Throughout the following day the army set about preparing arms and equipment and organizing the chains of command. The camp was a hive of activity. Everywhere people were hurrying about bearing supplies. Guthmar provided huge wains drawn by teams of oxen, and the good people of Linhir filled them with grain and fruit and salted meats. Finally all was done and the men fell on their cots in exhaustion.
They had slept but a few hours when the horns rang out in the early morning air. By the first hour after dawn, Ohtar raised the standard beside the king and the host set off to the cheers of the townspeople on the walls. They were a much larger company now, a true army at last. Behind the king's company rode the knights of Ithilien, followed by the lancers of Calenardhon and Angrenost. Then came the first of the infantry: the handful of seamen and fishermen of Anglond and the few grim survivors of Ethir Lefnui with their banner of azure and sable forever at half staff. Then came a large body of mounted hill men from Lamedon with Ingold at their head, and behind them strode a long column under the colors of Dor-en-ernil and even far Belfalas, away in the south. Next marched the farmers and herdsmen and weavers and vintners of Lebennin, thousands strong. Finally a long train of supply wains pulled by oxen joined the column, now winding away eastward towards Pelargir.
The first day they covered no great distance, for many of the new foot soldiers were unused to long journeys. They held a slow and steady pace and had covered but a dozen miles by dark. They camped where they had halted, in a long line of tents down the center of the road, for the land was grown fenny and concealed many treacherous bogs. Each company built fires and the supply wains creaked slowly up the line, passing out the first night's dinner. Late it was before they pulled into the camp of the Ithilien knights in the vanguard, and later still before the teamsters had their animals fed and hobbled and could seek out their own dinner and rest.
The army travelled thus through low hills and across wide fields dotted with wildflowers all that day and part of the next, then the road began gradually climbing until they were winding among tall downs. Then in the tenth hour of the day as their shadows were lengthening before them, they crested a hill and there below them lay the city of Pelargir gleaming in the westering sun.
It was a city of great beauty, for it crowned a high domed hill set between two large rivers. It was ringed with a stout wall studded with many towers, and it was built of a pale rose granite that caught the light and sent back glints and sparks to the eye, as if stars twinkled within the stone. The city within the walls was lofty and well-proportioned. Many houses bore flat roofs where women could be seen at their work under parti-colored awnings. Here and there rose high-arched domes of white limestone or gilded wood. And from the very heart of the city, at the crest of the hill rose a tall slim tower with a conical roof and a gallery beneath, built all of sky-blue marble quarried high in the Ered Nimrais and hauled with much labor on sledges and barges to the city.
A great gate yawned in the wall to the southwest and a broad avenue led down to the quays. Long river barges lay at the docks beside broad-beamed merchantmen and swift coastal luggers from a dozen ports. But towering over all the other craft were the white masts of the long ships of the fleet of Pelargir, and their sails were the color of deep waters.
The icy river Sirith tumbled down from the snowfields of the Ered Nimrais and curled about the western walls of Pelargir like a protective arm. Thence it flowed under a broad triple-arched bridge with strong towers at either end, the only point below the mountains where a man might cross the Sirith in any safety. The river, as if conquered at last, then yielded its blue waters to the brown flood of the mighty Anduin, greatest of all rivers of Middle-earth, for the last miles to the sea.
The men of Pelargir built and fortified that bridge a thousand years ago, and it had never been unguarded since that day, for it was the only land route into the south of Anórien. Because Pelargir guarded both this bridge and the great river Anduin itself, it was known throughout Gondor as the Gate of the South. It was a title of which the men of Pelargir were justly proud, for in all those centuries no enemy had ever succeeded in passing Pelargir.
As the van started down the hill toward the bridge, a horseman burst from the nearest bridge tower and rode hard to meet them. As he approached, they could see he wore jet black armor and a tall helm with a plume of peacock blue that streamed behind him as he thundered up the slope in a cloud of dust. He was riding hard and seemed so resolute and fierce that some began to doubt his intentions, but Isildur merely drew up Fleetfoot and awaited his arrival.
The dark horseman drew up before the king so suddenly that his horse reared and neighed, a ghostly shadow in the cloud of dust that now surrounded him. The knight leaped nimbly to the ground and swept off his helmet. He was a young man with a strong and noble face, and his eyes gleamed with pride.
"Isildur my king," he cried with a stately bow. "I have the honor to welcome you to Pelargir in the name of Barathor, Lord of Pelargir and Keeper of the Gate of the South. I am Duitirith, his son and heir."
Isildur greeted him saying, "We thank you, Duitirith, son of Barathor. We have met before, though you would not remember it. The last time we were in your father's court, you were but a child on your father's lap."
Duitirith blushed. "Too many years have passed since last you honored us, Sire," he said. "As you see, I have grown to manhood in your absence. And yet I do indeed remember you, Sire, for it was the sight of you and your kind words that have stood always as my model and my inspiration."
Isildur's laugh rang out. "Is that so? Well, young Duitirith, your fair speech complements your appearance and bearing. I am pleased to see you again and to find you grown tall and straight. Lead us now to your father that we may speak with him."
Duitirith bowed low. "It is my honor as well as my pleasure, Sire, for the city is prepared to greet you and bid you welcome." So saying, he mounted and rode with them down to the bridge. The garrison there had lined both sides of the bridge and stood now at attention, their arms held aloft and their panoply gleaming in the setting sun. A trumpet sounded high above their heads and the banners of Gondor and Pelargir broke from every tower in the city. As they cantered over the span, Isildur turned to his guide.
"Duitirith. Your name means Guardian of the River in the Eldarin tongue. Are you then commander of this garrison, charged with the keeping of this bridge?"
Duitirith laughed. "I am indeed charged with that honor, Sire, and a good company they are. I chose and trained each one myself. But my name does not refer to the Sirith, but to Anduin himself. One day I shall rule Pelargir and guard the Great River for Gondor. You may be assured, Sire, that no enemy shall ever pass this city when I wear the Lord's Ring."
"I doubt it not," smiled Isildur, watching the eager, intent faces of Duitirith's men, now lining the parapet with their spears arching above the road. Then they came to the gates of the city, but the gates were yet closed. The column halted. A voice called down from the parapets above the gate.
"You are come to Pelargir upon Anduin. State your name and your land and the name of the lord you serve." Duitirith turned to the king. "We mean no disrespect, Sire. We know well who you are. But that is the traditional gate challenge and it has been asked of every traveller to cross this bridge for over a thousand years. None may enter without replying satisfactorily to the challenge."
"We are not offended, good Duitirith. It pleases us to see the Gate of the South guarded yet against our enemies. We know the challenge well. I answered it first when my people arrived at these quays out of storm and tumult at the downfall of Númenor." He stood in his stirrups and called out in his booming clear voice.
"I am called Isildur Elendilson of Gondor and I serve my liege, Elendil, High King of the Realms in Exile."
"You are then a friend of this city," cried the unseen voice. "Enter in peace, Isildur of Gondor." The great gates creaked slowly open and a tall black portcullis rattled up into the shadows above the door. A group of knights in the livery of the Lord of Pelargir waited beyond.
"These men will escort you to the Blue Tower, Sire," said Duitirith. "I must excuse myself, for I may not leave my post until I am relieved. I shall see you at dinner. Farewell and welcome again." He wheeled his horse to return to his post at the bridge.
Trumpets rang out again, and Isildur and his army rode into the city amid the cheers of thousands of people. They were dressed in every bright color and were very fair to look upon. Petals of rose and elanor fluttered down on the men from the balconies and rooftops, while minstrels strummed citterns and lutes and winded their pipes. The people's faces were shining with joy and wonder as they gazed upon their king, for they loved him well. Often in the old days before the war Isildur would board the ferry to visit Pelargir and walk among them with his open countenance and his great rolling laugh. Few of these people had ever visited far-off Osgiliath, and Isildur had been to them the symbol of the royal might of Gondor. Now they welcomed him as a friend returning after a long absence, and they felt his gladness too.
As the long column wended through the streets of the city the infectious mood of gaiety began to spread among the soldiers and the long grim march turned into a joyous parade. From somewhere in the ranks a deep baritone voice burst into song and soon others joined in, blending their voices of many lands in an ancient song of homecoming. The words were in the ancestral tongue of these people of the Southlands, and they spoke of the days before the coming among them of the people of the West. The people of the city joined in joyfully. The Dúnedain among the host, though they could understand but few of the words, felt their hearts lifted at the sound of tens of thousands of voices raised in welcome. The Uialedain tongue is at its most beautiful in lyric song and poetry, and the people's voices blended as in a choir.
