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The Last Prince

Chapter Text

The shrill blast of the sentry’s horn cut through the silence of the winter evening, warning of travellers approaching on the road. In his sparsely furnished chamber in the keep Prince Merendir, commander of the garrison rose from the table where he had been deep in thought studying reports and rosters and strode over to the window, both curious as to who might be approaching at this hour, and glad of the distraction their unexpected arrival provided. He did not have long to wait before a call went up below and the gate was opened and a rider, a messenger from Amon Sul judging by his garb and harness, made his way into the courtyard and dismounted from his horse, steam rising in clouds from its flanks in the chill air. A few moments later he heard the clatter of boots in the passage outside and there was a rap on the door. The Prince’s adjutant Vardamir, a gnarled old soldier with a limp entered with the messenger in his wake. Merendir recognised the man as one of the regular riders from the tower and thought to himself that whatever he carried must be of some import if he had been instructed to hand it over directly rather than simply passing it to the guards.

The messenger bowed and saluted and opened his satchel, pulling out the bound leather tube that contained the scroll, and gave it to the Prince. He was young and looked apprehensive, for Merendir’s reputation as a severe and exacting commander was widely known, though he was never capricious. “Wither comes this message?” he asked, “that will not wait for the weekly baggage train?” The messenger looked doubtful and replied “I know only that it came from Cardolan my Lord, from the citadel at Ost-en-Tyrn four days since and I was instructed to carry it with all haste here and hand it to you directly. I pray that it carries glad tidings”. Merendir shook his head “Good news rarely flies on such swift wings, but I thank you for your service. Vardamir here will see that you and your mount are well fed and rested”, With that the two men bowed and left the room, and Merendir carried the package over to the table, where a candle spluttered and smoked and cast an ever brighter pool of dancing light as the darkness deepened outside. Seating himself slowly, he undid the lace that bound the lid to the casing and drew out the document within, noting that it bore the royal seal of his house before breaking it and unrolling the parchment. It was written in a fair hand that he immediately recognised as that of his elder brother Maenir, for they had long maintained a correspondance, but what was written here could be no idle account of the doings of household or court.

“Merendir, it is with the greatest sadness that I must inform you of the passing of our eldest brother and liege Aglareb, Ruling Prince of Cardolan. He died after a short illness, and so passed a man of great courage, and strength who ruled our realm with wisdom during some of its darkest days. It will be a hard task for any to follow him, but by law and custom that duty now falls to me and I will try to rule to the best of my ability. My burden would be greatly eased with you at my side brother, as Captain General, and so I ask that you make preparations forthwith to return here and take up your new duties. I have appointed our nephew Amarion to replace you as Warden of the Eastern Marches, a position which you have devoted yourself to tirelessly for years beyond count to the great renown of your name and that of our house. He will depart for Amon Sul in the next few days and should reach you by the end of the month.

Maenir, Prince Of Cardolan and Lord of Ost-en-Tyrn”.

Merendir remained seated, his mind in a whirl at the many implications of his brother’s words and filled with conflicting emotions. He had been the youngest of five sons, and his eldest brothers had tormented him incessantly in his youth, accusing him of receiving undue favour and indulgence from their mother and father, so there had been little enough love between them. And then there had been the matter of Ivrien, daughter of a noble house and his beloved, who Aglareb had taken to wed against her wishes as a matter of political expediency. Heartbroken and filled with anger and despair, he had sworn to depart Ost-en-Tyrn and never return, devoting himself into a life of hard service and danger fighting the incursions from Angmar and later Rhudaur in the east of their realm. Nigh on seventy years, almost the whole of his adult life had subsequently been spent in the wild and empty lands of the east defending the road and the tower of Amon Sul alongside the men of Arthedain. But now he would be returning home, for though Maenir might be mild of manner and gentle his words were now those of command and to gainsay him would be treason. Merendir’s hair was now silver, his noble features lined with the cares of many years and his old wounds often agued him when he first rose in the morning, so he was well aware that the day when a younger man would replace him would come sooner rather than later. His nephew was a fine warrior from what he knew of him, if a little impetuous like their brother Durchon, the fourth of the brothers, so he could not in truth be too concerned on that count. Furthermore it had been largely peaceful on their borders for many years now and there was little sign for the moment that anything would change.

Home… despite his youthful vow he had of course by necessity returned there from time to time but never tarried and had never done more than his bare duty, returning as soon as possible to the east. The garrison at Amon Sul and subsequently the fortress at Amon Perin at the half way point along the road to Rhudaur which he had instigated the building of were his true home now and it would be hard to leave. But leave he must, for he could imagine his brother would indeed have need of his aid to rule. Where his two eldest brothers had been cruel and unrelenting in their treatment of him Maenir had always showed him kindness. He was unusual, for unlike his siblings he was neither tall nor strong and from the beginning showed himself more adept at learning and book work than skill at arms. This had not made him any less suited to command, for he had a quick mind and sharp wits and was a skilful administrator as a result, but it made him an easy target for mockery in a land full of soldiers and he would now be faced with trying to tame the restive leading houses of Cardolan and all their plots and intrigues. The arrival of Prince Merendir, so called Wolf of the Eastern Marches would change all that, he thought with a wry smile. Perhaps it was time indeed, and certainly time to lend aid to the brother who had often lent it to him in their youth, for he loved him well. Still weighed down by the implications of the letter but now a little clearer in his mind he rose from the table and went over to the door, opened it and called for Vardamir. The men would have to be gathered at once in the main hall and the death of the Prince made known to them, and the necessary formalities observed thereafter.

The following weeks during which he waited for Amarion to arrive allowed him time to come to terms with his new situation, and to prepare for his own departure, though he had few personal possessions and would need no more than a pair of pack horses to carry them. He could only think that the Prince’s burial would already have taken place in his absence and that he would be laid to rest with his forefathers in one of the ancient barrows high on the downs. It was not conceivable that they would wait for his return, for even a rider exchanging fast horses would not be able to make the journey in less than five or six days, let alone wait for another party to arrive more slowly first. It was the immense breadth of the realm, so sparsely populated despite its hospitable and fertile lands that had made it so vulnerable to the initial orc raids from the north eighty years before. Those raids had devastated the few widely scattered settlements between the South Road and the Greyflood and the Kingdom as it then was had been too slow at first in mounting a defence. A least he and his men’s long service in the east had meant that it could not so easily happen again.

And so it was that the day came when that service was finally at an end. Snow was falling thickly and by the time the small column of riders were sighted and sentry’s horn sounded the column were already quite close by. Merendir,who had been watching some of his men practising their swordplay in the main hall put on his cloak and made his way out into the small courtyard, and as had been prepared a small guard of honour formed up near the gate, though the snow soon began to settle on them to the detriment of their meticulous preparations. The gates were opened and the riders entered, climbing up the short slope from the road below. Amarion, who was in the van on a great black horse dismounted with a curse and threw back his hood. Handing the reins of his mount to one of the guards he strode over to Merendir, saluted and then embraced him. “Greetings Uncle, I trust the weather is not always so foul here! We thought to turn into Lossoth ere we reached this place”. Merendir smiled, sizing up the man before him and forming a favourable first impression. “Greetings Lord Amarion, long is it since last our paths crossed, but I see that you have prospered in the years since last we met. Come within, we will see you and your men warmed and fed, though you may find it plainer fare than that to which you are accustomed here in the east”. With that the horses were unloaded and attended to, the baggage brought in from the courtyard and food and drink served to the grateful new arrivals.

Afterwards Merendir showed Amarion around his new command, introducing him to his men. He took pride in the evident good order and discipline they demonstrated, but his successor seemed unimpressed and the jovial manner that had been evident when he first arrived had evaporated. Merendir became increasingly irked by this, and wondered if he had been unduly hasty in forming a good impression of his nephew solely on the basis of his manner and appearance.

Afterwards they passed up to his chambers and he closing the door he turned to face the younger man, asking tersely what troubled him. Amarion, his expression betraying some surprise at Merendir’s directness paused before answering “I will speak freely and admit this place is not what I expected. I fear I may have been ill used by your brother and my uncle, our new ruler, for he used words like honour, courage and duty freely to beguile me into agreeing to come here and replace you. Now I find myself facing the prospect of whiling away my days in this rustic keep sixty leagues from home in the middle of the nowhere. It may have suited you uncle, but I am a man of considerable influence in our realm and I fear that it has suited Maenir to put me out of harms way with this posting”. Merendir instantly rounded on him in cold quiet fury, in a tone that all who had served under him recognised with dread. “Honour? Duty? What do those words mean when you live in comfort and spend your days in idleness? They are not measured by rank or titles, costly plate or fine gear, but by hard deeds, suffering and sacrifice. You are of high rank merely by dint of your birth, and though I doubt not that you have some ability, you have never been tested in battle or truly driven to any extremity of pain, hunger or weariness. Until you have proven yourself, do not bandy them so lightly, and worse still do not presume to comment on my own motives. Forget not that I will be your commander, and I brook disrespect from none, be they common foot soldier or princeling. You are warned, and I will not tolerate another instance of it from you”. Amarion looked shocked at being scolded in this way, and a look of anger suddenly flashed across his handsome features, but he kept his counsel for the moment and Merendir continued. “As for rustic the forts two days ride east of here on the Mitheithel make this place look like a palace, and I expect you will make it a priority to visit and inspect them. You will find the men who serve there keeping a watch on our border do so dutifully and without complaint, though they are given little thought and less thanks by those they protect”. He paused before continuing in a slightly more conciliatory tone. “Now perhaps we understand each other a little more clearly we can continue with your instruction?” Amarion’s expression had by now become more abashed than angry, for he too had revised his first impression of the old soldier who stood before him, and he spoke quietly in reply. “None have addressed me in this manner since I was a mere boy, reprimanded for some transgression, and none else in this realm would have dared do so. I could not have borne it from anyone other than you uncle, but whilst my pride rails against your words, my heart hears the truth in them. I will serve here as I must without plaint and as well as I may”.

Afterwards Amarion gave Merendir cause to think that he had perhaps not so badly misjudged him after all, and he gave every impression of having been sincere. The snow had continued to fall, delaying Merendir’s intended departure and this gave them an opportunity to spend a few more days together getting to know each other better. Respect and even friendship grew between them, and by the time the weather had abated sufficiently and preparations were once again put in hand for Merendir to leave he was content that he was leaving his old command in good hands.

Chapter Text

The snow had finally stopped falling and the skies had cleared, and now the round summits of the downs reflected the newly revealed light of the full moon so brightly that it seemed the night had been replaced by a pallid imitation of the day. Maenir allowed himself a short moment of childlike delight at the beauty of the scene beyond the panes of his library window before sighing and returning to the fireplace and stirring the smouldering blaze that sat within it from its slumber. Perhaps the weather had finally broken and his brother would now be able to return from Amon Sul, for it would not be before time. He did not allow himself to contemplate the possibility that Merendir might refuse, but it was not beyond the realm of possibility, for he had always been stubborn and single minded. If so it might go badly for him, for many of the lords and commanders favoured his other brother Durchon, deeming that the succession should have passed to a man of strength and prowess in arms, and Durchon had so far done little to discourage them, seeing an unexpected opportunity for his own advancement should Maenir falter. Merendir’s arrival would forestall all that, if Maenir’s hopes were realised. If not, who knew what would result?

How had it come to this? He had been the third of five brothers, and never imagined fate would bring him the right to rule over the realm of Cardolan. But though Aglareb’s rule had been long and wise there had been no issue from his marriage to Ivrien, and the second brother Barahir had fallen during the relief of Amon Sul in 1356. Aglareb had been a strong and forceful character and there had never been any reason to believe that he might sicken and die before his time, but life never ran a true course and that was exactly what had happened. Even at the burial Maenir had been conscious of the muttering and discontent of some of the lords and high born at his sudden elevation. Unlike many of them he held little in the way of lands of his own and nor did he command fighting men or knights, and his main role under his brother’s rule had been as the Lord Of Ost-en-Tyrn, though it was a role in which he had shown tremendous ability, and the town had prospered greatly as a result. From his earliest days he had been different to his brothers, short in height, less than archetypally handsome and with a tendency to run to fleshiness, particularly so as he had aged. He had always been more inclined to the gentle arts and the pursuit of knowledge, unlike his warlike brothers, but fortunately for him Aglareb had taken pity on him and became his protector, and in return he had gained a wise counsellor and advisor. Maenir had been instrumental in the rapprochement with Arthedain during the disastrous years following the death of their father King Orthoron when his land lay ravaged and divided. Their uncle, Lord of Tharbad, weary of sending his men north to die in a fight that little affected them had taken his opportunity at this time to secede from the realm and declare his city a protectorate of Gondor, for much of his prosperity derived from the numerous trading ships that came up the great river from that land. The aid of Arthedain in finally driving back and crushing the incursion from Angmar had come at a price however, and one that Maenir had feared his brothers would not stomach, for it had meant renouncing their own sovereignty and swearing fealty to the King in Fornost as part of a reunified Arnor. Aglareb however, setting aside his pride saw the wisdom in this course of action, knowing that to do otherwise would have meant the ruin of Cardolan. During the long peace that had followed the great battles of 1356 the land had recovered and his courageous decision had been vindicated. So it was that their father was the last King of Cardolan, however they retained their Princeships and were given leave to continue to govern their own land as they saw fit.

Now it was for Maenir to continue that work, but at least he would not do so alone. He smiled when he thought of the delightful creature who had brought so much joy and happiness to his latter years, and who lay at that moment in their chamber below, no doubt sleeping most soundly. Celebeth was a daughter of one of the important families of the city, and some fifty years his junior. Twenty years before she had abruptly ended his long years of solitary existence with her less than subtle courtship of him. Fair and sweet as a rosebud in Spring, she could have had her pick of any of the fine young men of the land, but had set her heart on him, loving him for his kindness and gentle nature. Her father, who was of an age with Maenir had been appalled when he first learnt of their troth, but could not gainsay the match for it was eminently suitable in every other way. So they had wed, and now had three beautiful children, two girls and a boy, and the corridors of his halls previously so silent and solemn, had rung with the sound of happiness and laughter ever since. Heartened by the thought and finally growing weary, he collected the small lantern from the mantlepiece to light his way and left the library. He entered his bedchamber a silently as he could but despite his lack of skill in that art his sleeping wife did not stir and he was able to stand for a moment gazing down on her softness and listening to her steady breathing. Once again he was overcome with love and wonderment at the thought that she could possibly be his.

It was barely day when he woke, even with the brightness of the snow outside, but he was alone. He rose and dressed himself before descending to the kitchens and dining chamber where the servants were already bustling around and found his family were eating a hearty breakfast. The children exclaimed with pleasure when they saw him, and rose to greet him in turn, Aewen, almost a woman at seventeen, her sister Lethil who was two years younger, and Bruinir who was eleven, all of them tall, slender, and fair of face like their mother. She too rose and embraced him, her smile like a sunrise, and asked him how he fared, a look of concern upon her sweet face. “Ada, we are all going to ride our horses in the snow today” interrupted his son before he could reply “will you come with us? Please!” His mother hushed him “another time Bruinir, I am sure, but you know how much your father has to do at the moment”. Maenir smiled “yes not today sadly, for it is a fine day and the downs will be most fair under their snowy blanket, but I fear I could not keep up with you all anyway, you ride much too fast on your ponies!” There was laughter, and reminiscences of various mishaps on previous outings followed, for he was no great horseman compared to his children. They sat and ate together for a little while, and Maenir thought to himself that if a man was blessed with such cause for happiness within his own walls then he could surely face anything that lay beyond them with resolve and a fortitude.

A short while later he saw them all off from the courtyard, amongst much merriment, and then took the short walk from his own halls to the Palace and Keep, accompanied by his servants. They made their way carefully through the newly trodden snow, and as they approached their destination met a group of guards who were setting out to clear the streets of their overburden. Maenir acknowledged their deference to him as he passed and thanked them, feeling quiet satisfaction, for it was just one example of the judicious care and attention with which he had ruled Ost-en-Tyrn for the past half century. He might not be a mighty warrior, but under his stewardship it had become one of the fairest and most prosperous cities in the north, and few who dwelt there had any cause to resent his rule, quite the contrary. Soon the steep walls of the Keep were overhead, the guards at the gate stood to attention and admitted them and Maenir’s thoughts turned reluctantly once again to the day ahead. Another day of meetings with minor lords and members of important families lay ahead, ostensibly to allow them to make themselves known to him and congratulate him on his accession to the throne. However in reality it was often to seek favour, make plaint about injustices by others and attempt to jockey for position against their peers and rivals, and he knew he would have to sit politely through it all and try not to commit to anything if he could help it.

Once inside he trod the familiar route to the throne room and meeting hall as he had done so many times previously, when his life had been much simpler and Aglareb had been the one who had been the one to command. In theory he should have been thinking about moving his household from the Governor’s Hall to the Palace and Keep, but he did not have the heart to uproot his wife and family, and neither did he wish to remove the Lady Ivrien, Aglareb’s widow from her apartments against her will, for she too had dwelt there for a very long time. If and when Merendir returned perhaps he could be housed there too, the original military purpose of the place meant it was rather more austere than his own dwelling, and might suit him better. Upon entering the chamber the servants set about preparing it for his audiences, and feeling slightly uncomfortable once again he was dressed in a gilded robe and circlet as custom demanded. A pair of guards arrived, announced themselves and took up positions outside the door while he seated himself at a table below the old throne and waited. A few minutes later the Chamberlain arrived shooing the servants out, a middle aged man with a permanently harassed expression called Erestor whose faintly comical appearance belied a fearsome competence and devotion to duty. He had served his brother well for a many years and Maenir saw no reason to replace him, something Erestor was clearly very grateful for. After performing a slightly over elaborate obeisance he was about to begin informing Maenir of the business of the day when there was a loud rap on the door and his younger brother Durchon swept in. “A word if I may brother. All of you, out!” Durchon, like his son Amarion was the very figure of a fine Dunedain warrior, and although the years were now telling on him as they did with the other two brothers he remained formidable and held much sway in the south of Cardolan, where he was Lord Of the city of Sarn Athrad. Maenir did not reply at once, and a deathly silence fell in the chamber, the Chamberlain unsure whether to comply or not. “Brother” sighed Maenir “you forget yourself once again, for you are the first to insist on the strict application of procedure and of correct behaviour. But once again I will forgive you, so long as you do not repeat the fault. Now please state your business. And Erestor, remain where you are”. For a moment Durchon looked unsure whether to be angered or not by his response but then continued in his original tone. “Very well, let him remain, there are perchance few secrets he is not already privy to in these halls. Do you have news yet from Merendir? Does he accept your offer of a position here? Snow or no, my son has been gone nigh on a month now and there is still no sign of him. The Lords and Leading Families are restive, they want to know that there is a firm hand at the helm, and they will not wait forever”. Then after a pause a calculated rejoinder followed“And pray what do you propose to do if I enter without due ceremony again?”

Maenir bristled inwardly at such insolence, but a lifetime of practice receiving insults from his younger brother allowed him to remain impassive. “Durchon, you presume too much. I expect Merendir here within the fortnight, for if the snow was at least as bad here as there then he will only just have been able to commence his journey. As for firm hands on helms, the only discontent and concern I can detect is from those who wish to apply that firm hand for themselves, and they spend their days fomenting discord toward that end in despite of the fact that our realm is at peace and all is otherwise well in the land. Be careful brother, treason is treason wherever it stems, and if there is one thing I am known for it is an impartial and thorough application of our laws and punishments. And if you enter here unannounced again I will have the guards throw you out”. To Maenir’s profound dismay his brother actually laughed. “Throw me out? There’s not a soldier in Cardolan who would dare do such a thing, for they know I would have their head if they so much as laid a hand on me. I warn you brother, time is running out!” With that he turned with a look of contempt on his face and strode from the chamber. Maenir, filled with an all too familiar impotent rage, beat his fists on the table and then held his head in his trembling hands for a moment while he composed himself, Erestor standing mute and impassive nearby. Eventually he composed himself, and exhaling asked the Chamberlain to continue with the order of business for the day.

It turned out to be most wearisome, for Maenir found himself greatly distracted by what had passed between him and his younger brother and as a result had even less patience than usual with the succession of petty and self important individuals who presented themselves to him,. But eventually the last of them had departed and the rest of the day’s business had been concluded and he was at last able to lay aside coronet and robe and depart the Keep. Outside the light was fading under another faultlessly clear sky and the moon was climbing in the eastern sky as the sun set, and he trudged the cleared lane home to his halls deep in thought. It was the sheer effrontery and impudence of Durchon’s manner which angered and upset him most, and unless Merendir returned soon there would be little obstacle to his being deposed and replaced as Ruling Prince. His brother had the support of the leading houses of the south and surely among large parts of the soldiery too, and it was unlikely that he could now be bought off with the role of Captain General having already been overlooked for that position in favour of Merendir. Could he look to Arthedain for help? Though he had many friends in Fornost and was well regarded there he suspected that they would treat this as an internal matter for Cardolan. His replacement would not threaten the loyalty of their neighbour or affect the relations between them, so no hope could be found in that direction. He tried to think of those who he could rely on around him but soon realised that they would never be sufficient to stem what might be coming. And then a further thought struck him and filled him with a dread as sharp as the evening air, for though his own banishment or even death at his brother’s hand would be something he would to face if he had to, his children would also stand in the way of a legitimate succession if and when the time came for Amarion to succeed his father. Although he could not believe his brother capable of such a deed he knew the thirst for power could drive men to do terrible things. He must make plans at once for their secret evacuation should it become necessary, north or westward, and he had good and reliable men in his household who could accompany them.

The mood within his chambers could not have been more different to his own, for his family had spent a wonderful day together riding for many hours through the snowy downs, and they were now as weary and contented as their ponies. They were seated around the great fireplace engaged in quiet activity when he entered and once again greeted him joyfully. “Ama, Ama, we saw him!” cried Bruinir, rising and running over to embrace his weary father, his face ruddy and eyes bright and excited. “Who did you see?” he replied, unable to resist smiling at such unbridled joy, though already suspecting the answer. “The funny dancing man in the hills, he sang to us and made us laugh” exclaimed his son “I like him very much”. Celebeth, her face also bright from a day in the cold and even more beautiful as a result smiled brightly and embraced her husband in turn before turning to her son. “I have told you Bruinir, his name is Iarwain, and though he is cheerful and funny there is much more to him than meets the eye, for he is neither man nor elf and has ranged these hills for years uncounted. We have many stories about him, he has always been a good friend to our people and come to the aid of many travellers lost on the high downs in a storm, including your father when he was a boy”. Maenir nodded, smiling, remembering how he had once lost his way and become benighted in a great fog. This Iarwain had found him and taken him home to his dwelling and what followed had been one of the strangest and most restful nights of his life. Perhaps if there was no other choice he could send his wife and children there for protection? For strange as he was Maenir could not believe he was capable of anything other than good.

Chapter Text

There was still only a hint of day in the eastern sky when the horses were brought out into the yard and Merendir and his small company mounted. The gates were opened and they led out in single file, five riders and eight horses, carefully descending the snowy flank of the hill to the junction with the old road. There they paused for a moment, and Merendir gazed back toward the looming bulk of the hill and fortress that he had called home for so long. There had once been a way station and small settlement there in the early days of the North Kingdom to serve travellers on the road and allow riders carrying messages from Amon Sul and beyond to Iant Methen in what later became Rhudaur to exchange horses. It had nominally belonged to that realm thereafter but had become depopulated as a result of the frequent border disputes that followed the partition of Arnor in 861 and was soon abandoned altogether. After the rise of Angmar and the defeat of a host from Rhudaur near Amon Sul in 1336 that land became part of a claim by Cardolan on whose border it also lay. Merendir petitioned for and was granted leave to build an outpost there, and supported by the garrison at Amon Sul its purpose would be to help keep the East Road open and stand guard against any further incursions from the north across the wild lands west of the river. Its presence was symbolic, for manning a garrison so far east at least maintained the idea of Cardolan as a realm which spanned all the lands between the Baranduin and the Mitheithel, though none now dwelt there. The first stronghold stood for a dozen years before being abandoned and destroyed in 1356, but now after fifty years its replacement looked like it might have had been there for five hundred, and Merendir always felt great pride when he contemplated it. It was his finest achievement, and he hoped it would stand long as a testament to him, for now there would be no son to follow and keep his name alive.

He had wondered if the moment of departure would be an emotional one, but now it was here he felt strangely matter of fact about it, for there had been ample time to come to terms with the idea of his leaving. It had been difficult though saying his farewells to many of the men who had served with him for so long, especially old Vardamir who had declined the chance to return to Ost-en-Tyrn with him, saying that he belonged at Amon Perin and that someone had to stay and keep the new Lord in check. Despite his express wish to depart without ceremony his captains had sprung a surprise feast on him in the hall, and he had eventually allowed himself to become unusually jovial and even a little drunk. He smiled ruefully at the thought and asked his horse forward without looking back again.

This was a journey he had made countless times, but now he knew he might not pass that way again. They travelled the road through the wild snowy lands under a dazzling sun, and had to raise their hoods when their eyes became weary of the glare. They were hindered somewhat by the deep cover on the road but still made camp as planned before sunset, sheltering in a rude bunkhouse that Merendir had commanded to be built near the road for the use of those making this very journey. He was pleased to find it in good order, and once a fire had been lit it was even more hospitable. They set no sentry and the following morning they set off once again before dawn, hoping to reach the tower soon after noon later that day. As ever their objective came into sight long before they reached it, an improbable finger atop a distant lofty hill, and they were heartened by the sight. Ancient watchtower and fortress, its base stood a thousand feet above the plain and its top a good three hundred higher still. A road worked its way up steeply from the plain where an encampment of barracks, storehouses, armouries and stables nestled, though he knew that they were now largely empty but stood ready to service a much larger garrison at time of need. Along the tops of the neighbouring hills to the north there were further fortifications and strongholds, for this had been chosen as the first line of defence against any assault from the east.

As they approached they passed through the vale where the combined strength of Cardolan and Arthedain had crushed a Dunedain host from Rhudaur back in 1336, hoping to take the tower in a surprise attack. They had known Cardolan to be greatly weakened by the incursions from Angmar, but had not counted on the renewed alliance with Arthedain. Merendir though young was already a seasoned fighter by the time of the battle, having distinguished himself during the campaign to drive the Orc raiders from his land. It had been his first proper pitched battle however, but not one he relished the memory of, for too many good Dunedain soldiers had perished needlessly that day, most of them wearing the black bear of Rhudaur on their livery. They lay now in the grassy mounds near the road, covered in snow for the moment, but in the summer they remained dusted instead with the white of countless symbelmyne. A few years after that defeat the the Hillmen had risen up and driven the last Dunedain king from his throne. Many of his soldiers and nobles fled west afterwards and a good number of them pledged their allegiance to Arnor and entered service at Amon Sul. Some had served in Merendir's command and proved to be courageous and fiercely devoted to duty.

Further on after the road had climbed from the battle vale it ran straight and true across the plain beneath the lowering bulk of the hill. Here there were many more mounds, for it was here that the great battles of 1356 had unfolded against the full strength of Angmar and Rhudaur. Cardolan and Arthedain had eventually prevailed with the help of Cirdan and the Elves of Lindon but at great cost, and as he rode there Merendir remembered those who had fallen during those fateful days. Argeleb, mighty king of Arnor reunited had been the foremost among them, and Merendir’s elder brother Barahir, leading the relief force from Cardolan. There had been so many others to, of high rank and low, all good men too numerous to count felled in their prime. Now he rode amongst them all these years later, grey headed and wearied by age, a burden they would never share.

They reached the sentry post at the foot of the hill and Merendir was pleased to find men from his own command there from the Company of Amon Sul. He noted with satisfaction that all was in good order there and they halted for a while exchanging news and taking some refreshment before commencing the long climb to the fortress high above. Snow made the climb more perilous than normal, for the road was steep and turned about itself many times before finally gaining the lower wall and gate. The wind strengthened the higher they climbed making the whole endeavor even less pleasant, but as they gained height the ever widening view over the land below went some way to compensating for it. Far and wide to the south and east the vista opened up beneath the faultless blue vault of the sky, the distant white crests of the South Downs marching away into the far distance, and all the empty lands unfurled before them. My land, thought Merendir, and one day our people will live there again in peace and prosperity as they did before the enemy came from the north.

The bald summit of the hill of Amon Sul on which the tower stood was crowned by two battlements, the first enclosing the original stronghold and the second of much more recent construction. As they reached the first gate Merendir acknowledged the sentries who had long warning of their approach from below with easy familiarity and then dismounted. He handed his horse over to a waiting attendant before leaving his companions to find rest and refreshment in the lower circle and continued his climb to the second gate, passing through it unchallenged. The icy wind whipped and roared here among the tightly packed and ancient buildings that had been built to house the men who served there and made his way to the tower itself. Its vast bulk was even more impressive at close hand, rising improbably into the sky, its flawless honey coloured masonry and studded with small windows on every floor which faced all four points of the compass. Above the main portal ancient runes commemorated the vigil of Elendil as he had waited for the coming of Gil Galad and the elven host in the days of the Last Alliance. Even on a wild winter day like this Merendir was conscious of the great antiquity of the place and it never failed to engender a feeling of awe in him. High above in the topmost chamber he knew that one of the fabled Seeing Stones was kept, and from its high vantage point could be used to observe the movements of both friend and foe at great distance. If those who looked into the stone had sufficient skill they could also be used to communicate with others of their kind, principally the one at Fornost, but also those far away to the south if the watcher had sufficient strength and skill to direct their gaze hither. The possession of the tower and stone of Amon Sul had proved to be a great advantage to whoever held it, and as a result had often been a cause for contention amongst the northern kingdoms after they were divided. Rhudaur in particular had launched frequent assaults throughout its history but was never able to hold it for any extended period of time. Even Cardolan and Arthedain had come to blows at times in the past but for a long while now they had held it jointly under the rule of the Master Of The Stone, a Lord of high birth who was answerable to the Kings of both realms.

Merendir unbluckled his sword belt and laid it aside by the great oaken door as was customary and rapped upon it before opening it and passing through into the brightly lit antechamber beyond. Within an attendant rose slowly from a writing table and came across to meet him, but before he could announce himself Merendir realised there was no need for the man was well known and dear to him. “Esteldir, how fare you?” he cried as they abandoned all pretence of formality and embraced. “Long is it since I had cause to pass this way and longer still since we have had the chance to speak. The years lie heavily on us I fear!” This Esteldir, originally from Rhudaur had been one of his most faithful captains and had served alongside him for nigh on thirty years before a cruel accident had maimed him. Unable to continue as a soldier, he entered instead into the service of Lord Norgalad, Master of the Stone where his keen intellect, experience of military matters and direct knowledge of Rhudaur proved to be of great use. The two men were of an age, but Merendir saw with dismay that the last few years had marked his friend far more cruelly than he, for his Dunedain blood was mixed with that of lesser men and he realised with a pang that he might soon be lost. “Ay friend” replied the other “I begin to grow weary, but I have no complaint in my service here, and continue do what I may to assist Lord Norgalad. The lands remain quiet, and our old enemy bides his time still. If he strikes again after this long peace I hope it be after I am gone, but we must remain vigilant. I hear you are finally going home, it will not be the same without you here but the young lord seems worthy enough and I have no doubt you have bent him to your will and manner!” Merendir laughed “Indeed, I did have to round off some of his sharp edges, but it would not be in my nature to do otherwise. Pray friend, last we spoke you thought to write a memoir, how fare you with it?” Esteldir smiled “We are not taxed greatly in our labours at present, so I have had time to work on it. But it is a slow labour, and I am still a only a callow youth in Rhudaur to this point”. They laughed “I hope you finish this tale, for it is one I would much like to read“ replied the Prince more seriously.“And old friend, should the time come for the Lord to release you from your service here then know that you will be most welcome to see out your time in comfort and ease at my side at Ost-en-Tyrn, for I do not doubt that I will be short of honest and plain speaking companions there. But now I fear I must press you to rouse Lord Norgalad, and I hope that we can continue our discourse later over a good meal and share a flagon or two of ale as was formerly our wont.”

Merendir spend the afternoon in the company of the venerable Norgalad, who had served at the tower for as long as he had been in the east, learning more of all that passed in the wider world and of the comings and goings at Fornost before inevitably falling into many fond reminiscences. Afterwards he ate a good meal amongst old friends as he had hoped, and in the morning there were many heartfelt partings, good wishes and earnest hopes of future reconciliation which only served to bring home the finality of his changed life. He was in a thoughtful and sombre mood, but the onward journey under continuing blue skies gave no further cause to darken it. After a night at the Lonely Inn and another amongst more old friends at the garrison in Bree he finally found himself tracing the familiar route back to his childhood home along the West Road. He pondered what he had heard at Bree regarding rumours of his brother Durchon’s machinations, and looked forward to the opportunity to put the father in his place as he had done the son. There would be other tasks too, and many formalities to complete after he arrived, and he passed the time in giving them some thought. In truth there would be some things to look forward to as well as endure in his new life, and one subject which he had not considered overmuch and which suddenly stirred long dormant feelings in him was the Lady Ivrien. They had rarely spoken during all the long years of her marriage to his eldest brother and had treated each other with nothing more than courteous reserve, but now she was a widow and no longer bound by that union. He wondered how it would be between them now, but quickly dismissed any thought of reconciliation with her. The callow and playful youth he had been when they had loved each other so well was no more, all that remained was an old soldier hardened by a lifetime of duty, self discipline and sacrifice, unsuited and unused to matters of the heart. Only once in all the long years of his self imposed exile had his heart even been given to another, the fine and spirited lady who had fled Rhudaur with Esteldir all those years before, and then only briefly, for her heart had already been given to her companion. Such was the lot he had chosen for himself, and he dismissed any further thought of womankind and turned his mind once again to more pressing matters.

