53. Dagor An-Harthiad, Ben-Harthiad
Dagor An-Harthiad, Ben-Harthiad (The Battle For Hope, Without Hope)
*Author's note: Entire sections of this chapter were lifted nearly verbatim from the original, as it was inconceivable to me that I could improve on the Professor's words.
The massed Host of the West appeared, to Pippin's eyes, like an overlooked pile of litter on the great desolate plain before the craggy black wall of rock. The Sun blared down mercilessly even now, just a few hours into the day, despite last night's bitter chill. Pippin's neck itched as sweat dripped down from beneath the leather cap Meneldil had insisted he wear, along with his instructions to strap his dagger—his new dagger, from the armories of Minas Tirith--to his belt. Even inside the tent, in the shade, it was hot and still. He had always disliked this sort of weather. I wonder, is it better to die on a day with weather you loathe, or to let go of life on a fine day with a cool breeze and pleasant air? His mouth twitched in a grim sort of a grin. No one at home would believe it, but I've become as hardened as the toughest soldier of Gondor…
They had been roused before dawn and marched here to stand in orderly ranks just a few miles in front of the massive steel Gate that joined the two out-thrusting arms of rock that enclosed the Vale of Udûn. The Healers had wasted no time in setting up their tents at the rear of the formations, their plain white banner with its diagonal slash of red hanging behind the proud standards of black, silver, blue and green. The Gate remained ominously closed, and nothing seemed to stir upon the walls above it or in the evil looking Towers on either side. But even the hobbit knew it was just a cruel illusion—that those walls and towers were filled with innumerable enemies waiting to pounce. The Enemy was simply toying with them—taking a deep breath before His iron fist would swing and smash upon their tiny forces.
The Healers' role to this point had been limited, caring for a few dozen of the thousands of men on the march who had twisted an ankle or come down with a flux. As they made their way into the ruined landscapes north and east of the boundary of Ithilien, a handful of poor fellows had been brought to the tents in miserable shape, trembling and sweating, moaning incoherently, or shuddering so badly they were unable to speak. After examining them Lathron had conferred with some of the officers, and Strider—the Lord Aragorn, he corrected himself—had come personally to speak gently to the group of mostly young men from far-off provinces stricken with the horror of the Enemy's ruined land. He'd been kind and generous, Pippin thought, offering those too debilitated by terror a way out with a bit of honor intact. He'd sent them back south and west to try to re-take Cair Andros—something useful, difficult but not so utterly hopeless. Well, maybe just as hopeless, but at least not surrounded by such awful scenery…
Pippin tried to make himself useful by straightening out the trunks of supplies again. He bent and moved rolls of bandages from one side to the other. He chewed the inside of his lip, worrying that their supply of poppy, just to name one example, was far too small. He'd gained experience in the Siege of Minas Tirith in stocking herbs and other necessities in the healing tents, and by his estimation these trunks were woefully inadequate to serve seven thousand men about to be under attack by many-fold thousands more foes. What had Master Lathron been thinking, by bringing so few supplies? Then he shook his head; of course. No one really expected that such supplies would truly be necessary. If they were lucky it would all be over by nightfall, and no one would be left to require healing after all.
He found himself thinking strange, desperately hopeless thoughts, but in a cool-headed, nonchalant way. I'm not particularly fond of the idea of dying… Long as its quick, and reasonably painless… Even less fond of pain, to be sure… Can't imagine I need worry about being captured… Like as not no one on the other side will even have a chance to look me over before they lop my head off or skewer me…
His fingers twisted around one end of a roll of bandage as the harsh reality of the day to come sank in. I do wish I'd had a chance to see Frodo and Sam again, just once more… Foolish, of course. He no longer could convince himself that his friends really were still alive in the middle of Mordor. Hope had dwindled to something small and very far away, and Fear was much larger and stronger than ever before. He was terrified, just as he had been at the beginning of the Siege. Come to think on it, he'd been terrified in Moria, in the foothills of the Misty Mountains when the Wargs attacked, and going all the way back to Weathertop—why, even back in the Old Forest... But the Peregrin Took who knelt beside the trunk in a tent on the morning of March 25th was no longer the same terrified hobbit who had strolled out the back gate of his cousin's garden the September before. His fear was just as big, just as real—but he could hold it now, away from himself, consider it like some curious trinket he'd found along the path. He was mostly inured to its paralyzing effect. He had control of it—at least, for the moment.