And so they came at last in song to the Blue Tower in the heart of the city. There they were ushered into the great court where sat Barathor, Lord of Pelargir. He sat in a tall throne fashioned after the outspread wings of a sea bird, as if the seat were about to take flight. It was set with uncountable tiles and stones, each a different shade of blue. The floor too was of blue mosaic, with wide bands of gold radiating from the central dais. Barathor wore a long cloak of white feathers and on his hand was a ring of mithril, the Lord's Ring. His hair was gray and his face lined, but his back was still straight as a lance and his eyes clear. He rose as Isildur entered and went to greet him.
"Welcome, Isildur, my king and my friend."
Isildur clasped arms with him. "So, Barathor, we meet again as of old, though the world has changed much since last we feasted together in your hall."
"Aye, the world has changed, but you have not, my liege. Ten years' leaves have withered and fallen, but you look just as you did then. It is your royal blood. The heirs of Elros have ever been a long-lived line."
At that moment a striking woman with flaming red hair appeared and came to Barathor's side. He took her hand and turned to Isildur. "I hope you have not forgotten my lady?"
Isildur smiled at her. "How could I forget the lovely Heleth? I have spoken with your son, lady, and his bearing and countenance are a compliment to you."
She smiled. "You are kind, Isildur King. We are indeed proud of him."
"But come," said Barathor. "You must be tired. First you must bathe and rest. Then tonight we shall sit at board together and it will be again as it was."
Isildur called to his squire. "Come, Ohtar, a bath calls us. Let us scrub the soil of Lebennin from our limbs."
Later, washed and dressed in fresh garments, they dined with Barathor and his family. It was a noble feast, full welcome after the weary months of marching. When at last the groaning boards were cleared, they sat and sipped good wine and listened to the strains of music. There sang the lute and the recorder, sweet and pure, soothing to their hearts. Barathor called for Isildur's cup to be refilled.
"My king," he said. "you march with a great army at your back and glad we are to see the banners of our allies before our walls in these troubled times. But I fear your errand is not the defense of Pelargir. Whither are you bound?"
Isildur met Barathor's level gaze. "We march to Osgiliath to meet with our allies the Elves. There will be assembled a host so mighty that the servants of evil shall quail before it. Then shall Ithilien be freed at last, and I shall once more sit in the high seat of Minas Ithil."
"Such is our wish also, my king," said Barathor. "Nothing would gladden our hearts more than to see you restored to your own and the fields of Ithilien swept clean of the foul orcs. They are a sore trial to us. Our villages near the river are often raided by roving bands of orcs from South Ithilien, but they have done their foul deeds and crawled back to their holes before we can come against them.
"It is maddening," exclaimed Duitirith. "We could stop them if we could man all the old guard posts along the banks of Anduin as of old. But we dare not spare the men from the fleet. We are caught between two evils and cannot turn all our forces against either. Those blackguard Corsairs of Umbar sail forth each year to harry our fishing villages and ships. We never know where they're going to strike next. They have pillaged and murdered in dozens of our smaller ports over the years. Our ships patrol the coast, but it is rare that we get sight of them and rarer still that we can lay alongside them. The Corsairs sail smaller ships, no more than two hundred men in each, but they are well-handled and devilish fast. We chase them, but they lay closer to the wind than our ships. It drives us mad, watching them sail away, knowing they are carrying our people into slavery.
"Every year the Corsairs grow more powerful and more bold. Their attack last year was on a settlement in the Ethir Anduin, not twenty leagues from here. Some there are who whisper that they might even attempt an attack on Pelargir herself, though I myself believe they would not be so foolish. Still, they could be at sea even as we speak."
"They are indeed," said Isildur suddenly. "It is most certain."
Heleth blanched and gripped the hand of her husband, and the guests glimpsed for a moment the great fear with which the Pelargrim share their lives.
"We have had no reports of pirates off the coasts this half year or more," protested Barathor.
"I have seen them with my own eyes," replied Isildur, "and within the month past has this blade been crossed with those of Umbar."
"Alas," cried Heleth. "Full oft do the black sails ghost through our nightmares. But it is chilling indeed to know they sail again in reality."
Barathor looked close at Isildur. "It would seem there are tales and tales here. If the Corsairs are abroad again I would know all you can tell me."
"Aye, there is a tale indeed, though it is not a pleasant one. Know you that we have marched around the whole of the Ered Nimrais, seeking allies for our struggle with the Dark Lord. But we crossed all of Calenardhon with little aid to us, and we grew discouraged. When we came unto Anglond it was at peace and many there were eager to ride with us to the relief of Ithilien. But the very day we arrived, the Pirates of Umbar fell upon the city and we were besieged there. They came in many long ships and they put the fields and the farms to the torch, until the sky was darkened with the reek. The folk of the country flew to arms and most reached the safety of the walls, but those caught in the fields or on the roads, the old and the lame, were hacked down like wheat before our eyes." Heleth hid her face in her hands.
"Two weeks were we besieged there, while all about us bands of pirates pillaged the land, taking all they could bear off and despoiling the rest. Again and again they drove against the walls, but we held firm, and in the end they withdrew and sailed away to the south."
"They remained in siege for two weeks?" exclaimed Barathor. "They have grown bold indeed. They usually strike quickly and are gone in a few hours. It is not like them to lay a siege against a strongly held town."
"Aye," agreed Ohtar, "the people of Anglond were not prepared for so strong an assault. There was but little rejoicing when they sailed at last, for many had died and the spring crops were destroyed, the livestock slain. We fear they will have a hard time of it when winter comes. We tarried with them until the dead were buried and the defenses repaired, but when we left that sad place, few indeed of the brave knights of Anglond marched with us. Many were needed to rebuild the town and the farms, others to toil in the fields to gather what might be gained before autumn, and still more mouldered beneath the great down and tall menhir before the gates of the city."
"This is grave news indeed," mourned Barathor. "The people of Anglond are our friends and allies, and we have good trade with them in safer times. May they find peace." He was silent for a moment, but then he looked again at Isildur.
"But you say you received little help from Calenardhon? What of the brave lords of the vast grasslands? Did they not rally to you?"
Isildur shook his head. "The plains of Calenardhon are vast indeed, but few people live there. The only town of any size is at the great citadel of Angrenost in the southern end of the Mountains of Mist. The army of Gondor has long maintained a garrison there, for it is a wild and strange country, bordered as it is by the wild lands of Dunland and the mysterious Forest of Fangorn. The mountains have always been dangerous, but they have become much more so of late. Trolls and orcs and huge wolves roam those dark forests, and it is even said that the trees walk in the deep reaches of Fangorn. Of this we cannot swear, but the orcs are real enough, for we spied several roaming bands in the brief time we were there. The garrison was already undermanned since the muster for the war in the east, and they could spare but few. Still, threescore volunteered to join us, and they have proven fierce warriors and horsemen without equal."
Duitirith struck his fist down on the table. "A curse on all the servants of evil! They thwart us on every side. And were there no others to aid you in all the northern provinces?"
Isildur shook his head sadly. "No. We had hoped for a thousand or more, and as many from Anglond, but it was not to be."
"Then all the host we see with you now is from the southlands?" asked Duitirith. "Still, I should have thought more would have risen to you."
"The worst is not yet told," said Isildur. Heleth raised her eyes to him, and he could see that tears already brimmed there. "I am sorry, lady, to be the bearer of such ill tidings, but we live in evil times."
"Tell us all, Sire," said Barathor.
"After leaving Anglond we marched toward Ethir Lefnui in Anfalas. But on the way we met the remnants of the people of that city. The Corsairs have sacked Lefnui and destroyed it utterly." Heleth gave a wail of grief and all nearby gasped in dismay.
"There were no more than thirty survivors all told. The rest were slain. The city was pulled down to ruin. There was no longer any point in journeying there. And so we pressed on through the highlands and crossed the river Lefnui near its source, not at its mouth as we had intended. A week of hard travelling brought us to the banks of the Morthond. There we struck the road which follows the river up from Ringlond, away down on the coast. Turning north, we passed through the great Blackroot Gorge with the river roaring and foaming far below, and emerged at last into the high valley of Erech. There indeed my chief hope lay, for the Eredrim are a strong nation and already sworn to our aid.
