court to have Gaerhûl brought up, then cast one more look across the ruins. Time to talk to Halmir. Before he left the wall, he raised the Horn to his lips and blew a great blast upon it. The sounds echoed over and over through the stone of Osgiliath, and a roar of soldiers’ voices followed upon it. Their Captain-General was there and battle was truly joined.
Gaerhûl reared and neighed at the sound of the horn, eager for the fight. Denethor had to rein him in hard to keep the stallion from charging out the gate to the bridge. All through the ruins, he could see bowmen and soldiers at ready, and they cheered as he galloped towards the east bank. It only took a few minutes to come close to the back of the defenders. As soon as he was recognized, word went forward to Halmir that the Captain-General was there. The Lost cantered up on his stocky brown horse.
‘They’re pinned for now,’ Halmir began without preamble, ‘but they’ve got numbers on us.’
‘Two, three to one. Can’t see the Uruks, just the Orcs.’
‘Wear us down with the worms, then send in the wolves. They’re out there.’
At this, Halmir turned in his saddle and stared east for several heartbeats. When he turned back, his face was troubled.
‘Can’t explain exactly, Captain. There’s deep evil watching us. The Vale …’ Halmir searched for words. ‘The fumes were worse the last two days, and there’s a fog coming. Men are disheartened.’
Denethor nodded. ‘We’re not going to wait for Uruks. Or fog. In…’ he paused to calculate time, ‘three hours, we are going to draw the Orcs into Osgiliath.’
Halmir shook his head. ‘No. Too dangerous. They can attack from…’
‘We are drawing them into Osgiliath.’ Denethor waited until the Lost bowed his head in acquiescence. ‘But it must be carefully done. The retreat will need to be slow, and keep the Orcs to the south of the Road. Once in the ruins, they must be driven into the southern area, close to the river. We hold the line of the bridge.’
‘We’ll be troubled rooting them out of the rock.’
‘We get them as far west as possible. There are a few ships on their way from the Harlond right now, with a hundred archers of Morvorin.’ Halmir grunted approval and looked a little less dour. ‘There’s soldiers upon them, too. Three hundred. When they come up, they will fire.’
‘Still not enough.’
‘And there are a hundred and fifty Swan Knights in the field beyond the garrison. At the moment of the attack from the ships, we’ll charge down the bridge and get behind Morgul along with whomever is still on the left bank. Two thousand are marching from Minas Tirith right now. They’ll be here by midnight.’
‘Good. We’ll need all of them. Got all the long bowmen out here.’
‘I’ll bring forces up behind in Osgiliath.’
‘I need five hundred. Got wounded.’
‘Yes. Now get out of here. But blow the horn first. They all need to hear it.’
Denethor grabbed Halmir’s arm as the man turned to ride off. ‘Keep your men out of south Osgiliath, particularly near the fort.’
At that, Halmir smiled grimly, saluted Denethor and vanished into the battle ahead of them. Denethor turned Gaerhûl northwards to higher ground so he could survey. There were a lot of Orcs, more than he had seen in one place since the battle to take Osgiliath. That had been a long, bloody fight, hard won. He raised the horn and let loose another blast upon it. As the sound died away, a roar of “Gondor! Gondor!” rose up from the army, along with howls and drumbeats from the Orcs.
Denethor rode back swiftly and gave orders. The relief troops moved out smartly, as did another group with stretchers and bandages. Denethor went up to the wall with a few of the seconds and explained where and how to deploy soldiers to defend the bridge and the northern half of the ruins. Belegorn came over to say the casks and catapults were at ready. Denethor went with the man to the armory and removed the ignition powder from the locked chest, one packet for each prepared cask. Belegorn tucked them into a leather pouch on the back of his belt.
In all, two hours had passed since leaving Minas Tirith. The soldiers from the City should be close to the fortress by now. The battle slowly drew closer to the river bank. One of the city lords who had set out to scout southward galloped into the courtyard shouting for him.
‘Ships! Ships on the river, my lord!’ the fellow called out.
‘Less than an hour. They move swiftly.’
Denethor called for the man to return scouting. ‘Tell me when they are a quarter-hour away!’ With a wave, the horseman was gone. Now was time to prepare the Swan Knights. Their captain was an older man sporting an interesting scar over his left eye. He approved of the plan, only warning that the soldiers had best know to stay clear of the bridge while the horses charged through. Assured they would, he laughed merrily and called for his men to mount up and form ranks. Seeing one of the City lords, Denethor called him over and told him to find the soldiers on the road and have them enter the battle in groups, five hundred at a time, to relieve the early defenders yet keep fresh men in reserves. There would be Uruks to deal with later.
A shout from the fortress alerted Denethor that the Orcs were in Osgiliath. He took the stairs two at a time as he hurried up the wall. The filthy horde was a black scum spreading across the grey and silver ruins, a few scattered torches casting enough light to catch the gleam of yellowed fangs and bloodstained scimitars. They had not been allowed this far into Osgiliath in fourteen years, and he intended to make them pay for besmirching its ancient ways once more.
‘Some stones at first. Then pitch, thrown as far as you can. Northwards to drive the Orcs south. When the ships attack…’
‘When the ships attack, use the Fire. Nowhere near the bridge! Only stones that direction. Throw far.’
