A Bit of Rope: 40. Besieged

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40. Besieged

     It was Lord Húrin who insisted that the Steward not walk about the City without escort.

     "Lord Faramir is accompanied at all times by his loyal lieutenant, Mablung, and Baranor has Aratan at his side nearly constantly," Húrin scolded. "The Captain-General's young squire, Maerod, cannot be separated from his master, and the Prince is always escorted by Captain Talphir, the chief of his cavalry officers, and at least one of his young sons." The Master of the Keys glared at his old friend and Lord. "It simply will not do for the Ruling Steward to prowl about the City streets and walls unattended whilst that same City is under attack!"

     The Steward, the Captain-General, the Captain of Ithilien, the Prince of Dol Amroth and the Commander of the City Regiment met briefly on the first evening of the siege and agreed that the five of them, as recognized leaders of the defense, would be most of use if they moved about the City separately. They would command through strategy, encouragement, and the constancy of their presence. The City was apportioned among them, though it was understood that their sectors would overlap, allowing two to intersect and thus pass vital information between the five. The Steward would begin at the Citadel and work his way down, and the Prince would begin at the Gate and work his way up. They planned to next formally meet at midnight, near the entrance to the fortifications above the Second Gate. Whatever brief moments might be stolen for sleep or nourishment—that would be up to luck.

     After the others dispersed, and he had taken time to make a tour of the Citadel itself and speak encouragingly to the guards on duty, the Steward Denethor reluctantly accepted the company of Lieutenant Rosdolog. The naturally loquacious young officer did his best to engage the usually reticent Steward in conversation—and failed miserably.

     "My Lord, I understand that you were a champion archer, years ago… What I mean to say is you certainly still are a champion, sire, you proved that well enough a few days ago, why, it was right about here, yes, it was, wasn't it!"

     At that moment, they were passing by the high rampart of the Seventh Circle, near the great outthrusting prominence. Far below, dark figures seethed and moved in the torchlight, and distant rumbling, howls and coarse jeers floated up to them.

     "May I say again, sire," Rosdolog went on, "what a remarkable feat that was! I never thought to live to see such an amazing thing…"

     Rosdolog waited a few moments for what he expected would be the Steward's gracious reply. None was forthcoming. The shorter lieutenant hurried to keep pace with his Lord's swifter stride as Denethor continued along the wall. Guards in the livery of the White Tree stood at attention, and the Steward paused for a moment to speak to every man. Even so, he somehow managed to stay three steps ahead of his escort for the entire circuit of the upper walls. The lieutenant caught up with him when the Steward slowed his walk as he entered the Silent Street. Even Rosdolog was subdued, standing a few feet back, his head bowed, as Denethor solemnly thanked the stooped and grey-haired guard assigned to stand by the locked gate to the avenue of the tombs.

     "Yours shall be, we can but hope, the loneliest assignment in all of Gondor during this conflict, my friend," he said quietly. "Not until all else has fallen will our enemies arrive at this place to despoil Rath Dinen and the priceless memories of our loved ones that you safeguard for us. Keep heart, then, soldier, and know that your duty shall be all the more valorious for its finality."

     "Thank you, my Lord Steward," the man whispered, his hand shaking and his old eyes shimmering with tears.

     As they turned down toward the Seventh Gate, Rosdolog managed to walk beside the Steward for a few minutes.

     "Sire, that was very moving," he said in a hushed tone. "I cannot tell you how important it is that you and the other Lords are going about in this manner, speaking to us ordinary soldiers… Why, it means so much, and is so encouraging, that someone as great and high as the Steward himself would take the time to simply talk to one of us…"

     "For something you 'cannot tell me,' Lieutenant, you certainly have a good deal to say on the topic," Denethor seethed.

     Rosdolog laughed nervously. "Ah, yes, I suppose you're right… I didn't mean to run on like that, sire…"

     "If you do not mean to do a thing, try a bit harder not to do it."

     Rosdolog flushed red while the Steward spoke to the guards at the Gate between the Sixth and Seventh Circles. He kept silent for a while, then tried a few more topics as they traversed the parapet: the Steward's sons; his own family, his wife and two small girls, all three away on a farm in western Anorien; the anticipated arrival of their allies from Rohan. None seemed of interest as a topic of casual conversation to Lord Denethor. Finally, the message sunk into the lieutenant's anxious, somewhat thick skull: his duty was to stand by, to follow, and protect—but not to speak to--the Steward.

     As the Lord Denethor arrived at the Houses of Healing, Rosdolog walked in silence behind him as he made a full tour of every ward, each private room, and down every hallway. Master Túrin accompanied Denethor for much of his prolonged visit, standing by and explaining the circumstances of a soldier's wound, for example, or another man's feverishness. When his duties called the Master away, Mistress Ivreniril stood at the Steward's side. The Lord of the City would listen with grave interest to the Healers and then turn his eyes to the injured. The task took the Steward five long and painful hours—but every person he met received his entire attention, his steady gaze, and the warmth of his hand clasped upon their shoulder or laid upon their brow.

     Rosdolog fretted as he heard the distant tones of the late bell; midnight would soon be upon them, and the Steward showed no signs of moving toward the Second Gate. The lieutenant frowned, seemed to consider interrupting his Lord during a particularly poignant conversation with a soldier who had served with Captain Faramir in Ithilien, then thought better of it. Silently, Rosdolog crept from the room and found an assistant healer.

     "My good man, if you could spare a scrap of parchment, a pen, and direct me to someone who can carry an urgent message for the Steward, I would be more than grateful…"

     His errand complete, Rosdolog returned to the inner hallways of the Houses and stood once again at silent attention while the Steward continued his visits. Midnight was well past when they entered a small ward where three men who suffered from the Black Breath were housed together. All were sleeping on the Steward's arrival, but one man opened his eyes, recognized his Lord and sat up, a feeble smile on his face.

     Turin spoke. "Ah, Irinon, I see you are awake. The Lord Steward has come for a brief visit." He went on to explain that Irinon, a soldier who had been stationed at Osgiliath, was the first patient who had been given Mistress Ivreniril's treatment for combating the Black Breath.

     "She has made a tea of several herbs, steeped together. The ameliorative effects have, at times, been rather remarkable…"

     Denethor spoke to the young man for a minute before his eyes began drooping again. They stood and left the room, pausing in the hallway.

    "Alas," Turin said, sighing sadly. "Her potion helps slow the process, especially in lighter cases, but does not reverse it entirely. Those afflicted severely, or those with other injuries that sap their physical strength, succumb all too quickly." The healer brightened as his chief assistant appeared beside him. "Yet Mistress Ivreniril has found the most success of any treatment we have yet discovered, and she continues to refine her mixture…"

     She bowed her head. "Yes, that is true… I am currently trying differing proportions of the herbs that seem most beneficial. Yet, it seems to me that some other element or skill is missing, something that we have not yet defined… We truly do not understand the nature of this sickness, after all…"

     The Steward directed his intense gaze at the young woman. "Mistress, must your tea be drunk while hot, or does it have benefit even if cooled?"

     Ivreniril smiled shyly. "The concoction seems to have an effect whether warm or cool. I believe I see where your thoughts go, my Lord… Am I correct in guessing that you would have doses sent to those on the front lines, who are even now exposed to the dark sources of this illness?"

     "An excellent idea, Lady," he replied. "But I will admit to a more selfish thought: I would have two flasks of your tea prepared, to be sent to my sons—both of whom have been burdened greatly by the Black Breath." He glanced at Turin. "I suspect that neither Boromir or Faramir have paid you a visit…"

     "They have not, sire," Turin said. "We most certainly can and will prepare such flasks for the Captain-General and his brother. As for the broader idea, of preparing sufficient concoction for the every man on the walls, I am afraid we have not enough of the herbs in stock at this time… An idea for future consideration, perhaps, once a new crop of herbs can be raised and culled…"

     Denethor looked at the Healer with a sharp scowl, and seemed about to say something biting, when a young messenger boy arrived with a folded and sealed parchment.

     "My Lord Steward," the boy said with a bow.

     Denethor studied the seal—silver wax with the imprint of a horn, noting the tiny imperfection—and broke it. Two pages were folded together. His eyes flew over the first page; he looked up at Rosdolog.

     "Lieutenant, have you not kept track of the time?" he snapped.

     Rosdolog's face was red. "My Lord, I… I did not want to interrupt… I thought you wished me to remain silent… I sent a message, sire, when it seemed clear you would not be able to attend the planned council…"

     The Steward sniffed. "Talkative when you should be silent, silent when you should speak," he growled. Then a shadow of a smile appeared on his stern face. He handed the first parchment to the lieutenant. "No harm done, it seems…"

     The lieutenant held the document in trembling hands and read the message, written, he recognized at once, in the hand of the Captain-General.

     Lord Steward: be it stated that all Gondor is for you to explore when and where you see fit. No timetable or route shall contain the needs or wishes of the Steward. Minas Tirith is yours to command, sire, as are we, your faithful servants.

