"Frodo! Hey, Frodo!"
Waking from a dream about fire and smoke, Frodo blinked. "What is it, Merry..."
"Frodo, you've got to see this!" Merry insisted. "There's thousands of those warg riding orcs going past the window!"
"What?" Yawning, Frodo tried to pull the cover back across. "It's too early in the morning..."
"It's not!" Pippin said, sounding scandalized. "It's nearly time for first breakfast!"
"Come on!" Merry called from the window. "This is amazing!"
Frodo blinked, rubbed his eyes, and sighed – deciding his friend wasn't going to leave him alone until he'd seen the sight.
Pippin had already joined Merry at the window, and Sam was nowhere to be seen, by the time Frodo threw his blankets aside and got to his feet.
A rumbling and clattering was coming through the window, and Frodo walked over to take a look.
Merry hadn't been joking. Frodo couldn't tell how many where were, but warg-back Uruk-hai – and some dwarves, and men – were riding three abreast down the main thoroughfare of Cair Andros from the western gate to the eastern. Off in the distance, already well past their window, a pair of banners fluttered – a bold white hand on a black field for the first, and a green field with a playing card on the second.
The card seemed to have a skull on it.
Looking closer, Frodo could see the geometric patterns of order that made up the army structure. Groups of squads, wider spacing between platoons with what looked like an officer at the head of each, and the occasional scattering of more officers which indicated the company subdivisions.
They watched for several minutes as the column went past at a brisk walking pace, and then Merry pointed and gaped.
"What are those?"
Carried by a hitch of four wargs was a kind of small wagon, with a tube pointing out behind it, and only quite a small box to carry what could be carried.
"I think they're bigger versions of those rifles," Frodo said, realizing. "They must be like... ballista, or catapults."
"And those?" Pippin asked, as a second – slightly different – version followed them.
Frodo shrugged "Not sure. Maybe a different kind?"
After the individual four-warg hitches came what seemed to be supply wagons, still caulked from their trip through the first ford and presumably about to go through the second.
That seemed to be the end of the formation, though, and after it had been past for a minute or so the people of Cair Andros began to return to the main road.
"Well, that was certainly impressive!" Merry said. "I feel much better now!"
"What's for breakfast?" Pippin asked.
"Ask the landlord," Frodo advised. "I don't feel very hungry."
His dream was still preying on his mind. It had been a confused jumble, with smoke-shrouded fields shot through with flame and men dying, and then an imagined picture of the Shire being the centre of a great battle like the one from a fortnight or so ago.
And then there was the worse idea still. Of coming back, and finding that war had visited... and taken everyone, leaving an empty town that was no longer truly Hobbiton.
"Come on!" Merry cajoled. "Some breakfast will do you good! A nice hot plate of bacon and eggs is just what you need!"
"You can't just eat nothing," Pippin added. "Even if you want to skip second breakfast, first breakfast is the most important meal of the day!"
Some things were more irresistible than nightmares. Frodo bowed to the inevitable, and waved his friends off. "All right, all right, just let me get dressed first."
The Brandybuck and the Took exchanged a triumphant grin, and both sat down on their beds to wait for Frodo to be ready.
Sighing, Frodo took his nightshirt off and reached for his jerkin, but Pippin interrupted him. "Frodo, were you wearing that all night?"
Frodo glanced down, and saw the mithril vest. "Well – yes, I was..."
"After the Prancing Pony..." Frodo shrugged. "It just seems, well... safer."
"If it helps you sleep," Merry said. "Speaking of which, hurry up! I'm hungry!"
"Pippin interrupted me," Frodo protested, shrugging his jerkin on.
"Stop interrupting him, Pippin," Merry told his friend sternly.
When they came downstairs, there was already a breakfast laid out for their whole group.
"Ah, this is wonderful," Pippin pronounced. "You've got the right idea, Sam!"
"I thought you'd be hungry," Sam said – nodding to all of them, but Frodo in particular. "And Mister Long-Paw's already eaten."
Frodo glanced over to the corner, where the sleek werewolf was watching them with a cool regard.
"I still don't quite understand about him," Merry said. "He's got teeth the size of that sword of yours!"
"Not quite as long," Frodo demurred. "Lurtz said he was my bodyguard now – it's his job to keep me safe. And I'm teaching him to read."
"He's got enough keeping-safe for any four hobbits," Merry admitted. He shrugged the problem away. "Ooh, look – dumplings!"
"Are they a breakfast food?"
"I suppose it's too much to ask for a Brandybuck to keep away from food for long," Frodo smiled.
They were right. Coming down to breakfast did make him feel better.
The 1st (Death Dealers) cavalry moved at a steady trot into northern Ithilien, headed eastwards along the closest thing to a high road.
Overhead, crows flitted through the morning mists, seeking to spot enemy pickets or patrols or just any suspicious-looking orc who might sound the alert. They were still a couple of days at least from the forces still investing the border town of Henneth, but it would be catastrophic to blunder into an ambush unlooked-for for precisely that kind of reason.
Although they were headed across the river and substantially closer to the Black Gates, this was still – in a sense – a defensive move.
In fact, it was one of the last defensive moves that were projected to be taken. In a very short time, there would be no remaining hold-outs behind enemy lines – one way or another – and it would be time to shift over fully to the offensive.
At the same time, many leagues south and west, one of those first offensive moves was coming together.
The officer-of-the-watch on Eriador looked up at the crow's nest. "Sails? Where – how many?"
"Four points north of east, sir!" the lookout reported. "And at least a dozen – I see swans!"
"Good work!" the officer called up. "I'll tell the captain!"
"No need, no need."
The officer turned and nodded. "Captain. Seaman Beleriond reports swan-sails to the northeast."
"Good!" the captain nodded. "We should send word to the flagship – get a boat ready."
"No need, sir," the officer of the watch reminded him. "I'll have the green flag flown."
"Right," the captain agreed. "Sorry, forgot about that one..."
The green flag – a long, broad strip of coloured cloth – was hoisted up to the masthead, and after it had been flying for a few minutes a black shape came swooping down.
"What is it?" the crow asked, flaring her wings and alighting on the fo'c'sle. "A message?"
"Indeed," the captain confirmed. "Please inform the flag we have sails spotted to the northeast – they appear to be the fleet from Dol Amroth."
"Got it," she agreed. She repeated the message, then took off with a whirr of wings.
"That was a lot easier than sending a boat over," the captain admitted. "Haul it down again, and I'm sure I'll remember it next time!"
"Care to wager a bottle of Pinnath Gelin on it?" asked his second-in-command.
"Not quite that sure..."