‘That will scatter it, sir.
‘Just do it.’
Denethor did not wait for an answer. It must be close to time. When he reached the court, the horseman had returned, calling that the ships were perhaps six furlongs south. Denethor was counting on the Orcs’ attention to be caught by the approaching ships and to draw them forward to meet that threat, right to the edge of the ruins. He mounted Gaerhûl, telling the horseman to follow him. They went out of the fort to the gathered Swan Knights. Most of the Gondorian horsemen had returned, as well. Denethor ordered them to form ranks behind the better armored knights, and to follow closely once the charge began.
The sound of the catapults sounded dully, thump, whoosh, thump, whoosh. Even here, he could now hear the Orcs yammering in the ruins. Denethor motioned for the horsemen to move forward, following him. They walked briskly up the causeway ramp. Carefully, carefully, do not arrive too soon. They did not want the horses piling up in the court. A huge cheer went up from the fort, announcing Thorongil’s arrival.
Denethor shouted for the far gates to be opened, then urged Gaerhûl into a gallop. The knights yelled “Amroth! The Swan! The Swan!” as they gained speed and all were at a full run by the time they charged out upon the bridge.
The sky was afire.
As his horse raced over the bridge, Denethor saw a flower of fire bloom in the night sky, then fall in a shower upon the army below it, then another, and more. He cleared the end of the bridge and wheeled Gaerhûl away to the left, up a small slope, while the knights continued their charge.
The city was afire.
Flames caught the weeds and small bushes that grew in the corners and crevices of the riven stone. Wood, ancient and tinder dry, blazed among broken walls. Dragon Fire coated the stone, crawling upon it, lapping at anything it could consume.
The army was afire.
Orcs shrieked and bolted, holding up shields in vain to fend off the handfuls of flame that pounded them. The shields burned, as did the armor, as did the Orcs.
What have I done?
Denethor picked up the horn to blow again, and found his throat too dry. In the distance, beyond the fires, he could just make out the ships. They could not come close to the blaze. No sound could be heard over the screaming of the Orcs, but the arrowheads and feathers fired by Morvorin’s men glimmered in the fell fire. He cleared his throat and tried the horn again. It took two more tries, but the call of Gondor rang out, shaking the soldiers along the bridge out of their shock. With a roar, they fell upon the Orcs. The terrified beasts were doing their best to escape the flames. Those beyond the reach of the catapults fled towards the far shore, only to be met by the Dol Amroth horsemen and Halmir’s long bowmen and soldiers, preventing escape. The bridge nearest the fortress was over water, and the stretches within the city were well guarded. Some Orcs cast themselves into the river trying to avoid the fire only to be swept away in Anduin’s powerful current. Some were ablaze, and set their fellows aflame. Still the casks came over the walls, thump, whoosh, raining down an inferno. A ghastly stench began to rise from the carnage.
Finally, the Orc army carved a way through the wall of men at the southeastern edge of Osgiliath, and fled. Denethor turned away from the ruins and charged towards the battle. That he could bear to see.
The defenders were driving the Orcs towards the Morgul stream, holding the higher ground along the road. In the distance, Denethor saw Thorongil’s ships draw close to the outlying ruins, away from the fire, and soldiers began to disembark. He heard Halmir’s voice somewhere near, calling out to keep the remnants from fleeing. It was foolish for him to stay in this battle, but he did not wish to return to the flames and the screams, so Denethor urged Gaerhûl on.
Night was giving way to dawn, but everything was wrapped in fog. He had pursued the Orcs eastwards, following the line of the deadly creek. There were few now, and it was time to turn to stalking with bow and arrow. Denethor dismounted and set the horse loose, trusting Gaerhûl to find his way back to the garrison. He actually had to order the beast to leave. As he slipped among the trees, Denethor felt himself a Ranger once more, in a great game of cat and mouse in Ithilien’s leafy halls. The longbow suited him, much more than the sword. Even Thorongil could not match his skill with it.
After an hour, Denethor had killed two Orcs and was beginning to droop from weariness. Dawn was not far off, turning the grey mist paler. As he leaned against a tree and contemplated returning, he heard a voice some distance off. Thorongil’s voice.
‘Where is the Warden?….just his horse…find him!’
It was tempting to walk towards the voice and find himself, but something stubborn tugged at him. Well, find me, then. Denethor slipped away, moving eastwards. These were hills and hollows he knew almost as well as he knew the roofs and walls of Minas Tirith or the decayed alleys of Osgiliath. The fog did not dismay him. The climb grew more steep, and the road was below the land to the south.
Something cold washed over him, leaving Denethor gasping. It was like water or air, colder than the worst cold, and revulsion followed on its heels. As soon as it came, it was gone, but there was… something… further ahead. He crept through the undergrowth, looking and listening.
A jingle was his first warning. He peered around a tree and saw a large troop of Uruks making their way up a slope directly towards him, more shadows than anything. He could not see the hilltop across the depression, yet he felt a presence there, cloaked in cold evil. Denethor withdrew and began to hurry back without making noise that would draw the attention of the Uruks. They were not so careful of sound, so they could move faster than he. They were probably also better rested.
