4. Cair Andros
The cleaning of the field took many days. Haldor toiled there from first light until the sun set. He saw the Orcs gathering, and Men as well; a second army that joined those left. But he did not see the Chieftain again, nor did he hear any tidings of him.
On the second day after the battle the wounded prisoners were moved, taken into the Black Land, most of them never to be seen again. They numbered a third of the survivors.
Haldor guessed that his Chieftain had been taken with the others, but Aragorn was not moved. He was kept in the cage, far from the other prisoners. He therefore knew but little of the movements of troops that the others saw. He could hear the marching of orcs and men when they passed by, but he did not know that the Enemy used the days to gather another army to strike against Gondor.
On the third day the army moved.
That day and the next the army marched. The Lieutenant of Barad-dûr took his time, confident in his lord's victory, and the army moved slower than it otherwise would. What if Minas Tirith had time to order her defences? No city or strong place could withstand Mordor now, and in the end, there would be no place to hide for those that chose to run.
They entered Ithilien on the second day of the march. The sweet smell of the woods brought some comfort to the prisoners.
Imrahil woke to the sound of bird-song.
The sun shone on his face. He could feel the warmth on his skin, and the light was red behind his eyelids. Fresh air carried the scent of herbs and green things: the heavy scent of oregano mixed with the fresh, green smell of dew in the grass. The air was still, and cool like in the early morning.
He moved to stretch, and stopped at once. It hurt.
There was a hollow feeling at the back of his throat, and it was gritty with sand and dust. Just moving a little strained sore muscle, worst in his stomach and between his shoulder blades. The right side of his neck and his right shoulder twanged with stinging pain and he felt utterly wretched.
He could not distinguish between hunger-pains and the soreness of his stomach. How long since he had last eaten? Surely not long enough for these cramps.
Imrahil opened his eyes. Bars around him. The soft clink of chains, and there; a clang of iron. He remembered.
They had lost.
And now? He was a prisoner, but the air, and birdsong, was wrong. It smelled of Ithilien, not Mordor. He looked beyond the bars, and saw tall elms and evergreens, birches and alders, and silver poplars with white leaves and dark trunks. The sun shone upon the tree-tops.
He tried to move his head. Slowly, inches at a time as to not bring back the pain. The air stirred, and brought with it more smells: smoke and charred meat, and the smell of unwashed bodies and oil and metal. The smells of a marching army.
Imrahil could see them now. Haradrim soldiers camped close to his cage, Easterlings further off, and at the other side of the camp the twisted shapes of orcs. No guards he could see; was the enemy so certain of victory?
A muffled sound behind him made him turn his head. He grunted with the effort, but then he saw his fellow prisoner and closed his eyes for a moment.
His voice was but a whisper, but the king heard him.
"My lord, are you hurt?"
A shaking of the head. Imrahil could see that he wore a bandage that covered his eyes.
"Are you sure?"
A nod. Imrahil was not sure he believed it, but he was tired and ached. For a time he rested, but something nagged at him. He tried to see if there were any other prisoners.
"Lord, do you know if any others were taken? I can see none close, and no other cages. Did any escape?"
The king made a sound. Imrahil turned towards again him to ask another question, and fell silent. The king could not answer him.
"Forgive me, lord Elessar. My mind is not clear. I remember falling. I remember the confusion and chaos of the battle, and the blowing of horns. I recall the beats of hooves on the ground right before the dark. I have a distant memory of burning pain and a voice calling in a language I did not understand. I have fevered, disjointed glimpses of hands feeding me, and one clear memory of a face, but I do not know to whom it belongs, nor when I saw it. I …
"I think I have been very ill." Imrahil fell silent for a while. The king nodded, but whether it meant forgiveness or just an agreement of his last statement, Imrahil could not guess.
Soon the camp stirred, and the soldiers made ready to march. It was the first time Imrahil was awake when fed. It was a short, brutish affair, humiliating to the point where he wondered if it would be better to go hungry. The king was silent; enduring with a patience Imrahil did not know how to read.
He drifted between sleep and the waking world most of the day. He spoke little, even when awake; the king tensed whenever he spoke, and Imrahil would trail off.
The next day, when the army halted for their midday rest, they came for the king.
Imrahil had gained enough strength to sit while a healer treated him, but he could do little else. In the small space they were both jolted by the guards, and Imrahil had not breath to speak with until after the king was gone.
