Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.
PART I -- Vae Victis1
"Gold is for the mistress -- silver for the maid --
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade."
"Good!" said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
"But Iron -- Cold Iron -- is master of them all."
Mordor, Hutel-Hara sands
April 6, 3019 of the Third Age
Is there a sight more beautiful than a desert sunset, when the sun, as if ashamed of its whitish daytime fierceness, lavishes a bounty of unimaginably tender and pure colors on its guests? Especially good are countless shades of purple, which turn dunes into a charmed sea -- don't miss those couple of minutes, they will never happen that way again... Or the last moment before sunrise, when the first light of dawn interrupts in mid-movement the staid minuet of moon shadows on the lacquered hardtops -- for those dances are forever hidden from the uninitiated, those who prefer day to night... Or the never-ending tragedy of the hour when the power of darkness begins to wane and the fuzzy clusters of the evening constellations suddenly turn into prickly icy crumbs, which by morning will rime the bronzed gravel of the hamada?
It was at such a midnight hour that two men moved like gray shadows along the gravelly inner edge of a sickle-shaped gap between two low dunes, and the distance between them was exactly that prescribed by the Field Manual for such occasions. However, contrary to the rules, the one bearing the largest load was not the rear `main force' private, but rather the `forward recon' one, but there were good reasons for that. The one in the rear limped noticeably and was nearly out of strength; his face -- narrow and beak-nosed, clearly showing a generous serving of Umbar blood -- was covered with a sheen of sticky sweat. The one in the lead was a typical Orocuen by his looks, short and wide-faced -- in other words, the very `Orc' that mothers of Westernesse use to scare unruly children; this one advanced in a fast zigzagging pattern, his every movement noiseless, precise and spare, like those of a predator that has scented prey. He had given his cloak of bactrian wool, which always keeps the same temperature -- whether in the heat of midday or the pre-dawn chill -- to his partner, leaving himself with a captured Elvish cloak, priceless in a forest but utterly useless here in the desert.
But it was not the cold that bothered the Orocuen right now: listening keenly to the silence of the night, he cringed as if with toothache every time he heard the crunch of gravel under the unsure feet of his companion. Sure, to run into an Elvish patrol here, in the middle of the desert, would be almost impossible, and besides, for Elves starlight is not light at all, they need the moon... Nevertheless, Sergeant Tzerlag, leader of a scouting platoon of the Cirith Ungol Rangers, never relied on chance in his work, and always tirelessly repeated to new recruits: "Remember this, guys: the Field Manual is a book where every jot and tittle is written with the blood of smartasses who tried to do it their way." This must have been how he managed to lose only two men during the entire three years of the war, and in his own estimation he was prouder of that than of the Medal of the Eye, which he received last spring from the Commander of the South Army. Even now, home in Mordor, he behaved as if he was still on an extended raid on the Plains of Rohan; although, what kind of home is it now, really?..
 "Woe to the vanquished" (Latin) -- see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vae_victis
A new sound came from behind -- something between a moan and a sigh. Tzerlag looked back, estimated the distance, and, dropping his sack such that not a buckle clanged, made it to his companion just in time. The man was slowly sagging, fighting unconsciousness, and passed out the moment that sergeant grabbed him under the arms. Silently cussing, the scout returned to his sack to get the flask. Some partner, dammit... useful like a doorstop...
"Here, drink some, mister. Feeling worse again?"
The moment the prone man got a couple of swigs down, his whole body convulsed with tortuous gagging.
"Sorry, Sergeant", he muttered guiltily. "Just wasted water."
"Don't worry about it, the underground collector is really close now. What did you call that water then, Field Medic, sir? Some funny word."
"You live, you learn. Alright, water's not our worry. Leg giving out again?"
"Afraid so. Listen, Sergeant... leave me here and make for that nomadic camp of yours -- you said it was close, like fifteen miles. Then come back. If we run into Elves, we're both done for. I'm not good for much now..."
Tzerlag thought for a while, drawing signs of the Eye in the sand. Then he smoothed out the sand and rose decisively.
"We'll camp under the yonder dune, looks like the ground should be firmer over there. Will you make it there yourself, or will it be easier to carry you?"
"Quiet, doctor! Sorry, but right now you're like a little kid, safer under supervision. Should the Elves catch you, in fifteen minutes they'll know everything: how many in the group, where headed and all that. I value my skin too much for that... So -- can you walk a hundred fifty paces?"
He trudged where he was told, molten lead rising up his leg with every step. Right under the dune he passed out again, and didn't see how the scout first painstakingly masked the vomit, foot- and body prints, and then dug out a day hideout, quickly as a mole. He regained conscience as the sergeant was carefully leading him to the fabric-lined hole. "Think you'll be better in a couple of days, mister?"
Meanwhile, a disgusting pus-and-blood-colored moon rose over the desert. Now there was enough light to examine the leg. The wound itself was superficial, but it refused to scab over and bled at the slightest touch -- the Elvish arrow had been poisoned, as usual. On that horrible day he had used up his entire stock of antidotes on the seriously wounded, hoping for a break. There was none. Tzerlag dug him a hideout under a fallen oak in a forest a few miles north-east of Osgiliath, and for five days he lay there, clutching with his fingernails to the icy windowsill of life. On the sixth day he managed to surface from the purple maelstrom of excruciating pain and listened to the sergeant's tales, drinking bitter Imlad Morgul water, which stank with some unknown chemical (there was no other water in safe reach). The remnants of the South Army, bottled up in Morgul Gorge, had laid down their arms, and the Elves and the Gondorians drove them somewhere beyond the Anduin; a crazed m mak from the defeated Harad battalion had trampled his field hospital, wounded and all, into bloody pulp; looks like there's nothing else to save here, time to make for home, to Mordor.
They got started on the ninth night, as soon as he could walk. The scout chose to use the Cirith Ungol pass, figuring that not even a mouse could make it by the Ithilien highway now. The worst part was that he hadn't figured out his poisoning (some poison expert!): by the symptoms it looked to have been something new, from the most recent Elvish developments. His medicine box was almost empty anyway. On the fourth day the sickness came back at the most inopportune time, right when they were slipping by the freshly built military camp of the Western allies at the foot of Minas Morgul. For three days they had to hide out in the ominous ruins there, and on the third evening the sergeant whispered to him in surprise: "Your hair's going white, mister!" The most likely culprit here was not the mythical undead keepers of the ruins, but the quite real gallows erected by the victors on the side of the road some twenty yards from their hideout. The six corpses in tattered Mordorian uniforms (a large sign informed in fine Elvish runes that these were "war criminals") have attracted the entire raven population of the Mountains of Shadow to a feast, and this sight will probably haunt him to the end of his days. ...Tonight's bout was the third. Shaking with fever, he crawled into the fabric-lined hole, and once again thought: how must Tzerlag be doing, in his Elvish rag? Some time later the scout slipped into the hideout; water gurgled quietly, once, in one of his flasks, then sand dribbled down from the ceiling -- the Orocuen was masking the entry hole from the inside. The moment he rested against that reliable back, cold, pain and fear began to slip away, and a calm certainty that the crisis was over came from somewhere. Now I only need to get some sleep, and I'll stop being a burden to Tzerlag... some sleep...
"Haladdin! Hey, Haladdin!"
Who is that calling me? And how did I come to be in Barad-Dur? All right, let it be Barad- Dur...
