The Gathering of the Armies
On the 30th day of the month of Lothron in the one hundred twenty-first year of the reign of Isildur Elendilson, the King returned to Osgiliath after an absence of many years. Then the Steward Meneldil let the trumpets be sounded and the heralds cried, "Behold the coming of Isildur son of Elendil, Lord of Ithilien and King of Gondor." And the West Gate of the city was thrown open and the King entered in at the head of a long column of armed men. And their banners rippled in the sun, proclaiming the proud men of Calenardhon and Angrenost, and the tall warriors of the coasts of Anglond and Ringlond and Linhir, and the bold knights of Pelargir, mighty Gate of the South. They rode into the city and the people hailed them, for it had been long since such an army had been at Osgiliath. The people in the streets cheered as they caught sight of each new standard and knew that the stalwart warriors of that land had come to their aid.
Yet many of the more knowledgeable noted that the companies were much smaller than could have been expected. And when the banner of Ethir Lefnui passed, with its black tower above blue waves, and they saw that it was at half staff and followed by only a score or so of grim-faced people, they fell silent. And when the end of the column appeared, the men on the walls said to one another, "Is this all the host? Where are the Eredrim? Where is Romach?" For the red and gold eagle of the Eredrim flew not among the banners.
The legions turned aside then and began setting up camps on the wide green fields within the city walls along the west bank of the river, but the King and his captains continued to the Hall of the Dome of Stars. There men of the Guard ran out to take their horses' bridles and they dismounted and went up the broad stairs before the Hall. There Meneldil the king's nephew came out and knelt before him, holding out the white rod of his office.
"My King," said he, "the Steward of Gondor begs leave to surrender his office." And he held out the Rod of the Steward. But the King took the Rod and returned it to him, saying, "You are yet Steward, Meneldil. Keep you the Rod and govern the city in my stead as you have done so ably these several years since your father Anárion and I rode forth. For I come not to abide here, but only to return again to war." Then the Steward rose and led the King and his people into the Hall.
The Hall was long and lofty, with a high-arched ceiling supporting mighty columns of gold-veined marble. In the center of the Hall the ceiling rose into a vast round dome of deep blue stone. The dome was cunningly pierced in many places and the openings set with jewels, so that the sun shining through them caused them to sparkle like stars. And indeed the holes were arranged to match the sky as seen from the summit of Mount Meneltarma in long-lost Númenor. This was the Dome of Stars, renowned throughout all of Middle-earth.
Beneath the Dome of Stars stood on a raised dais the two thrones of Gondor. That on the west, the seat of Anárion Lord of Anórien, was surmounted by a golden sun. But the high seat was draped in white cloth and the sun's face was shrouded. The eastern throne, topped by a silver crescent moon, was that of Isildur Lord of Ithilien. A tall young man in armor stood before it. He turned as Isildur entered.
"Hello, father," he said, smiling.
Isildur stared in wonder a moment. "Elendur!" he cried, rushing forward. He embraced his eldest son in joy, their armor clashing together.
"But how come you here?" Isildur asked. "I thought you were with your grandfather in Gorgoroth."
"He sent me hither that I might ride with you. I came with a small body of horse, through Cair Andros, but a week ago."
"But that is wonderful. And what of your brothers? Have you had news of them? Are they coming to the council as well?"
"No, they remain at their posts, but they are well."
"But why did father send you here? Were you not needed at the head of the Ithilien lancers?"
"I turned their command over to my lieutenant. To tell you the truth, father, I begged the High King to let me come to you."
Isildur looked at his son. Though he still thought of him as a boy, he saw before him a strong confident man of thirty-eight, hardened by twelve years of war, eight of those in command of a thousand men. Elendur looked levelly back.
"You want Minas Ithil back, don't you? You want to be there."
"More than anything, father. I was only in my tweens when we were driven from our home, but I remember still the screams of the dying, the bodies in the streets as we fled for our lives. Always in my dreams I see the city again. I can't bear the thought of orcs defiling our home. I want to live there again, to help cleanse it of their stink, to make it fair once more. I want to show my brothers through its halls and courts. Ciryon was only four, he remembers only the terror of that night. And of course Valandil never even saw it. He's never been in his own homeland. And I think poor mother will never smile again unless she see her old home swept clean again."
"Aye," said Isildur. "We are of one mind, my son. Now perhaps at last we shall have our chance."
Isildur knelt briefly before his brother's shrouded seat, then mounted the Throne of the Moon and took his seat. Elendur stood beside him. Meneldil, as steward, sat in a plain stone seat at the foot of the dais.
Isildur looked at the captains and leaders of Gondor gathered around them. They watched him expectantly, awaiting his orders.
"Much evil has befallen our land," he began, "and many of our folk have fallen. But the war is not over. Many deeds are yet to be done and many more of our countrymen may fall before it is ended. And yet we may hope that the end is now nigh." He looked from one to another of the captains standing by, their faces grim and determined.
"Aye, for good or ill, the end is nigh. Then shall old debts be repaid," he said, glancing at his fallen brother's throne. "The armies of the West are gathering now to Osgiliath. I have brought many allies, but more will arrive soon. Has aught been heard of the Galadrim?"
"Aye, Sire," said Meneldil. "Our scouts report that they crossed the Mering Stream but yesternight. They should be here at any time."
