Watching the auld bast was a bit of an education. He might be an auld grey hoor, but he was the best scout in the Tower of Ecthelion Guard, bar none. ‘Here,’ muttered Felstern under his breath, pointing at a patch of grass that looked exactly the same as every other patch of grass on the lip of the gorge in front of us. The dim half-light of dusk just served to make everything look a dull blue colour. I didnae have a scooby what the auld boy was looking at. ‘They were here just hours ago. Gone to ground, do you think, Sir? In there?’ he asked softly, gesturing towards the depression stretching into the ground below us. ‘Fucked if I know.’ I almost breathed the words out; I was fair shiting it about some of them being within earshot. Over 200 Dunland mercenaries had attacked one of our positions just 3 days before and were thought to be in this immediate area. I didn’t fancy our chances taking them on. There were just three of us checking out a potential lead whilst the van of the 4th was camped some 2 hours to our rear. Felstern scratched a thin, veiny hand over his bald heid. I always thought that he was disadvantaged as a Scout; shape and shine and all that – his baldy heid must stick out like a dogs bollocks. Mind you, he was still alive and had reached a fair age, so it can’t be that bad. He cast a long look downwards and simply said ‘shall we?’ For once, I was indecisive. For me, the deep gorge represented a bloody fine, if somewhat damp and shitty hiding place for a company strength deployment. In the end, what swung it was a lack of obvious observation points for sentries. ‘No OPs. They won’t have been that stupid. Any other sign?’ The auld hoor scratched his heid again, and carefully lowered himself to ground level to look directly across the top of the random tufts of grass ‘Hmmm – south – no guarantees.’ ‘None taken. Keep the noise down and we’ll work our way south. Felstern – point.’ The last command was needless; Gunner and I wouldn’t be heading anywhere without Felstern’s lead, not least because darkness was starting to descend with a vengeance.
An hour passed. The good Sergeant and I were clumsy by comparison with the scout. Despite having a supposed gammy hip, his silent progress across the now rocky ground made us look like amateurs. He was like a wee baldy mountain goat, springing noiselessly but swiftly in the dark along the dry riverbed he was leading us through. He was onto something for sure. We rounded a corner where the river used to bend round to the right and Felstern dropped to the floor uttering a clipped ‘visual 300 yards quarter right’. 300 yards? I couldn’t even see 100 feet in this light. Without needing to be asked, Gunner passed me my field glass – a priceless arcane relic won in a rather bizarre game of cards with a pished loremaster who had presumably forgotten the right corrupt words that would turn me into a frog. I surveyed the scene with a growing and broad grin, relaying notes to the Sergeant. ‘Corporal Felstern, you are one evil auld bastard. Well done.’ Turning to Gunner I nodded minutely; ‘Sergeant - fetch them…’
Moments before dawn, as those poor wee Dunlending basts were barely stirring in their scratchers, they had their world turned upside down. The first few rounds landed short, but the 2nd and 3rd volleys obliterated the well-constructed palisade set up by the hairy Dunland fuckers. Huge lumps of masonry coated in burning pitch rained down on them courtesy of the trebuchets hauled into position during the night by the 7th Battery, Royal Gondorian Artillery. We were lucky they were conducting live firing drills with the 4th Tower Guard immediately before we received orders in the field to hunt the Dunlendings down and exterminate them. A small red light soared into the sky to signal that the 7th had finished their bombardment. Another Istari-crafted device – bloody useful; I made up my mind to invite Erathas to play a few hands of cards – I might get lucky and win it off him. ‘Sir?’ asked Gunner, waiting my orders to attack. I smiled at him. ‘Go on, Sergeant. Fill yer boots – my treat!’ A grimly determined look instantly cast over Gunner’s normally calm face. Taking a few moments to compose a suitably inspiring cry, he rose up from the grass escarpment and settled for a throaty bellow of ‘Gondor! GONDOR, YA BAS!’ 300 men – The 4th Tower of Ecthelion Guard - surged from the concealing grass and launched themselves at the chaotic lines of the enemy, spurred on by the sounds of Dunlanders screaming in pain and confusion.
Less than 2 hours later, we regrouped at the base of the palisade wall. Or, what was left of it. I beckoned Corporal Adhren over to me. ‘Get your bearded erse over to the Artillery – pass my compliments to Captain Erathasand relay our thanks for the fine work of the 7th. Advise him that a case of rum will be forthcoming when we return to the City. Nae fuckin’ bother!’ Adhren popped one up and tabbed off, leaving me with Gunner. He passed me a list of the dead. Each name stung like a barb, as always. Mind you, only 23 dead – nae a bad effort…
I looked around the remains of the temporary fortifications established by the mercenary scum: Randolph patching up a hideous-looking open wound on Derskin’s thigh; the Hawkin;s brothers playing dice; but, mostly, tired, absolutely knackered guardsmen who were living those dull woolly moments following sustained contact. Moments where just… …existing, breathing, thinking is just too much fucking effort and you retreat into yourself or just spout mindless bollocks. Fuck this. We’ve just killed a couple of hundred butchering hairy-erses to the tune of 23 dead. ‘Maerras! Gies a tune, eh? Let’s hear you!’ Our piper, Maerras, had followed up in the baggage wagons and had been administering water. He scampered back to one of the carts and pulled out his bagpipes. Within minutes the stirring ‘Truth of the One Tree’ was making its presence felt. The troops were sitting up straighter and there was a tighter look to the lad’s faces. Gunner and I were going round doing what needed to be done – sharing a brew, sharing pipeweed, sharing small talk, consoling best friends of the deceased and stirring the numb and confused back to life.
Things were looking up, until I spotted Felstern, crouched over the body of one of the Dunlendings. He was using a small jeweller’s hammer to smash a gold tooth out of the corpses’ mouth. His Scout-tuned senses warned him that he’d been seen. He looked up at me with a sheepish grin. Normally, I flog battlefield scavengers. Endystory. I thought about how he’d led us to the Dunlendings in the first instance…
My brow pinched with anger and self-loathing, I turned my back on him and let the filthy fucking minker finish what he was doing.
