The Battle of Umbar
"Form the line! Ready the cavalry! Hurry!" With these words, King Ciryaher of Gondor, his grey eyes flashing fiercely, prepared his Men to face the awesome force that the Southrons had arrayed against them.
The gates of Umbar had been shut, its battlements lined with Gondorian soldiers and their engines of war. The harbour was full of Gondorian naval ships, ready to resupply the Citadel and evacuate the wounded as required. Along the margin between the date orchards and the desert sands that lay beyond the Eastern gate of the city were drawn up in a long row, three lines deep, heavy Gondorian infantry whose broad black rectangular shields and black tunics bore the design of the White Tree, the symbol of Gondor. Their shields were raised, their long spears at the ready. Beside each regimental colonel, his silvered helm marked by a white plume, a standard bearing the White Tree design was held up by especially experienced and honoured soliders every five-hundred paces, the silvered designs decorating the shaft beneath the black banner marking the different regiments.
On the north and south flanks of the infantry were rows of heavy Gondorian cavalry, their mounted knights entirely encased in steel armour devoid of any tunic, their rounded shields and lances held ready for the charge. Their steel arms and armour glinted under the glare of the rising Sun. They sweated uncomfortably inside their armour, which was made for more northerly climes; it was already fiercely hot though but the second hour past dawn. Their eyes squinted as they stared into the rising Sun, though they could not tear their gaze from the sight of the Southrons' vast army.
Arrayed in an arc in front of these vast bodies of Men were parties of light infantry and cavalry, garbed in stiffened black leather reinforced by steel armour on the chest, forearms and shins, their heads protected by steel caps of lesser weight and size than the full helms worn by their heavy infantry and cavalary counterparts. Some were deployed as forward scouts, while others were already engaged in skirmishes with the advance parties of the enemy. All told, this army of Gondor in the field totaled fifty-thousand Men, with another ten-thousand manning the battlements and guarding the Citadel of Umbar, and a further two-thousand manning the ten ships-of-war in the harbour.
King Ciryaher and his generals occupied a place on the ground between the heavy and light infantry. The King's position was marked by a large black banner bearing the design of the Royal House of Gondor – seven stars surrounding the White Tree, surmounted by a crown. Mounted members of the Royal Household Guard, their silvered armour polished to a high sheen, formed a defensive screen around the King and his generals, the latter of whom were marked by their gold-trimmed helms and their bejeweled scabbards bearing swords of especial magnificence.
The King himself was mounted on a magnificent black stallion, his silvered armour embossed by gold filigree, his shoulders and back covered by a long sable cloak, a broad black shield bearing the arms of the Royal House slung over his left forearm. He bore on his hip a longsword in a golden scabbard bearing a magnificently gemmed hilt, and a winged and bejewlled silver battle-helm protected his head. He was a tall and powerfully built man, well over six feet in height, and of a more warlike and adventurous disposition than had been his late father Ciryandil, who had perished near this very spot in a battle with the Haradrim. Though now well past sixty, the blood of Numenor flowed strongly in his veins, and his appearance was that of an ordinary Man of no more than forty years, his neatly trimmed beard and long brown hair framing a high-cheekboned, handsome face. Yet his grey eyes were both cold and fierce, and of all the commanders of the Army he alone seemed without even a trace of fear as he gazed at the sight before them.
Throughout the two-thousand year history of Umbar, it had often been harrased by raids of the Haradrim. A party of many tens of thousands of them had even come close to capturing the city thirty-five years before, only to be defeated and scattered in the battle that had claimed the life of Ciryandil, and led to his son Ciryaher assuming the throne. Gondor had remained wary of the Haradrim after that, but had not expected they would ever be able to assemble an army of more than fifty-thousand men at any given time – an army not more than one-third the size of Gondor's entire military force.
