A trumpet called solemnly across the ruins of Osgiliath. The sun was high, and men lined the great broad road, their heads low, and men stood atop towers and crushed stone, on parapets and ruined balconies of every high building. A great, slow procession of wagons slowly rolled west, and upon them, many men lay, cloaked in dark sheets. Many perished through the night, and now the Men of Gondor watched their brethren upon a final journey, for the deceased would be laid in a large mound outside the city upon the western bank.
Beside Aragorn stood Glamren, and around them were arrayed the men of Anorien. The line stretched far, and the rows behind numbered five or more where space upon the side of the road allowed. Their company had lost less than one hundred, but the wounds were not lessened. Each man along the road carried a sign of battle, or the weight of a lost friend.
As the wagons passed, there behind the last rode the high lords, Gaelon among them. But to Aragorn’s surprise there also were Alcaron and Denethor. Upon his steed, the son of Ecthelion looked kingly, and he wore a bright cuirass and a black flowing cape. He looked forward, ever to the west, and grief was on his face, though it seemed to Aragorn to be a practiced grief, a veil that he wore in such times when he must appear before those beneath him. Indeed, as he passed Aragorn, Denethor caught a glimpse of him, and looked down as he passed, nodding solemnly. Aragorn put a hand to his breast and bowed his head. Alcaron also acknowledged them, but the high lords rode on, their backs straight, and many soldiers marveled at them amid their own grief.
No labor was undertaken that day, and in the evening, great feasts were held across Osgiliath, with each company of men from all the lands of Gondor there assembled, holding their own merriment and becoming lost in their mirth. Though the men of Anorien drank and sang to their fallen comrades, Aragorn stayed with them for a short time, and later in the night, he took his leave and gathered with all other captains in a great stronghold built near to the western wall of the city. There, Gaelon and the high lords were gathered, and held their own feast.
Each captain came before Gaelon’s table, where Denethor and Alcaron sat, also. Gaelon toasted each, and if a captain had fallen in the battle, his lieutenant was then raised to new rank, and they drank to the fallen and Denethor praised the new Captain who spoke oath to him, as representative of the Steward. But, as Aragorn came before them, Alcaron seemed in great spirits, and he called out with his cup raised, “Ah! Thorongil! This is the captain of whom I spoke, Gaelon,” Alcaron said to the Lord of Osgiliath.
“Thorongil, you led the men of Anorien, in the Eastern quarter,” Gaelon said.
“Aye, lord,” Aragorn responded, bowing his head.
“Your company did well, and I saw the fires they wrought there, and the great blast within the tower, like a beacon on a far hill,” Gaelon said.
“I tried to drive the Haradrim from the tower, but they were locked at its peak, and could not be assailed, save by bringing down the tower beneath them,” Aragorn said.
“A fine move!” Alcaron cheered, rather cluelessly.
But Aragorn shook his head, and his face was dark and softened, “Alas, many who followed me there were slain. My lieutenant, Caradol, among them.”
Gaelon nodded somberly, and Alcaron became silent. “Many will not return to their homes, but they have received the Gift of Men, and their fate is no longer bound to this world, for they may sing alongside the One,” Gaelon said rejoiceful.
“Aye, lord,” Aragorn said.
“Thorongil, be seated with us, now!” said Alcaron. “There is a matter we wish to discuss.”
“I had hoped to wait until the morrow,” Gaelon said, looking sideways at Alcaron.
“Nonsense! Let us speak of it now, while he is here, and the Lord Denethor may contribute also, for surely he is to return to Minas Tirith ere the sun rises. I would not wish the son of the Steward to be imperiled, he being not a man of war,” Alcaron said. At this Denethor stirred and he cleared his throat and looked at Alcaron and his eyes were steeled. “Forgive me, lord,” Alcaron said sheepishly.
Aragorn sat next to Gaelon, who spoke plainly, “We have driven the enemy away from Osgiliath, and they retreat south and east. Though, we have decided to further pursue them, at least within Ithilien, to ensure they do not regroup. There is still time to scatter them further. Alcaron, and others agreed, that you be the Captain to lead such a sortie.”
“The Lord Alcaron speaks highly of me,” Aragorn bowed his head. “Though, other Captains may wish for this renown, especially one who knows the land more intimately than I,” said Aragorn.
