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25
The Siege of Fornost

The Siege of Fornost


“You trust the word given you?” Gandalf asked Arvedui.

The King of Arnor sighed as he solemnly indicated he did. “These messages were sent by some who originally considered themselves Men of Arnor who found themselves on the north side of the new border as a result of the attacks ten years ago. Because they were husbandmen rather than warriors they were allowed to live. Angmar is more interested in how much food he can gather for his forces than whether or not his slaves are all willing ones. He does not appear to have paid attention to the fact two of these were plainly once warriors no longer able to fight effectively due to disability. That their allegiance is to me and that they might find ways of sending word to me of what they’ve observed appears to have escaped him.”

He stood straighter. “The blow is being readied even as we speak, Gandalf--perhaps at most a year there may be before he looses the horde he has gathered; and it appears his armies will not be limited to Men, for Forgil has seen battalions of orcs gathering in the shadows of the Misty Mountains and the dark forests north of the Trollshaws; and the rumors of wargriders amongst them demoralize my Men. And if he should draw down upon us a firedrake....” He left the rest unsaid.

“And should he include trolls amidst his army, that could be devastating. They are far from intelligent, but their strength and brutality could wreak great damage upon your folk,” the Wizard noted. Gandalf considered for a time. “One good thing,” he commented, “is that by that last attack the border between Arnor and Angmar has been at last fully freed of the spell that kept those from these lands from crossing northward.”

Arvedui’s expression grew grim indeed. “But at what cost, Gandalf? My cousin spent the lives of himself and eighteen good Men, some of our greatest warriors, seeking to defend us against that attack; if he’d not realized that he was dying and the rest either had gone before him past the Bounds of Arda or would likely follow him closely and used his own blood and death to overwhelm the blood magic Angmar had used to erect his barrier, then we would have remained with no hope of possibly flanking their army.”

The Istar nodded thoughtfully. At last he said, “You must use what time you have to gather levies and see them trained, and remember that both the Breelands and the Shire as well as Tharbad owe you support. Do not hesitate to call upon them to honor their commitments to the integrity of Arnor. I will hurry southwards to carry news to Eärnil of the plight of these lands. He has sworn to uphold the treaties forged between your father and Ondoher.”

“If,” Arvedui responded past a clenched jaw, “his council and Pelendur do not again work against us. Any delay in aid may ensure our defeat.” He shifted to gaze more directly into the Wizard’s eyes. “You must bring aid if we are to survive, Mithrandir. Don’t allow them to say us nay!”

Gandalf nodded. “I will go. Speak with the Dwarves both west and east about sending aid, or at least helping guard the ways from north of the Trollshaws to the East-West road, and send your sons west into the remains of Lindon and to Mithlond. Círdan will help you now to the best of his ability, as will Elrond. But the wandering companies--only if they are aware that Angmar has sworn to destroy their peoples as well as the Havens and Rivendell will they be moved to fight also, or so I suspect. Some I’ve encountered are convinced that this is merely a dispute between mortals.”

Arvedui’s brows rose. “A dispute between mortals? And how long has it been, think you, that any of the Enemy’s greatest slaves and servants been able to be identified as truly mortal? Not for all of this age and a good half of the last one by my reckoning.”

Gandalf had to agree.

Arvedui gave him two swift horses so he could switch off between them and ride the more swiftly, and at nightfall the Wizard left Fornost on his errand to fetch reinforcements from the southern realm. The King of Arnor, his arm about Fíriel’s waist, watched after him from the wall over the gate to the fortress, praying that the Valar speed the Grey Pilgrim’s errand.

*******


“What is it?” his wife asked as Bucca of the Marish swept back inside their low farmhouse after his return from the King’s Bridge over the Brandywine.

“It’s a summons,” he said. He was a bit surprised he could even speak. “There’s a need for all folks o’ Arnor to send aid to the King.”

“And how are Hobbits o’ the Shire to aid the Big Folk?” she demanded. “We’ve no swordsmen, you know!”

“No, but we do have fine archers,” he said. “I’ll have to send word on to the central Shire, and call for a Shire-moot near Hobbiton, I suppose.”

“But why us Hobbits? We have no fights with the enemies of the King!”

“You think not?” he asked looking at her closely. “Do you really think as the King’s enemies won’t think to squash us if’n aught happens with the King? Nay, my sweetest one--if’n his army fails, they’ll sweep through here, too. What the Dwarves’ve told us o’ what they’ve done where they’ve swept through Eriador, they’ve left little’r nothin’ behind ’em. The Brandywine won’t stop ’em, ye can count on that. And us Hobbits--they’d think nothin’ o’ tramplin’ right over us--see us as helpless as aphids on flower stems, most like.”

“But we owe the King nothin’----” she began before he cut her off.

“We owe him everything!” Bucca insisted. “We wouldn’t have the Shire, ’tweren’t fer him. He give it to us, and we promised to support him as we could--keep up the roads and the bridge ’n’ help his messengers along the way--and send what aid as we can send when he needs it. Can’t send that much, mayhaps, but we can send some.”

“But you could die!” she said, her terror clear.

“So could the King hisself,” he pointed out. “If’n he’s willin’ to spend hisself protectin’ us, don’t you think as we owe him the same courtesy?”

“But what are we t’do if’n they cross the river?” she asked. “Without the menfolk to protect us----”

“We won’t send all the menfolk--just a couple score is all he asks o’ the whole Shire.”