"Where are they taking him?" he asked. "For what purpose?"
"I am but a healer, and not the only one," the healer answered. He carefully unravelled the bandages wrapped around Imrahil's shoulder. "I am rarely called on for the questioning of prisoners. Sometimes, if there is anything left to save or the prisoner has some value, a healer will be called for to undo their harm. But many are just handed to the orcs.
"The orcs have been restless of late. Perhaps the Lieutenant wants to pacify them."
"No." Imrahil shook his head. "Not him. Not the king."
The healer shrugged. "I am but a healer. If that is your king, then he likely has knowledge needed for the battles." And he said no more. His prodding fingers soon drove all else from Imrahil's mind.
They brought the king back well before the break ended. Imrahil saw no new marks on him, but the king was tense. And his mouth was free. He said nothing while the guards manhandled him back into the cage. They withdrew, but not far.
"I am not, and will not now, be king, Imrahil." The king paused, and Imrahil answered before he could speak again.
"I hold you my liege-lord still."
The king shook his head, but said nothing to it. "Are the guards close?" he asked instead.
"Close enough to see, and hear unless we keep our voices low, sire," Imrahil answered.
The king sighed. "I guessed as much." He paused again. "I do not know how long they will let us speak, but I am guessing that it will not be for long: our speech must be quick. Other prisoners there are, but it is my hope that Éomer escaped."
"The horses would bear them swiftly, if they managed to break free," Imrahil said. "And if he was taken, would he not be here?"
"Perhaps, if he could be of use for the Enemy, but it is Gondor they will march against first."
"And what use have they planned for us, since we are here?"
The king turned his head away and said nothing.
"Sire," Imrahil pressed.
"Can you not guess?"
"Faramir will not bow so easily."
"That is my comfort." But the king did not sound comforted.
"Sire, what did they want with you? Did you gleam any notion of their plans?"
The king shook his head. "Do not ask," he said. "The Mouth wants me to speak of it. He hopes, perhaps, that you will sway me. Or I you. Why else would he give me speech? Why else have his soldiers spy on his own prisoners?" He let his head fall back and rest against the bars. "No, I will not play his games."
"Sire, what need has the Enemy to play games with us? He has won." Imrahil closed his eyes. Just one brief moment. No time to mourn, yet thick, leaden grief settled over him. Gnawed at his guts – unless it was the soreness speaking – and made even breathing heavy and dead.
Imrahil opened his eyes at the reply. He could feel the tension pouring off the king. Suppressed anger – or grief.
"I know full well that he has won, and that he has no need to play games on us. But his Mouth does, and… I will not serve him. Not by any choice that is mine to make. I have failed in my task, but I will not become a pawn of the Enemy. Not that. Never that."
Impotent fury. Imrahil had felt that before. "I will not ask again, sire."
"Aragorn. We are close enough in rank that you could call me by name, Imrahil, and the Mouth does not use that name in mockery."
Imrahil nodded, and forgot that the king could not see his gesture. "Lord Aragorn."
The king smiled.
"Thank you," he said.
The birds were quiet. For a while, the only sounds were the murmur from the army and the whisper of leaves. The soft clink of chains.
Imrahil looked back to the king. His face was set, but he was moving his hands. Or trying to.
"Imrahil," the king acknowledged. "What are the guards doing?"
"Nothing. They watch us, but they have not moved. I do not know if they can hear us." There were more clinks of chains. "Sire?"
"Can you see, or reach, anything that could be of use?"
"Of use to do what, lord?"
"Pick the locks," the king answered. There was a note of impatience in his voice, as if Imrahil should have known.
"I fear that it a skill my father did not see fit for me to learn."
"That is unfortunate," the king answered. "But if you can get me a pin, or…"
"You can pick a lock?" He remembered to keep his voice low, but even so, he could not hide his outrage for the king. What skill was lock picking for a king to have?
But it brought another smile, and a small laughter, to the Lord Aragorn's mouth. "It is a useful skill," he said. "And one my Rangers made sure I had. My father, I am told, was most adept."
"Your father taught you lock picking?"
"No." More clinks. "Arathorn, my sire, died when I was two, and my foster father shared your father's view. But not all in his household did, and the Rangers, when I returned to them, completed my skills. It proved useful many times."
Imrahil closed his eyes. What king…? But he could not deny it was a useful skill right now. If they had had anything with which to pick the locks. And not been surrounded by soldiers. He opened his eyes to see again.
