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Hands of the King: 61. Umbar
Ithilien, 5 February, 2980 T.A.
South, a horn blew, calling for the men to regroup. Denethor raised his own horn and gave the command for the Rangers to advance. In between was the remnant of the host that had marched from the Morannon two weeks before. Shouts of "Gondor! Gondor!" echoed in the leafless woods as green and brown clad men charged the remaining Uruks. Soon, the call to advance was heard to the south as well. The slaughter was done before nightfall.
It had taken five days to destroy the Orcs that invaded Anórien. Until Marlong brought his men up at the end of the second day, there was little Denethor's band could do except run ahead of the Orc army and tell people to flee. Many farms were burned, but most of the people survived. Men who stayed to fight were told to rally at the gathering point with Marlong. There they were first heartened by how many they had to defend the land, then dismayed by the messenger's news that Ithilien was assailed. There was no way to ride to the eastern defense until the raiding band was destroyed. When that was done, the men had not a day for rest, but had to march at once to Cair Andros and passage over the river. They were in Ithilien by the first day of February.
Denethor sent Thorongil over the river at once to succor Anbar, but stayed behind himself to read messages and plan what needed to be done. Brandir and Imrahil were sent south along the river road to Osgiliath where Brandir would wait for the éored promised by Théoden. The Riders would cross the bridge and run south to guard Poros if the way was clear, else they would do battle on the roads. Imrahil was to go to Minas Tirith and tell Borondir to begin moving all available Fire casks south. They would go by barge to Pelargir, then by ship along the coast until it was stowed on each ship marked to carry it. There was no word yet on whether Umbar had sailed. All of south Gondor was on the move - soldiers and sailors to the coasts, ordinary folk to the uplands.
When he had crossed the river a few hours after Thorongil, Denethor went north with the Guardsmen and a large portion of the Anórien soldiers. They passed north of Henneth Annûn, and fell upon the rear of the Uruk army. Gildor and Dírhavel had used the Rangers wisely, but they were weary and wounded by the time Denethor arrived. The Uruks had ceased to put up much of a rear guard by then, preferring to rush south and try to secure the road against Thorongil's fresh troops, and were not prepared for the attacks Denethor led.
Denethor surveyed the carnage as he walked south to find Thorongil. They were counting on the Anórien troops being tied up by the attack over Onodló. Save that the funeral party was there when Pear Hollow had been attacked, it might still be so. Marlong would have marched halfway to Cair Andros, then would have turned back to meet the western attack. Anbar had left only a score of defenders at Cair Andros itself, taking the rest into Ithilien to try and protect the road. Even so, the attacks themselves felt incomplete. There should have been more allies, as there had been in the summer wars five years ago. You don't know what has been thrown out of Morgul, yet. Ahead, in the gloom, he saw a figure so tall it could only be Thorongil. The other saw him at the same time and waved.
Thorongil's face was filthy, the blood and dirt settled into the lines drawn by exhaustion. 'A few hundred escaped south.'
'We'll hunt them tomorrow.' The captain nodded. 'Where's Vardamir?' Thorongil motioned with his head, turning to lead the way to the surgeon. Denethor began moving among the wounded as he usually did. Thorongil followed suit. Whatever reports there were would find them here. The stars were out before the healers finished their work. A leather sack holding frigid water was all they had to wash with, but it sufficed to take the worst of the filth from their hands and faces. They filled their food pans with Ithilien stew - dried meat boiled with carrots and turnips dug up from a nearby abandoned farm, seasoned with salt and wild rosemary. A lump of hard cheese and a skin of water completed the meal. Thorongil followed Denethor to a seat near a fire.
With some food in his stomach, Denethor was able to think again. Sending so many through Rohan was a bold stroke, but also a foolish one. They had to have crossed Anduin on rafts just above the Entwash, then crept though the dried out fens at the border of Gondor and Rohan. Surely they had to know the Riders' patrols would have found them? Save the Riders didn't... The Riders were in Edoras. That was the key. Denethor tried to make his mind move more quickly.
'This shouldn't have happened.' He turned to look at the captain. The man was staring into the fire, brow furrowed. 'We should not be under attack. Not yet.'
'We've been attacked in winter before. As I said, it's too dry.'
Thorongil shook his head. 'Too dry, yes, but bad luck, as well. Thengel died at just the wrong moment. All attention was to the west right as the Enemy struck. Have you received any word about the coasts?'
'No, but there are still storms to the south,' Denethor answered. What he most wanted now was to be back in the City so he could look into the palantír and see what stirred. His stomach clenched and for a moment Denethor was afraid he was going to spew. Why did you not see this before? He carefully laid a hand on his chest, feeling for the lanyard. There were the rings, then the cord itself. No, not luck, good or bad. A palantír.
'Denethor? Are you ill?' Thorongil laid a hand on his shoulder. The nausea subsided.
'Something in the stew. It is passing,' he lied. Thorongil's gaze dropped to where Denethor's hand gripped the rings through his clothes. 'I don't think we can wait for the storm season to end before we attack,' Denethor said quickly, letting go the lanyard. 'The ships must sail even though storms threaten and we are still short of all the Fire we need.'
'Yes.' The captain smiled crookedly. 'Our surprise attack was to have triggered this, not the other way around.'
'Then we use it as the Enemy used Thengel's death - a windfall to cloak our actions.'
'We'll have to.' Thorongil sighed. 'You should go back over the river tomorrow, but you won't, will you?'
'Of course I am going. I need to know what is happening in the south and I won't learn that here.'
Thorongil's grip on his shoulder tightened. 'You are to wait for me.'
'Then you'd best not tarry in Ithilien. I will be in Pelargir in a fortnight or less. It will be decided then who leads the fleet.'
For a moment, Thorongil's grasp became stronger, to the edge of pain, and his expression was angry. 'Is there any stupid thing you will not attempt, Denethor? Is it not enough that one of us be lost?' The man dropped his hand and returned to his stew, wolfing down the last of it. Denethor finished his own supper under Thorongil's watchful eye. After a brief conference with their lieutenants, they lay down near the fire to sleep. Men who were not on guard duty also came to sleep, huddling closely to stay warm in the frigid night. As they had years ago when last they patrolled Ithilien together, Denethor and Thorongil curled up under shared blankets, the Lost covering his commander's back.