“Indeed, there are such others, but Alcaron reminded us that it was you who entered Ithilien carrying his message, and there met Celador, Captain in Ithilien, with whom you fought at Cair Andros,” said Gaelon. “We have word that he and his rangers are abroad again in Ithilien, his wound healed from the previous battle. He would welcome you, and your men, and in a combined force, you may drive the enemy south, even beyond Emyn Arnen, if able.”
“Celador!” Aragorn was jubilant upon hearing that the ranger had recovered. “My heart would be overjoyed to fight beside him once more. If this is your will, Lord, then I and the men of Anorien who follow me, will see it done.”
“Good, it is settled, then,” said Gaelon. “Eat and drink now, and you may set forth with your company in the morning.”
Before the noon hour, Aragorn and Glamren rode at the head of their company, which they divided and the bulk remained in Osgiliath. With them rode a score on horseback, and another three score on foot. The soldiers in Osgiliath cheered and called to them as the company passed by upon the road, heading east. Near the center of the city, they came to a once-great stone bridge that rose above the land gradually, with wide white stones and columns on either side, and it gently climbed up upon archways that held it over Anduin. But many years ago, the bridge had been laid to waste, and many of its once splendid features were cast down into the river and onto the banks below. Great white blocks of stone mixed with gravel upon the banks beneath them, and even protruded from the shallows of the river near the banks like moss covered boulders.
The clip-clop of their horses’ hooves upon the stone changed to a deep thudding as the bridge changed to wooden beams and boards, stretched across broken passes of the stone. Long maintained and rebuilt, the bridge spanned the river, and they came across and down a gentle slope again to the eastern city. Aragorn looked to the north to see the small tower, its pinnacle blasted down, and stones stained with dark soot. It rose just beyond and to the east of the King’s Library, whose dome caught the light and glimmered in the Sun.
After many hours through the city and into the green grey woods of Ithilien, they camped alongside the road, still many miles from the Cross-roads. Aragorn sent many riders about and watchers on foot, for he hoped to meet Celador soon. No sight of the enemy had they seen, but he remained cautious, and scouts stayed abroad for the night and another day.
On the second day since they set up camp along the road, two scouts raced from the southeast, and broke through the trees, alerting the outer watchers, and passing through the camp as men hurried about them, trying to catch news from afar. The two men were dehorsed, and ragged, and they carried little gear with them, as if they had shed all weight upon their journey back to the camp. Their faces were red and worn, and men brought water and food to them as they sat within the greater tent that Aragorn used as his own and as a council meeting place.
“Lord…orcs we have seen,” one of the scouts, Ranor, said. He breathed heavily and drank deeply from a waterskin given to him.
“Catch your breath, friend. I am glad to see you are unhurt,” Aragorn said.
“We traveled to the Morgulduin, and there upon the northern bank we were resting. But we heard calls and marching across the river. An orc rabble, traveling north and east. We suspected they were entering the dark valley,” Ranor said.
“Arrows were shot at us, and soon we found that orcs were upon our bank as well,” spoke Trevadron, who had just now caught his breath from the long journey back to the camp. “We were nearly surrounded, but sped back north and west, but we had to leave our horses behind, for the orcs were upon us quickly.”
Aragorn’s face was grave and he put a hand to his chin as he pondered the news. He paced to and fro and all eyes in the tent were upon him. At last he spoke, “I will ride with our men on horseback; we shall pursue this force and drive them back across the river. Glamren, you and the remaining men should await Celador and his rangers!”
At once men in the tent began moving with clear purpose. Glamren commanded those that would stay in the camp, and he sent Trevadron and Ranor away to further rest and recover while others passed word through the camp. The watch was increased, and men were made more ready to bear arms as quickly as may be needed. Glamren sent scouts northward in hopes of linking up with Celador’s rangers sooner rather than later.
Out in the camp, Aragorn and many men prepared their weapons and saddled their mounts. Aragorn climbed upon his steed as Glamren approached to receive any final orders. The horsemen were lightly equipped for speed, and spears were held high like a growing thicket. Aragorn wheeled his horse and spoke to Glamren, “Should Celador arrive before we return, make for the Cross-roads and there wait for us. We shall return by that road, so either we shall meet you there, or return to camp here.”
