“We have reached an agreement with the folk of Khand and with those of Harad as well. Those of Khand will allow our wains to cross their lands and will fall in behind us. Those of Harad will draw as near the crossings of the Poros as they can come undetected, and will join us there on the morning of the day after the new moon. They will send several troops forward to test the defenses of the city-dwellers, and then will send a solid attack from the southwest. We will come out of the southeast while they are so engaged and will sweep them away.
“At the same time we will send assaults across the Waste before the Black Gate. Khamûl has promised that battalions of orcs will be ready to come out of the hills and mountains of the north walls of what were the lands belonging to the Shadowed Lord--we will catch the city-dwellers between us and cut off their King and his sons.”
“But how,” asked the Shkatha of Rhûn of the war leader for the Wainriders, “are you to be certain that the King of Gondor will be in a position to be cut off?”
“We have allies they do not recognize within Gondor,” admitted the war leader. “One of the Council for the city-dweller’s King had hoped to marry the King’s daughter, and has never forgotten his fury that the King would not grant his request. To see the royal daughter sent off to the barbaric north as a wife to the one now calling himself King of Arnor caused him great rage. Never has he allowed the King to realize that he holds that slight to himself; the Lord Khamûl has kept the anger alive through constant reminders given by one of his own within the lord’s household. He knows how to lead the King by the reins of his pride, and will give me the sign when Ondoher and his sons are where I wish them to be.”
The Shkatha shuddered at the name of the Nazgûl. “You would treat with that accursed one?” he asked in low tones.
“My father and my father’s brother were slain by Calimehtar, assisted by his son Ondoher,” admitted the Wainrider. “I would see both of them avenged, and I will treat with any in a position to aid me to that goal.” Then in a lower tone still he murmured, “Do you not also acknowledge the Shadowed Lord? Does he not give you favor in return for the aid your people give ours?”
The Rhûni gave the one from further east a wary look. “We have ever been allied with the Shadowed Lord, but that does not require us to look in favor at his creatures. Khamûl’s--appetites--have proven to be--unpleasant.”
The Wainrider’s lip lifted on one side, showing a dog tooth that in his case was definitely in keeping with its designation. “I suspect, friend, that you would also find some of my own appetites--unpleasant.” He gave a most suggestive smile. After a moment he cast his eyes around the tent, only to have his attention caught by the white-clad figure reclining on a low divan in the corner. “You would host that one?” he hissed. “Is he not a spy for the city dwellers?”
The Shkatha gave Saruman a wary glance, then drew the Wainrider further away from the Wizard. “Ever has he been welcome in our tents, and he keeps his own council. When he is treated with respect he can be--helpful--most helpful indeed.”
“In what ways?”
“He has helped us to find, store, and transport water. He has helped us find ways to better irrigate fields and to dig wells and clear springs. He has helped us find new sources of fuel. He has taught us better ways of smelting metals that our tools and weapons are more useful and enduring. He has taught us means of keeping records and to use writing to communicate over distances. The White One has ever been a friend to our people.”
“He must not bear word to those in Gondor as to what we propose.”
“Never has he done so before.”
“You cannot know that for certain.” Then in even lower tones he added, “He must not leave before the assault. You must keep him here--there must be no chance of him telling the folk of Gondor what is planned.”
Reluctantly, the Shkatha agreed.
Saruman watched the conversation taking place on the opposite side of the tent with a degree of wariness. Although he was welcome amongst the Rhûnim, he’d never developed a comfortable relationship with the peoples of the cold desert lands of the northeast from which the Wainrider’s ancestors came. He found too many of them totally incapable of appreciating different points of view, and most so devoted to saving face that they could not endure opposition in any form, whether in conversation or on the field of battle. It was not unusual for a clan leader to send younger Men likely to seek to unseat at him at some future time on impossible missions, trusting that they would not return.
He knew he was the focus of the unheard conversation, and was reasonably certain he wouldn’t like clearer knowledge of its import. He suspected that should he indicate he intended to leave shortly the Wainrider would become attentive and increasingly suspicious, and should he indicate he wished to travel westward toward Gondor they’d probably try to kill him out of hand--not that he was completely certain what the result of such an attempt might be. He set himself, therefore, to be as courteous and pleasant as he could be for the evening, and watched to see how things played out.