That gave her pause. “Only a couple score? That’s not too many. And when does he ask ’em to come?”

“The muster’s to meet in Bree in three week’s time.”

“Then you don’t have t’be one of ’em as goes, then.”

“You want me to send others and not hazard meself? What kind o’ Hobbit would I be--to ask others t’go t’protect us all, but not go meself?”

“I don’ want t’be a-losin’ ye, dearling,” she whispered.

“Nor do I want t’be lost, my heart. I promise you, if’n it’s at all possible, I’ll be a’comin’ back t’you and the Shire.”

*******


Three weeks later the King’s captain stood, frustrated, in the public square of Bree, looking at those sent to the muster. Of the hundred requested from the Breelands, so far eighteen had shown up today, and their usefulness to the needs or Arnor was questionable at best. Most were young boys from the farms about the four villages, plus three old Men who so far had expressed more idealism than sense, and a pair of brothers from Bree itself who appeared to have attached themselves to the muster more to escape the frustration of having to live with their parents than to fight for Arnor. And then there were the three Periannath who’d just joined the Men--what good would such folk be, he wondered?

It was then that he heard laughter from the west gate area, and turned to see two score more Periannath approaching, armed, from what he could tell, with bows appropriate to their stature--bows and slings and hand-held catapults. He was surprised at the determination he saw in their eyes.

“Lookit ’em,” he heard one of the Breelanders watching from the sidelines comment. “Does them think as ’em’s fighters er sommat?”

He saw the ears of several of the Periannath in the company twitch, and saw more of them color. “You heard ’em, Bucca,” one of the small folk commented to the leader of the group, drawing him and the group to a halt just within earshot. “They’re not goin’ t’take us serious. We shouldn’t of come.”

“I tell ye, Marco, as we’re goin’ t’do our best. Wouldn’t have the Shire for our own if’n ’twasn’t for the King givin’ it us. An’ if’n he’s bein’ attacked, then stands t’ reason as we’d be next--as you said, most Big Folks won’t take us serious, and what I’ve heard the enemy’s not given to thinkin’ much about whether what they’re told is right. If’n we don’t help fight, then what’s t’keep them from runnin’ right through the Shire?”

Another of the Periannath was examining the marketplace, a crease of concern between his brows. “I just wish to know who it is we’re to report to,” he said. “I don’t see enough gathered here to make an army.”

“Dunno, Baggins,” said still another. “But then I’m not certain as what makes an army an army.”

There were a few scattered, nervous laughs from the rest, and the leader looked about again. At that point the King’s captain stepped forward. “You are here for the muster?” he asked.

The leader of the group gave a reserved nod. “Yes--us in the Shire was asked to send two score to the King’s needs. Well, here we are. Most of us can use bows, and all of us are good with thrown stones and slings, and those four are experts with their catapults. You got uses for us?”

The captain’s mouth twitched. “We’ll be setting up butts outside the village near where we’ll be camping for the next fortnight, and we’ll see how well you do. But we always have need for bowmen, as long as they’re good.”

The one who had the longest bow over his shoulder appeared insulted. “We’re Hobbits--of course we’re good with a bow or sling.”

One of the Bree Hobbits who’d been trying to convince the Mannish captain of his own worth nodded. “It’s what I’ve been a-tellin’ ye as well, sir. Us Hobbits--we’re as useful in our ways as any other. And us don’t wish to have the northerners take over any more’n any others, see?”

The Perian who’d been addressed as Baggins asked, “Are you the one we’re supposed to meet with? Are you from the King?”

“Yes,” the Man answered. “Captain Belegorn of Fornost. I wasn’t advised that those who would come from the Shire would be Periannath.”

“Perry-whats?” one of the Shirelings asked another.

Baggins explained, “That’s the name of some of the outsiders for us--that and Halflings.”

“Half o’ what?” muttered Marco.

Bucca shot Marco a look, then turned to Belegorn. “Don’t see as what else you’d of expected from the Shire, Captain, as the King gave it to us Hobbits as our own land ’most five hundert years back.”

Belegorn found his face growing warm. He cleared his throat. “I see,” he said. “I suppose I’d not thought on that.” He examined the group of Hobbits; recognizing that the strategies that had been developed were going to need revising--again--to accommodate these.

*******


At sunset he led those who’d come to the muster out of Bree toward the camp that had been established a good half mile east of the South Gate. Those set to guard the perimeter saluted him, then watched after as he went before the newcomers. In all he led twenty-seven Men and forty-eight Hobbits, and from what he could tell the Hobbits were, for the most part, likely to be far more competent in the field than the majority of the Men. The Breelands had provided barely a third of those asked of it, while the Shire had sent out a full complement of what had been begged of it. They’d not been certain that either would give what was required of it, actually; but to learn the Hobbits of the Shire had been faithful to their charter while the Breelands had apparently done nothing to see to the choosing of folk to help protect the land gave him a new respect for the integrity of Hobbits while underlining the fact the more independent villages continued to think of themselves as separate from Arnor.

Belegorn found himself wondering if King Eärnil in Gondor faced such challenges as did Arnor in fulfilling his levies.