"Good," Aragorn said, looking down at the map. "That's about right. Do you know if the smaller force from the far western fiefdoms has joined them?"
"No," the crow replied, shaking her head. "There's a few crows on their way to get a good count, though."
"We'll make for the anchorage, then," he said. "How soon can you inform everyone to head for Sandy Bay on Tolfalas?"
She thought it over.
"Half an hour to be certain," she decided. "Maybe twenty minutes."
"That's fine," Aragorn assured her. "Please do so. And make sure to tell Prince Imrahil the same."
The Island of Tolfalas was fairly large, and offered a commanding position off the southern coast of Gondor – right at the mouth of the great Anduin river.
It was blessed with wide, gentle beaches on the northern and eastern shores, offering a variety of havens for shipping, but that very ease of anchoring worked to make it hard for Gondor to maintain it as the key to the Anduin river system – when any of the beaches along the whole island coast could work equally well, it made it hard to fortify the best points.
So, the Gondorian garrison on the island held the interior, and maintained fortifications at some of the larger anchorages, but that was about all it was usually capable of doing.
Sandy Bay was the largest of all, and as the fleet from Dol Amroth sailed into it they were able to easily slot in at the northern end of the anchorage. Big-bellied transports dropped anchor offshore and lowered boats, and the sleeker galleys came nosing into the soft sand of the bay.
Prince Imrahil's flagship was the first to land. He vaulted over the bows as soon as Swan-night grounded, and paused only long enough to wait for his honour guard before striding down the beach to meet with Aragorn.
High on the prow of Minas Tirith, the Steward stood looking out over Pellenor.
Most of the scars of the battle were fading, now – the great bulks of the fallen Mumakil remained, stinking as they fell victim to time and weather, but even the vast ram Grond was being dismantled as he watched.
The fields were already getting into the swing of early summer, crops sprouting and growing with a vigor undiminished by the great battle that had swirled across them, and the sight lifted Boromir's heart.
Gondor was hurt, there was no denying it. But she was already recovering, and reaching out to answer old ills.
A puff of white smoke caught his eye, and he nodded to himself. Last night's report had told him the trainees with the Ithil were going to start firing training today...
The Steward of Gondor turned, and smiled on seeing who it was. "Graz – good to see you up."
"Yes, I was cleared to move out of the Houses of Healing today," the lieutenant said, with a sigh of relief. "I don't like hospitals..."
"Few do," Boromir nodded. "I find it helps to think of them as places for people who survived."
Graz laughed. "I like that, I really do..."
He joined Boromir, and the two surveyed Rammas Echor for a few more minutes.
Boromir frowned, a thought coming to him, and glanced at his – friend. "Graz? A question."
"Go ahead and ask," Graz invited.
"Well..." Boromir gestured. "I can see the smoke from practice, but... it doesn't seem the same as at the battle. There's not nearly so much of it."
Graz considered. "There's two reasons for that," he said, after a moment. "First, the Ithil fires much less often – something like a fifth as fast – as the Isen. So there's fewer puffs of smoke per person."
He shrugged. "And the second is just that they're not firing volleys."
"Why's that, then?" Boromir asked, curious. "It seems like it would be important, if you did it with your troops."
Graz nodded. "It is important with an Isen, but not so much with one of the Ithils."
He broke off for a moment to rub his side with a wince, and Boromir frowned.
"Do you want us to go in?" he asked.
"No, I'll be fine," Graz shrugged.
He pointed down at the firing-range. "Okay, so – an Ithil rifle has about the same maximum range as an Isen. It's actually a touch larger, because the weapon's just a bit longer and so the round goes faster."
Graz made to reach for his rifle, to show something, then remembered he didn't have it. Smiling to cover his mistake, he resumed. "So they can both hit things at about... oh, half a mile? Or a bit more. But with an Ithil, you take about twenty to thirty seconds to reload after you fire."
"And with an Isen it's more like... six?"
"Six or five," Graz agreed. "The kind of speed a skilled archer can reload and fire. So, why do you order volleys with archers?"
"Two reasons," Boromir said, slowly. "The first one is to make sure that the arrows are all fired at once, so their morale impact is greater... and the second is so that ammunition is used at a constant rate."
"Right!" Graz agreed. "That's just it. Isen rounds weigh just a little more than Ithil rounds, and a soldier can carry... call it eighty, with relative ease. With an Ithil, that's enough for about half an hour of firing. But an Isen?"
"About seven minutes," Boromir said, having done the calculation in his head. "So... the big problem is running out of ammunition."
"That's right," his friend said. He rubbed his scar again, fingers probing it for a moment in unconscious action. "But for an Ithil, the problem is your enemy getting close before you've had time to fire many rounds... so every shot has to count. And that means that a soldier has to decide when to fire himself, to avoid wasting any bullets."
Boromir turned that over in his head.
"That sounds like making everyone a Ranger," he said, eventually.
"Yes," Graz nodded. "The Farsights work on a similar principle under some circumstances – we don't always, but when deep behind enemy lines the idea is to conserve ammunition at long range and only use volley fire at close range. It takes a lot of discipline, though – I've caught myself making the mistake."
"What mistake's that?" Boromir asked, and caught Graz smiling as the question he'd expected came.
"You can sort of get caught up in fire-reload-fire-reload," the uruk explained. "The reloading drill doesn't take any thought, but aiming and firing does... so you rush it, to get back to the easy bit."
"I see," Boromir said.
He thought for a bit longer, and then nodded again. "Thank you. That's going to be a big help when I try to work out what on earth to do with these new riflemen. I can already tell that my first plan – of using them just like your cavalry units – is going to be simply impossible."
"Until you get rifles like ours, yes," Graz nodded. "That's just the way of it, I'm afraid."
He swayed slightly, and Boromir took his shoulder before he could fall. "Sorry... just a bit sleepy."
"Then you should get more sleep," Boromir advised him. "Now, go get some, or I'll have one of the guard escort you around and stop you from straying near long drops!"
Rakos muttered darkly to himself as his boat stroked across the anchorage.
Four of the sailors pulled on oars on each side, and the little runabout nosed into the lee of Bat before slowing rapidly as they backed water.
A rope came overside, and one sailor got up to make it fast to the runabout and hold the two mismatched vessels close to one another.
Rakos nodded curtly, and headed for the battens. A few moments climbing hand-over-hand, and he was on deck.
"Bosun?" he called, sharply, as sailors started to handle the cumbersome process of hoisting the boat back on-deck. "Bosun!"
There was a clatter from belowdecks, some muffled swearing, and a squat dwarf hurried out of the doorway that led to the engine deck.
"What is it, Captain?" the bosun asked, worried. "Something wrong?"
