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The Commander of Gondor: 1. The Steward's Heir
The Steward's Heir Early spring, T.A. 2970
Another black arrow chipped the stone wall in front of him. One accurate marksman knew where Thorongil and the dozen men were crouched. A large incursion of orcs had pinned down the garrison at Osgiliath, and Thorongil's Ithilien Rangers were misfortunate to have arrived for rest and supplies just a few hours before the attack began.
Sauron's annual harassment had commenced early that year. Spring had barely crept into the Black Land and trees had yet to bud along the Anduin when the scouts reported orc activity increasing dramatically. Patrols were sighting small bands on a daily basis, although there had been no sign of the build up for this large-scale offense against Osgiliath. Yesterday, Thorongil's Ranger group patrolling north had crossed the river above Osgiliath and come down the east bank, seeing no orc-sign. The attack force must have marched north from the Morgul Vale. But, strangely, there had been no advance warning. That portended dire happenings to Salatenor and his men.
In the early hours of the morning under cover of dark and the heavy feeling of a threatening storm, arrows peppered the sentinels at Osgiliath as the orcs crossed the Anduin on barges and crept into the ruins of the old city. The stealth of the attack made Thorongil wonder what intercession of the Valar had kept them all from being butchered in their beds. When the alarm was finally raised and a rider sent to Minas Tirith for reinforcements, the orcs were in place, lobbing arrows between the columns outside the barracks and killing several troopers who rushed out unaware, still dazed with sleep. Reason finally took control and the men stopped charging to their deaths.
The orcs holed up in the cover of the ruins, waiting for reinforcements. They had not changed position for nearly an hour. The garrison commander ordered his troopers to cease firing. Trading arrows was a worthless use of materiel; and the random firing by the orcs seemed to be a lure to get the Gondorians to show themselves. As this lull lengthened, Thorongil wrapped his bow and quiver in his cloak, and tucked the bundle into a nook. Arrant watched him unsheathe his sword and loosen the curved elf-blade at his waist.
"You think they'll come at us soon?" His young second's voice held a tremor of fear.
"Aye," he looked at the lieutenant, "as soon as they have moved their reinforcements into position."
Arrant swallowed, and then swallowed again. "My lord, I'm frightened," he confessed.
Thorongil smiled. "I'd have you no other way. I wouldn't want you at my back if you weren't," he said comfortingly. "Take heart. The sun will rise. Minas Tirith will respond." The lieutenant nodded at his words and peered out into the blackness. Thorongil knew when the orc charge came, his men would be cut down if they remained isolated. The main body of soldiers was behind and below their position, across open ground. The full moon had set, and the sky greyed to the east, but the blackness before dawn gave them little advantage: orcs see wicked well in the dark.
The captain motioned his group together and whispered his plan. He sent the first man scuttling to the edge of the cover, as he and Arrant began a cacophonous racket, tossing rocks and shouting. The orc arrows snicked heavily around them, but the dozen men made it safely to the main group.
"Well, Arrant, it's your turn." Thorongil laid a hand on the lieutenant's shoulder.
"No, my lord, we should go together. The captain gripped his arm and nodded. His young second had discovered his courage. Giving one last heave of stones, they suddenly broke from the cover of the crumbling wall and fled across the open field. The barrage of orc arrows that followed them showed the demons had not been fooled this time. Fortunately, the orc accuracy did not increase with distance.
The lieutenant caught Thorongil's arm as they skittered to the barracks' columns amid the cheers of the garrison. He was laughing, elated with their daring.
"My lord, we------" Arrant's body slammed against his captain's with the impact of the final arrow. There was a curious, surprised look in his hazel eyes. Thorongil, a finer medic than any battlefield surgeon, knew the arrow had pierced his heart. "My lord?" he asked confused as he died.
Tears burned in Thorongil's eyes for this young man who had fought so bravely at his side for nearly five years. He lowered Arrant to the ground and closed his sightless eyes. Another young family bereft of a father. He thought of the times he had been invited to the cottage; if he survived, he would have to make one last trip to see Talwing and the two youngsters.
"They're coming!" Evil cries eerily rolled between the buildings as the orcs charged. In the half light, the captain of the garrison rode up, trying to rally his men. Hampered by the building ruins and the narrow streets, Thorongil knew the isolated pockets of soldiers did not stand a chance unless they backed out onto the plain, formed up as one group, and could meet the enemy in open battle. This was the unique problem with urban warfare, the problem the Osgiliath garrison faced each time Mordor's forces attacked the city. A sniper with a bow stood in better stead than a foot soldier with spear and sword, but the Steward's council manned the garrison as if they met the enemy on an open field.