Fifty miles east from the Orodruin volcano, where the light-minded babbling brooks originating from the snows of the Ash Mountains turn into staid, respectable canals and then subside quietly into the pulsing heat of the Mordor plain, lies the oasis of Gorgoroth. For ages they would gather two annual crops of cotton, rice, dates and grapes here, while the handiwork of local weavers and weapon-makers was prized throughout Middle Earth. Of course, the nomadic Orocuens have always looked with scorn on their tribesmen who chose the life of a farmer or a craftsman: everybody knows that the only occupation worthy of a man is cattle-breeding; that is, if you don't count robbing caravans. This attitude, however, had never prevented them from regularly driving their flocks to the markets of Gorgoroth, where the sweet-talking Umbarian merchants who quickly came to dominate local trade would invariably fleece them. Those crafty fellows, ever ready to risk their heads for a handful of silver, drove their caravans throughout the East, not spurning either slave trade or smuggling, or even plain robbery, when convenient. However, their main source of income had always been the export of rare metals, mined in abundance from the Ash Mountains by the stocky unsmiling Trolls -- unequaled miners and smelters, who later monopolized all stonemasonry in the Oasis, too. Life side by side had long trained the sons of all three peoples to eye the neighbors' daughters with more interest than their own, to make fun of each other ("An Orocuen, an Umbarian, and a Troll walk into a bar..."), and to defend the Ash Mountain passes and the Morannon against the Western barbarians together. This, then, was the yeast on which Barad-Dur rose six centuries ago, that amazing city of alchemists and poets, mechanics and astronomers, philosophers and physicians, the heart of the only civilization in Middle Earth to bet on rational knowledge and bravely pitch its barely adolescent technology against ancient magic. The shining tower of the Barad-Dur citadel rose over the plains of Mordor almost as high as Orodruin like a monument to Man -- free Man who had politely but firmly declined the guardianship of the Dwellers on High and started living by his own reason. It was a challenge to the bone-headed aggressive West, which was still picking lice in its log `castles' to the monotonous chanting of scalds extolling the wonders of never-existing N menor. It was a challenge to the East, buckling under the load of its own wisdom, where Ying and Yang have long ago consumed each other, producing only the refined static beauty of the Thirteen Stones Garden. And it was a challenge to a certain someone else, for the ironic intellectuals of the Mordor Academy, unbeknownst to them, have come right up to the line beyond which the growth of their power promised to become both irreversible and uncontrollable. ...And Haladdin was walking the streets he had known since childhood -- from the three worn stone steps of his parents' house in the cul-de-sac beyond the Old Observatory, past the plane trees of the King's Boulevard, which ends at the ziggurat with its Hanging Gardens -- towards the squat building of the University. It was there that his work had several times granted him a moment of the highest happiness known to man: when you hold like a hatchling in the palm of your hand a Truth so far revealed only to you, and it makes you richer and more magnanimous than all the rulers of the world... And a bottle of fizzy N rnen wine was making rounds to the din of many voices, foam sliding down the sides of mismatched mugs and glasses to the merry oaths of the drinkers, and the entire April night was still ahead, with its unending arguments over science, poetry, cosmology, and science again... And Sonya was looking at him with those enormous dry eyes -- only the Trollish girls' eyes sometimes have this fleeting shade of color -- dark gray? transparent brown? -- and making a valiant effort to smile: "Halik, dear, I don't want to be a burden" -- and he wanted to cry from the tenderness overflowing his soul.
But the wings of the dream were already carrying him back to the night desert, amazing to any novice with the improbable diversity of its inhabitants, who literally drop through the earth with the first ray of the sun. Tzerlag had told him that this desert, like any other, had been forever divided into plots: every bush, every patch of prickly grass, every spot of edible lichen (manna) had its owner. The Orocuen easily named the clans owning the dells through which they were making their way now, and could precisely detect their boundaries, clearly relying on some clues visible only to him, rather than the little abo stone pyramids. The only property held in common in these parts were the cattle watering holes -- large depressions in the sand filled with bitter, salty, but still potable water. Haladdin was most amazed by the tzandoi system of adiabatic water collectors, which he had only read about before. He admired the unknown genius who had first figured out that one scourge of the desert -- the nightly cold -- can overcome the other one -- aridness: quickly cooling stones act as condensers, `squeezing' water out of seemingly dry air. Of course, the sergeant did not know the word `adiabatic' (he did not read much, not finding it much use or fun), but some of the collectors they passed were his handiwork. Tzerlag had built his first tzandoi when he was five; devastated when it had not a drop of water the next morning, he had figured out the problem himself (the stone pile was too small) and first felt the pride of a Master. Strangely, he felt no inclination to tend cattle and did it only when he had to, whereas it was nearly impossible to drag him away from tackle shops and such. The relatives would shake their heads in disapproval -- "just like a towner!" -- but his father, observing his constant tinkering, made him learn to read. That was how he got to be a mantzag -- a traveling craftsman; moving from camp to camp, in two years he could make anything. Once in the Army (nomads were usually assigned either to light cavalry or ranger units), he fought as meticulously as he used to build tzandois or put together bactrian tackle. To be honest, he was sick and tired of the war. Sure, the Throne, the Motherland and all that... but the generals kept doing things whose stupidity was obvious even to a sergeant. One needed no time in a military academy to understand that; the common sense of a craftsman (so he thought) was quite enough. For example, after the rout at Pelennor his scouting company was assigned, among other units that could still fight, to cover the retreat (the headlong flight, rather) of the main forces. His scouts were told to make their stand without long spears in the middle of a plain, and the elite rangers, each with at least two dozen successful missions in enemy territory under his belt, died senselessly under the hoofs of Rohan cavalry, who did not even have time to see who they were trampling. Tzerlag decided then that nothing could help the generals; to hell with them and this war! Enough of this, guys -- we shall learn war no more! Thank the One, they had made it out of that damned forest, where you can't even get a bearing in cloudy weather and every scratch begins to rot immediately, so now, home in the desert, we'll be fine. In his dreams the sergeant was already at the familiar Teshgol camp, which was now only one good night's march away. He pictured clearly to himself how he would unhurriedly determine what needs fixing, then they'd be invited to the table, and after the second mug the hostess would casually steer the conversation to the difficulties of maintaining a household without a man around, while the grimy-faced youngsters (there's four of them there, or was it five?) would be circling around and clamoring to touch his weapons... The other thought he had while drifting off to sleep was: wouldn't it be nice to find out who the hell wanted this war, and meet him in a dark corner somewhere...
No, seriously -- who wanted it?
Middle Earth, the arid belt
A natural history brief
Two types of climate epochs follow one another in the history of any world, including Middle Earth -- pluvial and arid; the growth and shrinking of polar ice caps follow a single rhythm, which is a sort of a pulse of a planet. Those natural cycles are concealed from the eyes of historians and scalds by the kaleidoscopic variety of peoples and cultures, although it is those very changes that largely create this kaleidoscope. Climate change can play a larger role in the history of a people, or even a civilization, than the deeds of great reformers or a devastating invasion. Well, in Middle Earth the Third Age was drawing to a close together with a pluvial climate epoch. The paths of moisture-laden cyclones kept bending towards the poles, and the trade wind belts, covering the thirties' latitudes in both hemispheres, were rapidly turning to deserts. Not that long before the Mordor plains had been a savannah, while real forests of juniper and cypress covered the slopes of Orodruin; now the desert was relentlessly encroaching upon the dry steppes hugging the foot of the mountain ranges, consuming acre after acre. The snow line in the Ash Mountains kept creeping higher, and the streams feeding the oasis of Gorgoroth more and more resembled a child dying from some unknown disease. Had the local civilization been a bit more primitive and the country poorer, that is how it would have continued; the process would have taken centuries, and something always comes up over such stretches of time. However, Mordor was powerful beyond measure, so the powers-that-be decided not to "seek mercy from nature," but rather to set up an extensive irrigation system, using the tributaries of the Sea of N rnen. An explanation is in order here. Irrigation agriculture in arid regions is very productive, but has to be conducted with utmost care. The problem is high salinity of the groundwater; the main challenge is to avoid bringing it up to the surface, God forbid, or it will salt the topsoil. This is precisely what will happen if your irrigation dumps too much water on the fields and the soil capillaries fill up enough to connect the groundwater to the surface. Capillary forces and surface evaporation will immediately begin pumping that water up to the surface (exactly like oil going up the wick of a lit lamp), and this process is irreversible; in a blink of an eye your field will turn into a lifeless salt pan. The saddest part is that once you screw up, there is no way to push that salt back down.
