Politics of Arda
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Long Road Home, The: 8. The Captain's Company, part 1
Faramir rubbed his burning eyes with ink-stained fingers. He leaned back in his chair and stretched, hearing his spine crackle. Shaking his head to loosen the muscles in his neck, he sat forward again. With heartfelt loathing, he glared at the piles of letters on his desk, willing them to dwindle. He had thought, once the king's crowning and wedding were over, things would settle a bit. Never had he imagined that governing a realm involved so much paper. And it wasn't that he was averse to reading, not at all -- he loved the written word. There was nothing more enjoyable than strolling through the library, taking this book or that ancient scroll from the shelves to study it.
But those were instructive, or at the very least, entertaining. These writings, on the other hand...
He grabbed the nearest sheet, scanned it, and threw it back on the desk with a disgusted snort. A shopkeeper's complaint about custom lost during the siege. And here. He snatched up another page. A plea for the king to intercede in a neighbors' quarrel. And then this! He pulled a third page from the pile. A request for nails to be allotted to the carpenters rebuilding the gates. He was the Steward of Gondor, and he was spending his time signing orders for the distribution of nails. How did the foremen think a wooden gate ought to be mended? He had already confirmed the work order for the repairs; it should have been sufficient.
Dare they not make any decision on their own any longer? At this rate, I will soon be busy deciding how many hammer strokes the workers are allowed to use on their precious nails.
He ran a hand through his hair, longing for the simple days when he was Captain of the Ithilien Rangers and written reports were of true consequence. Faramir did not recall his father ever being inundated beneath such frivolous petitions and letters as covered the current Steward's desk, although Denethor had been burdened also with many responsibilities. But it was as if, with the threat of war ended and the promise of a prosperous future made, trivial matters had gained such importance they needed the eye of the country's highest authorities. The worst of it was, it took his attention away from the truly important things. Such as separating the king's assets from those of the steward's, as they had become terribly entangled over the centuries. Or starting on the restoration of Ithilien so more crops could be produced to feed the populace.
Something needed to be done about it. Come tomorrow, he decided, he would see to hiring more clerks. His hours were simply too short to handle every detail himself, much as he might feel responsible for Gondor's well-being. The clerks could sort the letters into matters a trusted aide could handle and those he himself needed to see to. If he did not, the citizens of Minas Tirith and their petitions would wound him as much as any Southron arrow had -- but these would see him succumb.
He slumped back with a tired sigh. Perhaps it had been a mistake to stay in Edoras for as long as he had. After Théoden's funeral, while Aragorn accompanied the hobbits as far as the Gap of Rohan, he should have returned to Minas Tirith forthwith instead of remaining until he could return at the king's side. The number of requests, dispatches and orders waiting for him to be perused, signed, or forwarded to King Elessar after the long weeks of absence had been staggering.
Yet, he deemed the time in Edoras well spent. Unbidden, a smile curved his lips. He had passed many a pleasant day with Éowyn, riding across the golden fields of Rohan, discussing plans for their wedding and their future together. Free from the demands of war and office, they were able to unbend and rejoice in each other's company -- despite the ever-present chaperons his future brother-in-law seemed to believe were needed. As if he would ever do anything to disgrace his betrothed... But Éomer had been right; for people of their rank, the appearance of propriety was as important as propriety itself. He could not wait, though, for the wedding. Six more months, until next spring. It felt like an eternity.
Outside, rain slashed at the windows; wind howled around the Citadel. Unbeknownst to Faramir, this very same storm had kept his brother prisoner beneath a leatherleaf bush overnight before it had blown north and reached the capital late in the morning. But that was hours ago and it had long since grown dark. Inside, however, his study was warm and well lit, for soundless servants had put down lamps to cast the room in a golden glow and started a crackling fire in the hearth.
He could not recall what hour had been called last, but his stomach told him the evening was growing late. Pushing the delightful memories of the visit to Rohan from his mind, he went back to work, determined to finish one more pile of papers before pursuing dinner.
He had just signed the last order with a firm Faramir Denethorion, Steward of Gondor and was sprinkling sand upon the ink, when someone knocked on the door.
He looked up with mild surprise at the sound. 'Twas a while ago that he had given the clerks leave to retire to their homes for the evening.
"Enter," he called.
The door opened slowly. A page stuck his head in.