The King's face brightened. "Ah, good news at last. Some at least of our plans may go aright. Now if the others arrive soon we may begin the Council."
"The others, Sire?" asked Meneldil. "Mean you the Eredrim? Will Romach be here soon?"
Isildur's eyes flashed. "No!" he said harshly. "The Eredrim will never come to Osgiliath. They are no longer men of honor. I called them and they refused me to my face. They are accursed!"
The men of Osgiliath blanched. "Oh, alas," cried Meneldil. "This is ill news indeed. We had great hopes that Romach would bring many thousands of his brave Eredrim to aid us in our need. I cannot believe that he would break the Oath of Karmach. Is he grown fey in his age?"
"Nay, but he was swayed by a servant of Sauron that openly threatened the Eredrim. Romach had not the strength of will to stand firm. But you shall hear all that has passed when all the allies are gathered and we take counsel together. For now, see that all my people are fed and cared for. Some have marched hundreds of leagues and they are weary indeed. Lodge the lords and captains here in the Tower and spare not the board, for they are valiant men and they have come to fight at our side. As for myself, I would be left alone this night.
Dawn was near, but light had only begun to creep into the sky above the Ephel Dúath when those watching from the walls heard the faint traces of distant singing from the darkness to the north. Deep and fair came the sound of many voices together. Ever and anon one clear voice rose alone, piercing the night like the first bird song of a new day. Men strained their eyes, peering north into the dark. Then there was a glimmer far away, though whether it was starlight on the road or some other radiance none could say. The music and the light slowly drew nearer, and then the faint clink and jingle of harness and arms could be heard. The road itself seemed to glow, though no lanterns could be seen. The strange light approached the gate. Then abruptly the song ceased and all was silent. At the same moment the sun climbed above the Ephel Dúath and lo, there before the gates stood a great host of Elves.
Tall and fair they were, with long dark hair streaming, though here and there golden hair flowed from beneath a helm, proclaiming the noble and ancient line of Finrod. They wore long cloaks of grey or pale green, though armor showed beneath. In their hands were sharp lances with points like golden leaves, and they carried long slender bows slung at their backs. They were led by three tall riders of royal bearing.
On a great black charger rode Celeborn, Lord of Lothlórien. His hood was thrown back and a golden crown shown on his head. Beside him on a white palfrey sat the Lady Galadriel, Queen of the Galadrim and the fairest of women. She wore a long green riding cloak that trailed nearly to the ground, and her golden hair was bound in a riband of verdant green. With them rode Elrond Peredhil, loremaster and standard bearer, wearing the white and gold livery of his master, Gil-galad, King of Lindon.
Then Elrond rode to the gates and called out in a loud voice. "Behold, the Galadrim are come to Osgiliath. We would take counsel with your king." Then were the gates thrown open and the clarions rang out. Meneldil greeted them and welcomed them in the name of Isildur, then led them through the streets to the Tower. Isildur, Elendur, and Gildor came down the broad stairs to greet them.
"My Lord and Lady," said Isildur in his powerful voice, "you are well come indeed to this our city. My people thank you for your offer of aid in these evil times. I believe you already know my eldest son Elendur, and of course Gildor of Lindon. Master Elrond, my friend and kinsman, my heart is gladdened that you should come at long last to see Osgiliath."
And Celeborn replied, "Well met again, Isildur King. Good day, Elendur. And greetings to you, friend Gildor Inglorion. So the two far travellers are united again, and their efforts may at last bear fruit."
Then some of Meneldil's guards led the Galadrim host to the walled fields of the Westbank, where they made their camp nigh to that of the men of the south. But Isildur led their lords into the Great Hall to seats of honor beneath the Dome of Stars. After they had broken their fast and shared their news, the Elves expressed their interest in seeing this new city, which none of them had ever visited before. Isildur led them up into the Tower of Stone and they stood at a high window and looked out over the city stretching out on either side of the broad river Anduin.
On all sides, the sun gleamed on white buildings and red tile roofs. Many tall buildings and towers stretched to the sky, for this was the commercial center of the city. To the south, between the last residential street and the high walls of the city, lay the green fields of the Westbank, now covered with rows of brightly colored tents and the streaming banners of many lands. But to the east across the River, the scene was not so fair. There many walls were scorched and blackened, and some of the towers were broken like jagged teeth. Hollow windows and burned houses spoke of the war that had raged across that part of the city in the first assault of the orcs. Through the midst of the city flowed the placid brown Anduin, spanned by the many-arched Golden Bridge. Once that bridge had streamed with people and wagons, a life-giving artery across the city. Now it stood empty, with barricades at each end guarded by strong parties of soldiers. On the near bank, the homes and shops were abandoned and a rough boardwalk had been built across their roofs, forming a parapet for a sort of second wall in case the enemy attempted the bridge again. Men paced there and their arms glinted in the morning sun.
From the streets below the Tower came the cries of vendors and the rumble of wagons and carts. The market in the central square was thronged with people and the scene seemed normal and peaceful. Yet rare was the sound of laughter and now and then a smith would look up from his forge or a woman set down her child and they would look to the east, to the guards on the parapets. For just beyond lay the land of the Enemy, and those walls marked the frontier. Beyond lay the grey-shrouded Mountains of Shadow, looming high and dark yet in the early morning light, casting long shadows like fingers groping toward Osgiliath. Banks of clouds hung above them, threatening a summer storm.
