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The Commander of Gondor: 4. The Siege of Osgiliath
"Osgiliath is under attack!" Fallon shouted breathlessly as he careened into the City Guard command office. He had gotten word from Lieutenant Thondir who had been at the city gates when the trooper from Osgiliath galloped in. The news, though sketchy, spread quickly, and soon the worried citizens filled the streets and the rumble of discussions drifted into the commander's office.
Thorongil sent Quillion at a dead run to the Citadel to wait for news. Within an hour, the orders for the assembly of two hundred soldiers including fifty City Guard cavalrymen under command of Thorongil and Fallon had gone out. Denethor would lead another company of one hundred fifty horse made up of Citadel guards and Lossarnach regulars. One hundred additional foot soldiers with their divisional captains received orders to reinforce the defense of the river bridge. Riders went out to conscript the levies from the surrounding provinces: reserves for Ecthelion's home guard troops. For the next two hours, Quillion and Denethor's squire ran messages between the Citadel and the guard office, as both officers prepared for a speedy departure.
From what Thorongil could gather, with little warning, a Southron force had appeared marching west through Ithilien. The Rangers sent early warnings to the commander of Osgiliath about a sudden increase in the sightings of foreign soldiers, but no information arrived that suggested such a large army. Now fifteen hundred Southron men, perhaps reinforced by orcs, were camped on the east back of the Anduin, prepared for siege, and appearing eager to cross the river.
Thorongil, four months into his command, had been anticipating seeing action for the first time with his men during the heat of summer, but even he had not envisioned such an attack. Part of him, empathetic to the Rangers, wondered about the reason for the breakdown of the information network in Ithilien. He worried for the safety of his comrades at Henneth Annûn.
After assuring the speedy assembly of his men, Thorongil went home to arm himself. Quillion trailed behind, excited by the chaos and ready to perform his role of squire, whatever it might be. In his sleeping room, Thorongil moved coffers to access the chests sent from Rivendell. They had arrived within the fortnight, packed with care by Arwen. Now he tipped back the first lid and immediately he was at home, surrounded by a mystic, spicy scent, part fir, part mountain air, part agelessness. A sharp pang of longing shook him suddenly, but he had no time to dream of Imladris.
It appeared she had raided the storerooms and attics to stock these trunks with all the items, both practical and luxurious, he might need in his role of Gondorian lord and commander. Below the fine fabrics of tunics, trousers, and cloaks, were wondrous things. He sat back on his heels and sighed. He doubted any commander in the city possessed this much finery.
As an officer, he could arm himself as he pleased so he eschewed the full City Guard plate armor for something more practical for his style of fighting. Out of the leaf carved trunk, Aragorn drew a fawn suede shirt. He lifted the shoulders of a long tunic of silvery mail. Arwen had sent him armor fit for an Elven prince and worn by one in ages gone by---her father's mithril mail from his time as a warrior in Gil-Galad's service. Sleeveless, it fell to midcalf, freeing the wearer's arms for the fey and flexible Elven fighting style. It was as light as if made of silk but few weapons other than Elvish arrows could penetrate it.
As Quillion watched fascinated, perched on the bed and forgetting his duties, his master shed his uniform, pulled on the fine shirt, and slid the mail over his head. Over that went on a longer version of his black officer's jacket, the white tree standing out starkly across the chest. He belted it at the waist with a red sash and buckled on his sword belt. The Elvish hunting knife was tucked into its sheath at his back; its mate sheathed and slid in his boot top.
Armed and ready, he hesitated a moment, unwilling quite yet to step back into the seething current that was Minas Tirith preparing for war. He stood before the window looking out to the north. As the slanting red light of the rising sun caught his face, Aragorn softly began a soldier's pray.
"Eglerio Belain! Praise the Valar!
Tíro ven, berio ven. Look out for us, protect us.
Tego ven am mand, Eru. Lead us to safety, Eru
Anno ennui gaun a dûr, May you give me courage for
Súlchir, berio author nin. Victory, Manwë, protect my men.
Gurth a chyth vin tegi vin Give me strength to lead them.
Ae gwannen, Gurfannor, iesten If I die, Mandos, please prepare
tangado an nin ned tham lín. For me in your hall.
Elbereth, lasto a laer min,*" Elebereth, hear my prayer.
he intoned softly.
For some moments after, Aragorn stood silent with head bowed, an ominous feeling disturbing his soul. As the morning light strengthened, he raised the Evenstar to his lips and then tucked the gem inside his shirt. He turned and caught sight of Fallon leaning against the doorframe, two long pikes in his hands.
"Ask them to watch out for me also," Fallon said somberly. The captain wore a black leather cuirass emblazoned with the white tree over a long black tunic. Around his waist was wound the same dashing red sash as his commander. He took in the fineness of Thorongil's accoutrements and whistled low. As Thorongil pulled on the ornate vambraces, the ones from so long ago, Fallon exclaimed. "Those are beautiful! Do you carry spoils from a dragon hoard or did you once raid King Thranduil's sylvan palace?"
Thorongil smiled, the glow of the past in his eyes. "These were a gift from my father on my first orc hunt." The fine gold etching caught the light; Gil-galad's standard enameled in blue ornamented the cuffs.
"Who are you?" Fallon asked, dazzled. A stifled whimper interrupted his thoughts.