Chapter Text

At last Merendir and his party came into a land of scattered farms and hamlets which signalled that they were finally approaching Ost-en Tyrn. To the south the great white bulk of the downs gradually rose into view along with the plume of smoke from the multitude of fires that warmed the townsfolk on that chilly day and indicated the end of the journey. The road passed through a small wood and on the far side of it they crested a small rise and the town finally came into view a short way to the south of the road, nestled in a fold at the foot of the downs. It was a fair place, and Merendir's heart rose at last at the sight of it and thoughts of the new life that lay ahead. Its rooftops and towers stood packed tightly together inside walls of pale stone and were overlooked by the fair keep and palace of the Kings Of Cardolan. The land around was dotted with farms which worked the fertile soils and the whole scene spoke of good order and prosperity even in the depth of winter. Above, on the bald summits of the high downs some of the standing stones placed there by the fathers of men could be seen, like tiny white fingers pointing toward the sky. Merendir had known those hills and their many mysterious and ancient places well in his youth, and for a moment a longing to ride a swift horse upon them again in Springtime came upon him.

At the place where the road from the town met the west road there was a large and ancient inn around which a small village had grown up over time, and as they approached the people who were abroad stopped and waited when they saw him, and were soon joined by others. Much to Merendir’s astonishment they began to applaud and call out his name as he passed, and he acknowledged them by raising his palm, though he remained stern faced and betrayed no other emotion. It seemed his return had been widely anticipated, even amongst the common folk, but what that might mean he could not say and it was passing strange. They turned off the main way and soon left the village behind them, and from here the road ran straight across the undulating countryside directly towards the walls of Ost-en-Tyrn, rising gradually as it went. They had not gone very far before they heard the clang of a distant bell in the town and a little while afterwards a group of riders came forth from the gate. Merendir at first assumed that this was a coincidence, but as the distance closed between them he saw that they were mounted soldiery who carried the pennants of the prince and could only be some sort of welcoming party. Merendir could see that a rider in different garb led the way, and his surprise grew yet further when he recognised his brother. The Ruling Prince of Cardolan himself had ridden out to meet him and escort him into the town, an honour that had never been accorded before, even after 1356. The two riders halted, facing each other, and the contrast between them could not have been greater. Merendir, lean, weatherbeaten and wearing faded gear, his face characteristically impassive, and his brother Maenir, corpulent and richly dressed, looking rather weary and harrassed. There was a moment of silence before both men slipped from their saddles and dismounted before coming together and embracing each other strongly. "Welcome brother, you are here at last. It is good to see you" said Maenir, his smile failing to completely conceal a note of concern in his voice. Merendir replied warmly. "It is good to see you too brother, and good to be home at last, though I think there will be much that will be unfamiliar to me now. I thank you for the honour you do me in conferring this rank upon me". Maenir seemed a little reassured by this. "None is more fitted to the task than you are. Now let us remount and ride together to the citadel. You must be hungry and weary after your long journey, you must eat and rest and we will find you an apartment to your liking in the citadel. I have ordered a feast to be prepared this evening in your honour”. Without further ado they remounted and Maenir's guard turned to go back the way they had come, with the two brothers riding side by side in the van and the pack horses bringing up the rear.

It was a short journey through the town to the gates of the citadel, but it had been lined with townsfolk applauding and acclaiming him, and Merendir thought that perhaps his long years of service in the wilds of the east had not gone unremarked after all. They entered the lower courtyard where the captain of the garrison and his men had formed up and dismounted. Merendir greeted the captain and found everything to be to his satisfaction before following his brother into the citadel and up to the main hall. Within, all those of rank and title had hastily gathered and were introduced to him, some who were already familiar to him and some less so. Last of all in the line were his immediate family, firstly fair Celebeth, her smile as enchanting as ever, her handsome children who seemed a little nervous of him, and finally the Lady Ivrien dressed in sombre mourning clothes. A hush fell among the onlookers as Merendir paid his respects. "My Lady, I grieve for the loss of your husband and my brother. A man of great stature and wisdom, a wise ruler and brave warrior, loved by his people and feared by his enemies". She met his eye, and was as impassive as he. "I thank you my Lord, and wish you well on your return here". He bowed his head in acknowledgement, and then turned to follow his brother out of the hall.

They went a short distance before entering a room where some food, crockery, and a jug of ale were being laid out on a table. Maenir dismissed the servants and invited his brother to take his fill, and pouring them both a cup sat down opposite him. "At last we can speak freely" he said "how fare you and how do things stand in the east? I was loath to appoint our nephew as your replacement but he, like his father began making a nuisance of himself after Aglareb died and I succeeded him. Durchon was all for it of course, for whilst it meant Amarion would no longer be here his taking command at Amon Perin does strengthen his father's hand. Merendir looked quizzically at his brother. "I am well, and all is in good order in the east, or was when I left it. The long peace continues, but knowing our old enemy in the north as I do I cannot believe he is done with us and we must remain vigilant and prepared, however futile the task may appear. As for Amarion hard words were needed before he settled to his new position, but I think he will serve well enough. But was is all this business with Durchon I have heard speak of? Denethor the commander at Bree said he passed through a few days before I arrived and was in great haste. And pray tell me why you seem so discomfited and out of sorts?" Maenir forced a smile. "The answer to your questions is a simple one. Our brother will not accept that I am appointed to rule ahead of him, for he does not believe that a man who is not also a strong and valiant warrior is fitted to do so, and it is for that reason that I proposed to appoint you Captain General over his head despite his seniority in years. Unlike Aglareb I am no soldier, and it was not appropriate for me to take the title of Captain General for myself as he did. The snow was most inopportune as it greatly delayed your arrival and Durchon began to believe that you too would defy me, so he left here in open defiance three days since and has presumably gone back to Sarn Athrad to gather his strength. Word of this has spread and the people fear what will happen when he returns. They look to you to save them and restore order". Merendir's expression darkened as he listened, and his brother continued. "So forgive me if I have need to question you in regard to your own intentions here. I realise that I am powerless to prevent either of you from supplanting me by force of arms if you choose too, and I knew that I was running a risk bringing the wolf of the eastern marches back into my hall where he can devour me if he so wishes". Merendir slammed his fist down onto the table. "Enough! I will have no more of this. By the love we have always borne each other as brothers I swear to you that I come only to serve and that you have my absolute loyalty. Unlike the scheming lordlings who infest this realm I am a plain soldier and do not seek power or rank for myself for their own sake. I also know only too well that it takes much more than skill at arms and a finely wrought set of plate armour to make a good ruler. As adviser to our late brother and as lord of this town you have shown yourself to be eminently fitted to succeed him, and I will see that Durchon pays dearly for his disloyalty, though I fear it is that vinegar tongued wife of his that has played her part in driving him to this". Maenir visibly sagged in relief at this, and momentarily unable to reply rose from his seat. Merendir did likewise and they embraced each other strongly once again.

Whilst the feast was prepared Merendir and his few possessions were installed in the halls where the garrison were housed, for he had declined to take rooms in the palace saying that his place was with his men. This also meant he would avoid crossing paths with Lady Ivrien too often and minimise the risk of any awkwardness between them, for despite his earlier thoughts on the matter coming face to face with her again had reawoken old feelings. Though she too was touched by her years, her hair silver and her face lined, her eyes and mouth were still the same and in Merendir's eye age had only added depth to her beauty. She was stood at the top table as he made his entrance at the feast to loud applause, her eyes fixed on him and her expression unreadable. He took up his seat on the dais at his brother’s right hand and a number of toasts were made, to the departed Aglaron, to the Ruling Prince and his new Captain General and to the realm, after which as custom demanded they faced west and remembered, after which Maenir clapped his hands and the servants began to bring the meal in to general approval.

Somewhat to his relief and delight Merendir found the Lady Celebeth seated on his other hand, so the meal passed pleasantly and there was much discussion of matters both great and small among them. Celebeth was much younger than her husband and still in her prime, dark eyed and raven haired. It was still a source of some surprise to Merendir that such a creature, as fair as any in the land, should have chosen to wed his brother but she was evidently still deeply devoted to him even after all these years. As well as her beauty she was also blessed with an keen intellect and an unfailingly bright and optimistic outlook which he had to concede worked well as a counterweight to his brother’s tendency toward introspection. It also made her excellent company, and he listened with pleasure to her keen observations on the latest doings of town and court and the accomplishments and occasional misdeeds of her children. After they had all finished eating the tables were cleared away, musicians entered and there was some formal dancing. Maenir and Celebeth led the way in this, and Merendir noted to himself with amusement that his brother’s young wife had made quite the dancer of him. He had no intention of taking part himself, standing among the onlookers, and he noticed Ivrien was also watching close at hand. He decided it would be appropriate to go over and speak to her, but before he could do so the dance ended and he suddenly found himself face to face with a bright eyed and animated Celebeth. Before he could protest he found himself whisked away to the centre of the hall and placed in the line with the other men. Merendir had not danced since his youth, and was filled with sudden dread at what would happen next, but to his great relief the musicians struck up a familiar tune to a simple dance that almost everybody knew and that he could more or less remember. Hesitant at first, then growing in confidence as the patterns repeated, he stared daggers at his partner whilst she smirked back at him, barely able to contain her amusement, and perhaps affection too. As they went round he glimpsed Maenir and Ivrien stood together, watching him with smiles on their faces, and then when the dance next brought him back to the same spot his brother was alone and Ivrien had gone. The dance finally ended and he and Celebeth bowed and curtseyed respectively to each other. She burst into sweet joyous laughter, and he scolded her for putting him in so much danger, made her promise never to repeat the feat and then thanked her. She in turn thanked him, and then becoming solemn for a moment spoke in a low voice. “I also thank you for returning here and remaining faithful to Maenir, for I began to fear for him. You are a good man. Even if you dance like a bear”. They laughed again and she took his arm and he led her back to her husband. The dancing continued for a while but he remained an onlooker, and once it was decent to do so made his excuses as to being unreasonably weary after his jounrney and retired for the night.

Overnight the wind had whipped up and turned to the south west and the sky, which had been clear and bright for so long was now filled with scudding grey cloud. A thaw had finally set in, rapidly tainting the bright white of the snow with the watery greys of slush, and it was through this dreary scene that Merendir made his way as he crossed the courtyard to take part in his swearing in ceremony. It did not trouble him however for he knew Spring was on its way and he was filled with hope for the future, for despite his misgivings beforehand it felt truly good to be home and surrounded by his family again at long last. The ceremony itself was held in the throne room and was conducted with all due solemnity in the presence of a handful of witnesses, Merendir going down on his knees and passing his unsheathed sword to Maenir before swearing the oath of service and allegiance. This was then accepted and the sword duly handed back. Merendir stood back up and sheathed it, now the second most powerful man in Cardolan, and all its armies were his to command.

Chapter Text

Maenir was seated at his table reading the documents and letters that Erestor his Chamberlain had deposited there for his attention when there was an unexpected rap on the door, for it was still early and few in the citadel were yet abroad. One of the guards standing outside opened it and Merendir, who was wearing his travelling clothes, strode in purposefully, hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Erestor bowed and Maenir rose to clasp hands with him and offer him a seat, but he declined it and remained standing. "May your day be blessed brother! It is a surprise to see you at this hour, but a pleasant one. How may I be of service to you... do you plan to leave us again so soon?" Maenir meant the last partly in jest, but Merendir's expression remained grave. "Ay brother, I do. I took the liberty of sending a messenger to Lord Denethor at Bree two days since and ordered him to gather fifty of his best men and ready them for departure. I ride there today and will reach Sarn Athrad in a week and a half if we do not meet Durchon sooner on the road. Either way I will bring him to heel". Maenir looked on his brother with a surprised expression. " I wish you had spoken to me of your plan beforehand, but I see the merit in acting quickly and I can only commend your swift action and initiative in this matter. But pray tell me, what do you intend when you apprehend him? For we both know how prideful he is, and how disputatious". Merendir's fist closed tightly on his sword. "By whatever means necessary. But I swear that the blood of Cardolan will only be spilt as a last resort, and I will do all within my power to convince him to submit without drawing steel on him". Maenir nodded. "If you can contrive it thus then know that I am minded to be merciful. And I am in accord... fifty is a good choice. Enough to make an impression but no so many as to be seen as seeking battle". Merendir agreed, unsurprised by his brother's astuteness, for that had indeed been his thinking regarding the size of the company he would take south with him. "Of the Lords and leading families whose loyalty can we rely upon, and who may side with Durchon?"he asked "I have no doubts as to Denethor's loyalty at Bree but it is a long while since I visited the south and I do not know how things are disposed there now". Maenir pursed his lips. "I fear that once again our realm may be divided between the lands north and south of the Pass of Andrath. Durchon, and more to the point the Lady Lothwen his wife wield a good deal of influence and have many friends there including Turin of Othlondir. It is safest to assume that all you meet will have at least some sympathy for the historic claim to the throne of the house of Sarn Athrad whatever they may profess in your presence. I can scarce credit that we face even the slightest risk of another kin strife in this realm after so long, however if it does come to a fight what think you of Arthedain? Can we hope that they will come to our aid?" Merendir nodded. "Arveleg is like a brother to me, for we served many years together at Amon Sul ere he came into his kingship and we fought side by side in battle many times. I am certain he would heed our call for aid, for he would not countenance discord of this kind within the bounds of his realm. Should things go ill then you must send a messenger north at once, but I trust that it will not come to that. However as it is often said, he who prepares for the worst is rarely disappointed". The discussion had come to an end and the two brothers, so different in appearance and mien stood contemplating each other for a long moment before moving to embrace. "May the Valar watch over you and bring you safely back to us" Maenir said as they parted. His brother saluted him, bowed low and was gone.

A fine rain blew in on the wind as Merendir and two hand picked companions from the garrison set off for Bree, but few remarked their departure as they made their way through the empty slush covered streets of the town. Once clear of the gate he allowed his mount to burn off some energy with a long canter to settle her down and it was not long before they reached the West Road. The weather could not dampen Merendir's spirits, for it had been a very long time indeed since he had marched with a real purpose to an uncertain outcome and he realised how much he had missed it. Barring a few small skirmishes on the borders of Rhudaur there had been peace now in the north for over fifty years, and though he did not love battle or danger for their own sake he remembered how alive he had felt when he faced them. They always brought out the best in men, and sometimes the worst too. The pace of the ride slowed, and the small company rode on in silence, for Merendir’s two companions were veterans who had served with him in the past at Amon Sul, seasoned men like himself who did not spend words unnecessarily. He passed the time considering what lay ahead and the best course of action to follow should a number of different scenarios play out. A good commander always planned ahead, and Merendir’s forethought and careful preparation had saved him and his men more than once in the past. This was a task unlike any other however, for success would rely on strategy and quick thinking rather than strength of arms, and he was still deep in thought when the towers of the Keep at Bree finally came into view in the dim light of the rain sodden evening.

The column of horsemen left at first light, and Denethor had followed his instructions to the letter for they were well prepared and equipped with stores and baggage for a long march. The wind still gusted strongly from the south west, but it had blown the rain clouds away overnight and now a pale sun shone on the wide lands that they were passing through. To their right hand the heights of the Barrow Downs marched off southward, still snow capped and crowned here and there by ancient standing stones, and on their left the South Downs loomed slowly into view, growing closer the further they travelled south. The brown snow flattened lands around them were dotted with farmsteads and now and again great flocks of sheep could be seen grazing in the distance, for this country was known for its wool and mutton. They passed a considerable amount of traffic on the road heading both north and south, for this was the main trade route between both the north and south of Cardolan and Gondor and Arthedain via the great port at Tharbad. The waggoners and muleteers looked upon them with more curiosity than deference for the most part as they passed them, for only a proportion of them were subjects of Cardolan. The captain of the riders from Bree was another veteran who had served with Merendir in the east, named Durthor, and Merendir was pleased with Denethor's choice in that matter, for he was possessed of keen wits and great courage and could be relied upon to remain calm in a bind. As they rode Merendir appraised him of their task, discussed his plans with him and made sure he understood what lay ahead and what would be expected of him.

That night at least there would be no need to raise a camp, for now at last the ever narrowing gap between the South and Barrow Downs finally closed up and the road began its long and gradual climb up a valley to the Pass of Aglond, where a small town of that name stood below the ancient and half ruined fortifications on the pass itself. It was to these that they made their way, past the busy inns and storehouses that bordered the road through the town. Here, unlike the open road their passage was regarded with interest and a deal of approbation, and Merendir had ordered their banners unfurled to add to the spectacle. Although many of the walls and towers were crumbling at the stronghold the main keep and buildings of the fortress were in good repair and it was here that old Haldir, Lord of Aglond resided with his family. He too could be relied upon to be loyal to Maenir but he did not command much in the way of men or wealth, and both his sons has fallen in the wars, leaving a solitary and as yet unwed daughter as his heir. They received a warm welcome and enjoyed a comfortable night in plain and workmanlike surroundings. Haldir related how Durchon has passed through in some haste five days earlier before and had sought to speak to him privately, asking whether he could count on the old Lord's support for his claim to the Princeship. Haldir, loyal to the last had denied him in no uncertain terms and been met with threats of retribution upon his return northward. Merendir was unsurprised by further open act of treachery by his brother, and knew he must try reach him before he had time to build up his strength and march north.

It was 23 leagues from the pass of Aglond to Othlondir, the next major town on the South Road across the empty grasslands south of the downs. There were a few scattered hamlets and inns along this part of the road, the principal ones more or less a regular day's ride apart but having had Haldir's news Merendir was keen to pick up the pace of the march and they traversed it in two days rather than the usual three, pitching camp overnight in the wilderness. This was horse country, well known for the fine mounts it produced, supplying both Cardolan and Arthedain, though most of the herds actually ran in the southern part of that land around Othlondir. The wind dropped and the weather held fair and Merendir fancied he could feel the first touch of spring in the air there in the southlands, though it remained cool. Othlondir stood at the junction of the South Road and the ancient road to Lindon, and was the southernmost of the settlements of Cardolan now Tharbad has seceded. It was a fair town, with a large square surrounded by inns and hostelries and much of it lay outside the old walls it had outgrown, for in this remote and peaceful corner of the realm had been untouched by war for a very long time and there had been no need to build a second line of defence.
The sun was low in the west by the time Merendir and his column reached Othlondir with their banners once again unfurled, and as they approached the outskirts they heard a horn sound. Whether it had been winded to warn of their arrival it was not possible to say, but when he caught Durthor's eye as he rode at his side he gave him a knowing look. Their passage through the streets towards the north gate and the square beyond drew a great deal of attention, but noticeably less in the way of open approval. However Merendir was not known in this land, having only travelled there rarely in the past, so perhaps it was unwise to read too much into this. The banners his men carried however were unmistakeable. The guards on the gate signalled for them to halt and then saluted respectfully before the sergeant demanded to know who approached. Merendir stood in his stirrups and replied. "Prince Merendir, Captain General of Cardolan seeks admittance and an audience with your lord". The sergeant bowed and signalled for them to follow him and they made their way into the square, where a market day was drawing to a close and their progress was temporarily slowed by the large number of carts and wagons there, but soon they were clear of it and leaving the square rode the short distance to the citadel which stood behind low tree lined walls. Merendir had noticed an unusual number of soldiers in livery in the streets, and when they entered the citadel the reason became clear, for the yard within was crowded with what was evidently a full scale muster in progress. All fell silent as they rode in and they dismounted before the doors of the Lord's residence, and handing the reins of his horse to one of his men Merendir waited for Durthor to finish issuing orders to his men before signalling to him to accompany him. They strode up the steps and Merendir rapped on the door with the hilt of his sword before entering. Within they caught sight of servants going hither and thither before the doorward approached and bowed to them. "Tell your master the Captain General wishes to speak to him" said Merendir curtly. "My Lords, Lord Turin had no warning of your arrival, and so finds himself unprepared and unable to welcome you with the honour and respect you are due, but if you will accompany me I will take you to him". Merendir glared at him and the man visibly cringed, before they set off with all due haste for his master's chamber. On the way Merendir noted how richly the place was furnished and decorated, far in excess of anything even in the citadel at Ost-en-Tyrn. It was no doubt intended to make a statement about the wealth and standing of the Lord and his family, but it only served to offend his sensibilities, unused as he was to such ostentation.

They were led into a room with furnishings and decoration even more garish than those that they had already seen, into the presence of Lord Turin of Othlondir and his wife Alfirinel. They were young, fair of face and richly clothed, and Merendir's immediate impression was that these were exactly the sort of soft complacent nobles that he effected to despise, and not especially intelligent either. They were also clearly deeply concerned by his arrival, though they were doing their best not to show it. He stepped forward to bow and clasp hands with him. "My Lord Merendir, may I present my wife, the Lady Lhinthiel? It is a privilege to receive you under our roof and we welcome you and hope you will take your ease here. To what do we owe the honour of this visit?" Merendir bowed in turn. "Lord Turin, Lady Lhinthiel, I thank you for your courtesy and warm welcome and bring greetings from our liege, Prince Maenir of Cardolan. Being newly returned from the east and appointed Captain General, I decided that my first task should be to travel the realm and make the acquaintance of my Lords, to better know them and the strength and standing of the soldiery, archers and mounted knights at their disposal. Therefore I note with some satisfaction that I have found you mid muster, which will give me the opportunity to observe this in first hand. What do you have planned for them?" The question was framed innocently enough but he saw Turin suppress a swallow before he replied and saw his wife's knuckles whiten as she sat with her hands tightly clasped. "It was at the behest of your brother Prince Durchon. He passed through here a week ago, returning from the north, having delayed his return home after the funeral rites for Prince Aglareb. Perhaps he anticipated your arrival, or knew of it and chose not to inform me, but he suggested that I should raise our regular strength to readiness and so I have. We are ready to march when we receive the word, I can only think he purposes to jointly hold exercises, games and contests to demonstrate to you the readiness and proficiency of our men". It was clear that he was lying through his teeth, but Merendir gave no outward indication that he had any doubt as to the truth of the man's words. "Excellent. Then we shall put your readiness to the test by marching together for Sarn Athrad first thing in the morning". The young lord blanched a little. “But Prince Durchon ordered me to await his command and…”. Merendir angrily cut him short. “Durchon does not command here. Do you dare to gainsay an order from your Captain General?” Merendir and Durthor shared a glance before he continued. “Or was your true purpose to march north with him and overthrow the rightful rule of Prince Maenir?” Merendir’s hand went meaningfully to his sword hilt and a look of horror came over the young Lord’s face, and he stood frozen, unable to reply. Instead it was his wife who spoke. Bursting into tears, she threw herself forwards and onto her knees before Merendir, grasping his hands in hers in supplicaton. “Mercy my Lord I beg thee, my Turin is no traitor, for he had no choice but to obey your brother’s command. Please do not take him from me! Please spare him, he is a good man”. Merendir shook himself free of her grasp and stepped back, leaving her sobbing on the floor. Turin, now white as a sheet and trembling faced them and undid his sword belt, allowing it to fall to the ornate tiles with a crash and a clatter before addressing his guests in a hoarse whisper. “I am your prisoner. Do with me as you must”.

There was a long silence, broken only by Lhinthiel’s sobbing, before Merendir, mindful of Maenir’s words before they had parted and well aware that he would need every man he could lay his hands on, however foolish if it came to the defence of Cardolan, spoke curtly to Turin. “I would have your neck for what you have done, but Prince Maenir is wise and merciful so I offer you a choice, and the chance to make amends. Prove your loyalty and that of your men and ride to Sarn Athrad at my side tomorrow morning. There Prince Durchon will be given the same opportunity to make amends, and if all goes as I seek you can both return north with me as my guests and swear fealty to Prince Maenir in person. If you are agreeable to this then pick up your sword and go at once to order to your men to prepare for departure“. Scarcely able to believe this sudden reversal in his fortunes, Turin of Othlondir swore that he was and quickly complied with Merendir‘s instructions. Merendir himself stood impassively as the lady of the house rose to her feet and began to compose herself as they waited for her husband to return, but inwardly he was delighted at this turn of events. For now when he faced his brother he too would have a host at his back.

Chapter Text

As he crossed the busy courtyard in the chilly pre dawn gloom carrying his gear Merendir was relieved to finally be under way again. The previous evening had been trying, for though his hosts had been polite and hospitable and had served and eaten a fine meal with him the atmosphere had inevitably been awkward and stilted and their courtesy had only thinly concealed their fear and resentment. They had discussed much in the end, but he had inevitably learned a deal more from them than they had actually chosen to reveal. It had been something of a relief when proceedings had been brought to an early close, citing the need to rise early the following day, but Merendir had not slept well partly because of the unaccustomed richness of what he had eaten, but also because he did not wholly trust Turin not to resort to a knife in the dark to attempt to resolve his difficulties. But it appeared that he was as good as his word, and no mischief had been forthcoming, indeed he had been almost cordial as they ate breakfast, and clearly not quite as foolish as Merendir had initially assumed. He reached the stables as the horses were being led out, his men greeted him and one of them brought his big mare out and held her while he strapped his packs to his saddle. As he did so Captain Durthor, who had gone ahead to ready his men approached and spoke to him in a low voice. "Two things my Lord. As we thought the men here were expecting to ride north, and are surprised at the order to head west instead. And a messenger was seen leaving in haste not long after we arrived, before we managed to persuade the young Lord of the error of his ways". Merendir nodded. "So this morning Durchon knows a company of mounted knights has arrived here from the north, and what their strength is. With any luck he will be drawn out of his citadel by the news and we will meet him in the hill country that flanks the Vale of the Baraduin. So be it. Now sound the assembly and we will mount up and prepare to march".

So it was that they rode out of Othlondir at dawn, Merendir leading the column flanked by Durthor and Turin. With them rode the fifty riders from Bree, along with a further seventy from Othlondir, behind whom followed five companies of footsoldiers and a company of archers along with the baggage. It was two days march to Sarn Athrad, but Merendir had decided halt later that day and wait for his brother to arrive. The day promised to be fine and there was a hint of spring in the air again once the sun began to burn the morning mists off. They passed through a fair and fertile land of farms and orchards, and further on they could occasionally glimpse herds of horses running free on the plain. Eventually the land began to rise into a series of wooded low hills which ran north to south where there was little sign of any habitation. Here Merendir had Durthor send riders ahead to act as scouts and report back at the first sight of anyone coming the other way. They did meet a few travellers on the road, merchants and the occasional farmer who viewed them with surprise and not a little consternation in some cases, some asking whither they went and to what purpose but they received no reply. Just after noon they reached a small summit where there was an isolated inn and farmstead, beyond which the road dropped back down quite steeply into a wooded vale, and Merendir called a halt, for he had decided that this place would suit his purpose. The companies were ordered to form up along the crest of the ridge in battle order and then stood down to rest and await further instructions, but it took a while for the long column of men to reach the top of the ridge and then fan out along it. Turin rode back and forth giving orders to his captains while Merendir sat motionless on his horse and looked out over the vale below and the wooded summits beyond, from what he could remember they did not continue much further and the flat and fertile plain of the Baranduin River lay beyond them.
When Turin returned to his side he looked troubled, and reluctantly made plaint to him. "My Lord, forgive me, but the men are troubled and filled with discontent. Many of them have kin in the Sarn Athrad companies, and they are very unhappy about the idea of having to face them in a fight. They do not understand what is happening, for they expected to march north in support of Durchon's claim, not west, and I do not know if their discipline will hold. Forgive me...". He looked utterly miserable, but Merendir showed no sign of emotion as he listened. "Call up your captains" he replied " I will speak to them". With that he dismounted and waited for word to go out and for the men to answer his call.

He acknowledged each man as he arrived, and when they were all present he asked each to name himself and the company he commanded. They were the usual mix of veterans and precocious younger men, for Cardolan, already sparsely populated had suffered greatly in the wars of the mid thirteen hundreds and it was only now that the next generation were beginning to fill the gaps in the ranks. Merendir listened intently and when they were done he addressed them formally in return. "Faithful men of Cardolan, hearken unto me your Captain General. Know ye that we have marched here today with the purpose of apprehending Prince Durchon of Sarn Athrad, who stands accused of disloyal words and deeds and plotting to usurp our rightful leige, Prince Maenir of Cardolan. But ye must also know that Maenir is minded to act with mercy against the transgressor and that he desires that no steel be drawn or blood spilt here today. Tell your men to be ready to form up at the signal but no more, for they are here to stop a war rather than fight one today". There was a murmur of assent from the assembled captains and then they left to rejoin their men. Merendir signalled to Turin, who had been standing nearby to accompany him and they walked along the line together, speaking to the soldiers and checking their readiness, but it was not long before one of the outriders was seen riding at the gallop out of the trees and up the slope below them. They returned to the inn to received his news. "A column of riders approaches on the road, perhaps two hundred strong. Prince Durchon is at their head". Merendir thanked the man and ordered the assembly signal to be sounded, before collecting his own horse and remounting. The banners were unfurled and the company of horsemen from Bree formed up alongside him, the tips of their lances gleaming in the pale sunshine of early spring.

It was a while before Durchon and his escort appeared on the road below, but as they emerged from the trees they saw the host lined up on the hillside above them they came to a halt. Merendir urged his horse forward and down the hill towards them, and as he did so his brother left the other riders in turn and came forward so that they met out of direct earshot of the onlookers. They halted a few yards apart, impassive, each taking the measure of the other for a moment. Like his own, the years began to mark his brother's features, but the comfort and good living the other had clearly grown too accustomed to wrote a different story there. However he still cut an impressive figure, for his gear was of the finest quality and he sat astride a huge black charger. It was he who finally broke the silence. "Greetings brother, this is most unexpected for I did not look to find you here on the road in the south. Nor did I expect to find my way barred by a host of my own men. What do you intend here?". His tone was friendly, but he was cautious, and Merendir's sharp reply gave him good cause to be. "Firstly, these men do not serve you, they serve Cardolan and the Captain General commands them. You will offer him the courtesies and respect due to one who outranks you. Secondly that you will immediately order your men, and any others who follow to return home to their homes and families forthwith. Thirdly that you return with me to Ost-en-Tyrn to answer the grave charges of disloyalty and fomenting rebellion. However Prince Maenir is wise and merciful and wishes it to be known that if you show contrition and will swear an oath of loyalty before all then Maenir is minded to be merciful and you will suffer no further sanction". Durchon's expression hardened, his hand went to his sword hilt and his tone was contemptuous. "You demand over much here brother, what if I am not minded to comply? A force more than equal to your own marches this way and will be here ere nightfall. If you do not allow me to pass then there will be a contest tomorrow and much blood will be shed. Know that I do do not act lightly in this matter but out out of love for our land, for it is in peril while our weak and craven fool of a brother sits upon the throne. His offer to pardon me for my actions demonstrates his cowardice, march north at my side as my ally rather than my captor and we shall rule together. You will remain as Captain General". Merendir bristled. "Nay, it is you who are the fool, for you mistake wisdom and mercy for weakness and cowardice. Do you truly think skill at arms and a fine suit of plate are all that are required in order to rule well, and for your realm to grow and prosper? Our eldest brother was a man of action rather than subtle thought who came young to his inheritance, but he was able to lead us wisely for over seventy years with the help of Maenir's wise counsel. The likes of you and I may serve in times of war, but we have now known peace for half a century, and I know of none better suited to be ruling prince than he. If you truly love the land as you profess then think on the consequences of your actions should you continue on this path. You have no just cause to spill the blood of our people, already too few in number and barely recovered from the last war. Know also that Arthedain will not countenance your challenge to Maenir's legitimate succession and will send a host south to crush you should you threaten his rule, so you are doomed to fail. Set aside your foolish pride for once brother, for the good of all and for the sake of those you love dear. And if you will not, then only you and I will contest this day and the outcome will be decided by a single combat, for I swear that not a single one of these men gathered here will die at the hands of one of their countrymen today". There was another long silence between them during which Merendir held his brother's gaze unflinchingly the whole while, but eventually the other dropped his eyes and the fight visibly went out of him. He rose slightly in his stirrups, gave a salute and bowed his head. "Captain". Merendir quickly returned his salute, wheeled his horse around so that it was level with his brother's and seizing his hand in his own, raised it high over their heads before walking forward together. A huge cheer went up from those above and behind them.