Not too far, not too far, Denethor thought as he made his way towards where he last heard Thorongil’s voice. Once back with some other soldiers, he could blow the horn and call for more troops. To do so now would simply call down the Uruks. Ahead, to his fury and horror, he heard two loud voices carrying in the damp air; soldiers carelessly tramping through the undergrowth. The Uruks were certain to hear them, and come.
‘…and I say good riddance!’ Isilmo. Denethor had no delusions as to whom Isilmo was so glad to be rid of.
‘Well, perhaps we can be the lucky ones to find him!’
‘Ah, yes, such a shame he was not looking out for Orcs!’ Isilmo and his companion laughed coarsely. Behind him, Denethor could hear the Uruks coming through the trees. He nocked an arrow and stepped out where the two could see him. No sense taking chances.
‘Too bad you are not looking out for Orcs,’ he observed, ‘for there are about fifty Uruks headed directly here. That way.’ He jerked his head helpfully in the direction he had just come. ‘So, if you will excuse me, gentlemen.’ The two stared at him, then whipped around as they, too, heard the approaching foes.
Denethor saw there was higher ground up ahead and bolted to it. Once there, he grabbed the horn and blew an alarm, then dropped it to fire. The first Uruks were charging through the trees towards Isilmo and the other, who had swords drawn. One, two, three Uruks dropped with his arrows in them, and then he had to dodge behind the tree to avoid theirs. Isilmo and the other were surrounded.
‘Gondor! Gondor!’ came cries from behind him. Denethor got off a few more shots before the others showed up. After that, he had to pick his targets carefully to avoid his own men. He could not see Isilmo or the other man.
The battle lasted almost a half hour. It was terrible at first for the Uruks were together and the Gondorians arrived in threes and fours, but soon there were more defenders than Orcs. When it was done, Denethor began to walk towards the carnage, but was stopped by an iron grip on his arm. He turned to face a very angry Halmir.
‘What do you think you are doing?’
‘Finding the Uruks you said were out here,’ Denethor smoothly replied, ‘since your scouts do not seem to be paying much attention.’
Halmir let go his arm. ‘Get back, now!’ he snapped as he brushed past Denethor.
‘Denethor? My lord?’ Denethor turned towards Thorongil. The man looked not much worse for wear, if a bit tired and dirty. ‘It is probably best if you return now. We found your horse roaming loose and…’
‘Is he sound? I would hate to lose him.’ Denethor began walking west. Thorongil swung into step behind him.
‘He looked sound enough.’ There was nothing more said as they walked the league back to Osgiliath. The fog grew heavier as they neared the river. Some men and knights were patrolling, looking out for straggling Orcs, and others were already dragging corpses into piles for burning. Denethor could not see very far into Osgiliath. He walked about half way through the city before turning to clamber into the ruins. Thorongil blocked him.
‘No, my lord. It is not safe.’
‘I know that, Captain.’
‘Wait until the fog lifts. There are men scouring the ruins now, and will find any stray Orcs. Halmir will have both our hides if I let something happen to you now.’
The two men shared a knowing look at the thought of Halmir’s disapproval. Denethor did not continue towards the fortress, however. He was not ready to return there, not without seeing the ruins. When the fog lifts. He turned north and followed a broken lane. As he did, he caught a motion from the corner of his eye. Thorongil was using the gesture-speech of the Lost, signaling someone. Denethor kept walking, knowing Thorongil and at least one other of the Lost would follow.
The lane fell away into the river a dozen yards on, forcing them to scramble over a few broken walls and onto some rubble wedged above the water. He led the way through the broken tangle of stone and watercourse, not really knowing his destination but needing to go somewhere. After a few minutes, Denethor recognized the path his feet were taking. The last few yards to where he wished to sit were mostly water, with a few stone piers sticking up just high enough to jump upon like stepping stones. In the middle of the river was a large flat stone with mosaic tile laid in it. The front edge was crumbled. Denethor took a seat to the left, arms resting on his knees, looking upriver. After a surreptitious gesture to their watcher, Thorongil sat to his right. Around them were other outcroppings of stone, offering hints of what had once sat upon the water.
What have I done? Denethor thought back to the horrible fiery rain. It was not at all like pitch, which clung, but burned poorly and did not spread, nor was it like hot oil. Those he knew, had used in various battles, as the Enemy did in return. Is this what a dragon’s breath is like? Living flame that seeks out living things? The Orcs had burned like torches. The stench of it hung in the air. Why be upset? The Fire did as it should. It destroyed the enemy with little loss. Even as he argued this, Denethor knew it was not so. There was something lost. There was a taint to the victory, a pall like the smoke that came up from the burned stone. There is reason knowledge of its making was lost. It came from the rule of Ar-Pharazôn, the Unfaithful. One of his treacheries. It was something that should have been drowned in Akallabêth, with the Temple. But he had exhumed it, set it loose. Denethor sighed and dropped his head to his arms.
‘My Lord?’ He did not look up. ‘Denethor?’
Rivers of fire at dead of night
in winter lying cold and white
upon the plain burst forth, and high
the red was mirrored in the sky.
From Hithlum’s walls they saw the fire,
the steam and smoke in spire on spire
leap up, till in confusion vast
the stars were choked. And so it passed
Denethor raised his head and stared off at the fog as he softly chanted the words, hugging his knees to him so that Alquallë’s book pressed into his chest.
