Friday, September 22, 2017

The Adventures of Elladan's Outriders -- Episode 33.3

The Siege of Annuminas

Trewsday, 23rd of Solmath, Year 1418 Shire-reckoning
The Island of Tinnudir, Evendim
The Sword of Guloth
I cannot sleep for worry. Have all our adventures -- our challenges and our triumphs -- all come down to this utter failure? I will never forgive myself if our good friend dies as a result of my own carelessness!

Anyone reading this would have no idea what I'm talking about, I suppose. So much happened today that I'm still not sure if it was only one day, for it feels like a week has passed since the day dawned, red and fierce, in the East this morning. Let me go back and try to tell this woeful tale in its proper order.

I awoke shivering from the chill breeze blowing in off of Lake Evendim. I tried pulling my blankets tighter around me, but soon became aware that there was much movement and bustle going on nearby, so trying to find sleep again was useless. I got up and squinted to see what all the to-do was over, but it was not easy because the dawn was still some hours off.

After a short time I managed to locate my companions by the half-light of a few campfires and was informed that the Rangers were preparing to move a sizable number of Men by boat down into Annuminas. Their intent was to reinforce someone already there named Daerdan who, it sounded to me, was the leader of the resistance in the ruined city. I thought this was certainly fine information to have, but then I was told our Company would be going with them and I had best sort myself out in a hurry or risk being left behind!

In what seemed like no time at all I found myself stuffed into one of about a dozen small rowboats which were all bobbing their way across the surface of the lake in a southerly direction. Everyone was as silent as the grave while the water lapped against the sides of our water-craft. I was starting to feel seasick (hobbits and boats generally don't mix well) and was just wondering to myself what the deuce was the point of getting us up well before dawn when the answer suddenly presented itself: a white fog began to roll over the surface of Lake Evendim. So this early start was to take advantage of the morning fog, which would serve as a veil to obscure us from the eyes of our enemies! It drew up slowly at first, but before long we were positively smothered by a mist so thick that you could have used it to butter your toast. Our hair hung lank and dripping on our foreheads and everyone soon began to shiver. It was so quiet I could hear peoples' teeth chattering from the dank, when my own teeth weren't chattering themselves and making a noise, that is. The journey went on and on to the point my fingers and toes all went numb from the cold. I would have wrapped myself in warmer things but I was told to bring only what I would need in a fight, so most of my belongings were back on the island of Tinnudir (I had brought as many of my medicinal supplies as I could shoulder, of course). Finally, just as the first rays of light were starting to peep above the eastern horizon, we put in at a sort of stone jetty. We then moved quickly and quietly through many dark and crumbled streets until we turned a corner and came upon a mass of tents, banners, and much gear of war. There, we were greeted by many more Rangers.

We had arrived in the midst of Annuminas at the war-camp of Captain-General Daerdan, but I felt less safe there than when we were thumping along in our boats. The talk was all of fighting and retreating, advancing and dying -- really not my sort of thing! Gaelira, Lagodir, and the others were all in the very middle of these discussions, but I was content to stay off to the side and let them bother about it. No one ever asked a hobbit for advice on military matters, and rightly so! I would have been better suited to asking the warriors whether they'd prefer that I make them bacon or sausage rashers when they returned from the battle. I busied myself by looking round and trying to learn what I could about these Men, but it was still quite dim in those foredawn hours.

Suddenly, there was a tremendous blowing of horns! Swords clashed on shields and I saw many Rangers rush away to my left.

"To arms! To arms!" I heard the captain-general shouting. "Ware! The Enemy is upon us!"

I moved myself out of the way to avoid being trampled by tall Men with bright swords as they swept toward the east. Cries of war went up and there was a loud booming sound, as if boulders were falling from the sky and smashing into the earth. I heard arrows whistling through the air and wondered whether any of them might be from Nephyn's bow. Then I overcame my fear a little and tried to see what was going on, but my sight was obscured by all of the tents, people, and ruined walls surrounding me. It appeared the fighting was happening perhaps three stones' throws away, but all I could make out was a cloud of dust rising from that direction. Then came a terrible roar, as from some enormous beast in its fury. There was a great crash, and the sounds of battle began to recede.