They had ridden together back to the top of the ridge, and on arrival Durchon addressed the large and curious crowd of soldiers that had gathered there to greet him. “Men of the Othlondir Companies” he had begun “this is a glad day for our realm, for the Captain General has brought word that our brother the Ruling Prince will hear our plaints and provide us with the assurances we seek. Thus is our honour satisfied, and all need for contention between us rendered unnecessary. There will be no march north and you may return home”. The men had cheered again loudly before dispersing to begin preparing the camp, full of cheer and most relieved that it would no longer come to a fight. Afterwards the two brothers entered the inn with their captains and the innkeeper and his family set about providing them with food and drink. Merendir remained grim faced but there was a hint of warmth as he seated himself alongside Durchon and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Well spoken before the men brother. Maenir will not wish to see your honour diminished by your decision to accept his rule”. The other shrugged and remained downcast. “I have placed myself in your hands brother, as has Lord Turin, for the sake of the greater good. I hope our trust has not been misplaced”. Merendir shook his head. “Nay, you need have no misgivings on that score, I am a plain soldier and weave no webs of deceit for my own purposes nor am I in the habit of being used to do so by others. Rest assured that matters are as I have laid them out, and that Maenir seeks to be reconciled with you. After we reach Ost-en-Tyrn and you have affirmed your loyalty to him you will be at liberty to return south to your lands with your honour and standing intact”. Durchon accepted his words but did not seem overly reassured by them, for he still found it hard to credit that his brother would really forgive him and allow him to go free after he had openly planned to raise an army and march against him. It was certainly not a course of action he could have considered for even an instant had their roles been reversed, and yet he could see the merit in it and also had some inkling of the risk his brother took in offering the pardon. There was no more to be said on the matter so instead he asked Merendir for news of his son, and was reassured by the reply. “Amarion fares well, and does his father credit. I am content that I have left my former command in good hands, and he will learn much in his dealings there with Arthedain”. Durchon was content, and the remainder of the meal passed quietly after which they made themselves comfortable for the night.

In the morning they returned to Othlondir, Merendir riding at the head of the column with Durchon and Turin at his side, the banners of Sarn Athrad, Othlondir and Cardolan flying above them. On arriving at the low walled citadel Merendir’s first act was to write a brief message for Maenir with news of the outcome of his expedition and despatch it with all haste northward.

"Brother, our purpose has been achieved and war is averted. I ride north with Durchon and Turin of Othlondir and will reach you by the end of the month. I pray that you are still minded to be merciful"

The following morning they too set off, accompanied by Durthor and the riders from Bree. A fine rain blew in their faces, but the air had lost its chill and there was no doubt that Spring would soon arrive. Merendir finally allowed himself some small satisfaction at having done what he had set out to do, when at any moment the overwhelming numerical advantage of those he sought to bring to heel could have led to a very different outcome, and any sign of doubt on his part might well have been fatal. He mused on the mysteries of command and rule, and on the way that sometimes a title and the ability to act the part convincingly like a mummer in an entertainment were all that were needed. Perhaps he was more suited to rule than he had realised, but he knew that he was content to be his older brother's mastiff, or perhaps wolf as he had already been named by some, acting to enforce his rule as necessary. Whilst there might be less use for old soldiers in time of peace there was still much that he would be able to turn his hand to for the common good and he realised that the thought made him happy. "Come" he cried out to his brother and the others around him "we have far to go today, let us allow the horses to run for a while!". With that he set off, his mount needing no second asking, and the air was soon filled with the thunder of hooves and fragments of flying sod as the others followed.

Chapter Text

Maenir stood at the window and gazed north towards the road, but yet again there was no sign of any rider moving swiftly upon it who might be a messenger bearing news from the south. Between him and the faint line it traced across the landscape there were the first signs of spring on the landscape, farmers were abroad clearing the ground, spreading dung and ploughing in readiness for the new season's crops. He felt Celebeth's arms close around him and felt her familiar softness against him as she laid her head on his shoulder. "Patience my love, there is still time for word to come to us from Merendir, and for it to be glad news". He sighed, for it had been ten days since his brother had ridden south, and there had been no word since, but he knew her words to be wise. "You know well that he is a man who is terse and does not spend words unnecessarily, you will have news when it is worth the telling. You could not have chosen better for this task, for he will have the respect of the southern lords and has played no part in the intrigues that have plagued the realm. If any can carry the day for you it is he". He smiled and kissed the top of her head, enjoying the scent of her hair. "You are right as ever my sweet, and I would be lost without your wise counsels, but I wish this matter was settled, for better or worse, for if it is worse word must be sent to Fornost. If no messenger brings tidings north then travellers on the road are bound to, but we will have less warning and less time to act. I have asked Lord Denethor to be vigilant for any news reaching Bree, that will have to suffice". He sighed and turned, dislodging her grasp on him, but it was quickly remade as he closed his arms about her in turn. All would surely be well when there was such love in the world.

The messenger arrived the following day, fresh from Bree. Maenir had been seated in the great hall, receiving pleas and plaints from various petitioners, the ever faithful Erestor at his side when the rider was admitted. He knew at once whence the message came when he saw the seal it bore, and broke it open immediately. "The Captain General has sent word" he announced to all present "there will be peace". There was loud applause and he instructed that the bells of the citadel be sounded in celebration, and for the news to be announced in the town. Preparations would be put in hand for the arrival of Merendir and Durchon, for they could be expected within the next two or three days. The bells began to chime and shortly afterwards Celebeth and the children arrived at the hall, having come up quickly from the house at the sound. His wife's face was filled with concern until she saw the demeanour of those within and she smiled radiantly and approached her husband. "So it is good news then?" she exclaimed happily "I knew it would be". With that she embraced him, and then he embraced each of his children in turn, for now there could be no doubt as to their future.

All was duly prepared, and the great hall of the palace made ready to receive the travellers, but it was not until the third day after the messenger had arrived that the column was sighted on the road from Bree and horns were sounded. The day was overcast but dry, and a warm breeze blew from the south, lifting the banners that flew from the tower and walls. Maenir was dressed in ceremonial finery and wore the circlet of his office on his brow and had decided to greet his brothers in the courtyard rather than riding out to meet them. He went out to wait there when it was time and all his court and the high born and those of rank gathered about him. Celebeth and the children were at his side, along with the Lady Ivrien, and an honour guard formed up at the gate. The bells sounded and cheering could be heard in the streets, which grew louder as the riders approached. Finally they were there, with Merendir at their head and Durchon and Turin at his side, along with Denethor of Bree and old Haldir of Aglond and a number of lesser nobles from their lands. The bells fell silent, the riders dismounted and handed their horses to the grooms and they came forward to where Maenir waited to welcome them. Merendir bowed low. "My liege, I have brought our brother Prince Durchon of Sarn Athrad and Lord Turin of Othlondir here to answer charges of disloyalty and plotting against your person. Will you now hear their pleas of mitigation and pronounce judgement upon them for their actions?" Maenir nodded in acknowledgment and they followed him into the hall, the two men standing before the dais where he took up his seat with Merendir at their side. Around the hall the remainder of the onlookers took up their places according to status and rank. The two men stood impassively, their faces betraying no emotion. They had not been asked to relinquish their weapons, which would normally have been the case in similar circumstances.

Durchon was the first to be addressed, and went down on his knees. "Prince, how do you answer the charges against you?" He bowed his head and then spoke out clearly. I am guilty of them both, but acted mistakenly out of love for the realm. I realise the gravity of my actions and the depth of my error, and if you will give me the opportunity I will do all within my power to make amends and prove my loyalty". The Prince then called on Turin to answer the charges against him and he knelt and replied in a similar form of words to Durchon, albeit with noticeably less assurance. A long silence followed before Maenir rose to his feet, his manner grim. "Men of Cardolan, hear now my judgement upon Prince Durchon of Sarn Athrad and Lord Turin of Othlondir, here today charged with disloyalty and plots against my person. These are charges of the utmost gravity, for which the punishment is normally death". There was another long silence, during which Merendir met and held his gaze for a moment, giving him a look which he could not mistake for anything other than a warning. "The punishment is normally death, and yet we do not find ourselves in normal circumstances. Both of the accused standing here today have previously been peerless servants of the realm ruling their fiefs wisely and loyally, and both wish to be given the opportunity to make amends for their transgressions. It is therefore my decision that despite their professed guilt sentence will be deferred for a year and a day. Within that time they will once again swear oaths of loyalty before all who are gathered here and be allowed to prove themselves worthy of my forgiveness. For a new age of peace and prosperity beckons and we will have need of such men as these if we are to increase the number our people and resettle the emptied lands of the east. For the love we bear you both now rise as free men. Thus speaks Maenir, Ruling Prince of Cardolan". Erestor stepped forward with a scroll bearing the oath of allegiance and each man repeated the solemn words in turn before the assembled throng.

When all was done the hall erupted with applause and the two men rose to their feet. Maenir embraced Durchon first, then Turin and finally Merendir. The four of them, along with the two northern lords then retired to an antechamber where food and drink had been prepared and they seated themselves around the table. Maenir raised a toast to the realm and they all drank deeply before a brief silence followed as they helped themselves to the food laid out before them. It was Durchon who spoke first. "Brother, I fear I have underestimated and misjudged you, and I am sorry for my deeds and the hurt they have caused. To seek reconciliation and act with mercy and forgiveness rather than exacting the vengeance due to you is an act of great courage and wisdom and I salute you for it". There was a murmur of approval around the table and Maenir nodded and finished a mouthful of food before replying. "Your deeds grieved me, but I must think of the greater good of the realm. I have need of the aid of good men to help me rule and am loath to lose you both". This raised a smile. "It would also be inadvisable to decapitate the two largest fiefs in the south and risk reopening the old wounds between those lands and the north. For these were the very reasons that you and our recently departed brother were married there, to strengthen the ties between us all". Again there was a murmur of approval before Merendir, too, decided to speak. "And I salute the two of you for having the courage to follow the right course of action when others might have been easier, and for coming here to face judgement and make amends. Let today be a new beginning for all assembled here. Let us all drink to the future!" That toast was received enthusiastically and the remainder of the meal was most convivial.

That evening a joyful feast was held in the great hall to to welcome those who had arrived in Ost-en-Tyrn that day. Once again Merendir found himself seated at Maenir's right hand as his guest of honour, but this time the other lords took precedence and rather than Celebeth he had Turin for company. The young lord, no longer threatened, and his tongue loosened somewhat by drink was a most affable companion, and it also turned out that he was very knowledgeable about horses and their breeding, a subject which greatly interested Merendir. Maenir on the other hand spent much of his time speaking with his other brother, who he had seated to his left. The tone of their conversation was cordial, but largely of inconsequential matters and reminiscences, but both were keen to mend fences and be agreeable. Once the meal was finished further toasts were proposed, and received boisterous responses, particularly the first from Maenir honouring his Captain General. Once a good number of toasts and counter toasts had been drunk on a variety of subjects and to the honour of most of the guests the tables were cleared away and the musicians entered and prepared to play. Mindful of his previous tribulations Merendir made for what he hoped was a dark corner and became engaged in an earnest discussion with a group of captains and minor lords, but it was in vain. Lady Celebeth made straight for him, face flushed and eyes sparkling and would not be gainsaid. Once again he found himself in mortal fear of ridicule but when the musicians struck up it turned out to be the same simple dance he had muddled through previously, or a variant of it. Her bright gaze and dazzling smile made him uncomfortable for she was clearly in her cups and he thought he saw desire in the look she gave him. The strength of her grip on his hand only served to increase his discomfort, and at the end of the dance she threw her arms around him and gazed into his eyes. "Thankyou once again brother for all you have done, you wonderful man". Then she scowled and looked at his chest, rapping her fingers on his breastplate. "Do you never take your armour off my lord? What do you think you must protect yourself from in this hall?" She smiled mischeviously and he was about to explain a little stiffly how it was expected that the Captain General should be wearing his plate at such an occasion when Durchon came to his rescue and claimed the next dance, which she acceded to willingly enough, giggling wildly at something he said.

Thus reprieved he made his way to the side of the hall and found himself suddenly face to face with Lady Ivrien. His heart gave a sudden and unexpected lurch at the sight of her, for though she was dressed in a simple gown of sombre hue she seemed as fair as any in the hall. He bowed low and clasped her hands, placing a kiss on them, and straightened up. "My Lady, how fare you?" She smiled. "I am well, and glad to see you returned safely to us. What you did was well done, and it gladdens my heart that there is now hope of reconciliation between Maenir and Durchon, for this was a division that festered even during Aglareb's reign. But this is not a night for talk of such serious matters, what of our sister? I see that she managed to get you to dance again, when to do so runs counter to all your natural inclinations". Merendir gave a pained smile " The Lady Celebeth is most persuasive and cannot be gainsaid". Ivrien laughed "She is also most drunk tonight unless I and very much mistaken. Beware, for it renders her most affectionate, and she will return for more". The current dance was drawing to a close and he could see Celebeth casting around for someone as it did, presumably him. "You must save me my Lady, would you honour me with a dance?" Merendir asked in mock fear, but she shook her head. "Nay, though I would gladly save you, it is still too soon and would not be seemly for me to be seen dancing with another yet. But I know of one who would be glad to partner you, though you must take care of her and avoid crushing her toes with those heavy boots of yours". She gestured to where his niece Princess Aewen was standing nearby with her two siblings, and as he looked her way she caught his eye in return and then looked down abashed. He approached her and bowed, asking her for the honour of a dance, and she blushing the colour beetroot took his hand and they made their way to join the other dancers. He had not taken much note of her previously and she had changed from a gawky child into a fine young woman, with her mother's beauty and her father's nobility. Her hand trembled a little as he held it lightly in his own but she regarded him steadfastly, and all was well until the music began and the dancers moved off. Merendir suddenly realised with horror that this was one that he did not know. "My Lady, help me" he whispered through clenched teeth and a fixed smile "for I know not this dance and your toes are now in mortal peril". It was as if a spell had been broken, for suddenly she laughed and lost her diffidence and he watched with delight as she took charge of the situation, calling out each movement with confidence and guiding him gracefully through them. At the end they bowed to each other, laughing. "My Lady, I thank you and find myself greatly in your debt" he said as he took her arm in order to lead her to the side. She replied quickly, gazing up at him. "Then I ask in consideration of that debt that you pay us a visit when your duties allow. For I would very much like to know more of the eastern lands, and none have more knowledge of that subject than you". He nodded "It shall be so my Lady".

They returned to where Ivrien stood waiting, clearly amused at what she had just witnessed. She embraced the younger woman, congratulating her on saving the dignity of an old fool. Merendir suffered the ribbing with good humour and then watched wistfully as a nervous young swain came to claim his niece for the next dance. Oh to be twenty years old again and free to set his heart at the feet of such a beauty... yet he had known her equal in beauty and wit at that age and she had been his too, for the very same woman now stood at his side, eyeing him a little quizzically. As if reading his thoughts it was she who spoke first "She is very fair she not? I fear she may break many hearts in the next few years". Merendir replied without thinking and instantly regretted his words. "Fair as a summers day, but you were fairer still at her age". She did not show any displeasure at his impertinent remark as he had feared but held his gaze unblinking, her expression gentle and sad. "And I too was a breaker of hearts, and it grieves me to think of the sorrow it caused you. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me, for I was young and foolish and do not think in the end that I chose the better brother ". She quietly took his hands in hers and they stood together unremarked while the festivities continued around them. Merendir was taken aback at her sudden frankness and for a moment found himself unable to reply, and before he could do so heard a happy giggle and found Celebeth had siezed his arm. "Forgive me my lady, but I fear this lord has been evading another dance with me for long enough, may I steal him from you for a little while?" Ivrien smiled broadly, her amusement and affection for her sister in law geniune. "Of course you may, sweet child, do with him as you will and take as long as you wish. For I find myself becoming weary and fear it is time for me to retire". They laughed and embraced and Merendir bowed and kissed her hand as was customary. "Good evening my lady and I thank you for your kind words, but know that it is impossible to forgive when there was no fault on your part". His words came out a little awkwardly and Celebeth looked momentarily surprised at this sudden solemnity between the two of them. Then Ivrien turned and was gone and she giggled again and drew him into the centre of the floor to join the next dance. "You will now do penance for avoiding me and dancing with my daughter instead" she said laughing, her eyes bright and her now slightly tousled appearance making her appear even more beautiful, reviving the desire and discomfort he had felt earlier. She led him through the next three dances until they both agreed it was time to seek further refreshment and joined the large group that surrounded Maenir and Durchon. To his relief she immediately detached herself from him and threw herself into her husband's arms, where she remained, her eyes full of love and admiration for him, which it was clear were fully returned. Merendir had not drunk much but his head was spinning, filled with the conflicting emotions he had felt that evening, and he was still taken aback at what Ivrien had said to him. It had been so much simpler in the eastern wilderness, for there had been no hope or desire to distract or dismay him there. He was suddenly filled with weariness and an urge to escape from the noisy hall, so he made his excuses and left. Outside the night air was chilly and the clouds had parted to reveal countless stars overhead. He paused for a little while in the silent courtyard trying to clear his head before returning to his bare and simply furnished rooms in the barracks.

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On the day following the feast Prince Maenir called a council and all the senior lords attended, Merendir included. They discussed many subjects including the state of the treasury and their plans for the future, but the discussion often returned to the same point for though the lands were wide, fertile and ripe for exploitation the people were always too few and too thinly scattered. It would take several generations for this to change barring war or plague, but in the meantime it was proposed by some that settlers from outside could be encouraged, even at the risk of reducing the purity of their Dunedain blood. Denethor of Bree pointed out that his fief thrived as a result of the outsiders who had arrived there and remained to take advantage of the trade passing through the crossroads. But others, including Merendir pointed out the danger of allowing the population of lesser men to increase too far and for the blood of the west to become diluted, citing what had happened in Rhudaur as an example. There was also the issue of where these settlers might come from, for most of the surrounding lands were largely empty and few were likely to wish to relocate from Arthedain or Tharbad. Maenir resolved that a small embassy be sent south to Gondor to investigate whether men of good Dunedain stock might be willing to migrate north with the inducement of gold and land, and tasked Merendir with organising it. As regards their neighbours all remained quiet on the border with Rhudaur though the watch never slackened there or to the north. To the south it was agreed by all that there was little to be served at present from seeking a rapprochement with Tharbad where Maenir's aged cousin Arodon now ruled, nor should they be antagonised for there was no desire to interrupt the main trade route with the south. In the evening they all dined together and retired early, for most were set to depart home the following morning.

Having said their farewells and charging their guests to return for the midsummer festivities with their wives and families Maenir and Merendir watched the column leave the yard and descend through the town. Maenir sighed. "He seemed sincere, but only time will tell if our brother holds his word and remains loyal. You would do well to find reasons to be often in the south of the land to remind him, lest the sharp tongue of Lady Lothwen make him forget his vows". Merendir frowned. "I shall do so, and soon for at the very least I have an invitation to visit Turin and his horse breeders that I aim to take up, and it would be reasonable to pay him a visit afterwards. But I do think him sincere, you have given him enough reason to think you a strong and thoughtful ruler now, which was his main concern. Speaking of paying visits Aewen requested at the feast that I call on her and tell her more of what I know of the east. I will be going through the army ledgers with Erestor for most of the day, but could call later this afternoon if it is suitable?" Maenir was surprised but happy for his brother to visit. "By all means. Not only is she grown very fair but she also has a quick and enquiring mind just like her mother, and of our three children she is the one who is most serious and seems the most likely to suited to rule at the present time. For Lethil is a sweet and frivolous creature, and young Bruinir is only interested in weapons and tales of battle. He will be a good soldier for you but naught else so far. But they are all still young and much may change in the next few years, perhaps I judge them too soon and too harshly as a father often may. You must stay with us for the evening meal afterwards, Celebeth will be pleased to see you again, she says your dancing has improved a little under her tutelage". They laughed and Merendir was pleased to accept, for it would make a pleasant change from the garrison.

The days had grown noticeably longer, but it was still dusk by the time Merendir arrived at his brother's house, a large map scroll under his arm. The servants admitted him and led him into the day room where Celebeth and the children were seated embroidering and reading. His arrival was greeted with delight by Celebeth, who smiled her radiant smile and embraced him politely, kissing him on the brow. Aewen too was clearly pleased to see him, though she looked much younger than she had at the feast, with her hair in a loose braid and wearing a plain dress. However he delighted her by offering a polite kiss on the hand as was customary to a lady rather than a child. The other children were still a little wary of him and were merely polite, however all present expressed their delight and interest when they learned what he had been tasked with by Aewen, and gathered round him as he unrolled the map on a table. Aewen herself seemed a little put out that she would not have the visitor to herself, but was soon listening, fascinated, as Merendir began to describe the wide lands on the map in far more detail than was actually shown, describing their history, the terrain and the battles that had been fought over them. They were all especially interested in his description of the tower at Amon Sul and also the blighted lands of Rhudaur, though Merendir himself had never travelled there but had learned much of it from the exiles who had served with him. He received many enthusiastic and often perceptive questions from his audience and they could have continued all night if they had they not been interrupted by the announcement that Maenir had arrived home and the evening meal was ready. They thanked Merendir as he rolled the map back up and then Bruinir continued to quiz him as they made their way to the dining chamber. The house was pleasantly furnished and much brighter and more welcoming than it had been when they had lived there as children, and Merendir welcomed the change. He was surprised however to find Ivrien with his brother when they entered, and after informal greetings had been exchanged Celebeth explained that her sister in law dined with them one or two nights a week to relieve her solitude and that Merendir should consider doing the same.

After Remembering the West they were seated at the table which was circular rather than the usual rectangle and Merendir found himself between Bruinir and Aewen. The meal and the company were most agreeable, and once again Merendir felt grateful to be amongst family and feel the sense of belonging. Ivrien had been seated opposite him, making conversation with her difficult especially when competing with his garrulous neighbours, but the exchanges they did share were pleasant and without any awkwardness. The following day promised to be fine, and for the first time since his arrival he had no pressing business, so after the children had departed the table he spoke to his brother. "I was not here for the burial and it is meet that I should pay my respects to our late brother. Does he lie with our forefathers in the Long Barrow?" Maenir shook his head. "Nay, little space remained within, and since the Kings of Cardolan are at an end it was decided to open a new barrow just to the west to house our own kin and descendants. He was laid within with all honour and the standing stone on the summit that had toppled was erected anew. Of those who originally occupied that house no trace remained, save dust, but we venerate their memory". He bowed his head momentarily, and then looked to Ivrien with concern on his face. "Sister, I trust we have not distressed you with this talk of death and the burial?". She shook her head, her expression calm. "Nay brother, I am well. But if it should be agreeable to you Merendir I would join you in your pilgrimage, I can lead you to the place without difficulty and it would please me to visit it again in solitude and quiet". The proposal was met with approval and a time set the following morning for them to meet and ride out.

The weather had kept its promise and the morning was mild and breezy, with clouds scudding across the sky and the sun appearing and disappearing every few minutes. Merendir strode out into the yard in his battle gear, helm under his arm, for this would be no idle ride into the countryside and he went to reverence the dead. Ivrien was also waiting, but dressed informally for riding in breeches and a light travelling cloak with her long tresses tied in a plait. She nodded in acknowledgement when she saw him and signalled to the grooms to bring out the horses, his own big black mare and a grey that was almost as tall. They mounted and set off in silence through the streets of the town which were still quiet at that hour, but rather than take the road that led north they left through a side gate and began to climb the vale behind the town, heading south. It was Ivrien who broke the silence first. "You ride a mare rather than a stallion?" She asked, curious. He smiled and stroked his horse's withers. "Yes, Duvainien is as brave as any stallion and twice as loyal. My choice may be unusual but I have never yet had cause to rue it. Your own choice of mount is somewhat unusual too if I may say so, for would it not be customary for a Lady such as yourself to ride a palfrey side saddle rather than sit astride a fine war horse?" She smiled, thoughtful. "Los is his name and he was a birthday gift to Aglareb from Turin of Othlondir this year past. But he never rode him, for at first he had no time or inclination and then he became ill. Aglareb, knowing how much I still delighted in riding bequeathed him to me before he died, so it is fitting that I should ride him today. He was not so ill as a husband". They lapsed back into silence, and as they rode Merendir remembered other rides on similar days long ago, with the scent of new life in the air and the downs cloaked in vivid green. Duvainien, as if reading his thoughts began to jog, the great expanse of open hillside before them begging to be galloped, but he gently checked her and she came back to a brisk walk.

The barrow where Aglareb had been laid to rest was, three or so leagues south of the town and the sun was already high in the sky by the time they arrived. Here many of the hill tops were crowned with grassy barrows and standing stones, for this had been one of the burial grounds of the fathers of men during the second age of the world. There were other similar places to be found further south, but since the end of the Second Age these barrows had been put to use for a second time as the last resting place of the highborn of the Dunedain who had dwelt in this part of the world, and it was a place of great reverence. Ivrien rode her horse up to a mound where the earth showed signs of having been recently disturbed around the slab of the door stone, and dismounted, leaving her horse to graze on the short turf dotted with evermind. Merendir followed suit, and they came before the door in silence, kneeling and bowing their heads. He closed his eyes, remembering his brother, thinking of him through all the ages of his life, from his earliest memories of him as a child until the last just the year before. It still irked him, for it had been a short tempered meeting where his brother, as was ever his wont, had tried to belittle him in front of his peers. He had left at dawn the following day to return east, and it had been a poor way for them to have been parted for the last time. Though Aglareb had been a wise and courageous ruler Merendir had always been the little brother to him, no matter how great his accomplishments. Though he felt a pang of guilt at thinking it in that place he could not escape the fact that there had never been much love between them, and even less when Ivrien, daughter of an old southern family, had been married to him rather than being allowed to follow her heart. At the thought of her he glanced across and saw that she wept silently, the tears coursing down her cheeks. Despite his best intentions the remembering and the sight of her weeping had reopened old wounds and reawakened his bitterness at what had been done to them. Ashamed and angry that he had been unable to make his peace there or think well of the departed he rose to his feet and returned to the horses to wait for Ivrien. She rejoined him a few minutes later, her eyes now dry though still puffy from weeping and her manner calm and resolute. They mounted their horses and he was about to turn north when she spoke. "It is a fair Spring day, and though the dead sleep here under the grass life still courses through our own veins, shall we not set aside the cares of our duty for a few hours and ride south again for a while as we did in our youth? We have some small provisions in our saddle bags that will serve for a lunch, who knows, perhaps we shall see the Eldest One on our travels?" Her tone was a little brittle but he could put up no objection, so they turned their horses south and rode gently down the hillside away from that place and the weight of the past.

It had been a very long time since he had ridden in those hills but it seemed nothing had changed at all and as they passed familiar places many old memories were awakened. They rounded a shoulder that came down from the heights and entered another long vale which he remembered as a place that had been perfect for racing their ponies as children. The bottom of the vale was wide and flat and climbed gently as it went, running straight as an arrow for half a league or more. As they reached level ground Duvainien began to jog again in anticipation but this time he did not rush to check her. He glanced over at Ivrien and saw mischief in her expression, then she cried out and was gone, and Duvainien did not wait for his command to follow. The world was quickly reduced to the rapid rhythm of the horse's hooves beating rapidly on the ground and the roar of the wind in their ears, and his eyes were stung with tears caused by the draught. The mare drew level with the gelding, who increased his speed in response and soon both horses were going even faster than had previously seemed possible. To Merendir's dismay Los began to draw well ahead and then the pace began to slow, the roar of the horses breathing now added to the rhythm of their hoof beats. Ivrien whooped with delight and turned to him, waving a clenched fist aloft, and Merendir doffed his helm, acknowledging his defeat. "He is fast isn't he" she cried exultant, her eyes bright and her face filled with happiness. But Merendir had an excuse to offer. "We would have given you more of a race had Duvainien not been carrying the weight of all my gear and arms as well " he retorted, playing the curmudgeon but he could not keep up the pretence for long and grinned. "Yes, he is fast!" And then he stroked his mare's neck and said to her "Girl, it looks like we have finally met our match".

They walked the now sweat soaked horses up to the end of the vale and then up the short ridge to the broad summit of the next down, before stripping them of their tack and allowing them to roll and graze. There was no barrow on this hilltop, but it was crowned instead with a circle of standing stones, and Merendir remembered that they had often rested here before after racing the horses up the vale. He and Ivrien seated themselves on the turf with their backs to one of the stones, facing the centre of the circle and sheltered from the breeze. They said little as they unpacked and shared the contents of their saddle bags, warmed by the gentle sunshine and lost in thought and memories. Afterwards there was no sound to be heard save the sighing of the breeze through the ancient stones and the distant call of a lark somewhere far above them. Merendir closed his eyes and turned his face to the sun, enjoying the feel of it on his skin and the closeness of the woman who had been the one great love of his life. To find himself there, laid alongside her once again after so long and beyond all hope or expectation could scarcely be credited, and if this was a dream then it was one he did not wish to waken from. It was almost possible to imagine that the last eighty years had not yet happened and they were still young and their joy undimmed.

He felt Ivrien take hold of his hand where it had strayed in the grass, opened his eyes and turned to face her, meeting her steady gaze. Her expression was full of tenderness, and though the passage of long years had written its tale on her face her grey eyes remained untouched by time and she was still beautiful. She dropped his gaze for a moment, thoughtful. "Since we are unlikely to be interrupted here by Celebeth... I will speak plainly for we are both too old and have seen too much of the world to do otherwise." She raised her eyes to meet his again and continued. “It is nigh on eighty years since we last lay here together, almost a lifetime for men of lesser blood. So much time has passed, so many have been born, have suffered, known love and happiness and have died, and yet my grief and regret is as keen as it was the day I was parted from you. I would give anything to be able to go back and amend what happened between us. My heart was truly yours, but my father would not countenance our match when a more advantageous one could be made instead with the heir to the throne of Cardolan. As you know only too well Aglareb was almost twice my age then, fair of face and speech and already a great lord and commander of men. He told me he wished me to be his queen and like a foolish young girl with her head full of tales of the elder days I wavered and was lost. At first he was a good husband to me but his duty to the realm always took precedence over our marriage and although at the start and for a little while afterwards there was affection between us there was never love between us, not of the kind we had. And as the years passed and it became clear that I was barren and would never give him an heir he became distant and resentful, and in time I was little more than a captive to my duty. Maenir was always kind to me though, and Celebeth especially so after they were married, it was their kindness and care for me made my life bearable. All the while through the long years I waited for news from the wars in the east, dreading to hear that you had fallen in some battle or other as poor Barahir did. But somehow beyond all hope you are still here". She smiled warmly, and then her expression clouded a little. "But I have let my tongue run away with me here as was ever my wont and I have said too much without coming to the heart of the matter. The past cannot be changed, only in the time that still lies ahead of us can we try to amend the hurts we have suffered. I would now have what has been denied to us for so long, and however late and brief that joy might be I would be yours again. For my heart forebodes that a doom is upon us and that our time may be short”. Merendir raised his free hand to her cheek and softly wiped away the tears that were gathering there with his thumb, scarcely able to take in her words. After a moment he spoke, his voice thick with emotion. “Lady, I would love thee until the world’s end, but the youth who once lay here with you is gone, and I do not know if he can ever be found again. I long ago forsook all hope of love or happiness for myself and have known nothing but duty, hardship and discipline for so long that I fear that I have become no more than a husk of a man, incapable of true feeling any more. But for your sake and for the memory of the youth I once was I would be healed of this malady, and I too would again know a spring, however brief, before the onset of winter”. Then he leant over and gathered her in his arms and they shared a lingering kiss. They remained there, lying on the turf with their limbs entwined for a very long time afterwards, unwilling for their moment of bliss to end whilst overhead the clouds continued their steady procession and the sun slowly wheeled over into the west.

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Merendir did not know how long he had dozed, but the awakening was sweet for Ivrien lay in his arms, a gentle smile on her face as she watched him come to. "So you are finally awake sleepy head? We have lain here for many hours and I too have slumbered happily in your arms. The day wanes and we may be missed, tongues will wag!" There was mischief in her tone and he laughed. "I am Captain General, second in the land and command all the armies of Cardolan, and you are the Dowager Princess of the realm. We answer to none and care less if tongues wag! Let them!" With that he drew her too him for another kiss. Ivrien suddenly broke away and sat up, looking about her, and he followed suit, trying to divine what had alarmed her. Just down the slope the horses, who had remained close by grazing were both standing on high alert, their bodies rigid and heads raised high watching something in the distance. Then both of them began to whicker, and Merendir and Ivrien, mystified and a little troubled by this strange behaviour rose to their feet and strode to the edge of the stones to try and see what had disturbed them. "Look" whispered Ivrien, following the line of their gaze. On a distant hilltop a figure could be seen striding quickly but it was too distant to make out clearly, and as they watched it seemed to pause and look their way for a moment before turning and disappearing from view down the far side of the hill. The horses relaxed and returned to their grazing. "Do you think it was him?" asked Ivrien, turning to look at him happily as he placed his hands on her shoulders. "If so I deem it a blessing on us, notwithstanding what the gift of foresight has shown me lies in store". He stood behind her and drew her to him. "Yes, I believe that it was he, for the lands where the Eldest dwells near the Old Forest lie only a few hours ride south and west from here and he is often abroad in these hills. All living things love him, and the horses knew him and spoke in greeting. I too will take this as a blessing". With that she turned and kissed him and then they made their way down the hillside to where the horses were waiting, to saddle and harness them.

Their late return went unremarked, and that evening Merendir dined with Ivrien at her apartments in the Palace. He did not return to the barracks until the small hours of the morning.