Thorongil sat silent for many heartbeats, then replied in similar manner, ‘ “He had gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame. Yet he found not the Fire.” ’
‘But I found it.’
‘What you found was not that Fire.’
‘No. But I found what I sought.’
‘Beware what you seek, lest you find it.’
Denethor looked at Thorongil. ‘And what Fire is it that you seek, Captain?’ The other’s eyes hardened, then glanced away. Denethor laughed sharply. ‘To find things, you must know where you are. Do you know where we sit?’
Thorongil shrugged. ‘In Osgiliath.’
‘Yes, Osgiliath, but where in Osgiliath?’
Some curiosity returned to the man’s face, though his tone was still sullen, ‘I do not know. Near the center of the old city.’
‘Try a bit harder, Thorongil. What can you tell?’
The captain peered intently at the ruins about them, chewing his lower lip as he thought. In a minute he quit craning for a look, and said ‘The Dome of the Stars?’
‘No. Does this look like the foundations of a dome? The dome was that way,’ Denethor gestured over his shoulder, ‘about forty yards.’
‘Then I do not know.’
‘You really should take time to study a few maps and some history, captain,’ Denethor said dryly. ‘This was the Great Hall.’ He gestured to the east. ‘See that column sticking up? It once supported the roof, though it is broken off. If you look at the stone and how the river current is interrupted, you’ll see the foundations of the walls, one hundred feet wide and twice that long.’ Thorongil was looking where Denethor pointed, eagerly trying to make out the markers. ‘There in the west, the arch standing there led to a broad boulevard that ran from the north to the south of the city, passing before the Great Hall and the Dome. The central square was the intersection of that road with the one that spanned the river. No other streets ran completely through the city. Here,’ Denethor pointed to the mosaics. They were filthy and obscured, so he scrubbed at them with his cloak until the colors showed again, ‘Here is part of the floor. See the suns and moons? They covered the floor, and paths of stars wound among them. If you followed the southmost string of stars, it would lead you to the Dome.’
Thorongil pulled off a glove to trace one of the moons. The tile’s colors were strong, even after fifteen hundred years of ruin. Since the Kin-strife brought down the city, and nearly the realm with it. Denethor studied Thorongil’s face as the man studied the tiles. Is this what you will find, even if it is not what you seek, Captain? Or is it faction that has found you and your line, attaching itself firmly to you like a shadow? The squabbling of the northern kings may not have descended into total civil war, yet they harried each other into exhaustion. They slew each others’ lords and robbed each others’ lands, allowing Angmar to pick them apart.
‘And where we sit, what was here?’
‘I know not, my Lord.’
Denethor sighed in exasperation at the man’s obtuseness. Or over-great caution. ‘We sit almost where the throne of Gondor sat. Perhaps a yard behind it.’ Something teased at his thoughts, not quite making itself known, so he kept talking, hoping the idea would take shape. ‘It was carved of a single block of stone. And it was a single throne with two seats.’ Thorongil’s eyebrows went up. ‘It was placed there by the first kings, Anárion and Isildur, and they sat side by side upon it, two chairs that were joined as the realm was joined, Anórien and Ithilien, but turned north towards the high king. Afterwards, the King of Gondor always sat in the seat of Anárion, ready for his royal brother to join him. It dropped into the river during the Kin-strife.’
Thorongil peered into the brown water below them. ‘Is it still there?’
‘Probably. I have sometimes wondered if it could be raised,’ Denethor admitted. ‘Some of the engines we used for building the bridge could be used for raising heavy things out of the river.’
‘You designed the bridge. And its building.’
‘It is a great work.’ Thorongil stopped gazing into the water and met Denethor’s eyes fully for the first time. ‘It should not be brought down. Not as long as we can defend it.’
‘Halmir will see to the eastern foes. It will take more than myself to defend it from other dangers.’
Thorongil glanced away once more. ‘There are victories that are not worth the winning.’
‘If not won, the bridge falls. And much else with it.’
‘We must not be divided against ourselves.’
‘Yet one must choose. You have claimed many loyalties in my hearing, captain, but only one will win out.’
‘There must be one. A single one, and a single voice for it.’
Denethor pointed into the water before them. ‘That has not always been the case in Gondor.’
Thorongil pointed away, north. ‘There was the single voice. And these were the greatest of his stewards.’ Grey eyes locked.
‘They were kings, crowned and noble. This realm they made together, unknowing of their sire’s fate, and it was only later that they joined their lands to his, in agreement, not servitude. Never was their rule relinquished.’
‘It is told differently in the north.’
‘Yes, I have heard they tell many strange tales in the wilderness.’ The idea was still-born. Thorongil sought a single kingship over the Stewards, not a joint stewardship of the Dúnedain. You serve yourself, and will be loyal to whomever hands you a crown. Until you have that crown. For one moment, Denethor wished he could bring the crown and the throne to Osgiliath and throw them in to join the double-seat. The kings have ever battled each other, jealous of their prerogatives, and sap the strength of the realms. He wondered if Thorongil ever considered his own victories unworthy, or only those earned by others.