“Good hunting, Thorongil!” Glamren cried, and Aragorn leaned down in his saddle and they clutched one another’s arms and Aragorn’s face was bright and smiling.
At last he cried loudly to the score of men on horseback and in a cloud of dust he spurred the horse beneath him and it sprang away southward, and the host followed in a thunder of hooves. The company sped through Ithilien toward the Morgulduin. Through the hills and the shadowed woods, the riders came upon orcs on the banks of the river in small camps of tents and fires. With terrible speed, Aragorn’s riders scattered the rabble and overran the tents, and orcs fled to the east, but spear and bow fell them as they ran. And the riders pressed orcs into the river, and the enemy were beaten down beneath the waters.
As the evening fell, Aragorn rallied the riders on the riverbank among the flotsam of the orc camp. Men dismounted and picked through the remains and lit torches from the fires of the orcs and spilled their supplies into the foul-smelling river. When the camp was laid to waste, Aragorn sent a few scouts across the river to the south, and east. But the bulk of his riders mounted once more and returned to the north, suffering no casualties, for their flight was swift and terrible. They came upon the Cross-roads shortly, and found none there, for his host had not yet come up the road.
The men sat on their horses, all growing tired from hard, swift riding, and the brief swell of battle now wore away and their eyes were cloudy and they began to notice the heavy weight of their arms. The moon and stars were clear overhead at the center of the four roads, and all about them were great trees in a ring about the crossing and Aragorn tarried only a few moments, for a darkness and a chill seemed to grow within him, and beneath the canopy of trees. Steeds became unsettled, and Aragorn looked to the east where a growing mist seemed to creep through the forest, and the night grew especially cold.
“Let us ride West! To camp, and return on the morrow,” Aragorn called to his men and the score rode once again and came at last to the camp where Glamren remained with the greater host. Few hours remained in the night, and man and horse that returned were welcomed and fed.
“Thorongil!” Glamren said as Aragorn entered his great tent once again. But, to Aragorn’s amazement, beside Glamren, around the table in the room and map of Ithilien upon it, stood Denethor and Alcaron. Each was clad in fair mail beneath his tunic and in the corner of the tent stood posts with fine, shining silver plates, for the lords were dressed for war, though little mark had been made upon their armor.
“Lord Denethor, Lord Alcaron,” Aragorn exclaimed, bowing his head. “I did not expect to see you again until I returned to Minas Tirith.”
“And you would not have, were it not for the counsel of Lord Alcaron, who wished us to set out behind your company from Osgiliath, and bolster the morale of the men, who were asked to endure such a maneuver after a hard battle within the city,” said Denethor.
“It has brightened their spirits to see their Lord among them!” Alcaron exclaimed, and he greeted Aragorn warmly. “Now, what of your sally, did you find the enemy?”
Aragorn looked at Glamren, who stood beside Denethor, and he held a look like one annoyed at being watched over his shoulder. Glamren’s control of the camp had withered upon the arrival of Denethor, who, along with Alcaron, seemed to take command among the three of them, though they issued no orders directly to the company. But, now, Glamren became relieved, for he surely thought Thorongil’s return would sway the two lords to listen to his counsel, and follow a wise course.
“Only a rabble of orcs camped upon the banks of Morgulduin,” Aragorn said, walking to the table and tracing his riders’ flight upon the map. “We came here, and routed them and thrashed their camp. Many were killed, and only a handful fled eastward. I sent three men across the river, and they rode south and east.”
“A fine maneuver!” Alcaron declared. “Where shall we pursue the enemy next?” He seemed eager to move the company forth, while Glamren and Aragorn looked at one another and remained committed to their original strategy.
“We will march east with the company in the morning, and upon reaching the Cross-roads, encamp there,” Aragorn said.
“Will the enemy not escape if we wait further?” Alcaron asked.
“If they flee, then all the better. I do not wish to send our men on a longer march to merely scatter small rabbles,” Aragorn said.
“To drive the enemy out of Ithilien was the order,” Denethor spoke up. “But, the Cross-roads is a better place from which to pursue them.”
“I will yield to the wisdom of my Lord,” Alcaron said, lowering his head to Denethor.
“Let us reconvene in the morning!” Denethor said, and he and his guards left the tent with Alcaron following behind.