Pelennor, 7 February , 2980 T.A.
Denethor overtook the new éored sent by Théoden on the river road. They were led by Grim, son of Gram, a man slightly older than Théoden and with much experience repelling Orc raids in the Wold. Grim told Denethor of the patrols that now guarded the Undeeps and the Entwash. The Orcs had crossed Anduin a few dozen at a time on two rafts pulled by ropes on either side. They had to have carried the logs for the rafts from the Morannon. It was carefully planned and executed. Thengel has been watched. When Thengel died, they knew the borders would be unguarded as the Rohirrim went to Edoras. Denethor had calculated that the band of Orcs would have left the Morannon the same time he had left Minas Tirith and Éomund had abandoned Poros, moving northwest to skirt the Nindalf, reaching Anduin about the time of Thengel's burial.
He has to have been using the Ithil stone since he returned. Thirty years, maybe more, Sauron had been in Barad-dûr; for what part of that had he spied upon them? Denethor glanced at the Ephel Dúath, stark against the clear winter sky. I cannot see into Mordor. Is there any limit to his vision of Gondor? That was his greatest concern. What could Sauron see of their efforts? There had to be some limits, for they had been able to take him by surprise a number of times. He has not found Henneth Annûn. Yet. When he was back in the City, he would need to delve into the writings on the seeing stones once more and see what could be deduced from the records and what he knew of the Enemy's limits.
Brandir was waiting for him and Grim in the garrison courtyard and wasted no time giving his report. Halmir held the crossroads, but not securely, so the Rohirrim would have to go through soon. If some could be spared to help with the battles on the road, so much the better. The City garrison was sending new men every day to replace those who had been wounded too badly to keep fighting, but the Steward had said they could not draw from Pelargir or any of the southern garrisons. For the week before the first assault, the fumes from Imlad Morgul had been very bad. The attack had come after sundown on the twenty-third. The foul mists had made fighting difficult, but the following night, on the twenty-fourth, a strong wind from the west had dispersed the poisoned air. Once that was gone, Halmir had managed to force the Morgul army back into the vale. Scouts saw Uruks coming along the road from the north. Denethor let them know that Thorongil was on their heels with the bulk of the north Ithilien and Anórien forces. Baragund had sent word that spies said an army from Harad was marching towards the Poros crossing, but was being slowed by torrential storms in northern Harad. It took little to decide that the bulk of the Rohirrim would go south with Brandir and Grim, leaving two dozen with Halmir.
Denethor collected battle reports for the Steward and supply lists for Borondir while Grim went to get his men ready to ride into Ithilien. Brandir waited until the Rider left, then said, 'Here is the report you care about. Finduilas and the others are safely back in the City. I got word of that yesterday.'
'She should have ridden straight home. Not gone back.' Denethor kept his eyes on his hands, willing them not to tremble while he put the messages into the pouch. Every night since he sent her off had been filled with nightmares. The bodies of women at the raided farms turned into her. An Orc scaled the tree where she was hiding. She was dragged from his grasp as they fled. At every turn, her flesh torn by fang and claw... Denethor strode out of the meeting room, message pouch over his shoulder, trying to outpace his thoughts.
Brandir embraced him while they waited for their horses to be brought to them. 'After I take the éored south, I will wait for Thorongil in Pelargir.'
'Yes. Let Imrahil know you are there. We will begin the attack of Umbar in a fortnight. I will be to Pelargir as soon as I can.'
'Why are you coming, Denethor?' Brandir's face became worried. 'Say not that you think to go to Umbar!'
'I think it, but I have not decided if I shall do it.'
'You have already ventured there. Do not tempt fate by trying a second time.'
A soldier brought Gaerhûl over. Denethor mounted and turned him towards the western gate. 'I'll see you in Pelargir, Brandir,' he said. As soon as he passed the Rohirrim milling about as they waited to ride east, Denethor gave the stallion his head. Gaerhûl settled into a swift canter, as eager to return as his master. They reached Minas Tirith after sunset. The City seemed carved from a block of ice, gleaming like snow under the starlight, lanterns and torches brighter gems set in her frozen face. Several Queen's Men and pups waited for him at the stable. Two of the youths ran towards the Great Gate when they recognized him, no doubt to warn that he had returned. The messenger pouch was dispatched with a guardsman to take to the Steward at once. While he was glad for someone to carry his packs and weapons, Denethor wondered at the number of men waiting. They stayed close to him on the walk up the mountain, looking suspiciously into shadows and alleys as though expecting Orcs to burst out of hiding. By the fifth circle, he was beginning to imagine motions in the shadows, and his nightmares caught up with him.
Beregar was in the hall of the Stewards House, ready to take his cloak. 'The Lady is in her study,' he said, 'and Hunthor is waiting for you with clean clothes at the baths. Will you need to see the Steward?'
'Probably.' Denethor took the steps two at a time. He knew he was a reeking mess, but he had to see Finduilas. She was sitting behind her desk, too thin and pale for his liking. 'Alquallë?' Her gaze touched his face briefly, then moved to his collar. Denethor touched the lanyard through the cloth. 'Yes, I wear it. I will put it away.'
'No, keep it with you.'
Something in her tone made the hair on the back of his neck prickle. He walked to the desk. 'What has happened?' he asked softly.
'Much. Too much to speak of now, for the Steward waits.' Finduilas met his eyes. 'Beruthiel took advantage of our absence to come near Boromir when Aeluin took him to visit the Steward. She threatened when told to leave. In Ecthelion's presence I said that any harm she brought to any of my house would be visited upon her own person two-fold, and he declared it just. He forbade her to come near Boromir as long as he lived. The King's Men have been trying to start fights with mine.'
One mystery solved. 'I wondered why you sent such a large escort. What else?'
'After you speak to the Steward.' Finduilas wrinkled her nose. 'And most definitely after you've washed!'
Denethor bowed with a chuckle and went downstairs. Beregar provided a swift account of the trouble stirred up by the King's Men; there was little they could do save insult, and they usually found themselves being shoved about by townsmen who did not care to see the Lady's guards treated meanly. Hunthor helped scrub off the layers of dirt, sweat and blood Denethor had accumulated over the last two weeks. Though tempted by the warm tub, Denethor toweled off and began dressing so he could meet the Steward as soon as he could. Borthand appeared just as he was pulling on his boots, holding a note sealed with white wax and the Steward's stamp.
