The Dwarves saw to preparation of a tomb of sorts for those who’d died in defense of Fornost, lifting some of the great paving stones of the courtyard and hollowing out places underneath. There they laid the Steward of Arnor, his brother, and the seven other Men who’d stayed to keep the main attention of the Witch-king and his army fixed on them, laying beside each one a sword in token of the defense they’d made. And there they laid also Marco of the Marish, his Hobbit bow at his side, and his remaining hand over Aranarth’s own long knife, which rested on his breast; as well as the charred bones and ashes of those who’d hung from the stakes. Aranarth kept young Halbarad by him, as he did Bucca, and he had a hand on a shoulder of each as the stones was reverently replaced. Afterward he drew them and Belegorn, whose brother was among those buried, back to his own tent, and together the four of them wept until their tears were spent. Then they slept much of the following day, and for a wonder the enemy left them undisturbed.
“He wishes us to be shaken with horror by what was done here,” Aranarth declared as they broke their fast. “We cannot afford so much horror, however, for if we indulge in that he will fall upon us from behind and slay us while we yet mourn. Nay, we must instead take upon ourselves righteous anger that such has been done to our own and seek out the best ways possible to wring vengeance from him.”
The son of Elrond and Lord Glorfindel, who ate the tasteless bread and too-dry meat with them, indicated their agreement, and they swiftly explored possible strategies by which they might do so.
Aranarth’s army was not great enough to meet that of Angmar head on, so it would be better, they decided, to break into smaller units, each headed by one who knew the land well, and for them to harass Angmar’s flanks and then disappear into the folds of the land as best they might. Only when they found isolated battalions of orcs should they stay to slay all if possible--orcs might be particularly brutal toward those they encountered, but they were not given to tactics, and relatively small numbers of fighters repeatedly could destroy large squadrons of such creatures if they knew the land while the orcs did not.
And so the means of waging the war changed. Angmar could not find an army to face and bludgeon into the dust. Instead those on the tail ends of his lines ever seemed to find that rather than following their fellows through valleys, somehow they were diverted into blind gullies where arrows and vicious stones left most dead or too injured to return to duty. Advance squadrons were led into isolated glades from which there was no return. Rockfalls would trap those on the wings of the advancing forces in ways their comrades could not get to them until after the defenders of the land left those so entrapped dead or so crippled they could not fight more.
For this was the advice of the Elves--to leave a significant number of those cut off from their fellows alive but incapable of fighting in the future, as such a move could be more demoralizing than merely slaughtering those culled from the main army.
The Hobbits found the challenge of throwing stones intended to blind rather than necessarily kill made it easier in many ways to find suitable weapons as it became increasingly more difficult to replace arrows for their bows. And when one evening the Hobbits found a hornet’s nest hanging from a rocky overhang an ingenious plan was hatched--while the insects were rendered incapable of flying due to the cool of the night the nest was carefully and most reverently detached and carried to the nearby camp of the enemy Bucca’s group had been shadowing, and Bucca and two others managed to get past the sentries and leave it under the cot of their commander in his sumptuous tent before slipping out of the camp and melting into the surrounding wilderness. When the commander and his lieutenants met over breakfast to discuss how they would go about locating the Arnorians, the hornets began to waken from their nightly stupor, angry to find their colony now on its side, lying on the cold ground. A few of its sentries emerged, buzzing about the tent. When the commander, hearing the unknown noise, went within to find out its cause, he was promptly stung. His subsequent cries and struggles drew more hornets out who, sensing possible danger, became increasingly infuriated. They swarmed the commander and then poured out the flaps of the tent and fell on the Men gathered before it.
Two died of the hornets, one of them the commander; the rest were left seriously demoralized and confused.