Yet now the Southrons had assembled an army so vast, its like had not been seen since the days of legend! In the sands of the desert, facing towards the West with the suns at their back, were full three-hundred thousand Men of Near Harad, and their close kin of Far Harad, the Variags of Khand. All were mounted warriors, for the Southrons did not fight on foot save when they dismounted for brief raids and skirmishes.
Their cavalry alone, mounted on the magnificent steeds whose possession was the chief pride of every man of Harad and Khand, numbered full two-hundred thousand. Deployed along their frontmost ranks was a broad wedge of Variag light cavalry. The fierce Variags, whose cruelty and ruthlessness were the stuff of legend, spurned armour as the refuge of cowards, and took pride in displaying openly the scars of many battles. Riding their steeds bareback, they were garbed in vests and pantaloons of soft brown leather, their flowing black hair framing clean-shaven faces painted red with ochre, their long, curved swords held above their heads as they cried out with ghastly, indescribeable screams and ullullations. Small groups of Variags occasionally broke off from the wedge, riding forward to skirmish with the light cavalry of Gondor. They either returned to the wedge in triumph bearing the severed heads of Gondorians, or remained as corpses amid the sands, slain from a Gondorian sword-stroke. A Variag returned from battle with a trophy from his enemies, or else did not return at all.
Deployed behind the wedge on each of its flanks were vast columns of heavy cavalry from Near Harad, garbed in colourful robes and steel-capped turbans, their chests and shins protected by iron plates, bearing broad round shields, each with its own unique, intricate design painted upon it by its owner. Many held long javelins at the ready, while others were armed with powerful compound bows of horn and sinew. They stroked their black beards and jeered loudly, ritually displaying their contempt for their enemies, the soldiers and cavalarymen of Gondor.
Yet it was not the Southron cavalry that caused the Army of Gondor to stare and gape with a mixture of wonder and horror. For amid the Southrons' forces, behind their light cavalry wedge and flanked by their heavy cavalry, were beasts the like of which the Gondor-men had never seen before!
They had heard fantastic tales of the Oliphaunts of Far Harad, of course. Yet they never thought to see such legendary beasts with their own eyes. Full ten-thousand of them stood there in row upon row, each like a small mountain of grey-skinned flesh, each bearing a wooden castlet on its broad back filled with ten archers of Far Harad. The beasts shook their tusked heads from side to side, pawing the sand with their vast feet and rending the air with their earth-shattering roars.
Stationed in the sands between the light cavalry wedge and was a small party of several-dozen tall, lean men, mounted on black steeds and garbed in black robes, their shaven pates glistening in the heat of the Sun. One of them held high a banner portraying a black snake atop a field of crimson – the ancient standard of the Umbarians in the days of their glory, and of their illustrious forebears the Black Numenoreans, who in the distant days of Ar-Pharazon the Golden had styled themselves the King's Men. These Umbarians, members of the dreaded Cult of the Black Serpent, were the leaders of the Southron army, sending and reciving messages from the chieftains of the Variags and Haradrim who served as their commanders.
Had King Ciryaher and his generals been able to hear the urgently whispered words spoken amongst the Black Serpent cultists assembled under their banner of crimson and sable, they might all have taken heart. For the army of the Southrons had been dispatched on its march to Umbar by its supreme lords, the Blue Masters, their deputy Ibal, and two of his aides. They had stated that they would catch up with the army within a few days, once they had disposed of a troublesome captive, a wretched outlander garbed in rags.
For six months, the Southron army had progressed on its march, west through the jungles, and then north along the coast, avoiding the high desert so that their Mumakil could find sufficient water in the many streams found in those lands. They had cut inland through the desert but a few days before, so that they could attack Umbar in the morning from the east, and keep the Sun to their backs in the eyes of their enemies. In all that time, the Black Serpent cultists had expected the Blue Wizards and their deputies to catch up with them, just as they had said they would. Yet, they had never arrived. The superstitious chieftains of the Variags and Umbarians had begun to fear this was a bad omen, and it had taken many lies and threats of sorcerous retribution to force the chieftains to toe the line.