     It was signed: Boromir, son of Denethor II; Faramir, son of Denethor II; Imrahil, brother-in-law of Denethor II; Baranor, Regiment Commander, City of Minas Tirith, by leave of Ruling Steward Denethor II. The second parchment gave the time and place for the next planned council of the commanders, and an assessment of the gathered forces outside their walls, an accounting of the encroaching machinery of war visible from the ramparts, and an estimate of the number of days the troops and sheltered populace of the City could maintain life on the stored food and ammunitions. The numbers were blunt and discouraging, and nothing Denethor had not read or thought before. He crushed the second page and asked that it be burned at once; but he held out his hand to Rosdolog for the first page.

     "I should like to keep that, lieutenant," he said with a nod, and he tucked the folded paper into a pocket of his tunic. He turned to the Healers. "And now, if Mistress Ivreniril can prepare the flasks I mentioned, I will take my leave of these Houses…"

     Ten minutes later, Lady Ivreniril joined Master Turin and the Steward as they waited near the entrance to the Houses. She carried not two, but three flasks with her. One of Denethor's brows went up.

     "Sire, forgive my forwardness, but I prepared a portion for you as well," she said as she handed two flasks to Rosdolog and uncapped the third. "It seems to me that you have long carried the burden of Darkness alone… If any can be said to have battled the Black Breath, it is you, sire." She smiled. "I also admit to some curiosity, my Lord." She proffered the opened flask. "If you are willing to… well, to smell the tea, sire…"

     Denethor looked at her in surprise. Turin interjected. "You see, one of the remarkable things about the Lady's tea is that each person who smells it describes the scent differently. It is, she believes, the property of one of the less potent herbs, known as kingsfoil, a traditional remedy amongst midwives for headaches and the like…"

     "I take no credit for the addition of that particular ingredient," Ivreniril said with a blush. "The matron, Ioreth, was the one who mentioned it to me one day, and as the scent of it seemed pleasantly stimulating, I decided to add it to my mixture, as an herb that might enhance awakening. I am very interested to hear what you smell, sire…"

     The Steward frowned and cautiously raised the flask to his nose. He sniffed, then breathed in deeply. A faint smile came to his lips, though his brow remained knotted in curiosity.

     "Why, it has no scent at all… or rather, I merely detect…well, the City herself. Minas Tirith. Your tea smells like the ancient stones of the Citadel…"

     Turin was nodding. "Yes, that make perfect sense… Lieutenant, might you try it, for a demonstration?"

     Rosdolog stepped forward as the Steward held out his flask. He sniffed, and at once stepped back with a startled grin. "Hah…! Well, that's odd, indeed…"

     "Whatever did you smell, Rosdolog?" Denethor demanded sharply.

     The lieutenant's face was red again. "My Lord, I was raised on a dairy farm, in Anorien, and I would swear that tea smells just like newly cut hay, as fragrant as springtime itself!"

     The Steward turned to Ivreniril. "If I might ask, Lady, what scent do you discern in the tea?"

     "Master Turin and I, are, it seems, the exceptions to the rule," she said, "for he and I both perceive the same scent, that is, of the individual herbs that make up the mixture, each with their own particular fragrance."

     Denethor nodded thoughtfully. "Perhaps it is no exception, Lady. Have you formulated a theory regarding the scent each individual perceives?"

     "Yes," she said. "It seems that each senses the particular odor of that place in which they are most comfortable… most at home…"

     The Steward's returning smile, though subtle, was warm. "Just so, Lady—and so are you at home, in this realm where you are in command. Turin, you have found a truly remarkable new assistant…"

     "Yes, my Lord, and I believe that, the Valar willing, a day will come when Lady Ivreniril will surpass every Master Healer of this House since the great Salaphir himself." Turin bowed his head. "Please, sire, find time to sip that tea. I think you will find it refreshing. And, one last word before you depart, Lord." Turin hesitated as he looked intently at the Steward. "Steward Denethor, whatever the outcome of this great and terrible battle in which we find ourselves, know this: I deem that even in the hours since we last met, you have already faced your greatest foe… And you have emerged victorious."

    Denethor met his gaze solemnly, and gave him a single firm nod. Then he turned to the lieutenant.

     "Come, Rosdolog. Escort me to my sons."

* * *

     All through the night, the armies of the Black Land surged onto the territory of their greatest and bitterest foe. They were hampered for a while, it was true, by the cunningly hidden traps—hundreds of Orcs met their fates there, impaled on blades lining the bottoms of the trenches, killed instantly or left to slowly bleed to death in a convenient grave, ignored by their fellows passing by above. And the lines of iron spikes had certainly proved annoying. Those filthy Tarcs had built them solidly, driving posts deep into the ground. It proved too difficult to uproot them, and required too many troops diverted to such useless work. The carts bearing stacks of projectiles and the wheeled machinery were forced to detour long distances around the obstacles.

     But these would be, in the end, merely delays of what was inevitable—for the Dark Lord had been preparing long. More Orcs were armed for this conflict than in thousands of years. More soldiers from lands to the East and South had been summoned for this war than since the end of the last Age. The defenders of this Stone City could not prevail—the sheer size of the assault would be impossible to be overcome by so few. And they had the three ruthless allies of all besiegers: Time, Hunger, and Despair.

     The Nazgûl picked his way forward on horseback, glancing about with a satisfaction at the slow but steady progress of the invading troops under his command. He followed a winding path that led from the now burning Causeway Forts to just before the Gate, having aready memorized the route unencumbered by traps and snares. He looked about proudly. Midnight had come and passed, and more than three quarters of his troops were now upon the West bank, and half of those were gathered within the low outer walls that encircled the City several miles out on the plain. And that feeble defensive structure, he chuckled smugly, would soon be nothing but a ring of rubble.

     The siege towers and catapults wove back and forth, approaching steadily. In preparation for the fleet soon expected from the South, the quays at the harbor of Harlond were already secured, the small contingency of stubborn defenders that had remained at their posts there slaughtered. Wagons rumbled from Harlond, Osgiliath and the Rammas, carrying important cargoes—for nothing would be wasted, nothing that might be of use in overcoming those who now hid behind the tall smooth walls before him.

     The Nazgûl had long ago forgotten the name given him at birth. Dimly he recalled that he was sired of noble blood in a seaport far to the East—vague images of two rivers and a shallow sea, lush grasslands, and a vast labyrinth of terraces and pyramidal towers came fleetingly to his dreams. Such distant memories had faded even more, of late, as his Master's power waxed. He was known as Gothmog now, and a unique set of circumstances had led to his command in this most crucial campaign.

     King Angmar—that was how the others addressed him, when they were not fawning in obedience at his feet, calling him merely Lord—was currently occupied on a brief detour to the East, making, as it were, a special delivery. Gothmog's thoughts dwelt for a pleasurable moment or two on what that old Fool might already be experiencing. The bothersome old meddler was finally out of the way. With Angmar elsewhere, and Khâmul in the north, command came to him. He looked forward eagerly to proving his worth to the Dark Lord. He would succeed in breaking this City, perhaps even finishing the task in advance of the arrival of Angmar. Yes—then he would claim full credit for the triumph, and his worthiness in the Dark Lord's great Eye would certainly rise!

     His black-swathed head tilted back and he looked up at the dully gleaming spire, far above. In these blackest hours before the dim grey that would suffice for dawn, his uncanny night-sight was keenest. To his eyes, to which the physical realm appeared as murky shadows but saw clearly what was unseen, the fire that burned within the Master of this fortress—the hated Steward—was visible as a silvery sparkle. Few mortals gave off so strong a light. He frowned, for tonight that silver light was not in its accustomed place, in a high small room to the south of the Citadel.

     He must be roaming about, perhaps in the company of one of his sons—both also sources of inner light, one golden-amber in hue, the other faintly blue. Gothmog seethed as he thought of the two men he most desired to take alive and see destroyed. Both had done what few other Mortals had dared--to take aim at one of the Nine! Very likely they did not know it, but the silvery father and amber son had shot the mounts from beneath not just any of the Nazgûl, but from beneath him—Gothmog himself. Both times he had been so very close to grasping a great prize: one of the sons of the hated Lord of Gondor. That would have been nearly as important a capture as the taking of the Grey Fool himself—and would have been more daunting to the father. For Denethor was, Gothmog sneered, like so many other mortals—soft and sentimental at his core. It would have driven him mad to know that one of his sons was taken by his enemies, brought him to despair to think on what horrors his own flesh and blood would have endured…

     But that blasted Steward and his wretched son had snatched the prizes from his hands. Gothmog raged as he searched the walls for any evidence of the glimmering spirits that were Denethor the Second or his heirs. He saw nothing. No matter; the siege was just beginning. There would be time. He would have his revenge. He would see them both—nay, all three of the men of the loathsome House of Húrin taken to the Pits. He would relish witnessing their torment, and would enslave them for all eternity with a twist of his own dagger.

