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Lords of Gondor: 50. Roads Converging
As the Great Road from Edoras to Minas Tirith skirted Amon Dîn it bent southwards, passing through a heavily wooded area that was the thinning edge of the heavy forest that blanketed the slopes of the beacon hill. Coming out of the woods, the road widened and continued straight on across the open grassland for some seven leagues to the wall of the Pelennor and the townlands of Minas Tirith.
Two riders rode swiftly along that road upon an urgent errand to the City. Though the road now ran free of the wood, it was scarcely less dark than it had been under the canopy of trees, for Mordor's darkness was thicker and blacker than ever here along the approach to the City. Yet Denethor's errand riders did not need light to guide them as they rode; they knew the route so well they could find the way with closed eyes, and guide their horses to the right path whether in darkness or daylight. It was here that Hirgon and Ulrad hoped desperately to make up the time they had lost in eluding enemy Easterlings upon the road behind them, and reach Minas Tirith in time to bring hope to their lord with the news of Rohan's muster. But now to that news of Rohan's riding must also be added the word that the Road was taken by the enemy.
Hirgon urged his mount to a full gallop, his companion keeping pace with him on his left.
This stretch of road is our best hope for speed as we approach the City, thought Hirgon. Mayhap we can still reach the gate in the Rammas wall and pass over the Pelennor in safety. But the road behind us is now taken by the enemy, and the Rohirrim who come after us will meet a great host before ever they approach the Pelennor. I could not count the enemy in the dark distance, but the light of the torches glimmering through the murk implied vast numbers. Alas! Rohan brings only six thousand to the fight! How many will be lost to battle before they reach the City itself?
Beside him, Ulrad cursed aloud suddenly and drew back on his reins. Looking ahead, Hirgon reined in sharply as well, muttering an oath of dismay. The enemy had taken the wall! There was no other explanation for the movement of torchlight ahead of them, accompanied by the hoarse cries of Orcs and the sound of ax and club pounding, breaking against stone.
"We cannot get through!" hissed Ulrad in Hirgon's ear, as he drew his mount up close beside his companion. "Yet we must if we are to return the Red Arrow to Lord Denethor with news of Rohan's coming. What do you advise, Hirgon? Shall we press on in the hope that we can pass through the gate and outrun the enemy that attacks it?"
Even as Hirgon drew breath to reply, black arrows flew out of the darkness and a mass of torchlight broke away from the main group and hurried towards them.
"They have seen us!" Hirgon cursed. "We are too late! Our hope is denied; we can go no further this way. Turn back, Ulrad! If we can elude the Easterlings upon the road behind, we can perhaps reach the beacon post at Amon Dîn in time to warn both Rohan and Minas Tirith. The path up the hill is less than a league back, perhaps we can reach it in safety. Relighting the beacon may warn the Rohirrim that the Pelennor is overrun, and also serve to alert the City. If we cannot deliver the Red Arrow, we can at least send some kind of news via beacon fire."
They wheeled their mounts around and fled back the way they had come. Flying arrows and the cries of Orcs and deep-voiced Men followed them. As they rode, Hirgon clasped the Red Arrow in one hand even as he loosed his sword in its sheathe with the other.
If we must fight our way through to safety, then so be it, he thought. I will protect the Red Arrow with my life in the hope that I can yet deliver it to the hand of my lord with news that will soothe his despair!
Faramir watched silently as Gandalf gave final instructions and cautions to the men who would ride with him in escort of the wains filled with wounded. There were more wounded than hearty men left for the fight, yet Faramir wished the wains were carrying three times the men they held, for it would mean that many more had been saved from perishing in the slaughter at Osgiliath and the Causeway Forts.
"...We may make the Enemy pay ten times our loss at the passage and yet rue the exchange," he had said to his father only a day ago. "For he can afford to lose a host better than we to lose a company. And the retreat of those that we put out far afield will be perilous, if he wins across in force."