Then, just this morning, as the army had drawn up its lines within sight of Umbar, facing the waiting Gondorians whose scouts had brought warning of them some weeks before, Ibal's two exhausted deputies had arrived hot on their heels. These two claimed that the wretch for whose sake the departure of the Blue Masters had been delayed had escaped his chains, slain Ibal, and then after a brief duel had disappeared from sight in a flash of azure lightening, along with the Blue Masters themselves! The deputies had fled in terror, always a day or two behind the Southron army, and had only now arrived in time to bring the grim news.
After much debate, the Black Serpent cultists had agreed that this news must under no circumstances be brought to the ears of the Variag and Haradrim chieftains. Instead, they told the cheiftains the Blue Masters had sent word they and their lieutenant Ibal the Sorcerer would not attend the battle themselves, but would use their powers to assist their army from afar, while placing leadership of the army in the hands of their Black Numenorean followers. The chieftains had grumbled at this news, and further threats of supernatural vengence had been required to induce them to form up their Men and beasts and prepare for a battle forthwith.
Still, while the Black Numenoreans who lead the army of the Southrons were secretly full of doubts, that was unknown to King Ciryaher's generals, whose own minds were gravely troubled. It was not merely that the Gondorian army they had assembled in their view entirely inadequate to defeat such an unexpectedly vast force of Southrons in the field – they would have needed thrice as many Men for that purpose, not even taking into consideration the unknown threat posed by the Oliphaunts. Umbar itself was rife with rumours that Black Serpent cultists hidden within the city walls were stirring the population into open revolt against their hated Gondorian occupiers. If the army of Gondor found itself beset by Southrons to their front, and a city in open rebellion to their rear, they would have no choice but to retreat to the Citadel or else evacuate such Men as they could in the waiting ships.
"The ships are too few!" growled one of the King's generals, a great bear of a man with graying black hair, Sun-bronzed skin and hard brown eyes. "They can evacuate His Majesty and the cream of our army, but no more. The rest will have to hole up in the Citadel, and wait for reinforcements to deliver them. Only when another hundred-thousand troops have arrived can we defeat the Southrons in open combat. Curse our scouts, for underestimating the size of the Southron army! They must only have encountered their vanguard, and thought it was their entire force. Not until after we mustered all our army detachments in Harondor and assembled them here three days ago did the scouts begin to send word of the main body of the enemy, not to mention their Oliphaunt beasts. If we only had brought more Men in the first place, we might not be in this fix now."
"Reinforcements?" snapped another general, incredulously. His long, grey hair framed a once pale face burnt pink in recent days by the southern Sun. His pale blue eyes blinked repeatedly in the glare from the shimmering sands. "We only sent a ship to Pelargir calling for reinforcements two days ago, General, and those troops will take nearly a month to be mustered and arrive here. The Citadel does not contain enough food to support all the remaining Men in our army for so long, if the city is taken and they are cut off from the harbour by an insurrection. We were relying on the ships of our Navy to supply us with foodstuffs from Pelargir. And who knows what those mountainous beasts, those Oliphaunts, can do? Mayhap they can smash through walls of solid stone! Nay, I tell you we must engage in an orderly retreat by land, evacuate the garrison in the Citadel by ship, burn Umbar to the ground, and let its ashes be occupied by the Southrons. If we can fight our way in a disciplined retreat to the Crossings of Harnen, and make it to the other side of the river, then we might have some hope of holding the line along its northern shore until the reinforcements arrive by way of Pelargir and Ithilien."
"There will be no evacuations and no retreats, gentlemen," replied the King calmly, in a smooth, deep voice resonant with authority. "We are here to fight, not to flee before these dogs."
"But my liege…" replied the generals, desperate to make their King see reason before he led his army to annihilation.