"Oh, sir, can you not go?" Quillion swallowed what would have been another sob. He had sat watching the whole time, at first fascinated by the fine arms, but now realizing what was really happening: these two men, his gods, were going to war, to that place where his father had gone, and from where he had never returned. Two large tears rolled down his cheeks. Thorongil stepped to him and, dropping on one knee, tousled his hair.
"Quillion, you are a fine squire, the bravest in the regiment. You wouldn't have us appear cowardly compared to so valiant a young man." He grew mock stern. "Lad, here are your orders! Keep the office together and help Captain Silivren." The retired officer was acting city commander until the regular troops returned. Then he smiled at the boy, not wanting to distress him more, but needing to give him instructions. "You know where my private letters are. If anything should happen, make sure they get to Mithrandir." Quillion swallowed and nodded wordlessly, and trailed the commander and the captain out to their waiting horses.
As the morning sun warmed the air, the reinforcements for Osgiliath rode forth from the city gates, to the herald of the silver horns, cantering in pairs down the south road to the river. It was not yet high summer, but the morning sun was bright and there was a purplish threat of storm to the north. Denethor and Thorongil led the troops. The Steward's son had also chosen mail over plate armor, his hands encased in studded gauntlets and a winged helmet tied to his pommel. As they approached, the river town seemed quiet, tense with anticipation.
In the garrison courtyard, hostlers led away the officers' horses and the junior officers set about housing the troopers. Away from the maelstrom of the arriving soldiers, the three officers climbed a tall bell tower to get a better picture of the enemy's strength. The opposing force had pitched their tents on the east bank of the Anduin, away from the eastern ruins of the city. The colorful standards whipping in the breeze indicated Haradrims, Khandians, and Umbrians made up the attacking army. The soldiers milled about alert but not formed into ranks for an attack. Barges rested on the bank ready to be pushed into the river. It looked as if they might try for a crossing soon. No orc pennants flapped, but if the army was waiting for orc help, the twilight creatures might arrive with the evening's darkness and an offensive could be launched soon after sunset.
"What fool allowed them to get those siege engines to the river banks without alerting us!" cursed Denethor. Indeed, there were two large trebuchets drawn up on the east bank. As they watched, a boulder, released by one, whizzed into Osgiliath, crumpling a tower. "Without striking a blow, they could keep us tied down here waiting for weeks. What other mayhem is taking place in Gondor that we are as of yet unaware?" he grumbled, frustrated.
The armies sat facing each other for several days, the bored troops exchanging catcalls and an occasional boulder or flight of arrows. The line soldiers fretted and waited while their officers plotted attack and counterstrike. Nerves were taut and Thorongil, fearing a surprise attack, had scouts constantly in the saddle patrolling the riverbanks.
When the attack finally came, it did not take them unawares; however, the direction it came from was nearly a surprise. Just after noon, on a day that was proving to be hot, dull, and dusty, an Ithilien Ranger galloped in on a lathered horse. He reported a troop of Khandian horsemen near one hundred strong had forded the Anduin to the north where the river broadened and slowed. Denethor shook his head at the number, weighed his options, and ordered Thorongil's cavalry, half the enemy strong, into the saddle. Nodding at Denethor's admonishment to hold them away from the city, Thorongil reined his snorting black stallion around and led his troop northeast to engage the Khandians. On a broad plain a league and a half from Osgiliath, the Guard caught sight of the Southron horse soldiers riding toward the hardwood line just above the river's bend. Thorongil's outriders spurred back with reports that one hundred was an accurate count. The commander arrayed his horsemen in ambush just inside a stand of beech woods, planning to execute the slashing attack he had learned well from the Rohirrim, hoping surprise would balance the odds for him.
The Southron cavalry came on at a trot, unaware of death awaiting them. They were nonchalant in the enemy's land, believing there were no troops outside of the besieged Osgiliath or the gated Minas Tirith. The golden sun standards fluttered in the breeze, marking the officers.
The Southrons reached the shadowed woods. For a brief interlude, the only sounds on the hot summer afternoon were the thud of hooves on the road and an occasional Khandian command. Suddenly, with a wild yell, the Gondorians swept out of hiding and through the enemy ranks almost unchecked, cutting a swath of maimed and dying men and horses before most of the Khandians could draw weapons. Thorongil reined Dagor around, bloody sword in his hand, his troopers coming back in line behind him without any spoken order. He spotted the enemy commander, a tall man on a yellow-dun, shouting orders, trying to form his line in the chaos, and charged. Dagor's shoulder solidly connected with the dun's and the black stallion was immediately up on his haunches, iron-shod hoofs flailing the air above the officer. Thorongil's blade swung over his head and the officer saw death in his opponent's eyes. His heart failed him and he broke away and fled, spurring his horse into a run. His men who were still able, followed him, but they were quickly ridden down by the Gondorian troopers. Thorongil rested his sword across the saddle pommel while brave Dagor snorted and pawed as if hoping for the fight to continue. Fallon rode up and reported three minor injuries among their men and one mount lost.
"Denethor," Thorongil said, wiping his sword, "probably has his hands full by now. This was a diversion to divide us. I think the main force is probably trying to take the bridge as we speak." Fallon's call of "Reform and return" echoed down the line. Dagor wheeled and danced under a tight rein. The Meara stallion wanted to run, sensing his master's urgency but Thorongil held him to a hand gallop to spare the other horses.
