When the last glimmers of the sun had faded behind Mount Mindolluin and Midsummer's Day had ended, a tense group gathered in a warehouse in the southernmost part of the city. Meneldil the Steward was there, and Bortil, the merchant who owned the building. Before them stood a group of Elves and Men dressed in cloaks of black and grey. Their hoods were thrown back, for the warehouse was still warm from the long summer day. Around the walls, before massive wooden racks holding large amphorae of wine, lay a dozen small round boats, stacked like bowls. They were light and crude, made of ox hide stretched over a frame of willow. In the center of the floor was a dark opening leading to a flight of dank and mossy stone steps. Water could be heard lapping gently below. The warehouse extended right out over the River for ease in loading and unloading the boats that came up the River from the vineyards of Emyn Arnen.
"These coracles," said Bortil, "were once used as lighters for offloading the wine before I had the dock built below the warehouse. They are small and not built for speed, but each will hold two men and a half-dozen amphorae. I daresay six men could ride in each if they stay low."
"They will serve well," said Amroth. "In the old days we used craft not unlike them on the Nimrodel Stream at Lothlórien. Two will row, the rest will keep out of sight and lie still."
"But are these stairs safe, Bortil?" asked Turgon. "They would seem to be an entrance into your city. Is it wise to leave them unguarded?"
"The water gate is closed by a portcullis at the outer end, Lord Turgon. In happier times it kept pilferers from sampling my vintages, but it serves to keep out orcs as well. I will raise it when you are ready."
"We are ready now," said Turgon. "My men thirst not for your wine, but for orc blood beneath their blades."
"We shall have enough of that, I fear," said Amroth. He saw the lust for revenge in the eyes of Turgon and his men of Ethir Lefnui. "But let no one make a rash move. Our mission tonight is not to slay orcs, but to elude them. We must be in position at the bridge when the sun again shows her face. Galdor, note the hour. Is the light full gone?"
Galdor, one of Lady Galadriel's boat steerers, peered out a dusty window. "Aye, Lord Amroth. The sun is down. The moon, waxing gibbous, is already high. The night awaits us."
"It would be better to wait until the moon has set," said Amroth, "but I fear we cannot wait so long. We have a great deal of ground to cover before dawn. Let us begin. Turgon, you go first. Strike across the River and seek a secluded place to land. As quiet as ever you can, but be ready. We know not if the orcs keep sentries watching the River this far below the bridge. If you are attacked, raise a shout to warn the rest of us, then return at once. We can't hope to force a landing in these flimsy craft."
The first boat was carried down the steps and set in the muddy water moving sluggishly past. Many hands steadied the coracle as one by one Turgon and five of his men climbed in. Two paddles were handed down.
"Keep your hoods over your faces and your weapons down," said Turgon. "Let no metal show, for it might catch the moonlight. And for Eru's sake don't put your spear through the bottom of the boat."
"Do not let the paddles strike the side of the boat," said Bortil. "They resound like drums."
The men wrapped their weapons in spare cloaks and stowed them carefully, then lay or crouched in the bottom of the boat. The two paddlers nodded. Bortil and some of the Elves put their shoulders to a large windlass and raised the portcullis dripping from the River. Blobs of black mud fell back into the water with soft wet splats.
"Go in good fortune," whispered Bortil, and the paddlers gave a few strong strokes. The bulky little boat bumped against the dock once, then wheeled ponderously out into the current and drifted downstream, out of sight. They all listened for shouts or the twang of bow strings, but there was only the soft lapping of the water on the stones. It was hard to believe that in spite of the silence, the great battle had already begun.
"Quickly now, quickly," Amroth whispered. One by one six other boats were filled and launched. Then he climbed into the last. It was very cramped in the bottom of the boat, and the round bottom meant they were constantly standing on each other's feet. Amroth crouched down with the others. Bortil and his apprentice shoved them away from the stone dock. Then they emerged from the tunnel. The night was bright and clear, too much so for Amroth's liking. The moon was only four days short of the full and stood nearly straight up. Away from the moon's glare, stars glimmered in the darkness. Amroth raised his head enough to peer ahead and saw the other boats like small round shadows on the water. They lay in a long curve as the current swept them downstream.
The Elves at the paddles began a steady stroke, struggling to keep the boat headed for the eastern shore. At first their attempts at steering only caused the coracle to spin, but they soon learned the trick of coordinating their strokes. The current was only moderate, but the coracles were so slow and unwieldy that they could see the towers of the city's southern walls approaching before they drew in under the shadow of the buildings lining the far shore. Now they were in easy bowshot of any guards on the east bank, but still no sound but the River met their straining ears.
Turgon and the other boats drew together in an eddy behind an outthrust stone pier. Amroth's boat paddled hard to reach it before they were swept past. At last they drew into the calmer water. No word was spoken. Turgon pointed silently toward a black inlet between two overhanging buildings, and without a word they all made for it. The current was nearly still here, and they slipped noiselessly into the shadows, breathing sighs of relief.
The larger building, apparently another warehouse, was built partially out over the water, and they pulled themselves among the concealing pilings. The smell of mud and rotting fish was intense in the close space.
"All here?" whispered Amroth.
"Aye. Eight boats. Let's go."
One of the Elves found an old wooden ladder on one of the pilings and scrambled up onto a rickety wooden walkway that went around the building. It took some time to unload each boat, for they had to maneuver the boat to the ladder, hand up the weapons and packs, clamber out, then work the boat out of the way and secure it before the next could be moved in. But in less than half an hour they were gathered at the end of a narrow alley, their cloaks wrapped about them, their weapons clutched in their hands.
"Carefully, carefully," whispered Amroth. "Stay close to the walls and watch the windows and doorways. Above all, we must see them before they see us. If we are spotted, try to bring them down before they can give the alarm. If they don't see us, let them go. We'll get our chance to fight soon enough." He was still worried about Turgon's men, though they moved with discipline and order.
"We need to keep moving north," Turgon said. "That's where the Bridge is."
"And the orcs," someone replied grimly.
For nearly an hour, they moved noiselessly from shadow to shadow. There was no sign of life. All the buildings were dark and silent. Apparently this whole part of the city was deserted. They estimated they must be nearing the eastern end of the Great Bridge. Then, as they approached yet another cross street, they could hear the sound of marching feet and melted silently into doorways and arches. Amroth crept forward and peered cautiously around the crumbling corner of an old brick building.
A company of perhaps twenty orcs was approaching. They were squat and bent, but very powerful, with large chests and short bowed muscular legs and long arms that reached nearly to the ground. They were of many different breeds and lands, and their faces showed it. Some were thin vulture-like things with heavy curved beaks. Others were hairy beasts with muzzles like baboons. Some wore rough leather boots, others trotted barefoot on wide three-toed feet. They wore armor of black unburnished iron and bore swords with long jagged blades. They were trotting along at a good pace, but without any sign of caution. Clearly they did not know the raiders were there. Amroth ducked into a dark doorway.
The orcs turned the corner into their street and the raiders tightened their grips on their weapons. But the orcs turned into a building across the way. Their heavy feet clattered down a flight of stairs. Then they were gone. A moment later Turgon ran up.
"I would guess that is the Bridge garrison's day watch returning to their barracks," he whispered. "Orcs prefer to sleep below ground if possible. If they have just come off watch, they are likely to sleep until near dawn."
"Shall we go on to the Bridge or try to take them?" asked one of the men.
"No. The night watch has just come on duty and will be fresh. A sound now will bring them all running. We will give them an hour to become drowsy and careless. But we can check on the exits from those barracks. If we can keep them in there instead of having to fight them, so much the better."
A half-dozen Elves moved silently forward and examined the barracks on all sides.There were four small windows at ground level, but they were too low for even an orc to wriggle through. There was a second door at the rear of the building, though it looked as if it had not been opened in a long time. Some of Turgon's men found some wooden beams in a vacant lot down the block and wedged them carefully against the door. Leaving two men there and six more at the front door, the rest moved around the corner and down the next street. It was sloping gently to the River.