By the end of the first week those in the regular troops of Arnor had developed a healthy respect for the Hobbits amongst the new recruits, particularly once the commander of archers tried a few of their bows. “They have almost as much pull to them as does my own bow,” he commented afterwards. “These are not bows for children. They don’t have quite the range that most bows for Men would have, but only because they are by necessity smaller. And the Periannath are definitely excellent shots. And have you noticed how quietly they can move within brushy areas, and how hard they can be to detect, even in fields of grass?”

Nor was he the only one to develop appreciation for their Hobbit recruits. Princes Aranarth and Beleg came to inspect the camp, returning from their missions to the Elves west of the Shire. They now had forty-eight Men and fifty-two Hobbits, the Hobbits of the Breelands having separated themselves from their Big neighbors and attaching themselves to those who’d followed Bucca of the Marish and his brother Marco to the King’s needs.

“So few Men?” asked Aranarth, dismayed.

“So many of the Periannath?” asked Beleg. “They will be a total surprise for the Enemy--don’t you see, my brother? Angmar does not fully appreciate such constancy of purpose--it is too long, I suspect, since he was a true Man and understood the motivations of mortals. But if we can face him with such as these....” He considered the Hobbit archers at their practice. “He will not be able to predict their actions, and it is even difficult to see them, I’ve noted, if they choose to go still and quiet. Perhaps we could use them to spy on the enemy.”

Twelve more Men and one more Hobbit chose to join the army while the two princes visited the town square in Bree.

Captain Belegorn examined the Hobbit, frowning slightly. “And have you a bow?” he asked.

“No, but I’d bet as I’d be yer best forager as ye’d find. I know how to find an’ recognize plants as is edible.”

“And how did you come by this skill?”

“My folks--they had ten childern, them did, and I was the third. We had a small farm’n’ garden, but ’twasn’t enough fer all of us, yer see. I’m also a right hand with a cookin’ pot--can cook ’bout ennythin’ an’ make’t palatable.”

“And your name?”

“Holmwise--Holmwise Goodchild. From Staddle.”

“And you have no skill with weapons?”

“Never used any, but I’m a right hand with a stone in m’hands--have had plenty o’ practice fetchin’ rabbits ’n’ squirrels ’n’ birds fer the pot, I have, an’ chasin’ ’em out of the garden ’n’ fields.” Then, as he saw the second thoughts reflected on the Man’s face he added hastily, “An’ I c’n tickle fish--as many as ye’d want fer a meal.”

“Why do you wish to join the army, if you have no skill with weapons?”

Holmwise took a deep breath, then finally let it out. “As I said, I’m third o’ ten, an’ me folks c’n barely support us all. Won’t inherit no land--me older brothers--they’ll get the farm and share’t atween ’em. I’m in me tweens, an’ able to do most ennythin’ as needs doin’, if’n ye take my meanin’. I c’n mend harness and dig a snug hole, dig a well or build a sound barn, an’ can even twist fine rope an’ all. Me dad’s a good ’un with the farm, but I got me amë’s love o’ flowers’n’ trees. I want some land of me own, you see, where I c’n take care o’ me own, but have room fer me flowers as I love. ’Tis said as yer folk’ll help those as go with the army get land o’ their own when it’s all over--that’s what I want, see?”

Belegorn examined the Hobbit. His hair was somewhat fairer than most of the Hobbits he’d yet seen, save for the one called Baggins and two of those they called Tooks. He was rather more muscular than most of the Hobbits in the camp, and his face was very earnest. He was younger than the others in the camp, and his clothes, though well worn, were, he noted, pristinely clean and in good repair. “Can you read or write?” he suddenly asked.

His face clouding, the Hobbit shook his head. “No--never learnt it, although I’m willin’ t’learn if’n there’s any as’d be willin’ t’teach me.”

Prince Beleg examined the face of this Hobbit from Staddle, and said, “He looks a quick learner. Set him to work with the quartermaster--we always need those who can help forage for food and supplies. And if he can learn enough to help keep records that’s always to the good.”

Captain Belegorn nodded, still somewhat reluctantly. “As you say, my lord. Well, Master Goodchild, let us see you back to the camp.”

*******


“You say you need someone to teach this one to read and write?” asked the Baggins Hobbit after their return. “I could do that, if I could have something on which he might practice writing. And I have a book with me.”

Belegorn was surprised. “You have a book with you?” he asked. “You brought a book to war?”

It proved to be a collection of words of advice the Baggins’s father had written out for him. “When cutting boards or cloth, measure twice that you need cut but once,” read one entry. “Those whose hands are soiled with honest work need not be ashamed,” went another. Holmwise Goodchild took to both reading and the wisdom readily, and was soon quoting the book to all within the company. He developed a clear, unaffected hand, and within three weeks was proving indispensible to the quartermaster, although his spelling could be best described, perhaps, as imaginative.

At the end of the second week they marched away from the Breelands to join the army of the western section of Arnor. For a time they did little but practice with their weapons and discuss tactics. The Hobbits learned the type of information to look for when examining the enemy’s camps and emplacements, and were shown pictures of the types of weapons that were likely to be used against them.

Bucca, Ladro Baggins, Delgo Watercress from Bree, and Holmwise Goodchild, who’d attached himself to Baggins’s service in return for the lessons, assumed leadership amongst the Hobbits and were often called upon to consult with Captain Belegorn and Prince Beleg. The Tooks and Baggins were the best educated from what the Men could tell; but all were highly competent foragers as well as decent cooks. Those who served in their battalion were quick to surrender cooking duties to the Hobbits, and soon were being looked at with envy by their fellows under other commands.