Pippin looked up. A soldier in black and silver stood at the entrance to the tent.
"What can I do for you, soldier? In need of something?" He straightened and managed a smile in the man's direction.
"The Lord Elessar requests that you accompany me, sire," the young soldier said with a bow. "The embassy is about to approach the Gate, and the Lord said you should be there, among them."
"Me?" Pippin said as a lump rose in his throat. "Whatever for?"
The soldier's brow rose. "As a representative of your people, Master Perian. Masters Gimli and Legolas are there already, on behalf of their races... If you please, sire, they await you…"
Pippin swallowed hard and dropped the roll of bandages. "All right. But a moment, if you can spare one—I should let someone know where I'm off to…"
"Already done, Pip," Meneldil said as he appeared at the tent flap. "Off with you, now, lad. Good luck, stand straight, and make your way back to your duties here as soon as you can…"
Pippin's returning smile was thin as he hurried away after the soldier and through the ranks, moving south and east toward the looming Gate. Representative of my people! Representative to whom, to the nearest Orc? Back and forth the soldier strode, weaving between lines of men of the southern fiefdoms, Rohan, Amroth, Ithilien Rangers and the Regiment of the City. Their faces were turned forward, bleak, hopeless eyes trained on the huge Gate. The silence was striking.
Finally they reached the vanguard. Fifty feet in front of the foremost line stood a group of figures mounted on horseback, gathered into a small knot. Pippin saw Gimli seated behind Legolas on a brown, shaggy beast, and the Prince of Dol Amroth on his chestnut stallion. Next to him was Theodred of Rohan on a black horse with a white splash on its brow. Lord Faramir was in the livery of the Ithilien Rangers on a dapple-grey warhorse, Mablung mounted and on guard just behind him, as always. Bearing the sole banner displayed by the party was the man Pippin now knew as Halbarad, Lieutenant and kinsman of Lord Elessar; he was dressed in a plain grey cloak and his horse's coat was dun. Just in front of him and to his left, Elrohir sat tall and impassive on a steel-grey, sleek and beautiful mount.
In front of all of them, Shadowfax stood proudly with his rider, dressed now in sable embroidered with the emblem of the White Tree, but with the green gem affixed at his throat glittering in the morning light. Pippin had not seen Aragorn from close at hand for many days, since the Houses of Healing before they left Minas Tirith. The hobbit was struck by the change in him as the Commander of the Host of the West turned at his approach. The man's angular face was now gaunt; his sunken eyes were rimmed with red. His color was at once ashen–pale and flushed. Pippin realized that he was probably suffering from a fever. I heard he'd been injured; the wound must have festered… He hardly looks strong enough to be holding himself upright, much less able to command thousands of warriors in a fierce battle… Yet despite his obvious pain and weariness, Aragorn graced the youngest member of the Nine Walkers with one of his characteristic droll, slanted smiles, making the hobbit think immediately of Strider, all the way back in Bree.
"Good of you to join us, Master Took," he said dryly.
Pippin squinted up and flashed a wide grin. "Just learned about this little party a moment ago, Strider."
"I trust we did not interrupt second breakfast, my friend?"
The hobbit sniffed and rolled his eyes. "Hardly. One must have had their first breakfast before worrying about a second." He took a step forward until he was standing beside Aragorn's stirrup. He considered for a moment whether to inquire about the man's health, and as quickly dismissed it as absurd, under the circumstances. A wistful smile came and went as he thought again of how foolish he'd been back at the Prancing Pony, and how he—and the man mounted on the great horse before him—had been transformed since then. "No matter, that… Hungry or not, here I am." His face was suddenly serious. "What do you need me to do, my Lord?"