As they crested a rise above the river, they saw in the setting sun that the ruined city was under full attack. Smoke rose from burning bales that had been heaved into Osgiliath by the catapults. Some enemy troops were already across the bridge. Thorongil quickened the pace and when they reached the garrison, the troop dismounted at the outer wall, tossing reins to waiting hostlers. The young lieutenant in charge reported part of the enemy came by barge while others charged the bridge. He had heard there was fighting in the streets and orcs were gathering on the east bank.
Starting down the broad avenue, Thorongil broke his men into three groups and sent them off on parallel tracks. He, Fallon, and a dozen men continued down the main thoroughfare leading to the besieged bridge. Suddenly, from a side street charged a group of snarling orcs.
Swinging his sword two-handed, Fallon engaged one, the orc's heavy blade scraping down his own, its deadly path stopped only by his sword's hilt, the weight of the creature pushing his weapon out and down. The orc laughed as he sprang in with a dagger in his other hand. Fallon believed the wound he was about to receive would be ugly at best and probably mortal. He always suspected he would die by an orc's hand in the streets of Osgiliath. From the corner of his eye, he saw movement and jerked sideways as a knife whickered by his head. The Elven blade buried itself to the hilt in the base of the orc's throat. Thorongil caught his captain's arm and Fallon nodded his thanks. Wrenching his knife from the orc carcass, Thorongil gestured on, and the pair fought on forward, shoulder to shoulder followed by their men, always in the direction of the bridge, pushing the marauders before them as they tried to find the main body of Gondorian troops.
"We need to find Denethor!" Thorongil shouted to Fallon and their twelve grimy troopers during a lull in the battle. As they neared the river, the fighting became more intense. It was full night, moonless and dark as pitch except where fires burned in the ruins. Unearthly screams echoed through the stone, raising the hairs on the back of Thorongil's neck. The Southron men seemed to have fallen back to let the night hunters do their work. His force was unable to move far without scaring up a troop of orcs, and the hours blurred with the horror of the shrieking, maniacal enemy.
Battle weary and needing respite, the fourteen men crouched in an alley and Fallon passed a flask of cool water. Thorongil took a swallow and shook his head, running his hand down the rough granite wall he leaned against.
"This place should be leveled. Every ruin, every half-demolished building is cover for any sniper or an ambush." After a while, they moved on through the black night, alert to shuffling or breathing not their own, and listening to the cries of war, sometimes far off, sometimes close at hand. The air cooled and the fog rolled in, turning the horror of the nighttime battle into an otherworldly vision of monument-like ruins, silent and deserted until suddenly filled by shrieking ghouls, charging at them with deadly intent. Finally, in the half-light of dawn, the orcs seemed to disappear in the mists and an eerie silence hung over Osgiliath.
The quiet was broken by yells and the sound of running feet. Officers screamed orders in the Southron dialect. The ferry taking orcs to the east shore had exchanged them with fresh troops of men. A large group of warriors charged out of the fog. The commander gutted one as he rushed by and then a dark Haradrim officer confronted him. The man soon proved he was a well-trained swordsman. Thorongil was hotly engaged in deadly swordplay with an opponent equal to his skill.
As fighting raged around him, Fallon warded off one opponent's scimitar and saw his commander's back was unguarded. He desperately fought towards him, knowing that in the narrow confines of these streets it was dangerous to be as focused as Thorongil and the Haradrim officer were. An arrow or dagger wielded by a hidden assailant could take one unawares. As if created by his thoughts, Fallon saw the dagger in flight and knew he had failed his friend. The knife embedded itself in Thorongil's left arm. Its force and the sudden pain drove the commander off-balance. He staggered to his right, laying his unprotected side open to the Haradrim's blade. Fallon screamed an ineffective warning, believing his friend was about to die. The Haradrim raised his sword to drive it into Thorongil. Suddenly he was staring dumbfounded at his arm. No longer was there a hand gripping a sword there; it lay on the ground at his feet. In shock, he puzzled over the reason for this for just a moment before Thorongil's backswing gutted him.
A moment later, Fallon reached his commander. His arm went around his waist to support the reeling man. Blood streamed down Thorongil's arm and dripped from his fingertips.
"Come, we have to get off the field," Fallon urged, trying to lead him away from the fighting. He gripped the commander tighter as he swayed, his sword still at the ready in his right hand.
"No, it's fine. Just stop the bleeding. Pull out the knife!" Thorongil ordered, wildly trying to peer over Fallon's shoulder for any approaching attackers. Fallon dragged the sagging Thorongil into a sheltered side street and leaned him against a wall. In the weak daylight, he saw his face was pale under the grime. He pressed his palm to the wound and Thorongil gritted his teeth. Fallon saw the knife had entered his upper arm at an angle and from its depth had to be grating on the bone. Blood welled around his fingers and cascaded down the commander's arm. Fallon felt his own pulse race and panic rose in his chest.
"Pull out the knife, Fallon, and bind the wound or I'll bleed to death," Thorongil said, calm and controlled once again. His head leaned back against the wall; his eyes were closed. Fallon tugged once experimentally on the knife, pulled hard, and the blade came free, wrenching a yelp from Thorongil. The blood flowed heavier and Fallon quickly wrapped Thorongil's upper arm tightly with his own sash. Thorongil slid to the street, his head resting on his knees.
