‘Twas in the Spring of the year 3019 that the Great Enemy began his last assault on the city of men. Folk had long expected this move on Sauron’s part, and under the hand of the Steward Lord Denethor, Son of Ecthelion, what could be prepared had been prepared….
It seemed the Lord Denethor was everywhere in those days. Nothing escaped his care, even in the slums and stews of the Harlond. He was seen, tall and stern on his great bay horse, in every alley and courtyard, seeing to the defense of his city. All knew him, for he had been in his high office for long years since the death of his beloved father Ecthelion. The Lord Denethor was not beloved, but he was respected as well as feared, and under his rule the city had so far been kept safe from the enemy.
Boys scarcely breeched were given the office of courier, to free guardsmen for active duty. Old soldiers, long retired, were re-armed, and sent to the ramparts and gateways, to keep watch and see that no spy of the Enemy was allowed within the city itself. Now the entire city waited knowing that a battle was to come, but not knowing where or when the first blow would fall.
Yet it was rumoured that the worst blow of all, to the Lord Denethor at least, had already fallen. His eldest son, the Lord Boromir, who had ridden out the summer before on some secret errand, was not returning to the White Tower of the Guard. He had been slain, it was whispered, or ensorcelled, or taken captive. This was disheartening to all folk, for he was a great favourite in the city and all the ancient realm, being a man bold and hardy, as doughty as any, a man to lead other men. His brother, Captain the Lord Faramir, was much loved where he was known, but it was not known as yet if he was fit to take his brother’s place. There was grumbling, and unrest, and this was surely no time for such doings, with the city in peril.
The spring brought high water to Anduin, and the mighty river flowed deep and swift going East to the sea. Ships rode high at anchor at the Quays of the Harlond, though there were few now coming upriver. The Corsairs of Umbar ruled the downstream waters, and the Lord Denethor had, at this time, to be content to keep his own dockyards safe. The inns and alehouses were suffering, for their chief business was always with the crews of trading ships, and the narrow streets were quiet where they were usually abustle.
The sign at the Inn of the Silver Trumpet hung crooked and the stone-flagged porch was littered with dead leaves still lying from the winter before. The great oak tree in the courtyard was now coming into new leaf, struggling to keep its head green in the noisome air of Peg’s Alley, and some little brown birds sang in its branches. A slatternly maidservant dumped a slop bucket against the tree’s arching roots and stood with her hand at the small of her back, sighing with weariness.
“What in thunder!” a man’s voice rasped. “You’ve gone and dumped that slop on me, you blundering wench!”
The girl stared, then laughed, as a tall white-haired man lurched to his feet near the tree, dripping with the filthy water she had just thrown. “Yer shouldna bin sleepin’ there, anyways,” she said, still laughing. “Why didden yer just get right in with the pigs and all?” But she backed away as he raised his fist to her.
“Be still!” he said. Then, with a savage oath, he pushed past her into the porchway and into the taproom. “Landlord!” he shouted, thumping the bar. “House! House!”
“Stap yer racket,” the tapster rumbled, setting a keg of ale into its rest. “Oh, it’s you, Aldor,” he went on. “I told you, no coin, no drink! Now get out of here!”
“I’m on active duty again,” Aldor said. “There will be pay coming, you know that! Word from the White Tower itself.”
“Well, when the pay is in yer pocket ya old rumbucket, you just put some right here on this bar, see? Right here on this here bar, and you’ll get served. Until then, you get yer sorry carcass outa my taproom or I’ll throw you out myself!”
“Keep your tongue between your teeth!” Aldor hissed. “I’m a guardsman of Minas Tirith, and I want a drink.”
But now the big man behind the bar came forward, and in his right hand he swung a mallet. “I told you,” he said, his voice low and flat. “No money, no drink. Now out with you, or I’ll open yer noggin the way I open a cask!”
Aldor backed away. “You’ll pay for this,” he said savagely.