"We met there with their lord Romach and I called them to fulfill their oath. But they had taken evil counsel and they refused me in despite of their word. For their minds had been turned against us by an emissary from Umbar."
"The cursed Black Pirates again," cried Duitirith, leaping to his feet. "They have ever conspired against us and harassed our ports and shipping. I urge you again, father. Let us sail against them and drive them forever from the sea!" Several of the younger knights shouted their agreement.
Barathor shook his head. "We dare not. Not yet. They are mighty indeed, and we are sorely weakened by the war. It is all we can do to keep them from our shores."
"They are the tools of the Dark Lord," said Isildur. "They work his will, thinking in their vanity that they will rule beside him when we are destroyed. They are but poor pawns to be swept from the board when he has no more use for them. We must first unite to strike down Sauron, then gladly will I take ship with you against Umbar."
But Barathor's brow was knitted with concern. "Yet now it seems we have yet another enemy at our door. The Eredrim are many and fierce in battle, and Romach a clever and experienced commander. If they marched against us, we could be hard-pressed to hold the bridge against them."
"I do not believe that the Eredrim will assail you," said Isildur. "They have refused us their aid, it is true, but I doubt that they would take up arms against us. Romach hopes to hide in his fastnesses beneath the mountains until the war is over, then seek the favor of the victor. But they swore allegiance to me many years ago and they shall not so easily evade their duty. Romach has chosen to wait in the mountains and not come down. But he shall abide there much longer than he had thought, for I have read their weird and laid their fate. They shall remain forever in their holds, to death and beyond, until they fulfill their oath." And he fell silent, grim and thoughtful.
Then did the company look upon their king with wonder. Again they were reminded of the strangeness and power of this man from the far places of the lost West. Those that knew him best read his grim eyes and saw the anger that burned there. This treachery of the Eredrim had struck deep, the last and cruelest blow to all his plans for victory. The Lords of the Alliance had expected a great host to be in his train by the time he reached Pelargir, and for many more to join him here. And they had placed their greatest hopes in the Eredrim. He thought of Malithôr with his proud heritage and bearing, meanly performing Sauron's errands, and his fist clenched on his wine horn.
Then Isildur became aware of the long silence that had fallen on the company and their fearful stares as they looked on him.
"But enough of sad tales and the litany of our woes," he said. "No more shall we bear the insults of our enemies. The time for a final stroke approaches. The need is great and the time is short. My Lord Barathor, I have need of all the men and supplies of war that you can spare."
Barathor stared down at the table and paused long before replying. "I had expected your request, Sire, and I burn with shame at the reply I must give. I can offer you perhaps five hundred stout yeomen, my liege. More we cannot spare."
"Five hundred?" exclaimed the king in dismay. "But I need ten times that number. Barathor, you know well our need."
Barathor looked up sadly and held out his empty hands. "My king, I can give you food, arms, and a few of the other supplies you require. But I cannot give you what you most request of me. Some six thousand of our men marched with Belrund to join your father at Dagorlad. That is seven years past now and still they have not returned. They are sorely missed, for we are threatened on every side and continuously harassed. We are a large city with broad and productive fields and many villages round about. We are spread thin to protect what we have. And we are charged with the guard of the bridge, and of the Great River as well. Our fleet patrols the myriad channels of the Ethir Anduin and all the coast as far as the rockbound shores of Linhir. We can barely hold our own with fifty ships afloat, and all sorely undermanned. My captains are constantly begging me for more men, but there are none to spare.
"Our men are needed here in Pelargir, my liege, or the Gate of the South will be but an open door to our enemies. With a reduced force we could perhaps hold the bridge and beat back the orc raids, but we dare not reduce the fleet or I could not answer for the safety of the Anduin. As you yourself told us, the Corsairs are abroad. They could come up the River at any time. If Pelargir falls, it is but a short sail to Osgiliath herself. It will be to no avail for us to ride to victory in Mordor, only to find all of Gondor in the hands of the Corsairs upon our return."
Isildur looked hard at the Lord of Pelargir. "Barathor, we have been friends for many years. There has never been deceit between us. I know that you speak truly and that the safety of Pelargir and indeed all of Gondor is your only concern. But I say unto you that final victory or defeat will come in the next few weeks. Victory may be within our grasp, but only if we act now in a concerted stroke. The Alliance is in dire need of your aid. Gil-galad and my father considered all the options carefully, and well they know the dangers you face. But they felt that the risk must be taken. Without your assistance, we have but little hope. The fate of the West is in your hands. I tell you in all candor that the situation in Mordor is grave beyond your reckoning."
"Grave no doubt, but is the Dark Lord not shut up within his Tower? You at least know where your foe is and can turn a united face against him. But we have foes on every hand and must guard all the ways at once. You are in a position of power in Gorgoroth, while we can do little but wait for an unseen blow to fall."
Isildur nodded. "We encircle the Barad-dûr, it is true, but think not that Sauron is our prisoner. We are as much his. The Tower is impregnable, we have learned that to our cost. We can neither enter in nor force him out. And the long siege is no hardship to him. His slaves and his resources are unlimited and time has no meaning for such as he, who has lived through long ages of the earth. He waits in comfort in his own halls, while we endure in the desert, fighting and dying every day and growing the weaker for it. Seven years! Seven years, lords, and we are no nearer victory than when we first saw that accursed Tower. The truth is, my friends, that we cannot defeat him with the forces we have. A new weapon must be brought to bear on him, a new army to attack where and when he does not expect it. I can say no more at this time, but it is my errand to gather all available men for this assault. Other forces too are gathering at Osgiliath for a great council on Midsummer's Day. There all will be revealed. I have scoured half of Middle-earth and been thwarted at every turn. Pelargir is our last hope. There are no others to be called upon."
Barathor sat with anguish writ plain upon his face. "Isildur, my king, do I not love you as a brother? Does my heart not grieve for your many tragedies? It pains me to have you think me either disloyal or shy of combat. My wealth, my honor, my life will I gladly give for you. But you ask the one thing I cannot give -- I cannot give you my city, for it is not mine to give. It belongs to its people and to their ancestors who died for it, and to their descendants who would live here in peace. If I sent them to war with you, Isildur, they would almost certainly find no city upon their return. Is this then what you demand?"
Isildur stared long at him, but then he touched his arm gently, saying, "I do not doubt either the loyalty or the courage of you or Pelargir, Barathor. I know all too well the perils you face. I know you are acting as your conscience demands." He sat a while in deep and gloomy thought, then looked again at his friend.
"But perhaps there is yet a way. Other events are occurring across the wide face of Middle-earth that may yet resolve your dilemma." He leaned close to whisper in the lord's ear. "Barathor, would you trust all in this hall with knowledge that could mean life or death to Pelargir and even all of Gondor?"
Barathor looked about the table, eyes searching each face. Then he nodded. "There is no danger here, Sire. All are friends or kinsmen and their loyalty is long proven."
Isildur nodded. He turned and addressed the company. "Then I may entrust to you a secret known to none but myself and the Lords of the Alliance, and that must not become known to the Enemy or we are all lost.
"You say you need your men to guard the Great River against the Corsairs. But what if the River were guarded by others, if you could be certain that no pirates could slip up it? Could you not then grant my request?"
The company stared at him in amazement. Duitirith was the first to find his voice. "But Sire, it is not just the count of men that guard the River, but the many strong ships and experienced seamen to sail and fight them. You cannot replace them with soldiers or farmers. What force save our own could guard the River? Is this a jest?"
"Isildur does not jest in such things, Duitirith," said his father. "I say unto you, Isildur, that if the River were guarded, and guarded, mind you, so well that none could pass despite their numbers, then we would fear no attack. Our walls and the bridge are strong. A few hundred picked men could hold them at need against a far stronger foe. But the River is the weak point in our shield wall. There is no other fleet in all of Middle-earth mighty enough to stop the Corsairs if they should come in force."
Isildur smiled grimly. "None other? What of the White Fleet of Lindon?"
"The Elves?" stammered Duitirith. "But... Elves sailing in these waters? Oft have we heard the tales of the mighty Sea-Elves of Lindon, but never in the memory of our oldest grandsires has a swan ship breasted the seas of the south. In truth, many of us have come to believe they are but figures in the old stories. But they are said to be legendary sailors and mighty warriors."