"I'll sit a moment and we can then be on our way," he murmured.
Fallon turned to the alley opening, sword drawn, guarding against any attacker who might come through the swirling mist. Nearby, foreign voices shouted commands and, footsteps, muffled by the fog, came near and passed the mouth of the alley, heading toward the river. Foreign horns carried through the mist, perhaps signaling recall. Clear and close by came the blare of the silver horns of Gondor and the sound of horses. Fallon recognized the signal of the home guard with Ecthelion at the head riding to the aid of the defenders. They swept by the spot where Fallon and Thorongil lay, down the avenue to the river, meeting little resistance. The Southron troops were in full retreat.
As if greeting the Steward, the sunlight weakly broke through the mists. Fallon staggered out of the niche. Thorongil's blood smeared his hands and coat. He looked back at his commander who still sat with eyes closed, leaning against the wall. Fallon shuddered at the unhealthy paleness of his friend's face and the pool of thickening blood on the pavers at his side, but the bleeding seemed to have stopped though it was hard to tell under the red sash.
Sometime later, Fallon staggered into Denethor's headquarters half-carrying his commander. There was a flurry of activity as Denethor and Ecthelion, who had been assessing their losses, made a spot for Thorongil in a chair, and Ecthelion summoned the healer. Blood was beginning to ooze from under the bandage again. In no time, they had gotten the commander's jacket and mail off. Jamesel, one of the battlefield medics, hurried in. Ecthelion stood by silent and watchful as the man began his work, slashing the sleeve of Thorongil's shirt from wrist to shoulder. Denethor fled the room; he never cared to watch the leeches stitch or saw at a man like tailors to cloth. Fallon stood beside the chair, supporting Thorongil and ready to hold him still if need be. Jamesel looked closely at the wound, shook his head, and began assembling a collection of instruments as wicked looking as orc blades. Fallon, recognizing what he was about, could not contain a whispered curse.
"You are too hasty, leech. It needs only to be cleaned and stitched closed," Thorongil stated clinically, head craned around, dispassionately examining his arm. "It was a Haradrim blade, not orc, so there should be no poison. But I believe a large vessel was cut."
"Don't tell me how to do my job, boy," the whiskered doctor said, pressing the wound none too gently. The probing stopped Thorongil's reply short and Fallon noticed the blood that trickled from his commander's bitten lip. Finally, Jamesel sent a squire running for hot water, and from a kit produced a wickedly curved needle and horsetail hair, the best substance for closing a battlefield wound, he proclaimed. He mopped the oozing blood from the wound and covered it with linen steeped in a pungent liquid to draw out any poison.
"Wash your hands," Thorongil gritted out at the doctor. Muttering about people sticking to their own profession, Jamesel did what he was told and then roughly but competently stitched the wound closed. Soundlessly, Thorongil watched and when the healer was finished, struggled to his feet, reaching for the mail surcoat. Fallon's cry of protest alerted Ecthelion.
"No, Commander. The attack is over. You rest," Ecthelion commanded. Thorongil eyed the Steward, decided he did not have the strength to argue, and collapsed back into the chair. Fallon brought him a cool drink of water and Thorongil soon fell into an exhausted sleep. Fallon and Ecthelion stayed in the office, the father reading reports and the son silently watching his friend. Ecthelion looked up and saw the dread on his son's face. The father grasped his son's shoulder to comfort him. Fallon nodded thoughtfully towards his unconscious commander.
"He's now saved the lives of both your sons, Father, and you owe him much," he said earnestly. "Today, he saved me from an enemy's blade but I could not return the favor." Fallon fell silent, watching the ashen Thorongil.
"Don't worry. He will be fine," Ecthelion assured him. Fallon looked at his father and smiled a ghost of his usual grin. He looked down at the crumpled red sash he held in his hands. One could hardly see the blood stains on the bright cloth. The officers' sashes were so colored for just that reason. Fallon thought of the many times he had heard optimistic assurances from commanders and medics, only to lose his friends on the battlefield anyway. He prayed to Varda that today would not become another of those times.
The late morning sunlight warmed the room Fallon shared with Thorongil in the officers' quarters in Osgiliath. Fallon watched Thorongil sleeping on the cot. Unconscious, the commander looked younger and vulnerable under his three days' growth of beard. He was still pale, but his skin did not show grayness or any of the dark bruising around his eyes that heralded death. Thorongil had been asleep now for almost a full day since Fallon and his father had moved the half-conscious man from the command office to his camp bed. Fallon held grim vigil all night, propped back in a chair, kept company by the battlefield thoughts that haunt all soldiers after dark.
Thorongil had not developed the feared wound fever and had rested peacefully, only awakening once with a cry of "Arwen!" He seemed not to know Fallon but spoke to him in Sindarin instead of the Common Speech they all used in battle, asking for water and if Ada had been there.
"I feel he will think me weak and unworthy..." Thorongil whispered over the cup rim before drifting back to sleep. Now, he was breathing easily and the crisp bandage was unmarred. Fallon touched his forehead: it was cool.
"Shall I live, Mother?" Thorongil asked, eyes still closed.