“Yah! I’ll pay for this about the same time you can pay for yer drink. Active duty! The Lord Steward must be mighty short of men to put such as you back on the roster!” He raised the mallet, laughing. “Garn! Go do yer duty, Guardsman! If yer can even find the bloody guard post.”
Aldor stood for a time in the street. He thought about going back into the inn. Even in his present state he was more than a match for that tapster, mallet or no mallet. He thought about tossing a few chairs through the window and smashing up some crockery, but knew that if he tried, the Watch would be upon him, and he’d spend the next week or so in the cells under the Magistrate’s court.
No, he was back on active duty again, called up to the defense of the White City. Sergeant Aldor son of Ingold, Guard of the Citadel, swordsman, the finest trooper that ever came from the far off Glen of Carrock. He remembered his first parade, mounted on the tall grey charger, his sword bright as the stars in the night sky, his helm heavy, the crowds cheering as his troop rode through the streets. Ah, the maidens sighing and tossing roses beneath their feet, and the Captain before them as tall and bold as some Elven prince of old.
Then the years of War, harrying the Southrons, raiding into Umbar and Far Harad, and back up West on the borders of Rohan. The honour of being chosen to wear the sable and mithril livery of the Citadel, and the glorious year of duty there, made Sergeant, and actually serving at the Steward’s seat, bodyguard to Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor. Back into the Cavalry, year after year, riding and marching and fighting and dying, until he was mustered out, one-armed and half-blind, pensioned and be-medalled, thrown onto the mercies of the White City and his own folly.
Naught to do and all day to do it in. He’d saved nothing, being a free spender, so no partnership in an Inn for Aldor, late Sergeant of Guards. No wife, no kin left alive up in Carrockglen. No one to care for, no one to care for him. A room in an Alehouse nearer the high streets. Then a room lower down. Then no room, but whatever rough corner he could find out of the wind and rain. Sleeping like a dog in the street, that’s what he’d come to.
It was the drink. He knew it was the drink. And every night, shivering and nearly sober, he would vow and swear that the morning would find him looking for some decent work somewhere. A one-armed man could still work, could still lead a horse to water, could still comb the knots from the mane or tail. A one-armed man, especially a big roughewn hill-man like Aldor, why, he was as good as a two-armed nithing from some soft village along Anduin!
But the morning would come and the rest of the day would be a long miserable struggle to put together a few coins, just enough to pay for his drink, the raw spirits favoured by the serious drinker that he was, no ale, no wine for him. The brandy of his home country, firewater it was, burning into a man’s throat and then his belly, setting the warmth beating along his veins again. Then the songs and the tales, roaring them out with others of his ilk, old soldiers all, worn out, spent, in the service of Gondor and the Lord Steward.
Then the coins were gone, and the cup was empty, then the others scuttled away, and Aldor like them would skulk along the darkened alleys and streets and find a corner that was nearly dry, nearly not cold, and the stupor of sleep would overtake him and he would fall into painful dreams and then wake alone and afraid in the black night. He feared no man, but he feared these horrible dreams and he would lie shaking and cursing until dawn. The White City was black in these hours. The White City, that he had given his young manhood to. Had given his blood and his body and his life to! This was what it had come to, an old soldier wounded in the service of his Lord, lying homeless and hungry in some stinking alley! Then he would curse the Lord Denethor, remembering that proud man as his first commander, while the Lord Ecthelion still ruled.
On the first of each month Aldor and the other pensioners went to the District guardhouse for the pension. It was paid out, coin by coin, from the hand of a fat Sergeant, a desk jockey the old troopers sneered. They sneered at the fat man, with his eyes like raisins in his puffy face, but they took the money eagerly from his hand. That was a busy day in the taprooms of the Harlond district, and long into the night the carousing and shouting went on, and morning saw men sleeping here and there, or saw them stagger shamefaced from the upper rooms where old girls of the town sat in dirty shifts, counting out their own pensions.