Denethor stood. ‘The fog is lifting and it is time to see the rest of the city.’ A slight movement ahead in the thinning mists gave away the position of their guard. He picked his way across the piers back to more solid ruins. The sun was up, trying her best to shine through the gloom.
Back upon the bridge, Denethor looked at the southwest section of Osgilaith, and forgot about northern kings. He could see across it to the ships in the river and could just make out the west bank. Men walked over the broken roads, among the crumbling walls and shattered towers, looking for Orcs. Denethor climbed over the wall on the bridge and dropped down into the twisted stone. Thorongil started to follow, but Denethor rounded on him angrily.
‘I do not need a nursemaid, captain! What I do need is a report on Uruks. Find Halmir and get news.’ Thorongil bowed and departed eastwards. Denethor picked his way into the burned city.
There was a rank, oily film on much of the stone. It clung to his clothes whenever he brushed against something. In the places directly under the fire fall, stones were cracked from the heat of the flames. Denethor stopped to touch the damaged stone. You withstood the fires of Kin-strife, the weathers of abandonment, the despoilment of the Enemy. But not this. This Fire may perish, but it ruins before it lets go. In some places, wood deep within casings of stone smoldered and burned. He knew it would go deep into the rock piers, weakening them further. The spring floods would bear away more of Osgiliath.
Denethor had to walk very carefully, for there were Orc corpses all over. Those nearest the bridge and towards the east were the usual war dead – riddled with arrows, hacked by swords, crushed by shield edge or stone throw. Their black blood mixed with the Fire soot, making footing treacherous. Soldiers moved among them, grabbing them on poles with hooks at the end or looping ropes around limbs and necks, dragging them to the edges of the city where they could be thrown into the river, or else to the eastern pyres if the shore was too far.
The further he walked towards the west, the more ghastly the corpses became. Blisters oozing black blood and green bile covered skin where leather and cloth had burned away. Those few who were mailed or had metal plates had their flesh seared to their armor. Eye sockets were empty, eyeballs burst and dripping down their faces, hair singed away, limbs swollen with pooling blood, as though bloated from days in the sun. Some few had their throats cut, evidence that they lived for a time before the defenders discovered them yet breathing. Some had crawled or fallen down into fissures in the stone, and were being pulled out on hooks. Their flesh dissolved under the yanking of the poles, pieces of arms or legs pulling away from torsos. Several times Denethor watched soldiers stop to retch at the sight of what they collected.
At the southernmost edge, bodies were dumped into the river after being stripped of anything of value. It was mostly pieces bobbing in Anduin for the whole corpses burst apart when they hit the water.
A shout caught his attention. One of Halmir’s seconds, a Gondorian, came over.
‘Are you in charge of checking the ruins?’
‘Almost none, sir. To us, I mean.’ The man glanced around and laughed nervously. ‘The Orcs would disagree.’
‘Some fires are still burning, m’lord. There’s some cracks in the stone. We’ll be digging dead Orc out of the rock for a few weeks, I wager.’
‘Right here on the city, thirty to forty killed, four times that injured. Mostly Orcs, but a few were touched by the Fire.’ At this the man gave a small shudder and looked fearfully at the fortress. ‘The wounded are in the garrison.’
The man grinned. ‘We’ve counted a thousand dead in just the ruins. About that many were killed before we retreated, and at least that many on their retreat. Patrols are still out hunting, but word is they are getting most of them. The beasts are running scared! ’
Denethor walked to one of the bloated corpses, and pushed it over with his boot. The skin broke from the pressure, black and green ichor draining out. The bones and flesh gave way. ‘Why are the bodies so distended?’
‘It looks like the Fire doesn’t like them. Or maybe it likes them too much. When it hit them, their blood boiled, as far as any could tell. Cooked them right through. Even if they were not burned too badly, it took them from the inside out.’
The look on the man’s face was one of horrified fascination as he stared at the collapsed, oozing body at Denethor’s feet. Denethor nodded dismissal, then resumed his own observations. After an hour, he had seen enough, returning to the bridge. A steady stream of wounded were being brought over, in stretchers, leaning on friends, limping or staggering under their own power. Many threw frightened glances at the burned areas of the ruins on their left as they passed.
Denethor was half way across the final span of the bridge when the messenger hurried up. Without a word, the man handed him a sealed message from the Steward. He read it there. It began without a greeting:
You sent a guest to report to me where it was your own duty to do so. I hear now rumors that you have unleashed some devilry upon our foes. When you receive this message you are to return at once and account for your actions.
It was not signed. Denethor read it over several times, then glanced at the messenger.
‘I am to wait for a reply, my lord.’
‘Of course. Let me see. Give my Lord Steward all proper greetings and felicitations. Say to him,’ Denethor paused as though trying to decide how to word a secret message, ‘that all is as planned, and that his wishes will be satisfied as soon as the one he asks for may gather necessary things. That is all that may be said, so waste no time in your return.’
The messenger bowed before hurrying off. Denethor crumpled the message and dropped it over the side of the bridge into Anduin. He needed to check upon the wounded.
