Saruman strode purposefully off the train in the gathering gloom, and quickly spotted Raza – still organizing the materiel left from the earlier train now on an adjacent platform.
"Colonel. No rest for the infantry, I'm afraid; or not much, at any rate. You're to head south, setting off…" he frowned. "Let's say eleven this evening. I hope many of your soldiers snatched sleep on the train, because they won't have all that much opportunity for it."
"I certainly did," Raza said, her voice belying slight nervousness. "Not sure about the rest of them…"
"Well, needs must. I can push back to midnight, but not further – scouts are going to make the journey ahead of you, but it's important that we be through the gate by dawn."
Raza understood. "Right. You want to have time to get through the wooded belt?"
"That's it exactly; a besieging army that large will be substantially unwieldy, but nevertheless we need to defeat them in the morning or afternoon, to allow for a full pursuit by the Rohirrim."
The colonel saluted. "Right you are, sir. I'll give the orders. Clear run to the gate?"
"Fairly so, or at least that's the last report from the crows – they didn't see anything but a few refugees on the north side of the wall."
"That's good news, then."
She waited a moment more, then headed to her regiment.
"Here's where we are," Saruman said, pointing at a square marked on one end of a large map. The whole thing was laid out on top of a folding table. "You'll notice that we're about two hours – at cavalry speed – from the gates, though I'd prefer to allow three in order that the artillery not be required to move too fast."
Théoden scanned the map. "This is very useful, I must say. Now, what about the enemy?"
"Straight to the point, I see…" Saruman indicated Osgiliath. "This is their crossing point for the Anduin. They took it around a week ago, and have moved across a very large main body as well as a number of secondary forces."
A crow flapped down to land on his shoulder, and spoke into his ear. Saruman nodded gravely and began marking points with a pencil. "This is the extent of their main body." A crescent with the open side facing the city of Minas Tirith, at a distance of around a third of a mile. "There are siege towers being assembled at narrow spacings, and we can assume that they will launch their assault at daybreak. Bombardment of the city is already taking place, from catapults roughly in this line."
This was close to the frontal edge of the crescent, barely six hundred metres from the city. "They are at long but not extreme range for their own fire, and the trebuchets mounted at various points along the towers of the city are returning fire as possible – though I believe they are reserving fire until daybreak."
Théoden pointed to a break in the catapult line. "What is that?"
"That is where they appear to be moving into position an enormous ram, pulled by Yurgs and pushed by dozens of trolls. It is named Grond for the hammer of Morgoth, and I believe their plan is to breach the gate with it."
The king of Rohan absorbed that information.
Saruman went on. "Their main body numbers approximately one hundred and thirty thousand."
There were a few gasps, but by now the scale of the problem was fairly well known anyway.
"Blocking forces are here, here and here." Three irregular blobs, one near each of the three gates to the Pelennor – north, east and south. "Each of them is approximately ten thousand, though spread out and not precisely their best troops. We hope to punch through the northern blocking force early in the day, and come upon the flank of the main Mordor army."
He paused. "In addition, some orcs are garrisoned in Osgiliath itself, but their numbers are much harder to determine. That is for later."
"What of the rest of their army?" Theodred asked.
"You want more?" Gamling asked, and Theodred punched him companionably on the shoulder.
"An important question, yes." Saruman pointed to the extensive docklands south of Osgiliath. "Large numbers of ships from Umbar are rowing up the river, and will reach these docks within a few hours of dawn. They carry a number of Umbaran militia and irregulars in addition to their regular crews, and I believe they are to be used to aid in the fighting within Minas Tirith."
Hama looked like he wanted to spit. "Corsairs! Worthless rabble. Some of them raided the westernmost marches of Rohan four years back."
Then he looked a bit more cheerful. "They can't hold worth a damn in the face of a charge, though."
"Indeed. We can consider them to be relatively ineffective in open field battle, which is most helpful."
Saruman then indicated the final area of pencil marks. "This is our largest concern. Around four thousand Haradrim raider cavalry – skilled at bow and lance work, though lightly armoured – and twenty-three Mûmakil."
There was a hush.
"We can handle the Oliphaunts," Mauhúr said with a grin. "You Rohirrim should deal with the corsairs and handle pursuit of the orcs – we'll keep those bloody great monsters off your backs!"
"Accurate…" Saruman commented lightly. "Though I think we can certainly help with the initial clash with the orcs as well."
"That's a relief," Théoden admitted. "We were willing to give it a go, but that many soldiers… even if they were a rabble, it would be like trying to swat a swarm of bees. Too many for us to fight. And if they formed a pike wall…"
"We'd break a pike wall!" Theodred said firmly. "We'd shatter it, for Rohan and for our fathers!"
"And all too many of us would die in the doing." Théoden replied, keeping the rebuke gentle. "Now, I assume there is more to this meeting?"
"There is." Saruman gestured Ternak forwards. "We have made preparations for food and spare spears and arrows. Ternak can say more."
"Indeed." Ternak pointed to a point between the fringe of orchards and the flat plains of Pelennor proper. "This area's screened by a low ridge. It seems like the best place to form up properly before advancing, and to make sure everyone's well fed. We…"
The discussion went on for hours. It was still going on when Raza's regiment, the Disaster's Blade, roused from a short sleep and marched south.
"Scouts still report nothing, Colonel."
"Very good, Captain…" Raza replied, somewhat distantly. "Bring up the grapnels, we'll try to do this quietly. Second company to the wall."
The indicated unit moved forward by bounding overwatch, despite the lack of enemy action – as yet. Each platoon had one squad with weapons searching the battlements of Rammas Echor for signs of movement – hostile, most likely.
It took them about five minutes to reach the wall proper, and by that point it was light enough that they could see roughly what they were doing – though it was still an hour short of dawn.
Raza imagined she could hear the clunks of metal on stone as the grapnels reached the peak of the wall, but at a distance of over a quarter of a mile that was unlikely. Probably just nerves…
A lantern flashed from the top of the wall.
One of the lieutenants in the command group began translating. "Tower… empty… winch… operational…"
"No need, I can read it," Raza said absently. "Send open the gate to them, and then have the rest of the regiment move back onto the road and through."
That same lieutenant opened the shutter on a bulls-eye lantern and flashed the message.
As the Disaster's Blade began moving back into formation, their attached company of scouts moved forward in loose order and passed through the opening gate to screen their advance.
"Got them," a crow reported. "The majority of them are in a small town to the south of here – there are a number of burning buildings and many orcs lying around asleep or drunk."
"Must have eaten everything edible, smashed the rest and burned the town…" Raza said, taking out a map and examining it by the gathering light of dawn. "Right, we only really need to give these bastards a bloody nose – if they're formed, they might get ideas about a flank attack on the march column, but if they run for it…"
She paused. "No, never mind. Deploy the first and third battalions in line along the road – loose order. I don't want a continuous line, I want a series of strongpoints close enough to offer mutual support."
"Well, they're in no bloody shape to interdict the road now, are they?" she asked, rhetorically. "If they do get ideas about doing their job, then we'll slap them down hard, but there's always the chance they might get off some runners to the Mordor main force. I'll check in with the Lord Wizard, but I plan on waiting until our army's past and then assaulting the town."
She turned to the crow. "So appraise Saruman, if you would be so kind."
The first thing to come into sight was the outriders, squads of scouts combing the line of march for possible dangers and danger zones. Many of them were working in direct coordination with the air recon, hunting down potential contacts on the ground and either confirming them to be clear or dispatching them.
Often they used bows or cold steel, rather than gunfire. Rifle shots carried.
There was a low rumble as twelve hundred wargs beat the road, their paws in near-perfect unison at a fast trot and moving four abreast along the road. Following them was their regimental artillery and rapidguns, moving at the same speed – not precisely safe, but entirely doable over short or medium distances and on a good road.
Behind them came a brigade of Rohirrim, numbering a little over three thousand. Some of the horses were a bit nervous in the presence of so many predators, but the previous evening had started the acclimatization process and they weren't too concerned.