Glamren leaned over the table and rubbed his face with his hands, “A strange sight to see them follow us here, after no word of such before we departed Osgiliath.”
“Indeed,” Aragorn said, looking at the tent flap. “Denethor’s presence would lift the men’s spirits, but it needlessly exposes him to danger. He also does not place much trust in me.”
“Why not?” Glamren asked.
“He is suspicious of my presence, and with the plot in Minas Tirith that we uncovered, he fears those who would advise Ecthelion from outside,” Aragorn said, and his voice was quiet for he was weary from the ride and from the position that he was now in, with Denethor back among him, and he knew that the Steward’s son continued to hold him in suspicion, though their working together in the depths of Minas Tirith had soothed some of his worries.
“What else a Captain of Gondor would have to do to earn his trust, I cannot tell,” Glamren said.
“Do not worry, we must stay our course, and Lord Denethor will make up his own mind. But, I will continue to serve Ecthelion, and Gondor, until the Steward sends me away, or the day comes that duty calls me elsewhere,” Aragorn said.
At that moment, a horn called from watchers surrounding the camp and many men hurried about with calls and shouts. Aragorn and Glamren looked up at the sound and rushed out of the tent, and followed those who ran toward the call. It was in the south and east, and when they arrived at the edge of camp, they found men gathered around riderless horses. Dread had settled upon them, and they talked in hushed voices while the two horses stamped nervously.
“What is the call?” Glamren asked as he and Aragorn approached the group.
“These horses returned, but with no riders,” one of the watchers said. “Where are the riders?” He asked aloud, fearing the answer.
Aragorn broke through the growing crowd. He soothed one of the horses with quiet words and his soft touch and the men remarked at his calm. “These belong to those who rode with me, and I dispatched them to scout south of the Morgulduin.” Suddenly, a third horse came thrashing through the trees, and upon its back was a dark bundle bouncing as the horse ran. Men intercepted the steed and it reared and they held tight the reins and stood around it. At last it calmed and they looked closely at the bundle to find it was the bloodied body of the rider, tied harshly to the saddle.
“To arms!” Aragorn shouted. “The enemy will surely follow!” All men looked at him and suddenly burst into shouts and movement.
The camp was in a state of mild panic, which Glamren and Aragorn tried to keep from overwhelming the men’s courage. Glamren and other lieutenants ordered men into ranks and they stood with sword, shield, and spear at the ready, in lines facing the south and east. Denethor and Alcaron emerged from their tents and came to Aragorn hurriedly.
“Thorongil! Are we under attack?” Denethor asked.
“The scouts I sent south were killed, and I anticipate the enemy close behind the horses that returned riderless,” Aragorn said. And soon enough the night was broken by the deep, harsh cry of an orc horn, and their foul voices and shouts, and torches were lit beneath the trees to the south, and arrows whistled among the leaves. “Seek cover!” Aragorn shouted to them, and he ran to the south where the line of soldiers stood with wood and steel shields raised, some already pierced with arrows, while others held firm against the darts.
The men of Anorien were less equipped than knights of Minas Tirith, and so they wore less plate, and carried wooden shields for the most, but they stood firm, in tight ranks as orcs rushed forward from the darkness. They cried in shrieking voices and tossed torches high into the air, some landing upon the ground harmlessly, but others hitting the shields of men at the front, and the orcs threw themselves upon the line of soldiers.
“Hold!” Aragorn cried, as he stood behind the line of men which stretched in a great crescent, and the first thrust of the orcs could not dislodge them, for their spears were as thickets, and their shields held tightly together like firm masonry. But, the number of orcs could not be told in the deepening night, and soon, Aragorn feared they would be surrounded. “Glamren! Are those who ride mounted yet? The orcs will attempt to steal or spook the horses!” Aragorn called across the line and over the noise.
Glamren ran over to him, “Denethor and Alcaron went to rally the riders!” he said. “They came to me after you departed and told me thus, though I counseled against their going.”
“Fools,” Aragorn muttered. But before he could say more, a tent beside them was hit by a flying torch and caught fire, and men rushed to douse it or beat it down. “Hold the line!” Aragorn cried, returning to the men at the front, who still pushed and were pushed by orcs who leapt at them, but then fell back again, and came once more on them like crashing waves. But their numbers were too few to push back the shields of Gondor, and they cursed and cried and leapt in vain.