‘Where is he? Captain Yirond?’ I asked the dwarf in front of me. Had a face like a burst football and stunk like a malfunctioning brewery. You know the type. The horrible creature hooked a thumb over his shoulder and gestured towards the bar. ‘Up there. Where else?’ he intoned in that typical rumbling dwarven drawl. I’d been hunting Yirond down for a couple of hours. Sergeant Gunner was searching the upper wards, in the vicinity of the barracks. I knew better. The mood he was in, he’d be down here amongst the scum and the filth of the lower wards. Pissed or banging whores. Probably both.
I made my way to the long bar at the rear of the tavern, stopping momentarily when I felt some little shit try and sneak my coin-purse out from my jacket. Grabbing his wrist like a viper, I had a knife held beneath his throat before he had time to blink. ‘Not fast enough by half, urchin. Do yourself a favour… …fuck off!’ I whispered urgently into his ear, before releasing my grip and propelling him away with a gentle boot to the arse.
Ah. Look. There he is. The pride of the 4th Tower of Ecthelion Guard. Twice winner of the Dagorlad Cross, hero of the Bridges of Osgiliath, the Holdfast of Pelenor and many other battles of historical note. Yirond, stalwart defender of Gondor. Naked except for a tatty pair of grey Guard issue underpants. Doing a bloody awful impression of a bull, charging back and forth underneath a cape held by Corporal Maerras. To be fair, his ‘moooooo’ sounds were quite faithful to the real beast. However, he seemed to be a wee bit less graceful than his bovine inspiration. Not helped, perhaps, by slipping occasionally in the vomit and beer soaking the floor of the The Brazen Minx, his current drinking establishment of choice.
‘Captain?’ I ventured loudly. Maerras looked up and nodded briefly in my direction; my informal attachment to the 4th and association with Yirond conferred some respect amongst his troops. My friend looked up blankly, dripping a long string of saliva from one side of his mouth. It seemed he registered my presence. ‘Testamir. Ya wee hoor. Come to spoil my fun, eh? Ya bas?’ ‘Orders, Yirond. You are to report to Knight Captain Lugonn immediately and prepare the 4th to mobilise.’ He squinted and looked pained for a moment. ‘Mobilisation, eh? That’s jist fuckin great, endystory. That’s jist fuckin great, know?’ ‘Gunner and I have been searching for you for 2 hours by now. You better sort your shit out, old chap. Speaking of which, where exactly is the Captain’s shit?’ I said, turning towards Maerras and gesturing back towards the pants-clad officer. ‘Er, I don’t rightfully know, Sir,’ replied the Corporal. ‘When I discovered the Captain he was returning from, you know, the, er, ladies area upstairs. He was dressed as he as now.’ ‘Do me a favour, Maerras, and head upstairs and tell whichever hookers the Captain was with that we respectfully wish his clothing to be returned. If they’ve fleeced his coin-purse tell them I shall be most disappointed and will visit them presently.’ As Maerras went upstairs, Yirond grumbled ‘Not bad, you should be a SNCO, fanny-baws.’ ‘Thanks – I think.’ ‘Mobilisation? Where to?’ said Yirond, starting to gather his thoughts. He spoke quietly, conscious of where we were. ‘Don’t know for certain. Gunner reckons the rumour is Osgiliath. The real deal.’ ‘Osgiliath? Why? Makes no fuckin’ sense… ….shite.’ He was keeping his voice down. ‘This place has gone tae fuck since Boromir fucked off to the elves and Faramir headed east.’ ‘Worried about going into battle without them?’ I ventured softly. ‘Fuck no, man. We’re good enough. Lugonn and Werryl can hold it together in their absence. No, it’s just….. …ah, fuck it….’ ‘Just?’ Yirond paused and looked at me. His face steeled up and I could see he was on top of the drink again. Amazing how he did that. ‘It’s just that, when Boromir and Faramir are here, there’s structure to what we do. You know? Orders are like ‘Patrol A to B to deter suspect enemy efforts to infiltrate the local population in the vicinity of C’. I understand what we’re trying to achieve. Tasking reflects a known and understood intelligence picture, more often than not informed by our own men in the field. It all makes sense.’ ‘And when they’re not here?’ Yirond grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me to the side of the bar where we could speak more directly without obvious danger of being overheard above the general din in the tavern. ‘The Lord Steward apparently tells Lugonn or Werryl that the enemy will attack a specific target in 2 or 3 days time. Or perhaps the 23rd of September. Sometimes he tells the Knight Captain or Sub-Marshall the exact disposition of enemy forces. More often than not, he’s right. How can he know that shite? Eh? How?’ ‘Well, intelligence, surely?’ Yirond looked disappointed in me. ‘Intelligence my hairy bahoochy. Not by means that I know it.’ He looked at me as if in consideration for a moment. ‘Or maybe it is intelligence, but I say again, not as we know it. And just what price does a city, does a man, pay for it?’ Just then, I could see the Corporal return with Yirond’s kit. ‘Look, here’s Maerras with your clothes.’
As Yirond dressed unashamedly in the bar, I pondered what he had said. Was he talking about clandestine field agents outside Gondorian military authority, the use of Istari artefacts or lore? Surely anything which successfully predicted or modelled enemy activity should be applauded and used directly? Doing up his breeks and checking the state of his belt-kit and knives, Yirond looked across at Maerras. ‘Hey, Corporal – sing these gadgies a song before we go,’ gesturing expansively to the patrons of the bar. Maerras, ranking field medic of the 4th Tower Guard, and resident musician looked nonplussed. ‘What about, Sir?’ ‘I dinnae care, just gies a tune, eh?’ Maerras returned to the table near where he’d been standing with the captain and came back with a lute. He struck up a haunting and melancholy tune and added his voice in melody:
‘The Bull of Gondor, hero and saviour The mighty Bull, finds some cows and lays down with them in their fielded pastures The Bull of Gondor, always in favour Slinks off in the morning before those same cows or any of their bulls can find the filthy bastard.'
'Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you sweet cows of Gondor Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you gracious cows of the White Tree Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you sweet cows of Gondor For The Bull will have his wicked way with thee.'
'Watch for the Bull, suspicious and vigilant Wary of all, especially those who pretend to be a gentleman of caring heart and wit Watch for the Bull, be not willing and supplicant For the Bull is only interested in drinking, boning, fighting and shit.'
'Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you dumb cows of Gondor Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you daft cows of the White Tree Mooooooo-ooooooo-oooooooooooooo-oo, you glaikit cows of Gondor For The Bull will have his wicked way with thee, and thee, and thee, and thee, and thee...'
‘Braw! Nice one, Wee Man!’ shouted Yirond as Maerras’ lute and singing tailed off amongst the slightly more subdued applause of the locals. ‘A brilliant song about a bull, eh?’ ‘It was a metaphor, Yirond,’ I commented. Maerras nodded minutely to me, perhaps unsure of himself. ‘A meta-whit? Fuck you oan about, son? Anyhow’s, let’s get the fuck oot of here and hear whit Lugonn’s got tae say for himself.’
Without waiting, the Bull of Gondor pushed his way forcefully out of the Bar.
‘Beg your pardon, Sir?’ I asked. I was stood to attention in front of Knight Captain Derwyn, Commandant of the Royal Military College Gondor. All around his office, I could make out priceless paintings of great Gondorian heroes of old and historical trophies the like of which I’d never seen. Just to my left, a faded light blue banner apparently taken from the field of Dagorlad after one of our most famous victories. Behind Derwyn’s melon-like baldy heid, a painting of courageous Isildur holding aloft the Blade which was broken as he fought to vanquish Sauron. I’m not an emotional sort, but the hair was up on the back of my neck amongst these… …riches. ‘Cloth for ears, eh? We want you to teach some of our officer cadets. Simple enough, even for the likes of you, Yirond.’ Derwyn winked, as he sat down and proceeded to twirl his elaborate moustache with one lazy finger. ‘What say you?’ Aye, the old boy was taking the pish, eh? I was dumfounded. ‘Mistake... some mistake, surely…’ I responded, weakly. ‘By the Steward’s hairy left bollock, no – I’m perfectly serious, old boy,’ said Derwyn. ‘Captain Vandeire was killed in an unfortunate training accident on the artillery live firing range and his section of officer cadets needs immediate supervision. Hmmmm. Clearly there is some material I couldn’t possibly leave to you – CESR [pronounced ‘Caesar’ – ‘Customs, Etiquette and Social Responsibilities’] for example. If you taught any officer cadets CESR they’d all end up thinking that hooring and fighting is the height of good manners – it isn’t, in case you needed a refresher, Yirond – so I’ll need to get one of your brother Captains to teach that.’ I smirked, but just a wee bit – had to be careful with the senior ruperts. Cheeky auld hoor. He continued: ‘But, take the element of training that they are due to undergo next – Escape and Evasion [E&E] – that’s right up your fucking street, what! Give them a good grounding in E&E, do some conduct under capture shit and put the fucking shit right up them and we’ll release you back to the front line, eh? You can tell them all about that nastiness in Orthanc, what with you being tortured by the forces of Saruman and all that bollocks,’ chuckled the Commandant. ‘Leave my bollocks out of it, eh?’ I murmured. I wasn’t going to tell any cadets fuck all about my own particular conduct under capture at the hands of his Lieutenant, Wormtongue. In the end, I’d sung like a fucking canary. Hours of burning pastes being applied to your wounds does that to you. Wormtongue? A bevvy-hating jessie if ever there was one. ‘Come on, Yirond. They’ll learn more from you in a morning than they would listening to old Vandeire – may the Steward’s sacred arse bless his poor soul – blethering on for weeks. Personal knowledge, Yirond - it’ll make you a first class instructor.’
And so, there I was, 4 days later at midnight in a sodden ditch in the Pelennor, taking a section of ten eagerly thrusting young officer cadets on an E&E live exercise. An exercise where the odds were stacked against them and they could expect to be captured within 6 hours and subjected to low-level torture and physical abuse in an effort to get them to clipe on and generally rat out their mates. I’d given them 2 days of tuition in the College before heading out and being dropped off by wagon, with all the cadets forced to wear blindfolds during the long journey.
‘So,’ I opened, ‘we’re part of a light scout unit and we’re isolated from friendly lines. We know that the enemy forces we’ve just been in contact with and so easily leathered…’ I gestured around us at our imaginary defeated foes ‘managed to get a couple of runners away before we could stop them. Right now, the enemy is massing search units to hunt us down, capture us and generally shag us up the erse or whatever it is that Uruks do to get their kicks. Do you want to be shagged up the hoop by an Uruk?’ I asked Ferond, a glaikit-looking youth who was the youngest cadet present. His eyes opened wide and, with a sharp intake of breath he replied ‘No! I do not, Sir!’ with some gusto. ‘Good lad, Ferond. You most definitely do not want to be shagged up the erse – or anywhere else, for that matter – by an Uruk.’
I pulled a map from my documents case. ‘Here is a map of the local area, showing that we’re in the middle of fucking nowhere. Note the position of our own lines, the disposition of the enemy – pretty much fucking everywhere – and the terrain as outlined on the map. What do we do next? Over to you, kiddywinks.’
A minute or two of debate followed, before Ronald – a dreadful upper-class twit but evidently the self-appointed leader of the section – briefed me on the plan of action. It was a masterpiece of camouflage, concealment and deliberate covert movement back to friendly lines using every skill that the Royal Military College had bestowed upon them. It was exactly what was expected of the lads. And it would get them caught in less than 2 hours. ‘Excellent, Ronald. I couldn’t plan it any better myself,’ I said, patting him on one shoulder. The young lad beamed a grin, and looked around his colleagues who all spoke words of encouragement. ‘However, despite being the best possible plan at our disposal, I fear we’ll be proverbially shagged up our erses by Gondorian Regulator staff dressed as Uruks ere too long. But then, that is what is expected of this particular exercise, as you well know.’ There was a soft groan of dismay from the assembled aspirant officers. I paused, then looked up at them hopefully. ‘Can I trust you, cadets? Can I? Steel yourselves; this is not for the faint of heart… …there is an alternative plan – a daring plan - which might be of interest…’ I uttered softly. I looked around us as if into the furthest, darkest reaches of the ditch which headed eastwards. The cadets all craned their necks forwards to catch what I whispered next. ‘There is a village just 2 miles east of us. A village by name of Varndil.’ ‘Er, there is no village marked on the map, Sir,' interjected Ronald. ‘Ahhhh, you’re a sharp one, Ronald. You’re perfectly right; there is no village marked on our map of hypothetically enemy-held lands. But I can assure you that the village of Varndil is just 2 miles east of here. May I suggest we make haste to Varndil and… …acquire resources?’ I remarked. ‘Er, begging the Captain’s pardon, but aren’t population centres out of bounds for exercise purposes? Sir?’ persisted the young twit. ‘If we just happened to come across a village, and that village happened to have some… …resources, what kind of sons of Gondor would we be if we failed to improvise and use those resources?’ I countered. ‘Resources? To help us escape? Horses? ...Horses and a wagon!’ uttered Ronald excitedly. I rewarded Ronald with another encouraging grin. ‘Something like that…’
To be fair, we used a number of skills on our way to Varndil. All the aspirants applied field camouflage, dulling armour and faces with mud, breaking outlines and silhouettes by applying plant matter – sprigs of bush, long grasses and the like - and travelling along a dried stream-bed which led us close to the village. We had to avoid 2 sentries, which were brilliantly spotted by Ferond, who clearly was pretty full-on about not being shagged up the erse by Uruks or otherwise. I made a mental note to check his reports from earlier training elements covering scout and recce duties – he might merit further consideration for permanent assignment to one of Gondor’s twin scout units in the future.