For the next few days he was busy with Erestor and the quartermasters, carrying out the humdrum but vital task of ensuring that all the garrisons under his command would be properly manned, supplied and equipped in the coming year. Unlike some he had served under in the past he did not resent having to do this dull but important part of the job, but undertaking it for a single command had been one thing, doing so for a whole realm quite another. When the work had been completed he and Erestor spent the day going through his plans with Maenir, who was happy to approve them. Afterwards, Erestor departed and they rose from the table where they had been seated to stretch their legs. Maenir poured his brother a cup of ale and one for himself and joined him at the window. Outside rain and sun had been contending all day long and the sun was finally in the ascendency, fine spring weather for growing, and they looked out over the wide patchwork of tilled fields beyond the town. "If this holds up we will have another good year" remarked Maenir, voicing his thoughts out loud before turning and looking curiously at Merendir. "Brother, I trust I am not being impertinent in this question, but what has come over you lately? The grim Captain General who frightened my children when he arrived has been transformed. Not only are you much less grim, but you have even been seen abroad without your armour and I distinctly heard you singing a song to yourself under your breath while we were crossing the courtyard earlier. Has being closeted with Erestor and the quartermasters for the best part of a week made you so happy? Or are you suddenly in love?" Merendir laughed and looked abashed, to his brother's great surprise, but did not immediately reply. "I see that I am near the mark with the last, but who...". He faltered, realisation dawning on his face, and putting his cup down firmly on the sill he embraced Merendir enthusiastically, his eyes moist with emotion. "Oh brother, I am so happy for you both, for with this an old wrong has finally been righted, and two who are very dear to me are reunited at last. How long?" Merendir nodded, smiling, but then became serious. "Since the day when we rode out together onto the downs. I did not foresee this, thinking that too many years had passed and put too much distance between us for us to love again, but I was wrong. We had not changed so much after all, the years may weary us or add to our wisdom, but she is still the same girl who I loved so long ago. But I have not spoken to any of it, for it is unseemly of me to court a widow with her husband newly buried and my doing so shames our house. The truth must remain hidden and unacknowledged at least until the time of mourning is at an end even if there will inevitably be rumours and gossip". Maenir smiled "I see no shame, for if there is any in this matter it lies with our father and eldest brother for their deeds in it, but I will speak to no other of this until you wish it otherwise. The due time for mourning will be done well before midsummer, so you must be wed then, when all are gathered here for the festivities". Merendir looked alarmed for a moment. "I had given no thought to marriage and we have not spoken of it. But now you have perhaps I will broach the subject".

A few days later Merendir received another invitation to sup with his brother's family. Again he arrived early, carrying his map of the east, for Bruinir in particular wished to hear more of what he had to tell of it, particularly the campaigns and battles of the previous century that had unfolded there. As Maenir had indicated his head was full of heroes and glorious deeds, and perhaps it would do a little good for him to understand that it was not always so and that there was often a terrible cost. Ivrien was there when he arrived, as he knew she would be, and listened to him speaking to the children even though she was already familiar with much of the subject matter. She was dressed simply, her hair loose for once and he thought she looked radiant, though her greeting to him was sober and polite. He began with an account of the loss and subsequent recapture of Amon Sul from Rhudaur in the first decade of the fourteenth century. He had only been a small boy at the time, but his older brothers had been old enough to play a part in the battle that had crushed the army of Rhudaur on the East Road at Amon Perin, close to the place Merendir later founded his stronghold. Afterwards there had been peace until raiders from the newly founded realm of Angmar in the north began raiding the remote and widely scattered farmsteads and villages in the land between the Mitheithel and the south downs. This had been a tragedy for Cardolan, for they were too slow in responding, and by the time the invading orc bands had been slain or driven out the lands to the east of the road had been abandoned save for a few scattered settlements of the secretive small folk in the south downs. Merendir had been blooded in this campaign, and he remembered it vividly, describing the pursuit of the raiders and the burnt out villages that they always seemed too late to save. Fifteen years later after more minor skirmishing with orcs and northmen Rhudaur had attacked Amon Sul again, and again they were crushed and their prince was slain. After that the stage had been set for the great battles of 1356, and the long but watchful peace they still enjoyed had begun. Although he was careful not to be too frank with the young princesses listening he did speak of the horror of battle, its terrible aftermath and of the good friends and the brother he had lost. By the time they were called to their meal Bruinir had become thoughtful and the remainder of his audience were very solemn. When Maenir greeted them and saw their expressions he gave his brother a knowing look and exhorted his children not to be too downcast. "For the land is at peace and all is well. We must all pray that this will continue for a very long time, and there is no reason to think that it will not".

Once again Merendir greatly enjoyed the meal with his family, and even more so when he found himself seated next to Ivrien. Several times he found Celebeth staring intently at him, though she smiled and took her attention elsewhere every time she was noticed. He had been nothing more than polite and solicitous as he always was, surely she did not suspect anything? After the meal came to an end and the children had been allowed to leave Celebeth cleared her throat and addressed the pair of them across the table, her eyes full of laughter. "Brother, Sister, have you got something to tell us? Though you both try very hard to disguise it with your civility to each other I have never seen either of you look so happy in each other's company. And the captain is no longer wearing his plate". Merendir and Ivrien burst out laughing, unable to deny the truth to her. She squealed in delight and clapped her hands together before rising to hug and kiss them both, before suddenly feigning solemnity and rounding on her husband. "You knew? You knew and you didn't tell me?" She punched him playfully and then hugged him too for good measure. "How long have you known of this?" Maenir pretended to be downcast. "Only a few days, I too became suspicious of my brother's unusually cheerful disposition". He paused, looking mischevious. "A marriage at midsummer was mentioned". Once again Celebeth shrieked in delight, but Ivrien gasped, and turned accusingly to Merendir, who looked mortified. However Maenir intervened, laughing. "Fear not, it was I who mentioned it, not my good and cautious brother here. But it would seem a good idea to me for many reasons, and perhaps you should think upon it. Ivrien, placated, threw herself into Merendir's arms and kissed him. "Perhaps we should think upon it then" she said happily.

The enemy came across the ancient stone bridge at dawn, their approach concealed until late by the thick mist that hung in the air. The sentries watching on the walls of the fort did not fail in their duty and sounded the alarm, but the number of attackers was too great and by the time the small garrison had been roused they were already over the walls. The fight was brief and bloody, and although the soldiers gave a fine account of themselves and made the enemy pay as dearly as they could for their victory it was soon over and no man of Cardolan remained alive to tell the tale. A few days later the other forts on the west bank of the Mitheithel were also taken and again none survived to carry word of the disaster west. It was not until an errand rider making the regular journey from Amon Perin arrived at the bridge fort and then turned tail after he realised something was wrong that word of their capture reached Lord Amarion. At around the same time the watchers at the tower had noticed an unusual amount of activity on the east bank of the river and then upon further observation discovered what had befallen the outposts. A messenger was immediately despatched to Ost-en-Tryn, and the news relayed to the King at Fornost via the other seeing stone that was kept there.

It was a perfect spring morning, and the warm sun that climbed into the heavens was unencumbered by any cloud. Merendir had risen early as was his habit, though he had once again been rather late to bed and struggled to shake off his weariness. However today would be a busy day, for aside of his normal duties he had decided to take rooms in the palace after all and would be overseeing the relocation today. His rooms would remain sparsely furnished, but it would enable him to be close to Ivrien and provide less opportunities for the gossips who seemed to be unexpectedly numerous in the citadel garrison. He crossed the courtyard, willing the warmth of the sun to clear his head and reflecting on the events of the night before. He had not known such happiness since his youth, perhaps never known it in truth for they had necessarily remained chaste before Ivrien was married. But now that there was no risk of conceiving a child out of wedlock or any virtue to protect they had held nothing back from each other and it was wonderful. He was disturbed from his reverie by the sound of hooves approaching quickly to the gate, and stopped to see who it could be, and to his surprise saw that it was an errand rider. It was still early, so the man must have been riding half the night to reach them at that hour if he had come from Bree which meant that must be carrying important news of some kind. Curious, Merendir hailed him, but the messenger did not at first realise who was addressing him as he was not wearing his gear. The message had been sent from Lord Norgalad at Amon Sul, and was for him. The messenger was persuaded of his identity with the help of the ostler who had approached to take the horse and a nearby guard and passed the message to him, apologising for his error. Merendir made a point of forgiving his reluctance and thanking him before turning his attention to the message, breaking the seal and unfolding the parchment. All his previous joy drained away as he read the brief note, and was replaced by an unwarranted feeling of dread. He turned quickly on his heels and strode urgently into the citadel to find Maenir.

The following morning another messenger arrived, this time wearing the black and silver livery of Arthedain. The message he bore came from King Arveleg himself and requested their attendance at a council which would be held at Bree in three days to decide how the assault on the border forts by Rhudaur should be answered. Merendir sat grim faced with Maenir as he read the contents of the letter to him. "The king himself is to attend" said Maenir "and I think it would be meet for both of us to travel there to discuss this grave matter. Denethor will also be there for us of course, and there will surely be a delegation from Amon Sul too. But I expect that Amarion will remain at his post in case the enemy moves again". Merendir nodded his assent. He had sent messengers out immediately to carry the news south to the rest of the realm, instructing that any necessary preparations should be put in hand to ensure that a mobilisation of their forces could be carried out quickly and efficiently if and when the order to do so was given. He thought drily that his two principal commanders in the south, Durchon and Turin ought to have no trouble at all complying with such an order, but did not say it. "What will your counsel be?" asked Maenir "Do you think we should send a strong force to retake the forts?" Merendir frowned. "I think that the wisdom of such a course of action depends on the strength of the enemy. Though it grieves me greatly that we lost good men, good men that I knew well defending them their purpose was more symbolic than practical, save for the one at the Last Bridge which denied the river crossing to our enemies. They were far from our main strongholds and hard to supply, which will make any campaign to retake them difficult. It is for the same reasons that we have never prosecuted a war beyond our own borders". Maenir rubbed his chin. "Yet our foes have no such concerns?" Merendir shrugged his shoulders and sighed "We have seen many times that when Angmar marches that it does not concern itself overly about supplying any return journey. We do not have the luxury, if you can call it such, of casting aside the lives of our own men so lightly and leaving them to starve in the wild. Notwithstanding this we have been the subject of a grave and unwarranted aggression and Cardolanian blood has been spilt on Cardolanian soil. This cannot be left unanswered, so I think that we should send a strong force to retake the bridge and sack the city that lies beyond if it is in our power to do so. This is what I will counsel."

Chapter Text

The next two days were spent preparing for departure, and the mood in the citadel became sober and businesslike. The Ruling Prince and Captain General would ride out together with a small staff and guard and it was essential that they should make a good impression when they arrived for the sake of the reputation of Cardolan. Gear was cleaned until it shone, and banners and caparisons were washed and repaired. Maenir was reluctantly outfitted in a set of plate and a helm, and though he felt awkward and uncomfortable in it being long out of practice Celebeth and Ivrien were certainly of the opinion that he looked most dashing and bold dressed dressed thus. Merendir agreed. "Brother, I have not seen you clad in a soldiers garb for many a year, but it gives you the look of a great bull about to charge. And you will get used to it again in a few days". Maenir laughed. "That is a very civil way of telling me I am a little excessive in the flesh I think, but it would do us no credit if I turned up to a council full of soldiers and was the only one dressed for a feast, so needs must. And I think my little Beth rather liked the sight of me dressed up as a great warrior, so no harm done there either". His eyes twinkled mischievously at the thought.

The night before they left Merendir remained in Ivrien's apartments the whole night and did not slink back to his own rooms before morning as had previously been his habit in an attempt to at least preserve a little decorum. They knew that this might well be the first of many separations in the time that lay ahead and Ivrien's foresight that they might not have long together had been made all the more troubling by the news from the east. They gathered in the courtyard at dawn, the scene lit by lanterns and torches. Merendir, veteran of many such early starts strode amongst the men and horses at ease, calmly ensuring that all was readied to his satisfaction whilst Ivrien and Celebeth looked on, huddled together under a shared cloak against the morning chill. The children were also there to see them off, the girls looking subdued and sleepy but Bruinir taking a keen interest in what was going on. "Some day soon we will be here again just as we are now, and we will not just be riding to Bree for a few days but riding to a war from which many will not return" thought Merendir to himself, and shivered. Then, farewells said, it was time to mount and set off. The citadel bell clanged and the gates were opened and the procession made its way slowly out of the courtyard.

The long ride to Bree was undertaken at a leisurely pace, as some of the company, including Maenir, were somewhat out of practice in the saddle and they halted regularly. The day was fine and warm and the land around was filled with the intense green of early spring and by the time they halted for lunch it the sun blazed from a clear blue sky and it was almost uncomfortably warm given their formal garb, and the empty lands they passed through were filled with the buzzing of insects and the bright song of many birds. They passed a few carts and baggage trains on the road travelling between Bree and Ost-en-Tyrn, but aside of that traffic the road was empty. Once elves and dwarves had also been regular travellers on this length of the road but since the way had been barred at the last bridge the very few that still wished to make the journey. Those that still wished to had to take the much longer road via Sarn Athrad and Tharbad and either pass through the ancient elf lands east of the river to the dwarf city if they were of that kindred and cross the mountains there, or continue northwards through the wilds to Imladris and the mountain passes if they were not. Finally, and none too soon for some of the riders the hill and keep of Bree came into view, bathed in the ruddy glow of evening, and gear was checked and smoothed and the banners were unfurled. Maenir placed the circlet of office on his brow, and rode forward with his helm tucked under one arm, and his other hand holding the reins of his mount, his face stern. Merendir found himself agreeing with Celebeth, for he saw his mild mannered and quick witted brother in a new light here, for he was grave and noble in mein. When they came into view of the west gate, trumpets were sounded and by the time they reached them and entered the town crowds had gathered to watch them, and cheer as they passed, for few had seen their new Prince as yet.

Bree was one of the oldest settlements in Cardolan, and also one of the largest and most prosperous due to its position at the crossroads of the two main routes across the north of Eriador. The keep had originally been a watchtower and was very ancient, but over time it had been added to and now its walls circled the tall round hill that stood above the crossroads. As in other towns such as Othlondir there was a large open market place in the centre at the meeting of the ways, and many large and imposing buildings surrounded it speaking of the prosperity of those who had built them. The town was more strongly fortified than most for in the early days of the division of the north kingdom Arthedain and Cardolan, with an eye on the taxes and tolls it could provide had disputed its ownership and it had changed hands several times. Eventually, given the great distance of the town from the settled lands of Arthedain and improved relations between the two kingdoms as the centuries passed, it was accepted as part of the lesser southern kingdom, although it remained something of an anomaly for the half or more of it lay north of the historic border between the two realms marked by the great east road. However the refounding of Arnor by King Argeleb in the the previous century had finally rendered this meaningless, and it was here at Bree where the five Princes of Cardolan alive at that time, the sons of Orthoron the last king, had forsworn their right to their own kingship forever and pledged their allegiance to a reunited Arnor. Merendir remembered the day as their company passed into the square where it had taken place, and then they turned their horses towards the hill and the Keep.

Lord Denethor was there to greet them with an honour guard when they entered under the ancient stone archway beneath the gatehouse and reached the small cramped courtyard within. The banners of Cardolan and Arthedain flew from the battlements above, an indication that the King’s party had already arrived. After greeting Lord Denethor warmly they followed him to the main tower and climbed the stairs to the first floor and the meeting hall. The room was crowded but those within fell silent and parted when they entered to allow their passage. Maenir strode in with the others at his heels, and bowed low before the King. Arveleg of Arnor, dressed in resplendent black and silver plate with the star gem on his brow returned his bow. “Greetings to you, Prince Maenir, it is good to see you again, though not necessarily in happier circumstances than when we last met and laid your noble brother to rest. Prince Merendir”. Merendir went down on one knee as protocol dictated, but immediately rose and strode forward to embrace his old friend, who returned his affection warmly, for they were of an age and had served together for many years at Amon Sul. “And good to see you too brother, it is a boon to have men like you at my side in times like these, for the tidings from the east are grim”. He then proceeded to formally introduce the others who were there, though most were already known to each other, senior captains from Fornost and Amon Sul. The exception was the youth, very like to his father who stood at his side, for this was the young Prince Araphor. “It is time for my son to begin learning the skills he will need when he follows me, so he will observe this council but will not participate in it. It will also be well for him to become better acquainted with you all”. This was received with approval by all those present and the youth, grey eyed like his father and solemn in manner smiled a little and inclined his head in acknowledgement. Merendir had not met him before but immediately liked the look of him, for he was dressed plainly and there was no conceit in his manner. “Now we are all here let us remember the west together and then eat and drink our fill. Afterwards I will hear your reports and we will consider what is to be done“. Boromir had his soldiers bring trestles in and the food and drink, plain but hearty fare as befitted a garrison kitchen was served up on the boards. Then the chairs that lined the walls were drawn up to the makeshift table and those gathered there took their places, Arveleg at the head of the table, Maenir to his right and Araphor on his left. Merendir was seated next to Maenir, and to his pleasure found another of his old friends from the tower next to him, Lord Amdir who was captain of the Arthedain companies there.

When all was ready, they turned to face the setting sun that sent its last rays through the window and hands laid upon their breasts and heads inclined respectfully towards the west that was, and the undying lands that will always be as was traditional each evening. Merendir could not help notice how the last light of sunset bathed all it touched in red, and hoped it was not an omen. “We may begin” said the King, turning from the window to take his seat, and everyone followed suit. Orderlies came in to light the candles in the sconces on the walls and the room was soon filled with the hum of restrained chatter and the clatter of plate and cup. Merendir was pleased to hear that Amarion was well thought of and that his old command was deemed to be in good hands by his counterparts from Arthedain. There was less good news about their mutual friend, old Esteldir however, for he had fallen ill and ailed. Amdir feared he would not live much longer. “I should have insisted that he came with me when I returned to Ost-en-Tyrn” said Merendir sadly “it would have gladdened me for him to spend his last years in ease and comfort. For he is one of the last of the Dunedain of Rhudaur, and unlike too many of that unhappy people has lived a life of unblemished honour and selfless devotion to duty”. Amdir agreed. “He is one of the bravest men I have ever met, both on and off the field of battle. It breaks my heart to see him reduced so”.

Once the meal had come to an end the trestle tables were removed and the chairs moved back to the walls, and Arveleg brought the council to order, his manner sombre. “Friends, I thank you for answering our summons and attending us to discuss the grave news from the east regarding the recent loss of the border forts following the surprise assault by forces from Rhudaur. I ask that we now take a moment to remember the men who we lost there”. After a respectful silence he continued. “Lord Amdir, please appraise us of the situation on the eastern marches, and of what the watchers at the tower report”. Amdir rose to his feet and bowed, his face grave and unfolded a parchment he had removed from a pouch at his waist. “I must first state that though we were taken by surprise by this attack, it was not through of any lack of vigilance or preparedness on our part. Lord Amarion, commander of the stronghold at Amon Perin had recently toured the forts and reported that he found the men in good spirits and the defence in good order. Furthermore Lord Norgalad, Master of the Stone of Amon Sul states that whole length of the Vale of the Mitheithel was observed many times in the weeks leading up to the attack and that there was no indication of any kind of mobilisation or any suspicious movements involving large numbers of men that would have alerted us to their plans. He suggests that our enemies are well aware of the power of the stone, and somehow managed to conceal their activities from observation, perhaps by assembling their forces under cover of darkness or concealing or disguising them in daylight. But now they make no such efforts and men and supplies are pouring across the northern ford from Angmar and from the holdings of the Hillmen in the Shaws down to the town of Iant Methen and the bridge. It would seem the long peace we have enjoyed has truly only been a pause, and Angmar has been biding its time and rebuilding its forces. From what has been observed in the stone it would seem that a host is now being prepared comparable in size to the one we faced in 1356, perhaps even greater. It is clear that once again Amon Sul will be their first objective, for if it can be taken the lands beyond it will lie unprotected and we will effectively have been blinded and lost our greatest advantage over them. Amarion reports a sudden upsurge in enemy patrols in the lands west of the river, both across the newly available bridge crossing and from the north through the empty lands, and we have sent reinforcements to the stronghold. It is there that the first blow will fall”.

After a pause to allow those listening to digest what they had just heard Arveleg nodded and thanked Amdir. “So we see that our worst fears have been realised and war is upon us again, whether we seek it or not. We face a foe whose numbers we cannot hope to match, and who is already on the march. I would hear your counsels in this dark hour". Maenir, taking his prompt rose to his feet and addressed the chamber with great dignity. "Indeed, this is a dark hour, and one we did not look to see again, but we must face it with courage and calm judgement. Were our foe not so great in number then we would have counselled a swift assault to regain the bridge, but it would seem that this course of action would now be one of utmost folly. I see no other path than the one our enemy seeks, which is to meet him once again before Amon Sul. Though it grieves me to consider it I would now not spend lives unnecessarily in defence of the outpost at Amon Perin, for we cannot hope to prevail there in the face of such numbers and it would play into our enemy's hands to meet him there in strength and let the decisive stroke fall in the wild far from our walls. So a tactical retreat must take place, and all our strength must be placed in defence of the tower and the hill forts where we must stand or be lost. Time is short, but the Bree, Andrath and Ost-en-Tyrn companies can be in position within four weeks, and those from the south in six. Both standing men at arms and those in reserve will be mustered, which means that our strength in the field should amount to some thirty companies of foot, four of archers and six of horse, upwards of eight thousand men including those already in place. I suggest we also send an errand rider on to Tharbad and ask for their aid in this matter. For should we fail then they too will face ruin with all their trade ended, we must attempt to persuade them of their interest in this matter. This is what I, Prince Maenir of Cardolan counsel in this matter".

Arveleg nodded in acknowledgement and Maenir regained his seat. "Time is indeed short, and we can only hope that it will take some time for our enemy to gather his full strength before he crosses the river, for should he strike sooner we are lost. I too see no other than the path our foe chooses for us. What say you Lord Amdirion, what of our own strength and readiness?" The man he addressed was his own Captain General, a tall spare man with snowy hair and unusually piercing blue eyes which gave him an almost elvish cast. He in turn rose to his feet. "My Lord, we have three companies of foot and one of horse already serving at the tower. Thanks to the intercourse between the stones of the Tower and Fornost our full muster began ere we departed and our host should march in the next day or so. We too should have our main strength in place within four weeks, some seventeen thousand including fifteen hundred horse and the same number of archers. That will give us a total force of twenty six thousand, considerably fewer than the number we faced the same foe with fifty three years ago. I estimate we will be outnumbered by at least two to one, or possibly even more but we will not know for certain until the enemy moves and we can judge his true strength. Therefore I too hold that we must act with defence in mind, and would also counsel that we pull our forces back to the hills. The stronghold at Amon Perin was a noble venture" he glanced in acknowledgement at Merendir as he said this "but we regrettably cannot risk men we cannot spare in its defence. Merendir nodded in reluctant agreement, for he understood clearly that his fortress would once again have to be abandoned. Amdirion continued. "What of Cirdan and his people? Can we call on the folk of the Havens to aid us in time of dire need again?" The King rose to his feet. "Indeed, for they have sworn to do so and such an hour is at hand. A messenger has already been be despatched but will take at least eight days to reach the Havens, and even the elves cannot march the sixty leagues that lie between Mithlond and Amon Sul in anything less than three weeks. I fear it will be six or even seven weeks before they can reach the Tower but they possess a power over our enemy far greater than their number, so we can only hope that they will arrive in time. Prince Merendir, friend, I would know your mind also? For few have served so long in the eastern marches or know them better”.

Merendir rose to his feet reluctantly, for the realisation that they would soon be facing another enemy host as great or even greater than that of 1356 had turned his guts uncharacteristically to ice, for he had recalled Ivrien’s words to him regarding her Foresight. He felt suddenly old and unutterably weary, and bitter that he had laboured for so long but would be granted only the briefest of respites. But ever the soldier he fought back his despair and stood tall and proud, his harshly angled features accentuated in the dancing lamplight. “I too see no other road than the one our foe sets before us. Any serious attempt to retake the bridge would take too long to prepare and would cost us too many men that we cannot afford to lose. Amon Perin must be abandoned for the same reasons, as it was in 1356, and we must make our stand at Amon Sul. My only fear with regard to our own lands is the risk that the enemy will send a secondary force south and west, skirting the downs to attack the south. It is certainly what I would do in his place, but to defend against such a threat would mean leaving perhaps a third of our strength there, which I deem we can ill afford. If our enemy has learned to mask the movement of his soldiery from the sight of our watchers we may have little or no warning of such an assault, but if we fail in the fight that is to come all our lands, towns and people will lie unprotected. For it seems to me that this will be the decisive battle of our age”.

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The council had continued for a little while longer, the King asking questions of and listening to the opinions of each of the lesser Lords and Captains from Amon Sul and Arthedain who were present, but eventually it came to a close, and Arveleg asked that all present reconvene in the morning. The course of action was decided, he said, and it was now a matter of discussing the practicalities of getting such a large host into the field and keeping it supplied and provisioned. He thanked all those present once again, and handed over to Lord Denethor to announce the billeting arrangements for the night. A muster was already in place so there was no room to spare in the keep, instead rooms had been commandeered at one of the large inns on the square. I was there that they all now made their way, the King‘s guards carrying torches to light their way.

Overhead countless stars glittered and the night air was soft. Maenir yawned, for it had been a very long day, particularly for one unaccustomed to so many hours in the saddle. His brother chuckled. “We shall both be glad to find our beds I think, but that was well done on your part. It is a pity that Durchon was not there to witness it, for he would surely have set aside any lingering doubts as to your suitability to rule, or the esteem in which our King holds you”. Maenir smiled and clasped his arm. “Indeed, I am utterly weary, and will make a point of riding out more often with the children so that any journeys such as this that I am called upon to make in future will not be so taxing. And I thank you for your kind words brother, for I could not have prevailed without you at my side, and I will not forget what you have done for me or my family. Now a grievous burden falls upon us again, and I would not shirk my part in it. But we will speak further on this tomorrow, for I see that we have arrived at our lodgings”.

They passed a comfortable night at the White Tree, one of the largest and best appointed hostelries in Bree. The King and Princes were each given an individual room, and Merendir slept soundly in a large bed before rising early as was his habit and returning to the Keep to write the orders for the despatch riders to carry to the Lords Of Cardolan, ordering them to march with all their strength and as soon as possible to Amon Sul. Every day would count with the enemy already massing in Rhudaur, so the riders were sent off without delay, and he returned to the inn and found his brother and the King seated at breakfast, engaged in an earnest discussion. Young Prince Araphor listened, looking a little discomfited. Merendir, joined them, immediately prompting a change of subject to more serious matters. After breakfast they returned to the chamber in the tower at the Keep and spent the rest of the day there planning the campaign. Merendir and the quartermaster’s previous meticulous planning meant that most of what was needed was already in the process of being organised, so it ought not to take more than a few days to ready their hosts to march. Once at Amon Sul they would need shelter and provisions, some of which were already in place. When all was done they ate a meal together once again and with the business of the council concluded the topics of discussion became decidedly more informal and wide ranging, and inevitably included many reminiscences of times past given that most there had served together previously at some point or another. The King, once a rather impetuous youth, had long since become a man much more in the mould of his father, admirable in every way and the kind of natural leader men were drawn to, and Merendir greatly enjoyed his company. Afterwards they returned to the inn and retired early, for they would all be rising before dawn to ride to their various destinations.

The weather had turned again and it was decidedly less pleasant that it had been, for a light rain fell out of a leaden sky, meaning that the dawn was somewhat delayed. Solemn and heartfelt farewells were made among those who had attended the Council, for they all knew that it was likely that the next time they met would be under very different circumstances, and then they mounted and set off, some north to Fornost, others east to Amon Sul, and the company from Ost-en-Tyrn back the way they had come to the west.
The two brothers rode in silence for a while, both deep in thought. It was Maenir who spoke first. “Brother, it should not fall to you alone to lead our men to battle. I should accompany you, for even if I cannot fight I should be there to play what part I may and set an example to our men”. Merendir, shaken from his reverie frowned. “Nay, I must respectfully disagree brother. Your place is with our people, the realm should not be left ungoverned, and those who must remain behind in order for life to continue as it always has also need an example to follow. Do not forget that our eldest brother Aglareb did not march to war either but remained in Ost-en-Tyrn in 1356, and it would be a prudent example to follow”. Maenir looked thoughtful. “What of Arthedain? It seems the King himself intends to be at Amon Sul to face the enemy, and his father in turn was slain there”. His brother could not answer for a moment. “I cannot speak for Arthedain and Arnor, but I fear it would go ill should Arveleg meet the same fate as his father, for his son is not yet of age, and in no position to succeed him. He does seem a good sort however… I meant to ask you, what were you speaking of to his apparent discomfiture at breakfast yesterday when I arrived?” Maenir smiled, glad of the temporary distraction from more serious matters. “Arveleg and I spoke of a match for him with Princess Aewen, for it seems that they took a liking to each other when he visited us with his father for Aglareb’s burial. It would be a fitting match in many ways, and would bind our houses and realms together”. Merendir remembered his dance with the graceful young woman at the feast after his return at the south, and thought it would be an excellent match, and not just for reasons of state. “Your daughter is more than worthy of him, and he is fortunate to have her favour. When all this is over she must be sent to Fornost to further her education, but also to enable them to spend time together. I am pleased, for we must be able to look to the future…” he paused suddenly struck by a renewed feeling of dread, and wondered if this too was some kind of foresight. “…even if we may not be there to witness it”. Maenir spun round, his face full of concern. “Speak not in this fashion brother, it does not suit you. You are a survivor, and you will return from this campaign as well as you have every other, mark my words”. They fell silent again for a long while, listening to the footfall of their horses and the steady patter of the rain.

The rain did not let up all day and it was fully dark by the time they rode back into the citadel. At Maenir’s suggestion they made their way straight back to his halls, and Celebeth came to greet them when they entered. She uttered a soft cry of dismay when she saw her weary and bedraggled husband and ran to him to embrace him and help him out of his wet cloak. “Oh you poor thing” she cried, hugging and kissing him again, and then turned her attention to Merendir, smiling. “You too, I am glad you are back”. She paused seeing the concern on their faces. “The Captain received your order to muster the soldiery and prepare for march yesterday, and preparations have already begun. Are things very bad?” Maenir closed his arms around his young wife, drawing her to him so that she rested her head against his chest. “I will not deceive you my love, things are as bad as they could possibly be. It is 1356 again, maybe even worse”. His voice tailed off and he held her to him for a long moment before they parted and she went to embrace Merendir in turn. “Where is Ivrien?“ he asked, his voice suddenly thick with feeling “I must see her”.

She arrived shortly afterwards, and was shown into the dining chamber where the two brothers had been seated at Celebeth’s insistence for some much needed food and drink. Merendir, on hearing her approach had already risen to his feet when she entered and they fell into each other's arms without a word. "How long?" were her first words when they eventually relaxed their hold on each other. "A few days only, and then we must march" replied Merendir quietly. "Why must it always be thus?" she replied, anguished. "Why can we never be left in peace?". It was Maenir who replied, his voice sad and full of weariness. "Because there is an evil in the world that will never rest, and must constantly strive against what is good and wholesome, and it has been thus since the beginning of the ages. The kingdom of Angmar can only be the latest manifestation of this, for it appeared from nowhere in the northern wilderness and has grown in the space of little more than a century into a major threat. Although the master of the black land was defeated more than a thousand years ago by our forefathers perhaps some minion or other of his has returned to continue his work. For this can be no mere kingdom of men when orcs also do his bidding, and we have never learnt the names of their king, or even if there has been more than one. But we have defeated them before and we will again, and good will prevail". Merendir returned to his seat, and Ivrien sat down at his side. "It will, though it take a thousand battles and a thousand years, this is a duty and a burden that we may not set aside".

The next few days passed all too quickly, and Merendir was busy dawn till dusk overseeing the muster of his companies, and there were many comings and goings along the road and a camp gradually grew up beyond the walls. At night he lay with Ivrien and their joy was tinged with a sorrow which grew with each remaining day, for though neither voiced their thoughts openly both doubted that they would see each other again. Outwardly he became once again the austere and dedicated commander of men, and it brought him some relief to be able to throw himself fully into his duties for it allowed him less time to dwell on the parting that must soon come. To his relief Maenir had finally seen sense and would not now ride east with them, and on the night before the departure he held a feast in the citadel in honour of those who would. In contrast to the previous feasts Merendir had attended there it was a solemn affair, with no dancing and it ended at an early hour. He would have preferred a quiet family meal with his brother and Ivrien, but it was not unpleasant to sit amongst all those familiar people, both those most dear to him and others who were mere acquaintances, He thought of them all with fondness knowing that it might be the last time he would be here with them. He was not normally given to such sentimentality, and he found it troubling, but if it was a symptom of the love and grief than consumed him when he thought of Ivrien then he knew he would bear it. The thought of the parting that now lay only a few hours ahead filled him with dread, and every time he thought on it he found himself unable to imagine returning or being able picture a future for them afterwards. The feeling was so strong it almost unmanned him, but as he sat in the hall he fought back against it, defying fate as he always had when facing danger. Ivrien saw that he was troubled, but did not speak, simply taking his hand and sitting quietly at his side until he was recovered.

All too soon the feast ended and they retired for the night and they lay long together before sleep finally took them at last. In the morning Merendir was the first to wake and remained motionless for a long while listening to his love's quiet breathing and feeling her exquisite warmth and softness against him as they lay entwined. He savoured each long moment, drinking in each tiny detail and sensation and preserving them in his memory against the possibility that they would never come again. Eventually she too awoke, and was grave, looking into his eyes and whispering to him."At last the hour we dreaded the most has arrived. My love, I know what it is you feel, and I feel it too as I have from the beginning, for the foresight of our people is both a blessing and a curse. I do not think we will be together again in this world, but I would not trade that bitter cup for the brief spell of bliss we have tasted together. My life is now complete and I will face what remains with equanimity, and you my love must also find the courage to do the same. You must be the mighty captain general of the realm, fierce and unyielding, and I will be the dowager princess Ivrien, mother of our people". The kiss that followed was long and gentle and then they parted and Merendir sat up. "If this is indeed our fate and it cannot be amended then I too will face it clear eyed and with a steady heart. Know that I love you with all my being, and that I too have known a happiness that I could never have dreamt of these past months". With that they rose from the bed and dressed and went quietly about their preparations.