The court of the fortress was filled with the less injured, those with simple cuts and bruises. Bandages and brandy were being distributed in equal amounts. A small cheer went up when he was noticed, but quickly died away as the soldiers turned back to their business. That suited Denethor just fine. He walked among them, asking to see the injuries, hear how they were received, gathering a picture of the night’s battle. He drank some brandy, leaving him somewhat lightheaded. The gossip going about the yard was of the Fire – where had the man been when he saw it, was he near or far, had he seen the corpses. Exultation over the Fire’s effectiveness seemed more or less balanced with revulsion at what it did.
Inside the surgery, the more badly wounded men were being treated. Whores from the whorehouse who had not fled back to Minas Tirith walked among the beds, tending the soldiers, ready with a quip or a kiss or a damp cloth to wipe a fevered brow. One end of the room had been curtained off. Denethor found the head surgeon, Galdor, tired and blood spattered, near the stone table where the worst of the cases were treated. The man was amputating a mangled arm. Without being asked, Denethor went to the soldier’s side and laid his hands on the man’s head. The young man was groggy with herbs and alcohol and his eyes dripped tears, but he bit down on the leather roll, crying out very little. In minutes the ruined limb was gone and the stump seared. The boy had passed out by this point. He was carried off, and another put on the table in his place. Denethor met the soldier’s eyes and spoke to him while the surgeon worked.
The next hour passed very quickly. Soon, the worst of the wounded were treated, and most of what was left was suturing. Denethor and Galdor moved out of the way to allow lesser healers to do this work. A whore brought them water and brandy.
‘I was hoping you would show up.’
‘My apologies for not coming sooner. What is there to know?’
‘You’ve seen almost the worst. There’s less to fix than I had feared. That many Orcs should have done more damage.’
Galdor drained first his cup of water, then his tin of brandy. ‘Here.’ Denethor followed to the screened off area. There were only twelve men here, and all had been burned by the Fire. The wounds stank and oozed; their pain was agonizing.
‘They burn. I can do nothing,’ Galdor said in almost a whisper. ‘It’s not like oil. It keeps spreading. In their blood.’
Denethor walked among them. Every face he touched was scorching. One or two were unconscious, but the rest cried and moaned. The men grasped at him, begging him not to leave, to touch them with cold hands again, to kill them and stop the pain. He motioned Galdor closer.
‘Have you tried placing them in the river, to see if the water can quench the Fire?’
‘No, not yet. We will try it.’ Galdor hesitated, then asked, ‘You knew of this? When you ordered the Fire?’
Denethor shook his head. ‘No. I thought it would be like very hot pitch.’
Galdor sighed. ‘It is a terrible thing, my lord. But save for it, there would be many more wounded. Many more dead.’ The surgeon excused himself to go round up bearers.
Denethor stayed among the burned, burning men until all had been carried out of the fortress and down to the mud flats of the west bank. When they were gone, he moved among the other injured, taking hands, speaking to them, praising their valor. He felt himself to be in a dream. Each time he took one of the men’s hands, touched a face, a little warmth left Denethor, but he imagined the soldier was stronger for it. They told him how they had been wounded, and how many Orcs they had killed, and cried when speaking of a friend’s death. Some asked that he send word to their families and loves, but not say they were so hurt, just that they lived. The whores asked him if he wished something to eat, but he knew he could not choke anything down, so they brought him water with wine mixed in.
‘My lord?’ Thorongil stood nearby. Denethor stared at him owlishly for a moment, wondering why the captain was bothering him while he tended the wounded, then remembered he was owed a report.
‘Outside.’ The fog still obscured the sky somewhat, but the day was much brighter. The court was clearing of wounded. From the kitchens came the sounds and smells of large amounts of food being prepared.
‘Halmir remains on the east bank. The line has moved two leagues beyond the river, just short of the crossroads. They have killed many Orcs in small bands, and believe most of the rest have been driven back into the Vale. There were several Uruk bands like we fought at dawn, but they also have withdrawn.’
‘Hmm.’ Denethor stared blankly across the yard. ‘Halmir will see to the defense.’
‘Of course he will.’ Thorongil laid a hand on Denethor’s arm for just a moment. ‘Are you well? Perhaps you should sit…’
‘Have you been there?’ The begging of the burned men echoed in his ears. “Hand, cool hand. Bring it back.” “Kill me, lord.” “Mercy, Captain, mercy upon me.”
‘Where, Denethor? Please, you should sit.’
Denethor waved away Thorongil’s hands. ‘In the ruins. Where else?’
‘No. I have no wish to see it.’
‘But you should.’
‘Later. You should sit. Eat something.’
Denethor gave himself a shake, clearing away the dreams in his head. ‘Soon. Food is being prepared. I fear I cannot offer you much rest for yourself, captain. The Steward sent a message. He wishes to have news of the battle. I sent a brief message in return, but he should be informed fully, for he will have questions. Also, there are a number of wounded who need to return to the City. It will take a full day for wains to come out here, and another for them to return.’ Denethor motioned for the captain to follow him up to the top of the wall. Pointing to the ships, he said, ‘Take as many of the wounded upon those ships as will fit comfortably, and take them to the Harlond. Word can be sent to have wagons waiting there.’
‘It would make for an easier journey upon the men, as well as a faster one,’ Thorongil agreed.
‘You can ride quickly from Harlond and be to the Citadel in a few hours. Healers can meet the ships and tend the wounded. I’ll send a messenger.’
‘Morvorin should return as well.’