For their part, the Men of Rohan were keeping reasonably good order. Some of them hadn't been on a march in years before the long run down from Edoras, but that in itself had provided a valuable refresher course. They were mostly keeping to the road – a thin layer of packed earth on top of an old stone course, this close to Minas Tirith – and stretched for most of a mile in spite of being six abreast.
The same pattern repeated itself two more times, and took almost half an hour to go by. At the back of the line was a slightly more chaotic group of wagons and pannier-wargs with the additional supplies that might be needed, and the medical corps.
A few particularly hardy camp followers from the Rohan muster were still keeping with the column, often on palfreys or riding in carts, but at the gentle insistence of Skara's medics had made themselves useful somehow.
Raza's personal targets hadn't noticed the column – which made them piss-poor flank guards, in her mind – but she held her fire until a crow arrived with a message from the south.
"The assault on the city has begun," he said simply.
"Good." She exhaled, looking over the Disaster's Blade in their start lines.
They'd crept closer as the column passed, and meticulously ranged their artillery to the extent that was possible without ranging shots. By now, her gunline was about two thousand metres from the town centre and her artillery was about five hundred metres further back than that.
"On the word of command, begin shelling the town. Mix of shrapnel and contact."
The battery commander nodded and relayed the order. "Three round stonk, shrapnel, standard rate, then switch to impact!"
She frowned, then understood. He was interpreting her orders into something that could be more easily carried out, and which would fulfil the same tasks.
Though it might be best to have a word with him about that later. When she gave an order, there might be reasons behind it that weren't immediately obvious.
There was a succession of poumfs from the field guns, firing in a staggered salvo to make the fall of shot more clear. The sound of them would carry, but by delaying the attack until an hour after sunrise the sheer din of the assault on Minas Tirith would mask the distant sounds of gunfire.
The shrapnel burst over a town mostly full of orcs, either sleeping off the night's looting and burning or awake and getting ready to return to duty. With so many rounds slashing into the main open spaces, hundreds of orcs went down and the rest scattered, running for cover or for the open.
Cover was no shield, either. Though a prosperous town, the vast majority of the place was built half-timbered or brick – and, within two minutes as the contact rounds went in, the buildings started to slump or burn.
"Aule, but that's good shooting…" Raza muttered, gazing through her telescope. "Wait-"
She snapped her fingers as an alert signal. "Air recon, check this – it looks like most of them are already fleeing!"
That was an exaggeration, she knew even as she said it – with the gathering smoke, both from the gunline behind her and on the other end of the barrage where shells detonated, she couldn't see nearly enough to call it most of the orc division. But there were certainly orcs running for it everywhere she could see.
Thinking about it, it wasn't surprising. Assaults on well defended cities were a complete bear at the best of times, so the Mordor commander would want all his best troops there – and it was early for even cavalry to be attacking the vulnerable northern flank, so the troops wouldn't be really expecting a relief column.
Let alone Isengard artillery as they awoke.
"We've got a chance to push them out of the town…" the Major commanding 1 Battalion said aloud.
"No, I won't waste good soldiers on this rabble," Raza replied. "2 Battalion to act as rearguard – keep the rapidguns handy, but rely mostly on marksman work unless there's a concerted rush. The remainder of the regiment is to return to column."
As her subordinates moved into action, Raza took a second look over everything. "Good. Now, battery commander? A minor matter…"
Hundreds of arrows sleeted down from the top of Minas Tirith's first wall. For the most part, they were aimed at the trolls or orcs pushing siege towers. Minas Tirith's wall was so high as to make ladder escalade extremely difficult – though not impossible – and Faramir knew that their arrow supply was limited.
More limited than the number of orcs, at any rate. It would be sufficient to stop them reaching the walls.
Another siege tower ground to a halt as the troll pushing it stumbled and collapsed. The cry went up, and two of the nearer trebuchet diverted their effort to the stationary – hence, vulnerable – target.
There was a ragged cheer as one of the large rocks hit home, sending splinters the size of an arm flying in all directions. A second rock finished it off.
"Faramir!" came a shout. The Captain turned to see his brother pointing south. "The gate! There's the biggest bloody ram I've ever seen!"
Faramir took a moment to assess the situation. "Beregond, take over here! I'm taking the Blackroot archers and the fourth district lot!"
The indicated companies of archers followed him at a jog as he hurried south. Boromir turned and began to run himself as the party approached, then slowed to match speed with Faramir. "Only archers?"
"Well, if that ram makes it through the gate then we're all fucked no matter what," Faramir replied through his teeth, "and that means killing whatever's pushing it. I'd guess-"
By the time the brothers got there, Gondorian archers firing their powerful bows had swept the ram's upper works and cleared out some orcish defensive archers, and were aiming at the trolls pushing the ram.
A steady chant could be heard. Grond. Grond. Grond.
"Isn't that a hammer?" Faramir asked with a grunt, drawing his bow to full extension as his reinforcements began to fire.
Boromir copied him and loosed his own arrow. "What do you expect from orcs, eh?"
There was a clatter of feet, and then a Crack that was loud even over the din of battle.
Both brothers looked to their right. "Graz?"
With a fixed expression on his face, the lieutenant extracted a casing from his Isen and fed in the next – a brass-tipped round. "Couldn't let you have-" Crack "-all the fun, could I?"
He pulled out three rounds this time, putting them in his mouth with bullets innermost so as to be ready to hand. With the next crack, a troll fell with a gaping wound in its eye.
Thinking about it, Faramir understood – most of it, he thought.
Graz wanted to do something, because not doing anything was intolerable. And this was where he could do the most good.
Another troll went down. Graz worked the bolt mechanically, slotted in the next, fired – then cursed, coughing as he inhaled more gunsmoke than he had been, and reached for a knife to dig at the extraction jam.
"Nazgúl!" someone shouted, by the accent a Blackroot Vale lad, then screamed as he was bowled over the wall by a slamming impact.
Graz dove for the floor, nearly getting tangled in his rifle sling, and the shard-knife he was holding dug into his thigh. He saw stars as the back of his head struck a raised flagstone.
There were screams, and a crunch as a trebuchet was torn to bits at the other end of the wall. Through the shock, Graz could see the big wings of the fell-beast as it executed a low wingover and turned for another run.
Rolling, he shook his head to try and clear the fog, and considered pulling the knife out.
Best to leave it in, he decided after a moment. Without a medic or at least someone to put on a pressure dressing, he didn't want to risk losing too much blood – and if he yanked it out now, he might well bite his own tongue off.
The revolver was in a holster on his left thigh – the rifle went at his right. Kicking the rifle away and disentangling his feet, the lieutenant knelt and lifted the revolver. He might get a good shot or two.
Three would be much less likely.
The sight picture wavered, and he became aware of panting. It took a moment for the realization to penetrate the shock – that was his own racing breath.
Time slowed, and everything looked like it was under water. The gun kicked-
And something snatched it out of his hands, nearly spinning him around to fall over. A hideous screech blasted from behind him, coming close to putting him out cold where the blow to the head had failed.
Then the thunder of two more revolvers, emptying their cylinders in seconds.
Faramir knelt next to the Isengard soldier. "Are you alright?"
Graz didn't reply. His eyes were dilated unnaturally, but they seemed to be returning to normal… so there was a chance it wasn't a major concussion.
The Ranger moved quickly. Picking up a sword belt from a dead Gondorian swordsman – killed by one of the first volleys – he slipped the leather of the belt between Graz's teeth, and then pulled the knife out of his leg. Another man, an archer, put a bandage over the gash and pressed hard.
There was no great rush of blood, so it looked like it had missed the femoral artery.
That taken care of, Faramir looked up and his eyes widened.
Somehow, he'd missed a fight taking place not thirty yards away. The form of the fell-beast lay thrashing half on the wall and half in the cleared space behind it, and thick dark blood oozed from terrible wounds all over its head.
Above it, Boromir stood panting with his sword drawn and an empty revolver by his feet.
And Gandalf the Grey had a shining sword in one hand, a staff in the other, and likewise a revolver by his boots. Between them, a sizzling remnant of a black cloak boiled into nothingness.