"Something's certainly not perfect," Rakos said, shaking his head. "They couldn't find enough coal."
Bolor's face fell. "That's... no, that's not good at all, is it."
"I know," Rakos sighed. "There's some, enough to top off the bunkers, but I'd asked for sufficient to give us a collier as well. As it is we're just going to have to rely on the sails as much as possible – or, perhaps, eke it out with wood."
"That's not going to be good for our efficiency," Bolor muttered, but he was already thinking about the new problem. "Well, I suppose if we... hm, I know what we can do. Save the coal for now, leave it on that ship, and we'll use wood for as much regular steaming as we can get away with."
"Heave!" called a petty officer, and a dozen strong backs began to hoist the cutter aboard. "Heave! Heave!"
"Good man," Rakos said, clapping him on the shoulder. "It's not what we wanted, but try your best."
"Will do, skipper," Bolor grinned. "Let's get as much wood as we can, use it tomorrow, and see how things seem to be working out."
Rakos let out a sigh. "I suppose that is the best thing to do, isn't it – find out how much this is going to mess with us."
"How'd the rest of the meeting go?" Bolor asked. "If you don't mind my asking, I mean..."
"Oh, not bad," Rakos shrugged. "There was a general understanding we'd sail down the coast, spend the night under canvas wherever possible, and then as we reached the area of Umbar set up a base camp and see whether attacking the harbour directly was possible."
The sun finally dropped below the low hills of the island interior, and Rakos turned to watch as the golden-red light of sunset moved up the masts of every ship moored in Sandy Bay.
"Well, at least the weather's good," he muttered.
Waves lapped gently in the darkness.
"Ready?" Torlellin asked, voice soft.
"All ready," the second-in-command replied.
The oars made barely-there ripples as the Umbaran galley moved. The wind was freshening, beginning to tug at the sail-cloth still safely rolled up on the spars, and Torlellin could see the pinprick fires of the Northerner encampment moving gradually closer.
"Get the rowers away," the Umbaran captain decided. "And open the sails, too."
He stood for another few minutes, hearing the soft thwap as the dark-blue sails dropped and bellied open, and the skeleton crew of rowers coming up out of the benches and moving aft.
It was a pity, really. Devastator was a good ship... but if this worked they'd all be heroes.
There was the sound of sandals on wood, and then someone appeared at his elbow. "Boat's away," the man said. "I checked – we're all that's left."
"Good," Torlellin said. "Very good."
He took the flint-and-steel striker, sparked it until it caught on tinder-dry moss, and touched the flame to his oil-soaked torch.
It caught in seconds, and he dropped it into the hold.
"Now!" he said, voice low but sharp, and the three men dove cleanly over the side.
Torlellin came to the surface ten seconds later, shaking his head and rubbing saltwater out of his eyes.
His second-in-command swam over, and pointed. "Look – there she goes."
They followed Devastator for a moment, as she slid off westwards on the flood-tide and the easterly wind, and then began to stroke out to sea to reach the ship's boats waiting for them.
Ruin was the only galley of the four under his command that wasn't being sacrificed tonight. She'd stand off, watching to see what happened, and then make south under full sail and with the outsized crew of rowers taking shifts.
From what had happened at Minas Tirith, the ships were nigh-useless... but trained men were never something to waste.
Bolor took down a note. "Right, so that's two hours, cruising pressure... how much wood do we have left?"
"Not a lot," one of the stokers said, wiping his forehead. "It's cursed hard to keep pressure up with this stuff – it's not as even as coal."
"Right," Bolor agreed. "But it's this or we all get very good at turning the paddles by hand, so we need to try."
A young human came hurrying down the stairs. "Bosun, trouble!"
"On my way, lad," Bolor said. "Okay, lads, you may as well stop stoking for now – let her cool down."
"What's this?" Bolor asked, clambering up onto the weather deck. "Trouble with-"
He stopped, looking out to the east.
At the three orange, flickering lights that were beginning to cast a light across the water.
Even as he watched, one of them got brighter. Flames began to show visibly, and it threw light on the whole scene – three galleys, heading in to shore under full sail.
Three burning galleys.
"Someone wake the captain!" he ordered. "Get me crows – roust out the full crew! Tell the other ships to make steam!"
He leaned back into the stairwell. "Change of plan, lads!" he roared. "Full steam, as fast as you can!"
"What news?" Aragorn asked, shrugging on his mail.
"Fire-ships!" someone told him, pointing out to sea.
Aragorn's keen eyes looked out into the darkness, quickly spotting the gathering fire, and he put up a hand to feel the wind.
"They're coming in straight for the fleet," he confirmed, grimly.
After a few seconds of quick thought, he turned. "Where's one of the Isengarder crows? I need to send orders – get the galleys manned, we'll have to try to tow the fireships off."
"Will we have time?" Prince Imrahil asked.
Aragorn spotted something moving in the dark, and raised his hand. "Thank you," he said, as the crow alighted on his forearm. "Now – quick. Tell everyone on the ships to get to the rails, and try to fend the fire ships off. They're not going to be moving fast, it can be done."
The crow nodded, and took wing.
"Imrahil – get as many ships crewed as you can. Better to have a ship with a full crew than two ships with half – I trust you to manage it."
The Prince of Dol Amroth nodded. "Of course, Aragorn."
He turned. "Ralas! Firken! Sound rally on the trumpets, get as many men as you can!"
Aragorn turned back to the sea for a moment, and frowned. "That's faster than I was hoping..."
A flash of sparks caught his eye three points to the left of the fireships, and he blinked. "What..."
"We have steam for five knots!" Bolor reported. "I can get you more as soon as the boilers heat."
"Good," Rakos said, with a nod. "What about the others?"
"Caught with cold boilers," Bolor winced. "My guess – ten minutes to get steam up. Look, Rat is using her ship's boat."
He pointed into the gloom, and Rakos followed with a squint.
Sure enough, the Rat – moored about a hundred metres away – had her ship's boat out, and the crew were pulling with focused intensity.
"But... wait," Bolor added. "Oh, I see – they're pulling her bow around!"
"Yes," Rakos agreed. "They're trying to get her guns into play. Well – we should too. See if we can sink these tinderbox ships. Gun-crews, ready on the port side!"
He hurried back aft to the wheel and engine-room telegraphs. "Give me as much steam as you can, Bosun – it's going to be a hard night."
Tht said, he spun the wheel, and slammed both engine-room telegraphs across. One full astern, the other full ahead. "Send to Rat – you handle the one on the northern end of the anchorage. We'll take the second one under fire."