As he sat down with his host and his fellow guest for the evening meal he was asked by the Wainrider, “And you have spent much time in the tents of the Shkatha, have you, Lord Curunír?”
The white Wizard gave an elegant shrug. “I have been east and south, examining the peoples and creatures of Inya. I found it endlessly fascinating.”
“And before that?”
“I went to Inya from Harad and Khand. However, I did not spend much time in either land. The monuments and temples of Harad are of great beauty and majesty, and I enjoy visiting them and seeing what mere Men are able to do. As for Khand--there has never been much to draw one’s attention there, I fear. The people are suspicious and do not allow outsiders to seek out their ancient sites or visit their greatest cities. Here in Rhûn I have ever been better accepted, and what I am able to share with them to their benefit they have ever welcomed.”
“So, not always do others accept what you are willing to share?”
“Have I not just said so?”
When the meal was over, Saruman leaned down to pick up his staff from where it lay behind the cushions on which he sat at the low table. But the war-leader stayed his hand, reaching down and picking up the black rod familiarly, as if he had full right to do as he pleased. “And what is this?” he asked, examining it.
“It is the sign of my office,” the Wizard said stiffly. “I ask that you give it into my keeping and not touch it again.”
The Shkatha looked from one to the other and back uncertainly, sensing the threat oozing from his white-clad guest and the total lack of concern from the one from the north and east, and worrying lest his tents might end up bursting into flames about him. Stories about earlier visits from the Wizard had been told him by his father and grandfather; he had a distinct impression raising the ire of this one was not a desirable objective. “I would suggest—” he began.
The Wainrider appeared to ignore their joint host completely. “And what is it that is your office?” he asked, looking at Saruman through his inscrutable, almond-shaped eyes.
“To learn what I can of this world and share what wisdom as those who live here within Middle Earth are willing to accept,” Saruman answered with great dignity. “And to warn people not to listen too greedily to those who would incite war and vengeance, as what they promise does not always come to pass. Also to warn people of standing too strongly on their own pride, as pride all too often leads to falling far further than one might believe one has risen.” He kept the easterling’s eyes caught by his own.
The warrior did not blanch--Saruman would grant him that; but he did go still, and a stirring of indecision could be seen behind his eyes. He held out the ebony staff with its ivory sphere to the Wizard’s hand. As Saruman took it he said with studied casualness, “One other rod such as this have I seen in my years--long ago when I was young. Oh, it was not black as this one is, but of wood that appeared silver with age. He who bore it was well muscled and quite bald, and appeared to be perhaps related to our people, although he resembled more closely those of Catai, just south and west of our homeland. He had advised the rulers of Catai for many, many scores of years, or so it appeared--certainly many lives of Men; but in the end his wisdom failed the rulers there, so he sought to approach us as we rode into their lands to take them for our own. My grandfather’s guards took him in the end, and my grandfather took the rod for his own. Many tales had been told of the rod of this one, how it held great power. My grandfather, however, found no such power within the thing, so in the end he broke it over his knee and threw the pieces into his fire; and afterwards they found the bonds with which they’d restrained the one who’d borne the thing empty and limp, and that one was not seen again.”
Saruman pulled the rod to him, sensing the implied threat in the Man’s words; and as he held his staff to him he saw clearly what would become of this one and his ambitions. He felt a smile curve his lips. “I see, my lord. Ghantsi you would be as your grandsire was before you, save it is a cousin who holds that title now. I remember one of your predecessors who took the title by force from his brother. Shall I tell you how he died? One of his sisters, whom he took by force into his bed, ground glass one day and mixed it into his meal. He died in great agony, or so I recall the tale as it was told to me with triumph.