*******


Two months after they joined the main army, Ladro Baggins came into the tent where most of the other Hobbit archers were lounging. “It’s come at last,” he said to all--or perhaps just to himself. “The Enemy’s on the march. We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”

Marco set down the wooden duck he’d been carving for his son, folding his knife closed and stuffing it into the pocket of his trousers. “We’re finally leavin’?” he sighed. “Wonder how long as we’ll be gone?” He looked at the figure. “I’d hoped t’finish this and send’t off t’the bairn afore we left this place.”

Bucca looked at his brother with concern. Now they were part of the fuller army his fear for those who’d accompanied him out of the Shire had grown, for now he’d spoken with many who were veterans of older battles, Men who’d seen fathers, brothers, and friends slain as they fought side by side, who’d come upon settlements and farms that had been destroyed by the enemy and seen the atrocities practiced upon the bodies of the slain. It could so easily be his brother who died in the coming battles....

*******


One of the Tooks was the first Hobbit to fall, hit apparently solely by accident by a missile from one of the enemy’s sling-carriers.

The contingent to which the Hobbits were attached remained just north of the East-West Road, and defended that feature as much as possible from Angmar’s forces. Captain Belegorn and the other officers of this battalion used the Hobbits to the fullness of their capabilities, which mean that they did indeed set them to spying on the enemy’s forces, and used them in ambushes on scouts and advance troops. There had been about twenty-five Men, an equal number of orcs, and five wargs sent to feel out the defense toward the western line of their position. Ten Hobbits and thirty veteran Men archers lay in wait as the group of Angmarians approached a place where two of the Weather Hills would force them closer together. At the first flight of arrows from the defenders, five who carried slings and ten archers from the enemy stepped forward to offer what cover they could. For the most part they fired randomly, for they could not see where it was the shots had been fired from. The Hobbits, whose strategy had ever been to shift positions between shots that they be harder to attack, were moving when suddenly Heliogard Took slumped to the ground, blood seeping around where a stone had taken him in the temple. He did not appear to have realized he’d even been struck.

Only three of the first flight of arrows from the Hobbits had struck any of the foe; in the second flight, seven enemies were hit by the golden-fletched arrows of the Periannath, leaving three dead. The third flight was even more deadly. Any question Belegorn might have held about the effectiveness of Hobbits amongst the defenders of Arnor was now dispelled. With the death of one of their own they now all had a personal stake in seeing the war won, and all were intent on seeing it fought and fought well.

Over the remainder of the following year they became increasingly experienced warriors, and three of them had begun to carry short swords adequate to their stature, one of them Marco, who often served amongst the spies.

“I’m not sure as why ye think as ye need it,” Bucca admonished him.

“Well,” Marco answered, “it served me well yestereve when that soldier from the enemy’s camp all but tripped o’er me as he sought a private place to relieve hisself. Had him dead--and quiet-like, mind ye, afore he knew as what struck ’im. Another one o’ theirs as won’t be hurtin’ none of ours.”

The finding of the Man lying dead of a sword thrust in a place within full view of the camp caused consternation amongst the Angmarian troops, and when others died as mysteriously the fear grew. It was soon being rumored amongst them that the Arnorians employed wights who could walk unseen into the camp and slay at will. The Hobbits lying under cover of low scrub, watching the enemy’s activities, brought back the stories as they heard them. And perhaps it might have gone on far longer had Marco not become careless, wounding but not killing his intended victim. A cry from the Man, and immediately they were surrounded and Marco taken prisoner.

“What have we here?” the enemy captain asked as he joined the Men crowded around the wounded Angmarian soldier and their captive.

“Some kind of manling,” answered one of those who held a sword to Marco’s throat. “He stabbed Derrig there. Mayhaps he’s the one who’s been killing our folk about the camp.”

The other Hobbits had all gathered where they could watch the proceedings. Bucca was terrified. “We have to rescue him!” he whispered to Ladro Baggins.

Ladro looked at the tableau across from them. “We each pick a target,” he whispered, “and best to kill yours with the first shot.” He looked around, and the other Hobbits, all white faced, all nodded.

In an instant bows were strung, and each of forty Hobbits chose an arrow, indicated which of the Men was his target, and moved into a position where it was felt a clear shot could be taken. Bucca had chosen the captain, and moved around to where he felt he could take the Man between the shoulders. Holmwise stood where he was hidden from the camp but could still be seen by the other Hobbits. When all were in position, he raised his hand, then brought it down sharply; forty arrows flew, and most hit their targets squarely.

Marco, who’d been held to the chest of one of the Men, fell to the ground as an arrow hit the one holding him in the throat. He rolled away from the Men, then scrambled to his feet and fled the scene before the rest of the Men in the camp realized quite what had happened. As he ran one of the surviving Men nearest the group threw a dagger after the fleeing Hobbit. Bucca saw his brother lurch, then continue running.

Bucca was glad to see that the captain was hit exactly where he’d been aiming. Feeling relief, he hurried forward to bring Marco back to their own camp.

Belegorn was coming toward them as the Hobbits returned in a huddle about Bucca and Marco. “What has happened?” he asked. “My Men say there has been a major disturbance at the edge of the enemy camp.”

