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Unto the ending of the world: 7. Retreat
March 17, 3019
Denethor found that he mainly felt bored as he stood watching the pyre. Any satisfaction over the death of the one who would have taken the rule of Gondor from him was muted by the knowledge that the situation they were in threatened Gondor's very existence. As he had not had the opportunity before, he looked round to study those present. The Elf and the Dwarf could be discounted; the sons of Elrond, on the other hand, could not. He still found it all but impossible to fathom the two, and he wondered what lay hidden beneath that surface of Elven detachment.
The Northern Rangers and their Captain, now their new Chieftain... there had to be more to the man than mere devotion to his lord. One thing Thorongil had not been was overly sentimental, and while he might be expected to generously reward a liegeman's loyalty, the Steward doubted that such generosity would go as far as handing rule to one unsuited.
At least this Halbarad might turn out not to be another of Mithrandir's pawns, as rumour from the Houses of Healing suggested that the wizard had left there after some disagreement before abandoning the City altogether. Of course, in Mithrandir's stead there might well be a peredhel, or two, wanting to rule from the Chieftain's shadow.
The North was definitely going to bear watching, that much was certain; especially since it was unlikely that Gondor would hold Anórien. They would need a replacement source of grain, and that would have to come from the North. The resulting supply lines would be long and vulnerable. Perhaps by sea? Or through Rohan and reclaim Tharbad from the wilderness, if they could spare the men, and use either the river or the old northern road.
With a start of annoyance, Denethor realised that Thorongil... Aragorn had been a step ahead of him, and necessity would indeed force him to work with the northern Dúnedain. Gondor was going to need what resources the North had, as much as the North needed the strength of Gondor.
And Mithrandir's departure; clearly, with Elendil's Heir dead, the wizard had no further use for Gondor in whatever plan he had in mind. The feeling was mutual. The wizard's meddling and plotting – together with the other so-called Wise – had brought them to this situation, and Denethor doubted he would do much worse without the benefit of that wisdom than with it. Or, and that was not a comfortable thought at all, was Mithrandir just fleeing the ruin of the West, and did he really no longer have a plan? No matter. Even if the Enemy had already won, Gondor still stood – and his own task to see that she remained so – and they could only do what they had always done, stand and fight.
After a while a messenger quietly came up to Denethor and whispered that he had urgent word from Imrahil of the battle for the City. Denethor nodded and, together with Faramir, followed. Almost immediately the messenger spoke, "My lord, the Prince wishes to advise you that it is time to start preparing for the evacuation of the City."
"What is the situation?" Denethor asked.
"We still hold the Second Circle, but the Enemy's troops are setting fires everywhere, and now the Third Circle is in danger from the fire. Lest ..."
"I will go down to the Second Circle to see for myself," Denethor interrupted the messenger. "Lead the way."
"Yes, my lord."
They quickly set off back up Rath Dínen and down the winding road through the Circles, the Steward and his son soon outpacing the messenger. They stopped in the Third Circle to see how Erchirion's men were doing fighting the fires. Faramir and Erchirion were soon deeply involved in a discussion of where would be good places for ambushes in the Second and Third Circles.
Briefly going up to the top of the wall, Denethor found that what could be seen of the Second Circle was a confusion of fire and smoke, with the dark silhouettes of the Enemy's forces moving about between the burning houses. Beyond thick screens of smoke nothing could be seen of the First Circle and the outer wall.
Denethor rapidly descended, and called Faramir from his conversation before going on through the tunnel in the Rock and towards the gate to the Second Circle. It seemed the fires in the Second Circle had not yet progressed to this side of the Rock, though there was smoke rising from the other side of the wall that separated the First and Second Circles, and the smell of burning was everywhere.
Some of Imrahil's men were waiting near the gate, and one took them to where the Prince was directing his force's slow retreat. They found Imrahil as he was wiping the sweat off his brow with a rag that might have been clean not too long ago; now it served only to redistribute the smears of ash over his face. As soon as he saw them, the Prince came over. "Denethor, I did not expect you to come down here yourself, but now that you are..."
"Is it not too soon to abandon the City? You seem to be holding back the Enemy well enough. "
"For now, but in the end it is hopeless," Imrahil replied. "We are holding them back, but it is costing us dearly. And with the Third Circle already at risk from the fires, we could be cut off from retreat at any time, and then the Enemy's troops would be able to advance unhindered."
Faramir asked, "Can you defend the way until after dawn? The mountain path will be too hard for many in the dark."
Imrahil turned to look down the street, and stood in thought for some time, before replying, "That will be too long, especially if we want any of the rearguard to have a chance of getting out. By dawn, the City should be empty."
"Most groups will have to set off in the dark, but that cannot be helped. Once they are across the crest of the mountain, they can light torches," Denethor answered Faramir, then turned to Imrahil. "Send Húrin of the Keys to the Sixth Circle with some men that are not immediately needed here, and have him check that all houses are empty on his way up."
Imrahil replied, "I will do so. Do you want me to command the retreat?"
