The Shadow of War
It's fourteen years since the fall of Sauron, and Gondor is at peace. But old enemies are stirring beyond her borders, and some have infiltrated Minas Tirith itself, and are waiting for the time to strike…
This is a long story, at 26 chapters (c. 155,000 words), but I've already finished writing it, and intend to post a chapter a day. It's a story told through many eyes. Aragorn, Pippin, Éowyn and Éomer are the main canon viewpoint characters, along with Mablung, Ranger of Ithilien. Faramir, Merry, Arwen, Gimli and Legolas also appear, but aren't viewpoint characters, merely because I had to draw the line somewhere or the story would have been never-ending.
However, war doesn't just affect kings, lords and famous hobbits, but ordinary people, too - ordinary people from both sides. Therefore I also use several original characters. Some are outsider viewpoint types, appearing for just one scene. Some stick around for longer. For three of them, this is their second appearance in a story of mine, but no knowledge the previous stories is assumed. All relevant background is explained at the time. For those interested, though, Mínir comes from Grey in the Dark and Daerion from A Captain and a Cause. Trials of Manhood is also very relevant, too. In fact, in many ways, this story can be seen as sequel to that story, even though it's set more than sixty years later. However, it's a sequel that doesn't require you to read the original.
Chapter one: Shadow
From The Shadow of War, by Hanion son of Hannor, loremaster of Osgiliath, F.A. 942
It started with a man. An enemy, they called him then, but history brings distance. It soothes the hatreds of the past, and urges us to see things dispassionately. Just a man, then; let us call him that.
Gondor was at peace, then. It was fourteen years since the fall of Sauron, and the world was full of hope. Little did the people think that their world was about to be rocked to the core! Because of that man, fear would soon stalk through the streets of Minas Tirith. Armies would march and battle would be joined. The safety of Gondor would be threatened as it had never been threatened since the coming of the king.
This was the dawn of a new age, and the world was changing. They were on the cusp, then, moving from a time of legends to the sober world of history that we now inhabit. Songs were made, but we also have books. There are tales of heroes, but there are also dry analyses of the facts. We hear the speeches of kings, but we also have letters from the ordinary folk, people whose voices had never before been heard.
So many were affected by the events of that summer. Some were major players, with the fate of kingdoms resting on their every choice. Some had smaller parts, but the lowliest player can make a difference when the moment is right. Others were merely witnesses, but even a witness can be changed by what they see. Sources we have in abundance, but we historians are a quarrelsome breed, and to those sources, we add our own voices, and we bicker endlessly about the significance of the events we describe.
But let us forget all that. Let us go back to the beginning.
It started with a man. It started with a man who tried to kill a king.
The assassin lay in wait beneath the rafters. His blade was newly sharpened, and a dozen arrows were lined up on the bale of cloth beside the window. He moved when he had to, pacing and stretching to keep his muscles limber, but his hunter's feet made no sound on the attic floorboards. The drunken weaver in the room below had no idea that he was there; no idea that he had been living here for days, waiting for the moment to strike.
He had no name. His childhood name had been set aside many years ago, and since then he had gone by many names as he travelled far and wide performing the will of his lord. But it was as a nameless stranger that he had lived in Minas Tirith. He had bought from market stalls and mingled with noisy crowds, but left behind no name that could be discovered after the deed was done. He doubted anyone would remember him. If they did, they could not identify him.
It was a disturbing place, this white stone city. At home, every man was owned by his lord, and every face was known. A lordless stranger who dared to wander within a mile of a lord's hall would be brought down with horse whips and dragged there in chains. But here in Minas Tirith, strangers were made welcome. The people boasted of being free: free to marry whoever they wished, and to travel from the city, no master to tell them no. Free to fritter their lives away like the drunken sot of a weaver, whose loft was filled with sacks of mouldering yarn, thick with dust. This king of theirs was a fool, who seemed to think that he could rule through trust. The people claimed to love him, but what use was love? Better to be feared. True obedience could only be given to a lord who had trampled you to the ground and drawn your blood.