"Begging your pardon, my lord," the boy said. "A messenger has arrived, carrying dispatches from Lord Angbor of Lamedon and Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth. Chamberlain said you might wish to see them right away."
Faramir suppressed a sigh. He had no desire to see even more paper make its way into his office. Still, news from the southern lands was always of concern. And his uncle, at the least, could be trusted not to burden him with trivialities.
"I will take them," he said, waving the page in. The boy gave him a packet wrapped in leather stained dark with rain, bowed and made to depart the room.
"The storm is quite fierce. Has anyone seen that the courier has a chance to warm up after his journey?"
"Yes, Lord Steward. Chamberlain sent him to the kitchens and ordered the cooks to provide him supper."
Faramir waited for the lad to close the door before loosening the ties that held the package closed. He pulled out the large sheaf of documents, adding them to the piles on his desk. He shifted through the dispatches quickly, determining whether they could wait until the morning, or if the news they held was so important that it needed the king's attention right away.
His breath caught when his eye fell upon the handwriting on a sealed envelope. He knew that script -- it belonged to Boromir. What could be so important that his brother would risk discovery? Boromir would know there were others at the king's court beside Faramir who might recognize the hand. Then again, none would expect to see the dead practice their penmanship. He shook his head wryly at the thought; he still did not agree with Boromir's decision.
His fingers trembled a little with excitement when he broke the seal and took out the letter. It consisted of a single page with only five lines. "I will send you a woman by the name of Nîneth," Boromir wrote without preamble. "She will carry further word from me. She and her son Galwion have suffered much in the war. I place their fate in your care and trust in your judgement regarding them. Nîneth can tell you more."
Faramir read the words three times, as if by reading them repeatedly, he could make them tell him more. "Leave it to my brother to give me a morsel and then make me wait for the rest of the tale," he muttered below his breath. Still, he smiled. Boromir was alive and well. That was of main import. For the rest, he would just have to wait until this mysterious woman presented herself. He folded the letter and carefully tucked it inside his tunic.
Boromir opened the door to the stable behind The Tumbling Falls inn in Ethring and stepped inside. The mixed odors of manure, hay and horse assaulted him. It seemed dark after the bright light of day outside and he waited for his eyes to adjust. Barangol nickered softly in greeting.
"Hello my friend," Boromir replied. "How are you today?"
He entered the horse's stall and ran a hand over the animal's withers. Except for a bald spot on the horse's hide, with downy new hair growing back in, the sores had faded; a week's rest and ointments provided by the inn's mistress, Miluien, had done their duty. A day or two more, and Barangol would be fit to be ridden again.
Boromir nodded to himself in satisfaction. He wished to leave Ethring soon. He planned to travel to Erech at the end of the South Road and he hoped to do so before winter's snow closed the pass at Tarlang's Neck. He did not yet worry about where to go from Erech; the winters were cold so high in the mountains, too cold for travel. A season's stay in Erech would provide him with plenty of time to reflect on the matter.
The horse turned his head, nostrils flaring. He smacked his lips and started nibbling on Boromir's sleeve. Boromir laughed. "You do have a nose for treats, eh? Well, you are right. I did bring you a nice carrot." He pulled the carrot from his tunic and broke it into pieces before offering them to Barangol.
Behind him, the stable door opened again. Yapping, Híril barreled in, followed by Gahir, the innkeep's son.
"Oh, hello, Master Erandír," the boy said. "I took Híril outside, that we might play together. I hope that was all right?"
"It certainly was, Gahir," Boromir answered. "It seems she has taken a liking to you."
Gahir shrugged and offered a shy smile. "I like her too."
"I am glad you were there to look after her," Boromir continued, "while I was not well."
The mere thought of illness brought back the urge to cough; he forcefully suppressed the tickle in his throat while appraising the dog who cocked her head as she looked back at him. He had come very close to losing her during the crossing of the Ringló.
The water had seemed colder still on his second crossing and by the time he reached Híril, he was soaked to his skin, his fingers stiff and useless. He had had no choice but to tuck her under his arm before tackling the frigid waters a third time. About mid-river, a smooth stone hidden beneath the froth had caused him to slip and in regaining his balance, he had let go of the dog. Only a reflexive grab for a hind leg had prevented the animal from being swept away toward the sea far south.