At last all was made ready and the moment they had long dreaded was upon them. Merendir first said farewell to his brother Maenir, who was brisk and cheerful and wished the blessings of the Valar upon their venture and a speedy and safe return, and then Celebeth, who clung to him fiercely and wept into his cloak, pleading with him to come back. Finally it was Ivrien's turn and she faced him serenely, her eyes clear, and then embraced and kissed him. Only the trembling of her hands betrayed the strong emotion she felt, and he too had to master himself for a moment before they finally parted. "Fare well my love" he said simply. "Fare well" was the barely audible reply. He turned without further ado and swung himself up into Duvainien's saddle and she skittered a little, eager to be off. "Nay lass" he chided her, smiling "you have two weeks of slow walking ahead of you, so best get used to it". Then he barked an order for the departure signal to be sounded, turned and nodded a final acknowledgement to the onlookers before riding out of the citadel as the bell began to toll in the tower overhead.

Merendir, his face a grim mask, led the column down through the streets of the town, accompanied by the local captains and flying the banners of Cardolan and Arnor, deep blue and black respectively, but both bearing the same device of a white tree and seven stars. The townsfolk had gathered to watch them depart and applauded respectfully as they passed, a few weeping, and there were occasional cries of farewell when men in the ranks were recognised by their loved ones. Outside the walls the camp had been struck and the companies there had formed up ready to march, along with the supply train. As Merendir's group passed they began to attach themselves to his tail until the whole of the column some eight hundred strong was finally under way. He had already reached the east road by this point, and when they crested the rise where Ost-en-Tyrn would finally be lost to sight for the last time he turned to watch, wondering if he would ever see it again.

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Marching was slow work, for by the time they had breakfasted, struck camp and formed up half the morning had usually passed, and even with only the briefest of halts for lunch they would be lucky to cover more than five leagues before it was time to halt and prepare for the night again. However Merendir, veteran of many such marches, did not begrudge the slow pace too much, for it gave him the time to get to know his captains better, their temperaments, aptitudes and in some cases shortcomings, all of which might prove vitally important when it finally came to a fight. During the day he would periodically ride up and down the column, ensuring that everything was being done to his particular standards and upbraiding anyone who showed signs of falling below them in any way, but at night he would often join the ordinary soldiers around their camp fires and eat his evening meal with them.

It took them three days to reach Bree, and they found the local companies and those from Andrath were already installed in a large well ordered camp on the far side of the town. Merendir led his contingent through the west gate and into the square and then left them to continue eastward while he himself made his way to the Keep. This time there was no welcome from the townsfolk and the mood in the town was sober, for many of its sons were now in the camp preparing to go to war. As he made his way through the streets a horn sounded from the north signalling the arrival of a column of mounted knights from Arthedain who had made much better progress than their comrades on foot who were still several days away. For a while there was chaos in the square as the two columns met but eventually all managed to filter out through the east gate and find the space in which to make camp and ready themselves for another night under the stars.

Merendir found he was expected at the Keep, and after handing Duvainien over to one of the ostlers he made his way up to the tower where just a week before he had attended the King's council though it felt like a long time ago to him now. On his way there he was apprehended by one of the garrison servants who passed him a message, telling him it had come from the south a few hours before. He recognised his brother Durchon's seal and opened the parchment to read it as he walked. It was short and to the point, simply confirming that he expected to march on the twentieth of April, which was in two days time. Merendir calculated that this would mean they could be expected to reach Amon Sul sometime during the second week in May. That was commendable work by his brother, but he hoped that they would arrive in time, for the men from the south constituted more than half of their total strength and a greater proportion still of their horse

 Merendir reached the tower and ascended the stair to the chamber on the second floor. Within he found Denethor, commander of the Bree garrison and his captains along with those from Andrath, who did not have a male lord of fighting age to lead them and had therefore placed themselves under Denethor's command. They fell silent and stood smartly to attention as he entered, and Denethor stepped forward and saluted. Merendir returned the salute and then embraced him as an old friend. He was a grizzled veteran with a scarred face known for possessing an exceedingly dry wit and he was the finest commander in the north. Merendir knew he could rely on him absolutely, for he was a man with similar ideas about discipline and attention to detail and had proved to be immune to vanity or petty ambition. He introduced Merendir to the others who were there, though he already knew most of them, especially those from Bree whose number included his recent travelling companion to the south, the redoubtable Durthor. They had been discussing the arrangements for departure the following day, and Merendir insisted they continue. He listened with satisfaction to their conversation, for they were thorough and well organised, and it pleased him to be marching in the company of disciplined and competent subordinates. When all was done he questioned them regarding the strength and experience of the forces under their command, the state of their equipment and their supplies, and learned much not only about their men but them too. They would set forth with four hundred riders and two and a half thousand foot, all the strength of northern Cardolan, but Merendir feared that even a host twice that size still might not be enough to face what awaited them.

Later they were joined by the newly arrived captains from Arthedain who brought them news of the march from the north and estimated that the main body of men would reach Bree in three or four days time. "All the more reason to depart without further delay then" said Denethor "for the camp will soon stretch as far along the road as the Lonely Inn if we do not make some space soon". That evening a meal was held in their honour by the elders and leading families of Bree in the Merchant's Hall, and though it was a pleasant and dignified affair Merendir suspected that like him most of his captains would have preferred to be in the camp with their men. Afterwards he returned to the Keep and slept there, before rising before dawn and riding out with Denethor to supervise the departure. It took a good few hours before they were finally all under way but the weather was pleasant and the men were evidently in good heart, for many of them sang as they marched. Once again they only covered about five leagues but the road was now empty and it was far enough to take them out into the empty lands that would be traversing for the next eight or nine days.

Merendir had had little time for reflection before they left Bree as the ordering of the expedition had occupied every waking moment, but now he had done all that could be done, and all there was left to was left to do was simply march east. Each day was very much like the one before he had plenty of opportunity to think and consider what lay ahead, and also to consider what he had left behind. At first he had been too busy to think much about Ivrien, but now he longed to be with her again and his hand often went to his chest where a purse containing a lock of her thick dark hair was hung on a cord around his neck. Not so long ago leading a great host such as this to a battle would have been everything he had lived for, with the chance for glory and renown that it brought, but now all he truly wished to do was to be able to return to Ost-en-Tyrn and see out his days in peace with the woman he loved. He felt old and tired, and his heart ached with grief and longing. He was also greatly troubled at what her supposed foresight had shown her, that they would only have a short time together and clung to the hope that she was mistaken and that he would ride west again one day soon. It was a notoriously capricious gift, and could easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood, and even if she had seen truly there was always a chance he could cheat his fate. Of course he was too good a soldier to let such dark musings affect the performance of his duties, but those close to him did notice that he had become unusually grim, even by his own standards.

The fine weather held and the remainder of the march was uneventful. On the twenty fourth of April their destination finally came into view, a line of tall hills on the eastern horizon, with the familiar needle like point of the tower visible on the southernmost summit. Merendir had always welcomed the familiar sight of the ancient watchtower, for it had been home for most of his life, but rather than the relief he usually felt that the long and tedious journey from Bree was nearing its end he was for a moment seized by a powerful feeling of dread, and though he quickly mastered the unexpected emotion it left him shaken for a good while afterwards. " Perhaps my death does indeed lie beneath those walls" he thought bitterly and signalled for the column to halt, for they had come far enough and the sun was already casting long shadows before them. The men immediately began to fan out into the scrub on either side of the road in now well practised fashion and set about raising the camp for the night. Merendir observed them for a while steadying his nerves before dismounting and leading Duvainien to where the mounted companies were setting up picket lines for the night. He gave her a scratch on the forehead and muttered his thanks to her as was his custom before he passed her into the capable hands of one of the ostlers and then left to find the usual spot in the encampment where his tent would be pitched alongside those of his captains. For the first time since they had left Bree he ordered a full watch to be put in place, for they were now far enough east to meet any raiding parties from Angmar who might have slipped past the watch of Amon Sul. He was sure the men would grumble, but they would also realise that they were now marching to a real war with all its attendant danger and discomfort.

A little later after night had fallen Merendir was seated by a campfire with Denethor and some of the other captains when they heard a commotion and soldiers bearing torches appeared, followed by a rider. Merendir recognised him as one of the messengers from the tower by his livery, and realised it was the same man who had brought him news of his eldest brother's death at the fort a few months before. He had been riding hard and his horse was foam flecked and blowing like a set of bellows, and he dismounted smartly and saluted, recognising Merendir, who had risen to his feet. "My Lord, the King sent me to seek you here on the road and give you urgent news , for a host has crossed the Mithethiel and marches on Amon Perin". He handed over a message with the King's seal on it, and Merendir broke it and crouched by the fire in order to have more light to read it by. It was written in the King's flowing hand and as befitted the fact they were now at war contained no superfluous courtesies, just essential information.

"Five thousand crossed the river on 23rd, expected to reach Amon Perin by 27th. Amdir commands twelve hundred, send your horse to join him without delay"

He rose stiffly back to his full height and addressed the waiting captains. "Brothers, it has begun. Tell the riders to prepare, for tomorrow we must ride with all haste to Amon Sul and thence to Amon Perin where battle awaits. Five thousand or more only, but we will still be well outnumbered. Denethor, you will remain here and command the remainder of our forces until I return". He turned to the messenger who waited patiently by his panting horse. "Friend, I thank you once again for your service, though once again you bring me bad tidings". He smiled wryly. "See to your beast and take your ease, for there is no need for you to return immediately, you may ride with us back to the tower tomorrow". The rider saluted and left, and Durthor and the other captains of horse immediately dispersed to relay the order to ride directly to battle to their men and put in hand the additional preparation that would be need as a result. Denethor remained, his scarred and battered face thrown into sharp relief in the dancing firelight. His expression was quizzical. "I suppose my Lord that there is no possibility that you will allow me to lead this ride and remain here instead to complete the march to the tower?" Merendir smiled but shook his head. "Nay my friend, I thank you for your care, but this is a task that I could not pass to another. I will take good care to make sure it does not, but should anything befall me then command of our host passes to you until Prince Durchon should arrive". Denethor pursed his lips and nodded and clapped Merendir on the arm. "May the Valar watch over you and bring you safe back to us friend, for I fear greater tests than this lie ahead and you will be needed".

The mounted soldiery rode away early from the camp the following morning at a trot, their harness jingling and their hooves thundering on the road, raising a pall of fine dust into the cool morning air. The day promised to be unseasonably warm and the sun blazed down from a sky that was clear from edge to edge. Merendir felt a sense of relief, for now there was be no time for maudlin thoughts or reflection, just grim duty. He patted Duvainien on the neck as she strained to increase the pace against his wishes. "Now we will get the chance to see what you're made of girl".

The tall hills and the tower gradually grew in their sight as the hours passed, but the pace of the ride was deliberately slowed in order to avoid over fatiguing their mounts in the heat, and there were frequent stops for water from the streams they crossed along the road. It was late afternoon by the time the settlement at the foot of Amon Sul came into view, with the smoke of various forges and kitchen fires rising into the sky above it. A large and well ordered camp had already sprung up alongside the large cluster of buildings built to service the garrison that stood alongside the east road below the tower, and the sight of it reminded Merendir of previous campaigns long ago. Their arrival was expected, and the sentries passed on the King's request for Merendir to join him at the tower. He parted from the main column, who were directed into the camp, and took the familiar road that climbed the vertiginous flank of the hill to the fortress above, allowing his mare to pick her own pace. As they gained height, following the road as it wound back and forth a refreshing breeze sprang up, and on any other day it would have been pleasurable to watch the ever expanding vistas unfold to the south and west, but Merendir's attention was drawn to the camp below and thoughts of what lay ahead.

Merendir was shown into the tower, and followed the steward up the endless winding stair to the penultimate floor where a landing opened onto a large circular room which housed a library full of ancient volumes and manuscripts. Within the King and Norgalad, the venerable Master of the Stone were seated at the large table in the centre of the room. They both rose to their feet when he entered but as they were in private there were none of the usual formalities and they simply greeted each other as old friends. "Your arrival is welcome and timely friend" said Arveleg "For it would seem Amon Perin will be assailed the day after tomorrow and now we have some hope that we can overcome this first test with your numbers added to those commanded by Amdir. Preparations were in hand for the stronghold to be evacuated as we had planned, but when we saw that a force had crossed the river there was insufficient time for the matter to be arranged without running the risk that our men would be caught in the open by the enemy. Therefore we must withstand this assault and only then will we be able to withdraw in good order." Merendir considered the King as he spoke and to his dismay saw that he had become careworn and weary in the weeks since they had last met. "We are ready to give a good account of ourselves, and the horses have not been overly taxed by the march" he replied. "This may only be the first skirmish, and against greater numbers, but I have every confidence that the day will be ours". Arveleg nodded. "We are sending the finest horsemen in the kingdom against them and I am of the same opinion. But we should not allow ourselves to grow over confident, for what we have observed in the stone is enough to sow doubt even in the stoutest of hearts. It would seem that all of  Angmar is emptied against us, and I fear their main host will be ready to march in just a few days. The traffic across the north ford and down the vale of the Mitheithel has been ceaseless and their numbers  have been swelled by great hosts from the Misty Mountains and the Shaws of Rhudaur. The lands far and wide around the town of Iant Methen are now one huge camp, on both banks of the river. I have never been a man given to doubt, but this time I fear that our fate truly hangs in the balance. We can only hope that Cirdan will heed our call for aid and reach us in time, for with him and his people lies our best hope of withstanding this foe. Our messenger will only have reached Mithlond a few days ago at best, and time is short". Lord Norgalad, white bearded and bent with age nodded his head in agreement and spoke in his familiar measured tones. "I fear it is as the King has said, and we find ourselves pitted against a foe beyond our measure, with a host much smaller than the one we put in the field last time". Merendir's first reaction was to reply with words of bold defiance and encouragement but they died in his throat when he remembered his own feelings of foreboding, for the stone did not lie and for two such great men to be cowed by what it had shown them things must be truly dire. Instead he spoke quietly "My lords, old friends, our predicament may be dire but we must not yet abandon hope, not until it is clear that all is lost. I will not do so yet".

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The following morning was again fine and warm, and as the riders of Cardolan set off at sunrise Merendir had plenty to ponder with regard to his meeting with the King and Lord Norgalad the previous evening. Though he had tried not to show it their apparent despondency in the face of what they had seen in the stone had shaken him badly for it was completely out of character, and it only added to the growing feeling of malaise that he had been unable to shake off. He had also learned that his old friend Esteldir had died the week before, and he grieved at the loss of a good friend and a man of tremendous courage and fortitude. Norgalad had given him the leather bound volume in which the exile from Rhudaur had written his memoir which he had only recently completed, for it had been his dying wish that his old commander should take it back to the library at Ost-en-Tyrn for safekeeping. But for now there would be no time to read it or to pay his respects at his friend's graveside, for the grim task of defeating the force the enemy had sent to assault the fortress at Amon Perin lay ahead. They would have to cover upwards of sixteen leagues that day, so the horses would not be fresh for the expected battle the following day, but it could not be helped in the circumstances. At least the host they would be joining up with had been able to march at a more sensible pace, for not only had Arveleg sent out his riders but also a good force on foot. The fortress on the hilltop and the camp below had been uncannily quiet as a result, and the remainder of the armies currently marching from Cardolan and Arthedain could not arrive too soon, especially if things were to go awry at Amon Perin. Merendir silently chastised himself for thinking such thoughts, for although they were likely to be outnumbered he and Amdir would be leading the best men of Arnor into battle, both mounted and on foot. He wheeled Duvainien around and rode back down to inspect the column, looking for and sternly correcting any signs of slackness or indiscipline. To his satisfaction he found very few, for Durthor and Denethor were fine commanders and every bit as exacting as he was himself, and he commended the former for his work when he eventually rejoined him at the head of the column.

The light was beginning to fail by the time one of the outriders returned with the news that Amdir's camp lay little more than a league ahead, and that they were now expected. Merendir had guessed that they would soon come upon it, and he was looking forward to dismounting and stretching his legs after such a long day in the saddle. They came upon the sentries in the growing gloom and after greeting them entered the well ordered camp that lay on the south side of the road where the trees were sparser. They made their way slowly in the gloom through the neat encampment to the picket lines and Merendir slipped gratefully from the saddle and like his men saw to his mount before giving any thought to his own comfort or repose. When all was done, his gear neatly stowed and Duvainien fed and watered, he shouldered his pack and followed the sergeant who had been waiting patiently to take him to Amdir's tent. They did not have far to go, for it lay close by, and Amdir greeted him warmly and bade him seat himself and poured him a flagon of ale while he opened his pack and began eating his evening meal. "Long is it since we rode to war together, and I did not think we would do so together again. But we are I am glad you are at my side". Amdir, who was of an age with Merendir raised his cup and smiled. Merendir raised his cup in reply and finished eating a hunk of bread. "And I you old friend, for few have seen more service in the eastern wilds than we two old soldiers. So tell me, how are things arranged, and when shall we see battle? Men and horses are weary from a long ride, but not so weary that we cannot play a full part in what lies ahead". Amdir, finished his cup and emptied the dregs onto the floor, the flickering lamplight accentuating the lines on his face. "Our scouts report that a host of six or seven thousand has reached the fortress today flying the banner of Rhudaur, and we expect an attack tomorrow. We face them with three companies of foot and seven of horse, little more than two thousand, plus the three hundred that make up the garrison. I know not whether they are aware of our presence, for we have detected no scouts in the vicinity, but I propose to march the foot down the road when the assault has commenced to try and draw at least some of their strength away from the walls and the hill. Once they are in the open we will fall upon them with the horse of Arthedain from the west. In the meantime you will have circled the fortress with your own forces and will come upon them from the east, and if all goes to plan we will be able to cause enough damage and confusion to break their lines and scatter them. If we succeed then the day will be ours, for then the riders will have the advantage. I trust you know the lie of the land well and will be able to bring your riders round and into place without being detected?" Merendir nodded. "Count on it. This seems a good plan of battle to me old friend, and we will play our part fully in it".

Merendir did not tarry there long afterwards and after finishing his meal rose and bade his fellow lord and old friend good fortune and a restful night and returned the short distance to where his own men were bedding down for the night in the open air. The moon had risen and was waxing, and under the clear star filled sky it gave enough light to see by tolerably well without need for lanterns. It made things easier to arrange in the camp, and also made the task of the sentries much easier. As was his wont the night before a battle Merendir moved among his men, greeting them, speaking to them quietly and listening to their questions and concerns. They were in good heart and ready for what lay ahead, and he hoped that the number who would not live to see then next moonrise would not be too great. He spared that thought for himself too for a moment then returning to his own spot where his gear was piled settled himself down as best he could alongside Durthor and waited for sleep to come. Fortunately the night was mild for the time of year, for although the column they had joined up with were equipped with tents and all the necessities for a march they themselves had by necessity had to travel light. Amdir had offered him a space in his tent but he had thought it preferable to be seen to share the discomfort of his own men, though in the event things were not too bad considering. He lay on his back, staring up at the countless stars and listening to the familiar sounds of the camp, the susurration of quiet conversations, the snores of those lucky enough to already be slumbering and the rhythmic sound of horses cropping the grass nearby. Sleep was slow to come, as it always was on the eve of battle, and his thoughts ranged far and wide, especially to Ost-en-Tyrn and Ivrien. He knew he had to be strong, for the sake of his men and for those who waited for them back east, for Arnor had no choice but to prevail again this time, no matter what the cost. He was strangely heartened by the thought, for he knew he would gladly give his own life without hesitation if it meant saving hers and it gave him a measure of peace. Eventually the weariness he felt from the long day's ride overcame his restlessness and he slept deeply.

He awoke before sunrise, feeling surprisingly refreshed and a little stiff. All about him his men were stirring and beginning to prepare for what lay ahead. The atmosphere was calm and purposeful and men wasted few words and went about their tasks with particular care. Merendir's sleeping companions also rose and as they put on their gear he outlined Amdir's plan to them, after which they made their way quickly to one of the quartermaster's wagons where breakfast of hard bread, cheese and ale was being doled out. They ate it in companionable silence before returning to prepare their horses and make final adjustments. The whole camp was a scene of feverish activity now, with the companies of footsoldiers beginning to form up on the road in readiness for their own departure. Merendir mounted up and rode down towards what would be the head of his column, again greeting his men as he went and doing all he could to encourage them. As he did so Amdir came up on his own great black horse and they saluted each other. "Ready?" he asked. "Of course" replied Merendir with a grim expression "let us hunt bear today". The other smiled. "You will know when to break cover and make your own charge on the enemy, for you will hear our horns sounding even if you cannot see us. Wait long enough for them to have engaged us fully and then fall upon them. May good fortune be yours and your men's today, and may the Valar watch over you all". They exchanged salutes. "And you and yours also".

They left the camp heading south, their harness jingling and the tips of their lances glinting in the early morning light, the hooves of their mounts sounding a constant low rumble on the turf as they went. On any other day it would have been pleasant to be out riding in these lands in the early morning light, and Merendir had often done so when his duties allowed. But today all his thoughts were on what lay ahead, his mind clear and alert, and his blood coursing strongly through his veins in anticipation. Long was it since he had readied himself for battle and it was something that both appalled and thrilled him, for it was the greatest of contradictions that the possibility of your own death and the that of those around you could bring life and all its sweetness into such sharp focus. He knew with a certain amount of distaste that there was a part of him that had missed this, for truly what good was a soldier who never faced battle? He looked upon the faces of his companions, stern and resolute and knew they must be thinking the same thoughts and experiencing the same feelings. At times like these they were all his brothers and he loved them without reserve, the grim faced but noble hearted Durchon in particular, who he had known for so long and been through so much with.

The sun was beginning to climb into the flawless sky and was already driving away the chill of the early morning by the time Merendir turned them eastward and shortly afterward he called a halt at the crossing of a brook to allow the horses that would drink to slake their thirsts. He watched as his men filed past and took their mounts down into the knee deep water and the air was soon full of the sound of splashing as they pawed and drank. He reflected with a little regret that while his men knew what lay ahead, their fine and faithful mounts, well loved by their riders, did not. Many of them would be injured or dead by the time the day was out and were taking their last refreshment. It had always been thus, and there was nothing to be done for it, save to dispatch the poor animals and end their suffering when it was needed. He patted Duvanien's neck and allowed her to follow the others into the water and drink her fill. "Not you girl, not today" he thought to himself, and hoped it would be true. Once all who would had been watered the ride resumed, passing through a trackless but not unpleasant land of heath and scrub interspersed with woods and stands of trees. To the north and on the far side of the road the land was steeper and more heavily forested, which was the reason they had travelled to the south.

They rode in silence now, for their path had taken them eastward and north again and they knew they were now not far from the fortress. Merendir dispatched outriders to keep a watch and bring warning of any ambush or enemy patrol that might cross their path and sent word down the column to prepare for battle, before placing his own helm on his head and fitting his shield to his arm. Just then the harsh blaring of many horns reached them on the breeze, and it was answered by the pealing of a clear bell. "The assault on Amon Perin has begun and there is no time to lose" he said grimly. "We are almost at the place". With that they approached the eaves of a wood and the order was given to enter in battle order, the riders fanning out in well practised fashion from the column to form their lines, and as they entered the shade of the trees Merendir could see riders in the dappled shade to either hand as far as the eye could discern. Their lances were sloped to avoid low branches, but also in readiness for the charge. The light ahead grew brighter and the open ground beyond the trees gradually came into view, and they halted. Beyond the wood lay cleared open ground, and the road. In the distance, atop a low steep sided hill stood the familiar shape of the fortress, and below its walls a dark sea of soldiery swarmed, though at that distance it was not easy to determine exactly how the day went, though the estimate of their number looked to have been as accurate as ever. As they waited, the distant sounds of battle reaching them, a new clamour of horns went up and in the far distance the footsoldiers of Amon Sul came into view, banners flying. Already some of the enemy were breaking away from the main host below the walls to meet the new threat, and that trickle soon became a flood, for they had strength enough to spare from the main assault. Merendir exchanged a glance and a nod with Denethor. "So far so good" muttered the other. They watched as the companies from Amon Sul fanned out and formed up into battle formation, and by doing so they partly revealed their true strength or lack of it. The enemy were forming up in turn to meet them, but haphazardly and without a deal of order, for it was clear that they were not well drilled, their sheer numbers intended to compensate for any lack of discipline. As they approached the much smaller force, apparently confident of overwhelming them horns sounded again and suddenly the cavalry of Arthedain came over the rise like a black tide and moments later crashed into the front of the enemy, before wheeling away and coming round for another charge. More of the foe began to stream away from the assault on the fortress towards the new threat and Merendir knew the moment for them to join the fray had arrived. He drew his sword and rode out from under the eaves of the wood into the bright sunshine, his heart pounding in his chest, and his men followed. Then raising his sword high above his head, he cried "Cardolan" and swinging it forward spurred Duvainien, who reared up and then sprang forward eagerly and was quickly up into to a full gallop. The air was suddenly filled with a mighty thunder of hooves and the roar of many voices.

The land had been cleared over a period of time around the fortress and along the road for a good distance to prevent any surprise approach, and it was across this good open ground that they now flew, closing on the enemy with surprising speed. They swept into what had been the rear of the large host with devastating effect just as the riders of Arthedain renewed their attack to the front, catching the host of Rhudaur between hammer and anvil, and the air was filled with clashing of steel and the screams of the dying. Merendir struck expertly from the saddle over and over again, and felt the joy of battle rise in him. He had lost none of his prowess, for even when he had been at ease in Ost-en-Tyrn he had not neglected his practice at arms, and now he was glad of it. They wheeled around for another charge just as their footsoldiers reached the enemy and began to engage them, and now the battle was in earnest. The second charge took them clean through the foe and the third, a massed charge in unison with Amdir's riders spread dismay in their ranks and they began to scatter despite their superior numbers. As Amdir had foreseen, on open ground and good footing such as they now found themselves the riders had the advantage, and they pressed it home mercilessly.

That part of the battle soon turned into a rout, and Merendir now turned his attention to the fortress where the assault continued, and a number of siege ladders were in place against the walls. He summoned his standard bearers and ordered a rallying call sounded. Amdir rode up with his own guard and the two men briefly removed their helms and clasped hands joyfully. "The day is ours so far brother, just as we hoped. Now comes the final effort" said Merendir grimly. "Let us drive this vermin from our walls together". With that they replaced their helms and rode out to the front of their rapidly swelling host to lead the next charge. Once again they drove into the ranks of the enemy to devastating effect, but this time they did not have it all their own way, for the horses of Cardolan in particular were beginning to grow weary. The lie of the land was against them below the walls and the enemy had archers there who were able to find their mark on both man and beast. Cursing, Merendir brought the host round for another charge and as he did so felt Duvainien stumble but managed to retain his seat. It would be a bitter thing if they failed now, for clearly the enemy had reserved his best men for the main assault, and though they had slain and trampled many of the enemy in doing so the first charge had shown no sign of dislodging them. But suddenly the bell clanged in the tower above them and the gates were thrown open, and he saw the men of his former command pouring forth in a sortie, Amarion in the lead. At the same time the footsoldiers of Amon Sul reached the main press and he knew there was no time to waste. This time the charge did break the lines of the enemy, beset as they were now on all sides, and this time, perhaps runnig out of arrows, their archers were unable to cause so much harm. As they fought Duvainien stumbled again and went down on her knees in the press, but Merendir managed to roll from the saddle and step clear without harm. He recovered quickly and continued fighting on foot alongside the men of Amon Sul. He too was growing weary now, and took a glancing blow on the helm from an axe before he could fell his opponent. He felt warm blood trickling inside his helm and cast it aside, trying to clear his head, feeling dizzy and sick from the blow. Things might have gone amiss for him then but fortunately the main fight had quickly moved away and he suddenly found himself face to face with his nephew Amarion. Though he was disorientated he cried out in joy at the meeting and they embraced each other firmly, grinning and laughing. "Well met again uncle, for this is a glad day and we have driven the enemy from our walls, even now our riders harry them as they flee back eastward. But I see that you have taken hurt, pray come within and let your wounds be tended to". With that the younger man took his arm and supported him and he walked unsteadily up through the ghastly aftermath of the battle and back through the familiar archway into the fortress that had he had built and had been his home for so long.

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Merendir, dazed and nauseous, was taken into the hall of the keep which was a scene of chaos, for there were only a handful of men in the garrison with any skill in leechcraft and many wounded and dying men to tend to, with more being brought in all the time. Seeing the plight of those within Merendir refused to distract those tending the wounded from their task, and pleaded with his nephew to simply be allowed to lie down for a while out of the way. "This is but a scratch and is of no import, there is far more important work to be done here" he muttered, before doubling over and retching on the flagstones, and his nephew complied, handing him over to the care of old Vardamir. His former adjutant took him to the commander's apartment and stripped him of his gear and bathed his wounds, clucking like an old mother hen over his returned former master as he did so. In his weakened state Merendir found it a comfort to find himself back in familiar surroundings and company, and was soon sound asleep in what had been his own cot for so many years.

He slept well into the next day and awoke groggy and filled with guilt at having abandoned his duty to others, for there was always much to be done in the aftermath of a great battle. He called for Vardamir, who responded with alacrity, delighted to be able to serve his old master once again. He brought him a plain breakfast which was devoured hungrily and then he accepted the old man's aid in dressing and putting his gear back on. He was still a little unsteady on his feet and his head was pounding but it was not enough to prevent him resuming his command, and he asked Vardamir to summon Amarion, Amdir and Durthor and tell them that he was back on his feet and wished to see them and hear their reports at the earliest opportunity.

The three men soon arrived, full of concern as to his condition and from their expressions not wholly convinced that he was quite as well as he claimed, for some fresh blood had begin to seep through the bandage that was wrapped around his forehead. He seated himself and asked them to follow suit and then listened as they gave their reports. It seemed by all accounts that they had enjoyed a resounding victory the previous day and their losses had been mercifully light, less than three hundred dead and the same number wounded to varying degrees. This was better than Merendir could have hoped for, and reflected well on the battle plan Amdir had drawn up. He made a mental note to make sure that the King should learn where the credit for the victory lay, and to Amarion also for his bold and decisive stroke in sallying so soon after having been on the verge of being overwhelmed. The losses of the enemy had been tremendous in the end, and perhaps half of their number had escaped the onslaught of the horsemen, the battle soon having turned into a rout. Contrary to normal custom Amdir had given the order to leave the dead of the enemy where they lay, to act as a stern warning to the host that would surely soon follow them. Merendir had no hesitation in endorsing his decision, for it would also save a great deal of labour which would be better deployed to the honourable burial of their own fallen and the preparations for the abandonment of the fortress.

Afterwards he went with them among the wounded, and offered what comfort he could to those who were dying, the belated performance of a difficult task that he had never shirked from after a fight. He was also happily reunited with Duvanien, who had been found unscathed grazing peacefully amongst the carnage of the battlefield, and he was greatly relieved to find her well and whole. She had proved herself the equal of any stallion and performed flawlessly unto the end of her strength in battle, for he did not hold her to be at fault for the stumble which had unseated him. She nickered when she saw him and he made a fuss of her, scratching her neck and rubbing her nose gently with his fingers. "So we both live to fight another day my girl" he told her quietly "let us hope that the next fight we face will turn out the same". His reverie was disturbed by the sound of a rider approaching, and he looked up to see the new arrival halt before Amdir who was waiting nearby and salute in customary fashion. The rider was young but of proud bearing, and Merendir thought there was something familiar about him. He listened as the youth, who had been out patrolling with his squad began to give his report, and on hearing him speak realised with a jolt who he was, for it was none other than Prince Araphor, serving in the garb of an ordinary soldier. When he had finished Amdir thanked him, saluted in turn and sent him on his way, and the prince acknowledged them both before turning his mount and riding off. "Yes it is he" said Amdir, realising that Merendir had recognised him. "His father deemed that the time was ripe for him to see battle despite his tender years, and although I kept him close by me in the fray I need have had no fear on his account, for he is skilled in arms and more than held his own. Better still he listens, watches and learns, and shows none of the impatience that marred his father's character in his youth". They both smiled, remembering. "The future of the kingdom of Arnor is in good hands I think".

The following morning Merendir rode out of the fortress for the last time and joined the long slow moving column of wains, horses and men on foot as they began the journey back to Amon Sul. Behind him upon the hill flames were beginning to leap up from the roofs and towers that had been his home and life for so long, and a thick column of black smoke was rising rapidly into another flawless morning sky. Durthor was at his side, his weathered features grim and impassive. "So here we are again, you and I, just as we were before the last great battle sixty years ago" remarked Merendir, remembering, and feeling suddenly old and weary. "It seems to me almost that the years that lie between, and all our hopes and toils were in vain". But his faithful captain was not downcast. " My Lord, it may seem so, but just as we did back then we will return, rebuild and make this fortress strong again". Merendir found himself abashed by his old friend's reply, and did not speak, but simply acknowledged his words with a stern nod. All about them as they rode along lay the dead of the enemy, and the flies were already busy about their work, rising in clouds as they passed. The stench of death was overpowering, but the riders and their mounts we untroubled by it.