"I have heard your arguments," replied the King with a dismissive wave of his mail-gloved hand. "But in your focus on tactical points, all of you have forgotten the broader issue of strategy. We cannot afford to lose Umbar, nor even to retreat within its walls, except in the utmost need. If the enemy can capture Umbar, or pin us down within its walls, then Gondor's southern defences will have failed entirely. Our forces cannot hope even to retreat to the Crossings of Harnen, before those crossings are taken and held by the Variag horsemen, who by all accounts from past skirmishes can travel cross-country twice as fast as our own cavalry. If we lose Umbar, or are trapped within, then there will be nothing to prevent the enemy from striking clear into the heart of Gondor."
He frowned, his mailed hands tightening into fists. "If the Southrons can surge up the valley of the Anduin unopposed, they will cut our empire in half, lay waste our richest and most densely populated lands, and even bring siege and ruin to Osgiliath itself. Can you imagine how our proud and spoiled citizens in Osgiliath would react if they found themselves under siege by a horde of baying savages and their giant beasts?"
He shook his head. "There would be panic and rioting, bloodshed in the streets. It would be the end of Gondor as we know it, even should we ultimately defeat the enemy. It would take the rest of our lives to even begin to repair the physical damage, and twice as long to restore the morale of the people."
He took hold of his long sword, and pulled it from its sheath, so that its silvered blade gleamed brightly in the Sun. "Therefore, gentlemen, I say again there shall be no evacuations or retreats. Indeed, before riding through the Eastern gate to meet you here in the field, I had already ordered our fleet to depart the harbour of Umbar for Pelargir. They should be weighing anchor and preparing to set sail as we speak."
"Why in the name of the Valar did you do that?" cried several of the generals, forgetting their manners and etiquette in their alarm.
"To, shall we say, enhance your motivation," smiled the King. "Before I rode out from the walls at dawn, I had already heard gossip from your adjutants that you doubted our ability to attain victory this day, and talked of retreat. Now you must understand that there will be no comfortable retreat by sea for the lucky few. We will either win this battle, or come to a bitter end in this accursed land."
His smile disappeared, as his face formed into a stern, hard countenance. "And that is enough talk. I have already given you your tactical orders. Now, gentlemen, is the hour when we must all draw our swords! For Gondor!"
His generals, their discipline taking hold, drew their own swords, raising them on high like those of the King. "For Gondor!" they cried, dispersing and returning to their commands, as their King rode back to the lines and took his place with his bodyguard at the vanguard of the heavy infantry. "For Gondor! For Gondor!" cried the officers, after their generals, and soon all the Men of the infantry and cavalry, and their distant comrades on the battlements had taken up the cry, clashing their spears against their shields as their blood went up, and their steeled themselves for battle against the enemy.
Meanwhile, the Southrons, hearing the battle-cry of their hated enemies, readied themselves for the attack. The Variags' ululations became even more shrill and frenzied, the Haradrim on their steeds began clashing their javelins against their shields in like manner to the Gondor-men, and the archers mounted on their Mumakil began a deep, harsh, bloodcurdling chant as they worked themselves into their battle-fury.
Sensing for their own part that the time for debating the fate of the Blue Masters had come to an end, the Black Serpent cultists who led the Southron army now focused their attention fully on the tasks before them. One of them held up a long, fluted brass trumpet, and let forth a shrill, high-pitched note that echoed above the cries and shouts of the army, and was heard even as far away as the twisting streets and bazaars of Umbar.
The Variags, their bloodlust at a fever pitch, spurred their mounts forward, and a cloud of sand and dust soon rose hundreds of feet into the air as they charged in wedge formation straight toward the light infantry and cavalry of the Gondor-men.
The Gondorians, familiar with the Variags' wedge tactic, moved smoothly and swiftly to counter it. As their light cavalry dispersed to flank the Variags, their light infantry formed into a reverse wedge, in parallel to the Variags' formation, so that the Variags would charge between their flanks and be surrounded by them on both sides. The light infantrymen thrust their long spears into the ground, waiting patiently for the assault of the enemy.