Unbidden, his hand rose to his throat, where he still bore the scar from his own lord's knife: the only mark left to him now, since he had been forced to shed his brooch and his beads and anything else that could link him to his lord if they were discovered. It was a strange thing, a cold thing, to be so far away from the protection of your lord. But this was the task he had given. He had come to Minas Tirith, and the soft fools had let him in. It was not supposed to be an assassination, or so he had believed, just a gathering of intelligence, but a week ago, the orders had changed. When dropping his reports in the usual spot outside the city, he had found a scrap of paper, marked with the correct password, written in the usual code. Breathless, he had opened it…
Breathless. He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering. He had burnt the paper, of course, but he could still see those jagged letters; could still read the stark command. Why would his lord want this done? Why now? What could this do but rouse the wrath of Gondor? Why…? No, it was not for him to question. It was just for him to obey. He belonged to his lord, body and soul, as all men should.
He would kill King Elessar. He would kill the King of Gondor as all the city watched.
His lord had commanded. What else could a man do but obey?
Aragorn ran his fingers across the smooth red velvet, rested the sleeve in his palm for a moment, then let it fall. The next robe was thick with gold brocade, rough against his fingertips. Beside it was a cape of sleek pale fur. There was silk, too: silver, dark red, purple, gold. He took a step back, and his shadow shifted, letting the candlelight fall upon the intricate carvings on the wardrobe door. The horses' eyes were set with garnets, and their riders' spears were tipped with gold.
Sometimes it seemed to him as if this was the strangest thing about being a king. Envoys and embassies brought him gifts, and it would be insult to refuse them. The lords of Gondor proudly presented him with robes made by their best seamstresses and goblets made by their finest craftsmen. His chamberlain had opinions on clothing fit for a king, and expressed them with his usual insistent deference.
A dozen years ago, he could have walked a thousand miles with nothing more than he could carry on his back. He had a chest at Rivendell, but seldom opened it. Another chest was with the Dúnedain, but that, too, went unopened for years on end. Other possessions came and went. When he had walked away from his life as Thorongil, he had done so with just a single pack. Some possessions he had given as parting gifts to the men who had served under him. Others he had left behind in his scantly furnished quarters. What happened to those? he wondered suddenly. From that day until this, he had given them no thought.
Even now, there was so little here that he truly needed; so little here that he truly valued. More than there had been, of course: gifts from true friends and keepsakes of the dead; Arwen's banner; the heirlooms he had always carried and the heirlooms he had won.
But not all these. Not this.
He turned and walked away, leaving the room. Down the corridor he went, and into a smaller chamber, with simple decoration. His Rivendell chest was there, as were the few possessions he had brought from the north. His old pack was there, and the battered scabbard he had carried for so many years. And there was another chest, a new chest: a gift from Éomer, given with a smile.
Soft footsteps sounded on the floor behind him. Aragorn smiled, but did not turn round.
"You are doing it, then," Arwen said.
The banners were limp against the leaden sky. Horses were galloping on morning exercises; men with horse-hair plumes laughing joyously despite the dullness of the day.
"You'd think they'd get tired of it," Pippin said, as he tugged his jacket more tightly around him, struggling to fasten the buttons with one hand. The other held a newly fried potato cake, the fingers dancing away from it, one, two, three, as he tried to avoid getting burnt. "They're going to ride all day, after all."
"You'd think you'd get tired of eating," Merry said. His potato cake was resting on a slice of bread. Pippin thought he looked far too smug about it. "We have, after all, already had one breakfast today, and will doubtless have lunch in the saddle in…" He looked up at the sky, frowning at the faint lightening of the cloud where the sun ought to be. "Ooh, about an hour, I think." He took a bite of bread and potato cake combined. "But you don't," he added unnecessarily.
Pippin smiled in happy agreement. Giving up on the buttons, he reached for a hunk of bread, and dropped his potato cake onto it. He licked his stinging fingertips, savouring the grease. "Éomer's ordered a late start this morning. Very kind of him, and all that. But do these Riders of his have a nice lie-in? Do they do what any sensible creature would do and…"
"Have another breakfast." They said the words together, Pippin phrasing it as a question and Merry as the answer. When the laughter died down, Merry put on a serious face. "The Riders of the Mark," he said, "refuse to be educated when it comes to second breakfast."
"Or elevenses," Pippin said, shaking his head.
"I have tried," Merry said sadly, and they sighed together over the heathen benightedness of Men, then laughed again.