“Oh, and did anyone ever tell you what Ghantsi means in Far Harad? There Ghantsi is believed to be the consort of Seti. She is the patron goddess of murder and unwilling sacrifice.” His smile at the warrior was filled with carefully controlled malice. “To be known by a title that is the name of a pagan goddess would be belittling to a Man of your stature, I’m certain.” He saw the barb hit home, and looks of consideration in the eyes of some of the Wainrider’s fellows as they crouched on their heels nearby. The title of their leader would, he knew with certainty, change very soon. No Man among their people would willingly bear a title associated with anything feminine, no matter how closely aligned to their own personality.
A day later he left his host’s tents, headed not west but eastward to see what the wainriders had left in their wake as they’d rolled toward the setting sun. He was followed by a mixed riding of wainriders and Rhûnim, about five all told, he realized. He noted them, then put them from his mind. He would not seek to warn the war-leader of the folly of his actions with word how he would die if he indeed rode toward Gondor.
When Gandalf rode again to Minas Tirith he was greeted with joy by Ondoher and his family. “Mithrandir! It has been long--too long--since you left us! What news do you bring us from our Fíriel?”
The Wizard smiled broadly. “Oh, I bring letters with me for all.”
The smiles given him by the father and brothers of the daughter-in-law of Araphant were full enough, but as he watched each read the letters sent by Fíriel and her husband to their kindred in Gondor he could see that the last four years had not been easy ones. Ondoher looked up to catch the eyes of the Wizard. “Then I now have two grandsons?”
“Indeed so, my Lord King. Aranarth was born eleven months after the marriage, and his brother Beleg was born just ere I left the King’s family in Fornost.”
“All is peaceful there for them?”
“For the moment; but the fact they dwell now in Fornost rather than in Annúminas tells its own tale, I suppose. Angmar continues to send numerous small invasive forces over the borders into Arnor--never enough to offer a serious threat to the defenders; but enough to keep Araphant’s commanders busy on many fronts. Another attempt to send serious illness across Arnor failed when four groups of individuals were turned back on the borders. These were not allowed to return to Angmar; within five days all were seriously ill, and within a few more all but four were dead.”
“And so there are attempts again to weaken the defenses of the north through illness?”
“Indeed. And how does your cousin Eärnil?”
“Very well. He has been in the southlands seeing to the defenses at Poros and raising levies within the western provinces. Artamir here has only this month returned from Calenhardon where he has left Orthanc and the fortress of Isengard in as fine of an array as is possible. Faramir has come from our borders with Rhovanion by way of Cair Andros and Osgiliath. Artamir’s wife is to give birth within the next few weeks, and so far all appears to proceed properly. It is her third pregnancy, and we pray all will go well with her this time--neither time before did she carry her child beyond the fourth month.”
“And how go things with you and your wife, my beloved Prince Faramir?” Gandalf inquired.
“Things go well enough,” Ondoher’s younger son replied, although his face was saddened.
Gandalf sensed something was wrong, but not until he sat with them at dinner did he realize just what. Faramir’s wife was from Rhovanion, although she had strong Dúnedain lineage, as was evidenced by her dark hair and grey eyes. The two had married not long before Fíriel and Arvedui, and there had been strong anticipation that the two would soon produce children to stand beside those expected to be born to Artamir and his own bride. Looking now into the face of Faramir’s wife it could be seen that she was not well, and when all rose for the Standing Silence before the meal was served Gandalf saw that the lady knew an evil growth in her abdomen that would undoubtedly take her far too soon as well as ending any hope she would ever bear a child.
Artamir’s wife, on the other hand, glowed with joy and anticipation, clearly ready to give birth at almost any time. All should go well with her....
Pelendur, whose father had died in the past year, sat near his own wife of two years, the daughter of one of the Faithful who had been forced to flee from Umbar some years since. Her hair was sleeker and more coarse than was that usually seen in those of pure Dúnedain descent, and her eyes dark brown rather than the more common grey. With her almond-shaped eyes and darkly tanned skin she appeared more Haradri than was ordinarily seen in Gondor. Yet her accent was that common to lower Lebennin and Anfalas; and her humor was definitely that of Gondor, Gandalf determined.
“And how do you find life in Minas Tirith, Lady Hasturien?” he asked her.