"You heard the captain!" Bolor called. "Gun-captains, fire as you bear on the middle ship!"
The gun-crews cast off the tarpaulins on their weapons with feverish haste. One tarpaulin went splashing into the sea, pulled down by the paddle-wheel and didn't come to the surface again, and the number four man on that gun winced. "Whoops..."
"Come on!" his friend called, hauling on the breech-block. "Get this thing loaded!"
"What shell?" he asked, looking to the gun-captain for orders.
The uruk considered for a fraction of a second. "Contact!" he decided. "And hurry!"
Bat's bows swung around, and she slowly began to present her side to the burning ships.
"Here!" called the number-four man, hurrying up with the contact shell.
His friend took it, slotted it into the breech, and sealed it up. "Ready to fire!"
Taking over, the gun captain made small adjustments to his weapon's alignment. This was a slow-moving target which was nice and easily visible, but then again the movement of the ship was always hard to compensate for...
He jerked the lanyard.
There was a poumf and a cloud of white smoke, and the gun jerked backwards as a five-kilo shell blasted out.
The gun-captain counted under his breath, and noted that two more guns fired after his. That meant...
Splash. Splash. Splash. Splash. Hit.
That hadn't been his – and all the others were short.
"Who fired last?" the XO called.
"Number five!" the crew of that gun called back. "Two and a half turns up, firing on the mid-roll!"
"You heard them!" the XO roared. "Get your guns set for two and a half turns up on base!"
The bores hissed as the number-five man sponged them out, extinguishing any embers. Breech-blocks clanged, and a second contact shell was handed up and loaded into each gun.
"Larboard a quarter-point!" the XO called astern.
"Larboard!" the Skipper replied, shifting the wheel slightly.
Bat quivered, trembling as she slowly picked up speed, and then all five guns fired.
This time, she made two hits at least – it was hard to tell, because only one shot went far enough wide that it was obviously a miss.
"Good shooting!" the exec said, with a nod. "Reload!"
"I'm taking us in closer!" Captain Rakos called, from the wheel. "No point staying too far off – we can make every shot count closer in."
"It's no good, skipper!" the XO called. "She's not sinking!"
Rakos cursed. "Keep us on course! This speed, this heading!"
As the helmsman took the wheel, Rakos strode quickly to the rail and looked again at the fire ship.
By now the whole galley was fully involved. Both masts were shot away, and the vessel was settling a little lower in the water.
The lookout waved from his position atop the masts. "Sir – the other fireship's gotten further!"
Rakos blinked, losing his focus on their immediate problem, and looked around the anchorage.
Their private problem was barely moving any more, the flames streaming well forwards with the wind, but the other ships were still moving.
Even as he watched, Cat put three shells into the bow of the northernmost fire ship, and it slowed noticeably. But there was a third one, with the sails still mostly undamaged – for a wonder – and heading towards a few of the big-bellied supply ships.
"Damnation!" he said. "All ahead – full speed! Run the boilers to overpressure! And get the best gunners up here, we're going to need some trick shots with the Lunes!"
He glanced up at the Isengard National Navy pennant flapping, and shook his head. "No sails, though – we'll be moving faster than the wind."
Sparks plumed from the funnel as the black gang worked faster, and orange firelight lit them – growing less clear as the Bat made more speed inshore.
With a grating crunch, the fourth galley went into the water. Its crew backed water, sculling out from the surf zone to get steerage way, then began to turn the sleek vessel to face out to sea.
"How goes it, Imrahil?" Aragorn asked, making the Amrothian jump.
"Sire!" Imrahil said, then took himself in hand. "Not good. Wetting the sails, cordage and sides is taking longer than I'd like – and one of them has nearly reached us."
Aragorn nodded. "I see – but it is only one. I think we've got a lot to thank the Isengarders for."
Imrahil scowled. "I'd rather not have to. This makes me feel helpless – like I can't do anything to change what's happening."
"I know," Aragorn agreed. "I felt the same when the Balrog came in Moria."
They were silent for a moment. Then Imrahil pointed. "Is that one of the Isengarder ships?"
"Yes," Aragorn agreed, seeing the firelight glittering off the rakish prow. "I wonder what she's doing..."
A long spear of red-yellow light stabbed out into the night, surrounded by a mist of smoke, and a moment later the rippling brrrrrt carried across the water to them.
"No good!" Rakos called, looking through the telescope. "You didn't hit anything!"
The Lune rapidgun clicked as it was opened, the plate was removed and replaced, and the gunner trained his weapon around a little.
"Left a bit... there!"
Another brrrrrt, a smell of brimstone, and Rakos pumped his fist. "Yes! That was the mast!"
"How far up?" the gunner asked, as his assistants replaced the ammunition plate.
"About... halfway to the first spar," Rakos judged. "Give it another few degrees – and adjust left a little."
The gunner slid his weapon a little to the side, and up so the aim-point was half a mast higher.
Brrrrrrrt went the rapidgun as he turned the crank, and Rakos bent back to his telescope.
"It didn't... wait, there! Yes!"
The wind had been freshening over the last half hour, and now that had unfortunate consequences for the galley – the rapidgun bullets chewed through something important up in the shrouds, and some of the stays broke under suddenly-increased pressure.
Canvas set to catch every breath of the wind overloaded the support structure for the foremast sails, and about a third of the galley's canvas suddenly went thundering over the side.
"That'll slow her," Rakos said, with satisfaction. "How long until we're close enough?"
"Another two minutes, skipper!" the Bosun called back. "Anchor's ready!"
"Sir!" the gunner called, drawing Rakos' attention back to the flaming galley. "Look!"
Rakos looked, and saw the sails just starting to burn – slowly, sullenly, spreading out in embers and a cloud of black smoke.
"Wetted sails!" he said, realizing. "They soaked the sails so they'd last longer. Clever bastards!"
"Lucky for us they didn't do that for all three," the XO said.
"Indeed," Rakos conformed. "Right – get me four strong backs for the wheel!"
There was a stampede of half a dozen or so sailors to the steering deck, and Rakos selected four of them. "Okay, lads – and lass," he amended. "On the word of command, full right wheel as hard as you can!"
Ahead, past the flaming galley, he could see the crew of a supply ship wetting down the side of the ship and getting ready to try and fend it off.
This was going to be close.
Then, with shocking suddenness, they were sliding up behind the galley and the heat was beating on his skin. It felt like an open oven, as they nosed past the stern castle and came alongside-
"Hup, two, three!" Bolor called, and a full dozen crewmen perched atop the paddle-box hurled the anchor across the one-meter gap between the ships.