Between the city and the mountains lay the land of Ithilien, the former fief of Isildur. It lay now all in darkness. There all was still and no motion or life could be seen, save only that a keen eye could mark, far off in a high valley, the faint smokes where orcs made their foul meals of luckless things they had caught in the night.
Long the Lords looked out over that scene in silence, then at last Celeborn spoke. "This is a noble city you and your people have built, Isildur. Though it is yet new, still it has the potential for greatness. I remember that this was a fair site ere the Edain returned to Middle-earth, but your labors here have made it a place of much beauty."
"It shines yet, does it not?" said Isildur fondly. "It was intended to remind us Dúnedain of Rómenna in Númenor. Would you had seen it when it was fair and clean. It was once gay and proud and many shapely towers stood where all now is blackened and burned." He looked sadly at the ruined parts of the city. "I fear the damage will never be fully undone. Can that which Sauron has defiled ever be completely clean again?"
But then Galadriel spoke, and her voice was like moonlight on rushing water. "It is not her white stones that make your city noble, Isildur, but her people. Long has the valor of the people of Gondor been a shield wall, defending the West against our enemies. We honor them."
And Elrond said, "And if our plans go not amiss, new towers may rise in Osgiliath and all will again call it Fairest of the Cities of Men."
"Such is my dream," replied Isildur, "though many might deem it foolish in these dark times."
"Nay, Sire," said Meneldil, "it is only foolish to despair. Surely with these good people as our allies we may dare to hope again. Do not Elvish eyes pierce the future? Is there not bright victory before us? Can you not see it, my lords?"
But Celeborn sighed. "Alas, no. Our eyes may see beyond those of mortal men, but the future can not be seen with certainty by any eyes, not even the Lidless Eye of the Enemy. Therein lies both our fear and our hope. We must build our own future with such tools as we possess."
Isildur looked up sharply at that and Galadriel caught his eye and nodded. "Aye," she said. "We have fulfilled our trust and have done as bid by Gil-galad. We come not empty-handed, though this is not the time nor place to speak of such things. For now we would rest from our journey and walk in your city. Farewell for now." And the Lord and Lady of Lothlórien descended from the Tower. But when Isildur rose to leave, Elrond bade him stay.
"Isildur, I would speak with you. You know the Lady referred to the Rings of Power. She herself bears Nenya, the Ring of Water, and wondrous indeed are the powers it bestows on its wearer. But few even of the Wise know this." And he pulled a fine gold chain from around his neck, and behold, it bore a gleaming ring of burnished gold with a single immense sapphire that shone with a clear blue light like a ring around the sun.
"This is Vilya," said Elrond. "The Ring of Air, and mightiest of the Three."
Isildur could only stare. The ring sparkled and glowed. Elrond dropped it again into his tunic.
"It was given to me for safekeeping by Gil-galad when he rode away to war. He bade me keep it until he called for it. But he also told me that he hoped he would not call for it while the war lasted, for it was very perilous."
"And so it is," agreed Isildur. "Sauron forged his One Ring especially to draw the Three Rings to him and to absorb their power into his. If it were to fall into his hands, he would be immeasurably stronger and all the good works made with Vilya's powers would fade and die."
Elrond nodded. "Aye. It was intended that the Three should be kept separately, far from Mordor, and would not be brought against him."
"Except in the most desperate need. And the need is upon us now. This must be the final battle against Sauron. If we fall, there is not strength enough in all of Middle-earth to mount another attack. The time has come to use our last weapons."
"I know," said Elrond. "And I believe that Galadriel is ready to risk using Nenya in our cause. But she fears for Vilya. As the mightiest, it will surely be drawn most strongly. We do not know the true power of Sauron's One Ring, but we are told that he might even be able to sense the presence of the Three at a distance, to know when they are approaching."
"Still, we have no choice but to make the attempt. And Vilya is Gil-galad's ring. He wore it long and built many wondrous and marvelous works with it. If he can wield it against Sauron, then Sauron would most likely be drawn forth from the Barad-dûr. Perhaps if he is distracted by Vilya's presence, we may yet..."
There was a sudden commotion on the stairs and a guard rushed out onto the balcony and fell on his knee before Isildur.
"Your pardon, Sire," he gasped. "An envoy has come from Pelargir. He seeks the most urgent audience with you, Sire. He says that Pelargir is under attack."
Isildur leaped forward in alarm. "Pelargir attacked? I'll see him in the Dome of Stars, at once, do you hear?"
"Aye, Sire." The guard ran to the stairs, but Isildur was there before him, leaping down the winding stairs like a goat. The others followed as best they could.
They reached the Great Hall just as the guard led in a haggard man in the livery of Barathor, though it was difficult to make out the colors, so covered was he with dust. His pale face was lined with exhaustion and he seemed ready to fall. Isildur bade him sit and called for wine to wet his throat, but the man shook his head.
"Isildur King," he gasped, "we are undone. Pelargir is besieged by a great host. The enemy is upon us. Fire and slaughter is at our gate. You must return before it is too late."
"The enemy, did you say? Did you mark their livery?"
"Aye, Sire. They wore scarlet and black and bore the banner of Herumor. It is the Corsairs right enough, Sire."