The Ranger of the North looked down at his youngest companion with an assessing glance. His eyes narrowed, then the King nodded. "I need you to stay silent, and listen. I need you to remember why we are here today," he murmured. "I suspect that whoever appears to treat with us shall not address you individually, Pippin, if indeed, they even notice you… But if you are addressed, I need you to answer boldly, and calmly… and with your dear cousin's valiant heart uppermost in your mind."
Pippin nodded slowly, then he straightened his shoulders, stood as tall as he could, and with the shine of sudden moisture in his eyes, he gave the salute of Gondor. As Aragorn returned it, a faint smile came and went on his lips. He gazed about at the gathered horsemen for a moment, as if considering something. Faramir spurred his horse forward and saluted.
"My Lord, I would be honored if the Ernil Pheriannath were to ride before me," he said. "The debt of the House of Hurin to Master Took is great. Allow me to begin to repay him."
Aragorn nodded. "Most fitting, Captain Faramir."
Pippin was soon seated before the brother of the man whose life he had saved. As much as it was possible for the hobbit to feel comfortable, he felt at ease with Faramir nearby. He could hardly claim to know him well, but he thought about Boromir and all the hours he'd spent with him in Lothlorien, on the journey south on the River and through Rohan and Anorien, and in the last days before they departed from Minas Tirith. If he's anything like old Bori, there's no better place for me to be…
The company now completed, Aragorn lightly leaned one heel into Shadowfax's flank. The King of the Mearas responded immediately, turning to face the gathered horsemen—and the entire Host of the West. Elrohir's eyes were fixed upon the face of his foster brother. How well he hides his burden, of the knowledge that his beloved lies injured, beyond his help… It is well that the horrors in Imladris have occurred with such fortuitous timing, the Peredhel mused with a grief-stricken heart. Had Arwen been injured sooner, would Estel—would any man—have been able to prevent himself from abandoning his errand here and riding to the aid of his betrothed? The son of Elrond clenched his jaw. And were Aragorn not engulfed in his anguish for my sister's sake, he would surely have felt the other incomprehensible cataclysm that has befallen our kin, a cataclysm I felt but a few hours later, like an axe cleaving my already sorely tried heart in two…
Elrohir watched as Aragorn gazed out over their faces, all now turned toward his. Above him the standard of Elendil caught a sudden breeze, and snapped and fluttered. The gems of the White Tree and the Stars above it shimmered. For so long Elrond Eärendilion stood fast against the Shadow, waiting and preparing for this day, enduring so much grief, so much loss… His brooding thoughts were interrupted as Aragorn began to speak.
"My friends, we are here today to fight for one thing, and one thing only," he said, his voice grave and quiet, yet so clear as to be audible to the last man in the farthest line. "We come to this dread place for Hope. Not for our own hope—which we must do without—but for the idea of Hope… For all evil shall fail, someday. The rule of every tyrant will come to an end. And when that day comes, be it today, or tomorrow, or in some future day none here can foresee, Hope shall be reborn and thrive—because of our deeds, this day."
Well spoken, my brother—the harsh truth, yet tempered with compassion… Ada would have been proud…
The Heir of Elendil turned again, facing toward the grim, impregnable Gate, and gave a signal. The horses began trotting slowly forward. The plain fell utterly silent again, with only the thudding footfalls of the horses echoing against the cliffs. Closer and closer they came, and yet the Gate remained motionless. Nothing moved but the small party of horsemen. Pippin leaned back against Faramir's chest, and the man's bounding heartbeat thudded between the hobbit's shoulder blades.
At last they came within a few hundred feet of the Gate. At a signal from Halbarad, three heralds rode out, in black and silver, blue and silver, and gold and green, and raised horns. Pippin expected the musical notes to echo upon the steel and the stone; but the sounds fell flat, muffled by the thick layer of caustic dust that coated the plain. The three men called out.
"Come forth!" they cried. "Let the Lord of the Black Land come forth! Justice shall be done upon him. For wrongfully he has made war upon Gondor and wrested its lands. Therefore the King of Gondor demands that he should atone for his evils, and depart then forever. Come forth!"