The big metal didn't go far. It crossed the rail, hit something already badly damaged on the other ship, and went through with a crunch. The windlass spun as Bat's anchor dove right through to the bottom of the galley and exited that way.
"Back off the box and haul her in!" Rakos called. "Hard right wheel now!"
All four sailors took the wheel, and began to turn it as hard as they could. The Bat turned in a gradually increasing arc, turning ninety degrees before Rakos ordered the wheel back to center, and the stern actually contacted the Umbaran fireship for a moment.
"Make sure we're not burning!" Rakos ordered. "Slack off speed for a moment, we don't want to break the cable!"
There was a tooth-rattling jolt as Bat's anchor cable went taut. The thick hawser went boiiiing, and several of the crew staggered or fell.
The lookout was jarred out of his perch, described a short arc, and landed with a final-sounding thump on the decking.
"She's turning!" Bolor called, looking behind them. "The rest of the canvas just went!"
Rakos looked behind them, and saw what his bosun meant as the fireship's mainmast collapsed down into the weakened hull.
There was a splintering crash as the mainsail spars held what was left of the mast from going too deep, and then the wood – now mostly extinguished – bobbed back to the surface.
"Where should we take her?" the XO asked, panting as the adrenaline wore off. A pair of sailors came with some spare cloth to wrap the dead lookout, for burial at sea.
"Not sure," Rakos admitted. "Take her close in somewhere there's no ships, cast off, and let her burn on the beach – would be my guess..."
Kerkú glanced up at the crow. "How's this?"
"Not bad," the bird replied, as his pencil worked over the paper. "That cliff to the north is a bit less sheer than that... right."
The cavalry officer nodded, sketching that in. "Now?"
"About right," the crow agreed. He hopped from the perch to land on the folding camp table, and inspected the plan-view drawing closely. "Yes, that seems correct."
"Good," Kerkú said. "Now... time for the hard part."
He looked again at the positions that the crow had reported, trying to get a feel for what the opposing commander had been thinking.
It was actually fairly simple, in principle. Henneth was a town intended to be both hidden and defensible, so it was perched on top of a steep-sided hill – the tallest in the area – with most of the housing underground, revealed only by windows disguised by brush encouraged to grow up the sides.
The top of the hill was heavily wooded, with what was actually a cultivated orchard surrounding an open field of potatoes hidden away from prying eyes.
None of it was perfect, and for meat the inhabitants largely had to hunt in the surrounding area of Ithilien, but it was a fairly well hidden supply point for the much better hidden refuge of Henneth Ammun. Or had been, at any rate – now palisaded blocks had sprung up around the easiest approaches, and bore the bloody marks of at least one failed assault.
Aside from the north, the terrain around was sparsely wooded – something which wouldn't impede sight lines too much – and gently rolling, providing ridges every few hundred metres or so which rose to perhaps three metres over the surrounds.
And, on some of those ridges, were the reason they were here.
The Mordor force had built lines of circumvallation, and reinforced them well – probably out of a very real understanding that the defenders of this semi-military base were mostly fit men of fighting age and a fair deal of militia training.
Their lines of contravallation, on the other hand, were rather less developed. Understandable, perhaps – lines of contravallation were intended to fight relieving forces, circumvallation to reduce the fortress itself – but still sloppy.
Counting camps and tents, the crows had estimated a little over four thousand in the army besieging Henneth – which was bad enough, without the nasty surprise that had shown up the previous day.
"You're sure about this?" he asked, tapping the paper, then waved his hand. "Sorry, just nerves – I know full well how much the information cost."
The crow nodded, and Kerkú winced – not having believed their report at first, he'd ordered additional and much closer overflights.
It had been a mistake. The Isengarder use of crows for reconnaisance seemed to have been noticed, as two of his scouts had been brought down by sudden volleys of arrows before the rest had climbed clear and reported in.
"Well, I suppose it can't be helped," he said with a sigh. "Okay."
He raised his voice. "Sharku! Call in the company commanders!"
"...so, that's about the size of it," Kerkú said, some minutes later. "The terrain to the north's pure shit for our forces, foot or mounted – that brushwork's so tall it'd be impossible for us to see far enough to use our advantages."
Kerkú tapped the map, and drew his finger in a long line to circle around the position. "We could attack from the east, that's the easiest place – that ridge there is lower than the rest and it'd be easier to attack – but I'm not going to."
"Why not, sir?" the C/O of 4 company asked. "It's been weeks, surely one more day won't make the difference."
"It wouldn't, no," Kerkú agreed. "Not normally – they must have food for months in there still, the whole point of the place is that it's a supply base. But this is why not."
He tapped the marker which had troubled him earlier, and at least one of the company captains drew a surprised breath.
"They've got cannon," he said. "Only four, small, and the carriages aren't up to much – but it's the first time we've seen actual cannon in use."
"Why here?" someone asked.
"Well – my guess is there's two reasons. One, this battery's going to be able to knock down that defensive palisade in hours, once it starts firing."
He indicated the wooden wall protecting the easiest ascent up to Henneth, and got a wince in reply.
"And the second reason is... well, if these are the first guns they've built, then it makes sense to test them in the field somewhere Isengarders aren't going to show up and ruin their whole day."
His smile as he said it was unpleasant, and matched by the other officers present.
"So," he added. "Because it would take us at least a day to march around Henneth and approach from the east – we're going to have to strike now, before they get those pieces in operation."
Tapping the paper, he glanced up at Captain Rerek – of 1 Company. "So, here's my plan. Rerek, you take your company and 2 company as well, and form our left flank. 3 and 4 under Tarkan, the right, and everyone else except 7 and 8 to form the central force."
There were nods from the men and uruks he'd designated as the battalion commanders, as Kerkú indicated their routes.
"You'll move up behind the cover of this ridge, to... this start line," he said. "Then wait for the cannonade, and take their positions with the saber – usual drill, tell off half your men for fire support."
On seeing the startled looks, Kerkú chuckled. "I know, it doesn't seem right. But if they have time to get settled someone's going to hit on the bright idea of using the circumvallation walls as bullet shields, and that's going to make things a lot harder. Once you're in their fortifications – Rerek, Tarkan, you'll need to set up a perimeter to stop the rest of their forces piling in..."
"How far is it?"
"About... two thousand eight hundred metres," the rangefinder called softly, the nose of his portable device just peering over the ridgeline. "Long range."
Kerkú nodded, but didn't say anything – leaving it to his artillery commander to handle the issue.
That officer frowned, looking down at his notes. "Down elevation?"
Pencil scribbled on a sheet of paper, as the gun-aimer ran his calculations.