There are two ways to avoid this calamity. One is to water very sparingly, so that the water in the shallow capillaries does not connect with the groundwater. Another possibility is the so-called flushing cycle, whereby you cause a regular flooding that carries the constantly upwelling salt away to the sea or some other terminal drain. This, however, can only be done in the valleys of large rivers that flood regularly -- it is that spring flood that washes away the salt accumulated over the previous year. This is precisely what happens, for example, in Khand, and it was precisely that irrigation model that the inexperienced Mordor engineers have copied in a sincere belief that the quality of irrigation is determined by the number of cubic furlongs of earth moved.
But it is impossible to establish a flushing cycle in the closed basin of Mordor, since there are no rivers flowing through it, and the only terminal drain is the Sea of N rnen -- the very same N rnen whose tributaries got diverted to irrigate far-flung fields. The negligible elevation difference meant that there was no way to create anything like a flood in those channels, so there was nothing to flush the salt and nowhere to flush it. After a few years of bumper crops the inevitable happened -- huge tracts of land were rapidly salted, and all attempts to establish drainage failed due to high groundwater levels. The end result was an enormous waste of resources and massive damage to the country's economy and ecology. The Umbarian system of minimal irrigation would have suited Mordor just fine (and been a lot cheaper to boot), but this opportunity had been irretrievably lost now. The masterminds of the irrigation project and its executives were sentenced to twenty-five years in lead mines, but, predictably, that did not help anyone.
This event had been a major setback, but still not a catastrophe. By that time Mordor was deservedly being called the World's Smithy, and it could trade its manufactured goods for any amounts of food from Khand and Umbar. Caravans of traders went back and forth through the Ithilien crossroads day and night, and there were more and more voices in Barad-Dur saying that the country has had enough tinkering with agriculture, which was nothing but a net loss anyway, and the way to go was to develop what nobody else had -- namely, metallurgy and chemistry. Indeed, the industrial revolution was well underway: steam engines toiled away in mines and factories, while the early aeronautic successes and experiments with electricity were the talk of the educated classes. A universal literacy law had just been passed, and His Majesty Sauron the VIII has declared at a session of parliament (with his usual ton-of-bricks humor) that he intended to equate truancy and treason. The excellent work of an experienced diplomatic corps and a powerful intelligence apparatus permitted a drastic reduction of the professional army, so that it was not a major burden on the economy.
But it was at that time that the words that changed the entire history of Middle Earth were said; strangely, they repeated almost exactly a prophetic utterance made in another World regarding a very different country: "A state that is unable to feed itself and is dependent on food imports cannot be considered a formidable foe."
Arnor, the Tower of Amon Sul
November, year 3010 of the Third Age
Those words were uttered by a tall white-bearded old man in a silvery-gray cloak with its hood thrown back; he stood with his fingertips resting on the surface of a black oval table, surrounded by four people in high-backed armchairs, half in shadow. By some signs, his speech had been a success and the Council was on his side, so now the piercing dark blue eyes of the standing man, which contrasted starkly with the parchment-yellow skin of his face, were focused on only one of the four -- the one he would have to battle now. That man, huddling tightly in his blinding-white cloak, sat at a slight distance, as if already separating himself from the rest of the Council; he appeared to have a strong fever. Presently he straightened out, clutching the chair arms, and his deep and smooth voice sounded under the dark ceiling:
"Have you any pity on them?"
"On the people, Gandalf, the people! As I understand it, you have just sentenced the civilization of Mordor to death, in the name of the higher good. But any civilization consists of people, so they would have to be exterminated, completely, with no chance of recovery. Right?"
"Pity is a poor adviser, Saruman. Haven't you looked in the Mirror with the rest of us?" Gandalf pointed to the large object in the middle of the table, which looked most like a huge bowl full of quicksilver. "There are many roads to the future, but whichever of them Mordor takes, no later than three centuries hence it will access the forces of Nature that no one will be able to harness. Would you like to once again watch them turn the entire Middle Earth and Far West into ashes, in a blink of an eye?"
"You are correct, Gandalf, and it would be dishonest to deny such a possibility. But then you should exterminate the Dwarves, too: they have already wakened the Terror of the Deep once, and it took all our magic to prevent it from escaping. You know that those bearded tightwads are mulishly stubborn and not inclined to learn from their mistakes..."
"All right, let us not speak of what is possible, and speak only of the inevitable. If you do not wish to look into the Mirror, look at the smoke rising from their coal furnaces and copper refineries. Walk the salt pans into which they have turned the lands west of N rnen and try to find one living plant on those half-a-thousand square miles. But make sure not to do it on a windy day, when salty dust rises like a wall over the plain of Mordor, choking everything in its path... And note that they have done all that barely out of the crib; what do you think they will do later?"
"Gandalf, a child is always a disaster in the house. First dirty diapers, then broken toys; later, the family clock taken apart; to say nothing of what happens when he grows up a bit. A house without children, on the other hand, is a model of cleanliness and order, yet somehow its owners are usually not too happy about that, especially as they age."
"Saruman, always have I been amazed by your cunning ability to turn another's words inside out, and disprove obvious truths via sly casuistry. But by the Halls of Valinor! it will not work now. The Middle Earth population is now a multitude of peoples living in harmony with nature and the heritage of their ancestors. These people and their entire way of life are now under a dire threat, and my duty is to avert it at all costs. A wolf plundering my sheep has its own reasons for doing so, but I have no intent of figuring them out!"
"I am, by the way, no less concerned with the fate of the Gondorians and the Rohirrim than you are; but I look further into the future. Do you, a member of the White Council, not know that the totality of magical knowledge by its very nature can not grow beyond what was once received from Aul and Orom ? You can lose it quicker or slower, but no one has the power to reverse the loss. Every generation of wizards is weaker than the previous one; sooner or later men will face Nature alone. And then they will need Science and Technology -- provided you haven't eradicated those by then."
"They don't need your science, for it destroys the harmony of the world and dries up the souls of men!"
"Strange is the talk of Soul and Harmony on the lips of a man who is about to start a war. As for science, it is dangerous not to them, but to you -- or, rather, to your warped self- esteem. What are we wizards but consumers of that which our predecessors have created, while they are creators of new knowledge? We face the Past, they face the Future. You have once chosen magic, and therefore will never cross the boundaries set by the Valar, whereas in their science the growth of knowledge -- and hence, power -- is truly unlimited. You are consumed by the worst kind of envy -- that of a craftsman for an artist... Well, I suppose this is a weighty enough reason for murder; you're neither the first nor the last."
"You don't believe this yourself," Gandalf shrugged calmly.
"No, I suppose I do not," Saruman shook his head sadly. "You know, those who are motivated by greed, lust for power, or wounded pride are half-way tolerable, at least they feel pangs of conscience sometimes. But there is nothing more fearsome than a bright-eyed enthusiast who'd decided to benefit mankind; such a one can drown the world in blood without hesitation. Those people's favorite saying is: `There are things more important than peace and more terrible than war' -- I believe you've heard this one, no?"
"I accept the responsibility, Saruman; History will vindicate me."