"If the tales be true," said Barathor, "they are mighty indeed. But the tales also tell us the Grey Havens are far, far to the north, a ride of many weeks or even months away. And even if they were willing and able to come to our aid immediately, it would take weeks to prepare and provision their ships and a fortnight more at least to sail here. If a rider left today we could not hope to see them before mid-winter. Even then we would have to recall all our ships and gather and organize the seamen and then ride to Osgiliath. And yet you say you want us in Osgiliath on Midsummer's Day, and that is but a week away."
Isildur was nodding his head. "All that you say is true, my lords," he said. "And yet I say unto you, people of Pelargir," and he raised his voice so all could hear, "that even as we speak here tonight, the White Fleet of Lindon is at sea, and should now be approaching the Mouths of Anduin."
The hall erupted in confusion, with everyone speaking at once. "The Elves?" "Did he say the Elves were coming here?" "But... but...," stammered Barathor. "But how could this be?"
Isildur held up his hand for silence, and the tumult gradually subsided. "You know that we have ridden around the Ered Nimrais, mustering all the fighting men we could gather. But we are not alone. Even as we left Gorgoroth on this long journey, others were setting out on another, far longer, journey. Gildor Inglorion, one of the greatest of the Elvish captains, rode north at the bidding of his lord Gil-galad. He was to ride north, to seek aid in the lands of Lothlórien and Khazad-dûm. From thence he was to ride to Cirdan the Shipwright at Mithlond. Gil-galad's orders to Cirdan were to put the White Fleet in readiness and to sail to Osgiliath at once with every ship that can swim."
"But could he have reached Mithlond already?" asked Guthmar. "That is four hundred leagues at least."
"It is two months and more since we departed from the Barad-dûr together, and Elves ride very swiftly at need. Gildor was told to make all haste, so that they should be at Osgiliath for the Council. They should be sighted any day."
"But this is news good beyond all hope," cried Heleth, her lovely smile breaking out for the first time. "To think that Elves would sail all that long way for our help. Elves! I have never even seen one of the Firstborn. Elves to guard us! Oh, I feel as if a weight has been lifted from me!"
"Aye," said Barathor. "With the Elves beside us, we would fear no enemy." But he gave Isildur a canny glance. "But they were not summoned here to protect Pelargir. I suspect the Alliance had other plans for Cirdan's Sea-Elves. Is that not so, Sire?"
Isildur nodded. "The Lords of the Alliance had thought to send the Elves against Mordor with us. But in truth they are more used to decks beneath their feet than deserts. With the Corsairs abroad again, they could be better employed guarding the coast and defending the Anduin. Then if Pelargir were freed of those duties...." He looked meaningfully at Barathor.
Barathor looked at his captains, judging their reactions as he spoke. "I say unto you, Sire," he said, "that if the White Fleet is as mighty as legends tell, and if they were deployed across the mouths of Anduin and at strategic points along the coast, we would feel more secure than we have in many a long year. Then the men of Pelargir would flock to your banner and follow you to the ends of the earth if need be."
His men cheered long and lustily. Isildur realized how torn they had been between their duty to their king and their duty to their city and their families. Freed at last of the fear of the Corsairs, they were eager to go to the aid of their country. He looked on their faces with affection.
"Then you will ride with me when Cirdan arrives?" he asked, and every man in the hall rose to his feet and shouted his allegiance. Isildur was truly touched.
But Barathor was clearly still worried. "This messenger Gildor you spoke of, his road was long and perilous," he said, "and Cirdan's course no less so. As seamen, we all know that the winds and seas play havoc with a schedule. Much could have befallen them that would make them late. I could not recall the fleet until the Elves arrive."
"But we cannot wait," said Isildur. "Many preparations must be made if you are to ride with me. And Cirdan may arrive only in time for the Council of Osgiliath. If we wait until he arrives it will be too late for us to march to Osgiliath. Can you not at least start the muster?"
Barathor thought for a moment. "This much I can do, Sire. I will call the fleet back within the Anduin and withdraw them from the coasts and the Bay of Belfalas. The coastal settlements will like it not, but with luck they will be safe for a few days. With all the ships in the River I could recall them all in less than a day when the Elves arrive. In the meantime we shall begin the muster. We will be ready to ride with you as soon as the Elves are in place."
"So be it," said Isildur, much relieved.
Barathor turned to a tall dark man near at hand. "Telemnar!" he called. "Send the signals. All outlying ships are to be recalled. Let those patrolling off the Ethir Anduin withdraw into the River. I want only four scouts patrolling the bay, the fastest vessels you have. Have the best lookouts at the mastheads. When the Elves are sighted, they are to be contacted at once and instructed in Isildur's orders. See that they array themselves in sufficient strength and order at the Ethir, then all ships are to return to Pelargir with all possible speed." The man bowed and hurried away.
"Duitirith! Let heralds be sent to every corner of our realm. Every man capable of fighting is to arm himself and come to Pelargir as soon as possible. We shall ride to war with our king!"
For the next three days the city was a hive of activity. Merchants and townsmen were turning over their businesses and duties to their wives or to men too old or too young to go to the war. Companies of soldiers marched in from border checkpoints and strongholds along the banks of Anduin. Other groups marched up from the River, their rolling gait revealing them as seamen from the ships lying at the quays. Wagons and trains of loaded beasts passed in from all directions. The markets were frantically trying to meet the demand for food, weapons, clothing and blankets. Small groups of farmers and fishermen from the surrounding villages started arriving, mingling with the crowds in the streets and adding to the confusion. But still there was no word of the Elves.
On the third morning Isildur and Ohtar walked through the city streets to see Barathor. As they crossed one of the city's many large squares, they stopped to watch a ragged company of adolescent boys marching back and forth. Sweating heavily and wearing armor a size too large for them, they were being drilled in basic military maneuvers by a bellowing and exasperated old soldier.
"Step lively, there!" he shouted. "Try to at least look like soldiers, you young fools. Watch where you're marching! Within a week you'll be manning the walls, and I don't want you falling off the battlements!" Isildur and Ohtar smiled to each other and hurried on.
The Hall of the Blue Tower was crowded with messengers, supplicants, and people just seeking instructions. Barathor and his people were swamped with questions, decisions, and disputes. One of the greatest needs was for messengers. All the usual heralds and runners had been pressed into service, but still Barathor grew frustrated waiting for replies or for someone to carry his orders. As Isildur approached the Lord, a young boy no more than ten or twelve raced past him and fell to his knee before the Lord.
"More messages, Lord Barathor?" he gasped. Barathor thrust a paper into the boy's hand. "Yes. Take this to Carlen, the master of the wainwright's guild. Put it in his hand, mind, not that of one of his apprentices. You know his hall?"
"Yes, lord," replied the boy. "It is in the Rath Gelin, near to the square of the lion fountain." He was panting, still out of breath from running his last errand.
"Yes. Make haste now." Barathor stopped and looked down at the boy. "Haven't I given you several messages already today?"
"Yes, lord," he gulped. "Four so far. I have been running since before the dawn."
"Here now, that's more than four hours gone. You must be exhausted, poor child. Rest a while and get something to eat. Let another boy carry this one." He glanced around for another runner, but there were none present at the moment.
"Please, my lord," the boy pleaded. "I can run all day if need be. I want to help. My dad says I'm too young to fight this time, and then the war is likely to be all over before I get my chance. Well, I'll do what I can to help anyway, but I'd dearly love to meet that old Dark Lord. I'd give him a whack, I can tell you. He'd be sorry he ever peeked over those mountains."
Some of those standing near smiled, but Barathor looked at him gravely. "Well," he said. "I see you are rather greater than we first thought. The Dark Lord had better hope he doesn't have to tangle with you. Go on then. But save your pretty speeches; you'll need all your breath for running." The boy ran out, glowing with pride.
Barathor spotted Isildur and came to meet him. "Good morning, Sire," he said. "The recall flag has been hoisted at all the signal stations along the coasts. Some of the scattered ships are starting to straggle in, but many are still far down the River. The first will not be in until late tonight."
"How large a force are you keeping at the Mouths of Anduin?"
"We normally have between ten and twenty ships stationed in the Bay of Belfalas and patrolling the coast between Ringlond and Harondor, and that many again as pickets in the River. You know the Ethir Anduin is a maze of islands and treacherous channels, and we need that many to keep them all secure. I plan to leave but half of them on station. That will leave them spread thin indeed until the Elves arrive. Ah, here comes my son. He is to rule the city in my absence, you know."