A small square opened before them, dominated on the far side by two round stone towers. Between them lay the gate of the Bridge, blocked by a wooden barricade bristling on the far side with spears. Four or five orcs lolled by the barricade, speaking in low harsh voices. A window in the northern tower showed a flickering red glow. As they peered from the shadows, they were startled by a resounding crash of broken glass, followed by shriek of pain and a roar of coarse laughter. Obviously most of the watch had retired to the tower for a bottle or two, leaving only a handful at the barrier.
Amroth signalled for the others to withdraw with him into a small courtyard opening off the square. "They are but few," whispered one of the Elves. "We could take them easily."
"So it would seem," Amroth replied, "but let us not be duped."
"Aye," said Turgon. "These buildings around the square could be full of orcs. If so, one sound would raise the alarm and the square would turn into a trap."
"Yes. We must know how many are around the square. If we separate into small groups and move cautiously, we should be able to search all the buildings that actually front on the square. See if you can determine where the orcs are. Above all, we must avoid making any contact before dawn, for there are sure to be hundreds of orcs nearby. We could not hope to fight them all. If you must strike, be swift and silent. After you have searched your building, station yourselves at likely vantage points above the square where you can do some good when Isildur arrives at dawn. Let us go."
They moved down a narrow alley that ran behind the buildings that fronted on the square. At each door three or four entered and began a silent search. Turgon and two Elves slipped into one large house and moved noiselessly down a long dark hallway. It had clearly once been a noble mansion with a marble floor and wood panelling, though all was now chipped and filthy. Approaching a closed door, they could hear loud snoring coming from behind it. Flitting quietly past, they found the rest of the floor empty, as was the level above. Then as they ascended the stairs to the third floor they froze in their tracks, for low speech could be heard above. Not daring to go up without knowing how many might be there, they secreted themselves in a small room near the stairs to await the dawn.
Galdor and Amroth with two other Elves tried the door of a large stately building with a domed roof and a tower overlooking the square. The door was locked, but they found a window they could open and soon they were all standing in a dark room. With bows drawn and arrows nocked, they carefully opened an inner door. Beyond was a large and elegant room, perhaps a ballroom, beneath the dome. On the far side, an arched doorway led to winding steps that must go up into the tower. They padded silently across the polished floor.
Suddenly a door flew open, light flooded into the hall, and an orc entered carrying a large sack. For an instant he stared, his mouth open and eyes wide, then he dropped the sack and raced back the way he had come. He had not taken three steps when two arrows pierced his back and his body slid to a stop in the doorway. The others waited, but there was no sound but their pounding hearts.
They dragged his body behind a column and closed the door that led into a kitchen. Examining his sack, they found two hard crusts of bread, two browning apples, and a clay flask full of a harsh red wine that smelled of vinegar.
"A good sign," whispered Galdor, his lips nearly touching Amroth's ear. "No doubt provisions for guards in the tower. If there be but two, we may be able to take them quietly." Amroth nodded. Taking up the sack, they crept up the winding stairs, turn after turn until they lost all sense of direction. At the top they came to a heavy wooden door. They pushed gently, but it was latched or barred from the other side.
Galdor grinned. He stamped heavily on the floor, then dropped the sack beside the door. The flask broke with a clatter. There was commotion on the other side of the door. Then a hoarse voice croaked.
"Gordrog, you clumsy bag of pus! If you've fallen and spilled our wine I'll have your eyes out for it. Gordrog? Do you hear me, you maggot?" Suddenly the door was yanked open and a very angry orc stormed out, still cursing. Amroth's sword flashed down and the orc's head bounded away down the stairs, the eyes wide and surprised, the lips still twisting in anger. His body fell heavily at their feet and they leaped over it into the chamber, weapons at the ready. But the room was empty. Gordrog must have been bringing food for the two of them.
It was a round room with shuttered windows on each side. A wooden table stood in the center, littered with filth and lit by a guttering candle. Various pieces of arms and armor lay scattered about the walls. Beside one window stood a large basket of arrows and crossbow bolts. A massive crossbow leaned against the wall. They snuffed the candle, then opened the shutter and peered cautiously out.
They were high above the square, looking down on all the neighboring buildings. Directly below was the barricade at the Bridge. They settled down to wait. An hour or so later, a dozen orcs came out of the building opposite and joined the others at the barricade. Angry words broke out, mixed with a string of curses. A scuffle broke out between two of them. The leader, a huge brownish orc with a long hooked beak, clubbed one with the haft of his spear to restore order. The stricken orc dropped senseless to the pavement. His comrades ignored him. They took up positions, lounging against the barricade. Four or five squatted in a corner and took to rolling dice, now and again breaking out into arguments.
Some time later, Galdor caught Amroth's sleeve and pointed to a rooftop across from them. Several dark shadows flitted swiftly across a patch of moonlight, but whether friend or foe they could not tell. The moon set soon after, throwing the city into blackness. They raiders withdrew into themselves, waiting silently for dawn, though their eyes were turned toward the dark shapes of the buildings and walls to the west across Anduin.
Isildur sat astride his grey charger Fleetfoot and patted his long muscular neck. The spirited animal was skittish, for he could smell the excitement and nervous tension in the many men and horses crowded around him. They were moving slowly and as silently as possible down a dark and narrow street, the horses' hooves muffled with rags. They turned corner after corner, always descending to the riverfront. When they at last reached the large square that had formerly been the bustling marketplace of the waterfront, they found it packed with armored riders. Isildur led his own housecarls, the men who had ridden with him from Gorgoroth, through the press. Ohtar rode at his knee, as he had at so many battles before. At last they came out of the crowd and there before them was the wide avenue leading east to the Great Bridge. It was empty and silent, for they had forbidden anyone to approach beyond the square.
The Elf-lords were already there: Celeborn and Gildor and Elrond and the Lady Galadriel, their grey cloaks drawn about them against the pre-dawn chill. They greeted one another with nods, no more. Isildur drew up beside the Lady and they looked down the long straight avenue to the dark loom of the gates, the gates that marked the western end of the Bridge.
"The false dawn came and went a few moments ago," said Galadriel, a mist escaping from her hood as she spoke. "It will be true dawn soon."
"Aye," said Isildur, looking to the eastern mountains. "There is a hint of grey above the Ephel Dúath. Soon, away in the east, the sun will strike the summit of Orodruin. Elendil and Gil-galad will be there to see it, their thoughts bent on us here, wondering how we fare. And we will ride to them though all the hosts of Mordor stand between us."
"And those hosts wait but on the other side of yonder gate," said Galadriel.
Isildur nodded. "Arannon, the Gate of the King, it is called. Once it was but an arch, through which on festival days processions would march between the two parts of the city, with girls scattering blossoms before them. Heralds would stand atop the arch and sound fanfares on their long brazen trumpets. The sun would shine down on the crowds and you would swear that no two wore the same color.
"But then the war came and the entire eastern sector of the city was wrested from us. Only by fierce and bloody battle did we hold the Bridge. A strong wall was hastily thrown up and the arch became a gate. Never did they take it, though they tried it again and again. Occasionally we would throw open the gate and sortie out against them. After many assaults, they learned to respect and fear that gate, for, open or closed, it meant only death for them.
"They tried to cross at other points, but we had thrown down all the lesser bridges and our hails of arrows emptied their boats before they could cross. It is almost two years now since last they assailed us in force.That gate has been our shield all these years, and now we propose to throw it open and reach beyond it."
"A shield which cannot be moved is of little use in a battle, Isildur," said Galadriel. "We Ringbearers are Gondor's shield now, and you its sword. Neither shield nor sword can remain behind walls when the horns of war are calling. Perhaps soon those doors can be pulled down and it will become an arch of triumph for you!"
Isildur smiled. "You speak fair words of hope, Lady. Spring they from Elvish visions of what will be, or are they but a woman's words of comfort to a warrior?"