"I have no doubt that it will; after all, history will be written by those who will win under your banner. There are tried and true recipes for that: cast Mordor as the Evil Empire that wished to enslave the entire Middle Earth, and its inhabitants as non-human monsters that rode werewolves and ate human flesh... I am not talking about history now, but rather yourself. Allow me to repeat my rude question about the people who hold the knowledge of the civilization of Mordor. That they will have to be destroyed, quite literally, is beyond doubt -- `uproot the weed entirely' -- otherwise the whole endeavor is meaningless. I would like to know, then, whether you -- yes, you personally -- will participate in the weeding; will you cut off their heads yourself?.. Silence? Such are ever your ways, you benefactors of humanity! Craft the Final Solution to the Mordorian problem, sure, but when it's time to implement it, you always hide in the bushes. It's executioners you need, so that you can later point at them in disgust: it's all their excesses..."
"Drop the demagoguery, Saruman," one of those seated, in a blue cloak, cut in abruptly in annoyance, "and better look in the Mirror. The danger is obvious even to a blind man! If we don't stop Mordor now, we will not be able to do it ever: in fifty years or so they will complete this `industrial revolution' of theirs, figure out that saltpeter mixtures are good for things other than fireworks, and that will be the end of all. Their armies will become invincible, while the other countries will fall over themselves copying their `achievements', with everything that follows... Speak, if you have something relevant to say!"
"While I wear the white cloak of the Head of the Council, you will have to listen to everything I have to say," the other replied curtly. "Actually, I am not going to mention that by deciding to determine the fates of the world you four are usurping a right that wizards never had; I can see that this would be useless. I will therefore speak in terms you can understand."
The body language of his opponents vividly conveyed indignation, but Saruman has already decided to abandon all diplomacy.
"Strictly from a technical standpoint, Gandalf's plan to strangle Mordor through a prolonged war and a food blockade seems sound; however, it has a weakness. In order to win such a difficult war, the anti-Mordor coalition will need a powerful ally, and so the plan proposes to wake the Powers that have been slumbering since the previous, pre-human Era; to wit, the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forests. This is madness all by itself, for these Powers have never served anybody but themselves, but even so it's not enough for you. To ensure victory, you have decided to turn the Mirror over to them for the duration of the war, since only participants have the right to use it to plan military action. That is madness squared, but I am prepared to consider even that option, as long as colleague Gandalf can intelligently answer just one question: how does he propose to reclaim the Mirror afterwards?" Gandalf waved his hand dismissively. "I believe that problems ought to be resolved as they come up. Besides, why should we assume that they will not want to return the Mirror? What the hell do they need it for?"
Silence fell; indeed, Saruman has failed to anticipate such monumental stupidity. All of them, then, consider it proper... It seemed to him that he was floundering in the icy water of a March ice-hole: another moment, and the current will drag him under the edge.
"Radagast! Would you like to say anything?" It sounded like a plea for help. The brown-clad figure gave a start, like a pupil caught sneaking a look at a cheat sheet, and awkwardly tried to cover something on the table. There was an indignant screech, and a baby squirrel that Radagast must have been playing with all along raced up his sleeve. It sat on his shoulder, but the embarrassed forest wizard whispered something to it, bending a bushy eyebrow, and the animal obediently slunk somewhere inside his cloak.
"Dearest Saruman... please forgive an old man, but... erm... I wasn't listening all that closely here... Just don't fight, all right? I mean, if even we start to bicker, what's gonna happen to the world, eh? See... And as for those folks from the Enchanted Forests, I mean, aren't you... you know... a bit hard on them? I remember seeing them when I was young, from afar, for sure, but they seemed all right by my reckoning; they have their own weirdness, but who doesn't? Also they're always at one with the birds and the beasties, not like your Mordorians... So I reckon, it might be fine, eh?" So that's it, concluded Saruman and slowly ran his palm across his face, as if trying to remove a spider's web of enormous weariness. The only one who may have supported him. He had no strength left to fight; it's over, he's under the ice.
"You are not just in the minority; you are alone, Saruman. Of course, all your suggestions are of enormous value to us." Gandalf's voice was fairly dripping with false respect now.
"Let us discuss right away the question of the Mirror -- it is, indeed, a complicated question..."
"This is your problem now, Gandalf," Saruman spoke quietly but firmly, undoing the mithril clasp at his throat. "You have long sought the White Cloak -- here, take it. Do whatever you think necessary, but I quit your Council."
"Then your staff will lose power, you hear!" Gandalf yelled at his back; it was clear that he was stunned and no longer understood his perennial rival. Saruman turned around and took one last look at the gloomy hall of the White Council. An edge of the white cloak spilled down off the armchair to the floor, like moon-silvered water in a fountain; the mithril clasp sent him a farewell flash and winked out. Radagast, who must have risen to follow him, was frozen in mid-stride with arms sticking out awkwardly; the wizard suddenly looked small and miserable, like a child in the middle of a parents' quarrel. It was then that he uttered a phrase that amazingly matched the one spoken on a similar occasion in another World:
"What you are about to do is worse than a crime. It is a mistake." In a few weeks Mordor's intelligence reported from the edges of the Northern woods the sudden appearance of `Elves' -- slender golden-haired creatures with mellifluous voices and permafrost in their eyes.
Middle Earth, the War of the Ring
Should our reader be minimally acquainted with analysis of major military campaigns and examine the map of Middle Earth, he would easily ascertain that all actions of both new coalitions (Mordor-Isengard and Gondor-Rohan) were dictated by merciless strategic logic, undergirded by Mordor's dread of being cut off from its food sources. Through Gandalf's efforts the center of Middle Earth turned into a highly unstable geopolitical "sandwich" with Mordor and Isengard the bread and Gondor and Rohan the bacon. Most ironic was the fact that the Mordor coalition, which wanted nothing but the preservation of the status quo, was in an ideal position for an offensive war (whereby it could immediately force its opponents to fight on two fronts), but in a highly unfavorable one for a defensive war (when the united opponents could conduct a blitzkrieg, crushing foes one by one). Saruman, however, lost no time, either. He visited Theoden and Denethor (the kings of Rohan and Gondor) and used his personal charm and eloquence to convince them that Isengard and Barad-Dur wanted nothing but peace. In addition, he partially revealed to Denethor and Sauron the secret of the two palant ri that have been kept in both capitals since time immemorial, and taught them to use those ancient magic crystals as a means of direct communication; this simple move did much to build trust between the neighboring sovereigns. An Isengard consulate was established in Edoras at King Theoden's court; it was headed by Grima, an excellent diplomat, experienced intelligence officer, and master of courtly intrigue. For quite some time Saruman and Gandalf carefully jockeyed for position, strictly in the area of dynastic relationships.
To wit, Theoden's only son Theodred, known for his sober mind and temperateness, was killed in the North under suspicious circumstances, allegedly in an Orc raid. As a result, the new heir was the king's nephew E:omer -- a brilliant general, the darling of the officer corps, and, obviously, one of the `war party' leaders. In a setback to Gandalf, however, he began `measuring the drapes of the palace' way too openly with his friends. Grima, who had an excellent intelligence network, had no trouble putting together a good collection of all the drunken boasts and submitting it to Theoden through a proxy. Consequently, E:omer was excluded from active politics to such an extent that Grima stopped paying any attention to him (which turned out later to have been a big mistake). In Gondor, Saruman succeeded in undermining the position of Prince Boromir, another well-known brawler, and getting him removed from court; the prince left in a huff, seeking adventure in northern lands (with rather unpleasant consequences, but again later). In general, the first round went to Saruman.