I have read the reports, and do not think there is anything that needs attention tonight. Rest, my son, and attend me at breakfast on the morrow.
Denethor read the note several times, not knowing what to make of it. He could not recall the Steward referring to him as his son in a solicitous manner in all his adult years. I shall find out in the morning what trick this masks. He sent Borthand ahead with the news. When he returned home, Denethor forgot about the Steward, Maiaberiel, and all other worries. Finduilas and Boromir waited for him in the front room. Once in Denethor's arms, Boromir refused to be put down, screaming and crying if anyone tried to take him away. This left Denethor feeling oddly pleased that his son had missed him so much, though it did make it difficult to eat supper. He slept in Finduilas's bed that night, Boromir tucked between them and Telperien purring amidst the pillows.
In the morning, there was no time to speak to Finduilas of other events. Denethor slipped out of the house so Boromir would not see him leave. The doorward took him immediately into the Steward's chambers. Ecthelion was seated before a fire, the stack of messages on a small table by his chair. Denethor bowed. 'My Lord Steward.'
'Denethor, good morning. Please bring me some tea.' Denethor did as he was bid, then fixed himself some bread and cheese from the tray of food on the sideboard. With a sigh, the Steward set down one of the messages and rubbed his eyes. 'Thorongil should have remained here, though not for the reasons we thought.'
'It is good that he went, for exactly the reasons I said,' Denethor replied. 'Théoden was reassured by the captain's presence and did not balk when we requested he send an éored at once, even though Rohan itself was under attack.' Ecthelion looked unconvinced. 'It also was good he was in Anórien to rally the villages until Marlong could bring the soldiers up.'
'True.' The Steward's voice was musing and he stared into the fire. 'You are right. He goes where he is needed.' I was there as well. The Steward motioned at the reports. 'They are clear enough. What else should I know?'
'That we are being very closely watched. As we have suspected, the Enemy plans a great assault early this year. We are spied upon to see any weakness, uncover any plans of our own. The captain agrees with me that this latest round was merely trying to take advantage of Thengel's death. There will be more.'
'Mmm.' Ecthelion did not leave off his study of the flames. Denethor finished his breakfast and waited. 'Tell me, Warden, should we attack Umbar?'
'Pardon, my lord?' Denethor was confused. Does he quail at the last? Do fresh battles make him fear? 'What do you mean?'
Ecthelion turned sharply in his chair. 'I mean is there any doubt in your mind that we should do this? Any hesitation? If you know of a reason we should not do this, no matter how small, then you shall speak it now!'
'It has been my counsel since we secured the river that we needed also to secure Umbar. I have never wavered on that point.'
'Even sage advice cannot always be made so. Is it time? Can it be done?'
'It must be done now, or it cannot be done at all.'
'Can it be done without Dragon Fire?'
'Only if we have a fleet to equal the Corsairs' own, so, no.'
'Do you advise this so you may be rid of Thorongil?'
As you have tried to send me to my doom? 'If you doubt me, my Lord Steward, you need only send me with the fleet and keep Thorongil at your side. I will gladly go to Umbar.'
'I will think upon that. What needs to be done now?'
'Continue preparations for the invasion. We have only a few weeks at most before Umbar moves.'
'Do so. Have a report for me each morning of what has been done. Good day, Warden.'
Borondir was waiting for Denethor at the Stewards House. They spoke of the Fire and how much could yet be made in time to send to Pelargir. Near midday, a messenger brought letters from Imrahil. The falas was ready. As soon as word of the attacks from Mordor had reached Dol Amroth, Prince Adrahil had begun readying the ships from Cobas Haven to the Langstrand. Denethor sent a message in return warning not to move men and ships too openly because of spies.
'Friend?' Finduilas stood at his study door holding a tray of food. Denethor took it from her and set it out on his desk. Finduilas closed the door behind them. 'I did not wish to interrupt your work, but I did not wish you to miss your dinner either. You are too thin.'
'So are you.' He pulled a chair up to the desk. 'I have heard all other reports. What of yours, prince?'
'Where is the gift?'
'Here.' He tapped a desk drawer.
'Put it on. Now.' Finduilas kept her eyes on her plate while he slipped the lanyard over his head. 'Unless you are in my bed, you are to wear it.'
'Alquallë, what has happened?'
'On the road, as we came back, we were overtaken by the wizard. Mithrandir stayed with us as we traveled. He came with me when I met with the Steward - indeed, I could not be rid of him - and he spoke with me afterwards. I asked him what he intended to do with Thorongil. He would not answer.' Finduilas stopped speaking and ate her meal. Only when she was done did she continue. 'You have smoked the herbs that the wizard and Thorongil use.'
'Do they cloud your mind? Make you see things?'
'Sometimes. I think the wizard can use the smoke to his own purposes. Not Thorongil.'
'He lit the herbs as we spoke. Then, it was like a waking dream. I saw fire and smoke. In my dreams, I have seen the same. As Imrahil does. I said that he must stop you and Thorongil from attacking Umbar. All will be lost.'
A ghostly hand rested across the back of Denethor's neck along the line of the lanyard. 'You say we should not attack?'
Finduilas shivered, hugging herself. 'I know not what I think, friend. The wizard argued with me. At last, I spoke to him and said it was not time for this. I put a name to him that I have never heard, but he knew it. Olórin. Something spoke to him, but it was not me.' The shiver became shuddering. '"But to Tuor it seemed that he listened to himself speaking, as if another spoke with his mouth."' She hid her face in her hands. 'Folly upon me for taking up the banner of Tuor.'
Denethor knelt next to Finduilas, hugging her to him. Fury claimed his heart. They touched you. They make you their servant, like a bird carrying a missive. Beneath the fury, shame grew. I cannot keep them away. He was impotent to protect her, or anyone else, from the terrible contests these creatures waged across the ages. We are puppets upon their stage.
'It was not the mariner,' Finduilas said, 'though I know not if that is any comfort.'
'How do you know?'
'A guess more than anything.' She was calmer now, her voice firm. 'You carry his favor, not Thorongil. Whomever spoke to the wizard, that one's concern will be for Thorongil, just as Mithrandir defends him. The wizard was quite clear he wished to speak to the captain, not you. This is why you must never put aside the mariner's gift. He will preserve you, if only for his own plans. You said he protected you from the other wizard. But I think the mariner wishes for Umbar.'