Ferond on point, we entered the poorly lit village quietly, covered from view by a long wall demarking what appeared to be a particularly shitty orchard not worth the name. A secondary street opened up to our front. The officer cadets immediately focused on a low enclosure containing a pair of draught horses to our right, and a nearby covered wagon which evidently served as a fruit stall at some pitiful market. Ronald made to assign some cadets to get the horses. I put a hand on his arm to stop him. ‘We’re not here for the gee-gees,’ I whispered. ‘We’re not?’ asked Ronald incredulously. ‘Oh no. We’re here for that.’ I gestured across the street to a dimly outlined shed. Without waiting for any further questions, I led them silently across to the rear wall of the stone-built building. ‘Complete silence,’ I warned them softly. ‘Ferond, I want you inside that fucking shed sharpish,’ I said as I pointed at a ventilation louvre in the wall above us. ‘Open the shed from inside. Be quiet.’ A couple of the lads boosted wee Farond up. He was in like a banana being sooked up Lilly the Minx’s wizard’s sleeve. A little over a minute later, there was a soft creak as a loading door was opened from inside the building. Ferond and I ushered the others in.
‘Er, what are we here for, Sir?’ asked Ronald. ‘There’s nothing here except for some old barrels. Should we get the horses now?’ ‘Oh behave, lad. It’s the barrels we’re here for.’ I wandered across to the nearest pile of barrels and reverently caressed one of the wooden casks. ‘Arnor Skullsplitter. The finest – and strongest – ale known to mankind. A section of Gondorian officers, here in the Varndil Brewery storage shed? Unsupervised? And with my reputation? Derwyn must have been stark raving bonkers. Open these wee beauties up and let’s get fuckin’ steamin’!’
‘What about the exercise?’ cried Ronald, clearly dismayed. We left him there, gawping. The others were right into yon barrels. Show the dog the rabbit, eh?
______________________________________________________________________________ Some hours later, I was awoken by the dull clanking of shod horses outside the building. There were a lot of generally horsey noises and some shouting. I couldn’t be completely sure of what was going on, on account of being absolutely minging. I did remember some kind of foreman gadgie dressed in a brewery tabard pointing at us and calling us a "bunch of fucking tink minkers". Remembering my instructor duties, I shouted hoarsely ‘Name, Rank, Number – fuck all else, lads. Conduct under capture, ya bas!’ as a final reminder to my students. The last thing I remember before one of the regulators iron-shod boots connected with my head was Farond shouting ‘Ain’t no Uruk going to shag me up the erse!’
Good lad. That’s the spirit. Damn the recce unit to Melkor. If he survived the kicking he was just about to get by the Gondorian Regulators, Farond was going to join the 4th Tower of Ecthelion Guard in the brevet rank of Lieutenant. Whether he liked the idea or not.
‘We’re going to lose the town,’ bellowed Yirond as he strode into the church. Gesturing to the troops stationed at the entrance, he headed towards Lieutenant Farond and Sergeant Gunner, who were busy trying to placate the kirk’s minister. Behind him, the heavy doors were slammed shut with an ominous thundering sound, and the lads set to the task of forming a barricade.
Yirond nodded in appreciation as pews were ripped up from their mounts and elaborate 7’ long decorative candleholders, bookstands and other assorted ecumenical material was unceremoniously dumped into place. The minister had spotted Yirond and was making a beeline towards him. He looked, thought Yirond, like he was going completely fucking tonto. Which was to be expected.
‘Captain! Captain!’ shouted the minister, a tiny spec of frothy spit landing on Yirond’s left cheek. ‘This cannot be! Tell me that your men aren’t serious!’
The Captain gently placed his gauntleted hands on the man’s shoulders and looked down on him with a kindly expression. ‘Measures need to be taken, wee man. But we won’t do this if we can avoid it,’ he tried to reassure the incandescent minister.
As if on cue, Corporal Felstern appeared at the foot of a stairwell to Yirond’s left. Tac signs were flashed briefly, before the old goat disappeared back up the stairs towards the kirk’s bell tower.
‘Bollocks… …ah, it appears that the measures are, indeed, necessary…’ said Yirond, with an obvious tone of regret.
‘Bastards! Heathen bastards! Mnnnnnnnnnnnnnnghh… …bastarding BASTARDS!’ shouted the Minister, launching himself at the Captain.
‘Oochyabas!’ responded Yirond. The wee hoor was hanging onto him like a randy dog humping a leg, grabbing his whiskers with one hand and clawing the back of his neck with the other. ‘Forgive me’ muttered Yirond, as he promptly kneed the enraged man in the bawbag.
‘Padre, we don’t have time for this,’ stated Yirond, looking with some concern at the clergyman writhing on the floor holding onto his bollocks.
He knelt down next to the Minister, who flinched away from his touch. Yirond motioned to Farond and Gunner to continue their preparation for the imminent attack.
Not without sympathy, Yirond spoke gently to the minister, struggling to be heard above the noise generated by those on barricade duty.