Pippin finished his potato cake in four more bites. He looked at the empty frying pan and the dying embers of the fire. He frowned at his half-empty pack and back to the frying pan again, and wondered if he could be bothered to cook some more. Probably not, he decided, but there was still time for a smoke and maybe a doze. Pity the wall was damp, and the grass even damper. It was supposed to be warm in the south; warmer than at home, anyway. This appeared to be an old orchard, probably one abandoned during the ascendancy of the Enemy, and not yet tamed again.
"But it will be, soon," he murmured, as he reached for his pipe and stretched out his legs, wiggling his toes.
"What?" Merry was ahead of him, already breathing smoke.
"Tamed," Pippin said. "The countryside. Everywhere." He looked up at the apple trees, but it was too early in the season for the fruit to be ready. No-one would harvest it this year but birds, but next year, or the year after…? The haunted Greenway was already a swift, safe road. Weathertop was a watchtower again, and a place where travellers could rest in peace. The lands between Rohan and Gondor had changed since he had seen them in a terrified blur from the back of Shadowfax. There were roads and cottages, and crops where once there had been just waste. In another ten years, perhaps, there would be enough inns along the road for a traveller to make the whole journey without having to spend a single night outside.
"Yes," Merry agreed. He frowned, half-turned his head as if he had heard something behind him, then settled back down with a sigh. A magpie flew up from an apple tree, chattering loudly.
Pippin watched the magpie fly. "There's something so sad about a place that was once loved, but has fallen to pieces. Like Ithilien when Frodo and Sam were there. Like Osgiliath."
"I wonder how the rebuilding's going." Merry found a line of crumbs caught in a fold of his jacket, appeared to consider eating them, then brushed them away. "Osgiliath, I mean," he said, as he reached for the remains of the loaf.
Somebody shouted something, but Pippin could not hear what it was. A pair of Riders cantered in from the southern road, and Éomer's tent was almost struck, stowed on its wagon. Just one more night, Pippin reminded himself. A short day today, one more night on the road, another short day's journey, and then…
"But we'll find out soon enough," Merry said, echoing Pippin's own thoughts, as he so often did. "We'll be in Minas Tirith tomorrow afternoon."
Did Merry, too, feel a little nervous? Did Merry, too, wonder if one day, they would return to Gondor to find their old friends changed? Strider was king. With every year, with every fresh traveller's tale and every bard's song, it became ever clearer just what that meant. It meant so much more than hobbits had ever realised, with their throwaway comments about a distant, long-lost king. Power could change a person; could estrange them from old friends who had known them when they were humble. It brought expectations, too. When you had a title, people expected you to behave a certain way. Merry was Master of Buckland now: good old Merry, jolly old Merry with an old person's title. Pippin himself would be Thain before too many years were passed. He didn't know…
Merry's voice broke into his thoughts. "The bread will be softer in Minas Tirith, of that I'm sure." Merry was struggling with the over-baked loaf, failing to tear it apart with his thumbs. "I need a knife."
"Have mine," said a voice. Flanked by two cloaked figures, a man emerged from the apple trees, a sheathed dagger in his hand.
"Tomorrow," the assassin whispered to himself. Nothing had changed. Excited voices drifted up from the streets below. Tomorrow afternoon, the king of the horse lords was arriving in Minas Tirith, and King Elessar would greet him at the gate with full ceremony. And they would be there in their thousands, the fools, primping and preening in their finery, cheering their blind adoration of a king who had never bested them in single combat and commanded them by name.
It would have to be tomorrow. The weaver's loft had a broad window, thick with cobwebs and dust. It was not supposed to give a view of the square inside the Great Gate, but the mansion opposite was being rebuilt, its crumbling towers pulled down to be replaced with sparkling stone. He had sighted his arrows, sometimes, on travellers walking down to the Gate. In his mind he had let those arrows fly, and imagined the fools falling down, choking on their own blood. But he had not done so. Just sighting those arrows was enough. The range was good, and his aim was true.
But I cannot… he thought, just a stray cry from the part of him that felt so alone and far from home.
He could. He had to. He was a good marksman, of course, as all his people were, although he was far from the best. He had seldom killed. He was a spy, best at stealth and listening. The drunken fool of a weaver never stirred when he slipped down from the loft every night, and no-one saw him as he slipped through the streets, stealing food. He was…
"A killer," he said. "An assassin." His voice cracked. How long since he had spoken to another person in his own tongue? How long since he had spoken to someone in any language?