Bucca was surprised to see how his fear for his brother’s safety had turned to anger, even rage, at his narrow escape. “It was this fool,” he spat, “trying to add further to the confusion o’ those in the enemy camp by lying close enough to hopefully again take one o’ their number. This time he was caught.”

“I’m sorry,” Marco panted. “But, please--my back--it hurts.” He started to slump, and all saw he’d been hit low in the back by the dagger thrown after him.

“Stars and water!” gasped Bucca as Belegorn turned to call for a healer.

*******


“And thou sayest that the one to stab thee was as a small Man, but beardless and with bare feet?”

“Yes,” the injured Man said, pale and shaking as he tried to hold his attention on the Nazgûl who questioned him.

The Witch-king straightened, thinking. “I had thought all such were gone from Middle Earth with the droughts brought by my Master upon their lands along the eastern flanks of the mountains,” he whispered. “So, some have come into Eriador and seek to aid the foul Elendilim, do they? They shall rue it!” He turned to the Man who served as his lieutenant over his Mannish troops. “Find one of these--capture him alive. I would find what they know!” So saying he turned from the wounded Man. “Slay that one--do not waste resources upon one who walks right into the assault by one such as this,” he added as he left the healers’ tents.

*******


Marco recovered, and when he returned to full duties he was much subdued and far more cautious than he had been. However, his determination to see the forces of Angmar destroyed was honed, and he continued to both carry the long knife he used as a sword and to practice with it with the other swordsmen. When his abilities to wield it well served to save three of his fellows who’d been found by enemy scouts, Bucca finally quit complaining about its continued presence at Marco’s side. But Bucca found himself grieving to see his formerly retiring brother become hardened to war and so grim of nature.

And soon other Hobbits were dying. They lost four in a skirmish near Amon Sûl, two more in a pitched battle to guard a portion of the North Road. Then their camp was assaulted by night, and two were slain and one more injured by arrows as they came out of their tents in their small clothes to learn what the commotion might be. Considering the far greater loss of Men in each of these encounters, casualties amongst the Periain might appear negligible; but for Bucca each loss was a personal grief.

The enemy paid for each yard of advance made; but it appeared his army was beyond numbers, and now more and more troops of orcs were at his Men’s sides at each battle.

Then there came word that Rhudaur had attacked from the south, assisted by the Dunlendings. Prince Beleg split his forces, sending half his Men and fifteen Hobbits south to assist those who defended that direction, Delgo Watercress leading those Hobbits who went with them. Bucca and Marco of the Marish were left with the rest of Beleg’s army in Eriador, and soon Belegorn’s division was given over to Prince Aranarth’s command as Beleg went to aid his father at the King’s fortress of Fornost.

“We go east and then probably north,” Aranarth told his commanders. “More orcs and a battalion of trolls have issued out of the Trollshaws, marching west to join those who are besieging Fornost. We seek to hold them off as long as possible in order to allow my father to evacuate those who dwell both within the fortress and about its walls. The Witch-king’s forces have almost leveled Annúminas, although few have fallen there. He will soon turn his attention toward Fornost, and when he does his wroth shall be unendurable. So great is his hatred and that of his dread Master toward our people and our lineage--they would see us utterly destroyed.”

As they approached Fornost some days later they could hear the unmistakable sound of battle; suddenly they were hurrying forward as one of their scouts returned with word there was heavy fighting ahead between close to thirty Angmarians and what appeared to be twelve Elves. Falling on the enemy from the rear, the Arnorians soon had the Witch-king’s Men all slain or subdued.

The Hobbits all stood amazed at the sight of the Elves, the first most had ever seen. Bucca went forward with some of Aranarth’s lieutenants, closely followed by Ladro Baggins and Holmwise Goodchild, to stand near Prince Aranarth as he consulted with the Elves they’d aided. “Lord Glorfindel! I am pleased to have been able to come to your assistance!” the Prince said, bowing respectfully. “And Lord Elladan--nay, forgive me, Elrohir. It is long and long since we stood so by one another.” He turned to greet still another Elf with equal respect. “And Lord Gildor? Well met.”

Bucca felt rather uncertain as to how he ought to behave, but decided in the end to join with the rest of Aranarth’s lieutenants and bow deeply. These three Elves turned to look at the three Hobbits.

Periannath?” asked the Elf identified as Gildor.

“Yea--we had forty from the Shire and nearly twenty from the Breelands who answered the call for levies,” explained Belegorn from near Aranarth’s shoulder. “Good soldiers have they shown themselves. Their archery and use of sling and catapult are unsurpassed by any others in our armies.”

“And they have proven capable and resourceful, as well as faithful to us and one another,” Aranarth added with a proud glance at the three Hobbits. “May I present Bucca of the Marish and Ladro Baggins, both from the Hobbits’ Shire, and Holmwise Goodchild from the Breelands.”

Lord Elrohir, whose hair was very dark and who seemed to resemble Prince Aranarth strongly, looked thoughtfully at the Hobbits, appearing to examine Bucca himself the most closely. The two golden-haired Elves inclined their heads in token of respect, and Lord Gildor murmured, “Elen síla lúmenn’ omentielmo.” Seeing the confusion in the Hobbits’ eyes, he translated, “A star shines down upon our meeting, friends.”