"…by Elendil's throne…" Faramir whispered, working out what must have happened. One or another of the revolver bullets brainshot the fell beast, which crashed, and then between them his brother and Gandalf killed the ancient monster that rode it.
The gate! With a start, he took two quick steps to the wall and looked out. The great ram, Grond, was about a hundred feet back from the gates themselves, and all the trolls around it were dead or dying.
"We hold the gate, for now," Gandalf said, walking up to the wall himself. "It will take them time to organize a rush to force the ram closer."
He looked between the brothers. "I suggest you see to the walls, those siege towers are still approaching and we have fewer trebuchet now. I will take Graz to the houses of healing, to receive what care he can."
The Flameseekers (1st Dragoons) reached the edge of the wooded perimeter to Pelennor and turned to the left, staying in column of fours for now as they headed out to form the eastern flank of the combined army.
This tactical evolution was relatively simple in concept, but as always it was the drill that made it possible to execute as a fluid group – of twelve hundred mounted troopers and a large attached artillery battery.
Behind them, better than three thousand Rohirrim debouched onto the plain. With less formal training in drill, they were less neat, but Rohan cavalry tactics were sufficiently standardized that they all knew more or less what to do anyway.
According to the plan, the Men of Rohan drifted west as they rode and began to deploy from column into their line of battle – one Éored as the front rank, and the same width maintained all the way back.
Gamling looked back at the growing cloud of dust. Sooner or later, the orcs had to notice something was up… but they had their own force out this way, after all.
"Just give us another half an hour…" he muttered. Well, the sounds of the assault were faintly audible even here – perhaps they'd stay fixated on it for long enough.
The final éored of his brigade cantered into formation, and the Isengard Stormwind regiment (2nd cavalry) followed. To make sure the whole force would be ready as soon as possible, the extreme flank elements were first.
This would be tricky. They were alternating Isengard-Rohan-Isengard-Rohan along the front, with three Isengard regiments and three Rohirrim brigades, but since the Isengard regiments had to deploy in line for maximum effectiveness the less numerous troopers took up a huge chunk of the total frontage.
Well, Gamling had his orders, and he would do his level best to execute them.
How are we doing? Saruman thought, as a tremble ran through the ranks of Grimbold's brigade and they began entering the plain.
Central didn't reply verbally at first, instead painting holographic images in front of Saruman's eyes.
As far as the wizard understood it, Central was taking all the information that was potentially available to Saruman – whether it was a wealth of detail from a brief glance, or an understanding of the reactions of a man from five seconds of study, or sounds that he could not consciously hear – combining that with what he knew, and synthesizing it into a single picture.
The Flameseekers were already near their start lines, and splitting from column of fours into ten company columns as a prelude to deploying into line. Stormwind was less far along, but still well within schedule. And the Rohirrim…
Well, they knew their business, and it seemed as though they would do fine.
Grimbold's brigade on the move, or more specifically his front éored. One of the Riders seemed slightly out of place compared to the rest of them – not incompetent, just less used to the otherwise fluid coordination of warriors experienced with working together.
The Rider froze along with the rest of the image, and a grid appeared on his face. Next to it Central placed a similar grid on the face of…
Really? Saruman asked, surprised.
97% +/- 1% correlation.
Saruman recognized the location quickly – it was late evening in the rail head camp. The wargs were barking as their mash was served, and stevedores were swarming around the platform under bright light, but most of the camp was settling in for the night.
Grimbold of Grimslade took Éowyn aside. "Look here, miss. Your uncle won't let you ride with the host – if you push it, he'll ban you from going."
Éowyn looked rebellious, and he shook his head. "It's because he loves you, you know. He's already come too close to losing his nephew – he won't risk you as well."
Grimbold winked at her. "But, well, I always had a weakness for sprightly lasses. Come on, what he doesn't know won't hurt him… ride with my éored, we're one short."
"Thank you!" she said, only just remembering to pitch her voice low and prevent it carrying.
The Third Marshal offered his hand in a warrior's clasp, and she matched it.
"I won't let you down."
Éowyn is more capable than most men. On the flank she will likely not be recognized.
Saruman sighed. Well, it can't be helped. And with my own army…
Raza was the prime example, of course, but there were several female officers and line troopers amongst the Army of the Hand. A small fraction, but there nevertheless.
Huan stumbled on a loose stone, jerking Saruman out of his reverie, but recovered quickly and whined an apology.
Gothmog scowled. "What happened? Grond was nearly to the walls-"
With a slam of foul air, a fell beast dropped from the sky to land next to his warg. There was a panicked scurry to get out of the way, disordering the neat ranks of that regiment, and the monster bent its flexible neck to worry at the carcass of one of those who had not escaped being crushed.
The general bowed, seeing his superior and avatar of Sauron's will. "Witch-King of Angmar."
The empty crown turned slowly to look at him, and despite himself the tough commander stepped back.
"One of our number is destroyed," came the hissing voice of a man many centuries dead.
"How?" For Gothmog, surprise overcame fear. "Are not the Nine immortal?"
"So it was thought. But the Grey is here."
The grey. Gandalf. Mithrandir.
That name held more than a touch of dread for any orc, especially since he had destroyed the Great Goblin with the legendary blade Glamdring.
Swallowing, Gothmog nodded. "I understand."
"See that you do." The Witch-King did not speak for a moment. "Take the city at all costs. If you have not taken the gates when Suladân arrives, I will kill you and he will succeed where you have failed."
"Right. Right." Nearly forgetting himself, the orcish commander made to turn away – then froze, fear of the disrespect he had nearly shown turning his blood to ice.
The greatest of the Nine faced him for another moment, then turned to look towards Minas Tirith. "Go."
He couldn't get out of there fast enough.
"Send in the next wave," Gothmog ordered, scowling. "Take half the trolls manning the catapults and attach them to the troll strike force; send them in to retake Grond after the second wave has swept the wall. Switch the remaining catapults – all that will bear – to bombard the area of the gate. And any siege engineers who strike Grond will be impaled!"
He forcefully clamped down on his racing heart. "Move forward all the siege ladders, as well. We must get a lodgement over the wall – by Grond or by ladder."
Another siege tower collapsed as a huge rock smashed into it, and he snarled with futile rage.
The combined army by now had a formation that was a little like a series of crenelations on a battlement. The three Isengard regiments, though only a quarter of the total manpower of the force, occupied the lion's share of the frontage simply because they had to be deployed in a line of battle.
The Rohirrim in each brigade were in their usual strike formation – one Éored wide, a frontage of one hundred and twenty men with only about a foot between the boots of one soldier and those on either side. The plan was for them to expand outwards after they passed the gunline when charging, though nobody expected it to work perfectly.
Saruman looked back and forth along the line. Central projected a holographic map of the dispositions as seen from the air, and he studied it for a moment.
"King Théoden?" he murmured, "it might be best to give your speech now."
Théoden nodded, then frowned. "Will they all hear me?"
"Yes." Saruman raised his staff, and Théoden grimaced.
"Magic… still unnerves me when I see it." He shrugged it off, and flourished his sword. "Men of the Riddermark!"
Kerku didn't pay much attention to Théoden's speech, being too busy organizing his regiment.
"No, no, the rapidguns go to the front! You can push them at a trot, I'm sure, they're not exactly heavy and you've got spare crew – use them! Guns stay limbered up for now – you're going to deploy at the hillcrest. Shrapnel fire only, as well – work out the fuzes yourself, but we certainly don't want craters…"
"Single mounted," Kerku replied. "And no reserve." Trumpet calls relayed it down the line.
That was a risk, but this whole battle plan was a calculated risk. They had to smash the main siege force before it was reinforced, and that meant as much firepower as possible.
Théoden's speech concluded, drawing roars of approval from his assembled vassals and warriors, and Kerku toed his mount to his place at the centre of the line.
Saruman's voice sounded out next. As opposed to the firey tone Théoden had used, Saruman's speech had a certain elemental simplicity.