The Enemy had indeed won across in force, and though he had paid dearly for the crossing, the Men of Gondor had paid the higher price.
"Do not doubt your choices, Faramir," Gandalf said gently, laying a fatherly hand upon Faramir's shoulder. "Not your own choices, and not the ones forced upon you by circumstances and by others. You are a wise commander and understand well the timing of when to do battle and when to retreat. I am certain that the loss of life from these recent skirmishes would have been far greater had one less wise than you been in charge. Your father's trust in you is well placed!"
"Does he trust me?" Faramir asked doubtfully. "I came in Boromir's stead, whom he trusted above all others, but I am not Boromir. I do indeed doubt my choices, especially when I look upon the wounded and think of the dead left behind...."
"Faramir!" Gandalf interrupted sternly. "The Lord Denethor your father is master of this crisis. He has prepared long for this battle that now threatens to break upon Gondor and the lands west of the Great River; he is truly ready for it. He knows well the need of the hour and which men he can trust to fulfill that need and see his battles fought -- yes, fought and even won. It is true that Boromir is no longer a part of those preparations -- but do you think for one moment that he would have pushed for you to lead this venture as the captain doing his will if he did not think you capable of standing firm in the face of overwhelming foes? I think not. He knows your quality, and he trusts it well."
Faramir gazed into Gandalf eyes for a long moment, then with the ghost of a smile upon his lips, he nodded. "You reminded me earlier of my father's care for me, Mithrandir. And here you are doing it once again! You are right to reprimand me. It is a tool of the Enemy to plant such seeds of doubt in the hearts of those who should love and trust one another without hesitation. My father will not fail me, nor will I fail him. I shall hold the Causeway Forts awhile longer to aid your retreat with the wounded, and then I shall return to the City to take my place at my father's side for the battle that will follow at my heels."
"That is better," Gandalf replied, smiling. "I, too, know your quality, Faramir, and I trust it well. For this reason I am not surprised to hear you are resolved to stay with the rearguard -- but do not leave your own retreat too late! The foe at your heels...."
"Did you not just compliment me on my wisdom and timing, Mithrandir, and give me your full trust?" Faramir interrupted, shaking his finger sternly at the wizard. "Fear not! I will not leave it too late. I shall come soon. Go now, my friend, and see these men safely to the Houses of Healing!"
Boromir arose early to prepare himself for the events of the day. He had thought he would pass a restless night in anticipation of his meeting with the Rohirrim -- and possibly some of the companions he so sorely missed -- but in fact, he had slept soundly and felt well-rested and strengthened in both body and mind.
The familiar discipline of dressing for battle soothed and encouraged him, as well. The hauberk of mail provided from Gwaeron's store was light indeed, and the weight of it was easy to bear. Boromir held his breath as Grithnir settled the mail coat upon his shoulders, but then grinned in relief as he realized how easy and comfortable it was. Grithnir nodded in approval, comforted that his lord was once again well protected.
"I am fully prepared to act as your shield, my captain," Grithnir remarked, "but my task will be made that much simpler with a fine mail shirt between you and an enemy blade."
"I shall be glad to have both mail and your blade to keep me from harm," Boromir replied, as he pulled his leather surcoat over the mail and strapped on sword and belt. "I do not wish to be a burden to you, Grithnir, nor do I want you to be put in danger because of the need to protect me as well as fight your own battles. Yet these past few weeks have taught me nothing if not the lesson that it is no weakness to trust in the strength and loyalty of others when my own strength is insufficient for the need at hand. I will fight, for I was born for this coming battle and I will defend my people with whatever weapon comes to hand -- but I will also do all I can to not be a burden to you. Nay, do not protest! I know well what you would say; you will claim until your dying breath that I am no burden to you! Whether that be true or no, I will not deny you what you wish. As I said, I am content to have you by my side, be it fighting or shielding me from the fighting."