The Dwarves had come at the King’s plea and had met Arvedui himself as he went northward hoping to find the forces he’d sent there with the intent of falling upon the enemy from the rear. He had told them of the plight of those trapped within Fornost and had begged them to go in through the hidden tunnel, which Dwarves had helped to construct to begin with, and bring them out to safety. Finding they’d arrived too late, they threw themselves into finding means of chipping away at Angmar’s armies. They dug pits across the ways the enemy must travel and lined them with sharpened stakes set at such angles they were likely to seriously maim those who fell upon them. Elves and Hobbits would then cover the pits in ways they appeared to be part of the path or road or open ground. Many of the enemy fell to such ruses. The Dwarves found ways of constructing deadfalls and traps intended to snap the ankles of soldiers and such horses as carried officers or supplies. They found ways of disguising known roads and commonly used tracks while making paths into dead ends and unnegotiable wastes appear to lead toward settlements or major camps.
Oh, all found reason to rejoice the Dwarves had joined them!
More and more they focused on the enemy’s supply wagons, finding ways to so disrupt the trains they could appropriate wagons of food and weapons. And the policy of leaving those they fell upon too injured or maimed to fight began to bear fruit. Angmar did not have the means to care for so many injured Men; but the orders to kill the wounded that they not burden those capable of fighting rankled and festered in the hearts of those who realized they were being ordered to kill their comrades and kinsmen, Men who in many cases could be expected to recover enough to return to the homes and crafts they’d been torn from by the Witch-king’s demands for soldiers. There began to be defections, and on a few occasions the Arnorians found they had unwitting allies who’d fled their battalions and turned on their heartless commanders in the desire for vengeance.
But still the forces of the enemy expanded as more fresh detachments poured southward from Angmar and as thousands of orcs and squadrons of trolls came west from the Misty Mountains, and increasingly Aranarth’s folk were driven south and westward.
Bucca faced the headman for the village they’d found in a fold of the hills. “You must leave now--Angmar comes, and they kill all as is in their path. We’ve seen it again and again.”
The broad-chested Man with the great curling beard laughed. “And what does a manling such as yourself know of how true Men can defend themselves?” he boasted. “We’ll not flee the enemy!”
Five days later his squadron came that way again, and found the settlement still smoldering, the barns raided, the animals taken--save for a few pigs and chickens that had managed to flee to safety and now rooted and scratched amidst the ruins of barns and corncribs; and a lone dog that sat ’neath a spear set in the ground, on which was impaled the bearded head of the Man Bucca had spoken to. Bucca turned away, shivering, and surveyed the area with a Hobbit’s eye and sense to where it would be logical to find that which might have been hidden. They found at last a series of cellars the enemy had overlooked: in three lay the bodies of those who’d died when the fires overhead had consumed the air within the chambers; in four others they found women, children, and two youths, one with a broken arm, sent there by their menfolk. These looked in shock at the remains of their once-proud settlement as they were led out of the place to more hidden refuges. Also found were some stores of grains and meats--the soldiers divided these evenly with the survivors, glad to have some food to supplement what they’d carried with them and taken from the supply wagons stolen from the enemy. One of the wagons recently liberated from the Angmarians they gave to the survivors, and sent one of their Men to lead them to hoped-for safety.
“You tried to tell him,” she who’d been wife to the headman told Bucca. “He might yet be alive if he’d listened.” So saying she handed the carefully wrapped bundle that held two trussed hens up to her young daughter who was to ride in the wagon, and took the rope to lead away the dog. “Come, Gueron,” she coaxed. “Good dog! Nay, you can do no more for him.”
And with a snorting of herded pigs and the grinding of the wagon’s wheels the survivors headed away to their new life.
They had not heard tell of the Witch-king himself for a week when Bucca’s squadron fell again in company with that of the King’s son, and learned Aranarth had determined to come to the dower lands near the Baranduin to learn what he could of the fate of his mother and those she’d led from Fornost. They traveled quickly, and by the time they approached the river north of the Breelands their numbers had been increased again, then a third time as they were joined by Gildor’s folk. They found signs a sizable force from Angmar was before them, and after two days’ further careful travel they found that the Nazgûl had joined those who now besieged the watchtower for the Queen’s Lodge, as the fortress here was known.
“We must draw them away!” fumed Belegorn. “We cannot allow your lady mother to be captured--who knows what horrors would be practiced upon her person by the enemy’s folks? And what it is said the Nazgûl has done to other female prisoners....”