Isildur struck his fist against his own brow. "How can this be true? We left but five days ago, and the Elves were no more than a day or two away." He sprang to his feet and began pacing distractedly. "What can have happened? There was no sign of an attack. The picket ships were still on guard at Ethir Anduin."
"Sire," blurted out the messenger. "Forgive me, Sire, but there is no time to be lost. The attack was well under way when I left. The city may already have fallen."
Isildur glared at him then, his eyes hard. He was not accustomed to being ordered about by a soldier. But as he looked, the man swayed and would have fallen, had not Elrond caught him and helped him to a chair.
"Yes, you are right, of course." He called to some officers standing nearby. "You there! Find Lord Barathor and bid him come here at once. Elrond, summon if you will the Lord and Lady, and Gildor, too. Find Ohtar and have him bring all the chief captains. We must hold council at once. Make haste!"
The room was suddenly empty, save only Isildur and the messenger, slumped in his chair, his head down on the table. Isildur stood long, staring at his heaving back, thinking, calculating distances and marching speeds.
Barathor rushed unheralded into the hall with several of his officers. He was still straightening his clothes and he looked angry at the peremptory summons.
"What is it?" he bellowed. "What is the sudden hurry?" Then the messenger looked up at his lord and struggled to his feet. Barathor saw him and started.
"Arador? Is that you? What are you doing here?" Then seeing the look in Arador's eyes, his heart froze in his chest. "What is it, man? What has happened?"
Arador struggled to Barathor and fell to his knees before him. "Oh, my lord. Forgive this poor messenger. It was the Corsairs, my lord. They have burned the fleet. They are even now besieging Pelargir, if it still stands."
Barathor seemed to shrink. His face went white. "By all the Valar..." he began, then he collected himself. He bade Arador return to his seat. "Tell us what happened," he said.
Elrond came in with the Elven lords. They stopped when they saw the stricken faces of everyone in the hall.
"Two dawns past," Arador began, "a great fleet came up the River in the dark to our quays. We went forth to greet them, thinking them to be Cirdan and his Elves..." He looked quickly up at Isildur, then away. "As you had told us, Sire," he added.
"But then arrows flew and fires sprang up among our ships and then we saw that the ships were black and filled with our enemies. They fell on us with great slaughter. The horns were sounded to call the people back into the city, but many were cut down before they could gain the gate, for few bore arms. My lord Duitirith sent me after you to bring you back. I have ridden here without stopping, hoping to catch you up on the road."
The Pelargrim looked at one another in horror.
"What was the situation when you left?" asked Barathor.
"A large number of people had gone down to the quays to greet the ships. Many died on the dock and along the quays, but the greater part were fleeing to the gate with Duitirith and some of his knights guarding their rear. They should have reached the gate. The Corsairs were still disembarking and unloading their siege engines."
"How many were they?" asked Gildor.
"I do not know. But many, many. They came in many large ships. It was still dark when I left, hard to see in the smoke and confusion, and many had not yet landed. But when I reached the rise of the road I looked back. I could see three score at least of biremes in the river and perhaps a dozen large galleasses."
"But that must be every ship in Umbar!" cried Barathor. "That could be twenty thousand men at least, perhaps thirty. It will be ten to one at best."
"You say it was still dark when you left," said Gildor. "How can you be so sure of the number of ships?"
Arador looked at the king with a cold eye. "They were easy to see by that time, Sire. The river was lighted up all the way to the far shore by our burning ships."
"All of the ships?" asked one of the Pelargrim captains. "Did not one get away?"
"No. It all happened so suddenly. The Corsairs hurled burning skins of oil amongst the ships. All were alight in moments. If any men reached their ships, they died in them."
"Think you that Duitirith can hold the walls?" asked Meneldil.
Arador looked up proudly into the Steward's eyes. "He will hold them or die in the attempt. His men are well-trained and they are fighting for the lives of their families. But they are so very few. And the Corsairs have siege engines. I would not think they could hold out for more than a few days."
Barathor shook his head, envisioning the Umbardrim host around the walls of Pelargir, his son fighting the hopeless battle, the city in flames, the terrified women and children hiding in their homes.
"But what of Cirdan?" he cried. "Was he not guarding the river?"
"Nay, my lord. We saw no sign of the Elves."
Barathor wheeled on Isildur. "You said the Elves would be there! You said the River would be guarded!" Isildur stared at him helplessly, unable to answer.
"Ah, my city!" wailed Barathor. "My son!" He swung about aimlessly, like a caged bear unable to reach his tormentors. "Why did I leave? Oh, Eru, why did I leave? What are we doing here while Pelargir burns?"
"We all came here to defend Gondor," said Ingold of Calembel, who had come in with the other captains while Arador was finishing his report.
"Yes! We came here to defend Gondor. We guard Osgiliath and we left Pelargir unguarded. But all the time the attack was to be against Pelargir, not Osgiliath. Oh, Isildur, what have you done to us? And now fair Pelargir is destroyed. I have betrayed my trust and delivered my charge into the hands of our enemies. May my ancestors forgive me, for I will have no descendants!"
Then Arador cried out. "Do not despair, my lord. Captain Duitirith sent me to you not to bring you news of defeat, but to seek your aid. I rode one mount to death and had to steal another, but I could not overtake you on the road. At every turn I prayed I would see you ahead and we would race back together like the wind. Always my last sight of the city was before my eyes. But each mile was another in the wrong direction. Now I have found you at last, will you not ride with me at once to Pelargir? The city may yet stand!"