     As he turned his steed and rode back toward his command post, he brought out his whip to use on the lazy maggots dragging the catapults. They must hurry! The slugs wailed and yammered, but the beating had the desired effect: they pulled harder. The sooner the catapults were in place, the sooner fire and horror would descend onto this pathetic City of Men.

* * *

     Captain Faramir never would have suspected that on the first night of the siege, his primary task in defending his City against the surrounding hordes would be as a mover of water. He found himself between the Courtyard of the Gate in the First Circle and the piles of rubble that his brother had prepared, should the Gate fall, when an ominously raucous cheer rose from beyond the Walls. Moments later, the very first flaming projectile streaked overhead. With a roar, the oily ball slammed into a rooftop, and molten fragments cascaded down the side of the building. Before he fully registered the meaning of it, he was running toward the fire, Mablung shouting at him to stop.

     For the next several hours—it could have been days; he would not have been able to tell the difference—Faramir and his lieutenant dashed from fire to fire, directing lines of men to carry buckets of the water that Boromir had so wisely stockpiled, toss shovelfuls of sand, beat flames with water-soaked blankets, and when no other options remained, wield axes and sledgehammers to knock down the walls of buildings too far gone to save. He narrowly escaped being crushed beneath a crumbling, flaming wall on more than one occasion, and it was difficult to tell whose voice was more hoarse: his, from shouting orders over the din of the blazes, or Mablung's, from pleading with his Captain to step back to safety.

     He and the men still willing to stay at their posts in the forward half of the First Circle managed to keep the worst of the fires under control. Smaller blazes were allowed to burn themselves out. It was fortunate that the fundamental structure of the City was of stone, though, all too clearly, plenty of wood, thatch and dried cob had been put to use, especially in the crooked old streets of the First Circle. Faramir gave silent thanks that the majority of the inhabitants of the City had been sent to the outlands. The loss of life would have been hideous, had the usually crowded sector been fully populated.

     He and Mablung had just borne another badly burned soldier to the relative safety of the tents in the rearward half of the Circle, when screams of horror and terrible shouts broke out behind them. They delivered their burden to the healers and ran back toward the Gate.

     Faramir felt something crash into his shoulder—a hard object, but with some give to it; round, yet irregular… It bounced on the cobbled street and rolled to the gutter. He leaned down to look at it, his heart thudding strangely with apprehension…

     The Captain of Ithilien felt the world tilt and spin as he clamped his eyes shut. It mattered not; he would carry the sight with him to his death. The object that had struck him was the severed head of Anborn, who had survived the retreat from Osgiliath only to fall within sight of the Gate after he returned to the field to help bring the last few men home. His first officer's face was frozen in a grimace of agony, and a raw, red brand—the crude symbol of an Eye—was burned into his brow. Faramir managed to control his urge to vomit, or scream aloud.

     He stumbled across the street and joined Mablung. His stalwart lieutenant was shaking and unable to speak. Two heads lay at his feet. Faramir glanced about—the street was littered with them. He grasped Mablung's forearm and spoke in a low voice.

     "We must get hold of ourselves. Find any man willing, and return with a handcart, or baskets... These are our friends—our comrades. I will not leave them to lie so in the street, to be trampled underfoot. They have been sullied enough. We must give them what respect we can."

     Few men were willing, but those that were found their heartwrenching task increasing by the hour, as the malicious commander in charge of the siege flung more and more of these cruel missiles over the Walls. Captain Faramir himself, it was said in later days, bent and retrieved more than half of those desecrated remains, handling each with the tender reverence he would have used if he had lifted his own brother's head into his arms.

     When Denethor found him, his younger son was sitting on a broken wall, his head in his blood and soot-begrimed hands, beyond weeping, beyond exhaustion, his hollow-eyed lieutenant standing in silent guard at his side.

     The Steward took command and would brook no disobedience. He saw to it that Captain Faramir ate and washed the stark evidence of the Enemy's cruelty from his face and hands, then sat beside the cot and watched his son sleep. He sent Rosdolog and Mablung away to find food and rest for themselves. When Faramir woke, his father sat by and listened to his son's halting tale of horror, his hand resting on his shoulder. And before he would allow the Captain to return to duty, he gave him the Lady's flask and insisted he drink it.

     The Steward kept his thoughts to himself when, upon sniffing the tea, his younger son smiled with curiosity, and said, "How odd, Father. A tea that has the scent of stone…nay, of one particular stone. It smells exactly like your Chair—like the Black Chair of the Stewards."

* * *

     Pippin stood in the light of a sputtering torch, waiting in line between the third and fourth tent. When the tents were erected several days ago, a barrel of water had been set here, upon a stout table. Placed nearby was a basin for washing, a crockery dish with a cake of strong soap and a neat stack of hand towels. But now the barrel was nearly empty, the basin was filthy, the soap was a muddy glop, and the pile of once clean cloths was a jumble of blood-soaked rags. The towels had been used again and again, until no scrap of white remained. No one worried much about cleanliness any longer. Such niceties were for other times, times that were gone and might never return. A dreadful night of siege had passed, followed by a full day in a ring of foes—and there was no relief in sight.

     The man in front of Pippin moved away, and his turn came. Standing on his tiptoes, he twisted the spigot and swished his hands beneath it, rinsing briefly before he cupped his palms under the dribbling flow. He drank two mouthfuls, shut off the water spigot and wiped his hands on his breeches before hurrying away.

     Palladin Took, the Thain of the Shire, would not have recognized his son had he by some unlucky accident stumbled into the seventh street above the Courtyard of the Gate in Minas Tirith that evening. He might have taken note of a Hobbit in strange garb in this city of Men; he might have frowned, troubled by the empty expression and exhausted eyes of the youth with dirty light brown hair in his late tweens. But only with careful study might someone who had once known him finally realize that it was Peregrin Took who stood before them.

     Pippin no longer thought about his weariness, which had stretched far beyond his worst experience of it. He gave no attention to his loneliness, which was a raw wound in his aching heart. If he had an opportunity to stop moving for a bit, his eyes drooped and he fell asleep almost instantly. If someone brought him a platter or a bowl, he ate without tasting whatever bland food was presented. He did not feel hunger or thirst, only realizing he must eat or drink when dizziness overtook him. He simply forced his feet to take the next necessary step, dragged his eyes to the next cot, the next face, the next task—as did every healer and assistant in the overburdened tents and houses.

     As the mass of men retreating from Osgiliath and the Rammas arrived, Pippin had been recruited for help with cleansing wounds, bandaging, the withdrawal of small darts and splinters and other minor tasks on behalf of soldiers who were expected to return to posts upon the walls. Once the huge press of survivors were absorbed and cared for, the sheer numbers of wounded diminished for a while. Then those burned in the fires of the First Circle, or impaled by the storm of darts aimed at any shadow on the walls began to arrive in fits and waves. Pippin was recalled to duty in the Middle Tents, and he soon lost all sense of time or numbers.

      He heard himself saying the same few phrases over and over: There, there, it's all right, my friend… You'll be fine in no time… I know, I know it hurts, try to bear it, like a brave man… If he had watched the death of more than a dozen in his first long day as Meneldil's assistant in these tents, now it seemed that a dozen died every few hours. So many of those deemed too greviously wounded to live bore hideous wounds: limbs twisted and shredded; gaping holes in their bellies and chests; faces ripped open. The burns were the worst; Pippin knew he would never forget that odor, or the terrible suffering of the victims.

      Others had wounds that would otherwise not have been mortal, but their flesh was icy cold, and they drifted swiftly into a dark sleep from which none could be aroused. As he watched soldier after soldier succumb to the Black Breath, Pippin thought of Frodo on the road between Amon Sûl and Rivendell, and how desperately worried he had been. Now he understood with newly astonished eyes just how resilient and tough his beloved cousin had been, to survive not only the Black Breath but the wound of a cursed Morgul knife itself.

     Here in Minas Tirith, the healers said that no one could survive such a thing, that if the fragment was not removed immediately, there was no hope. That sundown, his hands a bit less filthy and his throat momentarily less parched, the Thain's Heir watched in horror as what was known as the Mercy Stroke was given to a handsome soldier. The unfortunate man had twisted an ankle and fallen behind on the retreat—only to be overtaken by a black-robed figure. The splinter was lodged beside his spine, where the surgeons had not the skill or tools to remove it. The fragment was burrowing inward quickly.

     "Hold his hand, Pip," Meneldil whispered. The Hobbit reached out, and the man clutched him tightly. Pippin felt as though a hand made of ice was crushing his fingers.

      Meneldil withdrew a slender knife from a sheath at his belt. Pippin gaped as the soft-spoken man to whom he had been apprenticed displayed the blade in the guttering lamplight.

     "The time is short, my friend… Are you ready?"

     With a gasping breath and agony in his eyes, the man pleaded.