‘See to getting the ships ready. I’ll have the injured moved to the dock.’
‘Would it not be better that you accompany the ships, Denethor? Will the Steward not wish to hear the news from you?’
‘I think he will be less… fractious … should you bear word. In any event, I shall return this evening, probably just after nightfall. I do not wish to leave until Halmir comes back in. Good morning, captain.’ With a nod, Denethor left. Thorongil set off down the stair.
The remainder of the morning and into the early afternoon was spent loading the ships. Thorongil handled it all with great efficiency, so Denethor inquired about the state of the Swan Knights. One death, one serious injury, four horses lost. Messages had already been sent to the Prince. After the ships departed, Denethor went down to the mud flats. He called until he found Galdor. The surgeon was somewhat pleased.
‘One has died, and best that he did. The burns were very bad. I fear there are three more for the same fate. But two say the Fire has left them, and they may bear the pain. The others are cooling. I cannot keep them long in Anduin, but each time they are doused, the Fire retreats.’ Denethor asked to see the living and most could greet him. He then saw the dead. Even an hour dead, the man’s body was still warm. Bidding the surgeon goodbye, he returned to the garrison. He went to the top of the wall and looked. There was not much to see because of the fog, but he could smell the ruins, could hear the sounds of bodies being dropped into the river. He returned to the wounded.
It was two hours past sundown before Denethor departed for Minas Tirith. Every time he had tried to eat, he could not make himself even taste it. Halmir had returned at sunset, and they spoke of what was needed. Afterwards, he called for Gaerhûl, and left. It seemed much longer than one day since he had last ridden this road.
Beregar was not at the stables waiting for him, but it did not matter. There were no packs to carry up the mountain. His helm and bow he had left in Osgiliath, but all the rest – sword, horn, dried blood from friend and foe alike – he still wore. Few were about on the streets, and none dared to stop the grim, battle-grimed Warden. The fog thinned as he climbed the circles, finally giving way at the fifth.
Denethor had passed Vinyamar, heading for the gate to the sixth circle, when he heard footsteps running up behind him. He tried to turn to face them, but his feet would not obey. In a moment, a form threw itself at him, clutching at him.
‘Denethor! Friend, oh, friend, what has become of you?’ Finduilas exclaimed, looking up at him with fright.
‘Alquallë? What are you doing out in such cold?’ He gently tried to disentangle himself from her arms, but she would not let go. ‘Now, stop this, girl. You are going to get all dirty.’
‘But you are hurt! And weary! Come home, now,’ she ordered, tugging on his arm. ‘You are not to go to that empty house! I saw you walk past, and you must come with me now.’
Denethor grasped her hands. ‘Prince, cease this foolishness. I am dirty, and weary, but I must present myself to the Steward. He needs to know how fares Osgiliath.’
‘Very well, then. Let us go.’
‘Go back home, Finduilas.’
‘You’ll fall over.’ Without him quite knowing how she did it, she tucked herself under one of his arms and looped her own arm around his waist. ‘I’ll help you get there.’
This was not a battle he wanted to win, even if it could have been fought. Denethor walked on, keeping his arm around her shoulders. When they reached the Citadel, however, he walked her over to the Stewards House, waking Sador.
‘Please build up a fire for the young lady, and bring her what she wishes,’ he instructed the doorward. ‘I go to report to the Lord Steward. When I return, I will take her back.’ Finduilas was not pleased, but bowed her head and remained.
Denethor walked to the Tower and up to Ecthelion’s meeting chamber. He had not expected Thorongil still to be there, but was not very surprised by the sight, either. The captain sat in a chair near the Steward’s desk, looking clean and somewhat rested. Denethor wished he had paused long enough at the house to wash his hands and face. No. The Steward needs to see war again. Summoning all of his remaining strength, he made himself stand up straight and walk without weaving. When he reached the desk, he bowed.
The Steward said nothing, nor did he motion for Denethor to take the other chair. The father and son simply watched each other. After a moment, Thorongil also stood.
‘Explain yourself.’ Ecthelion’s tone was calm, even polite.
‘Osgiliath was attacked. I am the garrison commander. It was defended.’
‘You are the Captain-General of Gondor. It is not your place to be floundering in battle like a common soldier.’
‘I directed the defense.’ It was a weak answer, but his mind was not working quickly.
‘Captain Thorongil has answered my questions about this new pitch you ordered thrown.’
‘It is not pitch.’
‘I do not care what it is. You had your chance to speak to me of it, and you did not.’
‘It was not ready to be spoken of.’
‘But ready to be used.’ Ecthelion leaned back into his chair with a long sigh. ‘You disappoint me, Denethor. More to the point, you fail me.’
‘By defending the realm against its foes?’
‘By defying my counsel and even my orders, by creating and ordering things that bring on disaster, and then excusing your insolence because others win battles for you.’
‘Your judgment is too harsh, my lord.’ Denethor glanced over at Thorongil. The captain clasped his hands before him and continued, ‘The Enemy threatens, and the Captain-General meets it as he can. There are few battles won that he has not a hand in.’
‘So he has not defied my orders, captain?’ Ecthelion’s voice remained reasonable. ‘You know of no time when the Captain-General has placed his own commands before my own?’