Thorongil arrayed the men near him, warning them to stay behind cover until the charge was upon them. As the main body of orcs met the Osgiliath troopers in single combat, the orc archers would move up and soon they would be fighting under a deadly rain of arrows. He tightened his double-handed grip on his sword, as the thudding feet and snarls grew louder, and stepped around the column, gutting the first surprised orc, and then kicking the body free from his blade. Soon his sword, hands, and vest were covered with black blood. He looked up in time to see the garrison commander pierced three times with arrows and fall from his horse. The Gondorian soldiers were in chaos. With the commander dead, the troopers would mill ineffectively until the orcs slowly separated them into small groups and methodically hacked them to bits. If they turned and ran, the orcs would mow them down before they were many feet beyond the walls. Osgiliath would be taken, and with such a foothold on the western bank, it would take many lives to drive the orcs back across the Anduin.
"Back up to the gates!" yelled Thorongil, his voice carrying through the din. "Regroup!" He listened as the subalterns shouted the order down the lines. Well-trained, the regulars did as they were told. As the troopers back slowly to the walls and open plain beyond, the sun broke the horizon in an angry red line below the lowering storm clouds. That light will not help us, thought Thorongil.
Across the plain came a silvery call on the oppressive air. The horn winded again. Thorongil looked back across the Pelennor. The Minas Tirith troops led by the Steward's son charged; their armor appeared stained with blood in the fell light. Denethor's white banner and the white tree emblazoned on his surcoat turned scarlet.
Thorongil backed his men through the gates and out onto the plain, forming them quickly into a line. The orcs, overconfident, followed eagerly after their prey. Horses charged past Thorongil and into the orcs. He ordered his men back into the fray. The tide of battle swung and the orcs grew desperate, unwilling to flee from death back to whatever unspeakable horror their dark master would deal out for such a defeat.
Suddenly Thorongil saw a big, yellow-skinned orc hurl a spear that brought down Denethor's horse. As the man fell, a swarm of orcs immediately covered him. Thorongil fought his way to the Steward's Heir. The desperate man held his sword defensively above his head to fend off blows. His helmet was gone; already blood ran into his eyes. A ringing blow knocked the sword from his hand. Denethor watched the grinning, sharp-fanged orc scream 'You die!' in the Common Tongue and swing his blade down. The Steward's heir waited to feel it buried between his eyes. But, steel rang on steel as the blade was thrust aside and the orc skewered on a long sword. A Ranger stood above him, looking grim and terrible.
"Not this day!" he answered the dead orc. Thorongil pulled Denethor up. The troopers were dispatching the last of the orcs and a cheer of "Denethor!" rang out as they saw their commander on his feet. One of his Rangers answered with "Thorongil!" and the Gondorian troopers wildly cheered the captain who had saved their leader.
"You arrived just in time, my lord," Thorongil said, his hand steadying Denethor.
"You, friend, are the timely one. Who do I have to thank for my life?" The stern son of the Steward looked into eyes so like his own, failing to recognize the man he had sent to Ithilien five years before.
"I am Thorongil, a captain of the Ithilien Rangers, but you owe me no thanks."
"Mae Govannen, Captain." The Elvish courtesy surprised Thorongil. Denethor swayed a little and Thorongil propped him up with his shoulder, helping him to the garrison office. The commander, once away from the troops, paled, and collapsed trembling into a chair. Thorongil tended Denethor's head wound himself, sending one of his men back to his room for his pack of supplies.
"A healer as well as a warrior?" Denethor asked, sometime later, sipping the cup of hot tea Thorongil had steeped from a packet of Imladris herbs.
Thorongil shrugged. "So are the ways of a Ranger." Denethor looked at him curiously, sure he knew the man.
"Are you part of my Northern kin? You have the look of the High Blood about you, but you are unfamiliar to me; you cannot be one of the sons of the Gondor noble houses." Thorongil shook his head but did not reply. Denethor accepted he was not getting an answer. "Whatever your lineage, I am beholden to you. You are a brave and able leader. You are wasting your time skulking about in the wild as a Ranger. I need you in the city."
"I do what the Steward commands." Thorongil knew then Denethor did not recognize him.
* * * *Later in the afternoon, Denethor rode back to the city, leaving most of his troop to reinforce the garrison. A detachment had piled orc carcasses and begun the burning; a column of oily black smoke rose on the breezeless air. Denethor left one of his staff officers as commander of the garrison freeing Thorongil from that duty. So, early the next day, he was out on the south road, looking for Salatenor and his men. After a long and cautious search, he found the missing Rangers near the crossroads to Minas Morgul. The carrion birds showed him the way. They had been killed, taken unawares, and their bodies had been desecrated. His Rangers buried the remains and Thorongil thought of another pair of letters he must write to Salatenor's lovely lady and his doting parents in Lossernach. The captain sighed and held to the belief that if he did not have it in his nature to befriend his fellow soldiers and meet their families, he would be spared much pain.
When he solemnly rode into Osgiliath late in the day, a message awaited Thorongil in the commander's office. He broke the Steward's seal on the dispatch packet and read his orders. He was to return to Minas Tirith with all speed. The document was his promotion to commander and reassignment to the City Guards, effective immediately.
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