Aranarth nodded, his expression most grim, leaving Bucca wondering just what the Witch-king was rumored to do, then deciding perhaps he was best off not knowing. “I will have to offer myself as bait to capture his attention,” the Prince sighed. “I do not like doing so, for not knowing whether or not I am still alive or upon the field adds uncertainty to his actions. But it must be done--I will not allow our kinsmen’s sacrifices at Fornost to see these safely away to be in vain.”
But the return of two of the Elves who’d been among those scouting the situation with a prisoner distracted them momentarily, and those now in Aranarth’s company drew deeper under cover of the forest lands surrounding them to learn what intelligence might be wrung from the Man, one whose face was marred by a scar left by a sword-cut, one that had come very close to robbing the Man of his vision.
This one, however, proved not to have come originally from Angmar, but instead from Rhudaur. He resisted questioning at first, but suddenly began to give answers clearly, as if he’d suddenly known a change in heart.
“What would you do should I not answer you--slay me where I stand before you, helpless under your guard?” he’d answered at first. “And then what news would you get from me, then when I cannot answer you?”
“Then answer and live.”
Aranarth’s voice was calm, but something in it caused the Rhudauri to search his face closely. At last he said, his voice filled with a measure of wonder, “You are descended directly from the Elendilionath?”
“As are many among the Dúnedain of the north,” the Prince answered, refusing to be baited into revealing his true identity.
Bucca thought on the Man for the moment. Neither Aranarth nor Beleg had been particularly obvious as to their filial relationship to Arvedui, eschewing gilded armor for more practical, plainer steel that might be somewhat finer than that worn by their average knights or captains, but visually almost indistinguishable from that of their closest lieutenants. Since the day at Fornost Aranarth had not displayed any banner, had given over the large pavilion he’d used before in preference for one identical to those used by the rest of the captains, and had not worn any token of his role as his father’s primary heir save the Ring of Barahir upon the index finger of his left hand, and that was hidden often enough by his warrior’s gloves, even as it was now. So many of the Men among the defenders of Arnor fit the same mold--hair dark brown to black, typically worn to or just short of the shoulders, jaws bearing clipped beards, eyes steely grey with perhaps hints of blue or green such as one saw in rushing water, tall and lean, narrow-hipped and wide-shouldered, expressions intent and discerning.
But somehow the prisoner appeared to recognize the importance of the one questioning him, and his responses became more informative with each question.
“My name? Rhúagorn son of Haldorin. Of course I am from Rhudaur and have some Dúnedain blood within me! Not all within Rhudaur are of base breeding.” He glared at one of those standing near to Aranarth who’d made a disbelieving grunt in response to that statement. “We were abandoned long ago when so many of our folk fled our lands to tie themselves to Malvegil and his son. We would not give up our identity as Rhudauri to bind ourselves under Arthedain!”
“I see. So how is it that you are found not on the southern borders of our land, but in the direct company of the Witch-king of Angmar himself?”
Rhúagorn shuddered. “Name him not to me, that accursed thing!” he spat. “I am told at one time it was truly alive and a Man? I have difficulty accepting that, particularly as the--creature--orders the deaths of those who have been injured as if they were wingless flies to be crushed between mailed fingers!” He spat as if to clear his palate of a bitter taste. And he began to talk.
How had he come to be among the hosts of Angmar?
“It was not my idea. Nay, we have fared poorly against the defenders of your lands, and my father chose me to come northward to bear word of our plight to the Witch-king. However, he seems intent on taking this place he besieges to the point of ignoring his allies to the south completely, and has not vouschafed to hear my report as yet. To find myself caught by these--these abominations when I went to the edge of the camp to relieve myself....” He paused, sensing the carefully controlled fury of all involved at the slight to the Elves.
“It would be best not to offend Lord Gildor’s folks,” Aranarth informed him, the impact of his words reinforced by his not quite casual tone. “Remember, the Elves came first in the thought of the Creator, and we Men are rightly listed among the Second-born. And, as we who are descended from Númenor bear the blood of Elves within us, those of us who claim descent from Elros Tar-Minyatur himself, we tend to see that strain of our heritage as blessed rather than as an abomination.”