Nothing but silence answered their call, and so again, Halbarad gave the signal. The horns sounded, and the message was cried aloud a second time, and a third, and still no answer came.
Pippin's mouth was dry as the dust that the horses' hooves had kicked up. I don't think I've ever been quite so miserable as this… Why on earth did I agree to come on this little excursion… The waiting in silent anticipation was worse than anything, he thought, the work of a particularly cruel mind, who knew precisely what would cause the greatest torment, whether of body and flesh, or soul and spirit. Why don't they do something? Why won't they answer?
Aragorn's eye caught Hal's, and just as the lieutenant of the North was about to signal that the company return to the ranks, the ground suddenly shook with noise: painfully dissonant trumpets; the thunder of drums; and the screech of metal grating on metal. Pippin reflexively covered his ears and squeezed his eyes shut. When he dared to open them, he saw that the middle door of the Gate had opened. Out rode a small company of riders bearing the banner of the burning Red Eye on a field of black—the embassy of Sauron.
At their head rode a man—no wraith, but a living man, upon a huge and hideously deformed black horse—who approached and addressed the embassy of the West. He was dressed in black, and his bearing was regal—but on his face he wore a cruel sneer, and however fair his features might once have been, they were now marred by the cunning evil within him. Elrohir felt a surge of rage and loathing rise in his throat, even before the man spoke a single word.
"My, my! what a pretty speech!" he mocked, turning to Aragorn. "I am certain your eloquent words brought great comfort to your followers… I know I found them reassuring!" he laughed. "'Hope:' is that truly why all these brave warriors come? What a singularly elusive concept, especially on a day such as this—when your feeble hopes shall come to naught." His head turned, and as he raised his voice he addressed the massed troops standing silently. "Your 'king' says you have come to fight for hope," he shouted shrilly. "Fools! You have come instead for Death and Despair! Your so-called 'king,' wearing his bauble of elvish glass, has already betrayed every one of you!" The small company of riders in black with him laughed, and the echoes of their coarse jeers rang from the surrounding cliffs.
"Those words were not meant for your ears," Aragorn replied, his voice now raised and carrying to the last rank of men. "But as you have heard my words, I bid you heed them! For with this 'elvish bauble' comes the blood of Elendil and the gift of Foresight—and I say that on this day, I have foreseen that the hope of Sauron and all those who obey him shall be what comes to naught!"
He flicked his reins, and Shadowfax took two steps toward the embassy of Barad-dûr. The spokesman of Mordor flinched and shrank back.
"I am herald and ambassador, and may not be assailed!" he cried.
"Where such laws hold," said Aragorn, "it is also the custom for ambassadors to use less insolence. But no one has threatened you. You have naught to fear from us, until your errand is done. But unless your master has come to new wisdom, then with all his servants you will be in great peril." He flung back his cloak, revealing the hilts of Andúril, gleaming at his waist. "Name yourself, and state your errand, for I weary of this parley and of your company."
"I am the Mouth of Sauron," said the Messenger, as he drew himself up proudly, and flicking aside his own cloak, he revealed a great black-hilted sword at his side. "I have tokens that I was bidden to show to thee, Aragorn son of Arathorn, wandering brigand of the wilderlands of the North—to thee in especial, if thou shouldst dare to come."
He turned and with a snap of his fingers, one of his servants brought forth a bundle wrapped in black cloth. The Mouth of Sauron took it, and unwrapping it, displayed the contents, one by one.
First he withdrew a torn scrap of grey cloth—a bit of a cloak, or a robe, they could not tell. Within it was wrapped a small object—a long-stemmed carved pipe; but the stem had been snapped in two, and the bowl was stained red. He paused and gazed about, smiling in approval as looks of dread were revealed upon the faces of his audience. His gaze settled on Aragorn. But the Heir of Elendil revealed no emotion as the next object was revealed: an ancient, gleaming sword, with moonstones and sapphires upon the hilt. Last, the Messenger brought forth three fragments of silver-grey wood. Upon one of the broken pieces, a red gem had been set, but the now blackened jewel was cracked, its fire extinguished.