"Aye," Fallon could not hide his relieved grin, "so I shall have to continue with my shame at birthing so ugly a child." One grey eye opened and studied him coolly, taking in his disheveled state and the bloodstained shirt he still wore.
"You bear the spoils of battle with you. You have not been to bed," Thorongil stated gruffly. "Captain, you're overly concerned with me. Have you seen to the men? Are they all right?"
"Perfectly. They are bedded down outside. There were a few minor wounds but no casualties." Fallon handed Thorongil a cup of water and continued his report. "The Southrons have retreated to the far side of the river. They look to be regrouping." Thorongil sat up slowly and Fallon helped him to his feet.
"I need to get dressed and get outside." He swayed dizzily for a moment but waved away Fallon's help.
"I found you a fresh shirt but it's not near as fine as the one that was ruined." The captain held it out; it was soft white linen, embroidered with the white tree of Gondor and most likely one of Denethor's. He, over Thorongil's weak protests, solicitously helped him dress, adjusting a scarf sling for his left arm, and pulling his uniform coat over the shoulder, allowing the jacket sleeve to hang free.
The two walked outside where men rested around cooking fires in the courtyard before the officers' quarters. Murmurs of greeting met Thorongil as the soldiers assessed the injury of their commander.
"Looking fit there, sir!" called one enthusiastic young trooper, smiling and the commander returned the grin. He and Fallon climbed up to the causeway to observe the enemy camp. On the deck were a map-covered table, several camp chairs, and most of the command staff. Ecthelion himself pulled up a chair for his commander. Denethor placed a friendly hand on Thorongil's shoulder.
"Good to see you up. Your handling of that Southron cavalry kept us from being overrun before Father could arrive." He passed a spyglass to Thorongil and pointed across the river. Through it, the commander saw the colorful tents and banners of the enemy. Men in that encampment sat around as his did, cooking, sharpening weapons, and waiting. Farther back near the tree line were pitched the ragged trappings of the orcish troops. The trebuchets stood idle. Were the attackers just resting or waiting for more reinforcements? He doubted they would pack up and go home soon since there were many supply wagons drawn up to the south of the encampment.
"Too many troops are away from Minas Tirith," Ecthelion was saying as Thorongil turned back to the group. "I feel like we have been lured out to sit here. We don't have enough men to fortify both positions. The levies of Dol Amroth have been called but it will be nigh unto a month before their real strength of force will be here."
"We need to find a way to drive them from the bank," Denethor said, gesturing toward the enemy. "They lie at rest, well-supplied. We need to give them reason to leave."
Thorongil examined a map of western Mordor and Ithilien spread on the table and held by two chunks of crumbled stonework. "There is no supply line for these invaders. What provisions they have, they have brought with them. There also is little foraging in Ithilien. Food is scare and any small groups sent out to hunt will be cut to ribbons by the Rangers," he said. "We need to destroy their food and shelter, and those siege engines before they come into play again. With an army armed to the teeth at their fore, they can do nothing then but return home, lick their wounds, and regroup for next season."
"You have a plan?" asked Ecthelion, interested.
"Aye, I will." Thorongil pulled off a page of foolscap from the sheaf, found a pen, and began to make some sketches.
By evening, he did. The commander's plan was simple enough, but it required two things he did not know if he could produce: three men able to infiltrate the Southron camp and an archer capable of making a three-hundred-yard shot. Although one of the ranger bows would not have adequate draw for such a shot, he knew the one he needed was in a chest in his house in Minas Tirith. However, finding an archer might prove impossible. One of Glorfindel's fine bowmen, or better yet, the Prince of Mirkwood would find it an easy shot. Usually, he could have made it himself, but he knew that with his wound, he would be unable to draw the bow. Without the long-range arrows, his plan's chance of success would be slim. He would have to order several men into the Southron camp, probably to their deaths, and even then, their success could not be guaranteed.
Never without hope, Thorongil sent Fallon spurring to the city for the bow while he outlined his idea to Ecthelion. Under cover of night, several handpicked men would cross the river to the south and creep up behind the enemy. They would wait hidden through the day and at the next nightfall, two or three disguised in Southron uniforms would walk boldly into camp, carrying wineskins full of incendiary. Deep in the night when all men were asleep and most orcs had quieted, the men would douse the siege machines and supply wagons and flee. From an elevation, an archer could launch the arrow that would ignite the oil. The tents would be easy marks for any competent archers—for that, he had planned to take along a few of his old Ranger comrades that had been fighting in Osgiliath. The raiders could then slide away in the chaos and return to the west bank without loss of life. Provisions destroyed, the Southern men probably would lose heart and not wait around for their orcish comrades to get too hungry. The Steward found the plan solid and approved it whole-heartedly, but Thorongil had omitted the problem of firing the long-range arrows in his presentation.
As the moon rose, Fallon returned bearing the case that held the ornately carved, curved bow and the blue-fletched arrows. Thorongil pulled one arrow from the quiver, smoothing a vane. Since receiving this gift on his thirteenth birthday, he had replaced each arrow that had been lost or broken, caring for them carefully, marking each "Estel" in Tengwar script. Fallon ran his hand in admiration over the bow and confessed he had never been much good at archery; his aim was so poor.
"No need for you to risk yourself on this mission then," Thorongil pointed out.