‘Your flock… …has gone. They’ve retreated to Gondor in accordance with the Steward’s wishes. Those that remain are likely cowering in their cellars, hoping this is a bad dream. It isn’t. Any civilians who haven’t left the town already and aren’t in this building are going to die.’
The Minister raised his head at this, looking at Yirond through eyes streaming with tears of pain and frustration.
‘The advance elements of the Host of Mordor is here, spearheading an assault that will end at the gates of Minas Tirith. This town, your town… …it never stood a chance. Whatever happens, our only chance against the forces of Sauron –‘
‘Do not speak that name in here, you blasphemous shite!’ spat the minister.
‘- our only chance is to break them at the White City,’ continued Yirond. ‘This town is lost…’
The minister looked up, pleading. ‘But my church… …years of… …I can’t…’
Yirond stood up, stretching himself to his full height. When he spoke next, his voice was one of deliberate and cold resolve and authority.
‘Your church, padre, will sacrifice itself to the greater good of the world of man. This town may be lost, but your kirk… … will be a symbol…’
The minister’s sobbing hitched momentarily as he spat out a perfunctory ‘Bastard…’ but there was little venom left in it.
Yirond continued, walking up to the pulpit. ‘A symbol, padre. Right now, my men are drawing those Mordor hoorbags in towards the church. They’ve been on the march for several weeks, they’re running out of food and they are hungry. They want in here,’ Yirond gestured around the kirk ‘to eat us. To have a jammy Tower Guard piece. To have a wee munch on your leg, padre. Yum yum!’
The minister looked aghast. By now, Yirond was standing at the church lectern, arms spread wide, veritably preaching to the troops who were just completing the barricade.
‘They will come in here, padre, expecting to find us. They will be DISAPPOINTED!’ Yirond shouted, clearly warming to his role.
‘Can I hear you say ‘Bless The Steward’ ?’ asked the captain.
All around the church, muttered utterances of ‘Bless The Steward’ could be heard, with the exception of Lieutenant Farond, who felt the need to bellow ‘Bless The Steward, uh-uh, HALLELUJAAAAAA!’
The sounds of fighting could now be heard in the distance; the horde was now advancing into the square dominated by the church, barely kept in check by the footsoldiers of the IVth Tower Guard. Felstern appeared at the foot of the stairwell again, flicking tac signs to Yirond and Gunner.
The grizzled Sergeant left with his Chief Scout to supervise the rope extraction of some of the rearguard, who would be hauled up into the church from the two towers at the front of the building. Not all of them were expected to survive, as the host were sure to have Orc archers and the process would not be swift.
‘They will not find us, padre. We’ll be oot ben the fucking back of your holy hoose, scaling down that cliff like wee monkeys. Not all of us will make it, but it’s the best hope we’ve got to get out of here and – let’s face it, this is the real reason – to bleed those Mordor-spawned hoors out front. Your church will sacrifice itself to the greater good of man, nae bother; your church will burn. Let me hear you say ‘In The Steward’s Name.’
‘In The Steward’s Name!’
‘… In The Steward’s Name, uh-uh, HALLELUJAAAAAA!’
At Yirond’s nod, Corporal Adhren and eight of his men positioned immediately in front of the pulpit started work, pushing a number of dark, wet-looking caskets towards a thick metal box that appeared to have been bolted together in some haste. Adhren supervising, a couple of the troops started pouring the contents of the barrels into the large steel container. Large slabs of thick liquid-coated waxy blocks spattered dully into the box, and the air immediately took on a bitter tang that seemed to strip the very hair from everyone’s noses. Despite the foul nature of the concoction, the bearded NCO hovered above the box, bollocking one of the troops with a sharp ‘Gonnae no get this fuckin’ muck oan yer hons, fer fuck’s sake!’
Meanwhile, Yirond continued his impromptu sermon.
‘And lo, Corporal Adhren’s barrels of hexamine will vent their foul products into the very air of the kirk, and will take on explosive properties which, Steward willing, will lay waste to the western quarter of this miserable town, and burn many hundreds of the black-hearted bastards who, this very minute, are busy making their way towards this holy place, all for the purposes of having a Yirond jumbo sausage supper.’
Yirond’s eyes looked expectant, as he watched the final barrel poured into place, and a set of mechanical bellows attached to the front of the box.
Adhren was busy, removing a pin which set the bellows working, rapidly pumping up and down and filling the interior of the church with the strong smell of hexamine. The box played it’s part, with a number of holes strategically positioned around the frame allowing the rapidly evaporating material to disperse its fumes efficiently. The atmosphere inside the kirk was rapidly becoming toxic, and many of the troops were coughing openly or had draped rags or corners of their cloaks over their mouths.
As the first thud of an armoured war troll hitting the doors made itself felt, Yirond picked up the pace, motioning to Gunner, who had returned from supervising the rope extraction of the troops to the front of the church. There was a brief ‘yelp!’ as the burly SNCO grabbed the minister and threw him over his shoulder.
‘LISTEN! And the unbelievers did come unto the house of the IVth, and spaketh ‘Let us in for we are hungry for a bacon double guardsman burger’ and the IVth did righteously respond ‘PICK UP YER STUFF AND GET TAE FUCK – GERRRRIIITT RIGHT FUCKIN UP YOUUUUUUUUUUUSSS!’ And the kirk did just verily burn, and then when the hex fumes reached a particular saturation level, it simply fucking exploded and killed every Mordor bastard in the town. Here endeth the lesson. Hail to The Steward!’
By the time Yirond jumped down from the pulpit, his troops had gone, exiting the church by the rear door opening onto a small reliquary buried into the vertical cliff-face. Dry-heaving momentarily – it really was a struggle to breathe now - the captain stood carefully over the bellows unit. It was a masterpiece of engineering and a true testament that Adhren was wasted as a guardsman. As the Corporal had instructed him, he carefully raised the striking hammer and felt it lock in position. Already, he could feel the rhythmic vibration that indicated that the clockwork mechanism was counting down.
A loud explosion near the front doors jarred the building and caused the bellows to skip to one side, nearly causing Yirond to wet his breeks. Adhren had left a number of surprises for the Mordor-spawn outside the church and it was hoped that they would delay their assault on the building and buy some time to escape. Certainly, the banging on the doors had ceased, and there was the clear but frightening sound of an enraged troll screaming in pain.