He had soon learned that his swim in the biting waters of the Ringló and the storm's icy rain remained not without consequence: while Barangol mended in the stable, Boromir spent most of his days cooped up in bed or wrapped in a blanket beside the warm fire in the common room, miserable and feverish. Luckily, Mistress Miluien's generous care and her spicy soups helped him recover quickly until his chest no longer hurt with each breath and his head no longer pounded.
He added some hay to the horse's fodder trough and checked the water in the pail. He gave Barangol's neck a final stroke before leaving the stall. Híril, with the young canine's usual impatience, jumped up at him, demanding his attention. Boromir knelt to scratch her ears. In reward, he received several sloppy wet licks from a pink tongue and, with a laugh, he pushed her away.
"That's quite enough, girl!"
Híril gave a single bark and ran back to Gahir, giving him the same treatment.
"Are you going to the gathering tonight, Master Erandír?" Gahir's eyes sparkled when his gaze met Boromir's over Híril's furry head.
"Have you not heard?" the lad exclaimed. "Orcs have been sighted, not far to the north. Môrohîl wants to put together a company to chase them out of the Ringló Vale."
"Orcs?" Boromir straightened, his interest piqued. The gossips in Linhir spoke true, then, about orcs roaming the foothills of the White Mountains. Will it never end?
"Aye! A great host, they say. I can't wait to join the company and fight those Mordor spawn!" The boy was quiet for a moment, then heaved a sigh. "Mother wouldn't allow me to go with Lord Dervorin and the soldiers to Minas Tirith."
"Your mother is a wise woman," Boromir muttered. "War is not a game."
He eyed the boy dubiously. Barely sixteen years of age, the lad's voice still cracked when he got excited. And while he was good with the animals and no doubt could wield a frightening axe to cut firewood, battling orcs was quite a different matter. Yet, Boromir could not fault him. He himself had killed his first orc at sixteen. His father had patted his shoulder when Boromir's captain gave the report, and his eyes had gleamed with pride. Denethor never spoke a word of praise, but he always treated Boromir more like a man after that.
"Where is this gathering taking place?" Boromir asked.
"In the town hall," Gahir said. "'Tis at the market near the fords. Will you go with Môrohîl too?"
The action would do him good after the unsought bed rest. And was not battling the remnants of evil what he had set out to do?
"I might," Boromir murmured. "I just might."
After supper, Boromir wandered down to the river and followed along its bank until he reached the fords. The surge from the heavy rains had drained away and though the river was still swift, it no longer resembled the furious, debris-filled stream he had crossed a week ago.
When he arrived at the town hall, a lot of Ethring men were already assembled. Short and swarthy they were, like the folk who lived in the foothills of the White Mountains. Their faces were grave and determined and beneath their stern exteriors, Boromir sensed a mixture of energy and tension.
Trying to avoid attention, he hovered in the back of the hall, content to listen and watch with a careful detachment. He caught a glimpse of Gahir. The boy was standing with a couple of other lads his age, their faces excited and their eyes gleaming. He noticed Boromir watching him, and waved in greeting. Boromir acknowledged him with a nod, and turned away to study the rest of the crowd. While the boys looked excited, the men appeared more doubtful. These were tanners, carpenters, weavers; men that were not used to discussing orc bands or battle tactics.
Boromir also noticed several woodsmen in the crowd, grim people dressed in garments of green and brown. They, at least, look like they might wield a blade with some skill, or fire an arrow without catching their thumbs on the bowstring.
A man jumped on a bench at the front of the room. He was young, barely in his twenties, with long dark hair that hung to his shoulders and the stocky built of the Ethring people. After a few moments, the hall quieted and the young man had everyone's attention.
"Men of Ethring," he called, his voice carrying easily. "Most of you know me. But for those who don't, my name is Môrohîl. My father Galdor served as constable to the old lord. I'm afraid I bring you bad news. You have all heard the rumors. And they are true: orcs have been sighted in the northern reaches of the Vale." Some of the mountaineers who lived in the Vale nodded in confirmation.
"It seems," Môrohîl continued, "that they are traveling south along the Ringló. They could reach Ethring soon." A wave of appalled gasps and murmurs ran through the hall. Many people shifted uneasily and cast quick looks about them as if they expected a band of orcs to come crashing through the door any instant.
"We must send for help!" someone cried to a chorus of ayes.