Duitirith strode across the hall with a young knight at his side. They bowed to Barathor and Isildur. "You sent for me, father?"
"Yes. Have you turned the command of the bridge over to Foradan?"
Duitirith glanced at his companion's face. "Yes, father, but he..."
"I would ride with you, lord," said Foradan, stepping forward quickly. "I would be with you when you ride to Osgiliath," he said. "I am a warrior."
"Indeed you are," said Barathor, laying a hand on his shoulder. "But you should feel honored, not slighted, by your new assignment. It is true that I shall ride to Osgiliath. But while we face the enemy in the east, we must not fear an enemy from the west. Nor should the men be worrying about their families back in Pelargir. The guardianship of the bridge has been the duty of the greatest warriors of Pelargir since the city was founded. Your own father's father was its captain for over forty years. Would you leave it unguarded now, Foradan?"
The young knight bowed deeply. "No enemy shall cross the bridge while I live, my lord," he said. "You can depend upon me."
"We are all indeed depending on you, Foradan." He turned to his son. "We are depending on all of you who remain here. The safety of the city is in your hands. Have you chosen your men well?"
"I did as you suggested, father. I retained only the youngest men, but also one experienced hand from each company. They know their duties, my lord. But they are so few. We could not withstand a concerted attack."
"Remember you will be behind the shield wall of the White Fleet. With the River secure and you in command here, Duitirith, I shall not worry overmuch."
At that moment Barathor spied a wiry old man wearing the livery of a ship's captain just entering the hall and peering about at the hurrying crowds. Barathor called to him, his voice booming above the uproar. "Caladil! You are come at last. Excuse me, Sire," he said to Isildur. "One of my commanders from the Tolfalas station." He hurried across the room and began issuing orders to his captain.
Isildur turned to Ohtar. "It would seem that Barathor has matters well in hand here. We are but in his way. Let us return to camp and see to our own. Barathor!" he shouted. The Lord of Pelargir looked up. Isildur signalled that they would be at their camp. Barathor waved and bowed, then resumed talking with Caladil. Isildur and Ohtar made their way through the crowds and returned to their camp, close under the western gate.
There they spied Ingold of Calembel standing before a blacksmith's tent. With him was the giant herdsman they had encountered on the road outside Calembel. The two were arguing with the smith, a brawny black-bearded fellow, who seemed to be trying to explain something to them, and not at all patiently.
"I've been shoeing horses and straightening spears half the night," the smith was saying as Isildur and Ohtar approached. "Then at first light some lads from Lebennin up and borrowed my cart and they haven't brought it back yet. Where it's got to now I can't say, and I don't have time to go traipsing all over the city to find it. For all I know they've made off with it and gone home. But I've got my forge and all my tools right here, and if you want your axle fixed you'll have to bring your wagon here."
"I can't bring the accursed wagon here, man," thundered Ingold in exasperation, pointing down the long slope to where a large wagon stood broken down by the bank of the Sirith. "It takes a team of four to move it when it has all its wheels, which it doesn't because the blasted front axle's sheared in two. We'll have to move your forge down there."
The smith stood chin to chin with Ingold. "I've told you," he bellowed. "I've got no cart and no team. Just how do you suggest we get my forge and all my gear down there?" He gestured at the clutter of tools on the ground all around him.
Ingold looked around at the tools and the forge. "Can we carry it ourselves, think you?" he asked, a little more quietly.
The smith threw up his hands. "Oh, my mates and I can carry the tools all right, and I wager you and your men can carry the bellows, but what about this anvil? I can't mend your axle without an anvil, and it takes four strong men just to heave it up into my cart."
They both stared glumly at the huge anvil resting in the shade of a ragged canopy. Then the giant herder spoke for the first time.
"That anvil there?" he asked quietly. Both men nodded without looking up. The goatherd went to the anvil and, crouching down, locked his huge arms around its base. With a great heave, he slowly raised himself, then turned and started off down the hill to the wagon, the immense anvil cradled in his arms like a baby. The entire group just stared after him in wonder. Then the smithy bent and started gathering his tools. He grunted.
"I pray I never have reason to quarrel with that one," he muttered under his breath. He shouldered his tool box and staggered off after the goatherd. Then Ingold saw the king.
"Isildur! Greetings, my king. Good day to you, Ohtar."
"Good day, Ingold," answered Isildur. "You have a mighty friend there. Does he handle a sword as well as an anvil?"
"To tell the truth, Sire, he likes not the sword. He uses only a great spear with a wooden point."
"Wooden?" asked Ohtar. "Would not bronze or iron serve better?"
Ingold shrugged. "He says his people have always fought thus. His spear is an heirloom of an ancient past. It is hardened in the fire and is devilishly strong and sharp. And it serves him well enough. I once saw him thrust the spear completely through the body of a huge grey wolf and pin it to the ground. In fact, had he not done so, I would not be standing here today."
"Who is he? Do you know him?"
"Orth is his name, Sire, but I know not where he makes his home. He comes down into the Calembel market but once or twice a year and he speaks little. I don't think anyone knows him well. He seems perfectly content living in the high valleys alone with his goats. But if the alarm drums roll he is always there. Would I had a hundred like him."
Bidding them good day, Ingold picked up the bellows and followed the others down toward the wagon, where Orth was just putting down the anvil.
Isildur, Ohtar, and the other officers spent the day seeing to the preparations and helping the Pelargrim whenever they could. In the evening Isildur and Ohtar climbed a watchtower on the southern wall, built for its commanding view down the River. Bands of villagers in leathern jerkins and bright copper helmets hurried down the River Road toward the gate. The dust of their passage rose in the soft evening air and hung motionless above the roads. Far below where they stood, they could see Foradan's men at the bridge, tallying the men, horses, and supplies as they poured into the city. Everywhere in the city rose clouds of dust and the crying of men, women, and horses, the clang of the armorer's hammer and the thudding of the wheelwright's mallet.
At last as the sun began her long descent over the hills of Belfalas, the roads began to clear. The milling throngs broke up into more orderly arrays as each group began making its camp. Fires sprang up here and there as meals were started.
Ohtar looked back down the River, then stared hard. "A ship!"
Isildur peered through the fading evening light. A ship was approaching from the sea, its long sweeps rising and falling together like a water strider on a pond. "I see no swan's head," he remarked.
"No. Nor a white pennon such as Cirdan is said to fly. Still, they could bear news." They watched as the ship slowly approached the quays, already crowded with so many vessels they were moored three abreast. The ship docked, but no hurrying messengers appeared. Isildur and Ohtar descended and walked to the Blue Tower.
There in the Great Hall were gathered many of the chief elders and captains of Pelargir. Barathor sat in his high seat, talking with a stocky man with long grey hair, worn in a long braid down his back.
"Ah, Isildur," said Barathor as the king approached. "I was about to send for you. This is Luindor, my Captain of Ships." The man bowed to Isildur and gave him a level, unsmiling glance.
"I am but now arrived from the Ethir," he said. "I have been maintaining station within sight of the shore signal stations. My scout cutter was another ten leagues from shore, and they espied no Elven fleet." He stopped, leaving an accusatory tone hanging in the air.
"When was that?" asked Isildur, ignoring the man's glare.
"I left the Ethir at dawn yestermorn, as my lord Barathor commanded."
Ohtar broke the brief silence that followed. "Then Cirdan could have come to Anduin yesterday, or today. He could be in the River already."
Luindor snorted. "He could be, aye, but is he? We don't know that he is coming at all." He appealed to Barathor. "My lord, I don't like this drawing in of the fleet. The pickets are spread too thin. Meaning no disrespect to the king, but I think this policy is ill-considered."
Barathor's brows bristled. "Luindor, you go too far! No one questions your loyalty or your love for Pelargir. But Pelargir is a city of Gondor, and our allegiance to our king must ever be paramount."
Luindor glanced quickly at the king, now standing quietly listening, his face giving away nothing. Most men would have been daunted, but Luindor had been Pelargir's Captain of Ships for many years, and he bore the scars of many battles. He was determined to speak his mind.
"My lord," he began, "You can relieve me of command if you deem me disloyal, but I have something to say. I'm a seaman. My face has been turned to the sea all my life. Perhaps I may have paid too little attention to doings at the capital and in the east. Nevertheless, I well know the shadow that looms over us all. But my first responsibility is the safety of Pelargir, and I can no longer vouch for the fleet's ability to defend the city. Now that the fleet is being recalled, the outposts are left unmanned, whole provinces are undefended. Such a thing has never been allowed to happen in all the long years that Pelargir had been charged with the keeping of the Anduin. We should not be lying about here; we should be at sea."