"Aragorn," he said, and the king smiled. "It is no use. Even if we can free ourselves, there is still the cage, and the soldiers."
"Are there always guards?"
"There is no need: the army is all around us."
Imrahil did not answer, but Aragorn continued as if he guessed the answer. "The shackles are too small to force my hands through. If I could break them, perhaps… but a pin would be better, or a nail from the boards?"
"The boards are secured with wooden pegs," Imrahil answered. "My lord, you cannot mean to…"
"What are our chances to open the cage?"
Something must have happened. The king had been silent since Imrahil had woken — in truth, he had not had much choice — but he had not fought his bonds like he did now. Fey, almost, he seemed.
He paused his struggles for a moment.
"You will only cause yourself hurt." Imrahil spoke quickly, before the king began anew. "The armies of Mordor surround us; we will not be able to escape the camp, even if we should be able to escape the cage."
"I have done it before."
Imrahil did not know what to answer to that. "You have been caught and escaped the Enemy before?"
Aragorn shrugged. "Not like this." He began fighting his bonds again, but with less force. "The Enemy did not know that I lived. But I have escaped from enemy camps before. If the cage…"
"Your people did not keep you safe?"
He fell silent.
"Is there a chance we can get the cage opened?"
"Will you break your hands to do it?" Imrahil asked back.
"I do not know if I have the leverage," Aragorn answered.
"I have no strength to help," Imrahil said. "I cannot sit without help. And I cannot see anything with which you could pick the lock. And we would be seen, and stopped, long before that."
Aragorn's efforts stilled. "I do not think I can get my hands through the cuffs with no help." He gave one last, angry yank at the chains. "Imrahil, I cannot…"
"What did they want with you, sire? What did they do?"
But the king shook his head. "The Mouth did nothing."
"Then, lord Aragorn, what will he do?"
But Aragorn did not answer, and did not speak again. They sat in silence until the army broke camp, and the king again had no choice but silence.
It is said that the Ringfinder, old Master Bilbo, once commented that days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to. But there are days one would not want to live through that still are quickly told, and dull to hear. The days when the army marched to Minas Tirith were like this for Aragorn and Imrahil; long to live, and short to tell. The days were the same, and nothing new happened, but for one exception.
"We are near Car Andros," Imrahil said.
It was the evening the thirtieth of March, and though they did not know it, Éomer would reach Minas Tirith the next day. Aragorn tilted his head in answer. "I do not know how much you can sense," Imrahil continued, "but I think they mean to conquer it before they march on Minas Tirith. Whoever leads is certain of victory, and unconcerned with delay."
Aragorn nodded his agreement.
Imrahil closed his eyes. Even that small speech left him weary. But he had to know. "Will they have warning? Did any escape?"
Silence answered, and he waited for it to end. It did not. "Do you know?" he asked. The lord Aragorn gave a muffled sound and Imrahil forced his eyes open to look at him.
"Forgive me, lord Aragorn. My mind is clouded, and I forgot."
Aragorn sighed. Fever from the wound, he guessed. Perhaps it would be better for the Prince if the fever took him.
Soon after the cage came to a halt. It was not the halt for the night, too much noise and running and shouting of orders. Before the din ended, they were both taken from the cage. Aragorn could not sense whether they both were brought together, but he needed not understand the soldiers to guess where he was taken.
They made him kneel, again, and held him, again. The gag was taken away; they wanted him to speak. He coughed, and worked his jaw loose, but he did not speak. He tried to hear the people around him, but it was too much noise. A hand took hold of his chin and tilted his head up.
"Hast thou had time to think?" the Mouth asked. "Hast thou considered the benefits that the Great Lord offers thee?"
Aragorn stayed silent.
"It is but a small thing He asks. And thou art his prisoner; it is not fitting that thou dost what he commands?"
"And my ransom is to give him what he will have to fight for, or is that only a part? No. We would not give in to his demand before, and I will not do it now."
"Wilst thou not spare thy own men?" the Mouth asked. "Wilst thou not spare thy vassal, who didst thy bidding before thou claimed his oath? Give the word, would-be king, and I will spare them."
"And what would you have them do, when they have surrendered?" It was easier, now, to sense the people around him. Two soldiers, and the guards; orcs close by – he could smell them – and the Mouth standing so close that he could feel the air move when the other did.
"They would enter the service of the Lord. As will all."