Then Barathor looked to Isildur, standing with bowed head. "Arador is right, Sire," said Barathor. "We have made a terrible error by coming here. We may perchance yet save Pelargir. Or if not," he added grimly, "we shall at least avenge it."
But Meneldil stepped forward. "My King, you must not leave Osgiliath now. If Pelargir is indeed fallen, the Corsairs will not long tarry there. They will strike here next. They may even now be sweeping up the River to assail us. Pelargir may be but the prelude to a concerted assault from the south and the east. It is too late to save Pelargir, but not Osgiliath. You must stand by us here."
Barathor turned to the Steward, his fists clenched and his face dark with anger. "My city is burning and my people cry to us for help, Meneldil. Would you have us stand idly by while they die? Can you think of nothing but Osgiliath? Is Pelargir but a worthless pawn to be sacrificed?"
Meneldil stepped back a pace, but he did not stand down. "I am Lord of Osgiliath, Lord Barathor, and this city must always be my first concern. But I am also Steward of Gondor, and we must now think of standing together against our foes before we are all swept away. Pelargir is a staunch ally and her people are our brothers. My wife's family is there, and my brother's. My heart is heavy with grief. But this is not the hour for incaution and rash actions. Stay a moment and think what this could portend.
"If Pelargir is truly taken, then not only the Anduin is unguarded. The River Poros also is open to the Corsairs. If the border garrisons at the Crossings of the Poros be not taken already, they shall surely fall soon as well. We knew the Haradrim were strengthening their forces near the border. They could be pouring across the border into Harithilien already, marching to attack us. The Úlairi, those most fell servants of Sauron, hold Minas Ithil, but ten leagues from where we stand. We are threatended from the south and east. If the army now goes south to Pelargir, Osgiliath will surely share her fate. It is possible, as you say, that a great error has been made. History shall decide that, if there be any left to write it. But let us at least learn from our error, not repeat it and again draw our forces away from the point of attack."
"You are too quick to concede the loss of Pelargir, Meneldil," said Barathor. "If Pelargir has not yet fallen, then a swift blow from us now could yet save her and vanquish the Corsairs. Then the River could be guarded and Osgiliath would again be safe from attack from the south. We must ride at once."
"The attack was already two days past," said Elendur. "It will take two more to return. Could Pelargir stand for four days against so many, Lord Barathor? Undermanned and with her fleet destroyed? I know well your agony, but do you think it possible that Pelargir yet stands?"
"My people are brave and fierce in battle, Prince Elendur, and they are led by my son Duitirith. They will fight to the last man. They could yet be holding the walls. And if so, even now they will be looking over their shoulders to the River Road, watching for our return. Would you have us simply drink another glass of wine and let them be slaughtered without trying to come to their aid? No! I shall go to them at once, if I have to ride alone."
Barathor turned to Isildur, who had still not spoken. "What say you, my king?" he asked. "Will you not ride with us?"
Then Isildur looked up and met the eyes of Barathor and Arador and the other Pelargrim. His own eyes were filled with anguish and sorrow.
"My friends," he said. "This is an evil choice. How can I choose between two cities that I love? Osgiliath is my own capital, the heart of my kingdom. But Pelargir too is part of Gondor and I am responsible for her safety as well. The people of Pelargir welcomed me and succored me when I was cast up on their shore on the wings of storm. They ceded me this land on which we stand, and they helped to haul the stones of this tower. Now, at my own behest Pelargir has left herself in mortal danger. Can I now ignore her calls for help in her hour of greatest need? How can I refuse my aid to either city?"
"Sire," cried Meneldil, "this is your own city. It was conceived by you and my father. You laid out its very streets. If you leave us now you are casting away our only hope. For eleven years now we have fought and prepared, always waiting for the blow which must surely come. And all that time we knew we would not be able to withstand a concerted attack. With our kings and most of our fighting men away in Gorgoroth, what hope could we have against an all-out attack from Ithilien?
"It was been a most anxious wait. Now at last you have come back to us, and with an army that could repulse the enemy, drive him from Ithilien, perhaps even throw down the Dark Tower itself. For the first time in years, we have felt true hope again. Now as the Black Hand is stretched forth for our throats, would you ride away again to leave us to our fate? Do not let the agony of Pelargir draw you from your true duty. The main attack, when it comes, will be against the capital. Your place is here in Osgiliath."
Then the king rose up tall and menacing and he shouted, "Tell me not my duty, Meneldil! You are my Steward, not my master. I am King of Gondor, and I take orders only from Elendil, High King of the Realms in Exile."
Meneldil fell back and bowed. It had been long since he had had to bow to any man. But still he was not cowed.
"Sire," he said. "I do not presume to tell you your duty. But this is a momentous decision. The fate of us all could ride on it. Perhaps if you consulted with your father..." He let his voice trail off, not sure how much he should say before all these foreigners.
"Yes," said Isildur. "The plans of the Lords of the West have gone all amiss now and we must plan anew. They must be made aware of what has happened."
"But Sire," said Barathor. "We must ride at once or Pelargir is lost."
"We have a means for speaking with Elendil in Gorgoroth, even from here in the Tower, Lord Barathor. I say to you, prepare your men to ride to Pelargir at once. I will give you my decision within the hour."