"Before you is an army that thinks itself ready for anything," he said, quietly despite the magic enhancing his voice. "Let us show them how wrong they are. For the white hand!"
Trumpets sounded. Forward march and at the walk.
Thirty-six hundred wargs moved forward, one measured pace at a time. The three regimental lines were as steady as if drawn with a ruler, as they advanced up the last of the reverse slope and onto the crest at last.
Gothmog looked north as the sound of trumpets reached his ears. How-
It didn't seem possible. Rohan's capital was over five hundred miles away. And he had a blocking force in place, as well! How they could still be in fit shape to fight-
That didn't matter. Clearly they were, or they wouldn't be coming on at all – let alone like this, in brazen open order.
Though there was something off about that formation, as it cleared the hill-crests…
No, worry about that later.
"Form ranks!" he shouted, spurring over to the right flank. "Right third reform facing north! Form ranks, pike hedge and archers! Central third to act as reserve to the right, left flank move up to press the assault on the city!"
Already, thirty thousand or more of his force were engaged with Minas Tirith – dead, dying, trying to force the walls, or just in units shattered by the press of combat and recuperating. He couldn't use them.
But even with a third in reserve and another third elsewhere, that still gave him a right flank alone with more than three times the total possible muster of the Rohirrim.
The horse-lords were showing their inexperience, too. By coming on slowly, they were giving him a chance to restructure his formation into one designed specifically to defend against cavalry.
A dense line, six deep and four thousand wide, formed of armoured pikemen with their weapons braced in the ground. Such a line would mean any cavalry would simply drive their horses onto the blades of the pikes – and many of the pikes had boar-spear style crossbars, intended to stop a charging animal from running right up the length of the pike to kill the user.
Couple that with the simple psychological impact of the brandished spears, and the horses themselves would not want to charge. And, so frightened, they would melt away under the fire of his twelve thousand archers firing volleys to create a beaten ground.
So, at least, went the theory. But just in case his line was less than impervious, the central block was already forming as well. This one stayed split into regiments, which would give fugitives from the first line a place to fall back through and rally.
Gothmog kicked, beat, shouted, cuffed and cursed his orc infantry into a close pike hedge, trying to instill into them the courage and fear – fear of him, not the enemy – that would make them hold their position.
Then he looked back at the hill.
More trumpets blew. The ten field guns following behind each regiment swung smoothly to the left, unhitching from the caisson and turning to face the enemy from their ridgeline position.
Gunners clanged open breechblocks, slotted in their first rounds and made the field pieces ready to fire, meticulously adjusting their elevation.
Another order. The wargs knelt – not in unison, but close – and their riders stepped off, rifles coming out of their sheaths and to the port. They continued the advance at the same walking pace, dressing their lines as they did, and the wargs picked up their reins in their mouths before following on behind.
The rapidgun crews had a little more trouble braking their weapons as they moved down the slick grass of the shallow hillside, but the relatively low weights involved lent themselves to control.
At nine hundred metres, more trumpet calls went up. The troopers stayed at their measured walk, but brought their weapons up. There was a great clacking sound as they loaded.
Eight hundred metres.
The rifles came up like the teeth of a giant comb, pointing upwards at a surprisingly steep angle at such a long range.
A minute individual quiver went down the line, as everyone picked their target as best they could.
Saruman nodded to an aide, who snapped a striker by the touch paper of a rocket.
With a sputtering hiss, the rocket went soaring skywards, and burst in a little puffball of white stars.
Three thousand, six hundred 11mm rifles fired in what was as close to unison as reasonably possible, sending jets of flame-cored smoke stabbing out to the south.
800m was long range, against anything but a stationary target… if it were man sized. But the downside of a pike hedge such as the one Gothmog had quite correctly adopted was that it was a large, dense block of close ordered soldiers.
That meant that a bullet which missed by two feet would hit the orc standing next to the one who had been aimed at. And that made the pike hedge a perfect target. Perhaps as many as a thousand orcs died in that frozen instant, dead from bullets to the head or to the chest, or sent into fatal shock by bullets to the shoulder or the belly or the arm.
On the heels of that first volley came the massed fire of thirty Anduin field guns, louder and deeper sounds that the ear could distinguish individually.
Seven of the shells undershot, sending their deadly cargo across empty grass and mud. Five more overshot, flaying the archers in their more widely spaced ranks behind the pike hedge. Another two burst too soon, the canister balls losing much of their velocity with the resistance of the air, and one simply failed to burst at all.
But half of them, fifteen 75mm shrapnel shells, were targeted and fuzed perfectly.
Where the rifles had punched down a tithe of the front rank, the shrapnel cut holes through the entire dense formation – front to back. Orcs lay bleeding and dying, or slumped against still-living friends and comrades.
For a moment, that was it. And then, having taken five paces forwards and left their own powder-smoke, the rifles fired again.
In the moment that the second rifle volley crashed out, Gothmog knew his army was doomed.
He'd known that the hope of carrying the city on the first day was lost as soon as the Rohirrim arrived, but these other warriors – mounted infantry of some kind – with their terrible, sorcerous weapons… they had the range, the power and the rate of fire to pick him to shreds from out of any range he could reply.
But doomed or not, he could still salvage something from the ruins.
"Right flank – hold your position! All hail Sauron, Lord of the Rings, Lord of the World!"
Those around him took up the chant, and it spread quickly. Even with the strange weapons flaying his front line, thought of their great master Sauron kept them firmly in line.
Awe and fear, in equal measure.
"Central force," he said, moving south away from the hell of the right flank, "loose order – spread out! Don't make such a good target! Courier to the left flank – withdraw to the southern gate of the wall! Leave the artillery and siege gear, it'll only slow us down! Trolls – muster the remaining trolls, call back any you can from the assault, we'll need them forming a reserve against cavalry attack!"
Orders rolled out of his mouth, reordering his army for retreat, and behind him the right flank died in place to buy him time.
Something was moving to the east, something high up with a swaying motion. Fucking Haradrim! Too bloody late to do him any good, except as a spoiling attack.
They'd probably attack anyway, but he pointed to another courier. "Order to the Serpent Lord – attack the Rohirrim! Destroy them utterly!"
The sleek black warg dashed off at a dead gallop.
Then came a heartening screech, the hunting call of a Nazgúl. Two of them on their great fell beasts swept overhead, spreading to break the line of the newcomers and attack their artillery.
Kerku raised his voice. "Lunes, now!"
The ten rapidguns attached to his regiment had not fired yet in the engagement. They moved, spinning up to maximum elevation and slewing, and the operators turned their cranks.
A spiteful brrrt underlay the rapid-fire thunder of 35 rounds of 11mm being fired downrange through double-length barrels, and then one of the fell-beasts staggered sideways with both wings torn to ruin. The other gained height, aborting this attack run to get out of the danger zone, and then a shell fired with more luck than skill struck it directly on the chest.
The contact backup fuse detonated, but that only finished the job – a canister shell consisted mostly of lead payload, and it had crippled the monster instantly.
Cheers went up from all along the line as the first fell-beast went down, which turned to screams as the second one crashed – by ill luck as strong as the good in downing it, it landed on 4 company and killed over a dozen of them, and more died to the rider before a wary perimeter was opened around it.
As Kerku tried to work out what to do, one enterprising gunner solved it for him. Running the Anduin down the hill and depressing it so it was aimed straight at the Wraith, he pulled the lanyard on a full load of canister and tore the black robe to tatters.
"Well," Kerku said loudly, mindful of the shocked air of his men, "I don't know if that's killed it, but it'll certainly hurt in the morning!"
He abruptly noticed that over two thirds of his regiment was still firing in volley. Somehow the immediate crisis had taken all his attention.
"Come on, come on, dress the line!" he shouted – then noticed a figure coming over at a fast canter from the centre of the combined army. "Lord wizard!"
Saruman slowed Huan to a walk by the dead fell beast. "A good piece of work by your gunner, Colonel. Do commend him for me."
"Yes sir!" Kerku said fervently. He had to agree – wholeheartedly. "And I don't know if it was luck or judgement that brought this one's beast down, but the other one was sterling work by my Lune gunners."