“Thorongil, they spread out, and seek to encircle us,” Glamren said, as he dispatched another soldier away to the east. “We should tighten our circle, or push forward!”
Aragorn looked around him as the fires spread among the tents and the clash of swords and shields filled the night, and he knew his position was untenable. But, then in a great rush of cries and wind, those men on horseback came riding from the west, and with Alcaron and Denethor among them, they swept round in front of the line of men and trampled many orcs, driving back a great number of others. In the shock, those defending sprang forward and cut down orcs who were suddenly trapped between shield and hoof.
“Denethor!” the men shouted, seeing the Steward’s son riding between his guards as they passed the ranks of men, though he carried a sword, he swept it down little as orcs fled from the rush of horses.
“Regroup!” Aragorn shouted, and a horn was blown, and the men remembered their plight and turned together and formed again another line, and any who were wounded were carried back further into the camp and laid down, and men still rushed to douse burning tents around them as the orc arsonists had done their work.
Aragorn watched the riders turn northward and then circle back to the east and though he heard their hooves, he lost sight of many of them, for they turned a wide circle in the night. Another horn call signaled another oncoming rush of orcs, this time in greater numbers, and a tighter column, but at their head Aragorn saw a strange captain, one he had never seen in North or South, for he was a Black Numenorean, of the men long ago corrupted by the Enemy, who still served Him in the dark, far-off lands in Mordor and the East.
Drums beat with the oncoming orcs, and they marched in step and the black Captain at the fore, robed in black, and a hood concealed his face in further darkness. Though a sword was clasped to his belt, he did not wield it, but it seemed a greater terror came before him, and the orcs gave him a wide berth. He raised a hand and the orcs trembled and a note from their horns signaled the charge.
Aragorn stood with a hand on the shoulder of one of his men, and as the orcs came rushing forward, the men of Anorien trembled at the sight of the Black Numenorean and the terror that seemed to emanate from him like a cold wind. “Steady!” Aragorn cried, and the orcs crashed into them, snarling and flailing, and some men fell back at the force, but others held their shields firm, and where a man fell, another stepped forward swiftly with sword and shield, and the line held for a moment. Aragorn looked to the east and trained his ears but heard no pounding hooves, and he wondered where Denethor, Alcaron, and his riders had gone.
But they did not return, and the Captain of the orcs strode forward, and the men of Anorien faltered and Aragorn could see their terror and the orcs, backing away, laughed and howled sinisterly. But Aragorn felt no fear, but only a fire within him and a hardened will that his men should not fall back. He pushed through the line and the Captain across the way drew his sword defiantly, and its cold steel was dark, forged in ancient malice. In response, Aragorn drew Narsil, and it stood in bright relief, reflecting moon and stars, and in two hands he held it high by his face, and the Captain seemed to look upon it with curiosity, which was overcome by a shadow of doubt far within his memory.
And the two came at one another, and Aragorn with a fury that none could match, though the Black Numenorean seemed not dismayed. Their blades crossed, and rang out beneath the trees, and the sword of the Black Numenorean shook and the tremor ran down his arm and he stepped back. Then Aragorn stepped forward and delivered a mortal wound, and the Black Numenorean fell back upon his knee, and the orcs behind stared, stricken dumb, and their anger and lust was washed away by fear.
Then, a great call rang out through the trees, and as a flock of birds may depart in one rush of wings, there came a great dark mass of men from the west, moving through the dark foliage, faces covered and only their bright swords and spears catching the moonlight. They washed over the orcs like a current, and panic consumed the enemy and they ran in every direction. The rangers of Ithilien had come undetected; but, now even in the ambush, they slew silently.
“Forward!” cried Aragorn as he lifted Narsil and waved the men of Anorien toward the enemy, and the soldiers sprang forward in a cry, and they rushed past him and the Black Numenorean, and their foes were caught between the swift and silent fury of the rangers, and the stout shields of the men of Anorien. The orcs wailed, and were crushed between the hammer and the anvil.
The Black Numenorean spit at Aragorn’s feet, and though his breathing was labored and his voice weak and broken, he laughed. “Fool. Gondor is now ready to fall, but that is your intent, usurper,” he hissed.