"Send a messenger to Calembel, to Lord Angbor. Or ask Dol Amroth for their Swan Knights to help us."
"Those are good suggestions," Môrohîl said. "But it takes time. It will be days at least before either can muster a force to help us. And the orcs are moving ever closer."
He gestured for another man to join him. A short fellow with a thick black beard and garbed in the earthy hues of the forest people clambered upon the bench beside Môrohîl.
"My name is Gladon," said the newcomer. Boromir had to strain to hear him as he spoke softly and his voice did not carry as far as Môrohîl's.
"I lived with my wife and sons in the mountains north of Ethring; our home is some ten leagues up the Vale. Three nights ago, the orcs came upon our house--" Gladon's voice caught for a moment while a horrified ripple ran through the room at his words. When he spoke again, the hall was as silent as a tomb. "I tried to fight them, but they were too many. At least a score, maybe more. I hit my head in the battle and passed out. When I woke again... My wife was dead. My strong boys were murdered." He brushed at his eyes. "I don't know why I was not killed also. 'Twere better had I died with my family."
Whispers filled with fright and shock rose from the assembly. "Only ten leagues," people murmured. "Three days ago."
Môrohîl let them talk for a few minutes before he demanded their attention again.
"You heard Gladon's tale. We cannot wait for Lord Angbor or Belfalas while the evil hordes find us. Will we let them lay ruin to our homes? Will we stand by while they murder our families?" He paused for a moment. "No, I say! We shall revenge Gladon's wife and sons! We shall pick up arms and find those demons before they come close to those we hold dear. We can defend ourselves!"
Shouts echoed in the hall. "Death to the orcs! Let's go kill them!"
It was a good speech, Boromir conceded. Short, to the point and arousing. Perhaps the lad knows more than his age suggests.
Gladon's tale worried him. If it was true -- and he had no reason to believe it was not -- the Vale was in trouble indeed. These people were not used to such danger lurking on their doorstep. They lived far enough from the coast that Corsairs had never bothered them. And although in the past, orc bands occasionally had made it across the Anduin, the soldiers patrolling the west bank of the river usually stopped them before they could cause much havoc.
True, Ringló Vale men had come to the Pelennor when Gondor needed them, three hundred strong. But see where it had left them: their lord's son dead, as were many of their most-capable men. And still, with the enemy troops having fled from the battlefield in every direction, peril they were ill-equipped to handle threatened the Ethringers. Boromir was anxious to see what course of action the town's self-appointed militia leader would propose.
"Tomorrow, at first light," the young man was saying, "I will set out north. I will find the orc horde and slay them to the last monster standing. Who will come with me?"
The men's inexperience and fears did not hold sway over their bravery. Or perhaps it was fear for their families that strengthened their resolve. Young men and old, the strong, the healthy, and the weary, they all spoke up. "I will!" "Me too!" "I'll come with you!"
Boromir's heart swelled with pride at their courage. The people of Gondor had never retreated before the threat of Mordor and even now, with the war over and Sauron defeated, they were not inclined to do so. But the pride intertwined with concern for their fate. These are not soldiers! a voice in his mind cried. They do not know what daunting task they take upon themselves.
Not one to sit idly by while good people plotted their own doom, he pushed himself up from the bench he lounged on and made his way to the front of the room.
"How, exactly," he raised his voice to be heard over the din, "do you plan to fight this host?"
"How?" Môrohîl repeated. "With whatever weapons we have available. They can't be allowed to reach Ethring."
Boromir shook his head. "That is not what I meant. What strategy will you follow? What is your plan?"
"We will go and meet them head-on," Môrohîl answered. "We'll show them we're not afraid. It's the strategy the commanders applied on the Pelennor Fields. And look what they did to the forces of Mordor." He puffed up his chest, daring Boromir to contradict him.
Boromir smiled ruefully. It was a great simplification of the battle but he could see how it might have seemed to be this way to the young man.
"Those commanders had the entire Gondorian army under their command," he said calmly, "as well as the Rohirrim cavalry to aid them. I do not see any such force here." He did not mention that such direct tactics were a desperate move, applied only when the battle commander was out of other options. This orc-band was not as big as Sauron's entire army but they were battle-seasoned veterans with nothing left to lose. An army of craftsmen and herders would be no match for it.