"Indeed." Saruman looked to the other dying fell beast, now only a hundred metres or so from the front line. "I think I'll join your regiment for a little, Colonel."
The old wizard unlimbered his black staff, and touched his revolver where it sat holstered. "I may have a ring-wraith to kill."
A great moan went up from the orcish lines as the Fell Beasts went down, and the horribly battered northern flank finally broke.
Gothmog cursed inventively. The northern flank had taken more casualties than could reasonably be expected before losing their nerve, but with them went his hope of salvaging the majority of his army.
"Hold your position!" he shouted, riding down the line of what had just become his front rank. "Hold position, in Sauron's name! Close up those gaps!"
A line of pikes six deep and two thousand long, and six thousand archers. That was what he had left to hold the oncoming enemy and let the rest of his force break contact, since the rest of his formed units were already on the move and headed south.
It occurred to Gothmog that, one way or another, he wasn't going to survive the day.
The thought somehow brought a strange kind of relief.
Carefully, he rode to the middle of the lines. The fantastical army that had torn his flank to ribbons had stalled, or was possibly just consolidating, but in either case he had at least a few more moments.
Still acting with great care, he dismounted from his warg and kicked her in the ribs. "Off with you."
She snarled, and loped off east.
Distantly, he hoped she would survive.
His hand went to his waist, and he drew the short, curved blade that was his sidearm.
"All right, you pussies!" he shouted at the force half-hidden by smoke. "You want me? Come and get me!"
A great roar went up from the orcs, even as three or four of the terrible artillery weapons started to fire once more.
Saruman advanced at a brisk walk, out ahead of the main body of Kerku's cavalry regiment, with a dozen uruks trotting at his heels.
They were acting without orders, but it didn't take one of Central's simulations to tell that they wouldn't listen if he did tell them to return to their unit.
Which of the Nine is this, he wondered. Over thousands of years, the Wise had catalogued nine distinct identities to these black monsters, which had been tentatively matched to the original nine human ringbearers.
For example, the sky had become substantially lighter in the last twenty minutes. Saruman guessed that that meant the Shadow Lord had been destroyed or driven from the field.
The one killed in the last minute or two was much harder to say.
Then, a blast of cold flame spat from behind the fallen Fell Beast, devouring one of the uruk-hai riflemen in an instant and causing his rifle to shatter.
Saruman blocked the second spell, a great gout of lightning, with his metal staff. The revolver came smoothly up, and Central's aiming grid dropped over his sight.
A small wisp of black cloth fluttered behind the body of the Beast. Saruman moved his arm so that the green dot rested on it.
Crack-Crack-Crack, and something screeched. Saruman felt a savage satisfaction – he'd hurt it, all right.
Then the black shape erupted over its dead mount, flame and wind slashing out, and he made the connection. Several of the Nine had some form of magic, but this had to be the most accomplished sorcerer amongst them by far. The Undying.
"Saruman," it hissed, almost negligently waving an arm and causing rifle bullets to bounce from some kind of shield.
With a chill, Saruman realized that it was ready for gunfire, now. Then, as the chill kept stealing over him, he remembered what Gandalf had once said of this particular Nazgúl.
In the long and ultimately futile struggle with his Ring, the dark creature known as the Undying had developed a way of leaching magic from other adepts – willing or unwilling.
He was serving as the latest donor, and despite an effort of will he could not stop the steady drain. He had to end this fast.
Saruman the White gave a shout and ran forward, accompanied by those riflemen who survived of his impromptu detail. Another flash of magic, this far more foul than the elemental spells of a moment before, sent three of the uruks crashing to the floor and clawing at their skulls. Then they were at hand-strokes.
A Morgul blade flashed in the Ring-wraith's hands, slicing through the unprotected neck of another rifleman and then flicking towards Saruman himself. The old wizard raised his staff, which caught the blow with a flash, and the pitted metal of the blade skirled down the staff to the crown where it was caught.
Saruman wrenched, using his other hand as a lever point, and the knife went flying – but so did Saruman, tumbling over with the force of the pull.
A ragged volley passed just overhead, again stopped by the magical shield.
"You will serve Sauron…" came the hiss, as long fingers reached out towards his throat.
Then there was a roar, and Huan leapt over his master's prone form and cannoned into the Wraith. Magical shield or no, half a ton of angry predator moving at forty miles an hour would not be stopped so easily.
Saruman gasped as the connection was broken, then fumbled for his dropped revolver and shook out the three spent rounds.
Since normal lead bullets hadn't worked, he'd have to try something rather more expensive.
Lightning flashed, and Huan yelped in pain as the electricity scorched him through the thick fur.
Analysis indicates electrical current in excess of one thousand watts-
Will you shut up for once? Saruman thought, snapping the revolver closed and bringing it up to bear as he ran.
Central didn't respond, but somehow Saruman got the sense of irritation.
The green dot of the aiming point drifted over the swirling melee as Huan tried gamely to find something to bite, but Saruman couldn't be sure of his target.
"Huan, here!" he shouted, dropping his staff and steadying the hilt of the revolver with his free hand.
Whimpering, Huan rolled frantically and dug in his paws to get away. One of his legs wasn't working right, but-
And Saruman had a clear shot.
The revolver's discharge was more-or-less the same as usual, but this time the effect was markedly different. The Undying immediately began to sizzle, screaming like nothing remotely human, and burned away to a crisp in seconds.
Saruman suddenly felt very tired. His hand dropped to his side, the revolver nearly falling from loose fingers, and he fell to his knees as Huan approached.
"Sir?" Kerku asked, his own warg skidding to a halt. "Are you alright?"
"I will be, I think," Saruman replied. "I believe Huan needs the attention of the medics, though."
"Right you are, sir." Kerku paused. "Sir? What did you do?"
Saruman chuckled. "Ironic, I suppose. That particular bullet was tipped with Mithril – some of that same Mithril which once formed one of the Dwarven Rings. I enchanted it in much the same way as the Kingdom of Arnor forged blades for the smiting of Sauron's works."
Kerku turned to get back to his unit, but Saruman's voice stopped him. "And Colonel? Tell the signallers to sound resume fire, concentrated fire."
"Yes, sir." He nodded to a runner in his own command group, who loped off.
"I expect to be back with my command in a short time, but… this may be time critical."
Boromir and Faramir stood on the walls of Minas Tirith, staring out north-east at the battle taking place only a few miles away. By now, the location was marked by a plume of white smoke, rising and bending with the light wind.
"Sons of our fathers," Faramir muttered. "That's terrifying."
Boromir clapped him on the shoulder without looking. "I'd much rather have them on our side, brother. Stop complaining about the people who are breaking that siege."
"Yes, but…" Boromir turned at the note in his brother's voice.
Faramir was struggling with something. "Boromir… we've spent years, decades, learning our trade. And how long is it before those new rifles make it all for nothing?"
"Not for nothing." The elder shrugged. "There'll still be a place for generals, even if bows and swords are no use. And I still think swords will be useful, actually – especially at close quarters."
Then Boromir pointed out at the resuming thunder of gunfire. "I know I want to get my hands on as many of these rifles as possible. If there's one thing that seems utterly clear, it's that sheer mass of numbers means much less now than it used to – which will make it harder for Orcish armies to swarm us under…"
Strangely, the big… field guns, as Gamling remembered they were called, only fired a few times each before they stopped again. The volleying rifles continued their work, no longer indiscriminately hitting all along the orc lines but punishing three specific areas little more than two hundred metres wide.
One of those areas was right in front of his own Éored, and he knew the reason for this part at least. They were cutting him a path.
Then the rifles stopped as well.
In the singing silence, a smoke-trail fizzed up from the ground and burst in a shower of green sparks.
"Forward, men of Rohan!" he called, and horns sounded the advance. "At a walk!"
The Rohirrim had kept pace with the advancing gun line. Now, they moved forward in a jerking ripple, spreading out into the former line of fire and dressing their lines with casual ease.
It was enough to make the heart of a warrior of the Mark sing.