"I assume you shall risk yourself?" At his commander's nod, Fallon continued. "Then there is need of me to be there. I had to promise Quillion I'd keep you safe in order to retrieve that bow. I don't have the courage to face that little guard dog with news of your demise."
Thorongil sent a request for the commander of the Rangers, Borgaroth. The tall woodsman was waiting for him as he arose the next morning.
"You're getting lazy lying abed with this new command of yours," his old commander greeted Thorongil. Then the crusty soldier noticed the sling holding his arm. "You've hurt yourself, lad?" he asked solicitously.
"It's but a scratch," Thorongil assured him.
Fallon seemed to have disappeared, up early and off on some mission that the commander hoped involved foraging for breakfast. Thorongil detailed his plan to Brogaroth, his need for the Rangers' help, and asked after Alcinion, one of Thorongil's former men, whose expertise with the bow had been learned from his half-Elvish grandfather.
"Aye, we can help you, Captain---Commander. But," he shook his grizzled head, "Alcinion was killed in the early spring. An orc patrol surprised him and Meriel near Henneth Annûn. They were vastly outnumbered but led the pack away from the others in fear the orcs would discover the secret path." Borgaroth looked distressed, and Thorongil sent a silent prayer to Elbereth for his lost friends.
"Then I have no one to make the shot," Thorongil said dejectedly.
"You can," the Ranger stated.
"No, my friend. I am afraid I can't." Thorongil rose, slipped off the sling, and lifted the bow. He strung it and then raised it to shoulder height. The pain simply to lift his left arm to horizontal made him weak. He braced his elbow and wrist and drew back the string with his right hand. The trembling in his arm grew and not half drawn, he felt something give inside the wound. In intense pain, he lowered the weapon. Borgaroth looked in alarm at his old comrade's pale face. "So we have no one to take the shot."
At that moment, Fallon came in with fresh bread, probably stolen from his father's table, a cold chicken, and a wheel of cheese. The three men broke their fast. As they ate, Borgaroth watched Fallon closely.
"What's wrong with him?" the Ranger interjected suddenly. Fallon looked up, puzzled by the rude remark.
"He can't aim," Thorongil answered. Borgaroth shook his head, rose and lifted the bow and quiver, and walked outside to the broad avenue fronting their encampment. About three hundred yards down the street sat an abandon tavern, The Dancing Goat, its sign of a billy cavorting on his hind legs still swinging from the hinges. Thorongil and Fallon had followed more leisurely. Borgorath handed the weapon to Fallon.
"Draw the bow." Fallon did as he was told, blue arrow nocked, stance perfect, one eye closed: he had been well trained. The arrow was released, sailed the distance easily, but did not come within fifteen feet of the sign.
"I can't aim!" Fallon protested as Borgaroth handed him another arrow. He drew back again and Thorongil stepped up behind him, steadying his arm, as he had watched Glorfindel do so many times when teaching the youngsters, and sighting over his shoulder down the arrow.
"Shut your eyes," Thorongil said, an idea dawning in his mind.
"What!" Fallon protested.
"Shut your eyes. Draw back the bow and shut your eyes." Thorongil sighted down the arrow over Fallon's shoulder, adjusted his braced arm a bit, and whispered, "Release!" The arrow made a blue blur in the air and thumped satisfyingly into the goat's haunch. Thorongil slapped his captain on the shoulder with joy. "We can do this!"
All they had to do now was wait for deep night. Crossing the river had been effortless. Creeping into the wood behind the camp and finding hidey-holes for the day was completed without incident. Now they lay hidden, passing away the day in a deep glen south of the enemy camp. Borgaroth scouted the area and found a perfect open glade for his archers to fire on the tents. However, the elevation for the long-range arrows for the siege engines and supply wagons was a problem. The closest rock formation made it a four hundred yard shot; too far for all but the very best of the Galadhrim sharpshooters armed with the finest of Lothlorien's bows.
"This isn't going to work," Fallon said despondently, leaning against a massive oak. Thorongil was about to concede defeat and revise his plan when he looked up. Fifty feet above their heads was a large branch where the canopy opened toward the river. The limb was as wide as a walkway. He had shot from trees before with Legolas; it would be easy to balance on the limb and take a shot.
"Come, Fallon," Thorongil said, unbuckling his sword belt and repositioning it as a baldric, the weapon hanging between his shoulders.
"Whither?" Fallon asked, watching him in puzzlement.
"Up," said Thorongil, pointing into the leaves. The oak would be an easy climb, offering solid limbs, spaced closely together.
"I never was very good at trees," the captain said, eyeing the oak's height, but adjusting his weapons for ascent.
"Never climbed trees and never became a competent archer?" Thorongil looked at him questioningly. "You are becoming less than an asset to me." He leaped and caught a low branch, using his legs and right arm for most of the strength needed to swing up on it. Fallon followed cautiously. Half way to their limb, Thorongil wrapped his legs around the branch he sat on and reached down to help Fallon. In a moment, Fallon, red-faced and looking thoroughly uneasy, was secure on the limb beside his commander. He looked down.
"Sweet Varda! Are we going higher?" He spontaneously clutched at Thorongil's sleeve.
Thorongil pointed to the broad limb above them. "We'll stand on it and shoot."
"You may stand. I've just come along for company."