About a half an hour later it was truly morning and my friends returned with Daerdan, the Rangers' captain-general. It seemed the Enemy had launched an attack against the encampment, but that the danger was past for now.

"This is not the the first time we have had to deal with these gethryg, these hill-trolls out of the Northlands," Daerdan was saying, "And this one lasted less long than most, for we have grown skilled in slaying the things with bow and pike. Yet our victory rings hollow, for 'tis likely not a tithe of the force which my scouts tell me Balhest has amassed within the city. His purpose is likely to draw us further into Annuminas where he thinks to deal with us piecemeal (Balhest, I would later learn, was the leader of the Men from Carn Dum which was directing the occupation of the Rangers' ancient capital)."

"We should cut the head from this snake," I could hear Gaelira respond. "Am I right in guessing he has set himself up in Tyl Annun? Rarely do these servants of evil miss an opportunity to mock their victims and defile their most revered monuments."

"You speak as one who knows our adversary well," Daerdan answered, "For he has indeed done that very thing. Yet, in this, he has perhaps made his most serious error: Tyl Annun was never designed to be a citadel in time of war. There was no war in these parts when the Kingdom of Arnor was founded and the city of Annuminas was raised. It was many hundreds of years later when the Witch-king first led his armies out of Angmar to begin the slow suffocation of our land that my kinfolk knew strife. Nay, Balhest has unwittingly placed himself into our hands -- if only we can penetrate into the city and cut the bridge which leads to the island upon which Tyl Annun sits, then we will have him like a serpent in a snare. It was in hope of executing this very stratagem that I begged Calenglad to send every Man he could spare across Lake Nenuial. And yet, now that our full strength is gathered, it may be that we cannot launch this attack after all."

"And why not?" asked Lagodir with a sudden heat that made me prick up my ears.

"The Doorward of Balhest," said Daerdan, and he lowered his voice to the point I was forced to creep nearer to continue listening to their conversation. "He is some great captain or commander which goes about with Balhest, and my Men will not challenge him but flee before his countenance. They say that at his coming every Man sees in his mind's eye his worst fears and nightmares come true. I would call it coward's talk, except I know my Men and there be not a dastard among them -- this I swear to you upon my very life."

"Guloth," said Lagodir grimly.

"You know of this apparition?" Daerdan asked him.

"It can be no other," came the Gondorian's reply, and I could hear the fury building in his voice. "Yet Fate is with you, my friend: it is for this very purpose which we are come."

"Actually, we are here to see the remaining two champions of Angmar defeated," Gaelira cut in. "Agarochir and Unagh evaded us during our previous visit to Annuminas."

"I will destroy Guloth and clear the way for your Men to Balhest," said Lagodir, giving no sign he had heard Gaelira's remark. "With my own hands and the weapon of my ancestors I shall do this." Daerdan eyed him cautiously.

"I see you are strongly resolved," he said after a short time. "So be it: together we shall move in force until, if it be the will of the Valar, we have reached Tyl Annun. Then, you and your companions shall enter Ost Elendil to confront this Guloth. Once that deed is done, I and my Men shall take care of the rest."

After that there was a great deal of movement all throughout the camp as the Rangers of Evendim prepared to assault the army of Angmar which had occupied the city. Before the morning was much older our plans were laid, our ranks were formed, and we began our march into Annuminas.

I cannot possibly recount here everything which happened during that assault, Dear Reader. I myself kept well out of the way of the fighting and served mainly to aid those who fell wounded by blade or by shaft. And there were many who suffered hurt that day, but never near so many as our foes, for the Wardens of Annuminas were dour-handed and veteran warriors who were fighting to regain their ancient homeland. I should tell you that we (with the Rangers) slew both Agarochir and Unagh during the attack, and I saw Lagodir secure bits of their armour as well -- the vambrace of one and the pauldron of the other -- and so the penultimate task set to us by Mallacai had finally been achieved. Yet even this great accomplishment was driven from my mind by what happened at dusk.