Two days later, with the sun already low in the west Merendir and Amdir led their column of men and horses into the encampment at the foot of Amon Sul to a joyful but restrained welcome, for though it had been a resounding victory all knew it to be little more than a first skirmish in the great fight that was still to come. The camp had grown in their absence, for Denethor and the remainder of the men of northern Cardolan had arrived and he was there at the King's side to welcome them back. Afterwards they rode up to the fortress with the other lords and captains, and after eating a good meal gathered in the tower to attend the King's council. When all was ready he rose to his feet and began to speak, showing no outward sign of the doubt or despair that Merendir had found so troubling only a few days before. "We thank you all for attending on us, and welcome our brothers from Cardolan, Prince Merendir, Lord Denethor and of course Prince Amarion. In the days to come our numbers will be swelled by other arrivals and these councils will allow us to share important news and prepare our battle plans. Firstly however praise and thanks are due to all those who took part in the recent battle at Amon Perin, and were victorious against much greater numbers. Prince Merendir, I would hear your account of the battle and your thoughts on the enemy we will soon all face?" Merendir nodded, rose to his feet and in well practiced fashion laid out the facts of the encounter and the conclusions that could be drawn from it. He also took the opportunity to credit Amdir for his well executed battle plan and his nephew Amarion for the brave and well timed sortie that had helped break the enemy's will, and was pleased to see the King acknowledge them both as he did so. The enemy had miscalculated, and had not expected to meet such a large number of riders in open country, for it was Merendir's opinion that those who had been sent had come in a serious attempt on the enemy's part to take the fortress. They had been disciplined and well equipped for the most part, fighting bravely while they could, not merely a rabble to be expended to test their strength. But it would be numbers that would count in the test that lay ahead, and any success might depend on how they could best deploy their cavalry. Arveleg nodded and thanked him, and Merendir knew that he must already have been aware of much of what he had reported through the stone. Rising once again to his feet the king spoke gravely. "Now I must announce the news that we have all known must come, for the enemy began to cross the river today and I estimate that we will face battle within ten days against a force at least twice the size of our own. Amdirion and the host of Arthedain will arrive tomorrow or the day after at the latest, and the men of southern Cardolan have reached the pass of Andrath today, so they will reach us in time, all being well. Of the elves however there is no news for the sight of the stone fades beyond the Emyn Beraid, but even if they have received our plea for aid and marched promptly I fear we must make our plans without them, for there cannot now be any hope of them reaching us in time. It seems this battle will be fought by men alone".

As the King had predicted the main host of Arthedain began to arrive the following day, with their elvish looking Captain General Amdirion at their head. They were a truly magnificent sight as they marched into the camp, far more splendid than anything Cardolan had ever put in the field. The sight of them stirred the spirit and gave the men renewed hope, for whilst the enemy might outnumber them they could never hope to match their strength, discipline or skill. Now barring the remainder of his own host who still marched the gathering of the host of Arnor was complete and that evening Merendir found himself looking down from the ramparts of Amon Sul upon an encampment that resembled a small city, spread out in its well ordered ranks out over the plain to the south of the road. It put him in mind of the time before the last great battle, for it had been the same then, and this encampment was no less extensive. Once again he found himself contemplating the course of fate that had seemingly brought him back to the same point, and despite his determination to remain hopeful he remembered how the first battle had ended in the death of the king and a defeat. Afterwards a good part of their forces had retreated to the tower and the other hilltop forts, but the rest including he and his men had been driven back along the east road towards Bree. Arveleg had been with them then and in the days that followed he had showed his worth as heir to the kingdom, unaware that his father had been slain by a stray arrow. The arrival of Cirdan and the elves had allowed them to mount a relief and they eventually drove the enemy back from the hills in a glorious rout. But now, fewer in number and with no hope of the Eldar arriving in time what would be their fate? For a few moments the icy foreboding he had felt before gripped him again and it was a while before he was able to regain his composure. It was a thing that troubled him deeply, for he had never been prone to such doubt or fear before.

If the King was still similarly troubled he did not show it, and in the days that followed remained calm and measured as he reported the progress of the enemy host at the evening councils. They were covering perhaps four or five leagues a day as they came west which meant that they would arrive at the beginning of the second week in May. The southern host of Cardolan, led by his brother Durchon were still reportedly making good progress and had now passed Bree, but their arriving in time would be a close run thing and it was likely they would have little time to recover from their long march before being pressed into battle. The stone had revealed a further small host marching north on the road south of the Andrath, only six or seven hundred strong, but Merendir's heart was gladdened when he learned of it. They could only be from Tharbad, having heeded the call of their kinsmen to aid them in time of need, and Merendir was glad he had thought to sent a messenger there. Although they would not arrive in time for the battle or have been sufficiently numerous to have made a difference even if they had, it was still a sign that a rapprochement with their southern neighbour might now be possible. He knew that his astute and thoughtful brother Maenir would make the most of any such opportunity. Bringing him to mind made him realise that it was time to write his brother another report and perhaps to send another message to Ivrien too, as there might not be many more opportunities to do so. The camp was now a scene of feverish activity from dawn till dusk as men prepared, drilled and practiced for what lay ahead and Merendir spent his days overseeing the preparations of his own men with customary zeal. 

The unseasonably warm bright weather continued unabated, day after day of clear skies and bright sunshine, until the men, prone to superstitious thought at the best of times began to grow suspicious of it. Merendir dismissed their speculation at first, chastising them that they would have had much more to grumble about of if it had been raining every day, but even he was a little unsettled when a great pall of cloud stretching from horizon to horizon in an unbroken line gradually crept into view across the northern sky. Each day brought it a little further south, carried on invisible winds high above them, and the far distant lands below it were plunged into a gloom made all the deeper by the contrast with the bright sunlight in which they stood. "I was wondering how the enemy's orcs were going to fight in this weather" remarked Durthor in an unguarded moment "and now we see how, for it seems this cloud will most likely be upon us just in time to mark their arrival". Merendir had laughed off his old friend's implication telling him that it was merely a coincidence and a stroke of good fortune for their foes, not the work of some unnatural agency.

But that certainty was shaken when he received an unexpected summons to the tower the following morning, and happy to take the opportunity to exercise Duvainien had her saddled up. After warming her up in walk for the first part of the climb up the hill he asked her into trot and she maintained it almost the whole way up that steep road, much to his satisfaction. It was another fine morning, and the short ride with its ever increasing vistas had lightened his spirits, but they were brought sharply back to earth by the manner of the King when Merendir was shown into his private chamber high up in the tower. Once again Norgalad was with him he also looked grave, the previous calm and assurance gone again for the time being. He was offered a drink and given a seat, and waited for Arveleg to come to the point. "Merendir, old friend. I trust that no word of what we are about to discuss will pass beyond these walls, for this is a matter of the gravest import". Merendir shook his head in assurance. "Of course not. How may I assist you?" The King rose to his feet and walked a few paces, clearly pondering how best to phrase his question. "You served many years with Esteldir and his company of exiles from Rhudaur, and he was a learned man who knew much of the history of that land. Now as I understand it the Dunedain of Rhudaur, for all their faults were the only ones bold enough to prosecute a campaign against Angmar in the early days of that realm, and to face the king of that land directly in battle. Would that we in our great pride, impregnable as we thought ourselves had done the same at the time and much sorrow might have been averted. Did Esteldir ever speak of this?" Merendir nodded. "Indeed he did, for his uncle and father both fought in those campaigns and won renown doing so, and it was a popular tale on long winter nights in the hall at Amon Perin, for the stories of their past glories cheered the exiles of that land greatly. Their own King fought the ruler of Angmar directly in single combat and received a head wound which troubled him greatly to the end of his days. The King of Angmar was reported to be a mighty warrior, fair of face and clad in silver and of a height beyond the measure of normal men, even those of Numenorian descent which is what they held him to be. Perhaps he was some renegade whose ancestors also managed to escape the downfall just as Elendil and his sons did?". Arveleg thanked him and glanced across at Norgalad before continuing. "I have often searched for a sign of him, but until today he had eluded me, but this morning I finally beheld him riding with his guard at the head of his host. He was exactly as you describe him, a magnificent warrior in armour of antiquated design. But then something happened that I cannot comprehend, for somehow he became aware that I looked upon him and... he returned my gaze, and it was filled with a palpable malevolence. I was not expecting it and the shock of it almost overwhelmed me before I was able to master it and drive his thought aside. It would seem that this enemy is no mere mortal, but rather some great sorcerer, and perhaps deathless too. For no rumour or report of any succession in that realm has ever reached us and the man I saw today closely matched a description given from a battle that took place almost ninety years ago. Perhaps only in Mithlond or Imladris can his equal be found, and we must now face this witch king without their aid. We have only stout hearts and sharp steel with which to defy him, and I fear that this time they will not be enough. If needs be I will die here just as my father did, but before I do so I will make sure this enemy pays most dearly for his victory". As he spoke he drew himself up and regained some of his previous calm and assurance.

After a short silence Merendir cleared his throat to speak, paused and then continued, his tone cautious and deliberate. "My Lord, I do not doubt that you speak truthfully here, and perhaps our foe is indeed so powerful that he can also influenced the weather as some of the men have been suggesting. If so there are two things that I would urge you to consider, though they might seem to be craven counsel. Firstly send Prince Araphor back to Fornost before the battle, for should our worst fears be realised the line of the Kings must not be brought to an end here. That way, even if we are defeated there will still be hope, and Araphor may yet turn the tide with the help of Cirdan just as you once did yourself. Secondly when he departs he must take the seeing stone with him, for it is a weapon of incomparable power and cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of this enemy. In any event it will serve us little once his host stands before us on the plain". Arveleg came around the table and rested a hand on Merendir's shoulder. "Nay, this is wise counsel my friend and I thank you for it, for we must not risk all through mere pride. It will be good to have you at my side once again when battle comes".

Chapter Text

 

During the night before the enemy host arrived on the plain below Amon Sul the great overcast that had been approaching finally overtook them and the men in the camp woke to an unaccustomed gloom for the first time in many weeks. To the south beyond the line across the sky that marked its limit the sun still shone from a blue sky, and the contrast was stark and strange. It was now generally expected that they would see battle the following day and Merendir was satisfied that all was now in  readiness, the only thing that remained was the arrival of his brother Durchon's southern host, who were now but a short days march distant and were also expected to arrive later that day. Satisfied that nothing further remained that required his immediate presence he called for his nephew Amarion and Lord Denethor and had their horses prepared, proposing that they should ride out with a small guard to greet them.

So it was a few hours later that they came upon the army of on the east road, marching proudly under the dark blue banner of Cardolan emblazoned with the device of the house of Elendil, along with the banners of the Lords of Sarn Athrad, Othlondir and a dozen smaller fiefs. Prince Durchon rode at their head, along with Lord Turin, and they were a magnificent sight for they comprised the greater part of the strength of the realm, some six hundred horse and three and a half thousand men at arms. Merendir's heart swelled with pride as he beheld them and he urged Duvainien forwards into a canter. They swept up to the head of the column and wheeled about to join them, with many glad cries of greeting. Great was the joy at the meeting between Durchon and Amarion, father and son, but that between the two brothers was also full of geniune warmth and affection, for the rancour and resentment that had so often soured relations between them had been laid aside. It was Merendir who spoke first "It is good to see you again brother, and not before time, for the enemy begins to assemble his host and there will most likely be battle as soon as tomorrow". Durchon grinned and slapped him on the shoulder. "And you are a fine sight for weary eyes too, for it is a grievous long road from Sarn Athrad and soon a tiresome one for a man of my age. But fear not, if battle is upon us then let it be so. We have brought our full strength as promised and left none but youths and old men behind. It would have been better had we had more time to rest and prepare after this march, but you will not find these men wanting, we will make the enemy will rue the day he crossed the silver river and set foot upon our lands. Now tell me how things stand at Amon Sul and something of the plan of battle as we ride". Merendir and Amarion spoke of what lay ahead at Amon Sul and what had been proposed as a strategy. Durchon's ebullience soon evaporated when it became clear what an unequal fight lay ahead of them, but he was not daunted. "Greater numbers alone do not guarantee victory against well trained and well organised men, and we have faced worse odds in the past and still prevailed. Most of the enemy's strength, man or orc will be little more than a half starved rabble hastily equipped and pressed into a service they barely understand. So long as we hold our nerve and deploy our forces well we will be able to drive them back from the hills. One way or another this is sure to be my last battle, and I am proud that I will fight it in such company".

After, Merendir, Durchon, Amarion and Denethor rode down the lengthy column to inspect and salute the men and a cheer went up as they passed by, for they were a fine sight riding their great steeds, grim and proud like the great warriors from the old tales. Merendir was heartened by what he saw as they rode, and gladdened to have his brother alongside him at last. Whilst they had often been at odds in their youth and in the years since, Durchon had always been a peerless soldier and leader of men, and the way he had come quickly to heel without any blood being spilled just a few months before after threatening rebellion showed that he was no fool either. It would have been good to have Maenir here too, for his counsel and wisdom thought Merendir to himself, and he realised how much he had missed him. But he was no warrior, and it had been made sense for him to remain behind to guide his people in their absence, for each of them had their allotted role to play. As if reading his mind, Durchon turned to him. "I have a message for you from our brother, he met us at Bree and sends his greetings and good wishes. I was also asked to pass on the kind thoughts of Lady Ivrien, the Dowager Princess, who had ridden out with him”. He gave his younger brother a curious look, but Merendir remained impassive. After a few moments Durchon’s face broke into broad grin and he laughed. “I see the truth of my suspicions in your silence, you old rascal, you have finally got your way after all these years! Though I too once harboured thoughts of possessing her in our youth she only ever had eyes for you, and I have had more than enough to contend with with my dear Lothwen. I am happy for you both”. He sighed. “Ah, there are no women to compare with those of the lands south of the Andrath and she was one of the fairest. Young Turin here will vouch for that too, for he left the fair Lady Lhinthiel with child ere he departed for war”. There was a chorus of congratulations for the young Lord, and ribald comments and laughter followed. Though he joined in Merendir was filled with a sudden longing and regret at the thought that the others had seen and spoken to Ivrien since their own parting.

He did not have too long to dwell on the matter however as they reached Amon Sul soon afterwards, where the King and his captains were waiting to greet them. He welcomed Durchon and Turin with great courtesy and they remained at his side whilst the remainder of the column wound past them and into the camp. "Prince Durchon, Lord Turin" he said, clearly impressed at what he saw before him. "Your men do you great credit, and your arrival, being in the nick of time as it is gives us renewed hope. For though we are outnumbered, every one of our men is worth many of those of the enemy". It took some time for all to file past and take the King's salute, but once the last had gone they turned their horses toward the tower and began the long climb up to the fortress. As they gained height the full size of the enemy host camped below on the plain became apparent. Durchon let out a low whistle and uttered an oath when he saw them spread like a dark sea to the east. "Brother, you did not jest when you said we would be outnumbered. This is a host greater even than that which stood against us in 1356 and we face it with fewer than we did then". He became thoughtful and fell silent, and it was Arveleg who replied, his voice grim. "And this time their Witch King himself is come forth and marches with them. Angmar, Rhudaur and every orc nest in the northern Hithaeglir have been emptied against us, for this Sorcerer has gambled all in this stroke against us". Durchon looked surprised at his words, but did not make to answer.

Later they ate a solemn meal in the ancient meeting hall under the tower and then entered it for what would be the final council before the battle. Arveleg had not eaten with them and was the last to join them. He came dressed in his magnificent battle gear, and wore a golden circlet on his brow, the very image of a mighty Dunedain King. Though his expression was resolute Merendir could not but help notice a sadness in his eyes, and he also noted that the young Prince and old Lord Norgalad, Master of the Stone, had not accompanied him as had previously been the case. The room fell silent, and the King signalled for them to be seated. "Great lords and commanders of Arnor, Arthedain and Cardolan, I thank you all once again for attending on us, for this will be our last council before the great battle that lies ahead. First I must welcome Prince Durchon of Cardolan and Lord Turin of Othlondir to our number, and thank them for their timely arrival, for now we will face the enemy with the full strength available to us. I am also able to bring tidings of some hope, for the stone has shown that Cirdan and a great host from Mithlond reached Bree today. If we can withstand the coming onslaught for five days then their arrival may be decisive, and all of our plans and preparation have been to that end. We are too greatly outnumbered to take the initiative in the fight with the enemy, so our success depends on holding them off and inflicting such losses upon them that they will falter and their resolve waver. However if all fails we will be able to fall back to the forts, which have been prepared and provisioned for such an eventuality and which will buy us more time. This time their King himself leads them to battle, a mighty warrior of uncommon height clad in silver, and if he could be slain or taken then it would be greatly to our advantage. But be warned, for it seems that he is no ordinary man, if man he be at all, for he is a great sorcerer and not only knew that I beheld him in the stone but was able to bend his malevolence to me through it. He may well be a foe beyond our power, but those who follow him are not, and that is where our hope must lie. This is a dark hour, for our kingdom is in peril the fate of many rests on the outcome of this battle. Should we fail all of the lands to the west and south will lie open to the enemy, so I say to you that we must all fight unto the uttermost end of our strength and spend ourselves gladly if called upon to do so, for the sake of all those we love and defend. Go forth now to your men and ready them for battle, speak to them plainly of what lies before us, but let them know also that there is hope if we can but stem the enemy tide for a short while. May the One and the Valar guide your hands and deeds and watch over and protect you all". As one those present cried their assent and saluted the King, who afterwards clasped each of them by the hand and embraced them in turn, speaking briefly to each before they departed the chamber. The princes of Cardolan were among the last to leave, and Arveleg and Merendir's embrace was long and emphatic. "Old friend" said the King "whatever may come to pass tomorrow, it has been a great honour to serve alongside you all these years, and you have been a good friend as well as a fine commander of men. For that I thank you and wish you all good fortune, and hope that you will yet see the fair halls of Ost-en-Tyrn again". Merendir was surprised by his words, for they sounded to him like a farewell, but then he wondered if the King too had foresight of his own doom. "The honour has been all mine, for you have been like a brother to me, and I too wish you well and a safe return home". Then he gave him a questioning look and the other replied without need of further elaboraton. "Yes, it is done, for good or ill I have sent Araphor away with the stone and removed it from the place where it has rested undisturbed for more than a thousand years since Elendil the Tall placed it here. The deed weighs heavily upon me, as does the parting from my son, for in my heart I do not think I will see him again, and he is very young yet to bear the burden of kingship if I should share my father's fate. I fear for what may lie ahead of him". Merendir did not know whence it came from but he felt a certainty when he replied, and his words were more than mere condolence. "Have no fear for him, for though he is young he is of a mighty lineage and whatever may await us his fate will be otherwise. He will be a great king and reign long and wisely over his people". With that they parted and the brothers and the remainder of their party descended from the tower to where their horses had been readied for them in the courtyard.

They spoke few words as they descended the winding road back down to the plain, and their eyes were ever drawn to the dark stain that lay across the plain to the east, where the enemy too were readying themselves in the gloom of early evening. After reaching the camp Merendir parted from the others and as was ever his habit on the eve of a battle spent the next few hours walking alone and without ceremony through the host under his command, spending time with the men as they sat by their camp fires, encouraging them, speaking to them and reassuring them where necessary. It was fully dark by the time he had completed his tour of all of the companies who fought under his command, and he was encouraged by what he had seen and heard, for there was a mood of quiet determination despite the desperate situation they knew they now faced. The task also saddened him, for many of those he spoke to were young and fresh faced and he knew that even if things went well many of them would not live to see another sunrise. Such were the burdens of command, for though a good leader never treated the loss of his men in battle lightly, their death was inevitable and he could not allow such considerations to cloud his judgement or cause him to falter when there were hard choices to be made. Before returning to his tent he made his way to the picket lines to make one last call, and was greeted by a soft nicker out of the darkness as he approached. He reached into his scrip to withdraw a titbit for her that he had saved from the meal table and giving it to Duvainien smoothed her coat and leant into her, smelling the soft earthy smell of her coat. She stood quietly in acquiescence, breathing softly and he spoke quietly to her, telling her she would be needed in battle again in the morning and that he would see no harm came to her. But he knew this battle would be very different to the last, and that this time there would be no guarantees for the safe passage of any.

When he finally reached his tent he saw that his brother was within, seated on the pallet he had ordered to be brought in for him and leafing through some papers by the flickering light of a small lantern. Merendir thought for a moment how old he looked, with every line on his face picked out by dancing shadows, but in truth he was only four years older than Merendir. He looked up as Merendir entered. "Ah, brother, you are back at last, I trust you have found everything to be to your satisfaction in the camp. The men love you and are ready to follow you whatever lies ahead, and I see now that our brother made a wise choice when he appointed you Captain General, even though I was the elder and thought it my right. But all that is behind us now and I am glad that we have the chance to be truly reconciled at last if you will have it so?" He rose to his feet and they embraced warmly. "Of course" said Merendir "and tomorrow we will stand shoulder to shoulder and make a good account of ourselves and of the house of Cardolan. But now I must take what rest I can". Durchon nodded, and reaching amongst the papers he had been inspecting drew out a small scroll. "Before you rest I must give this message from our brother, I apologise for being tardy in delivering it to you but this is the first chance I have had to do so". Merendir picked up the lantern and feeling suddenly very weary seated himself on his own pallet and tore open the seal. As he did so a second note that had been folded within fell to the floor, and he picked it up and set it aside before reading the first, recognising at once the familiar hand of his brother.

"Dearest brother, this may well be the last opportunity to write to you before the battle. It does not need saying that all our realm are with you and your men and pray for your success. But I must also as a brother thank you for everything you have done for me and for taking my part on so many occasions both recently and in the past, when it would have been much easier for you to do otherwise. I speak for us all here when I wish sincerely for your success and safe return home to those who love you so well.

Your devoted brother, M."

He felt a pang of love and regret and realised how much he missed the company of his wise and noble brother, and unfolded the plain unsealed note that had been tucked inside his brother's. He caught his breath when he saw the script and recognised it at once as Ivrien's delicate hand. There were water stains on the paper that had made some of the ink run and smudge and he knew at once they were the marks of tears that had fallen as she had written it. His hands began to tremble as he read her words.

"My dearest love, the storm will soon be upon us and though I hope with all my being that we will one day be together again you know that my heart forbodes otherwise. Whatever fate holds in store for us know that I have always and will always be yours, and that our brief time together has been the happiest of my life. With you I am complete, and would not trade one short spring for a hundred more winters. I am yours and will be always".

He turned his face from the lamplight and bowed his head and knew that he would never see her again. But he was an old soldier, and after a short while his initial feelings of grief and bitterness were replaced by a quiet steely resolve. If this was to be his time, then let it be so. But he would not be bought cheaply.

Chapter Text

The distant clang of the fortress bell woke the men of the camp from their fitful and all too brief slumbers, and they rose and began to ready themselves. It was still dark, and the darkness was further deepened by the thick overcast which remained overhead and delayed the arrival of full day. In their tent Merendir and Durchon dressed in near silence and donned their battle gear, their every movement spare and precise. The time for contemplation and regret was over, for all thoughts now were of duty. They ate a brief breakfast and went forth to summon their captains and oversee the assembly of their host.

Merendir noted with satisfaction that his preparations had been more than sufficient, for the scene before him was filled with purpose and order, each man knew his part and carried it out to the letter. The companies were soon forming up in neat ranks, their banners hanging limply in the pre dawn gloom and their steel and silver glowing dully. All around great numbers of men and horses were already moving off through the camp and along the road towards the field of battle in serried ranks and as soon as he was satisfied that his own command was ready he ordered the signal to be given to start moving off as well. He rode with his brother and the other lords and captains of Cardolan at their head, flanked by their many bright banners. They were to take up their position on the left flank of the main host of Arnor, below the hill forts that stood on the summits north of the tower. It was not yet light enough to make out the enemy with any certainty, but close by there were neat columns of men and horses as far as the eye could see, some already in position whilst others continued to move purposefully north. It was truly a sight to stir the soul and raise hope in even the most downcast heart.

As they passed below the tower the King and his guard came riding up to meet them, and when he greeted them there was no sign of the uncertainty he had betrayed the previous evening. He saluted and called out gladly. "Brothers of Cardolan, greetings all, now at last comes the day that we have long anticipated and prepared for. Let it be a glorious day, full of deeds our children and their children's children will recount with pride and awe! This is a day of destiny, the day when we shall strike the decisive blow against this sorcerer king and drive him from our land. May the Valar watch over you and protect you all". There was a great cheer of assent and they parted, gladdened by his words. It did not take them much longer to reach their position and their companies began to dispose themselves as had been planned, footsoldiers and archers front and centre and the horse on the flanks. Now there was nothing to do but wait and Merendir took time to observe his surroundings. To their backs the great bulk of the northern sisters of the hill of Amon Sul rose steeply, each topped by a sturdy fort between which ran a narrow road way and ditch that allowed them to be supplied and quickly reinforced in time of need. They had been built by Argeleb, father of the current king in the years before the last great battle and Merendir remembered only too well the long hard labour that had gone into their construction. At his left hand, beyond the place where the riders on their left flank stood in readiness the empty scrublands stretched away to the edge of sight in the growing daylight. It would be important not to allow his forces to be outflanked on that hand, but fortunately it was good horse country and that would help greatly help on that score. To their right the massed ranks of the foot soldiers and archers of Arthedain under the command of their silver haired Captain General Amdirion stood ready and Merendir could clearly make their lord out as he rode along the front of his line, rallying his men. Now ahead of them in the growing light, perhaps half a league distant the great mass of the enemy could now be discerned across the undulating plain. They were like a dark sea, their own banners hanging limply here and there overhead like trees after a storm. In places further along the line it appeared they were already starting to advance, and Merendir knew it would not be long before battle would be joined.

He urged Duvainien forward and rode out to the front of his men, who cheered him and struck their shields with their weapons in salute as he passed. Before him now were the faces of those in the foremost ranks on whom the hardest duty would fall, old and young, fair and stern, and it was to them first and foremost that he addressed his words in a clear voice, drawing his sword and rising in his stirrups. “Men of Cardolan, brothers all. Today the fate of many hangs in the balance, and we will not fail them. Though our enemy outnumber us a thousand to one we stand our ground to the last. We will not yield! We will stand! We will stand!” The men immediately took up the cry, and he spurred Duvainien forward into a canter and rode along the rest of the line urging them until all cried with one voice and all their blood was raised. But suddenly as loud as they were their voices were overwhelmed by an even greater cacophony of brazen trumpets and the deep thunder of countless more voices as the enemy began their advance in earnest. The alert was sounded, and weapons drawn and the butts of their spears planted firmly in the ground in readiness for the coming onslaught. Breathless, Merendir urged his mount around and into a gallop and made his way back to the his horsemen on the right flank. There stood Lord Denethor of Bree and the riders from the northern lands, whilst Prince Durchon and Lord Turin and their horsemen from the southlands stood in readiness on the left. Between them the main body of the host, foot soldiers and archers with Lord Amarion as their chief captain waited impassively as the enemy swept forward towards them.

The harsh trumpets sounded again and the enemy host slowed their advance and came to a temporary shambling stop within bowshot of the Cardolanian lines. “ Ware arrows!” cried Lord Denethor as the sky was suddenly darkened further by a deadly hail that began to fall amongst them and found too many marks amongst the unprepared. Their own bowmen replied in equally deadly fashion but could not hope to match the ferocity of the storm the enemy had unleashed, but just as swiftly as that had begun it began to abate, the horns of the enemy sounded again and they resumed their charge with another great roar. “So it begins” cried Merendir, as Duvainien pawed the ground impatiently eager for the off, and at his signal the riders on both flanks cried out and poured forwards at the gallop, closing swiftly on the onrushing enemy. Some fell as they ran, either riders or their mounts brought down by swift black feathered orc arrows, but they carved into the enemy like a scythe, slaughtering and scattering them at will, for in this part of the battle the foe they faced were only lightly armed and poorly equipped northmen and mountain orcs. The Cardolanian shield line stood firm against the massed onslaught of the enemy despite their clear disadvantage in numbers. Again and again the horsemen wheeled round and charged, and the enemy dead soon lay so thick on the ground that they began to hinder the passage of their mounts, but still they came, and there seemed no end to their number. “They die like mayflies, but they are just as numerous” cried Lord Denethor who rode at Merendir‘s side, his sword red with blood and his gear splattered with mud and gore “I fear that it will be our own weariness that undoes us rather than this enemy”. Merendir laughed “I fear it is so, for we have both seen too many summers for this work. But if this is the best our enemy can pit against us then perhaps there is hope indeed”. And it seemed to him that it was so, for there were signs that the enemy attack was beginning to falter all along their part of the field of battle and also that contested by Amdirion of Arthedain.

But that hope was short lived, for now amongst their foe came better armed and organised hillmen from Rhudaur who had been held in reserve up until that point, and the men and horsemen of Cardolan, already wearied by hours of fighting now found themselves pitted against a more worthy foe, fresh to the fight. Rather than sweeping through the enemy lines the next charge of the horse broke like a wave against a rock, facing a hedge of spears, and withdrew with substantial losses. The previously solid shield line in the Cardolanian centre became ragged and broke in places. Dismayed at the sudden turn of events Merendir led the ragged body of horsemen under his command at a canter back towards their lines, and realised Denethor was no longer riding at his side. The torrent of arrows from the enemy’s archers resumed and any brief flicker of hope that Merendir had harboured swiftly drained away. Duvainien’s coat was flecked with foam, and her flanks heaved, but she was still game, her eye bright and fierce, and so it was with the mounts of those around them. “One more charge and your work is done girl” said Merendir softly to her, stroking her neck “I will not tax you further today”. She tossed her proud black head as if in reply, and Merendir gave the signal to form up for another charge.
This time their onrush was too much for the hillmen and they broke through their lines, though again at some considerable cost. Filled with renewed battle fury they scattered the enemy under their hooves and slew them at will until their advance was slowed by the sheer weight of numbers of their adversaries. Merendir knew the danger of this predicament and signalled for his men to withdraw, but as he did so he espied a great captain of the hillmen ahead of him, a good head taller than his companions, wielding a battleaxe and clad in silver plate armour. Here at last was a worthy foe for a Prince of Cardolan, and he would not pass over the opportunity to bring him low. His opponent had seen him and read his intention and as he spurred the now clearly weary Duvainien forward into a reluctant canter the man’s companions parted and he readied himself, bellowing a curse in his rustic tongue. For all his great size this enemy was swift and nimble on his feet and easily evaded Merendir’s first swing, and as they passed he swung his axe and caught Duvainien with a mighty blow that sank deep into her haunches. She screamed and went down, blood gouting from the wound, and then thrashed pathetically on the ground, vainly trying to rise. Merendir was thrown clear as she went down and hit the ground hard and was winded, but he somehow managed to keep his sword and shield to hand and struggled to his feet just as the enemy captain fell on him with a rain of blows from his great double headed axe. At first, dazed and gasping for breath it was all he could do just to defend himself, his shield denting and splintering under the blows, and he took a nick to the arm when he failed to completely parry a particularly well timed strike. Despite his disadvantage he slowly began to recover and regain the initiative in the fight, and he saw the look in the eyes of his opponent change from one of pure hatred to concern, for he had always been a fine swordsman and had kept up his training even during the peaceful days in Ost-en-Tyrn. He bided his time, waiting for an opening as the Hillman’s strokes grew ever wilder, wary for any intervention from the man‘s fellows. At last he saw his chance as his enemy threw caution to the wind and left himself wide open, gambling all on one last wild swing. Merendir’s blade caught him square in the throat and he gave a strangled cry and his legs began to crumple under him. But as he fell and died his axe completed the arc of its master‘s last thrust, glanced weakly off Merendir’s shield and buried itself deep in his unprotected thigh, biting down to the bone. For a brief moment there was no pain, only disbelief and dismay at this mischance, but then blood began to pour from the wound and his leg buckled. He desperately cast the axe aside and throwing down his sword and shield vainly tried to hold the edges of the terrible gash closed, but the pain became unbearable, his head swam, and he eventually toppled to the ground insensible.