     "Please don't… don't let them… take me…"

     Pippin kept his eyes locked on the soldier's ghastly pale face. A heartbeat's time passed—the agony engraved on his features was suddenly released, and with it, the pain in the Hobbit's fingers. He looked up.

     "Better far that his flesh dies by my hand than that his soul be stolen by those fiends," Meneldil muttered, his face grim as he cleaned his dagger. The healer-craftsman turned to the Hobbit, his eyes burning fiercely. "Any one of us might be called to do this, Pip. You might be the only one standing between an eternity of wretched suffering and merciful peace." Meneldil's eyes drifted to Pippin's belt. "Haven't you got a dagger, or a sword, lad?"

      "Y…yes… But it's away up at the main Houses, beneath my cot, tucked into my pack… I never thought I'd need…"

      "You should have it by you. This City is at war," Meneldil said in a harsh voice. He looked toward the front of the tent. "Find Master Lathron. See if he has any need for a messenger to run to the Sixth Circle, or perhaps a cart is headed that way… At the very next opportunity, go and get your weapon. Make sure it is well honed, and be prepared to use it."

      Pippin tried, and failed, to dispel the terrible idea that Strider must have known about the ramifications of Frodo's wound, and the only solution if the fragment could not be removed. If we hadn't made it to Rivendell in time, would he have…? Could he have…? Even inside his own head, the young Hobbit could not form words for the horrible thought.

     He stumbled into the first tent in a daze and found the Healer at his table, his head leaning into one hand, his face lined with weariness and flecked with spots of dark red. Pippin mumbled something barely intelligible; the man eyed him with curious scrutiny and concern. A minute later, Master Lathron tore off the page of parchment on which he'd been scribbling and gave it to the Hobbit.

     "The herbalist—Mistress Ivreniril. Have you met her?" Pippin nodded. "Find her, and give her this list. Whatever she can spare, tell her that… I've placed them in order of our greatest need, but of course she will grasp that when she reads it…" Lathron rubbed his hand over his brow and tugged his fingers through his tangled hair, loosening a clot of someone else's blood from the strands. "Will you remain in the Sixth Circle, or return with the packets yourself, Peregrin?"

    Pippin mustered a weak smile. "I'll be back, sire, with whatever I can carry."

    The large open square where the tents had been erected was in the more sheltered, southwestern half of the First Circle. Still, even here, many hundreds of feet away from the walls, the dull roar of thousands of Orc voices and drumbeats could be heard. Pippin raced down the street and within two blocks he entered an arched tunnel, carved through the widest portion of the soaring, curved pillar of stone upon which Minas Anor had been built. Here, at the pillar's massive base, the tunnel continued for nearly two hundred feet, and was wide and tall enough for ten soldiers to ride abreast, or for the largest cart in the realm to pass easily. The high ceiling dripped and the smooth walls glistened with seeping water, reflecting the torches set into brackets every twenty feet. Before he could exit from the far end of the tunnel the young Hobbit was stopped and questioned by the guard posted there.

    "I am on an errand for Master Lathron, of the Healing Tents," he said, pointing back where he'd started. "A message for the herbalist in the Sixth Circle…" He produced the folded parchment on which Lathron had written Lady Ivreniril's name.

     The guard gestured him onward. "Have a care, lad—the forward Circle isn't as quiet as the rear! Keep to the western streets, away from the walls…"

     As soon as Pippin emerged from the dark tunnel he saw—and heard-- what the guard had meant. The easternmost parts of the First Circle were open to the fiercest bombardments of the enemy. He counted three fires in the first street alone, and piles of rubble from massive stones hurled from the Pelennor lay strewn about. Men ran by shouting, horses galloped wildly, and the din of the encircling enemy troops was suddenly, terrifyingly loud.

     He hesitated, fretting about the guard's advice, to steer west and away from the danger. But the First Circle had been built and rebuilt over the centuries haphazardly, and its streets were a confusing jumble. Pippin only knew the central route through to the Second Gate, and he feared he'd soon be lost if he tried any other way. So he set his sights on the wide thoroughfare, which brought him to the edge of the Courtyard of the Gate. He sped by and followed the main way, sloping upward in a smooth arc that matched the curve of the great outer wall above and to his left.

     Pippin felt small, lonely and very insignificant as he ran. He was forced to weave back and forth across the littered street, often finding his way blocked by stones that had fallen from some house or building pummeled by the enemy's projectiles. He criss-crossed to avoid fires, and forced his way through crowds of rushing men who seemed completely unaware of him. The entire way from Gate to Citadel would ordinarily have taken the Hobbit just over an hour's brisk walk, but that night he struggled to traverse the First Circle in thirty harrowing minutes.

     Pippin's eyes widened with fear as he finally arrived at the street that led to the Second Gate. An enormous fire blazed halfway between where he now stood and where he must go. Several large wooden beams from a building that Pippin recalled was a cobbler's shop had fallen directly across the path. He remembered the wide table where the owner had displayed finely tanned leathers as well as finished pairs of well-made footwear. Now the beams as well as the entire building were aflame. Thick black smoke heavy with the reek of burning leather poured from the ruins.

     Now what? he asked himself. The City's best defence and singular weakness was this aspect of its design, that the only way to go from one Circle to the next—save by climbing, or leaping from rooftop to rooftop—was through the six secondary gates. He could see a dozen men on either side of the fire, passing buckets from hand to hand, tossing water in what appeared to be a puny, utterly futile effort to contain the huge blaze. The fire was spreading; the roof of the building next to the cobbler's shop cracked and sank in a shower of sparks, and red flames leapt out. Pippin was just about to turn round and return to the tents when he felt wind in his hair and smelled it: rain.

     The sudden damp scent was followed within seconds by a loud drumming sound that momentarily drowned out the cries, booms, blaring horns, savage yells and clanging noises of the battle. An instant later the dark sky opened and a driving downpour carried on a stiff East Wind began. The men fighting the fire looked up; Pippin saw them slap one another on the shoulder, and cheering broke out. In a few sizzling, steaming minutes, the fire was extinguished.

     Pippin grinned, gave a little whoop! and sped forward toward the Second Gate, slipping and nearly falling on the wet, ash-slickened pavement. He was completely soaked through, but he didn't care. I'll never gripe about rain again—never! No one in Minas Tirith complained that night about the drenching they all received, for every fire in the White City went out, and none of their enemies' flaming projectiles would ignite upon the sodden materials. They were safe, at least from this method of the Enemy's attack—as long as the rain continued.

* * *

     Boromir stood on the outer wall of the Second Circle and peered through the curtain of rain blowing directly into his face as he gazed across the Pelennor. Far away, the sky seemed slightly lighter. The distant line of the Ephel Duath stood out against a dull dark color that was no longer entirely black. Morning, apparently, had arrived. Minas Tirith had survived her second full night of siege. Commander Baranor shivered as he drew his sable cloak around his shoulders and pulled his hood forward. A line of drops fell from the edge of the hood and ran into his thick black beard. Baranor snorted and blew icy water from his face. The Captain-General glanced at his companion and chuckled.

     "Don't tell me you're wishing for dry weather…"

     "Me?" Baranor sniffed. "Not a chance, sire."

     He pointed far off in the fields, where, barely discernable in the grey light, an enormous cart with a monstrously long, black-draped cargo could be seen, drawn by dozens of harnessed trolls. The cart was tilted crookedly; one great wheel had slipped into a trench, and two other wheels were mired in muck. Despite a pair of obviously furious Orcs, wielding whips with which they continuously flayed the shoulders and backs of the hapless trolls, the cart was not moving.

     "I'd say that thing they're dragging toward us is a battering ram..."

     "Correction: that thing they're attempting to drag toward us is a battering ram…"

     Baranor snorted. "Aye," he laughed. "Looks like the rain softened the fields beneath their wheels a bit, wouldn't you say, sire?"

     Boromir smirked. "Yes, what a pity…"

     The Captain-General stood looking out at the sea of foes, feeling measured optimism at the course of the siege so far. From his vantage point he could see the upper ramparts of the First Circle, near where the walls broadened in thickness as they merged with the higher wall of the Second Circle. A team of men clustered there, working the gears and winches that drew the basket of a great catapult back into firing position. A second group of soldiers stood on a platform, stacking short, many-barbed darts with wide fletches. These special darts were one of old Bröghur's inventions. They would wobble and correct their orientation in mid-flight, allowing a large number of arrows to be tossed in one direction at once. A third and smaller collection of men peered through a spyglass at the field, chose their target and rapidly calculated the catapult's direction and angle. With the advantage of the height of the Walls, these teams had been successful at bringing down entire battalions of foes. The defenders from the walls would roar with cheers as rows of Orcs fell over on their faces.