Rhúagorn blanched at the undisguised rebuke. “I beg pardon, lord,” he said.
“Also,” suggested Belegorn, “it is likely you, too, have some Elven blood if you indeed are descended from the Dúnedain of Arnor.” His eyes were filled with a carefully controlled anger.
After that much of his hauteur was dissipated, and Rhúagorn answered further questions simply, appearing somewhat defeated. At last the King’s son dismissed him to be held as a prisoner and called for his lieutenants, including Bucca. “The Witch-king lies in siege of the Queen’s Lodge. Most of those within the place have taken refuge in the tower at the north end of the complex, and as was done at Fornost the Nazgûl’s folk are building a ramp to the upper levels. It appears my mother and many of those who escaped from Fornost are being held there. What suggestions do you offer to disrupt this siege?”
Messengers were sent out to draw more to the Prince’s side, and during the night many slipped into places assigned them by Aranarth and the Elves. As dawn approached the Arnorian forces crept closer, ready to disrupt the besiegers as they could. Bucca crept with three Elves close where they could see both the siege forces and the walls of the tower, then slipped back to the Prince’s side to report on what they’d found.
“The ramp’s windin’ mostly ’round the tower ’stead of leadin’ up to it straight, for it don’t ’pear as any inside can get up on top of the tower to drop anythin’ down on ’em. There’s bigger windows up higher, and it ’pears the enemy’s tryin’ t’reach them, hopin’ t’get in there easier. Most of the rest of the place’s been burnt, what we could see. Walls are still standin’, but the roof’s most all gone. There’s a camp straight off from the tower, and that’s where most is gathered. There’s nowheres as many as we saw at Fornost, though. Don’t know as where most of his folk’ve gone, but his army’s smaller now.”
Again Aranarth sent for the Rhudauri, and learned that he’d seen two hundred Men sent eastward and another battalion of light troops sent northward.
“In pursuit of the King?” Belegorn wondered.
“It would seem so,” agreed one of the Elves. “Can you perhaps search using one of the Palantíri to find out where it is your sire has gone, Lord Aranarth?”
The King’s heir shook his head. “Nay, for he took them from their various places all to Fornost a year back. Either he took them all with him when he fled, or the enemy has them. I suspect the former, for so far there has been no sign that the Witch-king’s folk appear to know the movements of our troops. Had the Nazgûl possession of any of them I am certain he would have sought to use it by now, and we would not be able to lie here undetected so close to his camp.”
The Elf nodded thoughtfully. “Well, my lord, what would you have us do?”
Aranarth gave a glance in the direction of the lodge. “I would see my mother and our folk brought out of there safely, and without the sacrifice known at Fornost.”
“Then perhaps we should prepare the assault,” suggested Gildor. “Perhaps when the sun is at its height and all are focused on the ramp?”
The final orders were issued, and soon all were in place. It took patience to wait until the sun was at its highest, but none wished to have to deal with the Nazgûl or the orcs if it was possible; and by then the folk from Angmar and Rhudaur were preparing a single catapult that was aimed at the watchtower at the north end of the complex. All could see that what had been told by Bucca was true. Were all who had been within the Queen’s Lodge now within the tower as had been suspected?
The day was growing increasingly cloudy, and it appeared a storm was imminent. That could both hinder them and yet help them.
“Can we stop them from using the catapult?” asked Belegorn of the Elf who lay in wait nearby.
“Perhaps,” the Elf began, then stiffened. A darker shape had appeared near the engine, and all were shuddering with fear and revulsion. “Nazgûl!” he whispered. Would the Prince give the signal while the Ringwraith showed itself?
Just then all could hear the flight of an arrow aimed, apparently, at the rope that drew back the arm of the catapult before it could reach its furthest point. However, it was not just their folk who realized someone sought to part the ropes before the thing could be fully cocked. The Witch-king also was turning, and lifted his arm. There was a sword with what appeared to be a blade of flame in his hand, and he had it raised and drew it down on the arrow as it passed him, shattering it with a noise like a miniature thunderbolt.