Aragorn was silent. "I will speak to the men," he said at length. "I do not know whether they will obey."
He was lifted to his feet and taken to the walls. There the rag was taken from his eyes and he blinked against the light. Too long in darkness.
Aragorn swallowed. The guards held him tight, and beside him Imrahil was held the same way. But his voice, when he spoke, was clear and without doubt.
"I am Aragorn Elessar," he said. "The Elfstone of Elendil's house. At my word you came here, to hold Car Andros in the last defence of Gondor and of Rohan." He paused, and the Mouth hissed at him to order their surrender.
"We failed. Now keep your oaths; defend this place! Do not surrender, even at the cost of our lives, or yours." He steeled himself, but no blow came.
"You would follow this man?" the Mouth said. "Even when he orders your death?"
The men on the walls were silent, but they did not open the gates, nor did they surrender. Not when the Mouth promised their destruction, nor when he threatened the life of his hostages.
The Mouth turned to his captains. "Tear down the walls," he said. "Slaughter all you find inside. If the orcs want any of the wounded, they can have them, but none of the men are to live when we leave."
Aragorn and Imrahil were dragged away from the walls. The Mouth left with them; his captains and army could take the fort with little effort. Or so all thought.
Imrahil, weak from his wound, was taken back to the cage, but Aragorn was made to kneel in sight of the fort. The Mouth had an open tent pitched there, so that he could watch the battle and plan his tactics. It amused him to have Aragorn kneel there, beside his chair, and force him to see the battle unfold.
The battle did not so much unfold, as it erupted in noise and screams and the clang of weapons. Orcs swarmed the walls and were met with a hail of arrows. But soon the arrows ran out, and orcs and men alike advanced again. High ladders were raised, only to be thrown down by the defenders.
Aragorn watched in grim satisfaction; the men held, and the enemy was thrown back again and again.
"It is a pity," the Mouth said, "that such brave men must die."
Aragorn did not answer. He kept his eyes on the battle. One of the soldiers– an orc if his eyes did not deceive him– reached top parapet, his shape clear against the sky. A spear stabbed him and he toppled back, falling down into the churning mass below. The ladder followed him a moment later.
The Mouth slid his hand under Aragorn's chin, a light pressure to turn his face to his.
Aragorn did not budge. He moved his head away and kept watching. The hand latched on to his hair and the Mouth dragged him close.
"You will see what I tell you to see, and speak when I wish you to," he hissed. Then his voice changed back to that calm, mocking tone Aragorn recognized. "I said: it is a pity that such brave men must die. Didst thou not realise, Elessar, that their surrender would not be to ransom thy life, but their?"
"They would have fought, no matter what I had ordered," Aragorn answered. "And they are holding."
"Not for long."
Aragorn caught his eyes and held them. "They will hold longer than you have guessed. They know that every enemy they kill is one less to harass their families. Every moment they keep you here is one moment more for Faramir to escape. They know that if they throw down their weapons, they will be slain.
"No, you, who have given up your name to Sauron, you do not know pity. There is nothing to pity in those men. Theirs is the unsung honour, more worthy than any title your master bestows."
The Mouth flinched from his gaze. His fist tightened in Aragorn's hair, and then he let go of it. Aragorn fell. He hit his head, but the earth was soft there, with only pebbles and grass and sand. No roots, no rocks. He rolled to his side. The fort was more difficult to see, but he watched what he could.
The Mouth ignored him.
The battle continued into the night. The nigh-eyes of the orcs kept them fighting, with few lulls in the battle. Aragorn could hear the battle-noise, but when the sun set he could no longer see the fight. Scattered fires, or torches – he could not say which – showed where the battlements were. The Mouth withdrew – he had not tried to make Aragorn speak again – and still Aragorn was left there, lying on the ground.
He closed his eyes during one of the few lulls. Sleep was close, but before he could drift off, he was hoisted up unto his knees. The guards had not left, and they made him kneel the rest of the night.
In the morning the fort still stood.
The Mouth swore at his captains and ordered the siege-weapons to be rolled up, and for the archers to send volleys of arrows over the walls while the weapons were prepared.
"My lord," one of the orc-captains said. "Their shields are strong; we will only give them new arrows. Now they have none left."
"And still they repel you. Do as I say. And send the vanguard to take the road through Osgiliath. They are not to attack Minas Tirith until the main army arrives, but they are to prevent any attempt to escape."