Walking with a calm that he did not feel, Yirond exited the church. Unsteady on his feet, hacking at the burning air being rejected by his body and struggling to maintain consciousness, he was already scared witless at the prospect of the cliff descent that lay ahead.
Outside the church was a small cliff shelf barely wide enough to take a couple of paces on, with a small, rough hewn clay religious icon depicting an old Istari positioned in a small recessed hole in the cliff-face to Yirond’s left. Ignoring the relic, the captain grabbed one of the ropes that his men had carefully picketed into the ground with long steel rods. Gulping with barely restrained fear, he flung himself over the edge before he had time to think about what he was doing.
At the foot of the cliff, Yirond fell to his knees and craned his neck upwards. He had just descended nearly half a mile of fear-inducing rock-face, some of it under sporadic but largely ineffective archer fire once the few surviving elements of the Mordor vanguard had regrouped. He felt like he had aged several years in a matter of hours. A few feet away, he heard someone clearly say the word ‘Bastard’. He looked over, and was relieved to see the Minister, staring at him with tired hatred, clearly fatigued but still alive after being carried down the rope by Gunner. The Sergeant himself was visible to the padre’s right. He was asleep.
Farond sat down next to him. The young officer had a wiry frame and was incredibly agile – Yirond dully noted that the Lieutenant hardly looked like he had exerted himself.
‘Twelve dead, Sir. All but one from the left hand rope.’
Yirond nodded softly. He’d seen the burning pew as it tumbled from above, stripping a number of climbers clean off the rope to the extreme left. A freakish accident, nothing could have been done about it.
‘Guardsman Trenchard – he lost his footing and fell from rope 4. Sir – one of the lads from rope 1… …we lost Adhren.’
Yirond sat back on his haunches and put his head in his hands, muttering a soft ‘Bollocks.’
Adhren – a genius who had somehow been drafted into being a bully-boy guardsman. His engineering knowledge would be missed. The lad had had some bright ideas – the clusterfuck far above their heads notwithstanding.
Approximately 5 minutes after leaping over the edge of the cliff, the striking hammer of Adhren’s contraption had released, creating a spark which had ignited the volatile explosive vapour given off by the dangerously disintegrating hexamine compound. The results had been catastrophic for the new residents of the town. Yirond could only imagine the devastation above them and knew, with absolute certainty, that the thousand or so enemy spotted by Felstern had been decimated as the kirk had exploded with incalculable force.
The guardsmen had felt the wave of heat as it washed over them whilst they attempted to wrestle their misbehaving ropes into submission, then had to hug the cliff face as flaming debris rained on them from above. This was complicated by the fact that the very rockface had twitched and heaved for some dangerous seconds as the shockwave from above punished the guardsmen. The full destructive power of Adhren’s device was obscene, and Yirond felt a momentary twinge of guilt at ordering the destruction of an entire town, despite the fact Adhren’s hushed suggestion had led to a brutal wiping out of many hundreds of the foe. The use of such a weapon would need to be considered cautiously; it heralded a potential evolution in warfare – one that the captain was not entirely comfortable with.
In amongst the heaving gasps of knackered and contemplative troops filling their lungs with much needed oxygen, Yirond was annoyed by the sound of joyful exultation. He turned to shut up whichever idiot was making a fuss, his mind already turning to a forced march on the long road back to Minas Tirith. He stopped when he saw the minister, both hands in the air, facing northwest.
‘A symbol! A sign! In The Steward’s name!’ shouted the padre, not without warmth and feeling. Yirond, curious, crept up behind the energetic clergyman. He was looking at the top of an elaborate gold candlestick holder which had fallen from the church and embedded itself absolutely vertical in the ground about 50 feet away. Inexplicably, the candle was alight and, sighting along the top of the minister’s head, it was clear that, to the padre at least, it lined up perfectly with the Tower of Ecthelion, standing proudly at the summit of Minas Tirith on the far horizon.
‘Fuck my old boots,’ thought the Captain, before kicking Gunner in the erse and preparing to get the IVth Tower of Ecthelion Guard on the road.
Trudging wearily back to the Barracks, Yirond avoided even momentary eye contact or discussion with any of the guardsmen on the first watch. Restrained early morning half-light acknowledgements or salutes were met with a brief grunt as the giant officer negotiated both the wall defences and his splitting hangover.
The big man was a mess; although his dark blue guard cloak hid it well, there was distinct scorching to the front of his tunic, courtesy of several very large glasses of flaming brandy that had got out of control. On reflection, setting fire to strong spirits before quaffing them was not the best idea he’d had for some time, and one flank of Yirond’s muttonchop whiskers looked slightly shorter and somewhat more ragged than the other – visible evidence of being singed.
The massive fortified gate to the IVth Ward was still shut at this hour, so Yirond had to negotiate the small guardsmen’s entrance to its left. The cool air inside the thick stone gatehouse offered brief respite, but he was soon outside and the orange spears of morning sunrise were as deadly to Yirond as an Uruk left to their own devices in a room full of defenceless women and children.
Stopping briefly to bark a few mouthfuls of vomit into the gutter, he continued on his way. A pair of crows cawing to each other as they surveyed the entrance to the drill square were greeted with a curt ‘Gerrit up ye,’ as the Captain wandered into sight of the barracks. By now, there was a steady stream of guardsmen filing out of the cookhouse and armoury lining the sides of the square, marching to their various details, the majority heading to the walls to relieve the first watch.
Corporal Adhren led 1 and 5 section off to Yirond’s right. Seeing the Captain, Adhren purposefully marched his troops passed the officer, bellowing ‘EYES… …RIGHT!’ and sweeping his longsword around smartly in a salute that Yirond could only meekly respond to with a weak flap of his hand. Adhren’s cheerful ‘Morning, Sir!’ was simply ignored.
As he arrived at the entrance to the barracks, Yirond took a couple of deep breaths and wondered what explanation he would try and offer Sergeant Gunner for non-attendance at the Training, Tactics and Procedures session being led by Lieutenant Farond. Nothing too elaborate, thought Yirond – perhaps a basic ‘I’m still utterly gubbed, wee man – sort it oot, Gunner’ would suffice; there certainly wasn’t any point in trying to pull the wool over the grizzled veteran’s eyes.