This morning of March 14, Aldor, late Sergeant of the Guards of the Citadel, slumped against the brick wall behind yet another foul alehouse. Below him the river coursed sluggishly, the rickety wharf creaking in the current. This was the worst part of the day. The part where the night-time resolution died, shrivelled in the fury of the need for drink. His hand shook, his great blue-veined hand that once wielded a longsword. It was his left arm he’d left in that nameless dell in Ithilien, and he fought out that campaign, knotted reins looped over the pommel as his charger pounded beneath him. His captain had laughed, and called him ever into the front rank. “Sergeant!” he would shout. “Sergeant, lead on!”
Those days were gone. That Captain long dead, and most of the men he’d ridden with. Aldor recalled the march home, some foreign Captain in command. What was his name? He frowned, trying to remember. Above him, gulls circled, crying their sea-song. A bird, Aldor remembered. Yes, a bird, an Eagle. Thorongil! That was it, that was the name of that tall, grey-eyed Northman. Thorongil, who led them home to Minas Tirith, then went away.
A nine day’s tale that was. And the guardsmen all knew that one, at least, in the city, was glad to see the back of the Northman. Denethor, son of Ecthelion, had not loved Thorongil, any fool could see that! Barracks were ever lively with gossip and speculation, and the Lord Denethor came in for his share of discussion. Still, he was a good commander in his turn. Stern, ever strict, but quick to see danger, and careful with his men. Serious, he was, not given to the easy jest, the hail-fellow-well-met manner of his father.
Now that haughty Lord was up in his tower, brooding over his city, grieving for the son who was not coming back. Aldor had been shocked, seeing Denethor in the streets on the first of March. Still straight and tall, dismounting at the mouth of Peg’s Alley, his highnosed face pale and his eyes shadowed, Denethor had glanced around the filth and stink of the street seemingly unseeing. He looked old, old as his father never had. He ordered men to find the outfalls of the sewers, and the places where men might land and come up into the city unknown. His voice, with its highborn accent, still carried clear and firm, but it was the voice of a beaten man, Aldor thought. He held himself square-shouldered, soldier-fashion, and nodded at the great Lord when Denethor’s eyes fell on him.
“Come forward!” Denethor said. “I see by thy bearing that once thou wert a soldier in the service of this city. All who can wield a sword are needed now, and thou no less than any, though thou be one-armed. Art thou willing to do thy part?”
Aldor nodded. “Yes, my lord,” he had said. He put his hand on the hilts of his sword. “I and my sword are at thy service, Lord Denethor.”
The guardsmen behind Denethor had sniggered, but said naught. Aldor’s face reddened with shame, but he stood still, and the Lord Denethor nodded and said, “Thy service is accepted. Go to the barracks in your district for thy orders.” He turned and remounted his sidling bay horse and rode up the street without a backward glance.
So each day since then Aldor had done his “duty”, walking a beat along the stinking sewer outfalls behind the Harlond’s worst slums. He ducked and dodged under strangling thorn-canes and clambered over heaps of garbage, and he looked for the enemy and never saw anything but the sorry back side of his great city. He kept at it until dark, determined that he would do as he ought, and each day of the fortnight had been a little easier. At night, he had stood listening in the fog, hearing only the lap and slap of the river water on the shore.
Until yesterday, when he had found that wretched coin, the edge of the golden disk barely showing in the mud. He picked it up, and felt a sinking in his heart. He thought of throwing it out into the wide river. But he didn’t. He put it in his pocket and it burned heavy there all the day. Came the early dark, the spring sky light in the west and one clear white star, and he walked up the long bricked alleyway to the better of the Inns, one where he could get a bowl of decent stew and a hunk of bread. He ate the stew and wiped the pewter dish clean with the bread and drank one big foaming mug of ale and rose to his feet and would have returned to his watching….but there was old Hirluin, who had ridden with him….and one thing led to another, and he was wakened by some stupid slattern……….
That the city was under siege now, Aldor knew. Word flew from mouth to mouth, and those who cared to do so could stand upon the walls and see the armies of the enemy before them on the Pellenor. Far off, beyond men’s sight, was the outpost at Osgiliath on Anduin. Here was where the younger son of the Lord Steward was put to stem the tide of Orcs and Men intent on savaging Minas Tirith. Aldor had been many times in Osgiliath, and he knew full well what it meant to defend such a place. He took up his walk, trudging through mud and debris, watching and listening. But nothing was there, nothing but the mud and the grey waters of Anduin, sliding westward to the Sea.