It was dark, so dark, but somewhere there were voices, and now there was also the familiar taste of something bitter sweet and the sensation of warmth driving out bitter cold. Merendir slowly returned to consciousness, and recognised the taste as that of miruvor, the cordial given to revive those in extremity. Memory returned, and he tried to move but found he lacked the strength. So he had not died, but things were still pretty bad. “Easy my Lord” came a familiar gruff voice and Merendir found himself gazing up into the craggy features of old Captain Durthor of Bree, who cradled him in his lap and held the small flask of cordial in his free hand. His old friend looked exhausted, and Merendir could not begin to imagine how they had come to find themselves in this strange situation. “Where are we?” he asked faintly. There was lamplight, and he was vaguely aware of many others around them, but beyond that it was hard to tell. His leg throbbed, but the cordial had taken away much of the pain, for he himself had often given it to dying men after battle and knew its efficacy. Durthor stroked his cheek in an unlooked for gesture of tenderness. “The second fort. You would have bled to death where you lay if we had not found you and carried you from the field”. The cordial was doing its wonderful work, and Merendir’s mind was clearing, but he knew the effect did not last very long. “The battle? How goes the battle?” He saw at once from Durthor’s expression what the answer would be, and his voice was thick with emotion as he replied. “My lord, we have failed. We held our part of the field to the last, but the remainder of the host were overthrown and after that it was all we could do to fall back to the hill forts with great loss”. For a moment Merendir could scarce take in the import of his words “Prince Durchon? Denethor? Amarion?” Durthor shrugged and shook his head, and his eyes filled with tears. “I know not, save Denethor who was at my side when he was struck and killed by an arrow during one of our last charges on the enemy. He was one of the finest men I knew, and as a brother to me. Perhaps the others reached the safety of one of the other forts, or to Amon Sul itself, it is all we can hope”. Merendir found the strength to raise himself on one elbow and Durthor helped him sit up. His head swam from the effort, and his leg immediately began to pound. He dared a glance down and saw that it had been tied off above the wound, which had been hastily bandaged and was soaked with fresh blood. The leg below the tourniqet had swollen to an unnatural size and he knew it would be going bad but he was dying, he thought to himself in a matter of fact manner, and it was of no import now. Around him the small courtyard of the fort was packed with men from every corner of Arnor, some in better condition than others, and nearby he could see soldiers queuing in orderly fashion to have small portions of water and bread doled out to them. “Who commands here?” he asked, curious, for it was clear that those around him were still soldiers acting under orders rather than a defeated rabble. “A Lord of Arthedain, one of Amdirion’s captains” replied Durthor “do you wish to speak with him?” Merendir forced a smile. “Nay old friend, I am done commanding and only death awaits me now. I thank you for everything you have done for me, Durthor son of Caranthir, but now you must look to your own fate. You too are in need of rest”. A weariness deeper than any he had yet felt came over him, and his head fell back. With tears in his eyes again Durthor laid him gently down and made him as comfortable as he could before retrieving the flask of Miruvor. Merendir shook his head weakly. “It is too late for that now, find others whose need is greater than mine and minister to them. The pain is not so bad now, but I will rest awhile”.

In the distance, and seemingly from a very great distance to Merendir as he lay below the walls the blast of many discordant enemy horns was heard again, and the sounds of renewed battle began to drift to them on the night breeze. As if spurred on by what was happening further along the ridge a few enemy arrows began to clatter down into the courtyard out of the night. Most of them struck the stonework, but one at least found a mark and the poor wretch began pleading and sobbing before falling silent. All those who could still move quickly cleared from the centre of the courtyard and tried to find shelter from further arrow shot by huddling close to the walls or climbing onto the already crowded walkways and battlements. In the distance the sounds of fighting continued for a good while, and then gradually began to abate whilst arrows continued to rain in over the walls. From where he lay Merendir gradually became aware of a glow, and soon there was no mistaking the flickering orange light playing on the stonework of the tower and higher ramparts of the fort. A collective groan went up from those who had been watching from the walls, and a cries of “Amon Sul is burning” and “Amon Sul has fallen” rang out, full of despair. A short distance away along the ridge the next fort now stood silhouetted as if by a sunrise though it was not long past midnight, and beyond it the whole of the top of the hill of Amon Sul was crowned with flames. A great fire had taken hold in both circles of the fortress and the tower itself was slowly being consumed too, even at that distance flames could be seen licking in the lower windows whilst smoke billowed from those higher up. Merendir heard the cries from the walls, and even as he lay dying knew that he had failed, and that all was lost. His clouded thoughts were only of Ivrien and his heart was filled with pain and longing for her, fearing what might now lay in store for her. He remembered her beauty and grace and all they had shared, and the warmth and softness of her embrace, and in his anguish tried to call out to her. But all that escaped his lips was a whisper, and none, not even Durthor who had remained faithfully at his side heard it. Afterwards he lay still, and did not speak again.

Not long afterwards, though it was still night, the enemy commenced his assault on the remaining forts that still lay in the hands of his enemy using fresh forces who had not up to that point taken part in the battle. The men on the walls saw their torches advance in long snaking rivers of light along the ridge and up the steep eastern flanks of the hills, but even before they arrived they found themselves pitted in a bitter fight against mountain orcs who had scaled the walls under cover of darkness. Great were the deeds done in the defence of those high places, even when all hope had been extinguished, but by the morning none remained to tell of them and the victory of the Sorcerer King of Angmar was complete.

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Ivrien, Dowager Princess Of Cardolan awoke with a gasp from a vivid and terrible dream and sat bolt upright in the pitch darkness clutching her bedcovers tightly to her. In it she had seen Merendir dying, trapped in a high place beneath mighty walls, and he had cried out to her as his life ebbed away. She tried to master herself for a moment, reasoning that it was but a dream, but waking could not dilute the anguish she felt, so real had it seemed. Then she let out a howl of pain and allowed her grief to overwhelm her for a long moment before she eventually quietened. She had always feared this day would come, but that did not make the fact of it any easier to bear, and rising from her bed she quickly tied up her hair and cast a cloak about her over her shift before moving noiselessly across the stone floor to the door of her bedchamber. She paused there for a moment, torn between the urge to wake Prince Maenir and speak to him and the fear that he would not take her seriously, but the absolute certainty of the truth of it persuaded her to resume her journey.

The palace was dark and silent at this hour, and none witnessed her passage barefoot and in such a state of undress for she had long since sent her few maidservants back to their homes in the town at night. The only guards on duty were a pair of old veterans at the citadel gate and she had no need to disturb their watch, bound as she was for Maenir’s own halls which lay close by the prince’s palace. To her surprise it seemed someone within was abroad even at that hour, and when she entered it was the Prince himself, clad in a simple tunic who greeted her, with a good deal less surprise than she had expected. “Sister” he said kindly, noting her pallor and red eyes as he gathered her to him and kissed her on the brow “what troubles you?” He looked even more tired and careworn than he had of late, and not all of the weight he had lost was due to the recent training in arms that he had commenced and now took part in daily with his son. They went together into a nearby parlour, lit by a single flickering light, and sat down. He poured them both a drink from a bottle on the table and then waited for her reply. She spoke hesitantly at first, her voice barely more than a whisper. “I fear Merendir is slain, and perhaps that things have gone ill for our armies as well. It was no more than a dream, but I am certain of it, for it felt akin to foresight. Call me foolish girl if you will and pack me back off to my bedchamber, but I had to speak of it to you”. His lined face was engraved with shadows by the dancing candlelight, and she saw the anguish her words had written there. Though he was not handsome as judged by normal standards amongst the Dunedain there was a keen intelligence and depth in his gaze, and she understood what his much younger wife had found attractive in him. “Nay” he said quietly. “It is now ten days since we parted from our brother Durchon at Bree, time enough for battle to have been joined with the enemy”. He sighed. “I too have felt a great unease tonight though I knew not the cause, and could not sleep on account of it. Perhaps your dream explains it and Angmar has prevailed at Amon Sul, but we must still cling to hope until we know the truth for certain. And the same goes for my brother too. I will ride to Bree in the morning, for it is there that any news will reach us first. Whatever lies ahead, we must all play our part, and I would ask you to assume the Lordship of Ost-en-Tyrn in my absence, for you are well loved by the people and wise. Please look after Celebeth and the children while I am gone, I have put her through so much lately, and I know close you are”. Ivrien laid her hands on his across the table. “I am greatly honoured by what you ask of me, and will perform that duty to the best of my ability while you are gone. Your wife is like a sister to me and she is stronger than she appears, and if she suffers she does so willingly out of love for you for none of us are spared in times such as these”. He smiled and replied quietly, dropping his gaze. “I thank you sister, your words and company have been of comfort to me this night even if your dreams were not. Now we must both try and find a little sleep before dawn, your guest chamber lies ready as always and I am sure Celebeth will be able to lend you some clothes in the morning or send someone for your own”. She managed a wan smile. “Yes, it would be unseemly for the lord of Ost-en-Tyrn to be found wandering abroad unshod and wearing nothing but a shift and a cloak”. They rose from the table, embraced lightly and made their way to their respective bedchambers.

The Prince and his companions had set off as darkness was falling the previous evening, leaving the camp quietly and relying largely on their horse’s night vision to find their way along the road. They had called a halt after midnight and set up camp some way off it in the wild. Araphor had been shocked and deeply unhappy at being sent out of harm’s way on the eve of the battle for he had expected to play a full part in it alongside his father. However the long hours of riding through the night had given him ample time to consider the matter fully and he did understand why his father had ordered him to travel to Bree accompanied by the aged Lord Norgalad, the Palantir and a small retinue consisting of servants from the tower and a small guard. His father’s manner when they parted had troubled him most of all however, for it had been the farewell of a man who did not expect to see his son again, and Araphor had been deeply shaken by it.

They had resumed their ride mid morning, but could only travel at a frustratingly slow pace due to the advanced years of the old lord and his ageing servants. They also lost further time when their outrider saw a supply train approaching and they were forced to leave the road and conceal themselves, for Arveleg had been most insistent that they should travel in secret. They spoke little amongst themselves as the day wore on, and Araphor spent his time trying to envisage the great events might be unfolding only a few leagues away to the east of where they were. With any luck the enemy would be repulsed, and a swift messenger would be despatched to find them and order them to return to the tower. That might not even be necessary if the stone could be used there in the wild, and before the Prince could raise the matter the next time they halted to rest Norgalad himself asked his servants to bring him the casket that contained the stone. “In truth I do not know how much we will be able to see from such a low place, but it must be essayed”. Araphor stood close by as the old Lord sank slowly to his knees and unwrapped the orb where it had been placed on the turf. The Prince craned his neck eagerly but could not make out clearly what it was that the old man saw, but it was evident that it had shaken him from his manner when he replaced the drape over the stone and asked the Prince to help him to his feet. “As I feared, I could not see fully how things stand at Amon Sul for the stones work best when they are seated in high places. The lie of the land is against us, but from the little I could discern it seems things go ill for us and we should not tarry here”

So for the next few hours that they increased the pace and did not call another halt until night was beginning to fall. It cost the old man dearly, and he was very weary when they pitched camp. Araphor’s initial resentment of Norgalad’s presence as a hindrance to the progress of their journey had gradually been replaced by admiration for the old man’s courage and wisdom and he personally attended to him when they next halted. After he was somewhat restored Norgalad again asked for the Palantir to be brought to him to attempt another sighting. However before the lid could be opened there was a yell of alarm from one of the sentries, and Araphor leapt to his feet and drew his sword. However it was no assault of the enemy that had caused the man to cry out, but rather the distant but unmistakeable outline of the hill of Amon Sul on the horizon, dim in the fading evening light. For now, clear even at that distance a great pall of smoke could be seen erupting suddenly from the summit, and they cursed and cried out in dismay at the sight of it. It could only mean one thing, and in spite of the great dread that had seized him Araphor silenced his companions with a sharp command. “Prepare to ride again, for we cannot delay a moment longer here, weary though we may be. Our enemy greatly desires the treasure we carry with us, for if he has taken the tower and finds the treasure gone he will send his servants to scour the wild for it”. So they saddled their horses again and remounted, riding off into the growing darkness weary and filled with dread. At their backs the ghastly beacon light atop Amon Sul burned brighter still in the failing light, and the keener eyed among them were able to discern that the tower too was now aflame. After several miserable hours Araphor finally conceded than neither man nor beast could go any further and he led them a good distance away from the road pitched a hasty camp. Norgalad was by this time at the end of his strength and pleaded with Araphor to abandon him and continue his journey without him. “For it is you, the prince and the Palantir that must be saved, not I an old man who has served his purpose and whose weakness now endangers you. You must take the stone and a small guard and ride ahead with all due speed in the morning, and we will follow as we may”. Araphor was dismayed at his words, and denied them, though he knew the truth of them.

The morning brought a long awaited change in the weather, for a brisk wind had sprung up from the west, freshening the sultry air and setting the banners that hung from the battlements flapping and cracking. The sun had at last broke through the heavy pall that had remained overhead for so long and dampened men’s spirits and on another morning Ivrien might have stood on one of the citadel walls taken simple pleasure from the change in the weather. But it brought her no joy that morning, for her spirits weighed down with fear and grief. Once again she found herself in the courtyard bidding farewell to one she loved and watching them ride off into peril, and she remembered the morning only a few weeks earlier when she had parted with Merendir. The thought that it might have been the last time she would ever see him alive almost caused her to lose her composure, and Celebeth who was standing at her side red eyed but resolute noticed her discomfiture and squeezed her hand sympathetically. At her side stood the children, Aewen, Lethil and young Bruinir all ashen faced but dignified, for though their father had not spoken to them of the reason for his sudden departure they knew from his manner that something very grave was afoot.

The company that assembled there was nowhere near as numerous or impressive as it had been on the earlier occasion, for the Prince was accompanied by a small company of greybeards on mismatched mounts. He himself was dressed in full battle gear, and looked gaunt and weary but that garb no longer looked so incongruous on him as it had before, and the resemblance to his more warlike brothers was marked. He mounted and turned to speak to his children and the others with poorly feigned jollity. “Fear not, I will return soon so do not fret. I hope to find all in order when I return! I will send word as soon as I have news, may the Valar watch over you all”. He smiled sadly and turned away, and the horses clattered out of the courtyard, through the gate and down into the town. After he had gone the women returned to Maenir’s halls and once they were alone Celebeth flung her arms around Ivrien and they held each other closely weeping a little. “Sister mine, what has happened?” asked Celebeth. “Maenir would only say that it was time for him to ride to Bree to await news there, but the decision came without warning and I have rarely seen him so troubled. And you my love who have been ever brave and wise and my counsellor in time of need seem suddenly so stricken, what has happened?” Ivrien forced a smile and composed herself, wiping her eyes and face. “Forgive me sister, for the fault is mine in this matter, and I am so bound up in my own sorrows that I forget that those around me must also carry their own burdens. It seems almost foolish to speak of it now with the sun bright in the sky, but I had a dream last night, or maybe a vision most unlike any I have had before, so real did it seem. In it I saw Merendir, lying grievously wounded in a high place surrounded by mighty walls of stone, and I knew he was dying. As I watched he called out to me and his life ebbed away, and. I fear I have lost what I waited so long for and only knew for the briefest moment. Now my heart is broken”. Celebeth looked on her tenderly with her dark eyes brimming with further tears. “Sister, I know that you have been both blessed and cursed with the gift of foresight before now, and like you I beleieve that this was no ordinary dream. If it is so then we have lost one of the finest men in all of Arnor, and all our lives are diminished by the loss. But until the day comes when all hope is extinguished we must continue”. Ivrien drew the younger woman to her and they embraced her again for a moment. “You are right as ever, sister. We must be strong, for the sake of the children and for our people . I have been tasked with the governing of this town by our beloved prince while he is away at Bree, and I shall do so. I will hear the petitioners and their disputes as is usual later today, but first I will go into the town and walk amongst the people there. Maenir’s sudden departure will not have gone unnoticed and I will try to offer them reassurance for they will be thirsty for news. Will you accompany me?”

So it was that the two women, accompanied by Princesses Aewen and Lethil made their way through the handsome streets and lanes of the town until they reached the main square where it was market day. Everywhere they went they were well received, and everywhere they went they heard the same questions. Ivrien, whose long years as the reluctant consort of the prince of the realm had made her skilled in choosing the right words and speaking them with confidence despite her own true feelings in the matter at hand. She replied to her questioners solicitously, taking time to ask them about their menfolk who had marched away, sons, brothers and husbands, and wished for their good fortune and safe return. Those she spoke to were full of gratitude and she hoped that her excursion might go in some small way to lifting their spirits. She had been struck by how quiet the streets were, and how strange it was to see so few men abroad save youths and the aged. Even the market was uncommonly subdued, and an atmosphere of tense anticipation hung over the streets as if the place were holding its breath.

In the wilderness west of Amon Sul too the change in the weather that morning was also welcomed by the weary travellers of the Prince’s party, but the new day had not brought any improvement in Lord Norgalad’s condition and he was barely able to stand without aid let alone ride for many hours at speed. Araphor was beginning to understand all too well how his unique position as a prince brought with it the need to make difficult and unpleasant decisions, and he was torn between the need to reach the relative safety of Bree as quickly as possible and his concern for the old man. Fortunately for him Norgalad had no such doubts and tore a strip off the youth. “Do not be a fool my lord, your father sent you from Amon Sul with good reason, for if you were both to fall then the line of kings in the north, unbroken since Isildur and Elendil, would fail. Have no concern for me in this matter, ride now and take the palantir with you, ride! Cirdan and the host of Lindon will not be far away now, carry the news of our defeat to him and go to prepare the defence of Bree. I will join you soon enough, and all will be well”. Grim faced, the young prince selected two companions from the company and shortly afterwards mounted up and set off at a brisk trot. He did not look back as they rode away for to him it felt as if he had first fled a battle and was now saving his own skin at the expense of an old man, despite the fact that had been good reason for both acts.

As Norgalad had predicted they sighted the host of Lindon shortly before noon, and as they approached outriders on swift horses intercepted and hailed them. The elves had paused their march and the sight of them in their bright array fair took Araphor’s breath away, for to him they seemed like some vision from an ancient tale. Cirdan had been true to his vow of friendship to the men of the west and had brought a great host with him, so numerous were they that they wound away out of sight along the road. Araphor reflected bitterly that if they had arrived only two days sooner the outcome of the battle might have been very different, but perhaps the enemy had known this. The escorts brought Araphor and his companions before Cirdan himself, who was seated in surprisingly humble fashion on the grass speaking with his captains. He rose lightly to his feet as they approached and the young prince and his companions dismounted. The elf lord stood silently for a moment, silently appraising him. Araphor found this, and being amongst the elves most unsettling, for they were exceedingly fair and youthful of face but their eyes all told a different story, full of fathomless depths and hidden strength. Unable to hold the elf lord’s gaze for more than a few seconds Araphor instead bowed low before him and the other broke the silence in a rich and musical voice which carried an undertone of great authority. “I am Cirdan, Lord Of Mithlond. Please state your business on the road and what news you have of the battle, for I deem that we arrive too late”. Araphor noted that those around them were watching him intently and it did little to quell his growing anxiety. “I am Prince Araphor son of Arveleg of Arthedain. I was sent from Amon Sul on the eve of the battle by my father along with the seeing stone for safety. I fear I must bring the gravest tidings, for the fortress is taken and burned, but beyond that I cannot say. The enemy’s strength is very great, and I do not think he will be content with that prize alone. He will come west but you must not face him in the wild lands however great your strength, rather I pray that you will return with me to Bree and we will make a stand together there”. The elf lord remained impassive, and thinking quickly Araphor gestured to his companions to lift the casket that contained the stone from the pack horse and lay it down before him. He knelt, undid the clasps and lifted the lid, removing the wrapping cloth within to reveal the dark sphere within. Cirdan’s expression became unreadable for a moment and then he bowed in return and his manner softened noticeably. “Forgive my caution, Araphor son of Arveleg, for it is clear that you are who you claim to be and not some spy of the enemy. Indeed you closely resemble your father and his father before him, for long and true has been the friendship between my people and the house of Elendil. But this time I fear our aid has come too late to avert disaster, and I too have grave news. For we met a messenger on the road this morning riding with all haste for Bree and sent him on his way with a fresh horse”. His expression softened further and became sympathetic. “Prince are you no more, for I must tell you that the kingship of Arnor has now passed to you by right. Your father fell in battle and we grieve for his loss, but for the moment I fear that we have little time to mourn and only hard choices before us. But first you must take some rest and refreshment, and then I will offer my counsel”. Though he had feared this news from the moment they had seen the fortress burning the young prince reeled in shock and could scarcely comprehend what he had heard. But he was king now, lord of a mighty people and remained where he was, standing stiffly and with all dignity among the mighty company. Only a single tear coursing down his cheek betrayed the anguish he felt.

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A short while later Araphor, still deeply shaken and wracked with grief but with his bodily strength renewed by a meal of lembas and a small draught of miruvor, returned to Cirdan. The elf lord, his manner kindly, bid him bring the heavy casket containing the Palantir and led him away from the company who were making preparations to resume their march. He followed him to the summit of a low hill overlooking the road and at the top the elf lord motioned to him to be seated on the sward under a gnarled and ancient hawthorn. Araphor had been introduced to a few eldar at court in Fornost and had studied their lore and history but this was the first time he had had any direct dealings with them, let alone one of their mightiest lords. He knew that when Cirdan spoke of Elendil, it was with direct knowledge for the tales he had studied recounted how they had fought together in the last alliance and it was scarcely comprehensible to the youth that anyone could have seen so much time pass. Araphor thought he must seem little more than a mayfly to one who had lived so long and seen so much, and yet the elf lord treated him with kindness and respect. They were a people to be feared as much as loved, he thought, mighty and full of wisdom.

“You must use the stone and see what it can tell us of the enemy’s intent” instructed the elf lord, and Araphor complied, fumbling a little with the catches and lifting it awkwardly from its resting place. He laid it on the grass and pulled the drapes aside, revealing a perfect sphere whose dark interior seemed to continually swirl and roil. “Fair indeed were the works of Feanor and they will endure unto the ending of the world” said Cirdan softly “They were a gift and a blessing from the Eldar to your people, and another of them is now under my stewardship in the tower of Emyn Beriad. Look within it and see what it will reveal”. Araphor looked up, his expression apprehensive. “I but have little knowledge of the lore of the Palantiri, save a few occasions when I was permitted to look into the one at Fornost when it was under the control of another”. The elf lord’s expression softened. “Do not be troubled, for this stone will bend to the will of any who may rightfully use it and it will know you as its rightful master”. Araphor hesitantly bent over the sphere and stared into the swirling clouds in the interior, but at first nothing happened and he felt a great resistance in his mind as if his very thoughts were pushing at a barrier. But then suddenly it was gone, and the stone was filled with a rush of green and blue light, and then just as suddenly he was looking at a perfectly detailed view of a small town nestling below a ruined fortress in a cleft in the hills. He gasped in surprise and then tentatively willed the vision further still, but it would not do so and all he saw was a wide summer sky besmirched in the far distance by the smoke from a great burning. He thought nothing of it but remembered from his lessons that the stone could only reveal things that lay within its direct line of sight, and he realised he was facing south west towards the downs of Cardolan. He cautiously changed position to face east and concentrated on the stone once again. Now the progress of his vision along the east road was less precipitous and he soon realized he could control it at will. There he saw ragged groups of soldiers and horsemen moving along it and recognized their liveries as being those of his own men and his heart was filled with pity and remorse at having abandoned them. Then with a gasp he came upon another more ordered host marching towards him, great in number and carrying banners bearing the emblem of a ghostly white tower. A little further on lay Amon Sul, or what remained of it for the fortress was now a smoking ruin and the upper part of the tower was gone leaving nothing but a jagged and fire blackened stump. Everywhere he looked lay the uncounted dead, and he knew this was but a part of the dreadful toll of the battle, the main field of which lay out of sight beyond the hills. He recoiled in dismay, momentarily unable to see any more and choked back a sob , but Cirdan waited silent and expressionless for him to resume. After a moment he applied himself again and turning his vision away from the fortress his line of sight swung northward along the weather hills and into the empty lands beyond. Just as he was about to raise his eyes from the sphere something caught his eye and he gasped again. Another host came into view, greater still than the one on the east road, and at their head rode a mighty king, taller than any living man. Araphor’s attention was irresistibly drawn to him, and momentarily unable to turn away he saw the silver armoured king turn his helmed head as if to return his gaze. He reeled in shock as he felt a cold dread touch his mind, full of hatred and contempt, but immediately rebelled against with the hot fury of youth. Then as quickly as it had appeared it was gone and he realized with a start that Cirdan had thrown the drape back across the stone. He was once again crouched on the grass of the hilltop with the elf lord at his side, and small birds sang as they crossed the blue sky overhead. “What did you see?” asked Cirdan, full of concern “for a moment I felt the presence of an evil that I hoped had long fled this world”. Araphor, breathing hard, struggled to compose himself for a moment before he was able to reply. “I do not know what happened, but I saw their king and it was as if he knew I was watching him… it was horrible”. Cirdan nodded, kindly. “This is no mortal foe that we face, but some ancient servant of the darkness. Would that my people had reached the battle in time to thwart his designs, but now we must deal with matters as they are. What does our foe purpose?” Araphor was alarmed at the elf lord’s words, but his reply was steady. “He has divided his forces but they are still great in number. One host marches on the east road for Bree, and another from the northern end of the weather hills, towards Fornost. And it is they who are led by the pale king”.

To his surprise Cirdan laid a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Then as rightful King of Arnor a dread choice is upon you, for we have only the strength to face one of those hosts with any hope of victory. As your sworn ally I will lead my host where you command, but it seems that you must now choose between the defence of Bree as you willed earlier, or that of Fornost Erain. My own counsel to you would be to ride north, for there lies our greatest hope of a successful defence. The lands of Cardolan are wide and sparsely populated, its towns scattered and few now remain to aid in their defence. As he listened the full import of Cirdan’s words began to dawn on him and they only added to the anguish he already felt. Although saving Fornost was the obvious course of action it would surely spell doom for Cardolan and thousands would perish whichever way he chose. Unbidden the memory came to him of fair Aewen, the princess intended to be his bride who he had met in Ost-en-Tyrn the previous year. She had been fair and gentle and they had both been agreeable to the idea of the match. What would become of her now? He remembered her father too, a most unwarlike but wise and kindly man who had showed him great kindness and again tears sprang unbidden to his eyes. But then he thought of his own father, who had been wise and valiant to the last. If he allowed Fornost to fall then Arthedain would surely end and his death would have been in vain. The cup of command was bitter indeed, he would drink it fully and make his choice, though it was little choice at all. “We will march north as you counsel” he replied, but his voice was barely more than a whisper.

Maenir was seated at the long table in the tower chamber where they had so recently held the council of war in the keep at Bree, listlessly leafing through some reports when he was roused by a commotion in the yard below. He leapt to his feet and moved quickly to the window, and caught his breath at the sight below. A messenger in the livery of the tower was dismounting from what was clearly an elvish mount. A small crowd had gathered below and more were joining them every moment as word spread, but the rider would not answer their questions. Then there were voices and footsteps on the stairs outside his chamber, and Maenir knew the wait for news was over. He did his best to compose himself before they entered, torn between fearing the worst and daring to entertain the hope that all had gone well after all. The messenger was haggard and weary, his gear dirty and travel stained, and he visibly staggered a little with weariness as he entered surrounded by a small entourage of those who had deemed that they had sufficient authority to enter the chamber with him. He saluted slowly and Maenir gestured to him to be seated, but the offer was declined. The Prince’s heart froze when he saw the man’s expression, for it was not that of one who brought any good tidings. “My Lord, I am sent hither from Amon Sul at the command of Lord Cirion of Arthedain, and he bid me bring this news to whomsoever commanded here at Bree. The king is slain, and the tower has fallen. We are defeated”. There was a deathly silence for a moment whilst those present tried to take in what they had just heard. It was Maenir who spoke first, now calm and his words measured. “So our worst fears have been realised, and now we must face what is to come. Bring this man food and drink, and ready messengers to ride west and south. There is no good purpose in withholding this news from our people, and we cannot hope that it would have remained secret for long, but do not spread a counsel of despair. The enemy cannot hope to arrive at our gates before a ten days have passed so we have time to prepare, and any of the townsfolk here will be given aid and assistance if they wish to take refuge in Ost-en-Tyrn or Andrath until all is done”. He then dismissed the assembled company and waited while the messenger hungrily ate the food that had been brought to him. Overhead the bell in the tower began to clang relentlessly, announcing the defeat far and wide to all within earshot.

Once he had finished his hurried meal Merendir sat down next to him. “What is your name?” he asked sympathetically “I can see you are at the end of your strength, but pray tell me your tale briefly before you go to your rest. I shall ensure you lack for nothing”. The soldier nodded and spoke slowly, as if each word were an effort. “I thank you my lord. My name is Caranthir, sergeant and errand rider in the service of the master of the tower of Amon Sul. I took little direct part in the battle, but was in the rear carrying messages from one commander to another for much of the day. The enemy host was vast beyond counting but at first our armies held their ground or even drove them back for a while until sheer weight of numbers began to tell. Then their King came among them and none could withstand him, and at his side came many skilled and seasoned fighters from Rhudaur who were fresh to the fight. They drove clean through our centre, splitting the host in two and threatening to encircle us on both flanks. It was then that King Arveleg fell, and a number of other great captains were killed or wounded and soon what remained of our strength was driven back onto the hills. I myself could not do so as I was cut off on the east road near camp with companies from Arthedain. The fighting there was fierce and desperate. As the evening drew on companies of the enemy who had secretly come round the Weather Hills from the north and climbed unseen up the western slopes ambushed the retreat and took the lower gate of the fortress”. He put his head in his hands for a long moment before he was able to continue. “It was clear then that all was lost, for the enemy were soon pouring up the steep road in great numbers and fires soon began to break out within the walls. The men I was with were driven back along the road and when it was clear that there was no hope commander ordered me to ride away with all haste west to bring news. I rode hard for two days until my poor mount was at the end of its strength, but it was then that I came upon Cirdan and his host, and after telling them all I knew they gave me supplies and a fresh mount and so I am here. I saw no others on the road save a supply train and a company of volunteers from the south too late to the battle”. The man fell silent and put his head back in his hands for a moment. Maenir laid a hand on his shoulder. “I thank you for your great service, and release you now to go and take your rest”.

After the messenger had left and he was alone Maenir sat stock still for a while trying to take in what he had just heard and trying to master a rising feeling of panic and despair. Matters stood beyond his worst imaginings, for in all likelihood both his brothers were now dead and all their great host slain and scattered. The king too had perished, and unless his son had somehow managed to escape the line of the kings who could claim direct descent from Isildur would be at an end in Arthedain as well. The defence of Bree would now fall to him to command, a man with no experience of war and with nothing more than a token force under his command. Their only possible hope lay with Cirdan, for the host that had so recently passed eastward had been great indeed and would present any enemy with a formidable adversary. That would be their only hope now, and if for some reason it proved vain then all was certainly lost. With a trembling hand he reached for a quill and fresh parchments where they lay close to on the table and began writing the messages that would carry the dreadful news to Ost-en-Tyrn, Andrath and the southern towns beyond. As he wrote he cursed the fate that had led him to this moment, when so many others before him had been allowed to see out their lives in peace and contentment.

It had been the hardest march of their lives, but now at last it was at an end. The old captain allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he looked upon the town and its rooftops and towers silhouetted in the failing light of evening. Several weeks had passed since they crossed the bridge and followed the river south before turning west, concealing themselves during the day and marching by night as had been their strict orders to avoid enemy spies. They had eventually run low on supplies and it had been necessary to make examples of a few of the men in order to maintain discipline, but now they would be amply rewarded the for old map had turned out to be entirely accurate. Now the town, apparently unguarded and without a wall to protect it lay at their mercy, just as he had been told it would. They would show none.

The messenger arrived at dawn when few were abroad to mark his arrival, but Ivrien was there to meet him in the great hall, and word of his arrival quickly spread, drawing a number of interested onlookers to the place. The messenger had been most insistent that he would only pass his message directly to the lady, and beyond that he would say nothing of the news from Bree. But Ivrien marked that his manner was sombre, and she broke the seal on the parchment half expecting the tidings it contained. It was written in her brother in law’s distinctive hand and she felt a pang at the thought of what it must have cost him.

“Lady Ivrien,

We have finally received word from Amon Sul and I regret that things have gone very badly for us there. King Arveleg is slain and our armies have suffered a terrible defeat against the hosts of Angmar. The fortress and tower are taken and burned and we expect the enemy will now turn his attention westward and march on Bree. Our only hope of withstanding this assault lies with Cirdan and his host, for we cannot guess how many of our own men have escaped the battle and will return from the east, nor what condition they will be in should they do so.

I have decreed that all who wish to leave Bree until matters are resolved may do so with our blessing and aid. Some will go south but many will choose Ost-en-Tyrn, please prepare for their arrival and arrange for them to be fed and sheltered for as long as this lasts.

We must also ensure that all men and boys who can wield blade or bow in Cardolan, regardless of their age, should now be armed and organized as can best be contrived, for they may well be needed before all is done. Time is short, for I expect the enemy will reach us in less than ten days from now. I will send further news as soon as I have any”

She paused for a moment, all eyes within the hall fixed on her expectantly. The phrase “We cannot guess how many of our own men have escaped the battle” rang in her ears, for she knew Maenir did not in truth expect many to have done so at all and now most of those who had marched away just a few weeks before must be presumed lost. Merendir among them, though she had never doubted the truth of her vision, and all the other great lords and captains . She drew herself up to her full height and spoke in a steady voice to the expectant onlookers. “I fear I must bring you the worst of tidings. We are defeated and our armies have been crushed and perhaps now we will have to face the assault of the enemy before our very gates. But even in these dark days there is hope, and we must not abandon it yet. Sound the tower bell and summon the townsfolk, for I would that they heard this from my own mouth”.