Bucca nodded, feeling somehow warmed by the greeting, even if he wasn’t completely certain of what it meant. But behind him he could hear Ladro Baggins trying the words in low tones, apparently enchanted by the sound of the Elvish language, while he noted out of the corner of his eye that Holmwise’s eyes were fixed on the three Elves in fascination.

Prince Aranarth turned his attention back to the Elves. “How is it the three of you are here with these?” he asked, indicating the rest of the Elves.

“We arrived yesterday to find your father held off from entering the fortress by these. We spoke with him and his captains during the night, and this morning engaged them so your father could slip behind them and see to the evacuation of Fornost. Most will be going south and westward toward Mithlond and what remains of Lindon, but your father hopes to then go northward so as to slip behind the enemy and drive them into the main army to the east.”

Aranarth’s travel desk was being brought forward, along with maps of the area, and what their scouts and the Elves could tell them of the enemy’s movements were plotted upon them.

Suddenly another Elf appeared to materialize within the circle of soldiers about Aranarth, and Bucca noted a small, definitely pleased smile on the Elf’s face as those set to guard the hastily indicated boundaries became agitated to realize someone had managed to get past them. The smile, however, was swiftly lost as he made a report: the enemy sent a second battalion toward the King’s fortress from the northwest, appearing intent on cutting off any escape from Fornost if at all possible. The vanguard of this company was mounted and hurrying ahead of the rest of the army, and should reach a particular defile within two hour’s time.

Aranarth exchanged looks with his own lieutenants and the three Elven lords. “My friends?” he said grimly. “Shall we be there to greet our guests?”

*******


The ambush was successful, but the cost was high enough. Two Elves were seriously injured; eight Men and two Hobbits were lost, and there were many who were wounded. Aranarth’s Men had barely made it to the walls above the defile in time to take up defensive positions. The Elves had crossed to the other side, having traveled more swiftly than had Aranarth’s folk. There they’d strung their bows and made every arrow count, many of those having been gleaned from the battleground they’d just quitted. Now they had four prisoners, one from the earlier battle who’d been brought along, bound over the back of a horse, and three from this battle. The battle won, Aranarth set his folk to finding a good place to set up a camp, sent out new scouts to see to the progress of this new army, and called the prisoners before himself and his lieutenants.

“Your name,” he demanded of the prisoner from the earlier battle. When the Man didn’t answer he repeated the question in the Man’s own tongue. The Angmarian appeared shocked to hear the question in his own language, but something the tone in which the question was asked caused him to answer, as happened with the next question and the next.

Once done with this one the Prince called for each of the others until all four had been questioned. It was now after sunset. Few fires had been lit, and those in sheltered hollows. The prisoners were sent up to the fortress to be housed in the cells below it, and now the lieutenants again were gathering as Prince Beleg and another of Arvedui’s highest captains came down to consider the next moves they should consider.

“The rest of the enemy’s forces will be here in the morning, and they will seek to raze Fornost,” Aranarth explained. “We are not a large enough force to hold them back indefinitely. We cannot save the fortress, but we must allow my father and brother time to get our people out.

“The armories have been emptied save for the most worn of weapons or armor--our own weapons cannot be used against us. Most of those who lived and farmed in the region were moved into far more hidden areas months ago; now we must remove the Steward and his family and those who have stubbornly remained here, hoping to weather the storm. If they are taken, even the least of the children will be tortured to death to demonstrate how deeply our house has ever been hated by Sauron and Angmar.”

The others nodded their understanding. “What about the treasuries?” asked a lord from the Angle.

“Most are so well hidden as to be inaccessible. It is to be hoped they will believe the vaults, too, were mostly emptied long since; and if they hope to catch my father and our people they will not have time to search any too deeply to find the hidden doors, much less to scour the hills and valleys about in order to seek out where else the contents might have been hidden. Nay, Angmar and his people will hold onto the hope of returning here once the victory has been won and searching at their leisure.”

“Is there no other route of escape that can be taken by those within?” asked one of those from the borderlands.

“If there is,” Prince Beleg advised them, “we would do ill to discuss it here. Nor would it be likely to allow for the escape of more than fifty in a timely manner so as to be well away or hidden before Angmar’s folk followed its route to its end. Nay, it is through riding away from the fortress that my father and I will be best able to get our people free. Now, if we might beg seven more horses from those of you here gathered....”

The horses were given freely--but then this was not land conducive to mounted combat. With that thought in mind Aranarth set his army in position to take advantage of the hills surrounding the expected field of battle while his brother returned to Fornost with the mounts. Once the residents of the Citadel had won free, the major portion of the defense was to pull back to the southwest, while those who still had mounts were to follow the King northward where he hoped to meet those troops he’d set there a few weeks back. They hoped to circle around Angmar’s forces and fall on them from the north, and catch them between the two forces.

“We are not as great a force as the King had thought to have here, though,” Belegorn lamented. “With the drawing away of almost half our Men to go to the defense from Rhudaur we are perhaps too much diminished to serve as the anvil to the King’s hammer.”

“And there has been no word from the forces my father sent north,” worried Aranarth, “to assure they lie in position to await his coming. If only Mithrandir could bring the promised reinforcements from Gondor!”

*******


No reinforcements came that night, however. Instead the enemy’s Men arrived shortly before dawn to find themselves assaulted from the heights of the hills and lower mountains. When more enemies arrived from the east they were allowed to join those already on the field--after their numbers were suitably reduced by Elf and Hobbit archers.