She shrugged, managing to make the gesture appear alluring, he thought. “It is a beautiful city in its way,” she admitted, “but I find I miss the southern lands, and the groves of olive and orange trees to which I was accustomed from my childhood. There is a scent to such trees I have ever found comforting.”
“I can well imagine,” he returned.
“Yet in the past few months since the birth of our son Vorondil, I have found I have missed my childhood home less, perhaps because I now look out at the world through his eyes. It is my hope that once Prince Artamir’s child is born the two will become close friends and grow up together.”
“That would certainly be to the benefit of Gondor, or so I would think, my lady.”
“What news of the Wainriders?” Gandalf asked Pelendur as the two left the dining chamber together after the meal, Pelendur’s wife having remained behind to speak with Artamir’ lady about the pending birth.
“There are rumors that they have reentered Rhûn, but our attempts to confirm this have not yet borne fruit. Our scouts along the border lands are found out as often as not, and at least three appear to have been taken, while six have been slain outright.”
“Is there a spy amongst your commanders, then?”
“It is possible. However, so far we have been unable to identify who the spy might be.”
“Who has been present when discussions occur regarding scout assignments?”
“Our Lord King, his sons, myself, Lord Eärnil, our field commanders. No longer does Lord Ondoher discuss these even with his Council, for none seems able to discern which might be the traitor.”
“And none discusses such matters even before wives or children? The Enemy will not be ashamed to approach such or their ladies in waiting or nursemaids, or so we have found in the past.”
Pelendur started to shake his head automatically, then paused as if in thought before saying, “None would willingly betray us.” But Gandalf could see that a consideration now bothered him in the wake of the question.
None had seen Curunír since Mithrandir’s last visit, at which time he’d announced he went southward to learn what he could in Harad. Had he then gone eastward again as he seemed wont to do? For some reason that bothered Gandalf.
Counsel was taken between King, sons, and Steward. Afterwards each member of the Council and each field commander was told a different date and destination for the next set of scouts to be deployed, and each commander was given a pair of those destinations to watch each on a different day, warned only that intelligence had been received that the enemy was likely to send troops to lay ambushes for any who went that way. Gandalf then set himself to watching the lady wives of each of the nobles as he could.
A week went by--nine days, and as yet there were no movements of the enemy’s forces in those areas that would possibly speak to treachery within Gondor itself. And then the wife of Prince Artamir entered her confinement....
The midwife looked at the one who summoned her to the Citadel. “And you would have me use this lotion ere I examine the mother?” she asked.
“She finds the scent of roses in it soothing.”
“It is best to come to a birth with clean hands and arms,” the elderly woman objected.
“But it is equally best if the mother is soothed and eased--is it not true?”
“Indeed. If it will indeed ease the mother....”
The child was born easily enough and appeared healthy, but by nightfall was crying constantly; by morning the child had died in great pain, and the mother was also desperately ill, and one of her maids in waiting had disappeared from the Citadel. That night the King attended the midwife, who’d been brought to the Houses of Healing by her elderly sister with whom she’d lived these past twelve years. “She’s been feeling increasingly ill all day, and I insisted she come here this afternoon,” the woman explained, her eyes filled with grave concern for her sister.
“Who summoned her to the birth?” asked the King.
A particular noble was named, the father of the girl who’d disappeared from the Citadel.
The midwife murmured, “The ointment--the rose ointment. He told me--told me to wear it--soothe the mother.”
Her rooms were searched and the jar of ointment was found. Gandalf held over it his hand, and his face paled. “The ointment is tainted--let none touch it.”
The King was barely able to assist in easing the midwife through the infection; he was nowhere as successful with his son’s wife. She died late that night, having suffered excruciating pain. When word came in the morning hours that an ambush of orcs had been set about the particular place where that noble had been told scouts were to be deployed to, none was surprised. The noble in question had ridden out of the White City while the Queen was in labor with his personal guard; a ride in the direction of his home found the guard but not the Man, who’d ordered his Men to ride on but who, accompanied by only one other had ridden northeasterly toward the small community that remained active in the southern reaches of what had been Osgiliath. There he was found, having been impaled on a spear by his former companion, who’d left him for dead.