     Others were at work with the larger and more powerful spear-launchers. Boromir had already congratulated the officer in charge of the team positioned upon the Third Circle's outer wall; they had managed to impale and bring down six mûmakil from half a league away. He glanced out at the smoldering remains of the Enemy's tall wooden siege towers, crumbling into scorched, sodden piles in an arc about the walls. Before the rains began, not only the Black Army had used fire with deadly effect. The men of Minas Tirith had turned each tower into a huge torch before a single one could attach itself to the outer bastion. Those foolish enough to attempt to scale Minas Tirith with ropes, pick-axes and spikes had, for the most part, been roasted alive in flaming oil poured from above. Waves of arrows continuously flew out and thudded into rank on rank of Haradrim, Easterings, and Orcs; the mounds of the dead grew by the hour.

    And yet... And yet, he was all too aware of the hard facts. The defenders ranks were thinning, slowly, to be sure, but steadily, as dart, rock, flame and crushing horror took them down. Even if their enemy could not manage to drag a battering ram forward over the muddy field and unleash it against the Gate; even if the men under his command slew ten of their foes for every one man inside the City; even if every siege tower built in the Black Land was burned to cinders, the chance that Minas Tirith would survive the massive assault was still very small. The City's high stone walls were unbreakable. But the Gate was made of wood, not stone. To kill their enemies, they must have ammunition to fling at them, and the carefully stockpiled store of arrows and spears was already beginning to look insufficient. To fight, men must eat, and their warehouses only held so much. Minas Tirith stood fast, her walls manned by starwart soldiers of Gondor. Yet her foes came on and on, tens of thousands of them, more and more every hour… As if they are spawning them afresh, just beyond the ruins of the Rammas…

     The Captain-General began his mental accounting—as was his habit, over and over, during any moment unoccupied by other details—of the numbers of the defenders under his command. Try as he might to add differently, the total was always the same—woefully inadequate.

     Where is Théoden? he mused. Surely by now the old King had received the Red Arrow. Hirgon and his party had been sent west and north at dawn nearly a week ago. It was two, at most three days ride to Edoras for a swift messenger, who had fresh mounts along the way; he had made the journey himself in days past. Théoden would certainly have received it by now. How would he respond? How long would the muster take, and were the Riders of the RIddermark already galloping on their journey? Or, would war by the Wizard of Orthanc delay them… Or worse, prevent them from responding at all?

     And Aragorn…Where are you, my liege-lord, my healer—my friend? The Dúnadan's lean face, intense grey eyes and dark, silver-flecked hair and beard came to his mind's eye. The face gazed solemnly at him, then broke out in a warm smile as Aragorn raised him from his bended knee and drew him into his embrace…

     Then other faces came to him: Berengil, the cheerful officer of the Mering outpost; and his old friend and commander, Bröghur... He tried to recall the last time he had seen their faces—in life, and not as defiled and tormented tokens of the Enemy's brutality, lying in the street...

     Boromir closed his eyes, and for an unguarded moment he released a deep sigh. If Baranor noted what must surely have sounded like discouragement, he said nothing—for which his Captain-General was grateful.

     Then, both men frowned, for the steady thrumming of the rain was changing. The drumming slowed to gentle pattering, then to a light sprinkling. Soon, even that ceased.

     The Captain-General cursed the ending of the blessed rain. "I suppose there might be something good to come of the rain's end," he muttered.

    "Can't fathom what might that be…" Baranor growled.

     "Maybe if they're busy flinging fireballs at us again, they'll lose interest in tossing heads…"

     The commanders signaled their escorts, and Aratan and Maerod appeared from where they'd been taking shelter beneath a nearby overhang. The Captain-General slapped Commander Baranor on his shoulder, and they took their separate ways, Baranor climbing down to his shift in the chaotic and hazardous First Circle, and Boromir continuing upward. They promised to meet again at the next commander's council, at the noon bell.

     By mid-morning on the second full day of the siege, a warm dry wind, heavy with the stench of smoke, replaced the rain from the East, and with it, the roaring jeers of the encircling hordes grew ever louder.

* * *

     Gothmog had no explanation for the appearance of the rain, and none for its disappearance. He was glad it was gone, and not only because fires could once again be set in the besieged City. He, like all his brother-wraiths, despised the feeling of water on his undead body. And this rain has been particularly unnerving. For one thing, what rainstorm ever came from East to West, from arid Mordor to lush Gondor? And for another… He felt a shudder pass through him. There had been something deeply disturbing about the smell of that rain—something that filled him with… terror. In response, he snarled and raged, screaming in anger rather than allowing even a hint that he, Gothmog, Commander of the Black Army and Besieger of Gondor, might feel fear.

     He shouted commands, and the winged beast was saddled and harnessed. The creatures could fly in the rain, but it was devilishly difficult to remain mounted upon their leathery flesh when they were slick with moisture. Eagerly, he took to flight again, soaring high and slowly circling down above the field of battle. In minutes, his brother-wraiths had joined him, and five pairs of black wings swept across the sky.

     The Nazgûl searched the parapets as he swooped back and forth, trying to catch a glimpse of flickers of light. This feeble dawn was not enough to hamper his night-sight. His eye followed the line of the wall as it rose from the Gate and curved inward. There! He saw it—that silver shimmering, and beside it, a pillar of pale blue. Denethor and his younger son… He continued his careful scrutiny, marking the places where other lights shone. Interesting, there were more than he had accounted for in the past… amber-gold… blue-green… faintly red… dim yellow… Strange, that these mortals' lights shone with greater clarity now, after days and nights of ruthless pummeling… Strange, but perhaps, useful. He would instruct the others to watch for these lights as well.

     He dug in his heels and the beast swung and veered downward. The Nazgûl shouted to one of his officers on the ground. Hovering, Gothmog directed the Orc to focus the attention of the archers on the points along the Wall that he indicated. The Orc-officer saluted and trotted away, screaming curses at his troop of scrawny mountain-goblins, armed with short but deadly bows of black horn. As the Nazgul watched from the clouded sky, the archers of Mordor dug in, took aim, and released waves of black darts, carried forward with new vengeance by the hot dry wind.

     On the parapet of the First Circle, above the Gate, Prince Imrahil and his youngest son, Amrothos, were about to descend to the level of the street and begin the hazardous journey up to the commanders' council. Just as they turned toward the stair, a volley of black arrows streaked toward them.

     From his perch on the winged beast, the Nazgûl laughed with cruel delight as a blue-green shimmer stumbled and fell, and beside him, a pale rosy glow was suddenly extinguished.

* * *

     Commander Baranor leaned against the wall in a passageway inside the Houses of Healing, his arms crossed on his chest, his head bowed. He had not slept for more than an hour caught here or there since before the retreat from Osgiliath—three nights ago. He stretched and yawned. If he weren't careful, he might fall asleep standing up. He began tapping his booted foot in an effort to keep alert.

     The location of the noon council of the commanders had been swiftly changed, from their usual meeting place above the Second Gate, to the Sixth Circle. The others were already here, or further on; it made no sense to try to oust them, not for the time being. War might still be raging, but the noblemen of the House of Húrin could be granted a few moments to pay their respects to their kin in the House of the Swan.

     Baranor glanced at the closed door. Beyond it, the Prince of Dol Amroth lay, Master Turin himself in attendance. Imrahil was barely alive in the aftermath of the removal of an arrow from deep in his right side, one of eleven that had made impact, according to Talphir, and the only one to find a gap in a seam of his silver mail. He would survive—barring the risk of putrescence that might yet claim him--but would not take to the field for many days. This was according to the healer-apprentice sent to give him the news, a fair, golden-haired lass named Mareyn, whom Baranor could hardly believe was old enough to be away from her mother's skirts, much less a healer-in-training. Lady Gwaeleth, little Mareyn said, sat at his side, as did the Prince's middle son, Erchirion, and their daughter Lothiriel. Elphir had accompanied his brother's body to the Citadel, where Amrothos would lie in honor. His cousin, Captain Faramir, had gone to assist the young man in his solemn duty. The Commander expected that at any moment, the Steward and the Captain-General would emerge from the room.

     Baranor had already given his opinion to Faramir—nay, his insistence—that the ruler of the realm, and his heirs, should no longer venture onto the walls, or to any place in sight of the enemy's missiles.

     "We cannot afford it!" he had said to Faramir, his deep voice full of urgency. "You three are Gondor—at least in the hearts and souls of her people… And especially in the hearts of her soldiers! Let us be honest, sire. Few believed—least of all, me—to have all three of you, here, at the most fateful hour of this Age. Why, less than two weeks ago, no one knew if the Captain-General was even alive, and you were chasing back and forth from here to Ithilien, doing double duty… And the Steward--well, to have the Steward truly among us again is a marvel none could foresee! The mens' spirits are higher than any of us have the right to expect, given the dire circumstances. Bad enough what has happened to the Prince and his son. But if one of you falls…" The Commander's voice dropped to a gruff whisper. "After rebuilding the fragile hopes of these men, that would cut the feet right out from under them..."