The horses had been made a little skittish by the noise, but the familiarity of their task quieted them down – then began to work them up again, as the trained animals began to realize that they were about to go into battle.
Hooves thundered as the formation linked up, becoming a solid block of cavalry seven hundred and twenty men wide, with three éoreds of one hundred and twenty each out ahead of the main line. Aiming directly for those three areas the rifles had punished.
"At a trot!" Gamling said, and the order passed down the line. They were now impinging on the area of the routed enemy flank, so any faster would be too risky – too much debris. As it was, the lines grew ragged as the cavalry had to let their horses pick their way through.
From the other side of the drifts of bodies to the enemy rearguard was about six hundred yards – far enough to reach charge speed, but the hiatus was letting the orcs reform their lines. Gamling didn't think they'd be finished when his men struck home, but it would be close.
Light glinted off the points of spears as they were brought down from carry position for the charge.
"Ready, lads?" Gamling asked, and a wordless growl answered him.
Another rocket hissed skywards, and burst in a red puff of sparks.
And thirty field guns all fired within two seconds of one another.
"What the-" Gamling said, turning to watch the shells approach – then go over with a ripping wail, and burst.
All the guns had been carefully registered on their target, and the fuzes set with that in mind. Twenty-nine shells airburst right over the orcish line, slicing great semicircles of wounded and dead out of it. The lone stand-out crashed into the ground amongst the archers, and its back-up fuze killed a bare handful.
"Well, our way's clear!" Gamling shouted, putting as much confidence into his voice as possible to reassure his men. "Charge!"
Horns sounded, and ten thousand of the best shock cavalry in the world thundered across the last two furlongs into a stunned, hesitant enemy.
"Right!" Saruman said, pitching his voice to carry over the cheers. "That's handled them! Now, all cavalry and guns are to mount up or limber up as appropriate, and head east to engage the Haradrim and Mûmakil approaching. Company commanders are to exercise as much initiative as possible. Contact fuzed HE on the Mûmakil, please, and use your range to best advantage."
Suladân, Serpent Lord of Harad, looked down with disdain at the field of battle.
He had been prepared for his allies and co-believers in Sauron's might to have broken into the city, or for them to still be stalled at the walls and battering a way through. And the thought of having his Mûmakil sweep the walls with their archers, getting into the city by the might of the Serpent what all the ragged orcs of Mordor could not do, had pleased him.
The orcs were being torn to shreds by cavalry. With a skill born of many raids and more than one minor civil war, Suladân judged quickly that the orcish force was gone. Impossible to rally. They still outnumbered the North-Men horse more than four to one, but fleeing infantry was the cavalryman's legitimate prey.
Just, Suladân thought with pleasure, as cavalry to my mûmakil.
"Sound the horns and drums," he said calmly. "Form line and advance. Crush the north-men!"
His own mount slowed, allowing the others advancing en echelon to catch up and form their line of battle. The process took five or six minutes, during which thousands more orcs died.
No matter. He had more than enough Corsairs to take the city, once they were in with the aid of his archers. The sheer savagery of boarding actions or longshore raids made them superb close quarters warriors, though irregular enough to be much less help on the open field.
"Cavalry to the flanks," he added, and raiders – light cavalry, with bow and lance and sabre, masters of the slashing raid and hit-and-run tactics – shook out into distinct troops and headed north and south for a scorpion's pincer.
The only thing worrying him was that fog bank…
As he thought, the fog rippled. Flashes of silver came out of it, and a great tearing as of canvas reached his ears. Slams and crashes came from around his right flank mûmakil, and the raiders began to drop.
The shells being fired by the Isengard field guns were quite different to the shrapnel they had used in the earlier phase of the battle. These rounds had no timed fuze, just a contact detonator which set them off after a fraction of a seconds' delay.
They had no separate payload like shrapnel shells, either, though the thicker body of the round meant not all the additional weight went into the explosive. Just most of it.
Designed for a 75mm rifled field piece, they weighed around five kilograms, and were intended to be capable of penetrating a useful distance into a wooden or stone target before detonating; to this end, they had a tip designed for penetration without splitting, so as to retain the magnifying effect of the shell walls on the blast and force a higher pressure.
Mûmak hide was tough, being several inches thick in places, but it was not as strong as hard wood – let alone stone. A high explosive shell blew a huge, bloody crater in the side of such an animal, and it did not take more than four or five such hits to send it into shock.
Suladân gaped as his two rightmost Mûmakil collapsed, spilling the contents of their howdahs collapsing onto the ground – often from such a height as to break bones, assuming they survived at all.
"Drummer!" he snapped, still looking. "Everyone, turn right! I want the heads of whoever has attacked like that!"
More silvery shapes shot out of the clouds of fog – or was it smoke? – and began to thunder around the feet of the third mûmak from the right of his line. It staggered, then kept moving at the urges of the mahout.
The raiders charged towards whatever was reaching out and slaying his mûmakil, but they seemed to be having trouble keeping their own mounts from tripping or falling. Caltraps, perhaps? In any case, it was no longer possible to call them back, and so he just watched.
Analysis indicates the eighth or ninth mûmak in line will come into bow range before being killed by artillery. Observe.
-and a shower of barbed arrows came down from the howdah as it swept closer, killing the operators of some of the Anduin guns and unsettling others. More shots went wide, and the oncoming mûmak was hit only twice – not enough to disable it instantly. Trumpeting in rage, it charged forward, and the cavalry scattered as their guns were torn apart behind them…
Saruman blinked away the holographic vision. "All battery officers, limber your guns after the next volley and withdraw two thousand metres at the canter. Cavalry to fire up at the howdahs where possible. Colonel Mauhur, your Flameseekers is to focus on moving north and east, with an eye towards flanking and encirclement."
Trumpets relayed orders to the field guns, and Mauhur's command group rode off to take charge of his regiment.
The closest gun fired with a Poumf, air slapping at the muddy grass in front of it, and the round smashed half of a howdah to kindling. The gunners caught it before it finished recoiling, dipped the nose and ran the trails right up onto the caisson. One man locked the trail to the caisson, then he and the rest either sat on it or on the hitch-wargs, who pulled at the traces and got the mass of metal moving. Once it had momentum, the task was much easier, and within thirty seconds of the last round it was moving at nearly full speed out of the danger zone.
Suladân blinked, trying to see through the clouds of smoke. He'd spotted something last time they'd cleared, which made it look like there was artillery there – some contraption, at any rate, like a catapult. But how incompetent were the orcs, to let something like that be built overlooking their siege lines?
A glance to the west showed that by now the Rohirrim had effectively completed the rout of the orcish forces opposing them. Their winded horses were being rested, broken spears replaced from their relatively few dead, and the last few trolls were being speared or shot down from a distance.
Some arrows were heading their way from his flanking raiders, but they were unmistakeably uncertain in their movements – probably missing the comfortable bulwark of his mûmakil to fall back on at need.
Well, he needed them more.
A sudden gust blew holes in the smoke bank, and Suladân squinted. He'd definitely seen something there before, so where was it-
"Shit!" he shouted, spotting a strange contraption moving away at speed. It moved like a chariot, but the only think it could be was the siege engines that had hammered his line of battle.
And if it was, then he had no way of catching them.
"Drummers! Pull back the right flank! Rally on my flag!"
The signaller looked at him, surprised.
The Serpent Lord gave a rictus grin. "We can't attack them piecemeal, or they will tear our mûmakil apart in isolation and we will be as fat merchant caravans taken by sand-thieves. As a great mass, they cannot kill us all in time."
With a jerky nod, the drummer began to beat out signals.
Saruman, now astride a warg taken from the remount pack, frowned into the distance as drumbeats rolled out. "That's rather more prompt action than I would have liked…"
A mûmak twitched feebly as it bled out through the huge, gaping wounds blasted in its skin. From the north came the sound of steadily volleying rifles as the Southron right underwent more or less the same process.
And without support from those mobile fortresses, the Southron left should be collapsing under the weight of a charge from five times their number of cavalry.
"Message to Théoden."