Boromir tightened his sword belt decisively, then drew the sword from its sheathe and hefted it, testing the weight in his hand. "This sword of Dirhavel's is lighter than my own sword Harthad; being one-handed, this sword will be easier to lift and swing. It will serve me well -- if I have not forgotten how to handle a weapon!"
He swung the sword about experimentally, and was pleased to note that there was some strength in his arm and only a little catching stiffness in his shoulder.
"No doubt I shall feel the pain of my wounds anew when striking down an enemy as opposed to swinging a blade about in the air," he commented in answer to Grithnir's worried look. "But this will do, Grithnir. My arm seems to remember well enough how to lift a sword, and if that day comes when skill and strength are lacking because of the pain of my wounds, I know that you and the others will be at my side to supplement that lack."
"We will indeed, my lord! And it is no burden to us -- not now, not ever!"
Boromir laughed. "So be it! Come then, let us say our farewells to Gwaeron and his men, and be off down to the road. Are the horses ready for our riding?"
"They are, Captain Boromir," Grithnir answered. "Eadric and the other scouts await us at the picket."
"Then let us keep them waiting no longer!"
Eadric and his fellow scout Guthwald stood beside the waiting horses, Hirvegil of the outpost with them. As Boromir and his men approached, Hirvegil led four horses forward and offered the reins to Boromir.
"My lord," he said with a bow. "It was an honor to provide you with a change of horse when first you rode away upon your great journey northwards, and now it is an even greater honor to give you the mounts you need to go to war! May they serve you well, and carry you swiftly to battle and afterwards to a safe haven."
"I thank you for your service and for your horses, Hirvegil!" Boromir replied as he grasped the reins in both hands, bowing over them in an expression of gratitude before handing them over to each of his men in turn. As he made to mount the horse that remained, Eadric stepped forward and stayed his hand.
"My lord Boromir," he said. "If you are willing, let me take this fine Gondorian horse as my mount; in his stead, I wish you to have Stánfót. Take him as my gift to you and my provision for your further protection."
"Surefoot!" Boromir exclaimed in surprise and wonderment. "You give me Surefoot?"
"Indeed!" replied Eadric with a smile. "He has told me that he wishes to remain with you. He regrets leaving you before on your previous journey and wishes to continue serving you now as best he can. He is a true warrior and will fight for you as fiercely as your own men, for he loves you well, even as they do."
Boromir's eyes were moist as he took Surefoot's halter in one hand and smoothed the horse's mane with the other. "He has told you this, has he?" he said softly. "Then who am I to refuse such love and eagerness to serve? I accept your offer, Eadric! With Surefoot to carry me on the right path, my men beside me to serve as shield and sword, and the Riders of Rohan around me as we go forth to battle, I can see nothing ahead but victory!"
"May it be so!" Eadric replied with a deep bow. "And now, lord, if you are ready to ride, I will tell you what I have arranged for your meeting with Théoden King. My man Brynhere has gone on ahead to bring word to the king of our riding and the timing of our arrival. The army of Rohan will halt at midday for a brief rest and to take a meal; we will ride from here and meet them upon the road as they rest."
"It is a good plan, Eadric," Boromir agreed, nodding his head in satisfaction. "Will you lead the way, then, and present me to your king when the time comes?"
"Most happily, my lord!"
Boromir mounted Surefoot, and turned to face the men of the outpost who had gathered outside to say a final farewell.
"Men of Gondor," Boromir addressed them solemnly. "Faithful caretakers of Nardol's beacon fire! I thank you for your service to me and to my men and for your care of us in our time of need. I thank you for your service to Gondor and your unfailing devotion to your duty! I bid you be strong and continue in that service, and may the Valar grant that we meet again with no enemy to hinder our reunion!"
The men shouted their affirmation of Boromir's charge.
"Go swiftly and return to your father and our people, my lord," Gwaeron said with a bow. "Deliver them from the slavery that threatens, and send word when you are able of your victory! Farewell!"
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