Barathor stared, his face grave. It was clear he liked the situation no more than Luindor. When Isildur had first spoken of the Elves, Barathor had felt only pleased and relieved, a great fear lifted from him. But now, as the time for departure approached and still no news came of Cirdan, he was less sure of his decision.
"You will not be relieved of your duty, Luindor," said Isildur. "Fear not that I think you disloyal. It is your loyalty that makes you question my orders. And I like no more than you the withdrawing of our defenses. But the situation in Mordor is grave. The Lords of the Alliance have summoned all of us for the final stroke against Sauron. This is the best hope of protecting Pelargir and all of the West. If we succeed, the war will be over. If we fail and the West falls at last, then Pelargir will be swept away with the rest. You can not stand against The Enemy alone."
"Hmph," grunted Luindor, unconvinced. "Did the Lords tell you then to strip us bare? Did they order us to leave the Gate of the South standing open?"
"No," admitted Isildur. "The Lords expected me to have a great army at my back when I reached Pelargir, gathered from Calenardhon, and Anglond, and Anfalas, and the southern provinces. Pelargir was just to send the men it could spare from its own defense. And they did not know that the Corsairs were abroad. The Enemy has thwarted our plans at every step."
"Then perhaps the plans need to be changed. Can you not send to the Lords and seek new instructions?"
"There is no time now. The fate of Pelargir, indeed of all of Gondor, is but one piece of a great engine that has been set in motion. All will come together at the Council in Osgiliath, but six days hence. We must be there, and in sufficient force to be effective, or all hope of winning the war is lost."
"But, Sire..." began Luindor.
"Luindor," said Barathor, "we have long been friends and we are as one on matters that concern the safety of Pelargir. But I also know Isildur and his love of the city and its people. I know he would not ask this of us if there were any other way. If he says Cirdan is coming, then he will come. And if he says we must ride to Osgiliath, then we must ride."
"I do not doubt it, my lord, but yet I fear to leave our shores unguarded for even a moment."
"You speak for all of us, Captain," said Isildur. "But these are difficult times, and ours are hard choices. We cannot afford to do as our hearts list. I had dearly hoped to leave for Osgiliath today or tonight at the latest, but now we must delay another night. We must leave early tomorrow, whatever happens. Let us pray that Cirdan arrives tonight."
There was nothing more to be said, and all returned to their tasks. In the evening Isildur and Ohtar again climbed the tower and gazed out over the lamplit streets of the city. But their eyes looked beyond the roofs and chimneys of Pelargir, beyond the walls, to the broad Anduin, gleaming faintly in the dusk. In all that long reach of River, where yesterday all had been bustling activity, no craft now stirred. The greater part of the fleet and all of the merchant ships were tied up at the quays or moored nearby in the Sirith.
The city slowly quieted as final preparations were completed. The necessary supplies had been gathered, divided, and packed. The men were all armed and drawn up into companies. Now they fell to the harder task of waiting. A thin layer of smoke from the cooking fires rose above the walls to hang motionless in the darkling sky. The flaming color in the west faded to purple and the first stars appeared. Looking down, they could see other groups of people here and there along the parapets, straining their eyes into the dusk for a glimpse of the Elves. One by one these other watchers descended to their beds, leaving only the guards.
Isildur seemed determined to wait all night if he had to. Ohtar waited with him, but at last he settled into an embrasure, wrapped his cloak around him, and fell asleep. His last sight was of Isildur standing above him, tall against the stars, peering into the west.
It seemed only a moment later that Isildur clutched Ohtar's shoulder.
"The Elves are come," he said softly. Ohtar sprang up quickly, shaking off his dreams, and looked to the west. The moon, now waxing to first quarter, was setting beyond the River, turning it to glittering diamonds. For a moment he could see nothing. But then, far away at the edge of sight and still very small, he found one diamond that did not twinkle, but shone with a cool pure light. Behind it he could just begin to make out the outline of a ship, black against silver. It was beating up the River toward them, the gentle night wind just filling the sail.
"Your eyes are better than mine, Sire," he said. "Is it indeed Cirdan at last?"
"It is an Elven ship, I am sure. A cog, I believe -- one of their lighter, faster ships. Odd that it should be in the van instead of Cirdan's flagship. Still, it would move more easily against the current. Perhaps they have outrun the rest of the fleet."
At that moment a cry went up from the parapet below them. The lookouts too had now spied the ship. They heard a quick debate, then running feet, taking the word to the Lord of the city. A bell rang in a distant tower. The ship neared the far shore and tacked toward the city. They could hear faint shouting down at the quays now, and a jouncing lantern showed running legs coming up the lane from the River.
Isildur still peered into the west. "Where are the rest?" he muttered through tight lips. "Where are the others?" Then he whirled and rushed headlong down the winding stairs. Ohtar stumbled breathless after him.
They met Barathor near the gate leading a mounted party and bearing a blazing torch. Behind him in the dark were several other prominent citizens looking rumpled and sleepy, along with a score of soldiers. The gate creaked as it was opened.
"There you are, Sire," Barathor called when Isildur pelted out of an alley into the broad street. "I have brought horses for you and your esquire."
Clambering up, they set off at once down the road to the River. By the time they reached the quays the ship was much closer, heeling slightly in the gentle night breeze as it beat in to the shore. A crowd was already gathering at the head of the dock. An awe fell over them, and they stood silently watching. All could now see the long white pennon floating from the masthead. The ship was white, low and long, but broad amidships. The stern rose high and arched over the after part of the deck, ending in a carved swan's head. White wings sheltered the figures that stood there. The stem rose high and ended in a large oval lantern, like a cage of mithril silver. From it shone the strange cool white light that illumined now the faces of the watching throng.
The sail rattled down and several figures moved forward and quickly secured it along the yard. The ship ghosted silently toward the dock as if out of a dream, and indeed for most of those watching the Elves were as creatures out of legend. They knew they existed in far-off lands, but never had Elves sailed up Anduin since before the city was built over a thousand years ago. Pale figures could be seen moving about the deck, readying lines and mats for docking, but no sound could be heard save the gentle lapping at the cutwater.
Suddenly then the ship loomed large before them and soft gray lines looped through the night to land at their feet. The nearest men looked down at them for a few seconds, but then a seaman's rough voice rang out. "Are you frozen, lads? Haul and make fast. Belay those lines!" The spell was broken. The lines were secured and eager hands on both ends drew the ship against the dock. The ship was beautiful and magical, but it grated reassuringly real against the stones before a mat was adjusted. A plank was swung across to the shore and a tall figure in a long grey cloak strode across. He was fair and golden-haired. His mail was of mithril silver that caught the moon's light and set it dancing about his feet. Isildur stepped forth.
"Welcome to Gondor, Gildor Inglorion. Elen síla lúmenn omentilmo." The Elf clasped both the king's arms in affection and stood smiling at him. Tall as Isildur was, Gildor towered over him.
"Hail Isildur Elf-friend," he said. His voice was soft, like the sighing of leaves at twilight. "I rejoice in our meeting. Long and perilous have been our ways since we parted in the thunder of the Falls of Rauros."
"Glad indeed are we to see you also, my friend. But where is Cirdan and the rest of your fleet?"
Gildor smiled, glancing at the anxious faces all about him. "Do not fear, good people of Gondor. I was sent ahead to bring you word that all is well. The Elves of Lindon will be at Osgiliath for the Council at the appointed hour. Cirdan's Fleet is nigh."
These words were heard by many standing near, and a cry of joy went up from the Pelargrim. "Cirdan is nigh! The Elves are here! We are saved!" The word spread swiftly through the people now hurrying from the gate. Soon the glad cries could be heard at the gate, then from the walls, and soon the whole city was awake. Bells pealed from many towers. Gildor looked around in some surprise at the evident relief of the people. His smile faded as he saw the concern on every face.
"We have gathered far fewer men than we had hoped," Isildur explained, "and the Corsairs are abroad again. The Lord of this city has pledged his aid, but he will not leave the Gate of the South ajar to the pirates of Umbar. He will not ride with us until Cirdan's ships are guarding the River."