"If there be a difference I know it not. For do we not all have visions of what the future may hold? And words of comfort may strengthen our cause as much as deeds of arms, and bring these visions to pass. My visions are not of what will be, but of what can be. Sauron too has his dream of what can be. It is our part to determine which vision shall prevail."
Isildur lowered his voice so that only she could hear. "Lady, if you can see somewhat of the future, tell me this: Can Sauron be defeated? Or do we ride to certain death, as I sometimes fear in this darkest hour of the night?"
A look of surprise crossed Galadriel's lovely face framed in its cowl. "Of course it is possible to defeat him. My vision sees many possible futures, and in some he is indeed thrown down. But I am not shown how that can be accomplished. Is your view of the future so short that you cannot see even the possibility of victory?"
"My Lady, we Men share not your Elvish senses. The future is wholly dark to us."
"And do you then suspect our task is hopeless?"
"I would never say it before any of my people, Lady, but when I think of his hideous might and power, his ruthless cruelty; truly, my heart misgives me."
"You Atani never cease to surprise me," she said. "We Quendi know, perhaps better than you, the terrible danger into which we ride and the desperate chance we take by doing so. But always we know that victory is possible; that the future good is never completely closed to us. But you Men, knowing nothing of all that, gird yourselves in nothing but baseless hope and ride into the glimmerless dark. Your path is never lighted, save behind you, where all futures have collapsed into one immutable past. We ride side by side against the same foes, and yet who shall say who has the greater courage?"
Isildur had no answer, but only raised his eyes to the dark brooding peaks of Mordor, now silhouetted against a glowing rose sky. What lay there now, waiting for them? He wondered what Elvish eyes saw in those distant crags.
He was called from his revery by the hurried arrival of Elendur.
"All is ready, father," he panted. "The streets are filled with mounted men for many blocks to the north and west and south. All await your word."
"Have you chosen your companions well?"
"Aye. Most are companions of my youth in Minas Ithil. A few are Osgiliath men I fought beside when the enemy attacked us here at the Arannon. And one is a bold shepherd fellow from Calembel, a giant of a man. He speaks little, but he came to me when he heard of our purpose and volunteered for our party. He would not be denied."
Isildur laughed. "I know the man, I believe. He threatened not to let my column pass until he had cleared us with Ingold. He is as strong as an ox and seems to know not fear. I am glad he is with you."
He looked over his shoulder at Mindolluin looming behind the city. Already the sun was gilding its highest peaks. "When the sun sends her rays upon the Tower of the Stone we shall ride," he said. "Just before we reach the Arannon, have the gate wardens throw open the doors. May we never have need to close them again.
"We will make no attempt to capture the eastern sectors of the city. Their strongest defenses will be gathered at the east end of the Bridge. If we can break through there, we shall ride straight through the city and on up the road to Minas Ithil. As the infantry follows, they should spread across the city and sweep it clean of orcs. The militia of Osgiliath will retake the walls of the city and hold them against our return."
The army stood silent, watching the growing dawn. The light crept down Mindolluin's slopes. No sound could be heard but the warbling of birds awakening in the eaves of the buildings.
"Since we have heard no sounds of battle," said Elendur, "we can hope that Amroth and his raiding party have not yet been discovered. I pray they have succeeded and are now somewhere over there, waiting for us."
Elrond rode over to them. "Lo," he said. "The sun strikes Minas Anor." They looked, and there, thrust up against a purple fold of Mindolluin's vast bulk, the Tower of the Sun gleamed like a white flame in the sun.
"May the sun shine as brightly upon Minas Ithil," said Celeborn. "For orcs like not the light. It hurts their eyes and makes them fearful. And it will hearten the men against the Shadow."
They waited a few moments more, the suspense and anticipation growing unbearable. At last a golden beam of sun broke through a pass high in the Ephel Dúath and struck the white banner fluttering bravely from the top of the Tower of Stone.
"The sun shines upon Gondor," said Isildur. "It is time at last." He looked once at Minas Anor and the fair towers of Osgiliath, at the thousands of eager faces watching him. Then, with neither word nor sign, he wheeled Fleetfoot around and spurred him forward. For a moment he was the only moving object in the entire city. He galloped down the center of the empty street, the horse's hooves clattering loudly on the paving stones. Then Ohtar and Elendur and the royal guards of their house sprang forward and thundered behind him, followed by the Elf-lords and Barathor and the other great knights of the land. Ohtar pulled the bindings from the standard he bore and Isildur's banner broke free and rippled in the speed of his passage. Beside him Elrond and Gildor did the same, and all marvelled to see the Star of Gil-galad, the White Tree of Gondor, and the Golden Tree of Lothlórien riding together into the East.
Behind them, the square rapidly emptied as the river of mounted knights rushed away. Then street after street, alley after alley, poured its thousands of riders into the flood, swelling it to a great river, and it seemed that the column would never come to an end. The thunder of hooves was drowned in a roar of many voices shouting in hoarse and wild joy.
Isildur bore down on the gates of the Arannon, oblivious to the growing roar behind him. As the gates swung open he could see high before him the lofty mountains of his Ithilien. Then he was pounding across the Great Bridge, the empty houses and shops flashing past on either side. There before him was a wooden barricade and a dozen astonished orcs staring wide-eyed. Above the noise he could hear the raucous calling of a brass trumpet ahead, suddenly cut short, and orcs started pouring out of the buildings just beyond the barricade. He did not slacken his pace.
"For Gondor!" he shouted, sweeping out his sword. The host at his back took up the cry. "For Gondor! Gondor and the West!"
When the first shouts rang out, Galdor and Amroth leaped to the window. Orcs were streaming out of the guard tower, but they suddenly stopped, gaping in awe across the Bridge. Glancing there, the Elves saw that the massive gates were swinging slowly open. Through them rode a single rider dressed all in white with a great cape streaming behind him, his sword sweeping in shining circles above his head.
"Isildur comes," cried Amroth. A second later a phalanx of fierce horsemen, bellowing like madmen, burst from the gate, followed by the lords and standards of many lands, all riding as hard as they could straight for the barricade. Behind them came a thundering column of armored knights, row upon row.
The orcs dashed to the barricade. One raised a horn to his lips and started a blast of warning, but Galdor quickly sent a shaft through his body before he could draw a second breath. From the neighboring houses came a deadly rain of arrows that felled all but a few of the orcs at the barricade. The others fell back and ran shouting up the street, away from the River. Most were cut down by archers from the windows and rooftops.
Looking back to the Bridge, Galdor saw a second group of figures dash out of a house and run to the barricade. He drew his bow again, but then saw that these were not orcs but Men. Turning instead to shoot an orc trying to climb into the window of a house across the street, he turned back to see the men struggling to move the barricade. In moments they were joined by a half dozen Elves, and together they swung the heavy wooden structure back and to the side. Tipping it over the parapet, they cheered as it crashed into the River below with an immense splash.
They spun around just in time to see Isildur go pounding past, his speed unchecked. He looked neither to left nor right, but crossed the square and disappeared up the main road, still all alone. Then the square was suddenly filled with thousands of armed men and Elves, cheering wildly. Galdor and his companions ran down to join them, but Amroth remained in the tower.
Turgon's party were waiting beside the stairs when the trumpet sounded. Soon orcs, still stupid with sleep and fumbling with their harness, came pouring down the stairs. The men fell on them with merciless fury and many were slain, but it was some moments before the orcs realized the house was taken and they continued to run into the slaughter at the bottom of the stairs. When they heard the shouting and the pounding of hooves outside, they became wild with fear and threw themselves again at the grim-faced men. One man fell when an orc crept up on him from the floor below, but he was avenged before he struck the floor. At last the terrible work was done and all the orcs lay slain, their blood spreading across the marble tiles.