"I see these tokens are familiar to you," the Mouth said. "I need not bother to inform you that they once belonged to one deemed by some to have wisdom—but whose folly is now laid bare. It may be that he that bore these things—a leader among you, if rumor is to be believed—is one you would not grieve to lose… And maybe otherwise? Was your old grey-bearded advisor dear to you, perhaps? If so, take swift counsel with what little wit is left to you. For Sauron knows well the one who bore these objects, and has no love for him. What your friend's fate shall now be depends upon your choice."
No one spoke; but their faces were grey with fear, and horror glittered in their eyes. The Mouth laughed again, relishing his game.
"What has already begun, shall continue—the slow torment of years, as long and as slow as our arts in the Great Tower can contrive… And think on this: for one such as he, imagine just how long he might endure! Long after you and your sons and your sons' sons are in their graves, so shall his endless torment go on. This shall surely be, unless you accept my Lord's terms."
"Name the terms," said Aragorn steadily.
Seated nearby, Pippin saw the anguish in his face, and now the dour, indomitable Ranger suddenly seemed to the hobbit to have become a hollow shell of a man, defeated at last. Ah! Poor Strider… you're going to have to accept them, aren't you… But Elrohir's eyes flashed as he stared at his foster-brother. Nay, Estel! Stand fast—give no quarter to this wretch! Promise nothing to him or to his vile, treacherous Master…
"These are the terms," said the Messenger, with a delighted smile on his face. "The rabble of Gondor and its deluded allies shall withdraw at once beyond the Anduin, first taking oaths never again to assail Sauron the Great in arms, open or secret. All lands east of Anduin shall be Sauron's forever, solely. West of the Anduin as far as the Misty Mountains and the Gap of Rohan shall be tributary to Mordor, and men there shall bear no weapons, but shall have leave to govern their own affairs. But they shall help to rebuild Isengard which they have wantonly destroyed, and that shall be Sauron's, and there his lieutenant shall dwell."
Looking in the Messenger's eyes Elrohir read his thought. This foul creature is to be that lieutenant, and gather all that remains of the West under his sway; he will be our tyrant and we his slaves. Estel, I beg you, give him nothing! He is faithless—the Enemy will never release Mithrandir, no matter what oath you swear…
Aragorn paused, his eyes downcast as he studied his gloved hands clutching the reins. A wave of pain passed over his pale face, and a shudder went through him. To Pippin watching, it seemed that Aragorn was nearly crushed with grief, and he expected at any moment that he would agree to the terms. Then suddenly, Shadowfax snorted and tossed his silvery head. Angrily, the horse stamped his hoof, raising a cloud of dust. Aragorn's head jerked up. His features had shifted again; now his eyes were stony as he stared at the Messenger and replied.
"So much in exchange for the delivery of one captive!" he said, his voice hard as flint. "Your Master would have to fight many a war to win such gains. Is Mordor now so weak from its defeat upon the field of Pelennor that your hopes in warfare are vain, and Sauron must bargain for what he desires? And where is this prisoner?" he demanded sharply. "What surety have we that he shall be released? Let him be brought forth and yielded to us, and then we may consider these demands."
Elrohir watched them intently, as if observing a fencing duel between nearly matched opponents. The Mouth's expression fell, and his doubt was revealed for an instant; yet swiftly he laughed again.
"Do not bandy words in your insolence with the Mouth of Sauron!" he cried. "Surety you crave! Sauron gives none. If you sue for his clemency you must first do his bidding. These are his terms. Take them or leave them!"
"These I will take!' said Aragorn, as he reached forward abruptly. Before his upraised hand the Messenger recoiled, and Aragorn seized and took from him the tokens: pipe, sword and broken staff. "These I claim in memory of our friend," he cried. "But as for your terms, we reject them utterly. Your embassy is over and death is near to you. I did not come here to waste words in treating with Sauron, faithless and accursed; still less with one of his slaves. Begone!"