The closer his sums were, the better their aim would be with the first shell. It would never be perfect, of course, not by anything except pure luck, but they were going to fire more than one shell each – and that meant they could range in with the subsequent shots.
As he calculated, Kerkú moved up to have a look for himself.
The werewolves had already eliminated any Mordor scouts close enough to see either the guns or their infantry. Now, after a minute or so of looking, he picked out the moving order of a two-company column moving up towards the start line.
It looked like that was to the right – so it had better be Tarkan.
"Five degrees elevation," the artilleryman said, eventually. "Seven seconds."
That was near the limit of how far the guns could elevate, in normal usage at least.
"Right," Kerkú nodded.
On his confirmation, the individual gun captains moved the elevation screws and raised their guns so they were pre-set for elevation.
Kerkú hissed, grabbing for his telescope. "That cannon battery just fired!"
Through the lenses, he could see the whoosh of dirty white smoke, and then the palisade wall trembled as at least one shot hit it.
"Looks like we got here just in time," he muttered.
Another tense minute, and then a crow flew in.
"Everyone's ready," she reported, landing on a nearby branch. "One platoon per company for fire support."
"Good," Kerkú said. "Right – ready your guns!"
"Guns forwards!" the stern-voiced gun commander ordered, and the entire crew bent their backs to it.
Axles squealed, and all ten pieces poked their noses over the ridge-top before halting just on the crest.
"Check levels!" the artilleryman ordered. "Re-lay!"
A couple of the guns moved a little, to get the right angle now they were emplaced.
Kerkú checked again with his telescope. No sign they'd been seen yet...
"Fire!" the commander called. "In succession!"
One by one, the guns spoke. Great clouds of smoke vomited out, the pieces bucked backwards, and their deadly shells sped east with a ripping wail.
"What was that?" Nodrest asked, looking up from his lunch.
"Don't-" his friend began, and then an explosion blasted soil and wood into the air.
Instinctively, Nodrest dove for the floor – landing close to the cooking fire, and rolling away with a curse – and another explosion came, fainter this time.
Another. Another. With a kind of regularity, once a second, though some were louder than others and accompanied by a thudding blam.
The last explosion sounded, screams underlaying it, and Nodrest whimpered.
This had all been so simple this morning. Watch as the iron throwers blasted away what cover the Gondorians had, then charge uphill and take their pissant little village.
There was another of those thud sounds, and the explosions began again, hammering into his ears like a mailed fist.
Wargs howled, a harsh sound which slammed at his ears, and the blasts went on and on...
A short pause, a few seconds or so, and then more thuds and more eruptions. This time, some of them were quieter – almost soft, compared to what he'd heard before – but a moment later there was a multiple scrrrrrr-ack and the sound of more screams of panic.
A ball of something dark bounced into the ground just in front of his face, dished a little from the impact, and went onwards. There was a cry of pain, terrifyingly close, and Nodrest recognized one of the sergeants in the sobbing sound.
Then, after what felt like an eternity, the sound ceased.
"Iron throwers!" someone said. "Enemy iron throwers! To the west!"
Raising his head a few inches, Nodrest saw a great cloud of smoke forming on one of the ridges – over a mile away, maybe even two miles.
How had they-
"Wait!" he heard himself say. "The wall!"
Their palisade was smashed in at least four places, places large enough to admit at least three men side-by-side.
"To the wall!" someone ordered, and the mere sound of the order jerked some sense back into the men and orcs who had abruptly become defenders.
"Go! Go!" called Kervast, the captain of 5 Company.
His men let out a shout as the artillery shells screamed overhead, and their wargs answered – a short, vicious bark like the slamming of a giant door.
Then the men of 5 Company, accompanied by their fellows in 6 Company, advanced with sabers drawn and resting on their shoulders.
Behind them, the even-numbered platoons were setting up for fire support. Sighting their rifles, loading, lining up the sights and getting ready to fire.
"That's the last of them!" Kervast called, counting the artillery rounds bursting in clots and groups ahead of them. "Up and at 'em!"
Over three hundred warg riders crashed through the final screen of brush, in columns ten abreast, and their bugler sounded the charge – a sound which played on the nerves of the men and their mounts alike, pushing them on.
They'd covered over eighty metres – half the cleared zone – before defenders began to appear. Then faces showed in the gaps in the palisade and over the gate, holding spears and shields and bows.
Then bullets cracked overhead from the support platoons, felling the men standing over the gate, and more from areas more towards the flanks of the firebases, aiming past the columns to hit the gaps in the palisade.
That lasted perhaps five or six seconds, the troopers hunching over their mounts as if against a heavy wind as arrows whistled around them. A warg staggered, her rider hauling her out of the column before she fell whimpering, and another slowed – snarling up half of 6 Company's column of advance – as his rider was transfixed by an arrow.
Then they were up to the breach, covering the last twenty or so metres in a frantic rush. Some fired their revolvers, using all six cylinders in a matter of seconds and producing a huff of sulphurous gun-smoke, and then the charge hit home.
Kervast's teeth clicked as his warg jumped clear over the barricade of shields and spears, and he toed her in the side – making her whirl, and take the spearmen in the back.
The crash of more revolver fire punished his ears, and he added to it with one hand – picking out the Mordor troopers who seemed to be in charge, and taking the time to aim carefully.
An arrow glanced off his chainmail battle-dress, and he winced – then his warg let out a howling scream and foundered with two spears through her throat.
Kervast jumped free as she fell, coming upright with a grunt of effort, and dropped his empty revolver before snatching up a shield from the ground.
The moment he did, an arrow went whip-thud into it, and he bared his teeth.
"Fall back one step and volley!" came the voice of one of his lieutenants from outside the gap, and then a rifle volley fired at barely ten paces slammed right through the shieldwall at the wall breach.
The defensive formation became a grave in an instant, and more men from 5/1st came through on foot. Arrows hit some, sticking in their chainmail or punching through, and one uruk yelled and fell.
"Reload!" called Kervast, waving his saber. "Reload – ready – present!"
Bayonets swung down as the rifles they were attached to reloaded. Behind the ad hoc firing line more Death Dealers were pushing through, mounted this time, and a few of them snapped revolver fire up at the remaining gate defenders.
"Fire!" Kervast shouted, and twenty or so Isens barked in unison. The heavy 11mm bullets smashed down a line of bowmen who'd been trying their luck, and as the half-platoon reloaded Kervast waved more men into line – then gestured at the platoon sergeant of the 5/3rd. "No, keep them mounted! Reload your Limlights!"
Another volley crashed out from the firing line, hitting the Mordor troops as they tried to form a second defensive line amid the wreckage of the bombardment.