That was a dark day. Aldor wondered dully if the day was truly as dark as it seemed or if it came from some place within him. There seemed to be no one about, and he saw that all the inns had shutters up, and the empty streets echoed to his footsteps. At about the time of sunset Aldor went back down to the mucky walkways under the docks and all that night he walked up and down as far as he could. He was still soldier enough to go quiet, but he saw and heard nothing, only the other watchers.
Just when it might have been sunrise he sat himself down and leaned against a piling and dozed. Something woke him. He wondered if he had slept the day through, for it was dark. He smelled smoke, and heard a distant rumour of battle. Then he saw a flat bottomed boat land on the mud, coming silently out of the fog that now cloaked the river, and he saw four or five Orcs clamber out. They spoke to each other in their coarse way, but quietly, gesturing up to the planking above and the buildings beyond. They bore unlit torches, and Aldor knew they planned to burn what they could, then flee, thinking such a backwater place would be but lightly defended.
They did not see Aldor until it was too late. He slew the first two before they could draw their curved swords, and the next fell with a gurgling cry at Aldor’s feet. But the other two, dropping the torches, engaged him quickly, coming at him from both sides.
He had ever been a great swordsman, quick and strong, and the old skill came rushing back into his hand as he swung the heavy blade. It had taken many months of practice to overcome the loss of his left arm, it had affected his balance, and had made him awkward and ungainly. That, too, was as naught now, he moved with feline grace and speed, his old bones suddenly limber and easy. One more Orc fell, its blood black on the earth of Gondor.
The last was the best fighter. It had let the other do all the work, only doing what it could to distract Aldor while he fought its mate. Now it came at Aldor fresh and fast, grinning its foul grin and growling out its gruesome threats. Aldor understood it, for it spoke the common tongue.
Aldor shouted for the Watch, for the other old men like himself who were to guard the White City, but no one came. The Orc laughed now, and pushed closer. The savage blade caught Aldor’s thigh, and he felt the scalding heat of his own blood. Suddenly the Orc charged him and rushed him backward and they fell entangled together into the water. Aldor’s sword was gone, and he reached, trying to get his hand around the Orc’s neck. It growled again, and slashed at him, and he had it, his hand around that bony neck. He felt the sword slice at his breast, then down into his belly, but he held on and forced the ugly, leering face under the water. He was more than a match for the wretched Orc, his long body far more powerful. His last thought was that Aldor son of Ingold was still quite the fellow, and that he was sorry he wasn’t wearing the sable and mithril livery of the Citadel….
It was two days later before the Watch came down under the old docks. They saw the flat bottomed boat and the dead Orcs and the two men looked at each other and one whistled. “My Lord Denethor was right! Who would have thought they would have tried to land here? I wonder we didn’t hear of this before!”
The other nodded. “Someone caught them at it, though, lucky for us. Why, these old buildings would have gone up like torches! See here, here’s a sword. It’s a Guardsman’s sword, I vow.”
“So ‘tis! Let me see. Now who down here would have borne such a weapon? Surely, there must have been a detail from the Citadel?”
“No, there were no men to spare, that I know.” He hefted the sword, then looked slyly at his partner. “Well, it’s worth a pretty penny, I dare say. What say you, after we are off duty, that we take it up the Goldsmith’s street, and see what it will fetch at the pawnshop? Whoever dropped it ain’t likely to need it any more, nohow.”
The other laughed. “Not likely, I should say! No, some hero of Gondor lost it, I reckon, and ain’t we heroes of Gondor? To the victor belong the spoils, eh? Come on, let’s push these stinking Orcs into the water, then we’ll be off.”
In a little while the only sound, once again, was the lap and slap of water against mud and pilings. A flock of gulls wheeled overhead, their white breasts shining like mithril in the Sun.