"Yes, but keep me informed," Denethor said.
The decision made, Denethor went back to the Citadel, Faramir walking beside him. Neither said anything as they made their way up through the Circles. Once they reached the Citadel, Denethor spoke. "Go pass the order to prepare to abandon the City to the Guard. Then pack only what you can easily carry and join me in my quarters."
While Faramir nodded and went off to find the captain of the Guard, Denethor briefly rested before going to the hidden chamber at the top of the White Tower. He dared not risk using the palantír now, but it should not fall into Sauron's hands either.
By the time Faramir rejoined him, Denethor had finished sorting the pile of paper on his desk, and was busy destroying what should not be disclosed to the Enemy. He had not bothered packing anything except what would be of practical use or could be carried easily. The mountain path would be hard enough to negotiate in the dark even without unnecessary encumbrances, and the memories he wanted to take with him did not reside in objects.
Leaving the White Tower, the two first headed for the embrasure at the point of the Citadel for a last look at Minas Tirith. Faramir was silent as he stood looking out. Denethor found he did not want to speak either. Standing at the edge of the battlement, looking down upon the lower Circles of the City outlined in fire, there was no need for words. Denethor turned away from the sight. "Come," he called to Faramir. "It is time to leave."
They had not been the only ones who had wanted to take a last look at their city, as a small crowd had by now gathered near the point of the Citadel. Once people realised that the Steward and his son were there, some came over to ask what they were supposed to do. Denethor told them to gather near Fen Hollen, and to take only what they could easily carry. Most were satisfied with this, but there were some who asked where they would go and what would happen to Gondor, and to them. These, too, Denethor answered, reassuring them that none who had been in the last defence of Minas Tirith would be left in want as long as Gondor stood.
All questions answered, the Steward set off for the tunnel to the Sixth Circle, and down the streets to the square near Fen Hollen, where the first groups were gathering. The Tower Guards let people into the Hallows, keeping as much order as they could and taking care that the people went through in the order they should be leaving in. Only those capable of taking the hazardous path in darkness were being let out.
Denethor sought out the Captain of the Guard of the Tower. When he spotted him, Belzagar was engaged in a rather heated conversation with someone whom the Steward recognised as a minor noble from one of the southern fiefs. The man was trying to persuade the Captain that he should be let through with one of the first groups. Belzagar looked unconvinced by his arguments and was about to walk off, when he noticed the Steward and walked over to him instead.
"My lord," Belzagar greeted him.
"Captain," Denethor replied. "Has there been much of that?"
"Not yet," the Captain said, "But I do not doubt there will be more who think they should be given precedence."
"No doubt," the Steward agreed drily. "Deal with them as you see fit. How is the evacuation going otherwise?"
"So far, everything is going well. The first groups have started up the path, and the plan is to keep people moving through as fast as is possible in the dark. Luckily it is a clear night, and there is at least some light from the moon."
Denethor nodded. "Who is placed in charge at the other end of the path?" he asked.
"No one, so far," Belzagar admitted. "I thought..."
The Steward raised his hand to stop him. "That is an oversight, Captain." He then turned to Faramir. "How is the arm?"
Faramir gingerly moved his wounded arm. "Not too bad, a bit stiff."
"Very well," Denethor said, deciding to ignore the wince of pain his son tried to hide. "Then you will be on your way to take command at the other end of the path, and make certain there are no enemy troops near the area."
"I do not want to be given preferential treatment," Faramir protested.
"Nonsense," replied the Steward, "I need a captain I can rely on at the other end, and while you cannot fight with that arm, you can still command." He would have sent Húrin, but with Faramir out of the battle, Imrahil would need him more.
Denethor half expected Faramir to object again, but his son fell silent, and after some thought replied, "Thank you, my lord. I will do as you wish."
Faramir spoke to Belzagar. "Can you spare me five or so of your men?"
"Of course," the Captain replied, and called over one of his soldiers. "Beregond, choose four of your companions. You are to accompany the lord Faramir."
While waiting for Beregond and his fellows, Denethor and Faramir took their leave. As Faramir was about to head for the Hallows, he turned and, in a low voice so that no other could hear, spoke. "Father, do not risk waiting until the very last to leave the City. Your people need you. I need you."
Denethor nodded. "I will see you at the other end of the path, son."
The Steward watched as Faramir walked off. He was pleased that his son had learned his own mind and had realised at last that the wizard's advice was not given for Gondor's benefit. With their newfound accord still so fresh, it hurt to send him from his side, though he knew that Faramir would not be entering into any great danger as yet, or at least no danger greater than that which any of them would face.
Turning again to Belzagar, Denethor asked the Captain to send Peregrin Took to him as soon as he saw him. The Captain said he would, and went back to his men. Almost immediately, the perian came over. It turned out that he had been with the other Guards for some time already, but had not known where to find Denethor.
"What is going to happen now, sir?" Peregrin asked, looking apprehensive.
