The Grandmother turned away from the closed door to search the face of the grandson closest behind her beseechingly. “You’re certain we must do this?” she asked.
“We all agreed,” he said. “We has to see what’s in there.”
“But if there’s nothing----”
“Then we just closes it again and says nothing about it. But, if what we expect is in there….” His expression was grim.
Her face was bleak as she worked at the latch to open it. She’d learned long ago how to unfasten Sméagol’s door without triggering an avalanche of items set to fall if anyone else opened it, although she’d not done so for quite some time. She just didn’t understand why he felt it necessary to set such traps to begin with.
At last the latch was free, and she carefully swung the door open.
The stench was overwhelming, and all gathered behind her turned, covering their mouths and noses in revulsion. The first of the lasses to recover herself enough to look through the doorway shuddered. “Look at the bed—it’s worsen than if an animal lived in there.”
“Those is bones!” exclaimed one of the great-grandsons. “How come there’s bones in there? Who keeps bones in the bedroom?”
The grandson who’d been behind her pushed by her into the room and picked up a stick, using it to poke at the piles of rubbish on the floor. After a moment he stopped, leaned down, and picked up a leather cord. His expression hardened the more. “It’s Delia’s,” he said accusingly as he displayed the carefully wrought brass bead threaded onto it.
“She was wearin’ it afore she went missing,” the lass who’d spoken before said. “I saw it on her. She put it on special that morning—wanted Wallo to see it on her, let him know as she liked it.”
“And there’s my knife, the one the Dwarves made!” said the great-grandson, lunging to pick up said item from where it lay by Sméagol’s pillow.
There were other items that had been missed by this one or that, and some garments that had last been seen on the missing Delia. And among the things stacked to fall had anyone unwary opened the door they found a mummified cat and a fox’s skull. As for what was found in the chamber pot----
The unfortunate Wallo swallowed hastily and fled out of the place, barely making it to the outside door before he became violently ill.
“Well?” said the grandson. The Grandmother noted that his face was exceptionally pale, and that there was a sheen of sweat on his brow and upper lip. As certain as he’d been that Sméagol had become a villain, still he’d not been fully prepared for all they’d found.
“He goes,” she said simply, her voice toneless. What more could be said?
The smial was quiet when Sméagol returned from the river, and he paused uncertainly at the looks he received from his kinsmen. Not that said looks were notably different from what they’d been for the last few years—Sméagol was not a particularly popular person any more, not since Déagol’s disappearance. It was the way he was followed at a distinct distance, however, that indicated that something had happened while he’d been gone, something that most appeared to believe that the Grandmother would not be talked into overlooking this time.
His oldest cousin stood inside the door, blocking the way toward the bedrooms. There was no question that Sméagol was expected to go to the main common room. There he found the Grandmother sitting in her chair, her back straight and her expression dispassionate. Almost he didn’t recognize her, for he’d never seen such a look on her face when she’d looked at him before, as if he were a most importunate animal that had somehow managed to wander inside the smial. On the floor by her feet was a woven pack that belonged to the cousin by the door, and it appeared to be full. Nearby it stood the fishing pole that Déagol had made for his birthday that day so long ago, and a leather water bottle.
He raised his eyes to meet those of his Grandmother again, and she was trembling, he noted. “Sméagol, we have tried to allow you to behave as is right and proper, but it appears that you have no desire to do so. We entered your room today, and found evidence that somehow you had a hand in the disappearance of Delia as well as that of Déagol so long ago. Plus we found many things that have been long missing, things belonging to all of us—all of us!” He noted that she wore again the chain she’d had from her husband when they were married. It had been in a bowl upon the kist in which he’d kept his extra clothing when he was younger. She took a deep, tremulous breath before saying, “You must leave us, Sméagol. No one will trust you here, not with what we found in your room. You must leave us and never come back.”
“You had no right----” he began.
“We had every right. We should have done so long ago. It is you who had no right—no right to take things what isn’t yours, no right to hurt lasses like Delia, or Mugga’s cat! You must leave us, Sméagol—now. Take that pack and the fishing pole, and never come back!”