Denethor stood and cleared aside the dishes so he could sit on the edge of the desk. 'But we do not know. Perhaps they are in agreement, but he does not speak as plainly.'
'He does not fear Fire.'
'You and Imrahil have dreamed of this attack, and they were dire visions. Do you remember speaking to Thorongil when he healed you last?' She shook her head. 'You named him Isildur and urged him to flee. You said then it was too late.'
Finduilas scowled at this. 'I dislike being made the messenger. They should speak plainly and cease their riddles!'
'I have dreamed, too. Of Eldacar's return and the destruction of Osgiliath. Imrahil has dreamed of him as well, though he says the man wears my face. Or Thorongil's. Angelimir told me of a similar dream he had when serving Turgon. It is of a piece, but I cannot puzzle it out, save that victory may be but a harbinger of greater strife.' And I will not permit that. 'The Steward demanded of me this morning whether to go through with the attack. He asked if I had any doubt.'
'Mithrandir spent all day two days ago closeted with Ecthelion, no doubt to dissuade him.'
'Perhaps that was the wizard's concern, but it was not the Steward's. He wished to know if I was trying to be rid of Thorongil by sending him to Umbar. I said I would go in the captain's stead if the Steward wished. He does not doubt Umbar - he doubts me.' Denethor shoved his own doubts away.
'No matter what Ecthelion and Beruthiel might want, Thorongil cannot be king unless he wins a victory too great to be denied,' she answered, 'and short of defeating the Dark Tower itself, there is only one victory that will do that. Whomever returns from Umbar as victor would be called king.'
'It will be done.'
'I know.' Finduilas took his hands. 'Do not go, friend, even if the Steward commands it. This... it is not your task. It is for Thorongil to do. He does not do this to challenge you, no more than you placed your hand in mine to spite him.'
'It is not what the captain intends, but what others intend for him that makes me wary, Alquallë. Halmir agrees with me. I think it is time to talk to the wizard.'
'He left yesterday, heading south.'
Minas Tirith, 12 February , 2980 T.A.
It was time for the last war council with the Steward. Thorongil had arrived late the previous day. Denethor had summoned him to the Stewards House to hear the final account of driving the Morgul army back into the vale, but soon dismissed him to let the man rest. Every day since he himself had returned from Ithilien, Denethor had looked into the palantír, scanning Umbar and the surrounding lands closely. They were clearly preparing for an invasion. Their forges were busy, wagons brought supplies into the city, the warehouses near the harbor bulged with food, cloth, and arms, and the ships were being filled. The altar in the main square was never empty, the pyre's smoke rising even at night. He also looked at the harbors along the falas, trying to discern anything unusual, something that would attract another eye. Every port, every pier had an extra ship or two moored, but there was nothing unusual happening near the water. The garrisons were busy, but that was to be expected when there had been significant battles.
Denethor suppressed a smirk at Thorongil's surprised look when Aiavalë took a seat at the council table across from Borondir. Finduilas had told him of how she had made the Steward listen to Aiavalë and Wren and treat them with courtesy. Aiavalë had met with Denethor several times to discuss what to do about spies - how many to send and of what kind - and had insisted on being included in this meeting. It pleased him to walk into the chamber with her at his side, a scarf draped over her shoulders but her face uncovered.
When all were seated, Denethor unrolled the maps he had created from his use of the palantír. For a moment, all stared in amazement at the detail. 'Warden,' Ecthelion said slowly, 'where did you get these?'
'I made them. I have pieced together the reports of spies, observers and traders, and come up with these. Captain Thorongil's recent sojourn in particular helped me make sense of the rest of the tales.' Denethor nodded graciously to the captain, who was still staring, dumbstruck, at the maps. Denethor did not wait for questions, but spoke about the lay of the harbor, mooring of the ships, the patrols on shore and in the waves, the landward defense of the city. This was followed by estimates of their stores, calculations of their troop strength, and expectations of when they would be prepared to sail. 'We have until mid-March before they launch their own assault, perhaps less than that. We must attack before February is out. The narrowness of their harbor will be our strength. They have everything within reach on the docks, but will not be able to launch more than a few ships.'
The Steward leaned back in his chair, hands steepled before him, considering the news. 'Your counsel is far more detailed now, Warden, than it ever has been before. Captain Thorongil, does anything you have heard here change your own council about the attack?'
'No, my Lord Steward. If anything, I am heartened by this. We do not go blindly. I am in awe of the Warden's work.' Thorongil bowed his head to Denethor.
'Does it change your mind to know that Lord Mithrandir now counsels against it?' Ecthelion said.
'When did he offer such counsel?' Thorongil sharply asked.
'A week past. He came from Rohan and warned that it was not time. He said he would speak to you in Pelargir.'
The captain looked at the maps before shaking his head. 'No, my lord. In this, Mithrandir is wrong. We have waited long enough. It is time to strike a great blow. All our good fortune rides on this assault. Mayhap we shall fail, but it will not be for lack of daring.'
'I shall not gainsay you, Thorongil, but know that more than a battle may be lost if you are wrong.'
'I know. It will work.'
The Steward was satisfied with this answer. Talk turned to other preparations. Everything that Denethor had presented about Umbar, he now talked of for Gondor - stores and soldiers, defenses and debts. He emphasized that they must presume they themselves had been spied upon as closely as they had examined Umbar. Aiavalë, Borondir, Thorongil and Hallas all added to Denethor's words. Last to be discussed were Imrahil's latest messages. There were to be three captains, each commanding a portion of the clandestine fleet. Îbal would lead the ships from Dol Amroth itself and the Langstrand. They were the largest in number, but the smallest in size, and needed an experienced captain to keep them together. Imrahil would lead the vessels from Linhir and west along the coast to Dol Amroth. Thorongil was to launch from Pelargir. His portion of the fleet would take the most risky route, close to the coast, for many of the ships were not intended for more than dragging nets on a river. 'We leave here the night of the fifteenth and go to Pelargir under darkness. The next day will be a council for the captains. Îbal and Imrahil will be there and a number of their lieutenants,' Denethor said.
'And what will you do, Warden, while the attack is underway?' the Steward asked.