The sky was a terrible and fiery orange while the Sun set in the west as we finally reached the doors of Ost Elendil, the centre-most tower in all that majestic and ruined place. Dozens were wounded and all were tired, for the battle had raged for many hours all through the streets of Annuminas. There, we said our farewells to Daerdan and his troops before plunging into the dim tower. As we did so, I couldn't help noticing that a great number of the Rangers, who had just fought valiantly through to the very heart of Angmar's greatest army in the North of Middle-earth, looked doubtfully and (dare I say it) even fearfully after us. The huge doors boomed shut, and we were within Ost Elendil.

I won't go into the fear I felt as we silently crept our way through that place, for I think the shadows were playing tricks with my mind. No matter what I thought I saw or heard, I just kept plodding forward behind Lagodir. He was upright and tense like I'd never seen him before. Finally, we reached a large metal grate, before which stood a dreadful sight. It was a tall figure, all swathed in a great, black robe or cloak. I could see no face, yet a voice came to us from beneath that cowl. It was a harsh, cruel voice which brought to mind the sound of animals in torment. Just to hear it speaking was enough to make you want to run and hide.

"Welcome, my old friend," it said, and we knew it spoke to Lagodir. "Long have I awaited thee, knowing thou wouldst seek me out in thy foolishness."

"There is only one fool here, thrall of the Abhorred," said Lagodir in response, "And his life shall end by my hand ere this day be spent." The wraith laughed, a horrible sound that was like being plunged into a lake of icy water.

"Thy valour is but ignorance, suckling of the downfallen West," it replied. "Your usefulness to me is ended. Thy puny life I shall crush at last and then Balhest shall subdue these lands in the name of my glorious Master."

"As I live and breathe it shall not be so!" said Lagodir as he raised his sword. "I did not escape thy dungeons and torments only to find thee and fail at the last. I shall have vengeance!!"

"Escape?" said the wraith, its voice hideous with mockery. "Escape? Thinkst thou still, all these years later, that thy wit alone allowed thee to flee my hospitality?" It laughed again and I wretched where I stood. "Thy wit were insufficient for any such thing. I it was who allowed thee to escape, imbecile, after I had learned from thee what my Master wished to know."

"Liar!" Lagodir shouted, but I could see doubt behind his eyes. "You learned nothing from me! Not an ounce of truth did I give you. I am no traitor."

"Nothing?" The voice was quieter, but somehow that only made it more unbearable, not less. "Nothing at all? Nothing about, say, the location of the great vaults of Denethor which lie deep beneath Mindolluin and that graveyard thou callest a city?" There was a silence.

"I never spoke to you about that," Lagodir said, but his face had gone deathly white.

"To me, nay," came the wraith's reply. "But thou spokest of it in great detail to what thou thought wert the ghosts and spirits of thy ancestors, didst thou not? It seems thou and thy simple people know very little of the methods my Lord hath developed for acquiring what we wish from our guests."

There was another silence. Lagodir's sword was still at the ready, but I could see his hands were shaking. His voice became cracked and hoarse.

"You would gain nothing from such knowledge," he said. "The passwords --" The wraith's laughter cut him off.

"Ha! What need hath the Dark Lord of such things?" it cried. "When thy city lies in ashes and thy stupid folk are slaughtered what shall remain to stand in his way? All that thy masters hath stolen from my Lord's kingdom of old shall be returned to him, and thou shalt die a traitor's death, steeped full in the knowledge that thy weakness of mind made it so. Or perhaps thou might prefer the honour of housing with me once more beneath Minas Morgul -- and there shall be room for thy friends as well!"