He could not believe this was happening to him. Some of those in the place had grumbled about him, suspecting him of somehow spying on them and taking many things that had gone missing, but no one had ever found proof—not until now.
He looked about him. Somehow the room had filled with the whole population of their community, all of the aunts, uncle, cousins, younger cousins, and additions from elsewhere, and none of the eyes now fixed upon him were friendly, not even those of his grandmother. He licked his lips as she rose heavily to her feet. “We of the Stoors cast you out, Sméagol. Again, go—now!—and never come back!” She pointed at the door.
“Murderer!” he heard the others mutter. “Thief!” “Spy!”
He looked between her and the pack and the pole, and his mouth worked. Then a fury took him and he leaned forward to grab up the pole, and he broke it violently across his bent knee! With a wordless snarl he threw the broken parts to the floor, grabbed blindly for the pack and the water bottle, and he fled the place, the others melting to each side to let him go, then following after. His oldest cousin, he saw, held a stout cudgel, as did several others, while one of those who had lighter hair held a strung bow with an arrow ready to put to the string. No, he’d not be welcome here, never again. He fled not toward the river, but away, back toward the mountains. He would find a place to hide far away from these careless creatures who would no longer accept him as one of theirs. A blind madness took him as he wended his way through the trees, past the place where he’d last seen the lass Delia—alive, at least—and further and further from what had been his home. It was after dark, the blessed dark that hid the memories of the expressions of hatred his own had felt for him, that he heard a stream and headed for it. He knelt and drank from it, ignoring the bottle he’d slung around his neck, and took thought of what the pack might hold. A thin old blanket. Two loaves of bread, neither fresh. A round of cheese. A half dozen eggs. Dried meat. A dull eating knife. They didn’t even trust him with a sharp knife?
He considered using the sharpening stone he’d taken long ago from his oldest cousin and that he carried with him always to sharpen the blade, then putting on his Precious and going back, back to slip into the smial and use it on all of them! But it was perhaps his last shred of decency, backed by a sound fear of what might become of him should he be discovered, that stayed him from carrying out this plan. He knew in that last decent place in his soul that what he’d done to Delia had been even worse than what he’d done so long ago to Déagol, and that he didn’t deserve to see the light of day again. So, he’d hide from the Sun, which had after all seen what he’d done to both his cousin and the lass, so that she couldn’t judge him again! He tore off a goodly portion of one of the loaves and ate it, sawed at the cheese until he had enough to satisfy him, and headed on until dawn neared, and he found a shelter of sorts, intending to wait out the daylight. And who knew? There just might be secrets, there where he was going, that were far more interesting than any he’d learned spying on his kindred! He felt the hard weight of his Precious in the little bag he carried suspended from his rope belt, secured with the bone hook Déagol had carved for him so long ago, and was reassured—at least, in spite of the fact all of his kin had driven him away, he was not alone!
Gandalf rode alongside Denethor son of Dior, who as the joint Heir to the Steward of Gondor and Captain General of its armies led a large company of mounted knights across the Pelennor toward Osgiliath. In the four centuries that comprised the Watchful Peace a new city had grown there over the ruins of the old, and Osgiliath had become again the trade center for the northern portion of the realm, but it had never regained its former status or beauty, and no attempt had been made to rebuild the Dome of Stars or to place more than a temporary residence for the Steward within its western portions. The largest structure, however, was the garrison built on the western banks of the river, near the stone bridge that joined the two halves of the city. There was a second garrison, now half the size of its fellow, near the road leading east toward the Crossroads and Minas Morgul, its soldiers now stationed in hiding in buildings and along the remains of the eastern defensive wall, watching for the approach of the enemy. For it was reported that forces from Khand had joined with the Rhûnim and marched upon the entrances to Osgiliath, intending to take the eastern city and cross the Anduin at the bridge.
“There have been so many threats to Gondor from the east throughout its history,” Gandalf reminded the Steward’s son. “You must not allow the enemy to reach the western portion of the city. Can you expect support from those stationed on Cair Andros?”