Leading his men to the street, Turgon found that although the square and main street thundered to the passage of the host of Gondor, the side streets were now teeming with terrified orcs. The raiders chased them from their holes and drove them yammering down the streets. Advancing a few blocks fairly quickly, they soon came against stronger resistance. After a short but fierce battle against a strong band of determined orcs in a large intersection, they could hear the sounds of another battle just around the corner.
Rushing on, they rounded the corner and found four of the men they had left guarding the barracks hard pressed by a much larger number of orcs that surrounded them. All about them lay the bodies of men and orcs. As Turgon's men ran forward, one of the four was cut down by a savage swipe of a jagged sword.
Howling with anger, they fell on the orcs with a cold fury, but two more men lay dead before the battle was won. They stood panting and looking at the carnage around them. One of the defenders wiped the blood from his eyes and looked at Turgon.
"Our thanks, my lord," he gasped. "Six of us kept forty of the foe trapped in that cellar until Isildur's van passed by. Finally they burst through the door. We slew many, but at last they killed one of ours and broke out. Those you slew were the last."
"Our thanks to you, yeomen," said Turgon. "Your valor has spared the lives of many of our comrades. But our work is far from done. Let us move from house to house, clearing each of the vermin that infest it, until no living orc remains within the city. By nightfall this evening Osgiliath will be one city again."
Just then the sounds of renewed battle reached them from the direction of the square. Hurrying there, they found that a large company of orcs from the northern part of the city had driven into the square from the north, endeavoring to cut off the infantry, now pouring across the bridge, from the cavalry, now racing out of the city.
A great battle filled the square, along with clouds of dust and the commotion of shouts of anger, cries of pain, and the clashing of metal on metal. These orcs were larger, better trained, and better armed. They wore steel armor over their thick scaly hides. They drove the men back by their sheer ferocity, slashing this way and that with their heavy crooked swords. Their leader, a huge greenish orc with a flat snakelike head, thrust viciously at his adversaries and then leaped atop their corpses to better wield his bloody trident. Howling in triumph, he thrust again and again at the press of men around him, taking a life with nearly every stroke. Several times arrows struck him, but always they bounced off his heavy armor. He raised his head and roared, striking terror in all who heard him.
Suddenly his roar changed to a scream of pain and outrage, and he stared down in horror at the feathers of a crossbow bolt protruding from his chest. Then a dozen hands grasped him and pulled him down among the flashing blades. Looking up, Galdor saw Amroth at the high tower window, smiling grimly and already rewinding the orcish crossbow. Again and again it twanged, dealing swift death to the orcs. Finally, leaderless, frightened, and confused, they broke and fled wailing down the street, closely pursued by the men of Gondor.
Gradually the tumult died away and the fighting moved away into other parts of the city. Amroth rested then and looked away to the east. Far away, a long dark line was climbing steadily toward the pine-clad Mountains of Shadow.
Isildur held Fleetfoot to a steady canter now, letting him rest from the long furious run. The road was smooth, wide, and straight, and the cavalry had formed up behind him in orderly ranks. Beside him rode Cirdan, Celeborn, and Galadriel, and in the rank just behind were Ohtar, Gildor, and Elrond with the banners. They had surprised several bands of orcs on the road but they had fled in terror at the first sight of the grim-faced warriors. The sun rose high before them.
The road approached a ring of huge pine trees where it crossed the road running up from Harad to the Morannon. As expected, the Crossroads was defended by a large garrison of orcs. They were already forming up in a wide band across the road. Charging upon them at full speed, the van quickly broke through their line, then wheeled to surround them. There followed a short but fierce skirmish, but the orcs were greatly outnumbered and were soon overwhelmed. The column formed up again and moved on.
As they rode through the line of trees and into the Crossroads, the Elves saw there a large statue of Isildur, seated on a throne and staring sternly off into the west toward Osgiliath. The statue had been set up as a warning and notice to all who passed that this was the fief of Isildur. The king was back in his homeland again. He did not glance aside at his likeness, but rode on with his eyes fixed on the heights above.
Once past the Crossroads there were no more orcs to be seen and the host rode on unhindered through a sparse forest of pines and firs. Ohtar now rode at Isildur's side. He sniffed the air appreciatively.
"It smells like home, Sire," he said. "This part of the land always reminded me of the Emyn Arnen. I'm glad to see it unchanged." Isildur nodded.
"I used to hunt in these woods, years ago," he said. "I remember one trip, with Anárion and father, we hunted a large and noble stag right into that grove at the Crossroads. We camped there. It was early on, and Osgiliath was still under construction. After the hunt we three stood there and looked down on the city -- it was all one-story buildings and dirt roads in those days. It was a good moment, seeing our works going up like that.
"Father looked across at the White Mountains in the distance and said 'There should be fortresses in those mountains and these, to guard our new capital. A tower over yonder on that great blue peak could view the whole valley of the Anduin from the Nindalf halfway to Pelargir. Another on this side could defend all these fair lands from north, south, or east.'
"Anárion spoke up at once. 'I would live on that mountain, Father,' he said. 'I climbed it once and it is the fairest prospect in all the land.'
"'For my part,' said I, 'these tree-shaded slopes are more to my liking. They are better watered and I am fond of the music of a mountain stream. Let Anárion have the blue mountain. I would build my fortress here.'
"Elendil laughed, saying, 'Are you dividing up my kingdom already? We have worked hard to unite the many tribes of these valleys. Would you now make two kingdoms of Gondor?'
"'Nay, Father,' said Anárion with a smile. 'But would not your two fortresses be best ruled by your two sons? Let us guide the building of them and you shall decide which is the most beautiful and strong. And you will always know that friendly eyes are watching over Osgiliath from above.'
"'Osgiliath is scarcely walled and already you talk of building new fortresses. But the symmetry pleases me. Let is be thus.' He looked to both sites, then smiled. 'And look, the very orbs of the heavens do ordain it. There, where the sun begins to blush on the high snowfields of the White Mountains, let Minas Anor, the Tower of the Setting Sun, rise under Anárion's hand. And up there, where now the moon climbs over the high passes of the Mountains of Shadow, I would have you, Isildur, build Minas Ithil, the Tower of the Rising Moon. So will your names, given so long ago in Númenor, be fulfilled and Gondor will be the more secure.'
"And so it was done, though I chose the next valley to the south for my city, for there is both a clear stream there and also an ancient path that crossed the mountains into Mordor. We widened the trail and built a smooth road over the pass." His nostalgic smile faded. "Little did I think when I built that road that it would one day carry enemies to our door and sorrow to our land. But soon we will drive them back up that road and out of Gondor forever."
Now they were approaching Minas Ithil and still there was no sign of an alarm. Isildur reined in and waited for the Elf-lords and the other captains to join him.
"In another few hundred yards this wood will end," he said. "When we come out of the trees we will come to a bridge over the stream and behold the city above us. I would have us in full gallop before we are seen from the walls. But that means we won't know what forces we will find there. If the foe is fore-warned, they may be arrayed before the city. Everyone must be prepared for immediate battle. Let the riders form up in close order with a lancer on the ends of each rank. If we are hard-pressed, each division will form a ring with the lancers on the outside. My men of Ithilien shall be in the first division, for they know the land.
"After we cross the bridge, the road winds across the valley and up the southern slopes to the city. The gate is in the northern wall. Just before we reach the gate we will divide our force. Let the Galadrim take the left flank and try to encircle the city to the east. Barathor, take your people to the right around the western and southern wall. If all goes well you will meet where the land rises quickly and you can ply your bows to best advantage over the wall. I will assail the gates with all the other companies. I would have the Ring-bearers with me, for I intend to challenge the Nine with my sword and I shall have need of your powers."
"What if the divisions become separated?" asked Barathor. "Should we not have a place appointed to gather?"
"Aye," said Isildur. "If we are separated, we will meet at the foot of the Tower of the Moon in the center of the Citadel."
Barathor opened his mouth to point out that they would have to take both the city and the Citadel before they could meet at the tower, but one look at Isildur's determined eye caused him to close his mouth again.