“Did you summon the midwife when the Princess’s labor began?” Faramir demanded of the Man, who yet lived.
“No--my daughter--came toward the Houses to summon the--the midwife, and my servant Daeronsaid he would--summon her. He told my daughter to come to the house where we dwelt within the city. There it proved that my own personal guard was not my own but strangers picked by him. My own Men had been advised by Daeron that we must be off for our own lands within a few hours and so were in their own quarters preparing their goods, and none were aware those posing as my guard were strangers. Daeron came to me--told me we must leave the City immediately, that word had come my wife was desperately ill. I’d had word that morning, however, that all was well--I would not believe him and knew not the messenger--but the guard were not mine--I was forced....”
The midwife by that time had also been able to name the noble’s servant Daeron as the one who’d come to her with the summons and the pot of ointment.
The noble’s former house within the city was searched, and the body of the Man’s daughter was found in the stone-lined room in which meats and dairy foods were stored that they not spoil right away. She’d been strangled. Daeronwas not seen again. The noble died in as much agony as had Artamir’s wife within a few hours. And word came that Wainriders and their wagons were riding out of both Rhûn and Khand into the lands held by Gondor. Eärnil was much beset near Poros and the crossings of the River.
The second traitor, the one amongst Ondoher’s captains, was not found out at the time. At one point he came to Prince Faramir, who’d been left in Minas Tirith to see to the rule of the realm while his father and Artamir went forth to fight, to tell him that he’d learned from a captive that the War Leader of the Wainriders fought under a different banner than had been seen before--that his true banner was one with three fishes upon it.
Faramir would not stay within the city; he rode north and crossed the river at Cair Andros to so advise his father and brother, camping with his personal guard amongst the folk of the Éothéod who’d come south from the upper reaches of the Anduin to Gondor’s aid, coming with their leaders to his father’s tents. Ondoher and Artamir believed the news, and as they discussed what might be done the report came that the Enemy had launched the attack. There was no time for Faramir to retreat to Minas Tirith; he returned to his own guard who’d waited amongst the northerners and gave the order they would fight after all. When the banner was spotted toward the treacherous ground near the marshes they headed that way with their elite troops--and were cut off. Long had orcs labored in secret to prepare more solid footing for the enemy’s wains to travel through the verges of the marshes, and over them came more of the enemy than they could have believed could come that way. Ondoher and Artamir were killed outright, and Faramir was taken prisoner. The Wainriders drove the remains of the northern army south into Ithilien, for great battalions of orcs had hidden within the ruins of eastern Osgiliath and now held the crossings of the river against them.
Gandalf had ridden south to take words of the treachery that had robbed Gondor of Artamir’s heir to Eärnil, for the King had indicated he trusted no others to carry the word truly to his cousin. So it was that the Grey Wizard was at Eärnil’s side when Wainriders and great battalions of chariots, riders, and soldiers from Khand and Near Harad attacked the defenses on the Poros. Gondor’s troops were forced northward into southern Ithilien, but there regrouped. Advised and assisted by Mithrandir, Eärnil was able to lead his forces to a great victory. What precisely the Grey Wizard added to that battle none could say, but afterwards rumors were rife throughout Gondor’s army of great flashes of light that confused and terrified the horses pulling the great wains and the chariots of the forces of Khand and Harad and their cavalry. Within three days those who remained of the enemy’s people had fled south and east, and came that way not again. Having been advised by messengers from Ondoher’s commanders that a second attack had emerged from Rhûn, Eärnil directed his Men northwards, up the Harad Road toward the Black Gates.
“Ondoher is dead?” Eärnil whispered from where he, Mithrandir, and one of Faramir’s Men lay on the top of a ridge that ran west from the Mountains of Shadow, looking down on the great mass of wains and horses and Men, both Wainriders and Rhûnim, below them.