As his mind drifted, he saw Testamir off to the left, underneath one of the large oak trees helping to block the view of the barracks from the trade houses to the north west. Wearing nothing much except a pair of canvas trousers, the Knight was going through his usual morning routine, whirling his sword and battleaxe in perfect arcs, every move and flourish an act of measured precision and force.
Yirond headed back towards the Champion. As an example of violent grace, the dance conducted by his friend was a sight to behold. Slumping against the tree, Yirond silently assessed the quality of the various moves, wondering at their potential lack of worth in a disciplined fight, but marvelling at the blur of motion in front of him. Finishing the routine with a complex series of swings that seemed to physically overlap each other, Testamir stood still for a brief moment, before sinking smoothly to the ground, legs crossed, his face a vision of calm and peacefulness.
‘Bravo’ muttered Yirond, clapping his gloved hands hollowly from his position beneath the awning of the tree. ‘A disciplined rank of Orcs would open you up like a hoor’s drawers, but pretty nonetheless.’
‘It’s an exercise, old boy – keeps the mind and body in good trim,’ replied Testamir. ‘Besides, no Orcs have opened me up yet; seems to me that whore’s drawers are your area of expertise, chap,’ grinned the Champion in a gentle rebuttal.
The Captain didn’t really have an answer to that. He settled his chin down on his chest, sighed softly and muttered ‘Touche, ya bas.’ The two sat in silence for a few minutes. Testamir with his eyes closed and perfectly balanced, Yirond gazing South East at some imaginary point beyond the tiered defensive walls of the White City.
Testamir stirred, picking up his weapons and rising to his bare feet. ‘When do we head out?’ he asked.
‘Day efter the morn,’ said Yirond, adding ‘er, Orcs’ almost as an afterthought.
‘Relieving the 2nd?’
‘Aye,’ replied the Captain. ‘Resupply and relief. 2nd are down to 60% combat effective. A lot of casualties.’
‘Look, old boy. Why don’t you join me here tomorrow morning? We can do these exercises together – take your mind off it and all that,’ offered Testamir.
Yirond simply laughed, standing unsteadily and drawing a small battered silver hipflask from inside his tunic. ‘Bollocks tae that,’ he said, lifting the flask and taking an enormous mouthful of the fiery spirits within.
‘You’ve got your ritual,’ stated the Captain, heading towards the barracks. ‘I’ve got mine…’
It was a bold time to mount an attack within the city walls; in the autumnal orange light of dusk, there were still numbers of people on the streets, if not the one being taken by Captain Yirond on his way home from a long afternoon of wagering.
Pausing momentarily as two figures appeared to his front, black silhouettes skylined against the dark shadows at the end of the alley, he darted to the left and grabbed a large handcart left outside a tawdry cloth menders. Heaving his weight into the cart, he dragged it crossways into the alley before toppling it behind him to cut off the two thugs he’d already identified as following him just a minute earlier. ‘Don’t think ah’m gonnae make it easy, boys!’ he shouted up the alley. ‘Cummaughn ya bas!’ Yirond bellowed, drawing his heavy Bastard sword in a smooth arc from the broad scabbard suspended from a shoulder belt. A Bastard it was not; the Fury of Anarion was a weapon of singular quality.
Yirond heard some muffled voices to his rear, his trick with the handcart causing his pursuers some concern, but the shadows to the front closed the distance quickly, seeming to glide like wraiths along both sides of the narrow path.
‘Master Walter doesn’t like being taken a lend of, soldier boy,’ muttered one of the attackers softly, almost within reach of Yirond’s sword, but hanging back hesitantly from the enormous blade being wielded by the commander of the IVth Tower of Ecthelion Guard.
Ahhh, Walter Copperhand, thought Yirond. A loudmouthSmith’s merchant and bully, who had suffered an obscenely heavy loss at cards this afternoon.
‘Perhaps Master Walter should choose his opponents more carefully, be more cautious with his betting or cheat better than he tried today, good sirs. Preferably all three measures if you ask me,’ offered Yirond, not taking his eyes from the shadows in front of him.
The standoff was broken briefly by one of the cloth mender’s neighbours sticking his head out of his door, only to be told to go back inside and mind his own business in a coarsely barked instruction from the other individual to Yirond’s front. The man quickly ducked back into his hovel, causing the Captain to curse under his breath.
‘Give us the Master’s money and we’ll leave you alone, no funny business’ tempted the shadow on the left. ‘Put the money down, nice and easy like.’
‘It’s not your portly Master’s money, wee man,’ sneered Yirond, ‘and neither is it mine. Right now, the money belongs to The Steward, in payment of my Officers’ Mess bar bill. Tell Walter he can go ask Lord Denethor for the fucking money.’
‘Fuck you and fuck The Steward, soldier boy,’ spat the most vocal assailant on the left. ‘Get him!’
Yirond heard a hollow sound as the boot of one of the thugs to the rear caught on a wooden board of the handcart, but concentrated on the two men to the front. Feinting to his left with a brief dip of his sword, he swiftly threw himself violently forwards to the right, curling into a tight ball and holding the Fury of Anarion out to the left as he rolled. One of the bravo’s swords whistled above him, cutting through the air but missing him by a foot. Rising up out of the roll, he dragged the sword across the legs of the man to the right, delivering a thunderous headbutt to his face and sending him staggering backwards into his colleague before his life started to pish out from the gaping wounds above both knees.
Conscious that the men behind him would be over the cart in moments, Yirond elected to get rid of the group’s leader, whose sword arm had been caught by his friend’s grasping hand on his way to the alley floor. Swinging the Fury overhead mightily in both hands, Yirond’s blade parted the thug’s head from his neck before he could disentangle himself and bring his sword to bear.
The Captain felt a cold bite of pain in his shoulder, which intensified when the blade wielded by one of the men behind him reached the bone and skipped sickly to one side. His attacker had clearly meant for Yirond’s neck, but the wide swing of his earlier devastating blow had caused his assailant to miss.
Dropping the Bastard sword, Yirond frantically sought to grab the hand holding the dagger impaled in his shoulder, the slippery blood making the task much more awkward. After a tortuous second, he managed to pull the blade free and drive backwards strongly with his legs. Short, aggressive strides later, he was rewarded with an ‘oooomph!’ as he battered his attacker into the cart.