The creature then drew itself up to its imposing height and turned its malevolence on the catapult, beginning to utter a spell of such evil intent over it and on the great, reddish stone brought now by a nearly naked troll to lay in its basket that all stoppered their ears, so terrible was it to listen to. Not even the Elves appeared immune to the horror of its sound!
The stone was laid in place, and the Nazgûl himself signaled for its release. High and true it flew, hitting the wall just above the height of the ramp. They could see the stonework shake; but it did not fall, and only a single breach could be seen.
From inside the tower they thought they could hear cries of dismay.
“They know we are nigh!” Belegorn breathed in dismay, “Yet they remain fixed upon the tower!”
Bucca shared the feelings of frustration and anxiety. But just then the signal went up, and Bucca and his archers joined their flights of arrows to those of the Men and Elves who also carried such weapons. One of the soldiers in their group unshuttered the lantern he’d carried, and an arrow with an oil-soaked rag about its shaft behind the point was passed to the Hobbit. He dipped it into the flame, then once it was alight sent it in an arc toward the wagons of supplies while others targeted the tents and one sent his among the picket lines.
All was pandemonium within the opposing camp, and through the chaos not even the voice of the Witch-king could be heard.
A third flight of arrows was sent, and then the Prince’s army rose and surged forward.
Those who’d been preparing to attack the tower were packed too close together to easily defend themselves, as intent as they’d been on hurrying up the ramp to enter through the breach that had been effected in the wall. Orcs began boiling from their tents as the army of Arnor fell on them. With the dark clouds shielding the light of the Sun they were less defensive than they might have been; but still they had not been prepared for such an assault and were easily slain. As for the Witch-king himself, he was upon his feet and not as able to bring his full power to bear before a flaming bolt set fire to his very robes. There was a high screech, not this time of power but of dismay, and it fled the battle. Then Bucca found himself following the rest of the soldiers into the melee.
Apparently not all of the buildings about the grounds of the Queen’s Lodge had been fired, for now horses carrying women, children, and older Men appeared from behind the tower, taking advantage of the flight of the Nazgûl to retreat south and west toward the Bridge of the Stonebow; but carefully aimed arrows from slits higher on the walls of the tower were striking down some of the captains of the host from Angmar.
Belegorn grabbed up a great shattered stone as he ran, and managed to wedge it into the works of the catapult--it would take much time to remove it so that the engine could be put to use once more. He then drew his sword and fell on those who’d worked its mechanism. Bucca could see Prince Aranarth himself assaulting the troll. The creature opened its mouth to cry out, then paused as an arrow aimed from the tower took it in the eye. Those about the thing barely managed to move out of the way before it fell, stretching its length upon the ground.
But one Angmarian archer remained, and he appeared marvelously skilled--or perhaps merely monumentally lucky. He aimed at the wall above, and miraculously his arrow found the arrow slit. Bucca could hear the cry of pain and froze--he was certain it was a Hobbit’s cry he’d heard!
The Prince had sent most of his folk off to follow the riders southwesterly, retreating before the Witch-king could return and gather his folk together to follow. However, he and Belegorn, Bucca, and a few of the Elves including Lord Gildor climbed the encircling ramp and entered in, finding themselves on the second floor of the place. They found the floor of the room had been torn apart by the great stone flung through the wall by the catapult. And below one of the arrow-slits a small figure knelt over a second figure. Aranarth himself went forward to see what could be done, Bucca right after him. The kneeling figure was Holmwise Goodchild, and the one he sought vainly to ease was Ladro Baggins. The Baggins lay still, the arrow having taken him in the throat. Holmwise was weeping, crying, “Don’t leave me! Oh, Master, ye can’t leave me!”
Bucca gently pulled the weeping Hobbit into his arms as the Prince of Arnor knelt over the body of the stricken one. Ladro’s eyes flickered open briefly, and he looked up in question. “They made it?” he mouthed.
“Yea, indeed they escaped. Rest and be glad, champion to my mother.”
But the Hobbit’s eyes were already beginning to glaze in death, although a ghost of a smile could be seen on his face.