"No, Fallon. You're shooting. Courage! It will work." Within a few minutes, they reached the broad limb. Fallon sat a long while, his eyes closed and his back against the trunk. Thorongil was sympathetic to his captain's plight; the dizzying sickness was the same he felt each time he dropped over the edge of a high cliff wall. He had never outgrown the fear or shame he had felt as a boy at his brothers' derisive snorts.
The commander stood, looking out, right hand resting on a side limb at shoulder height. This was perfectly safe and the exact spot to take the shots. From this angle, it was barely two hundred yards to the trebuchets drawn up at the riverbank and slightly more to the supply wagons at the back of the encampment. Through the leaves, he could see across the river to Osgiliath, looking peaceful and less ruined than it was.
Away to the west, the White Tower gleamed in the afternoon sun, the rays glinting silver off the Citadel Guards' shields.
The oak was a perfect cool green haven as the long, humid summer afternoon drifted into evening. The peacefulness that the green smell and bird song created made the orcs and Southrons below seen very far away. The sun set behind Mindolluin, a red ball in the coppery southwestern sky. The long purple twilight of summer settled in and Thorongil saw yellow flashes from fireflies in the leaves. Smells of cooking filled the air and he observed an Umbrian patrol passing below them, padding home to supper. It grew darker and the camp noises grew softer. Out of the murk below came the whistles of Harodel, Raminsel, and Tondilar, dressed in their Haradrim uniforms, filled oilskins covered by flowing Haradrim robes. Thorongil whistled back and they slid off into the blackness toward the camp. By this time, Borgaroth would have his archers in the clearing waiting for the signal to launch the barrage at the tents.
The night wore on. Just as Thorongil felt that some ill had befallen the three sent into camp, they were back at the base of the tree, cooing like doves settling in their nests.
"Fallon. Stand before me and draw back the bow." In the early twilight, Fallon had gingerly risen and walked cautiously along the branch and back, clutching the side limb. Since darkness fell, he had been silently sitting with his back against the tree. The captain dug down into his soul and found the courage to stand again. Thorongil stepped around him and edged him forward on the limb until the lights of Osgiliath and the starlight showed the vague outline of the siege engines through the opening in the branches.
Fallon nocked the arrow and drew the bow easily; Thorongil struck his flint and caught the oil soaked linen on fire. He rested his chin on Fallon's shoulder and sighted the arrow, making minute adjustments in the elevation of the bow and quietly said 'release.' The flame made a perfect arch as it flew, struck the nearer trebuchet and the tower immediately caught, flames running quickly down the paths of the oil streams. The pair sent the second flaming arrow aloft. It lodged in the framework of the second catapult and fire blossomed. Soon the trebuchets were burning, sparks streaming on the breeze.
Pivoting Fallon, Thorongil sighted the third arrow and Fallon sent it into the supply wagons. The canvas of one exploded with a burst of flame and the fire was quickly dancing from wagon to wagon. The camp rang with shouts, half of the soldiers running toward the trebuchets, half toward the fiery wagons, but none to the river for water. Suddenly below them, fireflies filled the night again as a barrage of arrows arched into the camp. Several tents caught immediately. A second, third, and fourth flight followed the first. The pair watched from their perch as the camp became a yelling, howling, chaotic inferno.
"I believe it's time to be going," Thorongil said presently. He secured a rope around the limb and sent Fallon repelling down the broad trunk. Thorongil looped the rope around his waist and eased the slack through his left hand, taking most of his weight with his right, but still his arm throbbed by the time his feet touched the ground. He touched the sleeve and found it wet, but there was no more time to tarry. Such a motley army as the enemy would mill in chaos at first but soon an enterprising officer might guess the direction of the arrows' origin and send out a patrol.
They melted into the woods and met the other raiders back at the hidden boats, congratulating the three Rangers on the success of their escapade. As they rowed across the river, Raminsel recounted what had taken place within the camp. No one suspected they were Gondorian swathed in the red Haradrim uniforms, and Tondilar had let loose an impressive string of Black Speech curses when one overly friendly Umbrian soldier wanted to share his wineskin. Raminsel and Harodel had climbed the wooden structures soundlessly while Tondilar shared the real wineskin with the two soldiers casually guarding the trebuchets. After cutting the throats of the three Khandians guarding the wagons, they found one full of casks of oil. Hatcheting open the barrels, they doused the canvas coverings of several wains.
"The Valar must have guided your hand," Raminsel said to Fallon. "The fire arrow hit the oil wagon. That was the explosion you saw."
By morning, the camp was a tangle of smoking, blackened ruins. At the sight of such devastation, the Southron army threw up their hands, skewered a few uppity orcs who were too quick to assign blame, and draggled south. The Ithilien Rangers, much as Thorongil had predicted, were waiting to harry their flanks, and lessen the number that would arrive home.
To the trumpeting of the silver horns, the victorious lords of Gondor rode through the massive gates back into the city. And the grateful citizens enthusiastically greeted each soldier, from the Steward to the lowliest trooper. Flowers thrown from rooftops and balconies flurried through the air, and filled the streets like multi-hued snowflakes. Children ran alongside the horses and many troopers swung them up laughing to sit before them in their saddles. Courtiers and common folk swarmed the Fountain Plaza and the cheers became a roar as the riders reached the Citadel.