“Yes--he and Artamir died side by side, from what we could tell. For a time we were able to drive the Wainriders back--or so we thought, and so we were able to retrieve their bodies. My Lord Faramir, however....” The pain and fury in the Man’s eyes could be seen clearly. “He was cut off from us, from his own Men, and they took him. I saw a club used to knock him senseless, and hands drew him off his horse and onto one of the wains. The next morning the battlefield was empty--for a time. A number of us were allowed to approach the Black Gates, and there we found it--his body nailed to the Gates themselves. He was plainly alive and awake when nailed there, and he must have died in great agony. Again we were permitted to retrieve the body, and then the enemy fell upon us, and drove us southwards. It has taken days for these further troops to file out of Rhûn and to join with those who fought in the battle. They apparently intend to cross the River Anduin tomorrow and to roll through the Pelennor to the White City itself, where without the King it is expected Pelendur will give over the rule of Gondor to them.
“No!” Eärnil vowed. He looked over his shoulder where another Man crawled up the ridge toward them. “What is it?” he demanded in low tones.
“A small ship has pulled into the shallows of the river below us, my Lord, and a troop of Men from Arnor has joined us. They say that they were sent by Araphant himself in answer to a dream he knewand word from Malbeth the Seer who also saw us beset. One of those who served under Gilorhael commands them--he is venerable now, but they tell us he remains a canny commander. Having learned of the deaths of Ondoher and his sons, they place themselves at your disposal, and would assist in avenging their Princess’s father and brothers. They are most grim, my Lord.”
Gandalf could see the increased confidence this intelligence gave the one who’d been Ondoher’s beloved cousin and most canny general. “With such allies, no matter how few in number, we are strengthened beyond the enemy’s ability to understand,” Eärnil hissed. “I see. Lord Mithrandir--your fires--have you any of your powders and balls that could be aimed...?”
An hour later the remaining general of Gondor’s forces was back with his Men and his allies as they worked out their strategies for the battle to be fought the following morning.
The first the enemy was aware they were under attack was when great balls of light, fire, and terrifying noise were let loose along the picket lines--lines it was learned had been cut. The horses of the Wainriders and their Rhûnim allies were terrified and broke loose on all sides, fleeing wildly into the dark before the dawn. Then out of the dark rose shining shapes that terrified those guarding the boundaries of the camp. Gandalf had produced a powder that would glow for a time in the dark, and the cloaks of the first wave of troops were rubbed with it and then placed by fires where light and heat could be absorbed by it. Totally unnerved by this unexpected sight, the guards cried out and drew back. Then the shutters of numerous dark lanterns were released, and the light aimed at the camp, and archers dipped the oil-soaked rags bound to their arrow tips into the lanterns and aimed at the massed wagons below. As wagon after wagon, tent after tent burst into flames, the warriors from the east realized they must fight; but three nights of premature feasting had left them befuddled.
As dawn itself broke Eärnil gave the signal, and the three forces into which his gathered army had been divided attacked from out of the very paths over which the wains themselves had ridden a few days earlier, from a great slag heap south and east of the eastern army, and from Ithilien. Shortly after noon those of the enemy who remained began retreating, but found they could not return eastward, so fierce were those who fought for Gondor there, including a group of Men cloaked not in the black and silver of Gondor but the grey and silver of Arnor. Northwards they were pushed.
Afoot, the Wainriders had no experience or strategies to assist them in successfully defending themselves. More and more found the firm footing of the paths laid by the orcs, then found themselves taking another step northwards, and another--until they left those paths and found themselves stumbling through shallow water and the treacherous mud of the Marshes--and more and more began to be swallowed up by the quicksand itself.
The war leader of the Wainriders found himself cut off from the others, and was driven southward back toward what had been their camp. A tent that had escaped from the earlier fires now burst into flames as smoldering ashes fell on it from the continuing fires around it; its poles gave way and it fell sideways, wrapping the Man in its folds as it fell.
The oil with which he’d anointed himself to appear more shining and terrifying before he joined the battle proved to be flammable. All could hear his great screams of agony as he fell.
Far to the east and south Saruman heard the echoes of those screams and his lip curled into a gratified smile. That would teach the fool to utter threats!