"We saw no sign of a Corsair fleet, neither at sea nor when we crossed the bay," said Gildor, "and the White Fleet should arrive today." Then all were glad, and the Elves were ushered into the city in a joyous parade. They accompanied Isildur to his camp where they sat long around a campfire, exchanging news of their respective journeys. Isildur told them of the difficulties and disappointments he had encountered on his journey around the Ered Nimrais. He spoke bitterly of the betrayal of the Eredrim.
Gildor shook his head. "These are evil times, when friends will not come to the aid of friends. I encountered much the same when I went to see the Dwarves in their great delvings at Hadhodrond, that they call in their own tongue Khazad-dûm. Those halls are great indeed, and filled with Dwarves of many kindreds. We had hoped that ten thousand would join us in our cause. They listened to my plea, and they met long and argued this way and that. At the last they decided that the war with Sauron was not their war, and they refused us. Of all the Dwarves only a handful of Durin's line seemed inclined to join us."
"That is a great disappointment," said Isildur, "for the Dwarves are fierce warriors and will not quail in a battle. But I am not surprised. They often remain aloof and keep their own counsels. Still, the ancient line of Durin has always been friendliest to Elves and Men." Isildur stifled a yawn.
"Now I am weary in my bones," he said. "If you will excuse me, Gildor, I feel great need for sleep, for I hope that Cirdan will arrive tomorrow and there will be much to do." The Elves left him then and spent the night walking about the city, viewing the buildings and works of Men.
But dawn came and the sun climbed high and still but one swan floated at the quays. In mid-morning Barathor called a council in his Great Court. The chiefs of the Pelargrim were there, as were Isildur and Ingold and the leaders of their divisions. Then all eyes went to the main entrance, where Gildor and his Sea-Elves entered and bowed to Barathor and the king. They took their seats and looked about at the men and the hall with interest. Barathor opened the council and called first upon Gildor.
"Gildor Inglorion of Lindon, I bid you and your people welcome to Pelargir. Too long has it been since the Firstborn have visited us here in the south."
"Thank you, Lord Barathor. Indeed it has been long since we walked in these lands, even in the reckoning of the Elves. For my own part it is a return to a land I once knew well. In fact, I once visited this very hill where your fair city now stands. It must be more than twelve yén ago now, before the first war with Sauron."
The men looked at Gildor in astonishment, for they knew that a yén was one hundred forty-four years. And that meant that Gildor had been here centuries before the city was founded over a thousand years ago. They had come to accept that Isildur was over a century old, but this smiling Elf's casual comment struck them dumb with wonder.
Gildor appeared not to notice the sudden silence that fell on the listeners. "Let us hope that we may exchange visits more often," he went on, "now that our kindreds are acting in concert once again."
"It would give us great pleasure to have the fair people as our guests at any time," said Barathor. "But you are especially welcome now, as we have been very anxious about the Corsairs of Umbar, especially as we withdrew our fleet from the Bay of Belfalas. We are most concerned how long we must lie thus open to attack. We must ask you for your best estimate of Cirdan's arrival at Pelargir."
Gildor bowed to the Lord. "The fleet was nearing readiness when I sailed from Mithlond on the eleventh day of this month," he said. "The last ships were still being loaded. They would surely have sailed in another day or two at the most. My Varda travels somewhat faster than the fleet, of course. I would expect him this day or before the end of the next."
The entire company relaxed and Barathor broke into a wide smile, the first seen on his face in many a day. "Your news is most welcome, Gildor," he said. "In these latter times we rarely have good news from any quarter, and my mind has not been easy in my decision to leave the River unguarded. Now at last we will have strong friends at our backs, so that we may advance. We are nearly in readiness. We shall ride with Isildur to Osgiliath as soon as Cirdan arrives."
But Isildur then spoke. "My lord, the time is very precious. Every day we tarry here, the enemy has one more day to learn of our plans and to plot against us. Only by a swift and united stroke can we hope to defeat the forces arrayed against us. Many peoples and armies are moving in Middle-earth as we sit here, and they will be gathering at Osgiliath only four days hence. We must leave tomorrow if we are to reach Osgiliath in time."
"Then let us hope," said Barathor, "that when the sun first tops the mountain in the morning, she sees a hundred swan ships in the roads." Many of the Pelargrim murmured their agreement.
That night Isildur went not to the Blue Tower, but left the watching to others. The walls and parapets were lined with eager eyes, each wishing to be the first to spy the Elves. Isildur left word to be awakened when the first sail was seen, but no call came and the night passed slowly. Morning found the River empty and the people growing again troubled and anxious. "Will they never come?" was the question on everyone's lips. When they had broken their fast, Isildur and Ohtar went to the Great Court seeking Barathor. They found him in his chambers near the court, speaking with Duitirith and Luindor.
Isildur hailed Barathor. "Lord, the time has come. I must ride this morning for Osgiliath. Will you ride with me?"
Barathor glanced quickly at Luindor. "My king," said he, "some there are among my people who counsel me to abide here until Cirdan's forces are in place."
Isildur turned to face Luindor. "Well I understand your fears, Captain," he said. "But we can wait no longer. Great events are afoot. Gildor assures you that Cirdan is near, perhaps even now meeting with your pickets at the Ethir. The time for caution is past. Would you have orcs streaming down the River Road, burning your lands and slaying your people before you march against them?"
"Nay, Sire," replied Luindor, flushing hot, "but our men are needed here in Pelargir. We have a good bridge, high walls, and a strong fleet. Fully manned, we can hold the southlands against the minions of Mordor. But we must have the men. The walls alone will not stop the orcs for long. You would have us strip our defenses and bare our breasts to the Black Ones."
"I would instead have you gird yourselves and confront the evil in its own places, so that Pelargir and the southlands may not be torn by the cloven hooves of War. I tell you the time to strike is now. Even now, watching eyes are peering across Anduin, spying out our encampment here. Perhaps they already know that I am here. Messengers may at this moment be hurrying to Mordor with the news. Soon Sauron will be pondering what it means, perhaps guessing where our stroke will fall, strengthening his forces there. We must not delay, not another hour. Great powers are gathering at Osgiliath, and we must be there."
"But, Sire," said Duitirith, "surely there can be no council until Cirdan himself comes. Could we not wait and ride with him to Osgiliath?"
Isildur's eyes flashed as his temper rose. "Again I tell you nay. We will wait for no one, not even for Cirdan and his Sea-Elves. We go now to the capital to meet with others whose powers are greater even than Cirdan's, for all his Elvish magic. There can be no further delay. Events are already in motion that will change the world forever, for good or ill. Doom has taken up his gaming cup and we must be there when the die is cast. The time for talk is past. Captain, whom do you serve?"
Luindor stammered, taken aback by the question. "Why... I serve the Lord of Pelargir, of course," he said firmly.
Isildur turned then upon Barathor. "And you, Lord Barathor? Whom do you serve?"
Barathor at once fell to his knee. "You, my king. Ever has Pelargir been loyal to the King of Gondor. I shall do now as both my king and my heart command. I shall be stayed no more by gainsayers. Today we ride to Osgiliath!"
Isildur clapped his arm on Barathor's shoulder. "Well said, old friend. I knew you would not fail me at the last. Now, let us ride!"
Barathor sprang to his feet and began barking out orders to his messengers. Isildur sent Ohtar to the camp to pass the order to strike the tents. The court burst into activity as men hurried in every direction. Barathor turned then to his captains.
"You must not let any watching enemy realize just how short of men you are. Duitirith, you must try to maintain the usual number of guards upon the walls. They are the most conspicuous and any change in their number is sure to be noticed. Use every available man, and if you must, dress women or old men in armor and have them pace the walls. See that there are always figures moving about on the battlements. Have them carry torches at night. Give the impression of a well-fortified and prepared defense. After dark, have people go out and light campfires outside the walls. A score of boys should be able to keep a hundred fires burning all night, and it will look as if a thousand men are still camped before the walls.
"And Luindor, gather the remaining seamen together and take at least one ship out as often as possible. Sail a few leagues down the River, then hoist a sail of a different color and return. The enemy may think it is two ships. They must not realize the River is unguarded. Have people moving about on the ships at the quays, anywhere they can be seen from the far shore. Do what you can. The ruse should not have to work more than a day or two at the most. Before the orcs realize we're gone, the Elves will be here. Go now, and instruct your men." They bowed and left, just as Barathor's esquires arrived with his panoply and arms.