Thorongil rode on the Steward's left, attired in his mail and jacket. No sling supported his arm, but his left hand rested stiffly on his thigh. His arm throbbed. The exertions of the raid to the eastern shore of the river had reopened and infected the angry, red gash. The dressing was stained with pus that morning and stuck to the wound when Fallon tried to change it. Thorongil refused to call the healer again and said he could treat the injury as soon as they were home. He knew he was warm, not from the pleasant summer day, but from fever. Dagor, sensing his master's pain, was unusually well behaved. Fallon eyed his commander covertly, trying to gauge the limits of his endurance, and thanked the stars when they finally reached the plaza that Mithrandir stood with Quillion on the Citadel steps.
Ecthelion gave a short victory speech, punctuated with cheers from the crowd, dismissed the troops, and called for a brief meeting with his officers. Fallon and Thorongil swung down from their mounts and Quillion ran up to the commander, enthusiastically launching himself into his arms. Thorongil winced from the pain of the impact and raised his eyes to meet Gandalf's knowing look.
"I'll see you in your quarters later," he said, gently patting Thorongil's shoulder.
The commander sat through a debriefing in the Steward's office, which featured a very fine brandy raised in toast to the success of Gondor. Then he and Fallon, accompanied by Quillion, met their men at The Laughing Dwarf. The men were well into their cups by the time the two officers arrived. They cheered the two, raised a toast to them, and immediately began embellished tales of the pair's heroics. The patrons were delighted and even Nell, the jaded owner who had seen too much of fighting men, was impressed with the dark, quiet commander's actions. As she went to the cellar to tap another ale barrel, she made sure the serving wench took a bottle of her finest wine to his table.
As the well wishing wore on, Thorongil felt his fever rise. His arm throbbed abominable and the chills shook him in the hot taproom. The edges of his vision blurred and he knew it was not from the pipe smoke swirling in the air. The commander finally left Fallon sober, but singing with the men, Luce, the ample serving maid, ensconced on his lap. He took Quillion's hand and led the giddy boy home. The child had been surreptitiously fed a half-pint of ale by one of the troopers and looked to be sick soon.
Gandalf was already there, his instruments and bandages laid out on the table. Steam rose from water boiling and the clean smell of athelas filled the room. Quillion had spent enough time assisting the wizard to know something was amiss. He looked up with questioning eyes and squeaked in alarm as Thorongil slumped against the doorframe. Gandalf came quickly, steadied him with a strong arm and helped him out of his jacket, mail, and shirt. The wizard unwrapped the linen bandage soiled with putrescence and blood, and teased away the stuck bits. The wound was bruised-looking and swollen, the edges red with infection. Frightened, Quillion stared bug-eyed and swallowed hard, his pale cheeks turning green.
"Go outside now!" Gandalf commanded and added more kindly, "'Twould be best for us all." The boy looked askance at the commander, ready to brave the worst for his injured master if he was needed. Quillion was thankful when Thorongil nodded, and he scurried away.
Gandalf worked quickly, pulling a knife and scissors from the boiling water and wiping them with a clear liquid from a faceted vial that obviously came from Imladris. The wizard filled a cup with an anesthetic potion and he made Aragorn drink; for once, there was no protest from him. Gandalf gently cut and pulled out the oozing stitches. He eased back the edges of the wound, first using his fingers to probe it and then the knife tip. It opened the abscess and the wound drained first yellow pus, then blood, and eventually nearly clear fluid. Gently, Gandalf kept pressing. Aragorn's eyes were closed, his jaw clenched, his head pressed hard against the chair back. Finally, Gandalf seemed satisfied. He laid cloths steeped in athelas over the wound and washed his hands.
"That needs to draw a bit." He stoked up the fire and set more water on to heat. "Would you like tea or something stronger?" Aragorn smiled weakly.
"Something stronger." Gandalf filled two glasses with the heady amber miruvor, a specialty of Elrond's vintner. Aragorn took a tentative sip, and then drained the glass in a single swallow. Gandalf refilled it and Aragorn drained the glass a second time.
"I'll restitch the wound and cover it liberally with the athelas oil. I think it will heal nicely now. You're fortunate you rode in today; a few more hours and the wound would have been dangerously poisonous."
"Thank you, Gandalf." Aragorn drained his glass a third time.
"I must remember to carry my medical kit into battle."
"Physician, heal thyself?" Gandalf asked, bustling about, tossing the stained dressings into the fire. "How did the Gondorian troops perform?"
"It was an ugly battle. The troops are well trained, but Gondor has so few resources. Minas Tirith needs more men to face a real attack, but there are no more. If the enemy had been larger or more tenacious, I fear we would be defending the city walls now instead of celebrating victory."
"There is still much time before that is Minas Tirith's fate," Gandalf said. "This was simply the Southrons encouraged by Mordor to test the strength and resolve of Gondor. They decided the White City is still too strong to risk an all-out attack. The response was handled well but Ecthelion needs encouraged to develop a quicker response to such attacks."
Aragorn seemed to be listening to Gandalf but the wizard realized he was almost asleep, battle-weary and lulled by his friend's pleasant voice and three glasses of spirits. Gandalf pressed three fingers to his forehead and murmured an Elvish incantation for sleep. "You did well, my boy," he said as Aragorn dropped into unconsciousness. Gandalf laid out his supplies and uncovered the wound. "You needn't endure this pain a second time." And he began to close the wound with neat, small stitches.
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