     The Captain of Ithilien had stared at him with pursed lips and a disapproving frown—in a perfect, if unconscious, imitation of his father's frequent expression. Then his face had softened with a slight smile. Faramir advised him to try his arguments on his brother and father, and that he would abide by their decision. So, Baranor waited, and gathered his nerve to be as bold and insistent with his commander—and his Lord the Steward—as he had just been with Lord Faramir.

     He jumped to attention as the door opened. Lord Boromir appeared and held the door for the Steward. The Lord Denethor, his face drawn, emerged into the hallway.

    "Commander," the Steward said with a nod. "Any news, good or ill?"

    "Nothing of much import, sire. The Prince?"

     Boromir answered. "The loss of his youngest is nearly as grievous a wound as the arrow. Master Turin expects his full recovery—in some weeks."

     Baranor nodded. "The Lord Faramir said he would return to meet you here. He should be back soon…"

     They began to walk together toward the entrance to the Houses, passing room after room of wounded men, healers hurrying to and fro. Boromir glimpsed the Lady Ivreniril in a pool of yellow lamplight. She did not turn toward them, but bowed over the cot of a heavily bandaged man, her hand holding a cup of liquid that she brought to his lips. It was a vision, it seemed, of something fair and clean, of goodness and purity amidst the ghastliness of war.

     The men reached the relatively quiet street just outside the Houses and stood to wait in the dull light of early afternoon. Baranor worked up his courage and launched a similar speech to the one he'd given to Faramir—leaving out certain more pointed comments, of course. He held his breath in the silence that followed, hoping he had not overstepped the bounds of propriety. And what if I have, he thought. What better time than now to do so…

    The Steward eyed him with the sharply disapproving look dreaded by every man in the City. His voice was edged with ice. "Commander, please explain how the spirits of the troops would be bolstered if their two most senior commanding officers and their ruler scurry off to safety like so many rats, leaving them to bear all the risk?"

     Baranor's mouth opened; he closed it again a moment later. Boromir laughed and slapped his shoulder.

     "A valiant try, Commander," he said with a wry grin. "But you won't be rid of us that easily."

     Baranor snorted and glared. One is as bull-headed as the next… I suppose that's part of what qualifies them to rule…

     While they waited for Faramir to reappear, Denethor turned to his elder son with a slight smile. From within his cloak he withdrew a small, stoppered flask.

     "The proximity of the Houses of Healing has reminded me of this, Boromir," he said, as he gave the flask to his son. "This is a tea, brewed by the Lady Ivreniril. You are to drink it as a remedy against the Black Breath."

    Boromir uncorked the small bottle and brought it to his lips. The fragrance wafted upward.

    "So sweet!" he said with a laugh. "Would that most medicines had such an appealing aroma…" He drank it with relish.

     His father watched him carefully. "A sweet fragrance, you say?" Denethor's voice betrayed a hint of alarm, though neither man beside him heard it. "How would you describe it, if I might ask…"

     The Captain-General smiled fondly. "Ah! It brought to mind Ithilien, in early spring… As she might be in just a few weeks, were not her lovely meadows and hillsides even now being sullied by thousands of tramping feet…"

     The Steward gazed at him closely for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. He then turned to Baranor. A quick half-smile came and went on his features as he brought out a second flask.

    "And this is for you, Commander—a preventative. The Lady's orders…"

     Baranor removed the stopper and drank his dose quickly. He had no idea what the Captain-General was talking about—spring in Ithilien? His dose had smelled very much like the oil he used to clean and hone his blade… or perhaps more like the metallic scent of steel itself, mixed with drifting smoke, and the sweat of men who have been on duty too long… In short, the smells he associated with battle.

     They looked up the street; Faramir was walking toward them, the ever-present Mablung a step behind him. He joined the small group and nodded to the Steward, then to the Captain-General.

     "Our young kinsman is at peace," he said quietly. "I bade Elphir to think, for now, of Lady Gwaeleth's begrieved heart, and advised that he and Erchirion stand down from battle duty and take turns at guard beside Amrothos."

    "Wise advice, my son," Denethor said. "The House of the Swan has sacrificed enough, for the moment. And now, gentlemen, I suggest that we four focus our efforts where the Enemy concentrates his—in the First and Second Circles. And for safety's sake," he said with a nod toward Baranor, "perhaps we should go about in pairs, from now on." He drew in a deep breath and gazed out toward the East, to the smoke-hazed sky above the fields. "For I sense our Enemy's growing impatience with this siege. By this hour tomorrow, I deem, the doom of this City shall be clear. But whether every street is overrun with bloodthirsty foes, or whether she emerges victorious, I cannot say."

* * *

     Pippin's role within the Healing Houses and Tents continued to change. Master Lathron and Meneldil had conferred, and decided the tenderhearted young Ernil Pheriannath had served in the Middle Tents long enough. As darkness deepened into night for the third time since the siege began, he now found himself mainly employed as a message carrier. The rooming houses in the upper streets of the First Circle had been heavily damaged by fire and projectiles, and most of the men housed there had been relocated. In the Sixth Circle, the houses of noble families had been commandeered for space to allow the injured to lie, even if only on the floor, out of the chill. Others had been removed downward, to the Tents. A few healers were still at work in the single rooming house still standing, tending to minor wounds and hurts. Pippin was kept busy keeping them informed of the Master Healers' commands, and seeing to it that they had adequate supplies of bandages, herbs, and, as time went on, even such fundamental necessities as water and food.

     I am half donkey and half messenger-dove, he thought, as he hoisted a heavily laden pack onto his shoulders and clutched a packet of papers. Though not as strong as the one, and not as quick as the other…

     The fires had begun again, though the flames did not burn as fiercely as before, perhaps because what was flammable had mostly already turned to ash. Structures not built of stone were still damp from the night of rain. And, much to Pippin's relief, the Enemy had apparently run through his stores of less deadly but more gruesome missiles. Now, the unstable buildings, liable to tumble down without notice, were the chief danger to the Hobbit as he rushed back and forth from First Circle to Sixth. Many men of the City Regiment had by now come to know his face and small figure; many called out in greeting, or paused to give him news of the conflict.

      It was from one such soldier he had befriended, whose rather hopeful name was Galúvegil*, that Pippin learned of the inexorable approach of the battering ram toward the Gate.

     "That awful chanting--do you hear?" the young man said, tilting his head toward the wall. Pippin frowned; there was so much constant din, he hardly bothered to try to sift through it and make sense of the noise. But he listened, and at once was aware of it. Hundreds of rough voices, calling together, the same word, or name, again and again.

     "What are they saying? Does anyone know?"

     Galúvegil nodded solemnly. "'Grond,' it is. I guess it is some name from the old days, some hammer or something, from ancient times… It's what they've named the battering ram. It was all fouled up in the trenches for the longest time, but I hear they're placing one stout log after another in its path, to make a sort of a road that'll hold it up, you see… The men up on the ramparts have set fire to the cart carrying it a hundred times, and they always rebuild it… No matter how many of the horrible trolls or wargs that drag it forward our archers slaughter, more come to take their place." He glanced about worriedly, and leaned down to whisper to his friend. "They say, Master Pip, that a great black-robed figure, on a black horse, rides just behind the thing, urging them onward… One of them Wraith-creatures, I reckon—probably their Commander. Never seen one up close myself—and never want to, that's sure…"

     Pippin felt an icy shiver down his back. He hadn't given much thought to who might be in command of the many thousands of foes encircling them. But it made sense that the Enemy would send his most powerful and terrible servants to direct the attack. And he had already seen far too many Black Riders, far too closely—more than enough for a lifetime.

     Galúvegil spoke again. "There's to be a signal, I've heard—the Captain-General's horn, or a bell, rung three times three… If you hear it, run as fast as you can, get up above the Second Gate…"

     "Signal? F…for what?" Pippin's throat was suddenly dry.

     "That the Gate has fallen," the young soldier whispered. "Remember, them piles of rubble…" He pointed down the street where they now stood. "The signal will mean they'll close 'em off, fill in the gap. And anyone below that point'll be trapped…"

      In the fright and exhaustion of the last three days, Pippin had all but forgotten about his vision in the Lady's Mirror. At once, the images flooded through him. He choked and looked about where he now stood. A stone city lying in ruins, fires flickering through broken, half-tumbled walls… the bodies of men and horses, lying about in the streets… Everything was suddenly all too familiar.

      Back in Lothlorien, he had clamped his eyes shut rather than see the end of that terrible vision. But he could not block out what he now understood with far greater clarity: the shattered wood, the great twisted mass of iron, the empty, staring face of the nobleman with grey hair and beard… And Boromir… Now he could see the truth of it—he was dying, pleading with him to do something… to do what?

     I'll just keep as far away from the Courtyard of the Gate as I can, he thought. I simply won't go there, from now on. If he were not there, maybe none of it would happen. But even as he thought it, his heart sank—for nothing that he had seen or experienced on his long road from Hobbiton led him to believe that anyone as insignificant as he was had the power to turn fate.