Nevertheless, although all three kings clearly understood that "a bad peace is better than a good war," conditions remained highly unstable. The food situation in Mordor continued to deteriorate, so the security of the trade routes to the South through Ithilien became what is known as a "national paranoia." In such circumstances the smallest provocation can cascade, and there was no lack of those. So after several caravans in a row were wiped out near Ithilien Crossing by people who came from nowhere but wore green cloaks of Gondor (although they spoke with a pronounced Northern accent), there was a full-fledged reaction. Saruman immediately contacted Sauron via his palant r; he cajoled, pleaded, and threatened, but to no avail. Logical arguments did not work any more, and the king, whose power had always been rather nominal, could do nothing about the fear-crazed merchants sitting in the parliament. So it was that on the morrow of April 14th, 3016 of the Third Era the army of Mordor, two hundred light cavalry strong, entered the demilitarized (under a recent treaty with Gondor) Ithilien "to provide security against robbers to the trade routes." In response, Gondor mobilized its army and took control of Osgiliath. The trap was sprung. Mordor then made another mistake, although, as it always is with strategic decisions, they can only be judged post factum: had the move worked, as it had every chance of doing, it would no doubt have been recorded as brilliant. An attempt was made to split the enemy coalition by getting Rohan out of the spat over Ithilien, which was of no real concern to them. To that end, four best battalions of Mordor's army were sent over Anduin. This expeditionary force was supposed to covertly travel over the northern edge of the Plains of Rohan, where intelligence reported no regular armed presence, and join the army of Isengard. The risk was great, but smaller detachments have already traversed that route without incident. Indeed, had a strike force capable of reaching Edoras in five days' march been established in the Rohirrim's backyard, without a doubt the latter would have concentrated on guarding the entrance to Helm's Deep and abandoned any thought of a raid to the South. Mordor could then seek a compromise over Ithilien with the suddenly lonely Gondor.
That was when the Mirror first made a difference; imagine a contemporary fast-moving war in which one side has the advantage of space-based surveillance. E:omer, practically under house arrest at the time, got comprehensive information about Mordor's move from Gandalf, and realized that a general only gets such a chance once in a lifetime. Taking advantage of Theoden's illness and his enormous popularity among the troops, he moved the elite Rohan army units north. At that point he had nothing to lose; failure would no doubt have cost him his head for treason.
But the Mirror spoke truly. Five days later the armored cavalry of Rohan suddenly struck Mordor's expeditionary force out of Fangorn Wood; the enemy had no time to even break out of the marching formation. The swift attack was devastating; nevertheless, a significant part of the heavy infantry (mostly Trolls) did manage to form into its famous `granite blocks' and fought back for several hours, taking a large toll on the attackers. When night fell, they tried to move into Fangorn, hoping to escape the mounted pursuers in the thicket, but all fell to the poisoned arrows of the Elvish bowmen in their tree perches. The Rohirrim paid dearly for their victory, but the elite of the Mordorian army was no more; only the light Orocuen cavalry managed to escape. E:omer triumphantly returned to Edoras, and Theoden had to pretend that all was going according to a pre-existing plan. At the same time the king was publicly presented with evidence that the Isengard consul was spying on Rohan; although nearly all diplomats have been doing so since the world was created, Theoden now had to support the war party and had no choice but to declare Grima a persona non grata.
In the meantime, Rohan troops, still drunk with the Fangorn victory, filled up the palace square, clanging swords against shields, and demanded of their beloved E:omer that he lead them, no matter where. The general raised his sword high, as if to stab the setting sun, and cried: "To Isengard!" -- whereupon Gandalf, standing not far away in the shadow of a battlement, knew that he had earned some rest. His work was done.
In the South, meanwhile, a `strange war' went on. Although the Osgiliath Crossing had changed hands three times in two years, neither of the foes had made any attempts to follow up on their successes and take the fight to the other side of Anduin. The fighting consisted of a series of `noble contests' -- something between a gladiator show and a knightly joust. The best warriors were known by name on both sides, and bets were made regardless of the personal allegiances of the bettors; the officers competed in civility and never failed to congratulate an opponent on his monarch's birthday or some other state occasion before running him through. The only dissonant note in this exalted symphony of courteous killing was sounded by the bands of D nadan `rangers', gathered here like flies to carrion. Those mostly "harassed enemy communications" -- or, to put it plainly, robbed caravans. The Mordorians considered them bandits rather than enemy combatants, to be dealt with harshly in wartime, and hung not a few of those `rangers' off the leafy oaks along the Ithilien highway. The Northerners paid back in the same coin when they could. No wonder that working men like Tzerlag saw this `war' as total baloney. The Battle of Fangorn changed the situation drastically. Even prior to it the armies of Mordor and Isengard numbered no more than a third of the combined forces of Gondor and Rohan. After the task force perished, Mordor had no defensive strategies left; it had no chance of holding Ithilien with the forces it had. Sure, those were more than sufficient to hold the fastnesses in the passes of the Ash and Shadow Mountains, but what good was that? Gondor and Rohan had no need to storm those citadels; it was quite sufficient to simply establish a blockade and wait for Mordor to surrender or starve to death. The powers-that- be in Barad-Dur considered the situation soberly and realized that they had only one chance to break this stranglehold.
While Isengard remains unconquered in Rohan's rear, the Rohirrim will not risk moving their army to the southeast, beyond An rien. Although Isengard's army is small, taking the city is no easy task, since primitive Rohan has no decent siege engines. Therefore, Mordor has some time, at least six months. Under cover of the low-grade war in Ithilien, this time must be used to gather all of the country's resources into a fist -- muster all men, hire mercenaries, request assistance from allies (the Easterlings and especially the Haradrim). Then this entire force must suddenly crush Gondor's army in a blitzkrieg while it is temporarily deprived of Rohan's aid. Afterwards, Mordor will conclude the war quickly under the well-known `land for peace' scenario, keeping control of the Ithilien Crossing. The risk is huge, but there is no other choice!
The Mirror gave this plan a decent chance of success. Gandalf was extremely concerned, because the war in the northwest was not going as well as he expected. E:omer made a quick march west and did manage to capture the strategically important Helm's Deep after a bloody battle at Hornburg, breaking into Isen's valley. But it was a pyrrhic victory; the attackers' losses were such that there was no question of storming Isengard. The only option was a siege, which was what Mordor was counting on. The Elves found a solution. When the Rohirrim approached Isengard, they were stunned to behold a large lake in its place; the Orthanc stuck out of its middle absurdly, like a log out of a swamp. The Elves had solved the problem radically by breaching the dams of the Isen the previous night, drowning the sleeping city with its defenders. Horrified Gandalf and hotly angry E:omer (the riches of Isengard, which were the reason for this campaign, were now at the bottom of a lake) went to visit the Elves to settle a few things. They came back after dark much subdued, silent, avoiding looking at each other. Surprised officers asked E:omer whether they should celebrate victory; the general snapped:
"Whatever," went to his tent and uncharacteristically drank himself into a stupor all alone. Gandalf, for some reason of his own, hurried to Orthanc and tried to talk to Saruman; after an icy rebuff he slumped listlessly at the water's edge, watching the moon's reflection. When all is said and done, the Elves are probably correct -- the most important goal right now is to free up forces in the north and lead the Rohirrim south... But the Mirror... Was Saruman The Fastidious right back then?.. Better not to think about it, there's no way back now anyway... And that D nadan ranger, what's his name? Aragorn? Arathorn? What do the Elves need him for, all of a sudden?
All the while the war in the south was picking up steam. Of course, it is impossible to hide troop movements on the scale of those started by Mordor from enemy intelligence, even if those did not possess the Mirror. Gondor also began moving its allied forces towards Minas Tirith from Anfalas, Ethir, and Dol Amroth, but Mordor deployed first. After a successful feint to the north (towards L rien and further to Esgaroth) had tied up most of the Elvish army there, the main force of Mordor's army slammed Gondor. Osgiliath was taken on the march; six days later, having overrun and scattered the more numerous but badly positioned units of the army of Gondor, the victorious South Army had camped with all of its siege engines at the walls of Minas Tirith, which was still unprepared for a siege. The formidable Pelennor fortifications have been stormed immediately prior to that in only a couple of hours. So when the palant r in Denethor's quarters suddenly came to life and Sauron offered an immediate peace in exchange for Mordor's right to maintain a limited military presence in Ithilien, the king agreed right away, reasoning quite correctly that he was getting a heifer for a chick. Then, something strange happened.