Soon all was ready. The tents were all struck and stowed on the wains and the army was formed up on the River Road along the east bank of the Sirith, hidden from any unfriendly eyes by the bluffs on the west bank of Anduin. Isildur rode with Ohtar and Gildor to meet Barathor at the city gates. They waited there a few moments in silence. Then came a thunder of hooves from the shadow of the gate and Barathor rode forth at the head of a long column of the knights of Pelargir. He sat a huge black war horse and both he and his mount gleamed in black armor chased in gold. From his helm streamed a long plume and beside him flew his banner, both the hue of the famed Blue Tower of Pelargir.
Four abreast, the knights of Pelargir poured forth from the gate, lances bristling to the sky, and the sound of their passing was as the breaking of the sea on the rock-bound coasts of Anfalas. Isildur spurred Fleetfoot and sped to the head of his column. Ohtar sounded the great horn of the Eredrim, and the men fell into line with the Pelargrim. Their forces merged into one army at last, Isildur and Barathor rode stirrup to stirrup into the north.
High in the Blue Tower, Duitirith and Luindor watched the great army wind slowly from view. Many hours passed before the last carts lumbered slowly into the clouds of dust and disappeared. At last the road stood empty.
"They are gone," said Duitirith. "May good fortune go with them."
"Aye," agreed Luindor. "And may it abide with us. We shall have need of it." They looked down into the city and saw the empty squares, the closed shops and markets. Here and there lone figures hurried along silent streets. Down at the quays, the ships rocked quietly in the current. The wide brown waters of Anduin, normally crowded with shipping, stood empty. They realized for the first time how many sounds normally rose from the city, and how quiet it now was. The accustomed voices and cries, the rumble of wheels, the beating of hooves -- all was now silent. After the noise and bustle of the muster and departure, all seemed deathly still. They gazed silently for a few moments, then turned to their tasks.
Some time later a long lean warship, bristling with lances, its bulwarks lined with the shields of a hundred warriors, put off from the quays and ran out of sight down the River. A few hours later, under a patched and stained mainsail and with smoke rising from three cooking fires, she returned and tacked up the Sirith to a different dock. She made a brave sight, but Luindor from the tower could see down into the ship and through her ruse. Most of the lances were lashed to the gunwales. The fires were not surrounded by crowds of warriors, but were tended by a handful of seamen and a score of old men in rusty armor dragged from the attic for the occasion. Luindor gnashed his teeth to see this pathetic crew on one of Pelargir's proudest ships of the line.
"Will the Elves never come?" he grumbled, and so said the sentries pacing on the walls, and the people in their houses. But the day waned and the sun sank, and still no sail appeared on the River. Just before dark, Luindor's seamen joined the three Elves posted to guard Gildor's cog Varda, to make another short run down the River. They rounded the point and there before them stretched more miles of empty River. They tarried there as long as they dared, hoping each minute to spy a line of sails beating toward them in the dusk, but at the last they had to return.
After full darkness had fallen, boys slipped out and lit the campfires, but to Duitirith watching from the Blue Tower, they seemed but a faint reflection of the blazes and noise that had existed there the night before.
"If the orcs have any brains at all in those ugly heads, they will know we are shamming," he thought. "We can only hope it is more convincing at a distance." Late it was before he sought his bed, and later still ere he slept.
He was awakened by a hammering at his door. He sat up, confused. It was still dark.
"Captain Duitirith, awake, awake!" cried his chamberlain. "The Elves are come at last!"
Fully awake now, he leaped from his bed and began pulling on his clothes. "Are you certain, man?" he shouted through the door. "Make no mistake in this."
"Aye, my lord. The sentries spied them rounding the point. They made them out clearly against the setting moon. Many ships are approaching."
Duitirith flung the door open. "Come then," he called. "Rouse the heralds and messengers, rouse the cooks, light the fires. Food must be prepared at once. The Elves have come far indeed. They will be hungry. Chamberlain, where is Luindor? Has he been called? Wake my esquire. Bring me my armor. Send to the stables to ready my horse. We shall go to meet them at the quays."
The palace was in an uproar, with people rushing here and there, some carrying guttering torches, others still dressing as they ran. Horses were already snorting and blowing in the courtyard below. The chandeliers in the Great Hall had been lowered to the floor and were being lit from candles. Duitirith reached the Great Hall just as his esquire struggled up with a small wooden cart bearing his armor and weapons.
"Ah, Arador, there you are," he cried. "Gird me now in my finest, for the Elves are come. Bring too the banners of Gondor and Pelargir and the devices of my house. We must greet the Elves with all the honor due to them, though we be but few."
Armed and ready at last, Duitirith and his housecarls rode out under the great portcullis and drove hard for the quays. Now for the first time they could see the approaching fleet. At the confluence of the Sirith and the Anduin, a long line of bobbing red lights marked the advance of many ships. They were close to the shore now, not far from the rows of empty warships at the quays. Luindor's seamen were shifting a ship to one side to make room for the first of the Elven ships. Other citizens of the city were pelting down the road to the River, shouting with joy. Luindor's men greeted them with happy shouts as they stood on the ends of the dock, ready to take the Elven lines. Duitirith and his men reached the bluffs above the shore and started their descent. The first ships approached the quays.
But from the silently approaching ships came not mooring lines snaking out of the dark, but a hissing rain of arrows. Men screamed and toppled into the water, clutching at black-fletched shafts in their chests. Then came the rattle of catapults and flaming skins of oil arced through the night to burst with a roar among the watching crowds or across the moored ships. In an instant half a dozen ships were enveloped in flames.
On the road above the harbor, Duitirith and his people stopped, frozen in horror. They stared unbelieving as the close-packed ships of Pelargir burst into flame and the ghastly scene was lit by a lurid glare. From below came hoarse cries and the screams of the wounded. On the docks, men clambered over the dead and dying, clawing desperately to escape the rain of death still pouring from the sky.
The first ships reached the shore and great iron hooks whirled out of the night and bit into the soil of Pelargir. More catapults rattled and the sky was streaked with scores of lines of fire. With a sickening roar, more ships burst into flame. The ships were so closely moored that the flames leaped from deck to deck faster than a man could run. In less than a minute the whole once-proud fleet of Gondor was blazing. The sails and tarred cordage burned brightly, and by their light the invaders could be seen at last. Long and lean were their many-oared hulls and their sails were the color of night. Then a wail rose from every throat, for they knew their death was at hand.
"The Corsairs!" they cried. "The Pirates of Umbar are come upon us! We are lost!" The people near the quays began to panic and dashed about in all directions, but suddenly a clear voice rang out from the bluffs above.
"People of Pelargir!" cried Duitirith. "Back! Back to the city. We can no longer save the ships, but we have yet a strong wall. We shall make the Corsairs pay dearly for their treachery this night. Sound the horns! Call everyone back within the walls!"
Then all who still could turned and fled in terror up the road they had descended in such joy but a moment before. Duitirith wheeled his horse and called to his esquire.
"Arador! Stay a moment!"
Arador reined in beside him and they sat side by side looking down on the ruin of the fleet. Already a dozen more black ships were drawn up on the strand and men were pouring out of them, overcoming the last feeble resistance of the Pelargrim defenders on the docks and shore. Some of the Corsairs had their yards tilted and were already hoisting out huge siege engines on wooden wheels. Out in the River, more ships jostled for room to land, eager for a share of the plunder.
"This is no raiding party," said Duitirith, "but the full might of the fleet of Umbar. We cannot hope to stand against so many."
"But the Elves," said Arador. "Where are the Elves?"
"They must have met the Corsairs near the mouth of the River," replied Duitirith. "The Elven fleet must already be destroyed."
"Then we are doomed."
Duitirith clutched Arador's sleeve. "Ride, Arador!" he cried. "Ride thou like the wind and overtake if you can Lord Barathor. If he and Isildur can reach us in time there is yet a spark of hope. I only pray they have travelled slowly. Tell them we shall hold out here as long as we can. Ride now, Arador, and do not fail, for in truth the fate of Pelargir depends on you alone this night."
Duitirith wheeled again and spurred his horse for the gate. Arador took one last look at the Corsairs now swarming up the hill, then dug in his spurs and plunged away for the River Road. The thunder of his hoofbeats was soon lost in the growing roar of the advancing hordes.
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[Glossary]; Colophon (Still unavailable.)
This story was inspired by Tolkien's work.
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