Barathor stared at him a moment, not understanding, but then he wheeled and hurried from the room, with Arador and the other Pelargrim close behind. Isildur watched them go with anguished eyes.
"My heart tells me to join them, Ohtar," he murmured privately. "But Meneldil is probably right. My place is in the capital." He looked then at the Elves standing near by. "My Lords of the Eldar," he said. "I would have you accompany me. We must take counsel with Gil-galad and my father. We must make the greatest haste. Come, into my private chambers. Ohtar, get thee to the camp and see that all is ready for a quick departure. Meneldil, look to the defenses of the city. Double the guards along the quays and riverbanks. The Corsairs could appear at any moment. The orcs too could take advantage of our confusion to attack at once. War is upon us, whether I stay or go!"
Then Isildur and the Eldar retired to the king's apartments, close behind the Dome of Stars. He led them into a small dark room without windows, lit only by a small hanging lamp. The only furniture was a marble pedestal in the center of the room, supporting something round covered by a cloth of gold. They gathered around it as Isildur closed the door. He stepped up to the pedestal and carefully drew off the cloth, and behold, atop the column was a great round crystal as large as a man's head. Dark it was, and yet something seemed to move within it, like a fire smoldering within a shroud of smoke. They stared at it in wonder.
"This is a treasure beyond value," whispered Celeborn.
"It is very beautiful," said Elrond. "But what is it?"
"This is a palantír," said Isildur. "One of the seven Seeing Stones, heirlooms of my house. It may be the oldest made object in all of Middle-earth."
"The palantíri were wrought by the hand of my uncle, Fëanor Firespirit himself, in Aman when the world was young," said Galadriel. "They remained long the pride of all his works, and it was a sign of the special esteem in which the Eldar hold your house, Isildur, that they were given to Amandil your grandsire."
"They were an aid and a comfort to us Faithful of Númenor," said Isildur, "and they remained there until its fall. My father brought them to Middle-earth, where we now use them to speak one to another, though vast distances separate us. This is the Master Stone, that can speak to each. I had another at Minas Ithil and took it with me when I was forced to abandon my city at the beginning of the war. My father now has it in his camp in Gorgoroth. That is the stone I must contact."
Then he laid his hands on the globe. The mists inside swirled at his touch and the red glow brightened, lighting Isildur's intent face. He bent his mind upon the stone, willing it to speak out to its mate in the plains of Mordor.
The others watched silently. The smoke writhed within, and images began to form. Tiny they were, as if viewed from a great height. Each cloudscape formed but for a moment before swirling away. The light grew and the images became clearer. There were mountains in the clouds now; black crags thrusting through a swirling reek. The red glow pulsed, as if a heart of fire beat beneath the clouds. Then another dark pinnacle appeared, but this was no mountain summit. High it reared, higher than any mountain, with sheer black sides and a jagged crown. Looking closer, they could see that it was a mighty fortress, with battlements on the parapets, and many turrets and a myriad of tiny windows glowing orange and red.
"Behold the Barad-dûr," said Isildur softly, and the room seemed to grow chill at the sound of that fell name.
The image grew, swelling larger and larger until it filled the globe, and it was as if they were descending through the clouds toward the Tower. Finally a torn and tortured land appeared far below. It was all a somber ash gray, slashed by deep cracks and crossed with black tongues of old lava flows. There on the very edge of a smoking chasm lay the only spot of color in all that wide land -- a small square patch of many bright colors, like a scrap of embroidered cloth dropped near the brooding walls of the Tower. As the view continued to descend and grow, they saw that the bright square was in fact a huge city of tents for a vast army that now could be seen moving about the slag heaps.
The globe settled toward one of the larger tents, a pavilion of gold and white silk. There was a disorienting moment as the view seemed to pass through the roof of the tent. Then it was if they were gazing not into the globe, but out of it, at a group of men in armor. A tall man with long silver hair came close until his face filled all the globe. Like Isildur, he wore upon his brow a circlet set with a single glowing gem. This was Elendil, High King of the Realms in Exile, and eldest of Men.
"Ah, Isildur, my son," he said, his voice ringing clear in all their heads, though no sound emerged from the palantír. "I see you are with Elrond and the Galadrim. Are all then gathered for the council on the morrow? Did Elendur arrive safely?"
"Yes, father, but evil unlooked for has befallen us. Pelargir is assailed by the Corsairs."
Elendil's face showed his dismay. "Umbar? Oh, that Númenóreans should turn against Númenóreans in such times as these. Curse their black hearts. I wonder that they dare the attempt. The fleet should be more than a match for the Corsairs, as long as the wind holds."
"The fleet of Pelargir is already destroyed, Sire, and the city but lightly defended. It is not likely that they yet stand."
Elendil's eyes glared. "Why? Did the patrols not give ample warning? Were they not prepared for the attack? What was Barathor about?"
"My lord, Barathor and most of his warriors and seamen are here in Osgiliath. At my behest."
"You told them to leave the Gate of the South open to our enemies? But why?"
"Because I needed them here. You sent me throughout all of Gondor, and we had hoped to have fifteen or twenty thousand in our host by now. But at every turn we were thwarted. I told you from the Orthanc stone that Calenardhon and Angrenost had but few to spare from the raiding orcs. And at Anglond and again at Ethir Lefnui, the Corsairs attacked and slew many, and we had but few volunteers.