Thorongil answered slowly, after a long pause, ‘I have always found my Captain’s orders to be sound.’
‘That was not my question, but I have my answer.’ The Steward tapped his finger tips together, thinking, then sighed once more. ‘Tell me, Warden, what counsel do you give on this matter? I have a wayward officer, who orders factions behind my back, dissembles to my face, heeds not the wisdom of his lord, and sets loose the very fires of Mordor with no leave save his own willfulness. What shall be done with such a one as this?’
‘You are best rid of him, my Lord Steward.’
A slow smile came over Ecthelion’s face. ‘Wise counsel, High Warden. Captain,’ he addressed Thorongil, ‘you are now Captain-General of Gondor. The Warden will see that all is moved to your command as soon as may be. You will be stationed in Osgiliath.’
“You will be brought down this year, Denethor.” It was begun. And who shall you choose as High Warden? He supposed he should be pleased that the Steward preferred him humiliated to dead, but it was cold solace. Denethor bowed to the Lord Steward with all of the dignity and grace he could muster, then turned and walked out. The stairs down to the next floor were a little difficult to negotiate, but once in the corridor, Denethor made himself walk calmly. For a second time that night, he heard footsteps hurrying after him.
‘Denethor? Denethor, wait!’
‘Yes?’ Denethor did not pause, nor did he hurry.
Thorongil cast about for words. What does one say to a defeated rival? ‘My lord, this is madness!’
‘No it is not; it is the will of the Steward.’
‘But… he is not… This is not right!’ Denethor smiled wryly. ‘Lord Ecthelion is angry. Did he summon you today?’
‘Yes, he did.’
‘Why did you not answer?’
‘I had more important things to tend to. And I am here, now.’
Thorongil let out a exasperated huff of breath. ‘That does little good!’
‘Early or late, it does no good.’
‘Well, this will pass. He will reconsider.’
‘No, he will not.’
‘If you do not continue to antagonize him,’ Thorongil grumbled. ‘Say nothing on this. On the morrow or in a few days, we can speak to him. His good sense will win out. You have not failed. You are a good commander. This battle was well ordered…’
Barely pausing his stride, Denethor turned, grabbed Thorongil by the shoulders, whirled him around, slammed the man up against the wall, and pinned him there, his face right in Thorongil’s.
‘I do not need your approval, mercenary,’ Denethor said quietly, viciously, ‘I do not want your pity, and I do not wish to hear another plan of how to speak to the Lord Steward out of your mouth. All I want from you is your obedience.’
Thorongil stared back and Denethor considered that this may have been a mistake. The captain was just as powerful as himself and was rested. He would not win a fight, not under these conditions. But the other dropped his eyes and ducked his head.
‘Yes, Lord Denethor.’
Denethor stepped away and continued walking. Thorongil trailed behind. Just beyond the door of the Tower, Beregar was waiting. Denethor turned and nodded to Thorongil.
‘Good evening, Captain.’
‘Good evening. Captain.’ Thorongil bowed and left.
‘What are you doing, waiting here?’
‘Sador said you were back.’ Beregar looked him up and down, nose wrinkling. ‘Not meaning to be impertinent, my lord, but you could stand a bath.’
‘Yes, I could. An excellent idea.’ They walked to the bathhouse, though Denethor was weaving slightly by the time they arrived. Beregar insisted on tending him. As with Finduilas, he had not the strength to argue. Boots and cloak, sword and horn, were left with the old attendant while they went to the shower room. Denethor let Beregar undress him, then guide him under the cold water. Even that could not really wake him. Beregar pushed and pulled him in and out of the water fall, soaping him up and scrubbing, rinsing away a layer of grime, then repeating. When he was numb from cold, Beregar pulled him out and wrapped him in a warm towel. The young man deposited Denethor into one of the warm pools, and sternly told him to stay there until he returned with fresh clothes. Denethor did not think he could have disobeyed those orders even had he wished to.
Beregar returned and gave him another toweling, then dressed him in clean garments. They walked back to the Stewards House as quickly as Denethor could manage. When he walked into his front room, however, he had to wake up. Alquallë and Aiavalë were both there, as was a man he did not know. Denethor gave Finduilas a questioning look.
‘I did not go anywhere,’ she began defensively, ‘I simply had Sador send for them.’ Denethor pointed at the stranger. ‘He’s a healer.’
‘I’m not hurt.’
‘The healer will be the judge of that, brother,’ Aiavalë replied.
Denethor sighed, and walked past them into his study. He undressed and waited patiently for the healer to confirm what should have been obvious, then sent the man on his way. After that, he blew out the candles and crawled into bed. Telperion scooted out from under it and jumped up to take her place next to him.
Someone tapped on the edge of the wooden screen. ‘Denethor?’
‘Yes, Aiavalë.’ She felt her way over to the bed side.
‘I shan’t bother you. I can see you need sleep. Alquallë and I will be in the other room if you need something.’
‘Have Beregar walk you back.’
‘No. We are staying.’ A hand fumbled on the covers, then found his head, stroked his hair. Aiavalë leaned down and kissed his cheek. ‘Good night, dearest.’
He was asleep before she left the room.
Characters introduced in this chapter, in order of appearance:
Galdor – OC. Chief surgeon at Osgiliath garrison, 57 years old
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