The next day a man in a white cloak appeared in Sauron's palant r. Introducing himself as the military commandant of Minas Tirith, he said that the signing of the peace treaty will have to wait for a few days, due to a sudden illness of the king of Gondor. Why isn't Prince Faramir conducting these negotiations? Oh, the prince is literally hovering between life and death, having been struck by a poisoned arrow. What do you mean -- "whose?!" The Mordorian army has no poisoned arrows? Really? Hmm... Honestly, he doesn't know. As for Prince Boromir, unfortunately, he is believed to have been killed somewhere in the North. In other words, let's just wait a week or so, while the king gets better; yes, just a formality.
So the Mordorians waited. The war is over, soon we'll go home. Sure, discipline is important, but how about a little celebration of the victory, eh? After all, even if Isengard falls and the Rohirrim go south, Saruman will let us know, so even if worse comes to worse, there will be plenty of time to prepare a welcome party... Little did they know that Saruman's palant r was only silent because defecting Grima took it along as a `dowry,' and Rohan's army was only a three days' march off.
Gondor, the Field of Pelennor
March 15, 3019
The Mordorians only realized that they have been had when the brown splotch of Rohan's army began spreading through the northern edge of the white fog blanketing the Field of Pelennor, while Gondor's troops poured through the opened gates of Minas Tirith, quickly congealing into battle formations. Fury tripled the strength of the duped `victors;' they hit the Gondorians hard enough to send them flying before the Rohirrim made it to the battlefield, almost gaining the city gates in hot pursuit. The armored cavalry of Rohan, tired by the long march, did not live up to expectations; it turned out to be less than easily maneuverable, so light Orocuen cavalry calmly showered it with arrows, easily avoiding a head-on clash. Although the South Army of Mordor was outnumbered two to one and surprised to boot, the scales began tipping in its favor. It was then that fresh forces landed in the Mordorians' rear at the southeast edge of the Pelennor field from ships that had just gone up the Anduin. The landed force was small, and the Mordorian commander did not pay much attention to the first panicked reports: "those can't be killed!" In the meantime the battle intensified. On the northern edge of the field the Umbarian bowmen and deftly maneuvering Orocuen cavalry completely tied up the armor of Rohan; in the west the m makil of the Haradrim trampled and scattered Gondorian infantry once again, while the engineers smashed the famed (supposedly mithril) gates of the city to bits in less than ten minutes and began catapult bombardment of the inner ramparts. Only in the southeast was something alarming happening: the troops that had landed from the ships were moving forward like a hot knife through butter. When the Commander-South got to the breakthrough, this was what he saw.
A phalanx six deep and about a hundred men across moved unhurriedly across the field in total silence. The warriors were dressed in gray cloaks with hoods covering their faces, and were armed only with long narrow Elvish swords; they had no armor, no helmets, not even shields. There was something weirdly out of place about the soldiers in the forward rank, and it took the commander a few seconds to understand what that was: they were literally studded with three-foot Umbarian arrows, but kept advancing just the same. They were commanded by a horseman in their rear, wearing a tattered camouflage cloak of a D nadan ranger, his faceplate closed. The sun was almost directly overhead, yet the horseman cast a long coal-black shadow, while the phalanx cast no shadow at all. An aide reported to Commander-South that neither cavalry nor the m makil were able to breach the ranks of those warriors; the animals became wildly uncontrollable on approach. In the meantime, the invincible phalanx kept pushing northwest -- fortunately, rather slowly and too directly. The Trollish armored infantry managed to slow it down some while the engineers moved two batteries of field catapults from the walls of the city. The Commander's reckoning was precise: at the moment he anticipated the entire phalanx went into a large shallow depression, and the catapults placed on its edge opened up withering fire at pre-calculated distances and angles. The three-bucket naphtha bombs turned the hollow into an erupting volcano, and a victory cheer went up to the cold March sky. It ceased just as quickly, for the ranks of the gray warriors emerged again out of the bursting bubbles of orange naphtha flames. Their cloaks were smoldering and smoking, some were ablaze; the shafts of the arrows studding them were burning, too. Here one of those living torches -- the fourth from the right in the forward rank -- halted and started breaking into pieces, raising a fountain of sparks; his mates immediately closed ranks. One could see that the bombardment had taken a toll on the grays: at least fifty such firebrands were scattered in the middle of the depression, where the brunt hit. Some of those kept trying to get up and walk.
The general slammed the pommel with his fist -- let the pain bring him back to the real world and banish all traces of this nightmare from his brain... No such luck. He is still standing at the edge of a burned-out depression on the Pelennor field, and his warriors, ever ready to follow him into fire and water, will break into flight at any moment, for this is simply beyond their ken! Without thinking any more, he thundered: "Mordor and The Eye!" and, scimitar raised high, spurred his horse towards the right flank of the gray ranks -- for it was there that the closed-helmeted D nadan has moved now, for some reason of his own. When the Commander-South neared the phalanx, his mount reared and almost tossed him from the saddle. Now he could see the enemy warriors clearly and knew that the numerous `panic-mongers' were right. These were, indeed, the living dead: respectable-looking parchment-skinned mummies with eyes and mouths carefully sewn shut; horribly bloated drowned men dripping greenish goo; skeletons covered with tatters of blackened skin, cause of death now indeterminable to the best pathologist. The corpses stared at him, and a chillingly terrifying low growl went up; such is the growl of a sheepdog about to go for the enemy's throat. The general had no time to be terrified, though -- a dozen gray figures have already detached themselves from the rear right corner of the formation, clearly intending to block his way to the indecisively halted D nadan, so he spurred the stallion again. He broke through the line of the dead with surprising ease: they turned out to be rather slow and no match for a fighter of his caliber one-on-one. A hanged man with a lolling tongue and bulging eyes had barely raised his sword when Commander-South sliced through his sword-arm with a lighting-fast horizontal flick of his wrist and then cut the enemy almost in half from the right shoulder down. The others backed away for some reason and made no more attempts to stop him. Meanwhile the D nadan was clearly deciding whether he should fight or run, and seeing that he had no chance of escaping, dismounted decisively and drew his Elvish sword. So that's how you want it, eh? Fight on foot -- fine. Shouting the traditional: "Defend yourself, fair sir!" the commander of the South Army jumped nimbly off his horse, thinking in passing that this northern bandit hardly deserved to be called `sir.' The phalanx had already moved away a hundred yards or so and kept going; seven of the undead stood in the distance, not taking their unseeing eyes off the duelists; a ringing silence fell.
He suddenly realized with a clarity that amazed him that this one duel will determine the outcome not only of this battle, but the fate of entire Middle Earth for many years to come. His inner voice then said in an eerily pleading tone: "Think this through, while there's still time! Please!" -- as if trying to warn him without knowing how. But he had thought this through already! They are both lightly armored, so his curved scimitar will have a clear advantage over any straight western sword; the guy doesn't seem to be a leftie, so no surprises there; it would've been better to fight on horseback, but let's not be greedy... It's all set -- ready to serve, as the saying goes!
The D nadan awaited him without trying to maneuver: knees slightly bent, upraised sword held in both hands, hilt against the belt buckle; all his earlier indecisiveness was gone. The general quickly approached to within about seven paces, right up to the maximum reach of the northerner, and started feinting: right, left, then his favorite distracting move -- a quick pass of the scimitar to the left hand and back...