“They were instructed a week ago to send two companies southward as secretly as possible, and both should be in position now,” the young Man assured him. “One is supposed to be hidden in the woods north and west of the Crossroads, while the other was to come south along the western banks of the river and should be ready to follow us into the city should an assault be loosed upon the bridge.”
The Wizard felt himself relax slightly. So, the Men of Gondor were as ready as they could be, it appeared.
Denethor continued, “We evacuated families and businesses from the eastern reaches of the city three days ago, so even if the worst is to happen it should not lead to the deaths of too many innocents.”
“How many homes and businesses remain occupied along the western banks of the Anduin?” asked Gandalf.
The Man shrugged. “I am not certain. Those living along the riverbank were advised to remove themselves further westward, or perhaps to take refuge in Minas Tirith or even Lossarnach or Lebennin. Most of the buildings surrounding the city quays, however, have always been warehouses and headquarters for the merchants and their guild, not to mention the tariff and counting houses. We have had most of the warehouses and stores for the city emptied and their contents moved further westward.”
“What of the lesser harbor for pleasure boats near the northern edges of Osgiliath?” Gandalf asked. “Is it protected?”
For the first time Denethor frowned, as if he’d not thought of the possibility that this facility might prove particularly vulnerable. “I’ve not sent any particular orders regarding it,” he admitted. “If Mordred should have considered it at risk I am certain he would have so advised me.”
“Are there still any craft harbored on the eastern side of the river?”
Denethor’s face first paled, then flushed. He paused in his riding and summoned an errand rider to his side. “Fly, Narmuil, and tell Captain Mordred of the west garrison to send half a company to secure the pleasure havens in the north of the city.”
“My lord,” murmured Narmuil as he gave his salute, and immediately he was off on his way at a gallop, and a second errand rider moved into his former position in the formation.
Their arrival in the city was unremarkable. Mordred reported that all was quiet east of the river from what anyone could tell, and that he’d followed Denethor’s orders and had sent the half company to the pleasure havens. No reports had come from those garrisoned in the eastern portions of the city since early the previous day, and there had been the agreed signal that the troop come down the river from Cair Andros along the western bank was in place. As for that set to come down the eastern bank—well, no one was certain.
“Then all are as ready as they can be,” the Wizard muttered into his beard, and he set himself to watch the area across the main bridge alongside Mordred and Denethor’s Men.
It was an hour ere sunset when the attack came against the eastern city, and all could hear the ferocity of the assault against those from the eastern garrison. Fires sprang up in the distance, although none could tell for certain what had been set afire, much less by whom. Finally a scurrying form could be seen approaching over the bridge. It was a Man dressed in the manner of a soldier of Gondor, and as he reached the near end of the bridge he stumbled and fell forward, an arrow having caught him in the shoulder.
“Orcs have joined them!” the Man gasped as Denethor and Gandalf together reached him to drag him to safety. “And there is something more, something behind them, that causes all to fall back in terror, although we see nothing more than a darker shadow amongst our foes.”
“Nazgûl!” breathed the Wizard. “They are being helped by the Ring-wraiths!”
Denethor took a deep breath and held it. “Such have not been seen by our people in many generations,” he objected.
“Well, they are being seen—or at least felt—now,” the Wizard snapped. “Tell your Men to be on their guard!”
They fought for many hours to keep those who would cross the bridge back. As midnight approached many of Denethor’s soldiers began to shake uncontrollably.
“What bedevils them, Mithrandir?” demanded Mordred.
“The Nazgûl that has allied himself with your enemy approaches,” Gandalf replied. “He will try to overcome your soldiers with his mere presence. Courage and firebrands are your best defense against his evil nature!”
Torches were called up, and soon Men armed with swords, spears, and flames guarded the bridge head with Gandalf, a flaming brand in one hand and his staff in the other standing upon the bridge itself. Even their enemies began to fall back as the Wraith came closer and closer, until in the end it faced the Wizard across the width of the River. All could hear the evil hiss that the creature gave as it realized who it was that faced it.
“Go back!” it cried. “Give way, or thou shalt die betimes!”