The Messenger's face was twisted with amazement and rage, and for a moment he was unable to produce any sound but the gurgling of anger bubbling in his throat. Then he snarled and hissed as he leaned in his saddle toward Aragorn.
"Mark these words, rabble King! Upon your head lies the burden for the Grey Fool's fate! I curse you with clear eyesight, undampened hearing, and long life—and each day and sleepless night until death frees you from it, may you be haunted by the vision and the sounds of what you have wrought upon one you named 'friend'!"
He gave a great cry, and turned, leaped upon his steed, and with his company galloped madly back toward Cirith Gorgor. But as they went his soldiers blew their horns. Even before they came to the Gate, it flung open with a harsh clang, and the wrath of Mordor was released.
Pippin grabbed hold of the pommel of Faramir's saddle and hung on as the horsemen wheeled and sped back to the lines, the jeers and laughter of their enemies following in their wake. Everything was a blur: from the stinging dust, from the swift speed of the grey warhorse, and from the tears that filled his eyes. He knew that Aragorn could have done nothing differently—that no matter what concessions were granted or what conditions were met, it was all too likely that Sauron would have cheated them and never let Gandalf go. But still… It's so horrible, all of it, for Gandalf of course but for poor Aragorn too… All I can hope for is that Frodo never learned of this, that he never knew how terrible things turned out… He couldn't have borne it, it would have broken his heart…
Pippin felt the horse surging up a slope beneath him, while all about him the riot and clamor of battle broke out. The din of the attacking hordes was ear-splitting, with drums and brash trumpets, deep throated chanting and wild yells, and the thunder of thousands of booted feet trampled the pounded dry earth. He felt Faramir's hand grip his arm.
"Master Took!" Faramir shouted over the tremendous noise. "This is no place for you—retreat, I command you! Get thee to the Healer's tents, lad, and away from the front…"
In the next moment Pippin was sliding from the saddle as Faramir lowered him quickly to the ground. He looked up; the Captain's face was set with grim determination. All hope was gone from his eyes.
"Run!" the Captain shouted; then he dragged his horse's head forward and spurred the beast back toward the center of the chaos. Pippin stumbled, caught himself, and began running, just as he'd been ordered, to the rear of the lines, keeping his eyes on the waving white pennant with the red, diagonal stripe as he wove back and forth between men running in the opposite direction.
Aragorn and the Captains of the West ordered their defense against the overwhelming enemy forces that now poured from the Gate and from every crevice and hole in the surrounding cliffs and Towers as best as they could. Upon a low hill of cinder and slag, Aragorn bid Halbarad raise and plant the royal standard of Elendil, and upon a similar hill nearby, the colors of Rohan and Dol Amroth now fluttered. Their seven thousand men arrayed themselves in concentric circles about the bases of the hills.
Upon Shadowfax the man who would be King of Gondor and Arnor sat, with his lieutenant upon his right hand and his step-brother upon his left. Before him the Rangers of Ithilien and the Regiment of Minas Tirith stood on guard with spear, bow and sword at the ready behind a wall of shields. Beside Halbarad, who stood unmounted near the standard, was Gimli Gloin's son, his axe ready in his hands, and above him, mounted upon the borrowed horse of the Grey Company, Legolas Thranduilion sat tensely, his gleaming green eyes shaded with his outstretched hand as he watched northward.
Elrohir cast his attention inward. This day, I deem, shall be a day for reunion in a far off place… Will every last remnant of the Houses of the Eärendilion have left these shores by the setting of the Sun on this fell day? Arwen, your feä is yet connected to mine, though for how long I know not… He found himself wondering whether his beloved sister would be better off living through the grief of this day or succumbing to her injuries. For the bitterness of loss might well be too great to bear…
His thoughts were interrupted by the voice of Legolas nearby. The Wood-Elf had made a mournful sound—a moan of purest grief. Elrohir turned to see that Legolas had raised himself to his knees upon his mount's back. He strained toward the gate, his eyes wide with horror, his mouth open in a soundless cry.