The inhabitants of Ost-en-Tyrn, both high born and common alike streamed to the citadel in alarm at the sound of the bell tolling, and Ivrien stood waiting impassively for them at the top of the steps before the great doors of the palace as they filed in, their faces full of concern and apprehension. Eventually the bell was silenced and the crowd grew quiet and she stepped forward and announced the terrible news from the east. When she had finished speaking a great cry of dismay went up, and some in their anguish cursed the princes who had led their loved ones to their deaths. But Ivrien waited patiently and after a long moment raised her hands and gestured for silence. When she spoke again however her previous composure had crumbled and her voice was full of grief. “People of Ost-en-Tyrn, I too have lost ones who were dearer to me than life itself. But we must all find the courage to continue, for the very future of our land is now thrown into doubt. We all grieve, but for the sake of those who marched east and will not return we must not abandon hope. All who can bear arms or loose an arrow must come forward and offer their service whatever their age. Soon many will come hither fleeing from Bree who will need food and shelter, so there is much to be done, and little time in which to do it. Men and women of Cardolan, I too fear what lies ahead but for your sake I will not yield. Will you stand with me in this darkest of hours?” The initial silence was broken by a growing murmur of assent, and Ivrien called forward the acting captain of the citadel, the quartermaster and numerous others. She assigned them various duties before instructing those in the crowd who wished to lend their aid to follow them into the great hall. A great number did so and the days that followed were filled with urgent activity as the townsfolk prepared for war, their numbers swelled by the arrival of those fleeing from Bree. In that time the Lady Ivrien worked tirelessly, and her people loved her all the more for it.

Two days after the messenger arrived at Bree the volunteer companies from Tharbad who had so recently passed through the town returned, crestfallen that their long march from the south had proved to be in vain, or so it seemed to them. But Maenir greeted their captains warmly, for their six hundred men and horse would provide a welcome boost to the defence, and they pledged their swords to him willingly. Of the elves they had seen no sign, but perhaps Cirdan had decided to rest his forces after their long and rapid march, or decided to wait in the wild to succour any survivors of the wreck at Amon Sul. The following day a small number of horsemen were sighted coming from the east along the road, but once the alarm had been raised it soon became clear that they were not of Cirdan’s people for they rode slowly and were few in number. His curiosity piqued, Maenir waited for the their arrival in the courtyard of the keep, and when they entered he saw that only a few were soldiers and the rest, mostly old men, bore the livery of servants of the tower. Their leader, an old grey bearded man tottered unsteadily in the saddle and Maenir signaled to one of his guard to help him dismount before following to greet the newcomer. “Lord Norgalad of Amon Sul” croaked the old man, bowing. “At your service”. Maenir returned the courtesy “Prince Maenir of Cardolan at yours. I bid such an esteemed guest welcome, especially one who has undergone so much hardship. Please enter at once and all your needs will be seen to. I do not believe we have met before, but I know much of you through my noble brother…” his voice trailed off. “And I of you by the same means my Prince” replied the other “I see clearly the family likeness in you and know you by reputation to be a man of great wisdom and learning. Your brother Merendir is the finest of men, a great warrior and commander, and we must hope that he has somehow escaped the wreck. But we are both men who know that it is possible to also serve the Kingdom fully by other means than might of arms. I am weary indeed, and would very much welcome your offered hospitality, but first I must see the Prince and know that all is well with him”. Maenir’s brow furrowed in confusion, and he wondered momentarily whether the old man’s wits wandered. “Prince Araphor, or King as he now must rightfully be named, he is here yes? His father the King sent us hither in secret on the eve of battle bringing with us the greatest treasure in the tower, and as events have transpired it was wisely done. But I am old and could not ride at sufficient speed so I bid him take the treasure and continue onward without me to safety, for we saw the tower burning from afar and feared the pursuit of the enemy. We knew he would find Cirdan and his host less than a day’s ride ahead of us on the road”. Maenir caught his breath and an icy tide of realisation began to sweep over him, for it was simply not possible that Cirdan and Araphor had not yet reached Bree…not if they had remained on the road. “He is not here” said Maenir hoarsely. “And he will not come. I fear he and Cirdan must have turned their path northward to Fornost. If so then all is lost”.

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In the days that followed a trickle of survivors from the battle at Amon Sul began to arrive at Bree, many of them wounded and all of them famished and exhausted. Maenir, cursing himself for not having foreseen their need immediately sent out patrols eastward to bring food and aid to any others who might still be making that journey. He also sent scouts in the vain hope that he might still find Cirdan and his host, and also to try and learn more of the enemy’s movements, but of the elves there was no sign and a number of his riders did not return. In the town of Bree itself the people were becoming increasingly fearful as rumours of the disappearance of the elven host spread and the stream of townsfolk leaving Bree quickly turned into a flood. The majority of them went south, and much to Maenir’s dismay an increasing number of his men went too, fleeing with their families. Several of these deserters were captured and returned to Bree to face punishment which in normal circumstances would have been summary execution, but Maenir ordered that they be imprisoned in the dungeon whilst he considered their fate. The thought of putting them to death, even if the law insisted upon it filled him with distaste given the current circumstances. Many of them were men well past serviceable age who had served bravely in their youth, and in his heart of hearts he could not condemn them for what they had done. For their cause now seemed hopeless, and when a scout did eventually return with news of the enemy it only confirmed it for he reported that a host of upwards of twenty thousand were now just fifteen leagues from Bree. Shocked at how little time remained, Maenir cursed himself for his previous indecision and immediately wrote another message to Ivrien before summoning his captains to him.

They were gathered in the tower chamber, their faces grim and all eyes fixed upon him. Of the half dozen assembled there only the youthful Durhael of Tharbad, and the lately arrived Lord Arathor of Nenuial who now led the survivors from Arthedain cut any kind of convincing figure as soldiers. Maenir cleared his throat and spoke, his voice calm and level. “We have tidings of the enemy, and they will be at our gates ere three days have passed”. He paused to allow the listeners who were not already aware of this news to digest it. “They are reported to number twenty thousand or more, and without the aid of the Elves of Lindon we have no hope of prevailing against them in open battle, for even if all those who have escaped from Amon Sul were in a condition to fight we would have less than three thousand at our disposal. I will not spend the lives of our men without good cause, so as difficult as it may be a choice now lies before us”. He drew breath, scarcely able to believe himself what was about to say. “It seems to me that the only course of action open to us now is to abandon Bree whilst we still have time, and our only choice that remains thereafter is whether to take our men north, west or south”. He paused again, for he found he was struggling to maintain his composure. “If we go north we face a long march across empty lands, and we leave the majority of our people undefended on the road south. Westward to Ost-en-Tyrn and we only delay our inevitable destruction, for it is no more defensible than Bree. But if we go south we can at least hope to make a stand at the pass of Andrath that will delay the march of the enemy and buy our people more time to reach the relative safety of the Southlands. We must leave nothing behind us that will sustain our foe, for he has already marched far from his own lands and hunger, not our swords will be his greatest enemy. Even so, we have failed and Cardolan as we know it must come to an end”. His voice cracked but he continued “Those here who are not my subjects I hereby release from any service or obligation if they wish it so”. Durhael stood up “Many leagues have we marched hoping to stand with our kindred in battle, and though the circumstances are not those we would have chosen we will abide by our oaths to you. A messenger must be sent at once to Tharbad to warn them of our plight and seek their help, for surely your cousin Lord Arodon will no longer sit idly by when so many of his fellow Dunedain are in grave peril? We will march to the Andrath with you, for though the fortress there is part ruin it can still be defended with a small force of men”. Maenir acknowledged his words, grateful for the young man’s courage. The lord from Arthedain was next to speak, but his expression as he took to his feet offered no such reassurance. “My Prince, these are the gravest of times, and we are grateful to the people of Cardolan for the aid they have rendered and the kindness we have been shown in the days since our arrival here. But many of the men who now come under my command are in a pitiful state and few of them ready to face battle again. Moreover if the enemy has sent twenty thousand hither to assail Cardolan, then it is safe to say that a force far greater than that will now be marching on Fornost as we speak, for it is but part of the strength he brought west. For that reason I regret that I must return north and hope to join in the defence of my homeland. I will depart tomorrow with the Lord Norgalad and all who wish to accompany us, for I will not compel any soldier of Arthedain to march south with you unless they choose to do so of their own free will”. Maenir was dismayed by this, for with the men of Arthedain there would have been hope of mounting a much stronger defence at the Andrath, but it was not unexpected. “I understand, and will not gainsay you” he replied. “These are indeed the gravest of times and all our lands are in peril, so I will hope for your good fortune and that we will meet again in more peaceful times. Now let us prepare to abandon Bree and march while there is still time”.

Ivrien broke the seal on the latest message from Bree and unrolled it with some trepidation, for she knew that the arrival of the enemy could not now be far off and guessed that this was the news that it contained. She was in a room in one of the towers with the Chamberlain Erestor, where they had been going through the latest inventories from the quartermasters. She could never remember seeing the town as crowded as it was now, even on the busiest festival days, and she had opened parts of the palace to house the poor folk who had fled from Bree. They had come in an endless stream along the road from the east, but now with countless dire rumours circulating as many were leaving as were arriving. She had grown frustrated with the lack of news from her brother in law, but now that was at an end. The handwriting was her his, but it had clearly been written in haste and the language was informal.

“Dearest sister, I fear it is the worst possible news. A great host from Angmar is now only a matter of days from Bree and we have been abandoned by Lindon, for Cirdan has marched north with Prince Araphor to the defence of Fornost. We now face disaster, for we are too few to withstand the assault of the enemy and have no choice but to abandon the north leaving nothing behind us that will serve the enemy. Take our people south by another road, south through the downs or across the Baranduin. I ride now to the Andrath and will attempt a defence there in the hope that it will at least delay the enemy’s advance. Tell Celebeth and the children that I love them dearly. Farewell”.

She put her head in her hands for a moment trying to come to terms with what she had just read, for whilst it had always been likely they would end up in this situation she had never lost hope. But now it seemed there was none, and everything she had ever known would soon end. “My lady?...” Asked Erestor, his face full of concern, for he knew it must be ill news indeed to suddenly bring her so low. “Yes friend, it is bad news, the worst possible” she replied, regaining her composure. “Sound the tower bell and spread the word, for a host of Angmar is marching west and we must flee for our lives. But let all know that we cannot take the Bree Road, for the enemy will soon be upon it. Summon the captain and the quartermaster and the others, for this retreat must be as orderly and well provisioned as we can fashion”.

But despite the best efforts of the Lady the reaction of the townsfolk and those who had fled from Bree to this latest news was anything but orderly, and the newly minted companies of guardsmen were hard pressed to maintain order and protect the storehouses from looters. Ivrien set plans in place for an organised march south, allowing time for supplies to be properly prepared and distributed but many were not prepared to wait. Some ignored the warning not to travel toward Bree, fearful of losing their way in the empty lands and preferring to risk the road, and a few also headed north, hoping to reach Arthedain instead. However most went due south and by the eve of the following day the town was already half empty and there had been considerable disorder. Weary and dismayed at this turn of events, Ivrien left the tower late in the afternoon and made her way to Maenir’s halls to eat the evening meal with Celebeth and the princesses. Young Bruinir had joined the guards, much to his mother’s dismay, and was on duty down in the town. It was a beautiful warm evening and as was often her wont Ivrien made a detour via the battlements, where she could pause for a while look out over the land and eastward where her love had marched to battle and from where he would never now return. As she gazed across the farmland northward to the road she could see a number of people still making their way towards the town, stragglers from Bree, and she noted, a few others going in the opposite direction despite her warning. She sighed, and was about to turn away and continue her journey when an unaccustomed movement caught her eye, for there was a horseman moving steadily eastward along the road from the direction of the Baranduin Bridge. This was an unusual enough occurrence to pique her interest and as she watched the rider reached the junction and turned down the road towards the town without breaking pace.

Ivrien was waiting in the courtyard when the rider entered, escorted by two guardsmen. Both horse and rider were clearly at the point of exhaustion, but this was no soldier or errand rider but a young woman in riding clothes, filthy and gaunt from her journey. “I must see the Prince at once, for I have grave tidings from the south” she cried, almost falling from the horse but being rescued and propped onto her feet by the guards. Ivrien approached her at once, full of concern and took her hands in hers. “Child, the Prince is not here, and I, the Lady Ivrien, rule in his place. You may give me your news”. The young woman’s eyes widened in recognition and then she spoke. “The south is assailed, first Othlondir was attacked and destroyed and then Sarn Athrad. The enemy came without warning when I was out riding beyond the river, and I was forced to flee for my life. Many were not so lucky and I cannot speak of the terrible things I have seen...”. She broke off and began to sob uncontrollably, and Ivrien took her in her arms and waited for her to continue. “I made my way north up the elf road and then followed the river as best I could until I found the road I knew must be there and the bridge, eating what little I could find and sleeping under the stars with my faithful Belan. You must send help at once, I implore you”. With that she broke down again and would have fallen to the ground had Ivrien not had hold of her. She instructed the guards to carry her at once to Maenir’s halls so she could be tended to, and then ordered them to find a rider to carry the news at once to Bree with all possible haste. “Now indeed is all hope extinguished and our enemy plays with us like a cat tormenting a mouse” she thought bitterly. “But I am a daughter of the West and I will fight to the last nonetheless”.

It was a beautiful morning, the air chill and the sky clear as the sun rose, but Maenir felt no pleasure in it as he watched the smoke begin to billow from the rooftops of Bree as his men set fires in its streets. The Keep was already well ablaze for they had abandoned it in the darkness before dawn, and the smoke of its burning already rose high into the heavens. He hoped sourly that the enemy would see it and feel at least a little dismay, but it would be small consolation for they had given up perhaps their most important town without a fight, one they had once disputed with Arthedian in their folly. When they got to the Andrath though there would be no more running away, and he knew that it was very likely that he would find his own death there. Utterly weary and consumed by the terrible burdens of his rule, it was almost comforting to think that there would soon be no more suffering, but all the same he did not wish to die. His wife and family were much in his thoughts, and it was what might happen to them that troubled him the most, along with the knowledge that he would never see them again.

As he sat astride his horse on the south road waiting with his captains, his motley host strung out along it in readiness for the march, he became aware of a rider coming across the fields towards them from the north west. His curiosity was instantly piqued as the rider’s mount was a piebald, rare in those parts, and like to his son’s own horse. As they neared he became more and more convinced that it must be the very same horse, and that it had been commandeered by the messengers. He hoped they had treated it well, or there would be trouble for it was a fine beast. He watched the rider approach critically, and was unimpressed by the state of the man’s gear, which was ill fitting and indicated that he must be a volunteer, perhaps some underage youth who had been pressed into service. But then his emotion changed to a mixture of disbelief, utter dismay, pride, and joy despite everything, for the rider of the horse was none other than its rightful owner. Prince Bruinir trotted up to them, his face stern and marked by weariness, but with the look of a man rather than a boy about him. He halted and saluted. “Father... my Lord” he began, evidently happy to see Maenir again but greatly burdened by the gravity of the news he had to relay. “I bring tidings of the utmost urgency from the Lady Ivrien of Ost-en-Tyrn to Prince Maenir. Dreadful news has reached us from the south, Othlondir and Sarn Athrad have been sacked by a host from Angmar and Rhudaur that came without warning out of the east. Our people will find no safety in the south now”. Maenir slumped down in the saddle, completely crushed by his son’s words. All his striving, his increasingly desperate schemes and ever diminishing hopes had turned out to be in vain, for the enemy had already trapped them and nothing he could do would now make any difference. He turned to his captains, who were dumbstruck by the news they had just heard, and spoke to them with a voice full of weariness and regret. “Thus are we are undone, and caught in the jaws of the enemy. For we gambled and put forth all our strength to the battle at Amon Sul, leaving our lands undefended behind us and now we will pay the price. I will not now ride south, but rather west and return to Ost-en-Tyrn, and any who wish to accompany me may do so”. Durhael of Tharbad was the first to speak. “This is bitter indeed, and we would have done better never to have ridden north to the aid of our kin, for it seems our deaths will now be entirely in vain. I will march for the southlands regardless in the hope, however faint, that we may still somehow escape the fate that awaits us there. Farewell Prince, and I can only hope for some good fortune for any of us now, for it would seem that the Valar have abandoned us”.

So it was that Maenir and his son, accompanied by a few hundred of the soldiers who either hailed from Ost-en-Tyrn, or whose families had fled there from Bree parted from the main body of the last host of Cardolan and set off westward. They rode in silence for quite some time before Bruinir finally spoke up, his voice full of anguish and reproach. “Surely there is something more we could have done? You can’t just give up!” Maenir, suddenly taken by an unaccustomed rage at his son’s words would have rebuked him sharply for his insolence but checked himself, and waited for the heat to pass before he replied, his voice barely above a whisper. “There is no more to be done save to flee into the wild and be hunted like animals, or to stand and face the coming onslaught and die an honourable death, though none who come after us will know of it. For this enemy will show us no mercy and will not rest until we are all slain and nothing remains of our land but ashes and ruin. We are defeated.” He fell silent for a long while, and Bruinir did not reply .For all their fear and sadness it was a fine day, they were both still hale for the moment and their loved ones still waited for them at home. Maenir was acutely aware of how precious these next few hours might be. He broke the silence, his manner a little brittle but his voice now full of genuine warmth. “Tell me your news Bruinir, and how you came to be carrying messages and wearing the gear of a citadel guard. I would imagine your mother was not best pleased”. They shared a weak smile at this. “Indeed she was not, but when Aunt Ivrien called for any who could bear arms to step forward regardless of age she could not stop me, for I am a passable swordsman as you know. And my height and my ability to give orders meant they soon made me up into a sergeant. We were in the guardhouse last night when a servant came from the citadel looking for a volunteer to take an urgent message to Bree, so I put myself forward. I am very weary now, as is Lithen, but I am glad that I came, for if the life we knew is coming to an end at least we can spend these few good hours together. I am sorry for questioning you as I did, I know that none love our realm better than you father, or could have ruled it more wisely...” his voice trailed off, and Maenir nodded his thanks, tight lipped and unable to speak through the tears that suddenly clouded his vision.

They had covered about ten leagues that day before the sun began to sink into the west and they halted for the night under cover of a small wood near the road. It would have been possible for those on horseback to complete the journey in one day if they had ridden hard, but Maenir was loath to abandon the men who had volunteered to travel with him, and it soon became clear that his son would never have made it anyway. He was exhausted from his long ride the previous night, his head lolling comically from time to time as they rode as he fought to stay awake. Guards were set and lots drawn for the watches and they settled down in the shade of the wood and readied themselves for sleep. The sun set and the first stars begin to glimmer overhead and eventually a full moon rose and began to illuminate the land before them. Maenir watched in wonder at the sight of it as he lay alongside his already slumbering son, waiting for his exhaustion to finally claim him and allow him some respite.

Though sleep had been long in coming, he now struggled to escape its clutches, and at first knew not where he was or could make any sense of the sounds of fighting that reached his ears. But then he heard his son’s voice imploring him to awake and he was roughly shaken. Within an instant the realisation of what was happening was upon him and he clambered stiffly to his feet and armed himself. They were under attack, and in the shade of the wood all was chaos, with the clash of steel and the screams of the wounded and dying filling the still night air. Before he could react he saw Bruinir draw his sword and leap away in the direction of the fighting, yelling at the top of his voice. Following suit Maenir drew his own blade, uncertain what to do next, but then there were running feet and in an instant the fighting was all around him. With a sudden flash of fear he saw what was clearly an enemy lunge directly at him with a short curved blade. His reactions saved him, for he automatically parried the blow and then swung wildly at his foe, who leapt aside and prepared to attack again. But the blow never fell, for the orc was hacked down from behind before he could strike. Maenir, filled with a sudden rage plunged his sword into the toppling figure for good measure, and felt the blade bite deep into leather and flesh. The orc gasped as it hit the ground and then lay still. Maenir, hands shaking, quickly withdrew his blade and then swung about looking for another adversary. But as quickly as it had come his way the fight had moved on again, and the main struggle seemed to be taking place just beyond the eaves of the wood in the direction of the road. Maenir made his way towards the scene in haste, and as he did so one man in particular caught his attention, fighting with unparalleled skill and ferocity, and very soon the few of the enemy who remained fled into the night. Maenir approached the warrior to congratulate him, and found himself for the second time that day torn between shock and pride. For in the pale moonlight this soldier resolved into none other than his son, bloodied and fierce, his sword still ready in his hand and his chest heaving. Maenir approached him and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Well fought indeed my son, your skill as a warrior belies your tender years and you are a true prince of Cardolan. I think this must have been a scouting party, perhaps hunting travellers in the wild, for it is clear that they did not expect to come upon armed men and we have made them pay for it. But if scouts are already abroad this far west then the main host will not be far behind. We have little time and must carry the warning Ost-en-Tyrn without delay. It will be day soon, let us tend to our dead and wounded and be on our way”. 

The orcs had taken them by surprise in the night, and the losses were greater than Maenir had hoped, some thirty dead and at least the same again wounded to varying degrees, so the sun was already well above the horizon by the time they moved off. There was no time to bury the dead, so Maenir, full of regret had ordered them wrapped in their cloaks and laid out neatly out of sight of the road in the shade of the wood, vowing that he would return and bury them with honour if he were able to. The Prince and his son both gave up their mounts so that they could carry wounded men, and walked instead at the head of their rather sorry looking column. As the day went on they began to come across an increasing number of travellers on the road, fleeing eastward despite his previous instruction to the contrary. When he challenged them some heeded his warning, either returning the way they had come or deciding to take their chances to the north or south instead. But many did not, openly defying him, cursing him and blaming him for their plight. Bruinir bristled when he heard them speak thus with such insolence, but Maenir simply shrugged his shoulders and continued on his way for he had done all he could for them. 

It was mid afternoon by the time they wearily crested the low rise on the road east of the town and the walls and rooftops of Ost-en-Tyrn finally came into view, nestled in the shoulder of the high downs. Tears sprang once again unlooked for to Maenir’s eyes as he beheld it, knowing it was probably the last time that he would see it as it was, whole, unspoiled and at peace. Before long they reach the main gate and entered, and the few people abroad in the streets watched them walk past in silence, their faces grim and sad. Ivrien and Celebeth and the children were waiting when they arrived in the courtyard of the citadel, and when they beheld Maenir their hearts were filled with love and pity, and many tears were shed at their reunion. All was now made ready for them to leave Ost-en-Tyrn the following morning, but first they would share one last evening meal together in the halls where their forefathers had dwelt for a thousand years.

Chapter Text

They assembled in the dining chamber where a simple meal had been laid out and as they always did first stood and remembered the west, before taking their seats and eating in silence. Ivrien looked with love and sadness on the assembled company, knowing this familiar moment would never come again. Maenir, beyond weary and his spirit crushed sat close to Celebeth, their hands entwined on the table, her still youthful beauty marked with grief and worry. Of all those she had known in Ost-en-Tyrn in her long years as wife to the Ruling Prince it was these two that she loved the best, for even in her darkest and loneliest moments Maenir, and later Celebeth too had been there with kindness and words of comfort. It broke her heart to see them brought so low. To one side sat Prince Bruinir, also in a state of exhaustion, but she had seen him blossom from boy to man in just the space of a few weeks. There was a hint of greatness and strength in him that put her very much in mind of Merendir and would have boded well for the future of the realm had that been less uncertain. On their other hand sat the princesses, beautiful and grave, and her heart broke for them too. But the greatest pity was reserved for the poor child who sat at her own side and had barely spoken a word since her arrival from the south. The young girl’s name was Anwien and it had turned out she was close kin to Ivrien’s family, but Celebeth had taken her in and nursed her regardless of any blood ties. What fate awaited her, or any of them now? Yet despite the ever growing horror of their situation these last few weeks as Lord of Ost-en -Tyrn had been amongst the most fulfilling of her life, for in taking up the duties as Lord she had found an inner strength and purpose she had not known she possessed.

When they had finished eating Maenir spoke to them of what had passed in Bree and during their flight back along the east road. His account of the battle only confirmed her thoughts regarding Bruinir, though the youth remained silent with his head bowed whilst his father spoke of his prowess. Then he turned and spoke to Ivrien. “Sister, I asked you to rule in my stead while I was at Bree, and you have shown such skill and wisdom in doing so that I hereby fully relinquish that title to you, though it may be of small consequence now. We must soon flee for our lives, but what road can now offer us any hope? What is your counsel in this matter?” Ivrien paused, her face grave and clasped her hands together on the table before replying. “One road only can offer us any hope, even if is but the merest glimmer. East, north and south are closed to us, and though the west road still lies open for the moment the elven lands are many leagues distant and we would be prey to hunger and weariness on that journey even without the enemy at our heels. I would instead take our people directly south, but toward the forest and the lands of the Eldest. It is a faint hope that we might find refuge there, but it is said that he loves all the children of Illuvatar and does not fear the darkness, and that darkness has no dominion over him”. Maenir considered for a moment and nodded in agreement. “Faint hope it may be, but it is all we have now. We will do as you suggest”.

It was still night when Ivrien awoke, but dawn was not far off. Rising quickly with every nerve taut, she dressed herself in practical clothes for the journey ahead, putting on her riding breeches and a leather jerkin over her chemise. She crossed the room and opened a chest, drawing from it a large and heavy jewellery box. From within it she drew only two items, one a blue brooch of exquisite and ancient workmanship that had been an heirloom of her house, and the other a long dagger in an ornate scabbard. Hands trembling slightly, she drew the ever sharp blade from its resting place and turned the point towards her, bringing it to rest just underneath her left breast. She pressed a little harder until it became uncomfortable and drew breath sharply, wondering if she would be able to complete the act if it became necessary. But she would not let the enemy take her and defile her, and one of the old guardsmen had shown her what she would need to do if it ever came to it. Resolved, she pulled the knife away and slid it back into its scabbard, before fastening it onto her belt. Then she took her lantern and removed the cover, and deliberately held it against one of the ornate tapestries that hung on the walls of her bedchamber, and watched with fascination and horror as the flames began to take, crackling into life and spreading quickly upward as she watched. She tore herself away and set light to another, and another again until the room began to fill with smoke and she could feel the growing heat on her face. She picked up her cloak, turned on her heels and left, leaving the door wide open. There would be no returning now.        

She entered the great hall where the people who had taken refuge in the citadel were already stirring and called out to them, warning them of the fire and urging them to be on their way. They were soon streaming out into the courtyard and as she made her own way there the bell began sounding in the tower. Maenir, Celebeth and the others were already there waiting for her, and smoke was pouring from the upper windows of their halls too. “Many fair things will perish today, and my heart grieves for it, but it is a lesser evil than leaving them to fall into the hands of the enemy to be despoiled” said Maenir, grief stricken. “Now let us be away”. They joined the crowds moving towards the main square and once there turned and made their way purposefully up through the town to the gate that led onto the downs, and the people began to follow them. It was the same gate Ivrien and Merendir had passed through the day they had ridden out together just a few months before. It seemed so long ago now, from a different time, but the memory of it gave her strength. Behind them the fire was taking a firm hold in the citadel as the sun rose, and smoke was now rising from many other fires that had been set in the town. Here too the enemy would find nothing worth the taking, nor food to sustain them thought Maenir bitterly.

He was on foot, and all his family walked with him at the head of the line, save Bruinir and Anwien, for they thought it proper that they should share the hardship of their people. They had given their horses to the guards to mount scouts and outriders, for suitable beasts were now in desperately short supply. Bruinir was once again on duty on his piebald horse Lithen, and rode ahead, occasionally returning to report that the road was clear, and poor Anwien rode silently alongside them on her pony Belan. Ivrien had had no mount to give, for Duvainien had gone with the cavalry to Amon Sul and would not return.

Soldiers marched at intervals along the line but were so few in number that they would provide little protection in the event of an attack by the enemy, but so far there was no sign of pursuit. It was another fine day, and the standing stones on the green summits above them were silhouetted starkly against a clear blue sky and there was little breeze to soften the growing heat of the day. At their backs a great pall of smoke now rose into the heavens as their homes burned, and it seemed many hours before they began to put any distance between themselves and that ghastly landmark. Their progress was painfully slow, Ivrien had hoped they would reach the borders of what were considered Iarwen’s lands by sunset, but it soon became clear they would not do so. Her anxiety was heightened by the report from a scout that he had seen companies of enemy soldiers, presumably pursuing them, on the downs south of Ost-en-Tyrn. Though the people were weary and thirsty they would have no choice but to continue their march into the night, for the sky remained clear and though the moon now waned it would still provide sufficient light for them to find their way. They halted again for a brief evening meal as the sun was setting, though they were now too worried to have much of an appetite. Ivrien, who had never spent a night out in the open, let alone in country where an enemy might be abroad battled a rising feeling of dread as the light began to fail, and she could not help notice that Celebeth seemed equally affected. Their unease deepened greatly when they heard the sound of hoof beats approaching at speed, and a riderless piebald horse suddenly appeared out of the gloom and cantered past them. Celebeth let out a low wail of anguish at the sight but then checked herself, knowing that she must try to set an example, and Maenir who was equally shaken by this turn of events held her close and tried to reassure her. Perhaps he had simply fallen, or dismounted for some reason and inadvertently let his horse loose? For he was weary. But Maenir’s reassurances seemed hollow to him he too began to fear the worst. On and on they walked, fear growing with every stride. Ivrien found her hand clutching the hilt of her dagger, for every shadow on the path ahead seemed to hold a threat and she knew that never before in her life had she been so frightened. This, she thought, must be how men felt before battle, and she had little liking for it. But she remained outwardly strong for the sake of the others, pointing each way mark in these hills she had learned to know so well and reassuring her companions that they could not now be more than an hour’s march from their destination.

But such brittle optimism ignored other questions, for what if when they did reach his lands Iarwen-Ben-Adar could not or would not aid them in their plight? She tried not to think of such possibilities, the only thing that mattered for the moment was that she get them there before the enemy found them. She peered ahead and upward, looking for a particular summit with a ring of smaller than usual stones on its crown, for it would need to be passed on their left hand. There in the moonlight were the familiar outlines of that ancient circlet, and she was reassured. But then her heart froze and it was all she could do not to let out a low moan of terror. “Look” she whispered hoarsely to Maenir “up on the summit”. Among the stones the outlines of many figures could clearly be seen moving along the ridge in their direction, heedless that they might be observed. “No” he replied, his tone fatalistic “not here, not like this”. Then he cried out an alarm and drew his sword. The night was suddenly full of shouting, of screams and of weeping, but for a little while nothing happened and Ivrien almost dared to hope that she had been mistaken and that the figures she had seen were somehow friendly. But then an arrow came whistling out of the darkness and buried itself into the neck of Anwien’s pony, who screamed and fell over, limbs thrashing. Then more came and all at once the night was filled with a confusion, with people screaming and running in all directions, but Maenir held his ground and Ivrien and the others stood with him. They were joined by a handful of soldiers, blades drawn, all peering into the gloom searching for some sign of the enemy. Ivrien too drew her dagger and stood at their side in readiness, her breath coming in ragged gasps and her heart thumping as if it would burst in her chest. She wondered if she would still be able slay herself if the moment came and in her fear she knew she would. But she would hurt them first if she could.

Then amongst the tumult there was a new sound, that of a ragged cheer coming down the hillside opposite and they knew the foe that had been waiting for them were coming. Maenir, with those he loved most dearly at his back, felt his fear subside and be replaced by a cold rage for all the hurts they had suffered and might yet suffer. He was sad that he would in all likelihood not now live to see another sunrise, but he would not run any more. A figure came charging out of the gloom and almost ran into them, and before he could react in his surprise Maenir yelled “Cardolan” and hacked him down with a two handed blow. But as fast as he fell many others arrived and though he managed to hack another man’s arm there were suddenly too many of them and he knew in a matter of fact way that it was the end. Around him the sound of screaming grew to a crescendo as the enemy fell upon the defenceless townsfolk and slaughtered them. As he vainly tried to parry a blow on his right hand side a spear struck him firmly in the chest with the force of a thousand hammer blows and he felt himself falling backwards into a darkness deeper than the night around him. But as his life ebbed he became aware, as if at a great distance, of voice singing a strange rustic doggerel. He wondered to hear such a thing at a moment like this, but then he sensed a great power beneath the simple verse and at once his terrible pain faded and an overwhelming feeling of peace came over him. Then as if in a dream he saw a vision of green rain washed hills on a fresh spring morning when the world was young.

So passed Maenir son of Orthoron, last Prince of Cardolan, and afterwards he was laid to rest with honour in the great barrow with his elder brother and forefathers. For the hopes of the Lady Ivrien were fulfilled and Iarwen, the Eldest drove away the servants of the enemy with his power and gave succour to those of the people of Cardolan who had escaped the terrible slaughter. At first their life under the eaves of the great forest was very hard, but with his help and the wise leadership of the Lady Ivrien they survived, and in time grew sufficiently strong to be able to launch raids of their own on the forces of Angmar who still occupied their lands. When her time finally came Ivrien too was laid to rest in the great barrow, the equal of any who slept there.

Epilogue

Cirdan and Araphor reached Fornost and fought a great battle with the Sorcerer, eventually crushing his armies and scattering them. In the end very few of those who had marched west from Angmar and Rhudaur to Amon Sul and beyond ever returned, and as a result the Kingdom of Rhudaur dwindled and soon ceased to exist. Angmar’s victory came at tremendous cost, but its King cared little for he had now succeeded in destroying two of the three former Kingdoms of Arnor. Arthedain remained, but he would have many years to rebuild his strength before the next assault. As a result Araphor’s reign was long and peaceful, and his realm prospered. It regaining much of its former might, and the threat from the east became a memory for a time. Of the fates of Lord Norgalad and Durhael of Tharbad however nothing is known.