His vision already starting to grey out, Yirond giddily delivered a blow backwards with his left elbow, eliciting a weak gasp from his foeman. A brief second later the man was as good as dead, with his own dagger thrust upwards through his jaw, the blow lifting him off his feet in the process.
Dropping the still-living corpse, Yirond staggered backwards, weakening further by the second. Loosely aware that the front of his tunic looked live a grim souvenir from an abattoir, Yirond desperately sought his fourth attacker before his strength gave out.
In truth, the man wasn’t difficult to spot. An enormously unfit looking fellow, he was still caught on the other side of the handcart and hadn’t been able to scale the obstacle with his colleague. The wagon shuddered slightly as the man put his weight into it, but a scant moment later, he was gone, perhaps only now realising that his partners had been slain.
Yirond tottered a couple of steps to his right and slumped to the alley floor, retrieving his sword with one blood-spattered hand.
Lifting his head, he managed to croak a throaty ‘Medic’ before making attempts to press his left hand firmly against his shoulder, trying to plug the wound.
A few moments later, some civilians emerged from the buildings lining the alley. The cloth mender’s neighbour who had stuck his head out earlier was the first to react, telling a boy – maybe his son – to run to the 1st Ward gatehouse and fetch some guardsmen. He then tended to Yirond, whilst others struggled to right the handcart and search the thugs.
Offering some basic advice about stuffing his cloak into the hole in his shoulder and maintaining direct pressure, Yirond was not surprised when his good Samaritan started to search him also. Happening upon Yirond’s coinpurse – not the one hidden in his left boot, thank The White Tree! – the man opened it, glanced inside and said ‘very nice,’ grinning all the while at the prostate Captain.
Yirond, happy simply to be alive, smiled weakly and laughed.
I lie under the bed. Getting into the house had presented me with no challenge. I am appalled by their lack of security. I wait patiently beneath this large, stinking cot. I’ve been in worse places. Oh, yes. A group of men had arrived at the large house some 2 hours before. I listened to their furious shouting and the sound of objects – a vase, a water jug maybe, and a body or two - being thrown around in the common room below. For the past hour, everything is fairly quiet, only occasionally punctuated by a brief shout or the muffled sound of smashing glass. I wait, patiently. Patience is a virtue. All good things come to those that wait.
Finally, I hear the sound of heavy leaden footsteps ascending the stairs outside the room. It is an hour after midnight. A series of mental exercises, taught long ago, allow me to keep track of time. I find it useful.
The door handle makes a prolonged series of sounds, as the drunken owner of the room fumbles with the large metal ring that levers the door hasp. He is pissed. I allow myself a brief, thin smile. He is an idiot.
Swinging the door open rudely, Walter Copperhand staggers into his bedroom. I hear him mutter the word ‘bastard.’ Although I cannot see him, I know he stands still in confusion as he tries to decide what his next step should be. I imagine him assessing whether he is best served just throwing himself forward onto the bed. In the end, he carefully shuffles around and pushes the door to. He sensibly and safely secures himself inside using a large iron key that takes the fool precisely 6 attempts to engage in the lock. He is unaware that, with the simple turn of a small piece of steel, he has just killed himself. He thinks he is alone. He does not know that I, Corporal Felstern, am waiting. Patiently.
The fucking minker doesn’t bother to disrobe or even take his boots off. What are dirty bedclothes to a rich merchant? I am disgusted. He makes his way round the side of the bed, bouncing off a dressing table in the process. I could touch his foot if I wanted to. I don’t. I lie still as he collapses on top of the bed. It sags disturbingly above me. I wait. Patiently. Within 5 minutes, he is snoring like an auroch.
I wait a further half hour. I use the time profitably, investing effort to stretch individual muscles in an elaborate but well trodden ritual. I am ready for action. I roll gently to one side, crab slightly on my elbows and heels before rising to my feet in a flowing seamless movement. I make not a sound.
I look to the bed. I am completely silent. Nothing moves except for the steady rise and fall of his chest. I wait, completely motionless for 2 minutes. I plan each step and mentally rehearse each physical action.
I strike. With my right hand, I draw a mean-looking dwarf iron blade from the harness strapped underneath my left armpit. The other hand pivots downwards to clamp over Master Copperhand’s mouth. I am strong. He cannot move. His eyes flicker open in confused, drunken panic. I lean forwards and whisper ‘He lives.’ Simultaneously, I carve open his throat with a single sure and graceful arc of my combat knife. The blade slices deeply. The angle is precise. Within a second a fan of blood jets out violently over the bedclothes. It is a good, clean death; no blood on me; no pathetic drumming of feet; no despairing whimpers, just a second or two of dawning reality. Did he show any recognition that the Captain is still alive? I don’t think so. I don’t care.
I stand back, surveying the scene. I draw a mental picture to relay to Yirond on the hospital ward of the Barracks. He is unlikely to want the all the details, but it wont hurt to have them to hand. Not everyone understands that my work is an art-form. I allow myself a mental shrug. They are fools. I step further back and take in the rest of the room. I smile. Here is where the true art of the evening will be witnessed. It is something the Captain doesn’t need to hear about. I set to work…
Before I am ready to leave the building, I identify 3 separate caches of gold and jewels. Something is wrong; my intuition tells me I’ve missed something, but I’m running out of time. In any event, I’ve relieved the merchant of the lion’s share of any riches he stored in his bedroom. Fuck him. His sons are heading down the same path as their corrupt, bully-boy father, so I’m doing them a favour. Who the fuck do these merchants think they are? Trying to kill good, honest guardsmen in plain sight in the White City? Fuck them. I sigh as I upend the oil lamp positioned next to bed, pouring the contents over the heavy bed-linen draped around the foot of the miserable cot.
I will miraculously ‘discover’ the fire in just a few minutes, early enough to stop it spreading to neighbouring properties, but not quickly enough to stop House Copperhand turning into a pyre. I personally don’t care about the surrounding buildings, but I am under orders. A couple of sparks from my tinderbox and the job is done. I pat down to make sure I have all my equipment. I am ready to depart.
I lift the window and lever myself onto the ledge, chuckling softly.