'I will be here. Once the attack upon Umbar is known, it is likely there will be new assaults from Mordor and I will need to attend to the eastern defense. Unless you wish this ordered differently, my Lord Steward?'
'No.' Ecthelion stood, thanked them for their counsel, and dismissed them. Borondir cornered Thorongil to discuss the last caskets of Fire, which were to travel to Pelargir with them. Denethor left with Aiavalë. His sister was lost in thought as they took the upper walk back to the house.
'Denethor, is it possible that not all the Corsair boats will be destroyed?'
'Possible? Likely, but they will be mightily reduced.'
'If they are as prepared as you say, might they still launch an attack?'
He sighed. 'I expect they will. That is why we cannot take soldiers from the south to guard Ithilien.'
'Would they attack Pelargir?'
'Yes, and Linhir.'
'I must go with you to Pelargir, then,' she said. 'I will need to bring some very rare works back from the archive there for safe keeping. And I have to bring Lark and the baby home.'
Pelargir, 16 February , 2980 T.A.
The faces around the table were grave as Îbal explained where the fleet was to gather. 'Just beyond the mouth of the firth an hour before sundown on the twenty-seventh. There will be a new moon, and a powerful spring tide. Almost too powerful; it will be greater than any seen in years. We will use it to ride in to the firth, and to be pulled out as well.'
'Won't we be seen from the headlands?' asked Minohtar. He and Angbor had come from Linhir with Imrahil. Lord Angrist remained in Linhir, though Ivriniel, Rían, and Andreth had all been sent inland to Ethring.
'It cannot be helped. We must gather where Captain Îbal says,' Thorongil said, 'but ships set out tomorrow with soldiers to land north and south of the headlands and stay hidden. When the day comes, they will attack the forts.'
'Once the forts are crippled, we will rush past them on the tide and outrun any warning,' Îbal concluded.
The plan met with nods and murmurs of approval. The garrison meeting room was filled with captains and their lieutenants. Copies of Denethor's maps covered the table, their edges already bent and smudged from being handled. Aiavalë was not the only woman in the room; the harbormaster of Pelargir, Halwen, was a woman, and there were two spies, half-breeds who would fit in well with the barmaids and fishmongers and who could eventually slip out in a trader's caravan. Most of the spies would come from Pelargir. They were of the same stock as the servant folk of Umbar and spoke proper Haradic. Denethor hoped the confusion of the attacks would allow them to pass unnoticed, else they were for the pyre.
The planning went on all day. The greatest subject of debate was the Fire. Denethor had spent the last two days figuring out the last details on how Fire could safely be handled aboard a ship. He had not liked the answers. The usual catapults on the ships would not throw the casks in the correct arcs, so new ones needed to be constructed quickly. He also was concerned that it be handled and mixed by men who understood how dangerous it was. On top of that was the limited amount they had. Some casks had fallen into the river on the trip down, and one batch of the oil mixtures had been spoiled by an idiot topping them off with whale oil. They decided that only two ships, Thorongil's and Îbal's, would carry Fire, and most would be with the captain. Belegorn, who had the only experience with it in battle, would be with Thorongil, while Îbal wished to use a man from Dol Amroth, one very skilled at handling burning things on ships.
When it came time to break for evening meal, Denethor sought out Aiavalë. He was to meet with Marach and Ragnor that night, and thought she would probably wish to go with him. He was wrong.
'I will be keeping company tonight you will not wish to share,' she briskly told him, though her cheeks were red and she would not look in his eyes.
'You're meeting Violet.'
'Yes, and I shall be late. You need not collect me. I will be with Lark.'
Denethor scowled and left the garrison as soon as it was dark. He slipped through the streets, forbidding himself to touch stone and lose his senses, and was soon tapping out the code on the door in the Merchants Quarter. Magor let him in. 'Yusil, welcome. I will get our uncles.'
'After I leave tonight, come find me,' Denethor whispered. Magor's eyes widened and he nodded, suppressing a grin. The youth led him to the small room near the front of the house. He was startled at Marach's frailty when the man came in, though Ragnor was little changed from two winters before. 'Uncles,' he said, kneeling for their blessing.
Marach kissed his cheek. 'Yusil, my heart is cheered by the sight of you. I fear it will be the last time we meet. Let us eat together a final time, nephew, and you shall tell me of your son and of the Lady.' Ragnor said nothing beyond the blessing. There was no talk of trade or war while they supped, for Marach would not hear them. Only when Magor brought them black tea did the conversation turn.
'Why are so many captains gathering here?' Ragnor asked.
'How obvious is it that we are meeting?' Denethor countered.
'Most of the city knows. Lord Amlach is complaining loudly that he is not made privy to this council.'
I should have known he would cause trouble. The meddler would have to be dealt with. 'Yes, there is reason to fear that Umbar will attack in March.' Ragnor's expression turned grim. 'But what do you know of why we meet?'
'You prepare an unpleasant welcome for the Corsairs?'
'No. I swore. The waiting is done. The pyres will be ended, and the innocent avenged.'
Marach sighed and shook his head, but Ragnor smiled. 'Truly, nephew? You go again to Umbar?'
'I do not lead this attack, though I planned it. Thorongil commands. It will be such an attack as has not happened in a thousand years, and it will be conjured out of the very foam of the Sea itself. As I promised.'
Ragnor let out a whoop and embraced Denethor. 'At last! Tell me how you shall do this.'
'Forgive me, uncle, but no more may I say. I only wished for you to know that I fulfill my oath.' Ragnor was content. He spoke eagerly of trade and of rumors heard on the caravans. It sounded as though Harad intended this to be a year of war. When the hour drew late, Denethor rose, saying he had to leave.
Marach escorted him to the door. The old man looked at Denethor sadly. 'I know what you will do, Yusil. Would that I had never sold you rock oil.' With a final embrace, Marach bade him farewell. Denethor made his way to the southern tower of the Haven Wall and waited. Magor soon appeared.
'So, what do you want?' Denethor asked him.
'To be on one of the ships. I know they go to Umbar. That's all it can be. Can you do that, Yusil?'
'Yes, but not to fight. I have something more important for you to do.'
'You will be put safely ashore.'
Magor looked uncertain. 'Am I to be a spy?'
'No. Do you know of the Faithful?' Magor nodded. 'Their cipherist has died.'