"Try to keep moving toward the gate whatever happens," Isildur went on. "Remember our primary purpose is to make them concentrate their defenses there. Elendur and his men will ride with the men of Pelargir, then drop off as they pass under the southern gate tower. Elendur, is your party ready?"
"Aye, father," answered Elendur. He had coils of rope over his shoulder and grappling hooks at his saddle horn, concealed under a blanket. His companions looked on grimly, their faces calm and set.
"Then let us arrange our formations," said Isildur. The captains rode back to their companies and passed on the king's orders. Swords were loosened in their scabbards, bows and quivers checked. In a few moments all were in readiness. Isildur raised his arm, then dropped it, and the companies spurred their mounts forward as one.
The sound of their hooves grew from a clatter to a drumming to a thunder as ten thousand horses surged forward and broke into a gallop. Then the van broke out of the trees and there across the valley stood the City of the Moon.
White it was, gleaming in the afternoon sun, a striking contrast to the dark rock of the mountains it guarded. It stood on a sharp rise jutting out from the southern shoulder of the valley. From its center rose a tall slim tower like an ivory needle, glowing coolly in the hot sun as if brimming with moonlight. At its feet stood a massive castle of many gables and battlements, the Citadel of Isildur. The road wound down from the city's gate, back and forth as it descended from the heights until it came to the single-arched bridge. Sirlos, the Snowstream, was that flood called, for it had its birth in the ice and snow of the pine woods at the summit of the mountains. Looking up to his left, Isildur was sickened to see that all those woods were gone, the slopes marked only by stumps. The lower valley too had changed. It was a tangle of bramble and thorns, with here and there a fire-blackened chimney or a wild rose or lilac to show that it had once been the site of farmhouses and homely cottages. The men of the Ithil Vale looked about grimly as they rode and tightened their grips on their spears and lances, determined to avenge these wrongs.
The road to the bridge was lined on either side by low stone walls, beyond which lay fair meadows dotted with white flowers. Now the van was thundering between those walls, now across the stone bridge, now pounding up the slope toward the city. Still there was no challenge.
Isildur rode at the head of the host, his eyes searching his city. Only now, when they were nearing the top of the slope and were but a few hundred yards from the gate, did he see any sign of alarm. Then he could see dark figures racing along the top of the wall. The gates were closed, but a small sally-port in one door stood open. Just outside, a company of men and orcs lounged idly, but as the horsemen crested the hill the guards saw their death approaching and they hurried through the door, pushing each other out of the way until arrows began to fall amongst them. The door slammed shut just as horns could be heard blaring frantically in the city.
Isildur's heralds sounded their own horns in reply and the host roared like a breaking sea. As they approached the gates, the van split into three columns. The Elves, led by Gildor, swept off to the left, their horses' hooves suddenly muffled as they left the road and pounded off across the springing turf. Isildur led the main force against the gate, signalling them to spread wide and halt just out of bowshot from the gate towers. The third column, led by Barathor, veered to the right and rode into the very shadow of the walls. The orc archers on the walls could not fire down on them without leaning out precariously, and then they were exposed to the deadly hail of arrows sent aloft by Isildur's bowmen.
The flanks swept around the city, those on the right compelled to ride single file due to the sudden drop of the land but a few feet from the foot of the wall. Along this perilous path Barathor sped in reckless haste, eager to reach the wider slopes behind the city. Within minutes, the path widened and started to climb. Then he was spurring his horse up the steep slopes, away from the walls. He reached a level meadow less than a hundred yards from the walls, but already above them. He signalled to his herald to sound the order to dismount and began ordering his formation of archers. Already the arrows were falling thick amongst them. One whistled past his ear as he dismounted.
Looking back to the city, he saw Gildor suddenly appear around a curve of the wall, riding hard toward him. Several horses in the Elvish column were now without riders, as were no few of his own. But he knew that some of those horses now running in confusion and terror in the midst of the battle had belonged to Elendur's party. He prayed they had reached the wall safely without being seen.
In fact, Elendur and his comrades were now standing not far away around the curve of the wall, their backs pressed hard against the cool white marble. They had waited anxiously as their friends had galloped away out of sight. After the long ride up from the River and the heart-pounding excitement of the cavalry charge, they now stood silent and motionless, listening, waiting for missiles to rain down on them at any moment. Their archers stood with bows drawn and aimed straight up the wall, ready to shoot if a head were to peer over the parapet. Off to their right they could hear the tumult of a great battle at the gate, thousands of voices shouting and cheering and cursing at the same time.
Without stepping away from the wall, they bent to their tasks. Elendur took from his shoulder a coil of slim greyish rope, as soft and supple as silk. Made by the Elves and no thicker than a man's smallest finger, it could yet bear the weight of a large man in armor. Beside him, Orth, the giant herdsman of Calembel, unslung from his back a stout and murderous-looking crossbow. Setting its nose on the ground between his feet, he began to crank back the string. Another man secured the line to a light four-barbed grappling hook. Then the bow was passed from hand to hand to Elendur, who seated the haft of the grapple securely into its track. The coil of line was flaked out ready to run free. Elendur raised the stock of the bow to his shoulder. Still no man had moved more than a foot from the wall.
Suddenly Elendur stepped away from the wall, turned, and fired. With a loud clatter, the grapple sailed up and disappeared over the wall. Instantly two men tailed onto the line and began pulling it back as quickly as they could. It caught, slipped, caught again. They gave it a hard jerk to set the hook. Elendur put his hand to the rope, but Orth stayed him.
"Wait here," he said. He spoke with such assurance that Elendur, unused to taking orders from anyone, paused and looked at him in surprise. In that moment the man took the line from his hands and scrambled up it with surprising speed, his heavy oaken spear swinging from his belt.
"If the line holds him," chuckled one of the men, "it should bear the rest of us easily enough."
"Aye," said Elendur, "and I wager we could all ride up on his back without hindering him overmuch."
They saw him reach the battlement, peer cautiously over, then scramble through a crenel and disappear. A moment later his head reappeared and he beckoned the others to follow.
Elendur slung the crossbow on his back and started up. He found to his surprise that the Elvish rope, though soft and of an even lay, yet gave good purchase to his hands and he went up easily. When he was but halfway up however, he heard a muffled cry from above. He looked up just in time to see a dark shape hurtling toward him. Before he could react, the figure flashed past and struck the ground with a sickening wet thud. He froze, his heart pounding, spinning perhaps thirty feet off the ground, expecting at each moment to feel the line go slack in his hands and himself falling to certain death. He looked up, and there was Orth's big hairy face looking down at him.
"Orc," he explained. "Come."
Elendur hauled himself to the top, then found he couldn't fit through the crenel with the crossbow across his back. He started trying to pull the bow around with one hand while he hung by the other, but Orth simply grasped his shoulders and lifted him into the passage set into the wall. Still trembling, he rewound his bow and drew his sword, just as Orth hauled the third man, his old friend Belamon, over the parapet. Their eyes met.
"Full oft have I walked these walls," said Elendur, "but never before did they seem so lofty. Belamon, take up your position beyond Orth, lest we be attacked from that side. I will do the same here." Belamon nodded and fitted an arrow to his bow. Elendur watched him squeeze past the herdsman, then turned to see three large orcs rushing at him, one with a scimitar raised to strike.
Elendur parried the blow with his blade, but the force of it knocked him back against the outer parapet. The orc thrust straight for his chest, his big yellow eyes gleaming with murderous malevolence. Elendur rolled to the left and heard the scimitar ring against stone. The orc grunted with the shock and turned toward his opponent, but he met only steel as Elendur's blade flashed down and hewed through his massive shoulder and deep into his chest.
Wrenching free his blade, Elendur turned to find the other two orcs engaged with Orth. He leaped forward to assist, but Orth swung his heavy spear like a bat, crushing the side of one orc's head. The other staggered back in awe, only to meet his end on Elendur's blade. Elendur spun around, but there were no more orcs in sight. By this time two more raiders had joined them. They gradually spread out along the narrow wall, until all twelve were there. They peered cautiously over the inner wall.