"Even Romach and the Eredrim have refused us. We had but three thousand when we reached Pelargir. There we met Gildor, just arrived from Mithlond. He told us that Cirdan's fleet would be at Pelargir in a day or two at most. And so Barathor agreed to withdraw the fleet and send every available man with us to Osgiliath. It seemed a necessary risk for a day or two."
Elendil's face stared grimly from the globe. "Oh, my son, these are terrible tidings indeed," he said at last.
"Father, I knew the importance of our mission here. What hope would we have trying to attack Minas Ithil with but three thousand men, even with the help of the Elves? I deemed it essential that Barathor ride with us, even though it left Pelargir stripped bare. And loëndë was fast approaching. Cirdan's ships could guard the River, but we could not wait for him. Father, did I do wrong?"
"No, Isildur," said Elendil. "You did not do wrong. It was a desperate gamble, indeed, but necessary. I suppose I would have done the same in your place. It is a token of the love and loyalty of Barathor that he would even consider leaving Pelargir undefended. But you were correct: if you do not have sufficient force to take Minas Ithil, the entire plan will fail, and we shall be certainly lost. What is the situation now?"
"We have just learned of the attack, and Barathor is returning to Pelargir. I urged him to remain, but he would fly to Pelargir at once and I didn't feel that I could in conscience try to prevent him."
"No, of course not."
"He wishes me to go with him, to take the whole army back to Pelargir. And as he only left at my repeated pleading, I feel responsible for the people he left behind."
Elendil looked at his son with compassion in his eyes. "And you are torn as to what you should do?"
"Yes. If I stay here, Pelargir is almost certain to fall if it has not already."
"And if you go with Barathor, Sauron could choose that moment to attack Osgiliath."
"Yes. If Pelargir is taken, the Corsairs will be at our gates in a few days. They could attack while we are on the road back to Pelargir. Either choice could bring disaster." Elendil nodded his head, a humorless tight smile on his lips.
"It is at such times that the crown wears heavy on the head, does it not?" he said. "What do you intend to do?"
"I will bid him go, but I shall remain here with the rest of my men. We shall continue with the plan as best we can."
"Yes, that is probably the best. You should not leave Osgiliath unguarded now. You could find Pelargir sacked and return to find Osgiliath burning, and probably Minas Anor as well. But it is not easy to stand idly by and see our friends fall." He shook his head sadly. "May the Powers be with you, and with the Pelargrim."
"My lord," said Galadriel. "Is Gil-galad nigh? I would speak with him on a different matter, though no less grave."
"Aye, he is here." A proud and stately Elf appeared, clad in silver mail and a long blue cloak. "Galadriel," he said with a smile. "Greetings to you, cousin. You grow more beautiful as the yén flow by."
"Elen síla lúmenn omentilmo," she replied. "It is good to see you well. My king, I have done as you bade me." And she held up her hand. Nenya glinted like the Evenstar on her hand. "And Elrond Halfelven is here, with your Vilya. We expect Cirdan any day with Narya."
"Good. Then the Three are gathered together at last, as has never been since the day Sauron's treachery was revealed."
"That is my concern," said Galadriel. "Perhaps you are right and the time has come to use the Three against him. But is it wise to bring them all together? Was this not Sauron's whole purpose in this war: to draw them to him so he could take them all together?"
"It may well be so, Lady. But we know not if we still have the strength to oppose him. All our force of arms, great as it is, we fear insufficient to stop him if he emerges from the Tower in his full strength. We shall have need of all our weapons if that should occur."
"But if we should fail; if he were to take the Three?"
"Then all would be lost and the West would be helpless against him."
"Exactly. Can any reward be worth such a risk?"
"We have long debated just this question, Lady. Our thought was that if he knew the Three were near, he would be drawn out of his fortress and we could at last test our strength against his. We are sick and weary of this waiting. It has been too long, especially for our allies the Men."
"You would risk all for this one confrontation?"
"We cannot hope to defeat him by waiting here. He is in no hurry. He can wait until we are so weakened and dispirited that our alliance founders. We must draw him out now. It is that or withdraw."
"But would not one of the Three be sufficient? I will bring Nenya and we shall fight together, shoulder-to-shoulder as we did against Morgoth. But let Vilya and Narya remain here in case we fall."
Gil-galad shook his head. "We considered that path as well. We fear that any single ring might prove insufficient against the One. And perhaps be insufficient bait, as well."
"But to reveal the Three! This is a desperate chance."
"It is indeed. A desperate chance for desperate times."
Galadriel bowed her head. "We have great reservations about this course you have chosen, Gil-galad. But we will do as you bid."
"Thank you, Lady. And thank you, Lord Celeborn. I well know what you are risking by bringing your rings here."
Celeborn bowed his head grimly. "Yes. All the good that we have done in Middle-earth could be undone in a moment. Lothlórien would cease to exist. But we defer to your judgement, O king."
"Elrond, a word," said Gil-galad.
"Sire?" answered Elrond, stepping forward.
"I would have you bring Vilya to me here. But I caution you against its use except in the most critical need. It is the mightiest of all the Three, and I fear lest any wear it save myself."
"It shall be done as you say, Sire," replied Elrond.
Trumpets sounded from without. "Barathor is preparing to depart," said Isildur. "We must go."