"What is approaching?" Elrohir shouted above the increasing din of battle. "What do you see?"
"Make me not speak it…!"
Aragorn noticed now, and Gimli, and they insisted the Elf tell them what awful thing he had spied; but he would not. Elrohir followed Legolas's gaze and squinted, for though his sight was much greater than that of a Mortal, it did not match the clear-sightedness of the Wood Elf. He could as yet see no details clearly. And yet, a sense of dread clutched at him as the object drew closer.
"Elrohir!" Aragorn cried. "What is that thing?"
All eyes turned toward the Gate, now more than a league distant, where a wheeled cart had emerged beneath the steel arch, dragged forward by enormous trolls in harness. Upon the cart was set a platform, built up high with stepped surfaces that rose to a great height, appearing like some deadly engine of siege-war. But none had seen such machinery before, and they wondered in fear what the Enemy had prepared for them.
The thing shuddered and shook as its wheels rocked from side to side over the rough surface, yet despite its movement they could make out a tall pillar rising from the highest surface. All was made of dark material—of black stone, or darkened wood—except some narrow thing near the top of the construction, that appeared to be of some lighter substance, white, or some other pale hue. This swath of pale color amidst the black was beside the pillar. As it drew closer, Elrohir noticed that some dozen Orcs crawled about the cart. They bore bundles of wood on their broad backs, and were stacking the fuel upon the steps that led to the high platform and the pillar.
"Ei!" he screamed as realization hit him. "No! He is too cruel…!" And the son of Elrond, who had never once blanched before the sight of any foe, raised his hands before his face to shield his eyes from the sight.
The cart rumbled forward steadily, and the teeming masses of Orcs fell back from it—but not in fear, for the creatures seemed to throng about it and encircle it. They chanted and called out raucous jeers, and shook their fists as if in defiance, or mockery of the thing. No matter how Aragorn and the others pleaded, neither Legolas nor Elrohir would say what they saw.
"You do not wish to know before you must… Believe me…" Elrohir whispered.
Before long his words were proved true. At nearly the same moment Aragorn, Faramir and Gimli gasped aloud.
"Mithrandir!" Faramir whispered hoarsely.
"The Enemy is merciless! Ah, Tharkûn--no!"
Aragorn's face was twisted with anguish as he murmured his old friend and mentor's name. "Gandalf!…" He did not tear his eyes away, but watched in unalloyed grief as Sauron's malice was displayed in full, and the meaning of the words of the Messenger bore down upon him.
For, upon the cart, chained to the post, was Gandalf, his grey hair and beard now unmistakable even from afar. That he still lived was apparent, for they saw him twist and struggle against his bonds as the cart jolted this way and that. About him and below him were piles of wood, and their foes' intent was all too brutally clear. They braced themselves for a sight of the first flame—but the Enemy was patient, and in his cunning cruelty he commanded his servants to wait to set the fire until the cart came within closer sight—and within earshot.
They waited, helpless to prevent it, for the cart was surrounded by a sea of foes bent on cutting down any who tried to come near. All about them the battle raged fiercely. Every inch of ground between where the defenders now stood and the wall of the Ash Mountains was thick with Mordor's armies: Orcs, Wargs, great Trolls, and rank upon rank of men from East and South. Five Nazgûl on their winged beasts swooped low above the field, their icy shrieks sending chills through every man there. Throngs of attackers burst through the lines of defense in successively more penetrating waves, coming even to the base of the hills where the standards had been set. The Host of the West was hard pressed to throw back their foes, and men in the liveries of Gondor, Rohan and Dol Amroth fell in ever greater numbers.
To his right, Aragorn caught a flash of white and gold upon green—then the standard of the Mark vanished into the unrelenting tide of black. Moments later, the Silver Swan of Dol Amroth lurched and tumbled, only to be torn in two and tossed to the breeze. Every second that ticked by was marked by more slain defenders, more fallen. Still their foes came on unrelentingly, and the cart and its passenger rumbled ever nearer. So Doom draws nigh, thought Elrohir. Would that this day end in death and not in captivity—if not for me, then for Estel… I would spare him that, and Arwen…
Suddenly, a flare of yellow-red burst up at the base of the platform, and Orcs scurried and leaped as if in a swarm of great black insects.