The city was in a turmoil of activity. Companies of orcs raced here and there through the streets, bearing bundles of arrows and short bows. Wagons creaked down the narrow lanes, pulled by teams of shouting, cursing orcs while whips cracked around them. Most seemed to be hurrying north toward the gates. Above and beyond the eastern walls, they could see the orderly blocks of the archers of Lothlórien and of Pelargir, sending a continuous rain of arrows into that part of the city. No orcs could be seen on the walls on that side.
Then Elendur looked toward the large plaza stretching between the gates to the foot of the Tower of the Moon. There, not a hundred yards away, a large body of orcs was swarming around a row of massive catapults, bringing them a constant supply of rocks, balks of wood, even paving stones prised from the street. Striding among the squat orcs were two tall figures in gleaming ebony armor, directing the operation, laying about them with whips. Mailed and caped they were, with high helmets topped with golden crowns. A fear lay about them, for the orcs crouched and cowered at their approach.
"I like not the look of those tall ones by the catapults," said Belamon, coming up beside Elendur. "They seem unlike orcs, and yet somehow fouler still."
"Verily," aid Elendur. "It is so. For there walk the fell Úlairi, foulest of all of Sauron's creatures."
"Those are the dreaded Úlairi?" said Belamon in wonder. "Then let me put arrows through them both while they are yet unaware."
He stood and drew his bow string to his ear. But even as he sighted on the Ringwraith's chest, it must have sensed danger, for it suddenly stiffened and looked up toward the parapets. Elendur clutched Belamon's cloak and pulled him roughly down behind a merlon.
"Down, fool," hissed Elendur, "lest you bring the whole city down on us. Do not forget that they have seven brothers within these walls.
"But...," stammered Belamon, "is it not meet that they should die for all the evil they have wrought?"
"Aye, more than meet, and their deaths are long overdue, for they have lived beyond the span of years allotted to them by nature. But not such as we shall bring them down. Leave that to the Elves and the lords of magic, who now wait without the gate while we tarry here. If we fulfill our trust and open the gate, even though we perish in the deed, the Úlairi will see their death ride in through that gate. Now, to the tower."
Crouching low to avoid eyes in the windows, they sped toward the western gate tower. Suddenly a loud cry rang out from high above, calling a warning in a harsh tongue. Elendur as he ran glanced up at the many windows in the tower, but he could see no one. A man running just in front of him suddenly screamed and straightened up, clawing at an arrow in his back. He fell and Elendur leaped over him. Now there were orcs at several of the windows and arrows were flashing down amongst the raiders. A second man fell, then a third. Some of the men ducked into crenels in the battlement, seeking shelter from the fire from the tower.
"On, on," cried Elendur. "We cannot allow ourselves to be pinned down out here in the open or we are doomed. Make for the tower as you love life." At that moment a shaft glanced off his helmet with a deafening clang. He stumbled and fell, striking the wall and spinning to the pavement, stunned. He struggled to his hands and knees and tried to rise, but his head was spinning and the world seemed to have gone dark. Arrows clattered on the stones around him as he bent there.
Then someone grabbed him and dragged him roughly to his feet. Confused, he allowed himself to be hurried forward, nearly carried. Still dazed, he stumbled over a body and nearly went down again, but the other man held him up. Looking down, he saw Belamon's face white and staring beneath him. Then there was the tower before them. The tunnel pierced the tower and they all crowded inside, gasping and trying to catch their breath. Elendur stood doubled over, and gradually his vision cleared. When he stood up, he saw the giant herdsman beside him.
"My thanks to you, Orth of Calembel," he said. "You saved my life."
They looked around. Only seven of the original twelve remained, one with an ugly slash down his arm where an arrow had ripped it. The others lay sprawled out in the sun, black arrows protruding from their bodies.
Orth tried a heavy oak door that gave into the tower from within the tunnel. "Locked and barred," he said. "How do we get in?"
"We have to get through one of the windows," said Elendur. "We must use the grappling hooks again."
"How? There are orcs at every window by now," said another man.
"Our only choice is to rush out with bows drawn and fire as quickly as we can at the windows. As the orcs duck back, I will fire the crossbow through the lowest window. It is a desperate chance, but I see no alternative. It is only a matter of time until reinforcements arrive and we are driven from the wall."
"Then let's do it now," said the man. They readied the second grappling hook and fit it to the crossbow. Each fitted an arrow to his bow and had two more arrows ready in his hand. Elendur glanced around and saw each man ready.
"Now!" he cried, dashing out into the bright sun. They rushed out together, wheeled, and fired. The orcs, taken by surprise, pulled back howling. One slumped across the windowsill. Elendur raised the heavy crossbow and took aim at the lowest window. Just as his finger tightened on the trigger, an orc suddenly appeared, his broad body filling the opening, a throwing knife in his upraised hand. Without hesitating, Elendur pulled the trigger and the grappling hook arced into the window, striking the orc's chest. He screamed and fell back out of sight, the knife clattering to their feet.
Orth gave the line a heave. It gave a few feet, then caught. "It holds," he called, "though I believe you have speared the fish."
"Dare we climb with such a hold?" asked one of the Men.
"We must!" shouted another. "Look there!"
A line of orcs came running along the wall from the direction they had come. Each held before him a short pike.
"Quickly!" shouted Elendur. "We must climb. Hold them off as long as you can." And he swarmed up the line hand over hand. The others began shooting into the advancing orcs. Their arrows were swift and deadly. The orcs were in the narrow part of the wall and could only advance one at a time. As each came within range, he was shot down and the next had to clamber over his body. But each that fell was a little closer to the tower.
Elendur reached the window and tumbled over the sill. He fell sprawling across the dead orc, the body pinned beneath the overhanging window sill by the hook protruding from its chest. The room was otherwise empty. He jumped across to the open doorway and closed and barred the door, lest he be attacked from the rear. He raced back to the window just as a second man clambered through it and tumbled to the floor. Unslinging his bow from his back, Elendur stepped to the window and began sending a deadly fire down into the close-packed orcs. Firing as quickly as he could, he took care to send each shaft straight to its mark. Only moments before he and his men had been trapped down there while orcs fired down upon them; now the situation was reversed. A third man climbed into the room, blood streaming from a cut on his cheek. They hauled him roughly over the sill and resumed the feverish fire.
"Here's one for Belamon, you murdering fiends," Elendur growled, sending an arrow through the body of the orc chieftain, who toppled from the wall and disappeared with a shriek. The remaining orcs hesitated, but then came on again, leaping over their fallen comrades. Two men were on the rope now, leaving only Orth and one other to hold off the orcs. The window was too narrow to allow more than one man at a time to shoot, but they alternated, keeping up a steady fire at the foremost orcs. But still they came on. Orth pushed the last man to the rope, then strode forth out into their midst swinging his heavy staff like an immense club. The orcs fell back before his onslaught, though one managed to land a lance-thrust in Orth's side before he went down. Two more men reached the window safely. Looking out, Elendur did not dare shoot while Orth was among them, but orcs in the other tower windows fired into the midst of the combat, heedless of the comrades they slew.
The great oak staff swept like a scythe, reaping a terrible harvest of shattered bones and crushed skulls. Back and forth the strange combat flowed, the man taking wound after wound but fighting on, smiting down one foe after another as they pressed forward in the narrow passage. Then a black arrow flashed down from one of the high windows, striking Orth full in his broad back. He roared in pain and rage and fell to his knee, dropping his spear. Seeing their chance at last, three orcs leaped up on the battlements and jumped precariously from merlon to merlon, bearing down on the injured warrior. Elendur brought down one, and Orth swept a second over the side with a backhanded swipe of his huge arm, but the third brought down his scimitar in gory triumph. Even as he crowed in victory, two arrows pierced him and he fell across his victim. With a shout, the remaining orcs climbed over them both and raced to the foot of the tower. They were too late. The last man fell breathlessly through the window and the orcs howled in frustration as the rope flew up the wall and disappeared.