"Yes," said Gil-galad. "And you must come to us here as quickly as you can. Orodruin's rumblings increase with each passing day. We suspect Sauron is preparing to attack. May Eru be with you."
"And with you, Lords. Goodbye."
The stone grew cloudy again and the light faded. Isildur covered it again, his face grave.
"It is as I thought," he said to Elrond. "My duty must be here in Osgiliath. Yet if I were free I would fly to Pelargir as fast as Fleetfoot could run."
They returned to the Dome of Stars and thence to the portico that fronted the Great Hall. The dark clouds they had seen at sunrise were now covering the sky, though here and there light slanted down, highlighting a gilded dome here, a white tower there. Just as they emerged, Barathor rode into the square with Arador and some others of the captains of Pelargir. They rode to the foot of the steps.
"We are ready to ride, Sire," called Barathor from his saddle. "Will you not come with us? We need your strength."
Isildur looked sadly at the Lord of Pelargir. "My friend, I fear your choice is ill. The attack on Pelargir may well prove to be but the first stroke of Sauron's attack on Gondor. If so, it will not be long before the plains yonder will be black with orcs. Then will Osgiliath in turn need your strength. I would have you here when that attack comes. But I cannot stay you against your will. In your place I would no doubt do the same.
"I love you as a brother, Barathor son of Boromir, but I cannot ride with you. My place is here. If you must go, I beg you to part as friends and allies still. And when your task in Pelargir be finished, whether relief or revenge, I ask you to return to us. For the mind that directed the attack on Pelargir is not in that city, but there before us, in the east."
"I understand, Sire," said Barathor. "And I shall return when I can. Farewell, Isildur Elendilson."
"Farewell, Barathor. Ride faster than the wind, and may you find the sea-blue pennant still fluttering from the walls of Pelargir."
Then raising his sword, Barathor called, "Ride, Men of Pelargir. Ride as you have never ridden before." His horse reared and gave a great cry like a call to war, then wheeled and plunged down the road to the south gate. His officers followed in a cloud of dust and a thunder of hooves.
Isildur stood and watched them go, then he and his party returned to the hall and ascended again the great tower. They stood looking out over the city. Isildur was deep in thought, his face as grave as it had ever been.
"My mind is much troubled," he said to no one in particular. "Did I well or ill this day? I stayed here, dooming Pelargir to fire and pillage, so that Osgiliath might be protected. But now Barathor takes the greater part of my forces. It may be that his force is now too weak to save Pelargir and mine too weak to protect Osgiliath. Should I have tried to stop him? Might it not have been better to remain united and pursue one course or the other with our full strength?"
"Nay," said Galadriel. "Fault not yourself in this. You could not in faith leave Osgiliath -- you saw that well enough. And yet you could not stay Barathor. He would not have been swayed by any words of yours or ours, and you cannot bind an ally to you against his will. You have done well at least to preserve the alliance. Perhaps he will yet return in time."
Isildur glanced at the Lady sadly. "Your words reassure me, Lady, but still am I uneasy in my heart. He will return quickly only if Pelargir and all her people are utterly destroyed. Even then, he will be gone at least five days, too late to help us. And I fear greatly for Cirdan. In our concern for Pelargir we have given but little thought to why he should be delayed. If he was in the Bay of Belfalas when the Black Fleet arrived at Anduin, they could have had an evil time of it. The Elves of Lindon are mighty mariners, unequaled in seamanship, but they are unused to the ways of war at sea. And the Corsairs have been masters of that art for a thousand years. Their ships are driven by many slaves, and they carry catapults that throw skins of flaming oil.
"The White Fleet is strong, but if they met this mighty assault fleet in the open sea, especially if the wind were light or fickle, I fear greatly for the outcome. We know both fleets must have been in the bay at the same time, and but one has emerged. I like it not."
"I have had these same thoughts," said Celeborn, "and yet one more: if Cirdan has indeed fallen to the Corsairs, might not that which he bore be even now on its way to Sauron?"
"Aye," said Isildur, his face growing even darker. "If that were so, all our plans would be thwarted before they were begun. Already the tide seems to flow against us. We sought throughout the west for aid, but the Eredrim and the Dwarves refuse us and the men of Minhiriath and Anfalas cannot come, and now even the brave legions of Pelargir are denied us on the very eve of battle. If Cirdan too is lost, we lack even the strength to strike and can only helplessly await the end. Woe to us, and alas to all we love and seek to preserve!" And his grief was writ plain upon his face.
"And yet we must not despair," said Galadriel. "The Host of the Alliance is mighty yet and guards the enemy within his last refuge. The armies of Gondor and Lothlórien are strong and eager. We are alive, our powers are at the full. There is hope yet. While the sun yet shines, there is hope."
At that moment there came another blare of trumpets and shouting from the walls of the city. On the fields of the Westbank, the men of Pelargir were forming a long column. Barathor and his cavalry could be seen riding to its head. The great doors of the gate swung open, and Barathor led his army out of the city.
For an instant the sun gleamed on sprearpoint and helm and Barathor's banner rippled beneath the arch. Then a cloud passed over the sun and a breeze sprang up from the east. Barathor's esquire sounded his horn, but the call seemed already faint with distance. Then a sudden cold rain pelted down and the riders were lost to the sight of those watching from the tower. And Isildur gazed up at the lowering clouds and repeated Galadriel's last words.
"While the sun yet shines," he murmured.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
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