"Aragorn!" Legolas cried in a hoarse voice. "I have a clear view—I can end this, now! Give me leave, before it is too late!"
Aragorn turned; the Elf's bow was raised, and he was aiming for the former leader of their Company of Nine. Aragorn's fists clenched and his face twisted with anguish—but in a moment, he was in control again. He opened his mouth and drew in breath to give the command, when Gimli shouted in his booming voice.
"Wait, look! Something's up—wait!"
He pointed, and all eyes followed his. A battle within the battle had broken out upon the cart. High upon the stepped platform, one huge Orc half-crouched, half-stood, and with bow and sword and the sheer force of his great arms he kept his fellow creatures at bay, shouting and bellowing as he did so. As the men of the West watched in amazement, the Orc flung one howling creature after another away from the cart, or slew them and tossed them down. The fire had caught upon the base, and slowly the flames licked upward—but still the great Orc fought on, inexplicably preventing his own kind from setting more of the fuel ablaze or progressing upward.
Elrohir watched, stunned and amazed. For most of the years of his life he had slain every Orc he could find with ruthless efficiency and without hesitation—yet, now he found himself hoping that just such a creature would succeed in his unexpected battle. What sort of Orc would do this? Why does the thing behave so? For a fleeting moment in the midst of the noise and chaos he pondered the ancient tales he had long ago dismissed as either impossible myths or irrelevant…
And then another cry went up, from the rear of the lines—and the words were repeated again and again, as one man after another took up the call.
"Look! Eagles! Eagles!"
"Eagles of the North! The Eagles are coming!"
* * *
The Healing Tents were already overrun with wounded men, and more staggered or were carried there every minute. The dry dust of the Dagorlad was caked with dark red. Moaning, dying men lay in jumbled piles, suffering in the blistering Sun, waiting for their turn inside the crowded tents. After days of little to do other than march behind the troops, suddenly the healers could not keep up with the blood and the gore. Lathron shouted for more bandages, Candir tried and failed to quiet a screaming man whose leg was smashed, and even-tempered Meneldil snapped at the young assistant helping him stitch a gaping wound. The atmosphere was one of frantic desperation. Every man knew that these tasks were almost certainly futile—for the odds against any one of them, soldier or leech, living to see the end of this fell day were far too great. Yet they carried on, as healers will, with no need for hope.
As he ran with a bucket of water from one tent to the next, Pippin heard the cry. Eagles! Wait, isn't that old Bilbo's tale? He stopped and peered up into the sky. Floating above, their massive wings beating slowly as they circled, dropping swiftly toward the battle, were four huge Eagles the like of which had never been seen South of the Misty Mountains. And behind them flew ten… twenty… three dozen more. A great cheer rose up from the men, and a murmur of dismay was heard from the armies of Mordor.
A strange feeling gripped Pippin, of a sudden shift in the air, or as if a weight he'd been carrying had dropped away. For a moment he stood, poised with his water bucket, unsure whether to run to the fore of the lines to see the arrival of the great and noble birds. The enemy forces were within sight of the healing tents already; their yells and coarse jeers were growing closer. He knew the time left to the unarmed workers was all too short. Maybe the battle would turn if the Eagles swept down against their foes. Maybe if he hurried forward he might not just witness it, but come to safety, somehow… But that would mean abandoning Meneldil, and Master Lathron… even grouchy old Candir has stayed at his post, no matter how hopeless it all is…
Ah! well, I do wish I'd had a chance to see them… Bilbo would have been so pleased to hear that Eagles are still about in the world… He turned his back on the front of the lines and sped into the tent.
In the very next moment, an enormous, green-skinned Troll lumbered up, trouncing and treading on everything and everyone in sight—and with a great howling battle cry, he lifted his huge foot and smashed it down upon the tent.