Denethor looked at him, noticing how young Peregrin was. He had learned earlier that by the measure of his own people the Halfling was some years removed yet from his majority. He would still do well to remember that even so he was also the heir of one of his land's leaders. "The City has fallen, and we will abandon it."
"I know that," the other replied. "What I meant was, how are we going to get out, and where will we go then?" After a quick explanation of their path and their destination, Peregrin was briefly quiet, looking pensive. Then he looked up and spoke again, "I am sorry about your city, but at least everybody will get out."
Nodding in agreement, Denethor had to admit he was right. At least most would be getting out. He could not bring himself to mention to the Halfling that, for their own escape to be successful, a rearguard would have to remain behind with no hope of escape.
Denethor now walked around the square, the Halfling trailing behind him. He spoke to some of the people waiting to leave, and, searching for anything that required his attention, found that his men had everything well in hand. Then, as he turned round, he suddenly noticed he could see an orange glow, as of flames, in the Hallows. Surely the high winds could not be blowing sparks from the lower Circles as high as the Hallows? Or had their opponents somehow managed to scale the flank of Mindolluin? As Denethor strained for a better view, it struck him that there was a much more likely explanation: there had to have been stray sparks from the pyre.
By now, others had also noticed, and some of the Guards of the Tower hurried towards him. Denethor strode towards the Hallows, the Halfling running to stay at his side, leaving the soldiers to catch up to him. If there was a fire too near their escape route, it could leave them cut off in the City if no effort to control the flames was made. As he went through Fen Hollen, he could hear the people in the square behind him, as they too realised that there might be a new danger upon them. Denethor stopped and ordered one of the Guards to go back and make sure the crowd was kept under control and to reassure people that they would not be trapped within the City.
Denethor made his way further along Rath Dínen, the Guards with him making sure that he could proceed unhindered past those waiting to leave the City. The edges of the square in front of the House of the Kings were full of people staring at the burning dome of the main building. The flames were already starting to eat through the dome's covering. Seeing that, he knew the building was lost.
"My lord," one of the Guards drew his attention as he stood watching. "What should we do?"
"Let it burn," he replied.
"My lord? Should we not attempt to put out the fire?"
"Let it burn," Denethor said again, speaking louder now, so that those nearby could hear what he had to say. "The time of the Kings is past. No hidden heirs to the throne will arise out of legend."
Denethor was certain that by now the rumour of his acknowledgement of a dead man's claim was known to all in the City, yet still a gasp of shock ran through the crowd at his words, the Halfling's high voice standing out, as he continued to speak. "We must face what is to come without hoping for anything we do not bring about ourselves. Only our own strength will protect us from the Enemy. Perhaps we are already defeated, but know that if we are, we will go down fighting, defiant to the last."
Those in the square were silent, until one cried out "Gondor! Denethor!" and all took up the cry. The Steward waited until the cheers had almost died down, then raised his hand to command silence.
"Let it burn," he repeated. "The fire will hide our trail and stop the Enemy's troops from following." Another cheer went up at this, as Denethor turned and walked back through Rath Dínen, towards the square in front of Fen Hollen.
As he re-entered the square, a messenger from Imrahil was waiting. The man told Denethor that the Prince wanted him to know that they were still holding position, and that the pressure the Enemy's troops were putting on them had eased slightly. Denethor sent him back with a warning to Imrahil to be wary of surprises, for there was no good reason now for the Enemy to hold back. If anything, one would expect him to push harder at night, and make best use of the Orcs' strength.
For some time after this, little happened. Denethor stood and watched as the defenders of Minas Tirith filed past. He marked the departure of the Northern Rangers as they marched past, grey-cloaked and grim-faced. One of Elrond's sons met his gaze as they came by, but said nothing.
A while later, Denethor saw that the sky was no longer fully dark and there were noticeably fewer people waiting to go through Fen Hollen. He should not postpone his own departure from the City much longer. He called a Guard to him to take another message to Imrahil. The Prince had to be told that it was time to start the final phase of the retreat. The Guard sped off, and the Steward resisted the desire to look at his City once more and walked off, through Fen Hollen, and down the Silent Street a final time.
As Denethor walked past the House of the Stewards, he heard another messenger come running up behind him, and turned to see a man of Dol Amroth speed towards him. The man stood gasping until he had regained his breath. "My lord, the Enemy brought in Men of Khand, and they saw that it is possible to climb the Rock. We managed to keep them in the Second Circle, but they are pressing their attack along that route now, and we will not be able to hold them back long."
"What of the men still in the Second Circle?" Denethor asked.
"Most have made it up into the Third Circle, and will now retreat further. Some have volunteered to stay behind to hold back the Enemy's forces in the Third Circle, so that all others may escape."
Sparing a thought for the men of the rearguard, Denethor was briefly silent. "And the Prince?" he asked.
"My lord Imrahil was yet unscathed when I left, but his son Erchirion has been wounded," the messenger replied.
"Tell your lord not to delay his retreat. I will depart the City now, and expect to see him at the other end of the path." The messenger sped off again, and Denethor turned and went on down the road, to the path that led out of Minas Tirith.
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