Môrohîl glared at Boromir. "Do you question our valor, stranger? Because I would have you know I fought alongside the lords of the Vale, and so did many here."
Others turned angry looks on Boromir as well. "You can call me Erandír," he said, unperturbed, "so I am a stranger no longer. And I do not doubt your courage, master warrior. The men of Gondor have ever been valiant in the face of danger. No, it is your grasp of battle tactics I question."
For the first time since the meeting began, Môrohîl looked a little uncertain. "You have experience with such matters?"
"Aye," Boromir confirmed. "I do happen to know a thing or two about planning for battle."
He could hear the murmurs traveling through the crowd. Several people craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him. He hoped that unfamiliarity with his features combined with his shorter hair and a thicker beard would keep his identity undiscovered.
Môrohîl studied the older man in front of him. He was not from the Vale. Tall, as a Dol Amroth knight, and broad of shoulder, he carried himself with an air of great confidence. Môrohîl was glad he was still standing on the bench or he would have had to crane his neck. This was clearly not a man to be trifled with. But why would a stranger want to involve himself in their perilous business? And what kind of name was Erandír, anyway?
But I do believe him, when he says he knows about war. He has the look of a professional soldier.
The well-trained troops of Gondor's standing armies had stood in stark contrast with the militia fighters from the southern fiefs; Môrohîl recalled them clearly. Unfortunately, the reminiscence brought with it the memory of the stark terror he had felt on the battlefield, the reek of blood and smoke, the screaming of the wounded, the chaos and confusion, and how glad he had been when somebody told him what to do. He suppressed a shudder.
He had to be truthful with himself: he did not know anything, really, about strategy and tactics. On the Pelennor, and later in front of the Morannon, he had gone where they told him to go and wielded a sword when they told him to wield it. He was proud to have come forward when his country called, and even prouder that he had managed to slay two of their enemies and wound several others.
But he was no soldier. Yet, he had no choice. Lord Dervorin was dead and the orcs would be upon Ethring before help could arrive. So perhaps this stranger, if he truly knew about the art of war, was the Valar's gift to the people of the Vale. It would not hurt to hear him.
"What would you do?"
"First of all," Erandír said, "we need more knowledge. Are they Mordor orcs? Or do they have Uruk-hai with them? What weaponry do the orcs have? And we need scouts to locate the horde. We want to fight them where we can hold the high ground."
There was more than one kind of orc? Môrohîl winced inwardly at the barrage of questions. He should have asked those himself. They were good questions, about things that had slipped his mind. Important things.
"I can tell you," Gladon said. "I may have run like a coward but I have seen the orcs with my own eyes. And I will be your scout, if you allow me. I know these woodlands."
"I shall go with Gladon," another man offered. "Two see more than one. Tarandor am I," he introduced himself. "My home is in the north Vale also. After Gladon reached us with his warning, I brought my family here, to Ethring."
Although Môrohîl was aware he had already surrendered to the foreigner's authority, he was surprised to find the foresters accept him so readily, also. The men from the mountains were not a trusting sort of folk and oft wary of strangers.
Erandír nodded at Tarandor before he grasped Gladon's shoulder.
"You did the right thing," the tall man said. "No single man can stand up to such a host." A strange shadow washed over his face but it was gone before Môrohîl could decide what it was. "With your information, we can better prepare ourselves. We shall slay those orcs and revenge your family. This I promise you."
Gladon gave a detailed account of the attack on his family and told Erandír everything he could about the orcs. Môrohîl listened closely, as did the foreigner. He interrupted Gladon a few times to ask questions about the number and size of the orcs, their armor and weaponry, and he wanted to know the lay of the land north of Ethring. Then he grew silent. He appeared to mull over the information while an expectant silence hung in the hall. Nobody seemed to dare break it and everyone, Môrohîl included, waited for Erandír to speak again.
"All right," he said at last. "Be glad there are no Uruk-hai. It makes our task easier. Orcs from Mordor do not like the daytime, so they will burrow in at sunrise and wait for nightfall. Most likely in those caves Gladon described. If they do, that is where we will attack them." He began to explain his ideas to the men of Ethring, pushing aside the benches to make room and drawing large diagrams on the hall's wooden floor with charcoal from the fireplace.
It took a while before everyone understood their role in Erandír's battle plan, but once he was satisfied that they knew what to do, the meeting concluded.
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