“Betimes? And how should my death come betimes?” the Wizard asked. “Nay, it is you who should return to whence you came. This way is closed to you!” A sphere of radiance began to build itself about him as he raised staff and torch together.
“No!” the Wraith hissed. “Get out of the way, Greybeard!” And it raised its sword.
The Nazgûl’s hand and Gandalf’s staff fell at the same time, and there was a terrible crash! of noise as the stonework between them suddenly gave way, the paving stones flying in all directions, out and down. The creature gave a shriek of fury that seemed to freeze the very flames of the torches borne by the soldiers, not to mention their hearts as well. But then it fell back and disappeared into the darkness on the eastern side of the city, and the flames sprang back the brighter, and hope flamed the surer in the hearts of the Men of Gondor.
Filled with gladness, Denethor turned his attention to the Wizard, only to see that Gandalf was fallen to his knees and was beginning to pitch forward over the gap in the bridge. “Mithrandir!” he called out, tossing his torch to the left into the river as he sprang forward, throwing his forearm about the Wizard’s chest and drawing him back from the fall he most assuredly would have known without the Man’s intervention. “Here, Mithrandir—we’ll have none of that!” Many were now reaching to draw both the Man and the Wizard back to safety on the western bank.
It was noon the next day before they managed to make their way across the river, only to find most of those who’d been in the eastern garrison had been slaughtered, as appeared to be true of those sent from Cair Andros down the eastern side of the River to Osgiliath. Mordred’s fellow captain from the eastern garrison was found still alive, but he’d been stabbed with what appeared to have been a sharp blade not far below his heart. When he felt the coldness radiating out from the wound, up and down the Man’s left side, Gandalf shivered with horror, remembering the state of the Elf they’d found in the White Mountains after the assault on Nimrodel’s company. “A Morgul blade!” he whispered, despair filling him. “They seek to make a wraith of him!”
“No!” exclaimed Denethor. “They would not!”
“Never underestimate the evil potential of the Enemy’s worst servants,” returned the Wizard. But it took the passage of some half an hour, when it appeared that the shard of the blade still remaining in the wound was ready to enter his heart, for Denethor to agree that there was nothing else to be done, and he gave his friend the mercy stroke, then bent over the captain’s body weeping, his Men gathered near him, sharing in his mourning.
“Look about us, my Lord Denethor. There lie more bodies of orcs here than of the Rhûnim. This is not just a matter of the Easterlings seeking more wealth, or needing grain or food in the wake of droughts or failed crops. They have been provoked, and if Dol Guldur is not involved then at least Minas Morgul is. Although I suspect both were complicit in provoking the Easterlings to attack now. There is no question,” Gandalf said, filled with weariness, “that the Watchful Peace is definitely over! Orcs breed again in the Mountains of Shadow and will issue forth at will to harry your lands and people at the sides of Gondor’s traditional enemies. Gondor must increase its defensive forces, and must send warnings to its neighbors. And look for more assaults of orcs issuing from both the White and the Misty Mountains as well.”
By nightfall the survivors of the defenders of Osgiliath, having set fire to all the boats in the northern pleasure havens to deny their use to the enemy, set forth for Cair Andros in an attempt to deny the passage of the shallows to the Easterners.
Azog glared at the leader of the mass of orcs who’d just arrived in what he now considered his own halls. “And why have you come?” he demanded. “We did not send out a call for more troops.”
“The Master has returned to his place, and would see his enemies further beset,” answered the new orc. “He sends reinforcements because he intends to harry the Elves and Dwarves and those Men who will not bow to his rule. And he wishes women from among his enemies to be taken for his purposes in breeding more of us, particularly those from the Elves. The closer the women taken are to those who rule amongst the Tarks or the High Elves or Dúrin’s spawn the better pleased he shall be. He has plans, you see, to see us take control of the lands here along the mountains and to the west. Death to all the Tarks!”
“Death to all of the Dwarves!” returned Azog. He would undoubtedly have to make a few heads roll before all of these newcomers accepted his rule, but he would welcome them in spite of his initial misgivings. Did the goals of the Second Master not match his own, after all? He gave an evil smile at the thought of it….