A crow sitting on his shoulder perked up.
"Message begins. We will handle the mûmakil; try to lure as many of the corsair crew on shore as you can and cut them down. It's been an honour fighting alongside you so far today. Saruman. Message ends."
The crow bobbed his head, and repeated the message.
A dispatch rider on an excellent horse pulled up alongside Éowyn. "Sir Dernhelm, I have orders from the King to Grimbold. Where is he?"
"Dead." Éowyn's own grief made her voice harsh. "His horse foundered to an orcish spear and they hacked through his neck."
The rider's face fell. "My condolences. But then I must give my orders to you – the right flank is to sweep around and make for the docks, where the corsairs are leaving their ships. Pass it on to his second, I know not who that is."
The princess felt like swearing. Grimbold had been a good friend, and a skilled commander. His men trusted him – and, quite likely, they wouldn't trust another nearly so well. And to follow some new commander away from the fighting was asking more still of them.
Grimbold's bannerman beckoned to her. "I know what we must do."
"What?" she asked, frowning.
"They won't follow Sir Dernhelm… but they'll follow Éowyn, daughter of the House of Éorl."
Some of the men made little sounds of surprise, but not many.
"Himself told me last night," the bannerman continued. "Got me to bring the banner of your house, as well." He revealed the sturdy banner, a flag that could be flown from a normal guidon, and Éowyn couldn't help but laugh at his earnest expression.
"It seems I must," she said with a smile, and swept her helmet off to reveal her blazing golden hair.
The banner went up within a minute, and horns started to blow. A simple enough signal – follow the banner. And it was quickly clear which banner that was, as the flag of the House of Éorl swept the field behind a shining gold point of light.
Théoden squinted, then sighed as he recognized the banner. "Damn that girl! I thought she was quiet last night!"
"She'd have never agreed to stay behind," Theodred said lightly. "Hold on, that's Grimbold's éored she's leading – I recognize his bannerman's horse."
"Where's Grimbold, then?" Elfhelm asked, shading his eyes.
"No sign of him."
There was a quiet pause, as they realized the likely reason for Éowyn to cast aside her camouflage.
"He was a good man," Théoden said quietly. "Now, let's show these Southron pussies what a real cavalryman's like!"
The roar of sudden laughter lifted the hearts of all about the command group, and they headed forward in a rush with their rested horses.
"Rohan!" Elfhelm called, raising his spear, and those who hadn't broken them in the initial charge matched him. The Riders who were down to their swords or axes fell back slightly, letting those with spears take the initial shock of contact, and the horse archers fired off husbanded arrows from their saddle-quivers.
Gamling's unit had kept the raiders in play as the prince rested his central brigade, and the tired Rohirrim had seemed on the verge of breaking. The raiders, pressing in for the kill, were totally unprepared for another force itself larger than their own to hit them in the flank, and the battle dissolved into a mounted melee with no large-scale order – which suited the better armoured Rohirrim just fine.
Suladân looked back and forth, gauging the readiness of his mûmakil.
Worryingly, the situation with his horse had not improved. The left flank was being overwhelmed by western cavalry, and his right was falling back from a fresh column of smoke – the red flashes of those strange weapons visible as the smoke roiled.
He had to break their position soon. Another look up and down the line, and he curled his lip.
One Mûmak was frowning down at the gory ruin of a herd-mate, despite the exhortations of the mahout. Another had taken some minor wounds in the fighting in Osgiliath, and the scent of blood was driving it into a rage.
They were about as settled as they were likely to get, really, so he had the horns blown for a general advance at speed.
Each Mûmak was about as large as land animals could possibly become. Well over eight metres tall at the shoulder and weighing in excess of fifty tonnes, they were sometimes used at the charge to trample palisade walls flat. They were also fast for such big animals, able to hit forty kilometres per hour over very short distances, and sustain thirty in battle for a reasonable length of time.
Fifteen Mûmakil rumbled in a closely spaced line towards the Isengard positions now re-establishing themselves. Counting their crews and howdahs, the total weight of the oncoming charge was something like eight hundred tonnes of snorting rage. The very ground trembled before them, and the Serpent Lord felt a thrill.
Surely nothing could stand before the very fist of the God himself!
Then the unnatural smoke came again.
"Come on, come on!" the gun captain shouted, as his piece heeled over in a turn that nearly flipped it off the wheels. The locking pin went out, wargs to the rear, a shell carried from the caisson as the gun captain heaved his Anduin around to point at his chosen target.
No attempt at a volley this time. Each Anduin was firing as soon as reloading was complete, and rather than a single thunderous roar the artillery spoke for almost ten seconds of terrible din.
Underlying that thunder was the sharper, spiteful brrrt of the rapidguns, and the slams of battalion volleys. While the hide of a Mûmak was extremely thick, it wasn't impervious; while the range was long, the target was large; and when over four hundred bullets every eight seconds were fired downrange at a single Mûmak, sooner or later one of the bullets would hit an eye or a mahout or snap a rope.
The first to fall was a beast around the middle of the left flank. Trumpeting in pain as a contact shell blasted a gaping hole in its back, it tripped as the back legs abruptly stopped working. Even at that distance, the screams of men from the howdah could be heard as it whip-sawed off its moorings and smashed to pieces on the ground.
Then another fell out of line, thrashing as bullets found an eye. And another, left front leg torn off by a shell.
It was a gallant charge, by a force that could have shaken a nation into dust.
But it wasn't enough.
Suladân stared, glassy-eyed, as the last two mûmakil accompanying his command mount collided. The bull mûmakil, trained for aggression, broke the control of their handlers and began fighting over the hurt of the impact – even as hell-weapon impacts pattered around them.
As him, they were clinging to instinct in a totally unfamiliar world.
His howdah archers began to fire, those few who were left. By now, they were so close to the fantastical army that he could make out details even through the smoke.
The infantry looked tall, taller for the most part than Men or most Orcs. Were these the elves he had heard whispered stories about?
Some corner of his mind noticed that the long, metal pole-carriages… the very same devices which had been spitting death and destruction – were now turning to aim at him. And that the sound of impacts from the lesser weapons had gone from a pattering to a heavy rain and now to a sodden torrent.
Even Mûmak hide could not entirely absorb those impacts, and his Mûmak's trunk was a gory ruin. Every footfall was uncertain, strained, and the speed of the charge had petered out to a slow plod.
"Sauron," he whispered, and then there was a fresh cloud of smoke-
"Aule…" Colonel Geren whispered, looking at the last Mûmak as it finally slumped. "This bastard must have a thousand holes in it, and it wouldn't stop. Aule's forge…"
The roaring of the guns died away, and the loudest sound was the snap of the unmarred flags, in the freshening breeze that was sweeping away the smell of gun-smoke.
"Message for Colonel Kerkú," Saruman said, shaking his head to clear it of the carnage. "He's to take his regiment and attached battery, and advance to support the efforts of the Rohirrim in dealing with Umbar forces. And to Colonel Geren – his regiment and battery are to make for the south. There's still a blocking force there that needs dealt with. Finally, Colonel Mauhúr is to accompany me on a move to the east. All are to be sparing of ammunition – we've used up a good deal of our supplies, and it's a long way to the rail head if we need to get more." He paused. "And remind them to take surrenders, where feasible. I don't know if we'll get many, but the rail line needs labour. Inform Colonel Raza that her infantry will be needed to police the prisoner camp."
Messengers spilled out of Saruman's command group.
"It's a good thing this battle was fought in the morning…" he said, almost to himself. What it took to not merely defeat but destroy an enemy army was pursuit. The long, driving pursuit of a cavalry force, for as much of the day as possible, running down survivors and shattering what remained of the organizational structure of the enemy army.
There would be those who escaped the net when the sun fell – there always were – but it would be as individuals, not any semblance of an army.
"How is Huan?" the wizard asked, looking back towards the medical encampment at the foot of the White Mountain.
"I've not heard anything," the medical attaché said, anxiously. "Should I have?"
"No, I was just wondering." His new warg shook herself slightly, but stopped at the warning pressure of a boot.