*Galuvegil: "Lucky Sword"

* * *

      Faramir and Baranor watched the sluggish but steady progress of the huge ram from where they stood on the ramparts near the Second Gate. It was now close enough that they could see it clearly in the red light of the torches that accompanied it. Wrought of iron, its massive head took the form of a ravening wolf, and flames flickered from between its hideous teeth. The great shaft hung from heavy chains; it shuddered and swung as the cart rumbled forward.

     Their foes had slowly maneuvered the thing out of the mire and the ensnaring trenches. By the combined brute strength of an endless supply of Orcs, they had lifted it onto a rough road of logs laid side by side. Where they had obtained so many trees in so short a time, Faramir was loathe to consider—undoubtedly, even more groves of Ithilien had now fallen to the axes of the Nameless One.

     He was no longer certain of the time. Midnight had come and gone again, and the four commanders had met again, shuffling their pairings for the second time. He had replaced Commander Baranor during the second shift in the company of the Steward, and had roamed at his side through the streets and on the ramparts of the First Circle. In those few priceless hours, he realized, he had felt more at ease with his father than at any other time he could recall in his entire life, despite the clamor of the attacking hordes, the stench of death and smoke, and the ever-present peril.

     That was some hours ago—how many, he could not say. The bells that had long marked the passage of time in Minas Tirith had failed to sound since yestereve, the slender tower in the Third Circle that housed them having crumbled with the impact of a massive stone flung from the fields.

     Faramir thought back to what might well have been the final meeting of the four of them. The Steward Denethor had inexplicably been, for a short time, as harsh and unyielding as he had ever been. He had been shocked at the contrast to the quiet warmth of the hours he had just spent with him. At the time, had felt confused and filled with the old pain to which he had become so accustomed. His father's sudden anger had diverted his attention from what was now glaringly obvious—that the Steward had placed himself in the First Circle again. Of the four of them, he was the only one who had remained in the heart of danger for all the hours—three shifts—since the Prince was wounded.

     The Captain noted the location of the approaching ram again. If it continued on its present course, it would be standing before the Gate by dawn—or what passed for dawn, beneath this black gloom.

     He looked at the Commander, only to find that Baranor had just turned toward him as well.

     "Commander, it is time that we move to where we shall be of most use…"

      "I was just thinking the same thing, sire…"

     Two hundred feet below them, Boromir and Denethor stood just south of the archway above the Gate. The parapet there was doubly thick and tall, and they took turns peering out through a narrow window slit to the scene below. When they had attempted to stand on the arch directly above the Gate, their foes had showered them with arrows. No harm had come to the Steward or his Heir, but youthful Maerod had been killed, Rosdolog's nervous chatter was silenced by a black shaft, and a half a dozen others were brought down. They had no choice but to step out of sight.

     They laid out their strategy with the officers of the Gate-Guard, and sent a message to Commander Baranor and Captain Faramir. The agreed upon signals were reviewed: thrice three, the Gate has fallen; four quick horn-blasts or bells, fill in the gaps and close off the lower Circle; a rising note or a clarion on the bells, the Gate holds firm. Every man there knew the duty of those who would remain stationed in the Courtyard, in the small but well-manned Gate fortress, or upon the closest walls, should the rubble impediments be filled in. No one saw fit to speak of it aloud.

     It was Boromir's turn to watch at the slit. The gigantic fiery wolf's snout was just a hundred feet away. He might have been imagining it, but he thought they were dragging it forward more rapidly now. Fingers of ice clutched at him as he stared at the figure in black upon the great black horse, pacing near the rear of the battering ram. The Rider pulled up on the reins and paused, and it seemed that the hooded head shifted upward to gaze at the wall.

     Boromir's heart began to labor within him. Was the Wraith aware of him, even as he was, standing behind a thick wall of stone? He heard again the whispering, chilling voice that had called out his name upon the Pelennor at the retreat. Boromir son of Denethor… I am come to take you… You are mine… The horrible, taunting voice continued, vowing that he would be taken alive to the Pits of the Nameless One, that he and everyone dear to him would suffer unspeakable agony at the hands of his conquerors… He knew not for how many minutes his mind was caught in the terror of the Wraith's cold grip…

    He grit his teeth and clamped his eyes shut as he shrank back from the window for a moment. With a shudder and by sheer strength of will, he got hold of himself. He looked about. Fortunately, no one was near to have witnessed the Captain-General's fit of weakness. He looked again through the slit and his eyes flew open with alarm. The battering ram was now directly before the Gate! Even as he watched, a hundred thick arms pulled the massive thing backward and released it to swing forward with a hiss. Grond, the harsh chant repeated. Boom… The first impact shook through the wall. He turned to speak to the Steward…

     But wait… No one was near…!

     "Father!" he said in a choked whisper. He spun on his heel and ran.

      Pippin sped through the streets toward the rearward half of the First Circle when the first crashing boom vibrated through him. He stumbled and fell, smacking his head on the stones. His ears rang, and for a moment, all he could think of was that somehow he had made a wrong turn and was back at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm… But this thundering boom was  louder and much heavier than the drumbeats of the Orcs of Moria. Shaking, he picked himself up and stood, looking back and forth, searching in a blind panic for a way out.

     Boom! The second impact hit. Vaguely, Pippin was aware of men screaming and running all around him in the dark street. Someone rushed by; the man's swinging arm caught his shoulder and he spun and stumbled again. He landed with a thump and rolled out of the way just in time to avoid being trampled by a pair of galloping soldiers, their horses neighing in terror.

     Pippin's sight seemed to dim, more than simply from the darkness. A chill blew from somewhere, and he felt dull and sluggish—and so very cold. Even the light of the fires that still sputtered and flickered looked dull. He got to his feet again and started walking toward the Tents… Had to get his pack refilled, the healers in the rooming house were out of poppy again…

     But the image of the Bridge of Khazad-dûm would not leave him. He felt himself quaking again as he remembered Gandalf standing firm in the middle of that narrow span, facing… Facing something even worse than a Wraith…

    Boom!… A low, evil voice muttered, like the curses of the Barrow-Wights, worming into the ancient wood to cause it to splinter, freezing the hard iron so that it would shatter… He heard his own voice whispering again, No please, don't let him fall, he can't fall, he can't fall… just as he had at the Bridge. He felt the terrible guilt all over again, that he had roused the Balrog from sleep, that it was all his fault…

    And then the loudest sound yet: Boom and Cra-a-ack!

    The memory of Moria was so vivid that the Hobbit found himself actually seeing a cloaked figure standing and facing the Darkness and the Fire. He found himself hearing Gandalf's deep voice calling out in defiance and courage.

    "You cannot enter here…"

     But wait--that wasn't what he said, not exactly… And that wasn't Gandalf's voice, not exactly… Pippin blinked. He looked again, and gasped. He was right at the spot he'd sworn he would avoid, no matter what. He stood in the middle of the Courtyard of the Gate, and just as in the Lady's Mirror, the great Gate of Minas Tirith lay in fragments, its wood shattered, hanging from its hinges, the newly forged iron beams twisted and snapped. The bodies of men lay sprawled; the carcasses of horses were heaped up. Beyond where the Gate had just stood was an image out of his worst nightmare: a huge black wolf with flames simmering from its snarling mouth. But even worse, picking his way over the rubble, a tall black-robed figure rode into the City where no enemy had ever come, on horseback.

     Thirty feet in front of the ruined Gate stood the Steward of Gondor, his black cloak thrown back from his shoulders, his unadorned, pure white tunic, identical to the Standard of the Ruling Stewards—the only man in the entire City so garbed—displayed like a beacon in the darkness. His uncovered grey head was held high, and he blocked the forward passage of the Wraith.

     Pippin's heart hammered as his legs gave out and he collapsed to his hands and knees. Crawling, he tried to move out of the center of the Courtyard to hide behind some rubble, an overturned cart, a man's body—he cared not what, only that he find a place where he would not be in the sight of that…thing. Huddling behind a half-burned, half-stinking horse carcass, he shivered, head bowed, trying to summon the courage even to look at the scene. He could not find the strength to raise his head, but he could hear the dreadful conversation taking place just yards away.

     "Take not another step, foul Shade of Corruption. This is my City, and you are forbidden to enter here."

     The laughter that followed stung like frigid lash cuts. If Gandalf faced a demon of fire, Pippin thought, the Steward faces a creature of ice...

     "Try to stop me, Denethor, son of Ecthelion, last Steward of fallen Gondor! This City is yours no more. I rule here now, you old fool…"

     He heard the clang of iron-shod hoof-beats as the Nazgul's horse paced forward over fragments of the fallen Gate. The ring of steel answered as the Steward drew his sword.

     "You, rule here?" Denethor laughed. "You are nothing but a pathetic shadow. You will rule here only if and when there is no one left to rule…"

     "Ah, but you will remain! After every last living thing in your realm has been slain, you will be taken to the Pits, as you have long dreaded… Yes, your deepest fears have been laid bare to the Eye…"

     "Beggone, you pitiful wretch!" Denethor cried in a hoarse voice. "You will not enter my City!"