For a few heartbeats, Magor stared at him, then the boy's eyes grew large. 'Me? You want me to do that?'
'That is why the Archivist taught you the very complicated cipher last summer. Only you, me and Aiavalë know it completely.'
'How long? How long will I be there?'
'Forever. And you cannot tell anyone of your family. You may never contact them. You are dead to them.'
The youth frowned, considering this. Denethor waited. Magor stood and paced about the watchtower chamber, looking out across the port. 'Yes. Yes, I'll do it. What ship do I take?'
'You will go on the ship captained by Feydín - You remember him? Good - and he will put you ashore. Then you go...' Denethor gave Magor instructions to a certain house and made him repeat it several times until he knew it by heart. 'When you get there, ask for Maaga. To her only say "Yusil sent you a goat."'
'If she trusts you, she will take you in. If not, you're dead.'
'How do I know she is alive?'
'She is. Feydín will collect you by the fountain. Watch for him. I will not meet or speak with you again.' Magor bowed and left. Denethor finally let go of his knife. If the boy had refused, he would have to have killed him, for now Magor knew the cipher and the location of a house of the Faithful. Denethor returned to the garrison to find a bed for the night.
The next day was like the day before; planning, thinking, working out the attack itself. Aiavalë was in the thick of things, though she had retreated behind a veil, and kept track of all the decisions. As the day before, she brusquely told Denethor he could find his own company for supper, and left to be with Lark and Violet. Denethor watched her meet Lark before the archives before returning to the garrison and followed them to a small house on a quiet lane, so perhaps she was simply being contrary when she said she was meeting Violet. He sat on his bed, in a bad mood, and read over notes from the day's council.
There was a light tap at the door, and Thorongil stuck his head in. 'I have pipeweed.'
'Mithrandir brought you more?' Thorongil nodded. 'I don't have a pipe.'
'I'll share.' Smoke was soon rising. Thorongil picked up one of the maps on the desk and took a seat on the bed. 'These are amazing, Denethor. It is like a hawk drew them.'
'Do you remember the young man who took you to the uncles?'
'He will go with you to Umbar. He is to speak to no one. If you fail in all other things, you are to see him safely ashore. When you are ready to collect him, go to the fountain. He watches for you. If he fails to appear, you are to send me a message.'
There was no point in being coy about the wizard, not with a pouch of pipeweed on the desk. 'What did Mithrandir have to say? Why has he changed his mind?'
'I don't know. He has never liked the idea of attacking, but has been resigned that it must be done. He would not answer me or give me reasons.' Thorongil held out his hand for the pipe and puffed on it a few times. 'He knows we face a great invasion. I told him what I had seen, what you have learned. Still, he pleaded that I should not do this.'
'We cannot wait idly. What would he have us do instead?' Denethor asked, taking the pipe back.
Thorongil sighed. 'He said I should allow you to lead this. I think... he sees defeat, death, dire things, and that he would spare me.'
The touch of the lanyard made Denethor's skin tingle. 'Then I should go to Umbar, and you shall defend against Mordor.'
'No! Denethor, what are you thinking?'
'That it is unwise to disregard a wizard. That the Steward has always inclined to that plan. That I have a son, and you do not.' That the mariner will not allow me to fail, though he may allow me to perish. Denethor gave the captain the pipe so the man could think.
Thorongil took a long time to answer. 'No. There is a chance that we will lose all attacking this mûmak, but I think we shall prevail. It is time for me to be something besides a mercenary.' He gave Denethor a sideways glance. 'You should all have more faith in me.' His last words were almost too soft to hear.
'If you return victorious, you will be a man of Gondor the moment you set foot on land. You will not be permitted to refuse it.'
The captain finished the pipe, then stood, slipping the pipe into a pouch and drawing something else out. 'I have no use for this while I am gone.' In his hand was the key to the door to the Tower stairs. Denethor took it. With a nod, Thorongil walked towards the door, saying over his shoulder, 'I'll leave you the pipeweed, too. No point risking that.'
'I promise not to use it all up.'
At the door, Thorongil paused. His hand crept to his chest and he touched something beneath his shirt. Yes, leave that. You needn't say a word. You must know that I know. But the man's hand dropped and he opened the door. 'We'll have a pipe when I get back.'
'Are you sure?'
Aiavalë made a sound of exasperation. 'Yes, Denethor! You have kept me busy as your scribe these last three days, and I have had no time to examine the archive.' They made their way through busy late afternoon streets, heading from the garrison to the archive. Brandir walked a pace behind them, a messenger pouch slung over his shoulder. Denethor was on his way to the messenger stable to collect a horse and begin his journey back to Minas Tirith. 'Lark has selected much, but I need to look it over.'
'You don't trust her to pick the right works?'
'More than I would trust you,' she said, throwing her brother a sharp glance over the top of her veil. She had covered her face again today, saying the port was dirty and the air bad. 'Lark is carrying another child, so should not tax herself too much.'
'Is she? How wonderful!' Brandir happily interrupted. 'When is she due?'
'Not until after loëndë. Since she can't ride that far, we'll take the same barge as the books two days from now.'
'I will be here through then,' he assured her, 'so please call on me if you need anything.'
At the door of the archive, Aiavalë gave Denethor a kiss on the cheek through her veil. 'Tell Alquallë to expect us on the twenty-third.' She turned to Brandir and gave him a kiss as well. 'Be sure we shall call on you.'
Brandir caught her hands and looked at her, a smile growing on his face. 'I am yours to command, sister!' he said and embraced her warmly. 'It makes me happy to see you like this, Aiavalë.'
'Like what?' she suspiciously replied, pulling away from him.
'Going everywhere. Bringing order to the kingdom. Not living in the dark anymore.' He laughed. 'Pay me no mind. I am a fool and easily cheered.'
Aiavalë snorted and shooed them on their way. Brandir walked with Denethor to the stable, whistling a jaunty tune. Denethor liked his brother-in-law's return to cheerfulness, though it sometimes seemed brittle. It was odd to see him without a cup of something intoxicating in his hand. In the councils and at meals, water or tea was all he would drink. He was also less foolish, making Denethor wonder how much of that had come from a simple heart and how much from a besotted head. When they were at the stables, Brandir insisted on riding a ways with Denethor.