Prediction indicates 85% +/- 3% that the wounds will be made good within the week. Presence of antiseptics and antibiotics renders infection unlikely.
Thank you, Saruman thought silently.
You are welcome.
Steady platoon volleys crashed out with metronome precision, a one second gap between each blast of forty rifles.
Geren nodded to himself, watching the trapped orcish blocking force seethe under the slow fire. True to Saruman's orders, he was firing far less rapidly than he needed to – in the time it took between volleys by the same platoon, they could have fitted five more shots – but ammunition was indeed becoming a concern. To that end, the rapidguns were being reserved for emergencies.
Even as he thought, a formation began to coalesce around some banner in the morass. Sergeants shouted, and the rifle fire went from a generalized attrition to a direct focus on the coherent portion.
In perhaps twenty seconds, the formation and the banner were gone.
Geren watched for a further three minutes, then came to a decision. "Cease fire. Get some volunteers with a truce-banner. I think they've lost their fight."
Éowyn turned at the thudding sounds of hooves.
No – paws, as it happened. A regiment of Isengard cavalry rode up in column of fours, followed by their artillery.
"What news?" Kerkú asked, dropping out of line at the sight of her banner and pulling up next to her.
Éowyn gestured with her sword. "We burned around half of their ships before they managed to pull away, but most of the fugutives swam out to sea. Nearly nine in ten of them are escaping – they're out of bow shot now, and taking on those who escaped."
"Not for long," the colonel said grimly. "Trumpeter! Sound artillery into battery! Right up to the edge of the wharfs – and load contact for the anduins! The Lunes… just get them ready."
"What are you planning?" Éowyn asked, eyes intent.
"Those ships are cockleshells," Kerkú answered. "I know Rohirric ships – what there are – use a skeleton of ribs, but these don't. They're designed to be light, to operate under oars." Kerkú's grin looked like something out of deep water. "I don't think they'll like being shot."
The shield-maiden nodded slowly. Then her eyes widened. "Wait!"
"What about the slaves?"
Kerkú surprised himself by laughing. "No such thing, really. Good luck making slaves row your ship for you! No, rowing a warship is a professional bit of business – it takes excellent coordination." She still looked uncertain, so he nodded to the still-burning hulks. "Find any in there?"
"No," she admitted. "I… no, you're right. Sorry."
"No, it's good to check." Kerkú shrugged. "They do take slaves, but unless I miss my guess they're just held for transfer back to Umbar. And a hold full of slaves isn't the sort of thing you want to carry going into battle."
Down at the waterfront, the first rapidguns swung free from their caissons at the end of the wharf.
"What range do you make it?" one of the crew asked, slotting in the plate of ammunition and heaving it to point at one of the Umbaran galleys.
"I'd say… six hundred metres, or a little more," the other replied, and spun the elevating screw. His gun's honeycomb muzzle rose, like a creature sniffing the air. "…there."
"Firing." The first uruk turned the handle, and thirty-five bullets buzzed downrange.
"Yes!" the aimer crowed, seeing one of the ships stagger and lose way.
A loud poumf came from the beach, as one of the Anduins got to work, and a waterspout blasted up in the centre of the gaggle of ships. Then another, and then one of the rounds hit a vessel.
Planking and bodies and bits of bodies fountained skywards, and within a few seconds smoke began to ooze from the galley as well – ship wood caught fire easily.
"Showoffs…" the aimer muttered, moving his weapon minutely to track the motion of his chosen target. "Fire!"
"That's it," Saruman said finally. "We can't force Osgiliath today, not without throwing away the victory we've won. Dig in and make a bastion here."
"By your order," Mauhúr said, and turned to his men.
Central? Saruman thought, looking back across the Pelennor. What's the butcher's bill?
From available data, estimate 150 +/- 40 casualties amongst Isengard forces. Main cause of casualties was Nazgúl attacks and the troll ambush.
Saruman nodded to himself. That had been nasty.
Some Orcish commander had kept six trolls hidden within the ruins of a siege engine discarded the previous day, and released them only when the cavalry were close. Putting them down had been chaotic and messy, but that had been the only real resistance – driving the shattered ruins of the Haradrim contingent before them like froth ahead of a speeding ship, Mauhúr's dragoons had cut clear to the outskirts of Osgiliath before they started meeting organized enemy units again… and the cover of the city's suburbs would remove many of the advantages his dragoons had over simple foot spearmen.
The lesson of Stalingrad. Observe.
Saruman saw… hell.
A huge city, stupefyingly vast, sprawling over a river and for over ten kilometres in every direction. Men with rifles – more advanced than the Isen, using smokeless propellant – and moving machines, the tanks, and the occasional air craft – fought in a long, snarling urban battle.
Artillery pounded buildings to rubble. Men fought at bayonet-point. Rockets howled overhead, bombarding areas held by the other side. Repeating weapons snarled. Some buildings – single buildings – lasted weeks as strongpoints, until either flattened or finally taken.
And snipers were omnipresent, punishing a moment of inattention with a speedy death.
Saruman shook the hell-scape away. The Rohirrim? And the enemy?
Central paused. Eight hundred Rohirrim are dead, and another four hundred crippled. Both numbers have uncertainty of ten percent.
Counting dead, captured and crippled, the enemy has suffered one hundred and fifty thousand casualties. Plus or minus ten thousand.
Could you repeat that? Sauron requested, not quite comprehending the number.
150,000 +/- 10,000 unrecoverable casualties, Central repeated inexorably. Plus 80% of the Umbaran hulls committed to the attack, and all 23 Mûmakil.
Saruman blinked, slowly. By any measure, that was the most spectacular battlefield victory in… over two thousand years.
Still… Time until the next possible offensive out of Mordor, Harad or Umbar?
Four months – autumn.
Then we have a breathing space… Saruman thought, more to himself than to Central. Contemplating that offensive was a sobering thought – by then, it was likely at least that that army would have cannon, and possibly guns, given how fast a crude arquebus had been made by the orcs of Gundabad… but four months was four months. And that might be long enough to implement the Isen II, or even III…
The sons of Denethor, and one wizard, rode out of the great gates of Minas Tirith as dusk fell, and five thousand Rohirrim approached the white city.
Alongside nearly twelve hundred uruk-hai on cavalry wargs. And one other wizard.
"Well, if it isn't my old friends Saruman and Théoden!" Gandalf said, smiling.
"So," Saruman replied, with a moderately reproving look. "You believe me now, Gandalf?"
"On balance, I do," the Grey said solemnly. "I won't deny it's a surprising thing to see, but there it is."
He turned to Boromir. "And I have your man Lurtz to thank for my life, as does Boromir. The Shadow Lord nearly killed us, up on the walls, and would have were it not for the revolvers he gave us."
"My pleasure." Saruman nodded. "Your reputation outstrips you, Boromir. As does yours, Faramir."
Boromir grinned, returning the nod. "Sturdy man, Lurtz. I like him."
"There's a reason I chose him for detached duty…" Saruman allowed.
"Come on," Faramir said, gesturing to the gates. "It's been a long day, and a tiring one. I think we can spare the men who saved our city a night in pleasant quarters."
"We might need to rotate them through…" Saruman said thoughtfully. "I brought four regiments, not just one, but two of them are deployed to the east and one is marching here from the north as we speak."
"And this is only about half my muster," Théoden added. "As with Saruman, many of my troops are still to the east and watching over Osgiliath."
"I see." Gandalf stroked his beard. "Boromir? How soon could you start shifting forces back to their old deployments, so we can clear Osgiliath?"
"Might be a few days…" Boromir muttered, already thinking hard.
Faramir chuckled and tapped him on the shoulder. "No talking shop! We've earned a night's freedom, surely!"
"Perhaps we have," Gandalf allowed. "Come, then, the citizens of Minas Tirith await their saviours."
So, there's the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. It took a long time to do, hopefully it makes sense.
(The idea of differentiated Nazgul is actually from the Lord of the Rings strategy battle game from Games Workshop - as, in fact, is the Serpent Lord, Suladan.)