      The clash of metal rang out, followed by a deadly curse. Pippin flinched, as though he had been struck. He heard more banging, the Steward grunting with effort and the hissing growl of the Nazgûl. He dared to open his eyes. Cowering still, he peeked above the horse's side.

     Denethor struggled to wield his sword high as the Wraith rained blows from where he sat upon his mount. Again and again the Steward parried strokes that crashed down from above his head; the weapons sparked and clanged. The Wraith cried out over his shoulder.

     "Take him! Take him now, you fools!"

      Pippin's gaze shifted to the now open archway where the Gate had stood. He gasped in horror as the first wave of Orcs began climbing over the rubble. A dozen quickly moved toward the Steward; the largest plucked a thick rope from his belt and began forming a loop to toss over Denethor from behind his back.

      But the Orc never had the chance to raise his rope. He stiffened and fell, a white-feathered arrow in his throat. Another dart flew, and a third, and Orcs began clamoring wildly and pulling back. The Wraith screamed and for a moment his concentration faltered. The Steward lunged up with a killing thrust. But his sword met no resistance, and he pitched forward into the horse's flank. The Wraith swung his mailed fist and Denethor spun backward and slipped, falling to one knee. His blackened, smoking blade slid to the stony ground and shattered.

     Several things happened at once. At his back, Pippin heard the call of a horn, three sharp notes repeated three times. He turned—there was Boromir! The Captain-General held his great bow in one hand and his horn in the other. He dropped the horn and ran forward, drawing another arrow from the quiver at his back. The arrow was loosed, and in the next instant the great black horse gave a sound partway between a scream and a snort. Boromir's fourth arrow protruded from the creature's eye-socket, and the beast collapsed to the ground. A flurry of black robes tumbled with it.

     Pippin turned again. He started and blinked as a rush of air surged through the open Gate. The gloomy smoke was briefly torn open, and a momentary beam of gold fell on the scene. Then his heart leapt as he heard, as if in response to Boromir's call, horns, dozens of them, nay, hundreds, distant and faint, but calling together from the Pelennor. Rohan! Rohan had come!

     Boromir sped by the Hobbit just as the rent in the black clouds closed and darkness fell again. Pippin dragged himself up. Come on, come on! He's your friend, you can't just hide, you can't abandon him now, after everything… He stumbled out from behind the dead horse, his eyes on Boromir.

     The enraged Wraith, abandoned by his Orc-slaves and denied his desire to take his prized captive alive, stood over the Steward. His sword thrust went deep; he jerked it and snapped off the tip, leaving it within Denethor's left chest. Boromir screamed and threw himself forward, swinging his sword as he lunged—but the Wraith was too quick. A dagger slid up and into the Captain-General's flank. Again, Gothmog snarled and twisted his wrist; the dagger broke.

     Then the commander of the besieging armies stepped back and surveyed the scene. He had broken the Gate—Minas Tirith was his. The mortal man he hated most lay gasping in his death throes at his feet, the silver shimmer of his spirit rapidly fading. His son dragged his amber-hued light through a slimy pool of ash and blood. Both had a cursed splinter imbedded in their flesh. Soon, they would be bound to him, to Gothmog the Terrible, as his slave-wraiths for all time. But the business at hand was yet undone. He looked out through the Gate at the mayhem breaking loose upon the fields. More enemies—and more victims—awaited.

     Gothmog failed to notice a small figure, his light the bright yellow-green of early spring, rise to his feet and lean back, his arm extended behind him. There was a tiny flash, a whirring and spinning—and with a dull thud, the dagger forged long ago in Arthedain sank into the Wraith's right thigh. Gothmog gasped and cried out—the blade had pierced him! How…! He wrenched the thing free, and limping, ran through the archway, shouting for another mount.

     Pippin's head spun. He could hardly believe what had just happened. He had thought to toss a stone, to distract the Wraith, but his hand fell instead to the knife, and without a second's consideration he had flung it with the same unerring accuracy that he'd perfected with rocks back in the Eastfarthing.

    He saw Boromir reach his father's side. The Hobbit could not hear their frantic whispers, but he saw Denethor cling to his son as Boromir bent and kissed his brow. Then, he drew a dagger from his belt and buried it to the hilt in his father's heart. As the Steward's body stiffened, arched, and then relaxed, the Captain-General groaned and fell with a sudden rush of blood from his side.

    Pippin came and knelt beside him, trying desperately not to faint. Boromir's eyes were squeezed shut, and his breath came in short pants.

    "Boromir… "

     His eyes opened in a face twisted in a grimace of pain. He reached up and gripped the Hobbit's wrist with one hand, and pressed the bloody knife toward him with the other.

     "Pippin… You must… You saw what I did for Father… I beg you, my little friend… Do this for me…"

     "I… I can't, Boromir… I won't believe this is the only alternative!" he said in a choked whisper. "Think of Frodo… "

     "We are in Gondor, not in Imladris! There is no more time, Pippin… Please, I beg you… Do not let him take me…"

     Peregrin Took sat back on his heels, his heart racing, his throat dry.  No! Where is everyone else? Why must it be me? Why couldn't Strider be here, or the Lord Faramir… Anyone! He blinked through the tears that suddenly streamed down his face.

     He took the knife. He leaned close, the dagger-point aimed at the heart of the man he considered to be one of his dearest friends. He dragged his sleeve across his eyes to wipe away the tears that blinded him. Then, using the tip of the dagger, he ripped open the side of Boromir's tunic, exposing the blackened rent in his mail where the Morgul knife had pierced through it--and into his flesh. He dropped the Captain-General's weapon, leaned in close, pushed his small fingers and thumb into the bloody hole, and pulled the fragment out—but in grasping the sliver, sliced open his own right hand.

     As Captain Faramir and Commander Baranor rushed into the Courtyard, they saw the Pherian fall forward across Boromir's chest in a swoon.


This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.

Story Information

Author: Aiwendiel

Status: General

Completion: Complete

Era: 3rd Age - Ring War

Genre: Drama

Rating: General

Last Updated: 01/06/12

Original Post: 02/25/09

Go to A Bit of Rope overview

Comments

WARNING! Comments may contain spoilers for a chapter or story. Read with caution.

A Bit of Rope

ratcreature - 25 Feb 11 - 9:01 PM

Ch. 40: Besieged

Aah, what a cruel cliffhanger. And this after I felt so badly for poor Pippin throughout this chapter. *bites nails*

A Bit of Rope

ziggy - 26 Feb 11 - 12:14 AM

Ch. 40: Besieged

So much to commne ton in this chapter - the OCs are particualry good I think and I loved the reasons given for athelas to smell differently for each person - that level of detail is what gives this such credibility - and of course the healers tehmselves would detect the true notes of the herbs. And the way you picked up on that later with Faramir thinknig it smelled of the chair of the stewards - superb detail that tells more about his feelings than pages of exposé.

Then the Nazgul- wonderful! In spite of his pompousness and ambition, he is stil lfull of menace and foreboding, and htat thought of Gandalf is perfectly times to remind us what else is going on- and again, one of the great things about your writing is the reminders that there is more than just THIS going on. Brilliant battle scene- one of the best and the ending!  I never saw that coming!

A Bit of Rope

Aiwendiel - 26 Feb 11 - 5:18 AM

Ch. 40: Besieged

Thanks, Ratcreature! Your comment has given me a new nom de plume idea: CliffHangerz-R-Us... Wink More of them coming, I am afraid!

A

A Bit of Rope

Aiwendiel - 26 Feb 11 - 5:25 AM

Ch. 40: Besieged

Ah, dear Ziggy you are reading as fast as I can write... so glad the story continues to entertain. Thanks for your very prompt, kind and observant comments as usual.Read somewhere that violence(ie combat) is often best described indirectly. BIgger challenges ahead if I stick with that idea...

A Bit of Rope

MrsBoromir - 26 Feb 11 - 5:38 PM

Ch. 40: Besieged

Wow! U had me at the edge of my seat the entire time i was reading this chapter especially the end! excellently done...i loved the character development of the nazgul.. It has already been said but i also think ur attention to detail is fantastic....though i do admit to being curiously confused as to why the concotion smelt like Ithilien to Boromir...I understand that it would remind Faramir of the Stewards chair given his recent interaction with his father!

A Bit of Rope

Iva1201 - 12 Apr 11 - 8:52 AM

Ch. 40: Besieged

Finally, I have had the chance to read your new update – great writing, as always, and very enjoyable as well despite the end – I wouldn't want be in Boromir's place! Thank you!

A Bit of Rope

Larner - 31 Aug 11 - 5:28 AM

Ch. 40: Besieged

So, Pippin has weakened the Nazgul to the next thrust by whatever one who is not a Man who might come across him; he's saved Boromir, but at the expense of himself, although as a Hobbit he's more resistant than would be a man.

Bless them all!


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