'What did you do about Amlach, Brandir?' After some thought, Denethor had asked Brandir to control the obstreperous lord. The man treated Brandir disdainfully, but had ceased his complaints, nor had he asked to be part of the planning.
'I told him that what we did was beneath him,' Brandir said with a shrug, 'just drilling directions into the heads of stupid sailors. I said that he must be silent lest one of the other lords figure out exactly what was being planned, and successfully petition Captain Thorongil into letting him lead the Pelargir ships, and be at the captain's right hand when the victory occurred.' They rode a furlong in silence. 'Tell me, brother, for you are wiser than I. Is it worse that a woman cuckolds her husband, that a man makes a mistress of another man's wife, or that a husband allow such things without complaint?'
Denethor looked at Brandir. The man's gaze was direct, with no hint of shame or pity. 'I think the greatest fault lies with the paramour, for he has taken advantage of a rift between the husband and wife that might otherwise have been mended.'
'And of the wife?'
'A spouse should not stray. There can be division without betrayal.'
'Even if there is nothing but barrenness in fidelity?'
'And only bastardy outside of it,' Denethor countered.
'So what should the husband do?'
'He must keep his honor.'
'Honor before love?'
'What are you asking, Brandir?'
'How much you love.'
Denethor halted his horse. 'Brandir, you are the cuckold, not me, unless you know something I do not.'
'No,' Brandir answered with a shake of his head, 'there is nothing I say that you do not know of. It simply mystifies me as to why you are so eager to hand your love over to another, and so I think you intend something else.'
'It is not for me to hand Finduilas to anyone. What is this foolishness?'
'I don't mean Finduilas. I mean Gondor. You know what Ecthelion intends.'
'I can guess. If you know, then say it.'
'He will give Thorongil the crown if the man returns victorious from Umbar. You have always wished to conquer there, yet you cede your place so easily. Is it honor or love?'
Both. 'It is war.'
'What will you do when he returns?'
'That will depend on the manner of his return, won't it? This only do I pledge - I will do no harm to Gondor.'
Brandir smiled in an odd way. 'Love, then. It is more painful than you think. Well, then I shall choose honor. Amlach will come with me to Umbar. He thinks I go to observe and report back to the Steward.'
'He does not understand how quickly battles can shift.'
'No, but I do. He will not be reporting back.' Brandir nudged his horse forward so he could embrace Denethor. 'Farewell, brother. I hope I shall next see you sooner rather than later.'
'You will return.'
'Promise me one thing. If I do not...'
'Brandir, do not say that!'
'If I do not, kill her.' Brandir's eyes were cold. 'I am through with love.' He nodded to Denethor and turned his horse back towards Pelargir.
Minas Tirith, 27 February , 2980 T.A.
Denethor slipped down the hallway and paused, listening. Further along the hall, beyond the curve of the wall, there was laughter. Finduilas had brought Boromir to the Tower and he was happily being the center of attention. With a quick look around, Denethor crossed the hall to the door, slipped in the key and turned it slowly. The lock released with a soft snick and he was in. He locked the door behind him and took the stairs two at a time to the top of the Tower. He pulled the palantír from the leather sack over his shoulder and sat it in its proper place in the center of the table. He could have watched from the room in the Stewards House, but it seemed wrong to view this with the stone sitting in a battered pan in a dead woman's bedroom when he had the key to the Tower. Denethor sat against the wall and drew a small book from his breast pocket. Not Finduilas's book, but the older one, once ruined and now restored. It seemed the right thing to read this fateful day.
When it drew close to sunset, he rose and looked into the stone. In a moment, Denethor was flying south, high above the waves. When he tried to penetrate the mists of the stone, he realized that it was truly fog on the Sea. He growled in exasperation. Where are you? Around his neck, the lanyard pulled. He leaned into the direction of the invisible hand and let himself be drawn into the fog bank. For long, he saw nothing, then a sail loomed before him. Swooping down, he saw Îbal at the helm. The lanyard tugged again, guiding him to Imrahil and then a final time to Thorongil. Denethor cast his eyes back towards Umbar and the headland forts. Already they were doing battle - there would be no warning. In the firth below, the Sea was shallow. The mists rolled in, hiding the forts as flames rose from them. Denethor waited, watching the narrow passage. A ghostly ship appeared, and another, and a dozen, flotsam in the tide-spawned foam.
The moon was new, and cast little light, but the stars were thick and bright enough to let him see the faint outlines of the ships nearest the edge of the fog bank. Îbal's ship led the fleet east, keeping pace with the fog to hide their approach as long as possible. It took several hours for them to traverse the firth. Halfway there, the fog stilled and the ships emerged. Their sails caught the starlight and they were like flower petals scattered on a stream. A few broke away behind Îbal and went into the north fork of the firth where the shipyards lay. Ahead in the port, every ell of shore was wrapped in stone, the black fingers of the piers stretching out into the water as though to join hands across the narrow bay. The bare masts of the ships moored to them was a wood touched by winter, lean branches stripped of their leaves. As the Orcs had used the river willows to mask their approach, the Gondorian fleet slipped nearer, hidden by the thicket of masts.
Arrayed before the harbor square were ten great ships, the grandchildren of Alcarondas, their wood stained black by the pyre before them. Even now, flames rose. Denethor hands clenched, and he wished for a bow. This time, a shaft would go first through the heart of the lord who stood near the altar and called for the next sacrifice to be brought forth. The fire in the square dazzled the eyes of the onlookers, blinding them to the doom that lay to the west.
Fire arced through the night and struck the deck of the centermost great ship. Another missile flew through the air, the casket bursting apart and scattering its rubies across the two great ships to the south. Denethor peered closely, trying to see what the Gondorian ships were doing. At the western end of the harbor, the smallest ships were darting up to the quays, and the men leaped out. Some ran to the foot of the dock to block the docksmen from advancing, while others cast off the lines of the Corsair boats. The falas sailors rowed or towed the enemy vessels away from the docks, then poured casks of regular oil and pitch on their decks before setting them ablaze and leaping to one of their own ships. He caught a glimpse of Imrahil's silvered head as his ship was rowed swiftly to pick up sailors from a burning deck.
Deeper in the port, the Corsairs had overcome their initial shock and were calling for their soldiers and sailors to defend the fleet. Denethor found Thorongil's ship close to the square, the captain shouting out orders while Belegorn mixed caskets of Fire and loaded them one after another into his catapult. The slow river ships that followed the captain were filled with soldiers. These men took up key positions on the docks and kept the Umbar soldiers at bay.