He would have to use poison. These men of Gondor liked their heavy armour, and this king of theirs had the friendship of the dwarves, with all their skill at metalcraft. But with poison, even a mere scratch on an exposed patch of skin could kill.
It had to. It had to.
His lord had given him poison, of course: a small vial of it, intended for his own use, if capture seemed inevitable. Better to die than to risk incriminating his lord under torture. Because of course this King Elessar tortured his prisoners in the dungeons below the Citadel, even though the babbling fools of Minas Tirith claimed that such things were unknown in their "civilised" world. All lords did. All lords left scars.
If he failed, there was now no poison left for him. If he succeeded but was discovered, there was no swift, bitter way out. But there were other ways, he thought, looking at the glass window and the long fall below. There were other ways, he thought, eyeing his stolen blade.
There were always other ways, even if there was no way out.
Ah, but it was too long since he had done this!
Aragorn smiled down at Merry and Pippin's incredulous faces. Merry had dropped the loaf before Aragorn had finished drawing breath to speak. He was a hobbit, but he was a soldier, too, who just for a fraction of a moment, had been readying himself for an attack. But they had known it was him, of course, from the moment he had spoken. Without intending to, he had used his Strider accent, the voice he had used when they had first come to know him.
Gimli was laughing his own loud greeting. Legolas was more quiet, of course, but his fair face radiated gladness. "Strider!" Pippin leapt to his feet, but then he faltered, perhaps remembering that he was still a knight of Gondor, and he was now within his liege lord's realm. He was about to bow, about to call Aragon by another name, but Aragorn halted him with a smile and a raised palm.
"Nay," he said. "It was a contemptuous nickname when they gave it me, but it does my heart good to hear the name 'Strider' again on the lips of such friends. And today you are a guest of King Éomer, Pippin, and tomorrow and for many days after that, you will be my guest."
"Are you going to sneak up on Éomer, too, Strider?" asked Merry. The pause before the nickname was only a fraction of a moment too long, yet Merry, a knight of Rohan, apparently had no difficulty referring to Éomer without his title. There were so few people left who talked to Aragorn easily, without awe. Arwen did, of course, and Legolas and Gimli, and Faramir, at times, when they were alone. The hobbits, he had hoped, would never change, but even the hobbits…
Legolas looked at him, just a quick glance, a silent reminder. Aragorn let out a breath. There was often an awkwardness to any reunion, especially after several years apart. It was inevitable that the hobbits would worry that over those years apart, Aragorn had decided to stand on ceremony even with old friends. They would relax in time, if he showed them that they were allowed to.
It was why he had come here, after all.
"Éomer knows we are here," Aragorn admitted.
"I wanted to hide in the grass and rise up and hail him, as we did the first time we met him," Gimli said, chuckling at the memory of old times. "Even Aragorn was tempted, I think."
Tempted, yes. Ah, but it was too long! As a Ranger in the north, stealth had been a necessity. He had learnt to move unseen, because his purpose, sometimes his very life, depended on it. He had endured hardship and scorn, consoled by the hope that one day he would fulfil his destiny and be deemed worthy of Arwen's hand. It had never occurred to him that one day, he might miss those days in which he could pass unseen. As a king, he had other men to scout for him. He had other men to hunt for him and track for him and to pass into distant lands and report back what they had seen. It had to be thus, but sometimes… Sometimes…
"It is Éomer's camp," Aragorn explained. "It would be a breach of etiquette to enter it without his leave."
"His guards might have seen you sneaking around and tried to kill you," Pippin said. "And that would have been quite embarrassing for everyone."
"More embarrassing if they'd killed him," Merry said, leaning in towards Pippin and speaking as if the two of them were alone. Aragorn could not help but smile. Merry and Pippin would relax in time? They had relaxed within a minute. He should not have doubted them.
Or perhaps they were the ones who had doubted him, and who could blame them for that? He was king. So much had changed, and he was their king.
"But I doubt t the guards would have seen them," Pippin said, answering in the same manner. "They're the Three Hunters. Éomer's men still talk about how they appeared out of the grass as if by magic. If they'd wanted to sneak right up to Éomer's tent, they'd have done it, and nobody any the wiser."
Perhaps, Aragorn thought. Perhaps. Fourteen years ago he had possessed that skill, but now…?
"Why are you here?" Merry asked. "It's a lovely surprise, of course, but I thought we weren't seeing you until tomorrow."