The captains left to give the new orders. Soon horns and trumpets rang to call the soldiers back. A short respite for the men inside. Aragorn watched as the archers lined up, and a battering ram was brought from the camp. It was not half as huge as the one that had shattered the gates of Minas Tirith, but still it was heavy. With enough force, it would bring down the walls. If they could ford the river with it.
The archers sent their arrows flying over the walls. Two full volleys, then they broke to let the ram through.
White water whipped around the wading orcs. They hauled and heaved at the ram; the crossing was slow, and it looked to Aragorn as if the riverbed tugged at its wheels, slowing it further. Halfway across, the arrows returned to harrow the orcs. Less dense than before, the arrows still hit their targets. The orcs halted, and then they were forced to withdraw– or fall.
"It will be too late."
The Mouth turned to Aragorn. "I did not command thee to speak."
"You wish me to," Aragorn answered. "Or you would have gagged me."
He kept his eyes on the battle, deliberately not looking away. The archers drew and sent a new rain of arrows towards the fort. Under its cover the orcs waded back into the water, and with them walked tall men from the south carrying shields. In the water the shield-wall could not close completely, but the archers did not let up to let the defenders gather arrows to shot back. The ram reached the island where the walls of the fort rose up from the water's edge.
Aragorn continued to watch. The archers stopped shooting once the battering ram and its wielders were in place; the shield-wall around and powerful hill-trolls that swung it with the force of many men.
The Mouth moved in the corner of his eye, and Aragorn tensed. Nothing. Nothing happened.
The men on the walls threw down rocks and broken stones on the attackers, but their shields held, and the ram battered against the stone.
"The walls will break…"
"…and my men will flood the fort…"
"…and they will tear it apart…"
"…and kill all inside."
"It will still be too late; you waited too long. Warning will already have reached Minas Tirith, even your vanguard will not reach it in time to hinder flight. Faramir…"
"Will have no warning before the Great Lord shows his might. There is none to warn him."
"Some will have escaped."
"Whom will that be?"
"Lies dead, his horse shot from under him."
"Fell protecting their father."
"One of his knights…"
"Captured or killed; they refused to abandon him."
"One of my men…"
"Would not leave their precious heirling."
"Shot down. The orcs feasted on their wings."
Up on the walls the men sat fire to great vats, and poured the burning waste down on those below. It caught the orcs close to the wall, the men and their shields, clinging to their skin. They rolled in the river where they were trampled and drowned. The last drops oozed down the walls and clung, oil-like, to the stone in burning flames. But the ram battered on, burning at the point. Thump, thump, it knocked against the wall.
"And now thy men weaken their walls with fire and filth. Conquered by their own defiance, even as we speak."
Aragorn turned to stare at his enemy. The Mouth of Sauron smiled.
Notes on names:
Rafa' – the old Haradric healer. His name is taken from the Old Hebrew word for healer, though I have not used the usual English transcription of the Hebrew letters. The apostrophe is used for the letter ayin, which is an unvoiced glottis-stop, a kind of swallowing sound.
Notes of canon:
A lot of the happenings in this chapter are conjure based on this episode from LotR:
"So desolate were those places and so deep the horror that lay on them that some of the host were unmanned, and they could neither walk nor ride further north.
Aragorn looked at them, and there was pity in his eyes rather than wrath; for these were young men from Rohan, from Westfold far away, or husbandmen from Lossarnach, and to them Mordor had been from childhood a name of evil, and yet unreal, a legend that had no part in their simple life; and now they walked like men in a hideous dream made true, and they understood not this war nor why fate should lead them to such a pass.
'Go!' said Aragorn. 'But keep what honour you may, and do not run! And there is a task which you may attempt and so be not wholly shamed. Take your way south-west till you come to Cair Andros, and if that is still held by enemies, as I think, then re-take it, if you can; and hold it to the last in defence of Gondor and Rohan!'
Then some being shamed by his mercy overcame their fear and went on, and the others took new hope, hearing of a manful deed within their measure that they could turn to, and they departed." (RotK, The Black Gate Opens)
The Tale of Years (LotR, App B), states that an army from the Morannon took Cair Andros on the Dawnless Day (March 10th). We do not hear about how it went for the men that were sent to re-take it, but Cair Andros is mentioned several times later, and clearly in the hands of the Men of Gondor so it is likely that they succeeded. That is, at least, the interpretation I have followed here.
"days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to." Taken from The Hobbit, A Short Rest.