Aragorn looked down and placed the broken end of Narsil at the Numenorean’s hood, though he did not raise his head to look into his face. “No usurper am I, though your plans have come up against me, now many times, and all fail,” he answered.
“Fail?” the Numenorean coughed and laughed amid his gasps. “You still search for your enemy, one who sets his will against you, but it is not I.”
“Then speak his name so that I may put an end to this plot at last,” Aragorn said fiercely.
“You will see him in due time, when the veil is lifted,” answered the Numenorean, and with a cough he choked, and keeled over and was at last silenced.
Glamren came up to them, now, and saw the captain lying dead upon the ground. “A Black Numenorean!” he cried. “Scattered and few, I thought they perhaps were all fallen, or at least, vanished into the far East. Disgraced men of Numenor, beneath the shadow. Good riddance to him.”
“Aye, thought perhaps his power was greatly diminished, for it was not a great effort to fell him,” Aragorn said. “Though now, I fear his purpose was merely a feint, for he spoke of a veil, and I still have yet to find the master of these that plot against Gondor.”
“What did he say, Thorongil?” asked Glamren.
“He spoke of the fall of Gondor, that it teetered on the edge of defeat; he knew that we had yet to meet his master, but said that we would soon,” Aragorn answered.
“Ever the servants of the enemy seek to deceive, and he could merely be sowing doubt in your mind, Thorongil,” Glamren said. “I see no sign, after such a string of victories, that Gondor is at the brink.”
Aragorn did not reply, but merely thought to himself, and sheathing Narsil, he looked about as the men of Anorien and the rangers of Ithilien mingled and greeted one another gladly, for the orcs had been put down. Those driven away were hunted down and swiftly felled by the rangers, and Aragorn looked for Celador among them. But, swiftly, men came up to Aragorn and Glamren with alarm, though the fight had ended.
“Captain Thorongil, it is the Lords Denethor and Alcaron,” one of the soldiers called. “They have not returned, nor has any of their riders.”
Glamren and Aragorn looked at one another in shock, “Send out scouts, find them at once!” Aragorn shouted.
“No need,” a sullen voice said behind them. Aragorn and Glamren turned to see Celador and a handful of rangers with him. “We have found them, ambushed, and the riders dead.”
“How can this be?” Glamren cried.
“I sent a small company toward the Cross-roads, though the bulk of my rangers came here,” Celador said. “They returned and reported that a great ambush had occurred there, and many were slain and dehorsed; though, they did not find the bodies of any lords. All were soldiers.”
“Taken captive,” Aragorn said. “Celador, you must lead us to them, and we must pursue them with all speed.” Suddenly, Aragorn knew the words of the Black Numenorean to be true. Whether a feint, or some other work of deception, the attack upon them had led to the ambush and capture of Denethor and Alcaron. He had been bested, and now, he had placed Gondor in true mortal peril.
“Aye, Thorongil,” Celador said. “There also were large uruks, brutal troops of Mordor, among the dead. Your men did not fall alone. My rangers went out to seek their trail.”
“Glamren, stay and lead the men, rally everyone here, and return to Osgiliath,” Aragorn said, placing a hand upon Glamren’s shoulder.
“Nay!” cried Glamren, and all around were taken aback at his mood. “I will not abandon you, for Caradol followed you to his fate, and I could do no less.”
“Would that Caradol had stayed and heeded my orders, he may yet live,” Aragorn said softly, his eyes downcast.
“Forgive me,” said Glamren. “My heart is aflame, for my fallen brother, and for loyalty to my Captain.”
Aragorn smiled, “Do not despair, Glamren. I would bring you with us, but I fear this errand must be left to those with all skill in the wild, and who are fleet of foot. The riders who fell at the Cross-roads, their bodies should not be left as they lay. Travel only that far, and recover them, so that they may be honored and laid to rest peacefully.”
“I will do as you command,” Glamren said.
“We shall return with Denethor and Alcaron, or not at all,” Aragorn said. And he turned to Celador and a fire was in his eyes, and suddenly, he looked lean, but strong, and Celador remarked that Thorongil looked nothing like the man he saw first in Ithilien, a fair messenger, and then, a steely soldier upon the banks of Cair Andros; he looked a ranger, a wild and reckless man, whose grey eyes saw through even the darkest nights. “Pick no more than ten men, for we must race with all speed.”