A terrible blow in the back felled him. He managed to twist sideways ("Spine's still there..."), lifted his head and thought distantly: yes, I have underestimated those deaders... so they can move real fast and real silent when needed... northern bastard... Amazingly, he managed to get up to one knee, using the scimitar as a crutch; the corpses, having already surrounded him, stood still with swords raised, awaiting word from their commander. The latter was in no hurry; pushing the helmet to the back of his head and chewing on a straw, he gazed at his fallen foe with interest. Then his calm soft voice broke the silence:
"Welcome, Commander-South! I knew that you would come for a one-on-one fight, as is the custom by you nobles," he smirked, "I was only concerned that you wouldn't dismount, like I did. Had you kept to the saddle, it all could have been different... I'm glad that I didn't overestimate you, fair sir."
"You fool! I came here to win this war and the crown of Gondor, not some stupid duel. As Tulkas is my witness, I have often played heads-or-tails with death, but always for a goal, never for the hell of it."
"You cheated," repeated Commander-South, trying not to cough with the blood from his pierced lung slowly pooling in his mouth. "Even the knights of the North will not shake your hand."
"Of course they won't," laughed the D nadan, "since they will be kneeling before the new King of Gondor! I beat you in an honest fight, one on one -- so it shall be written in all the history books. As for you, they won't even remember your name, I'll make sure of that. Actually," he stopped in midstride, hunting for the stirrup, "we can make it even more interesting: let you be killed by a midget, some tiny little dwarf with hairy paws. Or by a broad... yes, that's how we'll do it."
He mounted quickly, gestured once to his dead men and set the horse to follow the distant phalanx. He turned back only once, checking in annoyance: are they catching up or what? The corpses, though, were still standing in a circle, their swords rising and falling like threshing flails.
Meanwhile, the battle continued. True, the Mordorian troops now parted before the ranks of the undead without a fight, but there were no Western Coalition troops in the southeastern part of the battlefield to take advantage of the breach made by Aragorn. Besides, the clash at the depression had demonstrated that the gray warriors were not totally invincible; they were hard but not impossible to kill. The phalanx, without guidance for a few minutes, kept going forward until by sheer accident it wandered into the range of stationary long-range catapults trained on the citadel of Minas Tirith. The Mordorian engineers lost no time in turning these around and opening fire, this time with forty-bucket naphtha incendiary barrels rather than three-bucket jars. Hit by monstrous fiery whirlwinds and not seeing the enemy (who was firing from a concealed position), the phalanx kept going forward mindlessly, getting deeper into the killing zone with every step, so that when Aragorn, catching up on a lathered horse, ordered an immediate retreat, it had to traverse the same deadly terrain a second time.
This time the losses were so great that the D nadan decided to rejoin the main forces to the west before it was too late; that proved to be difficult. Now, Orocuen horsemen dogged the decimated phalanx like piranhas, expertly lassoing the undead, especially in the rear row, pulling them out of the ranks and dragging them away, where they methodically hacked the corpses into tiny pieces. Trying to rescue their captured comrades, the gray warriors had to break ranks, which made things all the worse for them. You have to give Aragorn his due: he managed to close the ranks and break through to the Gondorian side under cover of brief counterattacks, personally cutting down two Mordorian officers in the process. They had to cover the last hundred fifty yards under fire from portable catapults once again, so that only a few dozen living dead made it back to the Gondorians, almost inducing them to flee. So Aragorn's gray phalanx almost completely perished, but it did its job. First, it had diverted substantial Mordorian forces, especially the catapults, without which the inner fortifications of Minas Tirith could not be taken. More importantly, after the death of Commander-South the South Army was deprived of overall direction and allowed itself to be drawn into head-to-head fighting for mutual annihilation -- a losing proposition where the foe is so much more numerous. Nevertheless, the Mordorians kept fighting skillfully and determinedly; the March day was already failing, but the Coalition still hadn't managed to utilize its two-to-one advantage. The main action was in the northern direction, where Trollish infantry and Umbarian bowmen managed to beat off the Rohirrim's attempts to break through their defense line, despite large losses.
... E:omer slowly made his way past the line of Rohan and Dol Amroth cavalry, just rolled back from another unsuccessful attack, the fourth one today. In reality, to call this gloomy crowd of men and horses, some wounded and all exhausted to the limit a `line' would be a stretch. He had been trying to straighten out the faceplate of his helmet, bent in by a Haradi club, when they informed him that Theoden was among those who perished in the last attack. After the victorious march on Isengard the old man was convinced that E:omer was going to use his coming glory of the victor over Mordor to strip him of his crown, and watched his nephew with a hawk's eye. That was why he headed the march to the southeast himself, and then stripped his most popular general of his command right before the battle. The king was determined to win this one all by himself, "without the snot-nosed youths," and so ignored all tactical advice and sacrificed the best of Rohan's cavalry in senseless head-on attacks. Now he, too, was dead.
E:omer, now in charge, gazed at the glum ranks of the Rohirrim, shivering in the brutal March wind. He felt like a physician who has been graciously allowed to treat the patient after the latter had already slipped into coma. The worst of it was that the army of Mordor was in the same shape, if not worse; experience and keen battle intuition of the general told him in no uncertain terms that one decisive assault could swing the battle now. He saw clearly the weak spots in the enemy's line and knew exactly where to strike and how to develop a successful breach, but he also knew that he dare not order his men forward. There is an unwritten law no one dares break: one may only give an order when he's sure that it will be followed, otherwise it's the end of everything that sustains an army. He saw just as clearly that these men could not be roused for another attack, not today. So he stopped his horse, ordered everyone to dismount -- to be seen better by more men -- and launched into a speech strange for a warrior:
"We're all mortal, guys; what the hell does it matter if it's sooner or later? To me, it's way more interesting what's gonna happen to us afterwards. You probably think the general's nuts to talk about life after death right now, but I reckon -- when's a better time? I mean, we're simple guys -- live in the field, pray to a shield, once the danger's over we give it no thought till the next time... Well, guys, there're plenty of opinions about what's gonna be, but one thing everyone agrees on is that we all get whatever we believe in. So if you think that once your corpse rots there's nothing left of you but a handful of dust, then that's how it's gonna be with you. Some faiths are even worse -- you wander around the underworld forever as a shade -- better to rot to nothing, indeed, than such a fate! Some expect to lie on the green grass in a pretty garden, drink heavenly nectar and play the lyre; not bad, but kinda dull to my tastes. But there is a wonderful faith in the Eastern lands -- a travelling missionary told me all about it a few days ago -- and it's pretty damn good, no fooling, but its Paradise is what's best, just my style."
He looked around -- the men seemed to be listening -- and continued:
"A palace in Heaven and in it a feast to shame a royal wedding, wine flows like water from a spring, but the best part is the houranies. Those are girls who are always eighteen, beautiful beyond belief, and no doubts about their looks, for they are dressed only in a bracelet or two. And as for screwing -- there are no such experts down here! One problem, though -- only the righteous men are allowed there, guys such as us have no chance..." The ranks stirred distinctly, a rumble rose and fell, someone spat: cheated, again! E:omer raised a hand and silence fell again, broken only by the listless susurration of dead grass.
"That is to say -- no chance but one. There is one loophole for losers such as ourselves. In this wonderful faith anyone killed fighting for a just cause -- and who'd dare say that our cause is unjust? -- has all his sins forgiven and automatically considered righteous. So if any of you guys wanna get to this Paradise by living righteously -- good luck to you! As for me, I have no such hopes, so I'm gonna join the houranies right here and now as a valiant martyr -- when else am I gonna have such a chance? So whoever wants to and can -- follow me, and good luck to the rest!"
He stood in the stirrups and yelled somewhere skyward, using his armor glove as a bullhorn:
"Ahoy, gals! Open up the Heavenly bordello, never mind the hour! Stand ready to receive three best battalions of Rohan cavalry -- bet my head to a broken arrow that you won't ever forget these customers! We're about to attack, so we'll join you in Heaven in about ten minutes, that should be enough for you to get ready!"