"One more and at 'em!" Kervast called, noticing 9 Company uruks opening the gates and 6 Company starting to come through. "Aim… fire! Charge!"
The dismounted platoon fired their rifles once more, smashing into what semblance of a line the Mordor troops still had, then advanced with a shout.
Kervast ran along behind, and pointed to the platoon sergeant. "Around to the flanks! Take them-"
There was a horrible howling, scouring roar, and at least a dozen of the first platoon went down dead in an instant. The survivors hesitated, shocked, and Kervast didn't blame them – what had just happened?
Another of the zzzip-ing blasts sounded from up ahead, and 9 Company men went down as well.
"Canister!" Kervast realized. "They've got field guns – anyone sees a gun, shoot the gunners! Sergeant, get your men firing their Limlights!"
More gunfire crashed from the mounted contingent, and Mordor troops shouted or screamed or collapsed without a sound.
"Okay, lads!" the captain said, raising his voice to carry over the sound of the battle. "On the mark! Three! Two! One! Charge – for Isengard!"
"For Isengard!" came the cry, and his men resumed their attack – some of their wargs bounding alongside – until they hammered into the Mordor line with bayonet and sabre and rifle-butt.
For a long moment, the Mordor formation held – then the mounted attack hit their flank, and cohesion broke.
"What was that?" Kerkú asked, frowning. "I swear that wasn't a rifle or pistol – too much smoke."
Raising his telescope, he looked through to examine the smoke-wreathed redoubt. Then, deciding it would be too hard to tell much of use at this distance, he turned left and then right.
"Good," he said, eventually. "It looks like Rerek and Tarkan have their blocking positions in place."
The colonel raised his hand, calling for a crow. "Message for Kervast, or whoever is in command of the main force. Regroup, position two companies to act as flank guard for the Gondorians, and make sure you clear out the fort. Send someone up to get those Gondorians moving as soon as possible."
After a moment, the crow repeated the order to be sure he'd gotten it correct.
"Good. Off you go!"
Saruman lowered his graphite stick, turning his gaze to the wall, then looked once more at his notations.
This was... troubling.
What is your question, Saruman.
I have tried calculating out the battle from Pelennor, he explained. I know from the training ground that our men hit half the time when aiming at large targets at 800 metres... but with 3,600 Uruks firing twenty rounds each, that accuracy should have led to the entire Orc line being hit at least once each, before counting the artillery.
You are correct, Saruman, Central stated. And your confusion is understandable. Real battle is much less tractable to analysis than training.
Saruman looked down at the notes again. But if barely a third of the Orcs were really hit... does that mean that our calculations about stopping a charge are inaccurate?
A charge is a thing of morale, Saruman. Observe.
Central's vision grew around Saruman, showing a muddy field cut by crossed roads. Great blocks of pikemen, flanked by men with primitive muskets, marched against a line defended by more of the same.
No – not quite the same. Saruman looked closer, and saw that many more of the defenders were armed with muskets and many fewer with pikes.
Breitenfeld, Central whispered.
As Saruman watched, the attackers broke the left flank of the defending army. The defenders shifted, sending out cavalry and reforming their line, and a storm of shot and artillery gradually bled and shattered the attacking formations.
So... an attack is doomed against gunpowder, Saruman thought, before frowning. Wait. The attackers... they could have moved much faster. Even in formation. Those muskets were firing far too slowly.
A morning assault into fog, uphill against a stoutly defending enemy.
Saruman spotted the changes – everyone had a musket now, there were no pikes, and the crackle of the guns was considerably faster.
But... as the sun rose, the assaulting troops took the hill at the bayonet and forced their opponents away.
Austerlitz, Central informed him. Nearly 200 years later.
Saruman frowned. If that one succeeded... was it something about the attackers? Better quality, more trained?
A hellscape of fire, cavalry assaults, the crash-crash-crash of disciplined muskets and a regular, rhythmic drumming that made the air seem to vibrate.
Thousands of throats shouted something, and assault columns marched uphill through the gathering dusk.
The Guard, Central provided, highlighting three of the columns. The most experienced soldiers on the battlefield.
But they were not the only attackers, Saruman saw. The whole of the southern army was pushing forwards, attacking all along the line, and the dead already thickly clogged the field.
One column reached the red-coated lines, and exchanged fire with it before both sides retreated – only to rally. Another went to ground, slowing to fire back, and a third got within perhaps forty metres – ten seconds at a run – before finally breaking and running.
And, the moment it did, the entire attacking army disintegrated.
Waterloo, Central whispered. The defenders were approximately one-half experienced regiments, of which considerable numbers were recently reassigned militia.
Saruman considered that.
This time, the battlefield was a little larger – a little less crowded. Men marched over a river and up a high hill, towards an enemy firing bursts of gunpowder down at them, and more men fired in their support from a long range.
Soldiers armed with the Minie rifle. Weapon range longer, rate of fire comparable, accuracy far greater when well trained.
Saruman recognized the rifle in question – it was a lot like the Ithil, though less sophisticated and with less advanced sights.
Fire slashed down at the attackers, who cheered and levelled their bayonets - and took the hill.
The Battle of the Alma. Defenders armed with Nessler balls, increasing range for a musket.
In his chamber, the wizard frowned. But that defence was... surely it was more effective than the one from Waterloo, then?
Another battlefield, and another, and another. The weapons here were almost the same as the Ithil, in many cases with only cosmetic differences. Handy rifle-muskets that fired three times a minute.
Almost immediately, though, Saruman saw something was wrong. Those defenders are holding, he said to Central. And the attackers are failing. But they're not firing until the same range you showed me at Waterloo.
Correct, Central told him. Fredericksburg. Gettysburg. Antietam. Battles of the American Civil War.
But these weapons are being used so that they waste almost all their superior qualities, Saruman thought. Why?
Central did not answer directly. Instead, he showed a graph – number of hits per rounds fired.
The rifles were performing no better than the earlier muskets.
Does that mean that rifles are a waste? Or that an attack is impossible once they are introduced – what is the rule?
Dry heat, waving grass and a small, flat-topped hill.
A few hundred men in red coats and pith helmets, supported by others in less official gear, fired steady volleys at a wave of oncoming...
...Saruman could best describe them as savages, like the men of Far Harad. Wearing little more than loincloths and carrying only shields and short stabbing spears, but so many – at least ten thousand, if not more.
Central showed him the rifle the defenders were using for a moment, and Saruman grimaced. That was an Isen I – exactly an Isen I, in fact.
Martini-Henry, Central confirmed for him. Battle of Isandlwana.
Saruman got a chill, watching as the soldiers armed identically to his own were swarmed under by the-
Thank you, the wizard sent.