Denethor pulled his eyes away from the main harbor and looked north to see how Îbal fared at the shipyards. It was already engulfed in Fire, for there were almost no defenders. He could see men fleeing from the conflagration as it leapt from the half-finished ship in the dry dock over a stone lane and into the warehouses and sheds ringing the yards.
Satisfied that the Dol Amroth captain would see all was destroyed in that bay, Denethor looked again to the main harbor. The western end was chaos, derelict ships drifting along, bumping into each other as they burned. Corsair sailors had reclaimed a few and were attacking Imrahil's smaller ships, but the falas men were crafty sailors in their own right and were not overcome.
To the north, the fighting on the docks themselves was fierce. The Gondorians were trying to cut ships free and send them forward towards the inferno while the Corsairs desperately tried to prevent it. On another dock further west, Denethor watched soldiers surge forward, forcing the defenders to retreat up into the narrow streets leading back into the city. Behind the attackers, a few unarmed people crept through the debris on the docks, seeking a path that did not lead to steel or flame.
More Fire flew through the sky as Thorongil bombarded the dozens of oared fighting ships tied up along the southern shore. Each throw of Fire spread tendrils of flame through the air, and they seized hold of the bare masts and open decks, the tiny embers bursting into a bonfire as it attacked the ships' timber. Once it had caught hold, it raced from vessel to vessel, sometimes leaping several feet to savage a ship that was beyond the reach of Belegorn's catapult. Denethor could see Thorongil shouting for more to be thrown.
Around the northern headland, Îbal's ships came into sight. Most of them came to the support of Imrahil's boats, cutting loose the remaining Corsair ships, dousing them with oil, and letting them drift as they burned. A few sailors began towing the boats towards the southern line of Fire-encased ships so they would burn more completely. Îbal's own ship plunged forward into the tight quarters of the main harbor.
Near the edge of the firestorm, Thorongil's ship drew up to a dock, and he led a large group of soldiers in a charge towards the shore. There waited ranks of Corsairs, curved blades red in the Fire light. Their leader was the executioner from the square, the Captain of the Havens. Denethor saw his mouth move as he called out a command and his men charged past him towards the Gondorians. Thorongil cut a swath through them, falling upon their leader with fury. The Corsairs turned to defend their captain, and a way was cleared for Magor. Denethor watched him scurry along the docks, taking advantage of the cover, and win his way into the dark lane behind the warehouses. The youth quickly lost himself in the press of people fleeing the Fire near the square, and followed the steep, winding ways to the upper city. At a green door in a plain white wall, he stopped and knocked. The door opened a sliver, he spoke to someone, and was let in.
Denethor looked for Thorongil. The man and his guards were fighting back to their boat. As he reached the ship, he yelled something to Belegorn. Another cask flew, this time into the sheds lining the harbor. Fire gnawed its way through the roof and fell upon whatever lay within. A column of flame shot up, throwing around gobbets of red the way a swing of a sword spread gore across a battlefield. Thorongil shouted, motioning for yet more Fire to be thrown past the harbor and into the city itself.
There was scarcely a Corsair ship that was not on fire in some way. The winds in the harbor were growing stronger, and some of Gondor's ships were being pulled close by it. To the far side of the harbor, a plume of Fire rose from the deck of Îbal's vessel. The catapult had not fired soon enough and the cask had exploded on board. Îbal was shouting, telling the men to wait for the smaller boats that were rowing over. They could not jump overboard, for the waters of the bay would scald them.
All light came from the east.
It was as though the sun had come to rest upon the water. At the square, all ten great ships were fully consumed. A pillar of Fire mounted up to the heavens, and the waters of the harbor boiled below it. The flames twisted and whirled about, creating a wind that whipped the maelstrom ever greater. At its height, a hundred feet above the great ships' masts, arms of flame spread out, dropping gobbets of Fire like rain across the docks and lower city, flinging liquid coals upon rooftops and into courts. The flames consumed everything. There were bodies lying in the square that had not been placed upon the altar, though they were just as burned. The altar itself was gone and the stone of the square glowed from the heat. More bodies littered the streets and docks nearby, the corpses already swelling like the Orcs who had died in Osgiliath.
The creature of Fire reached for the stars until pulled under by the last hulk of the great ships sinking to the bottom of the bay.
Across the harbor, the Gondorians were retreating, dodging between the derelict burning vessels, scooping up luckless friends from the water or catching them as they leaped to escape Fire on their own ships. The tide that had swept them in was starting its retreat, playing a game of tug-of-war with the Fire winds. Slowly, the rag-tag fleet came together and rowed away west. The last ship to leave the harbor was Thorongil's. The man braced himself on the rail, looking back at Umbar.
A deep dread came to Denethor's heart and he felt once more the eyes that had looked upon him in dire darkness as he lay in Henneth Annûn and knew himself to be dying. He tried to back away from the stone table but his legs would not obey. The stone blazed with the fires of Umbar, and in them he saw eyes and a cruel face. A demand came to his mind. Who? Who dares this? Denethor sank to his knees and in between his chest and the table, he felt a lump. In place of the secret, he fixed his mind upon the poem;
He chanted a song of wizardry,
Of piercing, opening, treachery,
Revealing, uncovering betraying.
Then sudden Felagund there swaying
Sang in answer a song of staying.
The cruel voice cried out in rage and pain lanced through Denethor's left arm as the Dragon Fire scar came to life. He forced himself to look away from the eyes in the stone, letting the last of the vision of Umbar dazzle his sight. Again, he fought back with the ancient words, but they turned upon him, circling him like wolves around a spent stag,
Then the gloom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn -
A powerful unseen hand seized the lanyard and yanked Denethor away from the stone, flinging him down to the frigid floor. The cold as much as the impact brought him partway back to his senses, and he dragged himself around to the western side of the stone table, placing it between himself and Sauron's gaze. A voice cut through his confusion and fear. Cover the stone! Blind him! At the edge of Denethor's reach lay the leather sack. He pulled it closer and opened the neck of it as wide as he could. He gathered his strength, then lunged up and forward, yanking the sack over the palantír and drawing the lacings tight. Clutching his burning arm, Denethor sank back to the floor and swooned.
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