"Elendur!" called one of the men at the door. "They are outside. They are trying to beat down the door!" Heavy crashes could be heard from without.
"Let every man gather by the door with bow drawn. When I give the signal, raise the bar." They did as he commanded, standing in a tight semicircle around the door, every bow drawn to the full. Elendur drew his sword and nodded, and one of the men flung the bar from its brackets. The door burst open and three orcs tumbled to the floor with oaths of surprise, instantly cut short. Elendur leaped through the door and quickly cut down two more trying to flee. Leaving two men to hold off any pursuit from the upper levels of the tower, he led the other three down the narrow winding stairs.
The stairs ended in a large vaulted room, the gatekeeper's hall. Two orcs looked up in surprise and ran forward with scimitars raised, but the men of Gondor met them and would not be denied. It was over in seconds.
Elendur led them to an array of huge wooden gears and wheels along one wall of the room. A massive iron chain ran from the wheels and disappeared through a hole in the floor. Snatching up one of several long wooden poles in racks on the wall, Elendur thrust it at a huge pawl holding back the wheel and threw it back. With a heavy groan and rumble, the wheel began to turn slowly. The chain clanked down the hole, gathering momentum with each link. Then there came a deafening thud and the wheel thundered to a stop. The gate was open.
A roar of sound, the shouting of thousands of men, came in the the tall slit windows in the front of the tower and quickly grew to a single mighty cry: "Gondor!" they cried, "To victory!" Then the sounds of battle, the ringing of metal on metal, came nearer and passed under their feet, drowning out all other sound. The companions grinned weakly at each other. They had done it!
But there was no time to celebrate. They barred all the doors, then went back up the stairs and joined their companions. Room by room, floor by floor, they systematically went through the tower, slaying every foe they found. At last they reached the roof and found it empty. Rushing to the parapet, they looked out over the city as they had when first they topped the wall and found it much changed.
The great gate below them now yawned wide and through it the hosts of the Southlands continued to pour. Everywhere was combat and carnage. On every street corner, in every doorway, it seemed, Men and Elves and orcs were locked in deadly combat, much of it hand to hand. In the huge court behind the gate the catapults had been overrun by Frar's company of dwarves and the fighting was fierce and merciless there. The orcs began to fall back under the onslaught. Swords and axes and lances rose and fell in the press and groans and screams mingled with the war cries on both sides.
Then a new sound rose above all else: a high shrill keening of fear, of men struck dumb with despair. Elendur looked to the east side of the square, from whence the cry came, and lo, the throng melted back like wax from a flame, parted by an unseen hand. There stood three tall dark figures, each wearing a black cowled cloak over ebony armor and holding a long straight sword. Then they advanced as one, walking slowly forward, directly into the front ranks of the close-pressed army of Gondor. They held their swords in both hands and swung them back and forth with an unhurried sweep, hewing friend and foe alike. None raised a hand against them.
It was a terrible sight. Now and again an especially courageous man stood forth against them, only to falter and stop, standing quivering before them like a child before a wolf, his weapons fallen forgotten to the ground as the swords swept toward him. Most threw themselves on the ground and lay sobbing piteously. But death came to all in the path of those three. Further away, where the terror was less strong, men and orcs alike turned and began clawing desperately at the throng around them, trying to escape the doom that approached. Everywhere in the court below was madness and horror. Everywhere, except near the catapults, where bright armor gleamed and colorful banners rippled in the air.
Isildur's face was grim and set as he wielded his sword, but his heart was singing within him. He had thought his heart would burst with joy when he saw the great gates suddenly swing wide. He knew also that it meant that Elendur probably yet lived, and the ache of fear was instantly lifted from his heart. Raising his sword above his head, he'd shouted for the charge, but none could hear him in the tumult. Nevertheless, the army had surged forward as one as the gates swung back, heedless of the darts and missiles raining down from the wall. They had swarmed through the gate, down the long dark passage beyond, the walls echoing with their shouts, and out into the bright sun of the square. He longed to take the time to look about, to see what they'd done to his city, but there was no time. A fierce flame of revenge was burning in his heart. Calling to those close enough to hear him, he'd ridden directly against the catapults that had sent such a deadly rain into their midst. Beside him were Frár and his bold dwarvish warriors.
The fighting at the catapults was fierce and perilous, for these were seasoned, experienced orc soldiers and they were determined to hold their ground at any cost. One by one, however, they began to go down under the relentless attacks. There came a time when it was obvious to all combatants on both sides that the orcs were losing the fight. But they would not give up. Their fighting took on the reckless, fearless fury of those who know they have nothing to lose. Still it was only a matter of time.
Then an unearthly shriek rose above the tumult, and Isildur's fire of battle turned to the ice of fear and despair. The orc before him turned at the sound and cowered to his knees. The roar of battle slowly subsided as the fighters one by one felt the despair close around their hearts, weakening their wills. What was the sense in fighting, when victory was impossible and even death in battle was but vanity and mockery? All around him, warriors sank to their knees or fell on their faces. Isildur, struggling against the clutching terror, looked over their heads and met the icy eyes of the Úlairi fixed on his, their swords rhythmically rising and falling as they advanced toward him. His heart shrank at the sight, but he fought off the despair. Tearing his eyes away, he saw the Elf-Lords nearby.
"My Lords," he called, "there, to the east. They come!" Celeborn followed his gaze. "I see but three," he said. "Where are the others?"
"There, my husband," called Galadriel, pointing south, "nigh to the gate of the Citadel."
They wheeled about and saw six more of the fearsome creatures advancing steadily through the throng, unhindered by the despairing warriors grovelling before them. They moved with a grim determination, their visored heads turned only to the Elven-Lords, slaying only to clear a path.
"The time is come at last," said Galadriel. "The time for concealment is past. Now must we unveil the Three and trust to their might." She unfastened the chain at her neck and took from it Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. Cirdan brought forth Narya, the Ring of Fire. Elrond alone hesitated. He bore Vilya only for his master Gil-galad, and had always hoped he would not be called upon to wield it himself. But he could not refuse. He drew it from its chain and held it on his trembling palm. The sun flashed from the gold and the brilliant sapphire stone.
Isildur found his courage waning even as he stood watching. He felt a sudden wave of fear and doubt. How could these bright baubles stop the terrible Ring-Wraiths? Was it not the height of folly to even attempt it? Perhaps the Elves were wrong to put their faith in them. What did any of them know of their power, if they had any at all? They were made so long ago, and had lain unused for so long. These Elves were fools to think they could still be potent against such overwhelming might. And he was a greater fool to have followed them into this trap. Now there was no escape for any of them.
He looked past the three Elves, and there were the three leading Úlairi coming toward him. Tall they were, taller even than Isildur, for they were of high-born blood, kings and wizards and magicians of ancient days. Their eyes glowed red within their cowls and bored into him, revealing every fear and doubt within him. As he looked, they seemed to grow taller and taller, with great shrouds of darkness wrapped about them like huge wings. He was dimly aware of his men moaning and writhing on the ground all around him. His heart was pounding against his ribs. A clear vision came to him, more vivid than daylight. He saw his body sprawled in the dust in a pool of blood, cloven nearly in half.
So this is where I die, he thought. All my life I have travelled a path through the world and never knew that it ended here, in this court, on this day, beneath the blades of the Úlairi. He felt an overwhelming desire to just sink to the ground, to await the inevitable death in peace.
But a voice crying far away broke into his black thoughts: a fair woman's voice, like the sound of water over cool stones on a moonlit night, crying his name. He fought against the voice, for it was drawing him back from the peace of death, back to the world of pain and suffering and struggle. Nevertheless, he turned dully toward the sound. Galadriel stood before him, her golden hair flying wild around her face. She looked anxiously into his face, searching his eyes.
"Isildur!" she cried again. "Despair not, my Lord. It is but their aura that you sense. Do not give in to it! Behold now the power of the Three!"