One of the Elves finally appeared at Aranarth’s side. “Your adar--he and your brother have led most of your folk out of the fortress; however his steward and ten of his Men have refused to abandon it. They believe if they can cut the road below the gates they can keep the attention of the enemy so fixed upon themselves it will allow the rest to win free--they are willing to sacrifice themselves that your adar and brother can reach the army to the northwest.

“As for those who have just ridden away, most will be heading for the Breelands where they ought to lie safe for now.”

“Is my mother among them?” Aranarth asked.

“Yea--indeed she is. She speaks of leading the rest to the dower lands along the Baranduin.”

“The tower there is strong,” Aranarth said. “They might hold out long there.” His eyes, however, were troubled. “But they also might find themselves trapped there if they are pursued.” He thought for a moment. “Then we must see to it they are not followed,” he said with decision. “Come, my friends!”

But a new surge of the enemy came between them and the fleeing riders, and now the Nazgûl himself appeared in the midst of their enemies.

*******


Near sunset Aranarth sounded the retreat, and unable to go north to his father’s aid or west to that of his mother he drew his army into the hidden places in the hills surrounding Fornost he knew so well and the enemy knew so little about. The siege was begun, and Aranarth found he could not break it. More forces came southward out of Angmar to join the Witch-king’s army, and daily more and more slaves worked at building a great earthen ramp up to the level of the gate to the fortress, those within having succeeded at cutting the road. There was nothing any could do to stop the eventual taking of the fortress, although Aranarth did all in his power to do so, flaunting himself at one point in challenge to the Witch-king himself, although that challenge was ignored.

On the eighteenth day he called for volunteers to try to enter the fortress through one of the secret ways into the place, and Marco and a Man from Fornost itself stepped forward. Messages were given them, and they left. Two days later Marco returned--alone.

“The enemy--they range through the ways near the tunnel’s end,” he said, once he’d been given some of the sour wine that was part of their rations. “They saw Tergil an’ slew him. I don’t think as they saw me at all. Tergil’d pointed out the hidden entrance ere we come out o’ hidin’; he started first, keepin’ low, but not headin’ direct toward it, see--goin’ at it sort o’ sideways, mind. Second time he broke cover an arrow took him. I stayed put--they never saw me.

“He’d give the messages t’ me t’ carry, so as t’was nothin’ as I could do I stayed put till they come fer his body. Nothin’ as I could do. Nothin’ as I could do.” He stopped and took a deeper draft of his wine. “Finally was able to reach the entrance, ’bout ’n hour ere sunset. Got in and got out, I did. Give ’em the messages. Say as they won’t come out--will stay till the last Man, make ’em pay dear fer the takin’ o’ the fortress, they will. Sent word--yer dad, sir--yer father--left the Star of Elendil there, an’ the Sceptre, in case--in case him’s lost. They’ll try ’n’ smuggle ’em out t’ you if’n they can. Couldn’t bring ’em with me--too shiny--would of give me away.”

*******


After two and a half more weeks the ramp was done. Marco had gone on another attempt to go through the tunnel into the fortress and hadn’t come back. Bucca was certain he, too, was dead--dead, or perhaps unable to escape again through the tunnels, a prisoner with the others within the fortress. Together they waited to see what would happen next. They might slay as many of those on the edges of the enemy’s camp as they could reach--save for small parties, the Nazgûl was keeping his army put, both orcs and Men. His focus was on the fortress and only the fortress. On the morning after the completion of the ramp he led the way up it to the gates of the Citadel itself. Boiling oil, great stones, spears and flaming objects prepared to stick to the skins of those on whom they fell--all were dropped on those who wielded the Witch-king’s great ram. None mattered--as soon as a Man or orc fell, another would be sent to take his place.

For two hours the ram struck the gates again and again, and at last the Ringwraith himself went forward, calling out horrible words of ruin and destruction that were heard even among Aranarth’s hidden troops--and at last the gates fell in rubble. The Witch-king’s forces poured into the keep. Within minutes clouds of smoke were rising within its walls, and they saw fire leap from some of the roof.

Then as night fell the place went eerily quiet, although there was revelry within the camp below the fortress. That night a number of those on the borders of that camp fell as arrows or carefully thrown stones took them, but none seemed to note the losses, so glad were those below at their dread master’s victory. Finally at midnight the revelers were whipped into silence--apparently their noise offended those who were within the fortress itself. Discipline restored, proper watches were set and only a handful more were eliminated before Aranarth bade the harriers to desist.

Near dawn all were alerted as a great drumming went up--apparently the Witch-king wished an audience for what he did next. As the Men, Elves, and Hobbits watched helplessly, Men appeared on the battlements, and in time figures were thrown over them to hang from ropes or chains, some blessedly still, others obviously writhing in agony. Nine figures at last hung there, and then some came out of the camp carrying a bundle. Shocked, they watched as something the size of a child was carried up the ramp and through the gates. They heard a distant hammering, and all went still. Then those who’d entered the fortress came out carrying all of value they’d been able to find. The Witch-king called out in his shrieking voice, and his army drew up--drew up and marched east and southwards, except for one group heading decidedly southwestward. Elves and Men were sent that direction to follow them and learn their intent, and Ladro Baggins went with them, followed as ever by Holmwise Goodchild. But the rest waited to see what might happen next.