That could be his own Uruks, being surrounded and cut down.
Central displayed another hit-graph, and it made Saruman stare. The hit rate shown was over ten times the one from the litany of battles with the Ithil – Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam.
Another flicker, and a bare hundred of the same men from Isandlwana defended a small building. Their fire volleyed out en masse, punishing the attacking Impi, and this time it was the savage-looking Zulu who were defeated.
Rorke's Drift. Survivors from Isandlwana.
Another leap forwards, this time to the advent of the machine-guns and magazine rifles Saruman hoped to be using as soon as possible. But, as he watched the battle-
Mukden, Central informed him,
-he could see that even this could not prevent an assault. The attackers here charged machine guns and entrenched riflemen, moving at high speed and spreading out so that there was no single target for the fire to focus on, and quickly took the position.
A final battle, this one on a freezing mountainside somewhere windswept and desolate. Both sides were armed with the automatic 'assault' rifles that Saruman remembered Central telling him they couldn't make for years to come, not in enough numbers to make a difference.
But here, the attackers had bayonets fixed... and they were winning.
Saruman sat back in his chair.
"So," he asked, softly. "What's the answer?"
All battles are about morale, Central told him. Killing is a way to make morale break. Attrition is for campaigns.
"I see," the White Wizard said. Very softly.
"What do you think's happening out there?" Farana asked, swallowing nervously. "The noise has stopped..."
Her husband, the garrison commander at Henneth, clapped her on the shoulder. "Don't worry, love, we'll be fine."
They shared a look, both knowing he was concealing the truth – they might be fine today, or tomorrow, but sooner or later they were in big trouble.
"I'll go have a look from the upper gallery," Duilin told her, taking his hand away. "Don't worry, I won't get myself in danger."
"See you don't," Farana said softly. "We need you. I need you."
Duilin didn't reply, making his way through the smoky underground rooms to the gallery which looked out over the western approach.
"Any news?" he called, noticing one of the farmers who normally kept the orchards going.
The farmer shrugged, armour clanking, and gestured. "I don't know what's going on, sir. There was a lot of awful noises, like thunder, and clouds of white smoke – I thought they might have set the hill on fire, to smoke us out. But I can't smell wood smoke."
Duilin looked through the narrow opening himself, brushing aside the concealing vegetation with his sword.
There certainly seemed to be something going on. There was a dirty, diaphanous cloud of smoke wafting in the breeze, and Duilin thought he saw movement on the hilltops to the west.
Then something came into sight – much closer, climbing up the hill.
The farmer picked up a bow, but Duilin pushed it down. "Wait," he said, nodding. "White flag."
Turning to the rear of the room, he whistled. "Pass the word – don't attack until we can speak to these people!"
"They look like orcs, sir!" his subordinate said, still looking out the arrow slit.
Duilin hesitated, then nodded. "Cover them with your bow, but don't fire until I give the order."
With that, he was off – heading for one of the entrances to the tunnel complex.
Kervast's back itched as he slowed. He wasn't sure where from, but he had the feeling there was a bow pointed at him from somewhere close by…
"Remember, arms down," he said. "Keep the muzzles grounded. I don't want to fuck this up."
The two or three escort dragoons nodded, bayonets pointed at the dirt. Kervast noticed one was still smeared with blood, but decided to leave the barracking about cleaning steel weapons for later.
It could wait a few minutes.
The white flag snapped overhead, and there was a dry crackle from down-slope – the sound of an occasional Limlight shot warning off Mordor troops. Once, a Warg gave a deep echoing bark, and several gunshots followed.
Then a bush moved aside, hinging away with a heavy oak door concealed so neatly that Kervast hadn't noticed it was there. An armoured man came out, squinting in the light, and then looking with surprise at the swarthy Uruks.
"Good day," Kervast said, after a moment of silence. "I'm Captain Kervast – we were sent to break the siege and get you and your men out of here. I'm afraid I don't have your name-"
The armoured man blinked, then shook his head and offered a hand. "Duilin – Captain Duilin, officially. I didn't know the Steward was recruiting orcs."
"We're not quite orcs," Kervast said mildly, taking it. "And we're not in the Gondorian army, either, we're part of Saruman's Army of the Hand."
A rolling crash came from downslope, and screams.
"What was that?" Duilin asked.
"Probably another probing attack," Kervast replied. "The besieging Mordor men are trying to drive us off. We can hold them for a while, but you should get moving as quickly as possible."
Kervast turned to look back downslope, then frowned. "Do you have any horse?"
"No, we lost the few we had at the start of the attack," the Gondorian replied.
"Well, can't be helped..." Kervast counted under his breath, tallying up the wargs who'd lost their riders. "How many need to be evacuated?"
"Seventy-four spears," Duilin replied. "Half a dozen babes, and about forty women – families are raised back in Minas Tirith, by relatives."
"A hundred and twenty… damn, that's more than I'd like," Kervast frowned. "We'll have to do stirrups for the first few hours. I advise you get the evacuees together – people only."
"But-" Duilin began, then shook his head. "All right, I understand."
One of Kervast's lieutenants came pounding up the path. "Captain, crow from the colonel. He wants us to have some of our spare wargs tow one of the Mordor cannon for inspection."
"Damn," Kervast said, and sighed. "Sorry, Captain Duilin, I'm afraid I'll need to see to this – if it's even possible..."
"Finally," Kerkú said, lowering his telescope. "Took them long enough."
Through the clear glass lenses, he watched as the strike force moved back towards his position. The occasional puff of white smoke from the blocking forces indicated they were keeping the Mordor infantry away, sharpshooting for now instead of the volleys to repel a charge, and it looked like Kervast had the refugees incorporated into 9 Company to speed them up.
"Now, let's hope we can get them home without any more problems," Kerkú added, then winced as three great blasts of white smoke and grey iron went spinning up from the Mordor position.
Three more dragoons rode out through the splintered palisade, having fired the Mordor guns with triple or quad shot to blow them to pieces, and Kerkú lowered his telescope.
"Guns?" he said, waving. "I want two guns trained on that copse over there, and a crow sent to check none of ours are in it – it's too good an ambush spot. Be ready to fire if there's anyone there to give us a nasty surprise. Get the rest limbered up – lieutenant, your platoon is gun escort, set up a firebase another two kilometres that way on the next hill."
Tension eased out of him, one inch at a time.
For now, it looked like this battle was over. There'd be more skirmishing, possibly all the way back to the Anduin, but the outcome wasn't in any real doubt.
Of course, there was always next time.
Well, so much for a short chapter a week or two.
My aim for the next chapter is to mostly focus on the siege of Umbar.