As she spoke a red light flared from her hand, as bright as the setting sun, though she herself seemed to fade and waver. He realized he could see through her to the walls beyond. Then she was gone. Cirdan too faded in a white flash. Turning, Isildur saw Elrond place Vilya on his finger, and he disappeared in a ball of blue light. The entire court was filled with a radiance of iridescent colors that shimmered and boiled around the point where the Elf-Lords had stood. Suddenly the terror that gripped him drained away and he saw clearly once more.
He looked to the Ring-Wraiths. Their relentless advance slowed and stopped. They drew together and stood motionless, heedless of the blood and carnage all around them. Then the tallest slowly raised his arm, pointing straight toward Isildur and the light that pulsed around him. The sun glinted on something bright on the Ring-Wraith's hand. The others followed suit, until all nine of the Rings of Men were arrayed against the Three. The air became charged with a wavering, flickering glow of many changing colors. Isildur stood still, feeling the currents of power flowing around and through him as mighty forces beyond his ability to understand did invisible battle in the air. He felt his soul being pushed and pulled by invisible winds.
But the fear was gone. Everywhere Men and Elves were struggling slowly to their feet, shaking their heads, looking about in confusion. Still the ethereal battle continued, with no one striking a visible blow. Isildur could feel the air around him crackling with tension.
His heart leaped with hope. They had been stopped; perhaps they could even be beaten. But the Elf-Lords could only withstand them so long. They were risking their immortal souls to hold back the terror, but it was now up to him to meet the foe blade to blade. He must strike now. His sword felt like a bar of lead, but he raised it before him. He made to cheer his men on to attack, but only a hoarse croak escaped his throat. Forcing his feet to move, he began slogging forward, directly at the Lord of the Ring-Wraiths. He felt as if he were in neck-deep water, trying to run in his heavy armor. Step by step, he shuffled forward.
No one moved, either to aid him or to hinder him. He felt as if there was nothing in the world except himself and the burning eyes of the Ring-Wraiths. The glowing coals followed his slow and painful approach. One by one, their outstretched arms swung to point at his chest, and he felt the pressure against him increase. Still he pressed on, step after step. Unaware now of the thousands of watchers on all sides, he struggled on in a world of his own. He felt the despair pulling at him again, but he closed his mind to all thought except the placing of one foot in front of the other. His body ached with the strain; sweat poured down his face and chest.
Darkness closed around him, and he could see only nine glowing points of light before him, each a different shade of amber or gold. He kept his gaze fixed on the brightest, a pure yellow, glowing like the sun. It swam and danced before his dazzled vision, but at last he drew near it. Shaking his head to fling the sweat from his eyes, he drew himself up. He could dimly make out the tall cowled shape behind the glowing sun.
"Now," he gasped. "Look on me and taste despair yourself, thing of night, for I am Isildur Elendil's son of Númenor, and I have come to slay thee."
The figure threw back its cowl and those nearby cried out in horror, for no head supported the golden crown and the glowing eyes beneath. Isildur drew back in amazement. A deep hollow voice rang out as if out of some bottomless pit.
"Then you have come in vain, Elendil's spawn, for it was long ago foretold that I shall never be slain by Man nor Elf. You have come here seeking my death, Númenórean, but you have found your own!" Even as he spat out the last words, the black sword whipped up and scythed down toward Isildur's neck. But Isildur swept up his own blade and turned the stroke aside in a clash of sparks. The Úlairi grunted in surprise as his sword drove into the ground. Long had it been since he had needed to strike twice at any foe.
With a roar of rage he swept his blade up, just as Isildur brought his sword down with every ounce of his strength. With a bone-jarring impact, the blades met and the black blade broke asunder, ringing to the dust. The Ring-Wraith fell back as Isildur raised his sword for the death blow, but another black figure leaped to the aid of his king and closed with Isildur.
Isildur in his turn fell back, but then around him he saw other Men and Elves coming forward to the attack. A fierce struggle broke out, and the Úlairi, deprived of their shadow of fear, were soon hard-pressed by many foes. Unable to wield their rings and forced to depend on their blades, the last vestiges of the terror dissipated. More and more Men rushed forward, eager to avenge the terror and shame brought upon them. The orcs that remained rose up to fight as well, and the battle resumed.
A roar of noise from the far side of the city, and a few moments later Barathor's banners could be seen advancing into the square from the east. The Pelargrim had broken through the sally-port on that side and breached the wall. More men were still pouring in through the main gates, and Gildor's archers were now atop the wall, sending a deadly fire down into the enemy ranks. The orcs, surrounded on all sides, began milling in confusion, easy prey to the hungry blades of Gondor.
But even without their eldritch powers the Ring-Wraiths were bold and cunning swordsmen and many a brave warrior fell before the tide of battle truly turned against them. Then, as if at some signal, they gave back on either side, forming a wedge around their king, and slowly backed away toward the Citadel.
Isildur saw their design and moved to forestall it. "The Citadel!" he bellowed above the din. "They are making for the Citadel! They must not reach it or all is lost!"
Driven by desperation, he threw off his fatigue and fell to his sword work with a new fury. But the Ring-Wraiths maintained their formation and withdrew through the mass of shrieking terrified orcs. Isildur fought to pursue them, but always there were more foes pressing before him. The Úlairi continued to draw away, always closer to the safety of the Citadel.
Then the banner of Pelargir could be seen moving swiftly through the press behind the Ring-Wraiths. Barathor and his knights, still mounted, were forcing their way to the entrance of the Citadel, attempting to cut off their retreat. Seeing their danger, the Úlairi turned and raced to meet the new threat, leaving Isildur and his people far behind to cut through the leaderless and dispirited orcs.
The two groups met at the foot of the broad entrance steps. The Lord of the Wraiths sent up a shrill inhuman call like the cry of some fell bird of prey, the more terrible because it issued from no visible throat. They threw themselves in fury on the bold cavalry of Pelargir. The horses, trained as they were to battle, would not stand against these undead things and reared and screamed in terror. Some knights were unseated and quickly trampled in the shouting, shoving press of men and orcs and horses. Others dismounted and fought as well as they could in the throng. None could swing a blade for fear of striking his neighbor.
The Úlairi cared not and hacked their way through the press, slaying man and horse and orc alike, drawing ever nearer the doors of the Citadel. Isildur saw one knight, one of the few still mounted, spur his fear-maddened steed directly at the advancing Ring-Wraiths. He whirled his blood-stained mace at the unseen head of the King of the the Úlairi, but the stroke went wide and in an instant the knight was run through and fell.
The black king shouldered the knight's horse from his path and saw before him Barathor of Pelargir on the very steps of the Citadel, and with him only his young standard-bearer. The boy paused not a second, but lowered his flagstaff and, wielding it like a spear, drove straight at the crowned specter. The golden sea gull surmounting the staff struck the mailed chest and snapped off, driving him back, but he was not felled. The lad turned and shouted to his master. "My Lord," he cried, "enter into the Citadel and bar the doors. Let Isildur deal with this carrion!" And then he died, struck down by two of the Ring-Wraiths at the same instant.
Barathor looked on in horror, then unreasoning rage gripped him and he pressed forward into the midst of his foes, laying about with his sword. Once only his good steel sank into undead flesh and a high shriek pierced the roar of battle. But then Barathor too was pulled down and the black blades rose and fell.
Some of the knights of Pelargir had heard the herald's last words, and they dashed up the stairs toward the open doors of the Citadel, shouting in triumph. But black arrows whistled out of the darkness within, and they fell tumbling down the marble steps. The Ring-Wraiths leaped over their bodies and raced through the door, one clutching at his dangling arm. With a loud rumble and crash of steel, a massive portcullis dropped from the darkness above the door. A flurry of arrows rattled through the grillwork from both sides, then the heavy doors slammed shut with a dull thud.
Isildur's voice could be heard rising above all other sounds. "They have escaped!" he cried. "Lost! All is lost!"
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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