Late in the day not an enemy was to be seen anywhere near the ruins of Fornost. Aranarth and Belegorn, accompanied by Glorfindel of the Elves and Bucca of the Marish, circled into the hills behind the place. They found where the enemy’s people had camped, looking for any sign of secret entrances to or from the fortress or any of Aranarth’s folk seeking intelligence. These camps were now empty, however.

Suddenly movement was discerned, and all went still and melted into the rocks; there were marching feet approaching, and the occasional clang of great weapons accidentally striking against the stone walls of the maze of stone valleys. All readied to take on another of the Enemy’s battalions.

Those who came into view, however, were not orcs or from Angmar--they were Dwarves, Dwarves who’d plainly been fighting, their shields dented and many of their axes and swords notched, their leather harness and helms stained with blood that had been both red and black.

The Dwarves paused and one of them stepped forward to address the rest. “The entrance to the tunnel is near here, lads,” he said. “Now we’ve dealt with the last of Angmar’s folk, we’ll see if we can get in and help Arvedui’s people within the fortress--drag them out if we need to. He did ask this of us, after all, that we help save his Men.”

Aranarth rose from where he’d concealed himself, turning to hand his sword to Belegorn, who’d crouched near him. “No need,” he said. “Welcome, folk of the Khazad. I regret you have come too late--I fear all who were inside are now dead, hanging from the walls. Angmar took the place yesterday. He did not bother razing the fortress, but his folk have burned and plundered all that remained of the city below the fortress itself long since. We, too, sought to enter in and see what was done. So, it is to you we owe the freedom to walk here within the hills overlooking my father’s fortress unmolested? I thank you, although I know not what I could give you in repayment. But come--let us see what we can learn.”

He led them to the hidden entrance. The Elves he allowed to approach it first to examine the ground. “A Perian came this way some days past, but did not go toward the door. Instead he went that way, and apparently was captured--the tracks of Men and orcs meet his there. He did not show them where the entrance might be.”

They followed the tracks further, and found a similar place to that of the door where obviously great mattocks had been used to beat upon the stone, breaking much of it into rubble. “But why this fury at the stones here?” Belegorn asked.

Bucca knew as if he heard his brother whispering in his ear. “He led them here--Marco led ’em here--told ’em as it were where the entrance was. Look--some as tried diggin’ down to it from above--see the signs?”

Aranarth sighed, placing his hand on Bucca’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, Bucca of the Marish. Your brother was a brave man, and a resourceful one at that.”

At last the mixed group went back to the actual tunnel mouth, and Aranarth sprung its hidden latch. Inside they heard a strange wailing as of souls in torment.

“What deviltry’s afoot here?” grumbled the commander of the Dwarves.

Torches were brought forward by other Dwarves, and Aranarth, Glorfindel, and the Dwarf captain readied to go in. Suddenly Bucca came forward, too. “I’ll be goin’ with ye, m’Lord Aranarth,” he said. “’Twas my brother as saw to ’t as them didn’t find this--I’ll see with my own eyes as to what him was protectin’.”

It took time and care to go through the narrow way, for here and there new-fallen stones showed the tunnel was no longer stable. Deeper and deeper they wormed their way, until they came near a final rockfall so great it was plain there was no way through it back into the fortress--not this way, at least.

But one was trying, a young Man, Bucca judged him. He was weeping and wailing with grief, and had obviously been shifting what stones he could from the pile to a place where they might not fall back to continue to block the way.

“Adar! Adar!” he kept calling. “Adar! Why did you lie to me!”

The Dwarf gave his torch to Bucca and went forward to catch the youth in his arms. “Nay, laddie, you’ll do him no good. You’ll not do any good for your father, going at it this way. Come away--your prince is here. Come--tell him what happened.”

Aranarth gave a gasp of relief. “Ah, Halbarad--your father sent you out, then, did he? I feared you were among those the Witch-king hung from the walls.”

The tale was brief. Halbarad was given the chest holding the Elendilmir and the Sceptre of Annúminas and other signs of the Lordship of Arnor and had been sent into the escape tunnel and was told the others would follow him and that they’d pull the tunnel down after them. “We worked for days, preparing it to collapse. But they didn’t follow. They told me to go to the far door and wait there, but not go out until they came after me. As I waited I heard the rumble, but they never came--he lied! My father lied! He sent me to safety, but stayed to die!”

It was after sunset when they came back to the Prince’s army. His lieutenants who’d stayed looked grim. No one stayed them or offered any threat as they made their way up the ramp and stood under the walls, looking up. There hung the nine Men who’d last defended the King’s fortress, all head downward. Some had plainly been dead when so hung; two had definitely expired during the day. Some scaled the walls, with difficulty as the stairs within had also been cut, and the bodies were let down so as to be properly buried.

Stakes had been erected within, and charred remains hung from each of them--apparently those of their own who’d been taken prisoner or found lying wounded in the skirmishes that had been the main features of the past weeks.

But it was on the doors to the Citadel itself they found the greatest horror--there had been nailed a rope from which hung the trussed body of Marco of the Marish, and what was worse, he was still alive. He’d obviously been tortured. An ear was missing, as well as an eye, several toes, and his right hand. He rolled his eye to see his brother. “Didn’t take my tongue,” he whispered thickly. “Wanted me t’talk. Didn’t. Didn’t tell ’em--nothin’.” He smiled brokenly, and died.

Bucca’s world grew blank.

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