And a miracle happened: the men began to stir! Laughter and elaborate cussing rose in the ranks; someone from the right flank inquired whether one could catch clap from a hourani and if so, how long it would take to cure in Heaven. Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth, a handsome man famous for his amorous exploits, told a furiously blushing youngster on the left flank:
"Head up, cornet! Those in the know say that there are beauties for every taste in that establishment. They must have lined up a flock of romantic maidens for you already, pining for a chance to hear you recite some verses in the moonlight!" The young man blushed even more to booming laughter and glared angrily at the prince from under (positively girlish) thick lashes. E:omer wheeled his horse around so that dirt flew from under its hooves in a fan and called out:
"To saddle, guys! The madam up there must've already sent for more wine for the new customers. By the laughter of Tulkas, today every one of you will get enough N rnen wine to drown in, be it in heaven, be it on earth! The Valar will treat the fallen, the King of Rohan will treat the living! After me!.."
He tossed his mangled helmet aside and looked back no more as he rushed the horse towards where his trained eye had spotted a tiny patch of foreign color in the unbreakable stockade of Trollish armored infantry -- the dark round shields of Easterling spearmen. The wind whistled in his ears and tossed his sweaty flaxen hair; Imrahil was galloping on his right, almost nose-to-nose.
"Dammit, Prince, put on your helmet -- bowmen to the right!"
"After you, fair sir!" the prince grinned at him, twirled his sword over his head, and called out in a voice hoarse from shouting orders: "Dol Amroth and the Swan!"
"Rohan and the White Horse!" echoed E:omer, while behind their backs the thunder of thousands of hooves was already building to a majestic staccato: the riders of Rohan and Dol Amroth were making their last charge, to win or die.
Everybody knows that Easterling infantry is far inferior to Mordor's; E:omer's charge scattered them like bowling pins, and the shining edge of Western cavalry crashed through the Mordorian defensive line. A little later another force slammed into their rear -- a cutting edge of Aragorn's remaining gray warriors, encased with Gondorian armored infantry. By about six in the evening those fangs met deep in the body of the South Army, near its camp. The battle as such was over then, and slaughter began. The parked siege engines were set ablaze, and the dancing flames highlighted now an Orocuen hospital wagon stuck in the mud, then an arrow-studded m mak dashing around the field, trampling friend and foe alike. E:omer had just run into Aragorn in this chaos of victory and was ceremoniously hugging his brother-in-arms to everyone's victory whoops, when he noticed a horseman approaching them at full gallop -- the blushing cornet. To tell the truth, the boy had more than acquitted himself, worthy of a medal. When the Rohirrim ran into the remnants of the Southern cavalry near the camp, he took on a Haradi lieutenant one-on-one, knocking the black giant out of the saddle (to everyone's astonishment) and seizing the enemy's scarlet cape emblazoned with the Snake -- the very cape he was now waving triumphantly. A dozen paces short of the fatherly gazing leaders the cornet dismounted, pulled off the helmet, shook his head like an unruly horse, and suddenly a mass of hair tumbled over his shoulders, the color of the sun-kissed prairie grass of the Plains of Rohan.
"E:owyn!" was all E:omer could say. "What the hell!.."
The shield-maiden stuck her tongue out at him, tossed him the Haradi cape in passing -- he was left standing, stunned, clutching his sister's trophy -- and stopped in front of Aragorn.
"Greetings, Ari!" she said calmly; Nienna only knew the price of that calmness.
"Congratulations on the victory. As I see it, the wartime excuses are now void. So if you don't need me any more, say so now and, by the stars of Varda, I will immediately stop bothering you!"
"How can you say that, my Amazon!" and there she was in his saddle, looking at him with shining eyes, prattling nonsense, and then kissing him in front of everybody -- the girls of Rohan are not big on southern ceremony, and a heroine of Pelennor could not care less... All E:omer could do was look at this idyllic picture and get more upset by the minute, thinking: "Fool! Open your eyes and look at his face, it's all written plainly there -- what he is to you and what you are to him! Why, why do the idiot girls always fall for scoundrels -- this one isn't even handsome..." not that he was the first or the last such in that World, or any other...
He said none of that aloud, of course, only asked: "Show me your arm." Only when E:owyn protested that she was adult enough to handle it and that it wasn't even a scratch did he let out some of his frustration by yelling loudly and profanely enough to curl ears, describing to the heroine of Pelennor, in graphic detail, what he was going to do to her if she didn't report to the medics by the count of three. E:owyn laughed and saluted: "Yes, my general!" and only the unusual care with which she mounted his horse told him that much more than a scratch was involved here. But the girl had already leaned on her brother's shoulder: "E:om, dear, please don't sulk, spank me if you want, just don't tell Auntie, please?" and rubbed her nose on his cheek, just like in their childhood... Aragorn was watching them with a smile, and E:omer shuddered when he caught his look: it was the look in the eye of an archer right before he lets fly.
He only fully grasped the import of that look the next day, when it was too late. There was a council of war in Aragorn's tent that day, attended by Imrahil, Gandalf-Mithrandir, and a few Elvish lords (whose army had arrived the night before, when it was all over). There, the D nadan explained to the heir of Rohan (the king now, really) without any pleasantries that he was a subordinate rather than an ally now, and that the life of E:owyn, under special guard in the Minas Tirith hospital, depended entirely on his reasonableness.
"Oh, dear E:omer no doubt can run me through right here and now -- and then watch what will happen to his sister in this palant r; it won't be a sight for the fainthearted. No, she suspects nothing of the sort, of course; observe how touchingly sincere she is in caring for the wounded Prince Faramir... What guarantees? The only guarantee is common sense: when I am the King of Gondor and Arnor, I will have no one to fear... How? Very simply. As you know, the king of Gondor is dead. A dreadful tragedy, really -- imagine, he went mad and immolated himself on a funeral pyre. Prince Faramir had been struck by a poisoned arrow and will not get well for quite a while, if he ever does; this depends... ah... on a number of factors. Prince Boromir? Alas, no hope there, either -- he fell in battle with the Orcs at Anduin, just beyond the Falls of Rauros, and I have put his body on the funeral boat with my own hands. And since there is a war on, the heir of Isildur may not leave the country without a leader. Therefore, I accept command over the Army of Gondor and the entire Western Coalition... Were you saying something, E:omer? No?..
"We are immediately moving on Mordor, for I can only accept the crown of Gondor when we return victorious. As for Faramir, I am inclined to grant him one of Gondor's duchies... oh, Ithilien, say. To tell the truth, he had always been more interested in poetry and philosophy than in matters of state. But we should not plan that far ahead, since his condition is critical and he may not survive until our return. So pray for his health, dearest Imrahil, incessantly during our campaign; they say that the Valar especially appreciate the prayers of a best friend... When do we set out? Immediately after we clean up the remnants of the South Army at Osgiliath. Any questions? Good!"
The moment the tent was empty, the man in a gray cloak standing behind Aragorn said in a respectful reproach: "You have taken an unjustified risk, Your Majesty. This E:omer was clearly beside himself; he could have cast everything aside and lashed out..." The ranger turned to him and bit out: "You strike me as both too talkative and too unobservant for a member of Secret Guard."
"My apologies, Your Majesty -- a mithril coat of mail under your clothes?" Aragorn's mocking gaze went over the speaker's swarthy dry face, lingering on rows of tiny holes around the lips. A silence fell for almost a minute.
"Heh, I've almost decided that your brains must've dried up in the crypt and you would now question its provenance... By the way, I keep forgetting to ask: why do they sew your mouths shut?"
"Not just mouths, Your Majesty. The belief is that all openings in a mummy's body must be closed up, lest the departed spirit re-enter it on the fortieth day and take vengeance on the living."