"Sir Peregrin, Sir Meriadoc and King Éomer, heroes of the War of the Ring, will meet King Elessar tomorrow," Aragorn said, "as well as Prince Legolas and Gimli son of Glóin, envoys of their peoples. It will be their first meeting in several years." He settled down beside them, and pulled a pipe out of his ancient pack. "Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli will meet their friends today."
Gimli glanced pointedly at the empty frying pan. "And once again, we find those friends busy eating and smoking."
Pippin grinned, apparently more flattered than offended by Gimli's words, and offered Gimli his pipe. "We were securing second breakfast," he explained. "Éomer's cooks do a perfectly good first breakfast, but they don't understand about second breakfast. Have you enlightened the good people of Minas Tirith about second breakfast yet, Aragorn?"
Aragorn shook his head ruefully. "I have had somewhat more pressing concerns."
"Ah, well," Pippin said. "There's still time." He gasped, struck by a sudden thought. "Did you sneak out? Does the queen know? I'm married now, remember? My wife doesn't know when I…" He stopped; cleared his throat. "Never mind."
Gimli gave a bark of laughter, slapping his thigh with delight. "She does, Pip," Merry confided. "Wives always do."
Aragorn smiled ruefully. "Arwen knows, as does Faramir, a collection of court officials, the watch captain at the Great Gate, and the captain of the Citadel guard, who very politely and respectfully registered his disapproval of my venturing out without ten of his strongest lads to protect me."
"Ha!" Gimli roared his disapproval of that particular anxiety. "You had us! Worth ten of them, any day. And you're no mean fighter yourself, as well he knows."
"So why did you tell them?" There was a sudden earnestness to Pippin's question. "You're king. Can't you just go wherever you like? That's what I'd…" He stopped, biting his lower lip: a nervous expression Aragorn had not seen on Pippin before. Pippin was wrestling with something, he thought, but there was would be time enough for that in the days to come.
There was so much that he could have said. Yes, he could go wherever he liked, and command them not to stop him, but that did not make it right. He had a responsibility to his people not to risk himself needlessly. Whether he wanted it or not, there were men sworn to die to protect him, and their lives, too, could not be risked without good cause. He could not risk their future on a whim. Not just because a city of stone could grow oppressive to one accustomed to the wilds. Not just because sometimes deference seemed as restrictive as chains. He could not leave the kingdom rudderless and vanish without a word, not even for a simple trip to meet old friends away from prying eyes. Not for something so…
He stopped. Unimportant? he thought. But it was not unimportant; of course it was not. This was not something that could be delegated to some captain or official. It was just…
No, this was not the time. This was not the place. They had a few hours today to travel in each other's company, just friends on the road. This was a time for reminiscence, for renewing old friendships, for laughter away from the confines of the court.
"I have responsibilities that cannot be forgotten," was all he said. "But let us not speak of them," he said with a smile, "out here in the green fields."
Pippin looked as if he was about to ask another question, but Merry pre-empted him. Perhaps he, too, felt that today should be an interlude: a few snatched carefree hours without duties and concerns. "I don't think much of your weather in Gondor," he declared, craning his neck to look ostentatiously up at the grey clouds. "Almost midsummer in the south… I expected better."
"The clouds are clearing from the west," Aragorn said. "Tomorrow it will be…"
Something struck him then: just a shiver at first, then a cold creeping sense of dread. He remembered Gandalf falling in Moria. For days, in dreams, he had reached out a desperate hand to clutch at him, but Gandalf had fallen again and again into the void. He had felt the dread beforehand, just like this. Gandalf had spoken of Moria, and Aragorn had known. If you pass the doors of Moria, beware!
"What?" they were asking him. "What is it?"
He stood up. Legolas was on his feet, too, and Gimli close behind him. Éomer was coming towards them from his tent. This was Éomer's camp, Aragorn thought faintly. Aragorn had to greet him. He had to…
Go, he thought. We must go.
"What is it?" A hand on his arm. Pippin, he saw, his eyes clouded with worry.
Gandalf falling in the dark. A hand. An arrow. Blood on sun-bleached stone.
"A shadow," he said; just that.
Darkness gathered at the end of the final day.
The assassin sat huddled in the shadows below the window, and stared out at the sunlight's last gleaming. He wondered if he would sleep. He doubted it, but he had to.
Tomorrow, one way or another, it would all come to an end.
end of chapter one