"NO!" Lagodir shrieked, and he rushed at Guloth with his sword flashing and flying. The rest of us were so dumbfounded by what we had just heard that it took a moment for us to come to his aid. The fighting was fierce, for Guloth wielded a massive, serrated broadsword with incredible skill. As the battle raged, every now and then I would see one of my friends drop their weapons or sink to their knees with a far-away look in their eyes, as though they saw things in their minds which I could not. When this happened, I would rush over and shake or slap them until they responded to me, for I perceived it was Guloth's terrible power which was eating away at our Company's will to resist him. I kept waiting for the evil fit to come upon me, yet it never did.

Finally, with the most powerful blow I had ever seen a mortal Man deliver, Lagodir knocked Guloth's sword from his hand with a great clang! He seized the wraith's cowl in his left hand then dropped his sword and drew the Dagger of Ohtar Turma with his right.

"Minion!" he roared as a fire leapt into his bloodshot eyes, "Thy foul lips I silence at last!" And he drove the dagger into the blackness under the cowl. There was a high-pitched cry and several of the glass windows which remained on either side of the hall were shattered as if by a great wind. Then I saw nothing more than a pile of black robes on the ground at Lagodir's feet. The Gondorian was upon his knees, tears streaming down his haggard face. We four looked at him, unsure of what to do next. The dagger of Ohtar Turma writhed and smoked on the stone floor before bursting into flames and vanishing forever.

Suddenly, there came from behind us a boom and a great shout. Daerdan and his forces had thrown open the doors of the tower and were rushing past us toward the gate. In a few moments they were through it and searching for Balhest. I later heard they overpowered him and his advisors in a brief battle; none of the enemy were spared for they had all fought to the death rather than be taken prisoner.

But my companions and I had eyes only for Lagodir. His breath was coming in huge gasps, as though he was weeping from the depths of his soul. We managed to get him up and helped him out of Ost Elendil. With the fighting over and the leader of the Angmarim army slain, the Rangers escorted us back to Daerdan's camp where there was food and medicine in plenty, but nothing would calm Lagodir's condition, and we began to fear for him. Daerdan suggested we take him at once by boat back to Tinnudir where Calenglad's leeches would surely know how to treat our friend.

The trip back wasn't nearly as bad as the earlier ride, for I was focused entirely on Lagodir's face: it had almost a jaundiced look and he never opened his eyes at all. When we landed at the island it was well into the night hours. We bundled him off, lay him down by a campfire, and covered him with every blanket we could find, for his flesh was rapidly going cold. I finally realized that he was reacting in much the same way Nephyn had after striking the fearsome wraith we had encountered in the heart of Fornost some weeks ago, only this time the situation seemed much more dire.

"What about the funny things that strange Elf did for Nephyn in Fornost?" I asked Gaelira in a hushed voice. "Can't you do something for him?"

"Perhaps I could if we had any athelas with us," came the Elf's reply. I reproached myself sternly for never having had the presence of mind to keep an eye open for any of the stuff during our travels. Gaelira proceeded to administer what healing arts she knew, yet nothing seemed to lessen the Gondorian's fit.

Calenglad joined us by the fire and regretfully informed us that his healers had no athelas left to use, for the fighting in Annuminas had been great over the past two weeks and they had depleted the stores in the discharge of their duties.Yet he did offer a glimmer of hope.

"You should go with all speed to Ost Forod, the rough settlement in the hills northeast of here," he told us. "There is a Man there, Enro Smuin by name, who knows the virtues of the athelas-plant and usually has some on-hand for sale. It is the nearest and the fastest way I can think of to saving your friend besides wandering off into the forests to sniff it out for yourselves in the darkness."

And so here I sit by Lagodir's side, my journal in my lap and my tears falling periodically on the pages. The others are still debating what is to be done, but I will let them sort that out: whatever is needed I will do, even if it means leaping into a dragon's den -- if only I can somehow save this brave and sorrowful Man.

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