The Variags, reckless as ever, charged straight between the wings of the Gondorian light infantry, hoping by their momentum to smash through its apex and surge forward till they faced the heavy infantry beyond. With all their attention focused towards their front, they were heedless of the movements of the Gondorian light cavalary, who now formed up swiftly behind their rear, blocking their retreat so that they were surrounded on all sides.
Screaming with blood-fury, the Variags charged right into the waiting spears of the Gondorian light infantry. Their screams were soon matched by those of their unfortunate steeds, as the beasts were skewered on the long spears of the Gondorians. Meanwhile, the Gondorian light cavalary surged into the rear of the Variag's wedge, lancing the Variags' unarmoured backs.
Pressed between the Gondor-men's light infantry and cavalry, the Variags could hardly even wield their swords, and began to slash at their own comrades in their desperation to join the enemy in combat. The rear lines of the Gondorian light infantry had already drawn their swords and climbed through the ranks of their front line spearmen, hacking at the legs and flanks of the Variags' steeds in order to bring them down and dispatch their riders.
The Gondorian heavy cavalry began to cheer as they witnessed from afar the Variags consumed by a dreadful slaughter. But they soon turned their minds to their own tasks, for the heavy cavalry of the Haradrim had not been idle. Fanning out into two broad lines of lancers and mounted archers, it now began to charge past the northern and southern flanks of the Gondorian heavy cavalry contingents in an obvious move to outflank the Gondor-men and cut off their lines of retreat to the city.
Moving swiftly, the Gondorian heavy cavalry rode through the orchards and formed up in long lines behind and perpendicular to their heavy infantry, to block the Haradrim outflanking maneuver. The Haradrim, their charge slowed as they crossed from the open desert into the groves of date palms, were forced to meet the Gondorian heavy cavalry face to face, and were soon engaged in pitched combat. But for all their long javelins and powerful compound bows, which could pierce armour of steel plate, their own lighter armour left them at a severe disadvantage when facing the lances and longswords of the Gondorian knights.
Satisfied by the progress of the battle, King Ciryaher smiled confidently as he witnessed from afar the last of the Variags perish beneath the swords and spears of his light infantry and cavalary. He dispatched messengers to them, and under his orders his light infrantry dispersed and reformed behind the lines of the Haradrim heavy cavalary, so that the Haradrim, though they outnumbered their foes, found themselves assailed both from the front and the rear. The light infantry broke into columns which formed to the north and south of the heavy infantry, their bloodied swords held at the ready so that they could be harass the flanks of the enemy's next charge.
Meanwhile, the Black Serpent cultists, who had moved to the south of the Mumakil brigades, smiled in their turn. Thus far the battle had proceeded according to their plans, which were based on the tactics drawn up months before by their Blue Masters. The sacrifice of the Variags and the bogging-down of the Haradrim heavy cavalary had been but diversionary moves, designed to thin-out the Gondorian forces. Now the time was ripe for the charge of the Mumakil. They let out another shrill note on their brass trumpet, and then waited.
Their chanting at a fever-pitch, the archers of Far Harad, mounted atop their Mumaks, were thrilled to at last be unleashed. As their chant reached a crescendo, the Mumak-drivers prodded their mounts onward, and the huge beasts roared deafeningly as they began to charge, their heavy feet slamming into the ground with such force that the earth began to tremble violently, as if the land itself could not withstand their awesome fury.
King Ciryaher's smile failed now, but he sent word up the lines for his heavy infantry to brace their long spears and hold them at the ready. Realizing that he had erred tactically in dispatching his light cavalry to harass the Haradrim cavalry, when they would have been of more use in slashing at the tendons of the Oliphaunts, he sent messengers bearing urgent word for the light cavalry to withdraw and re-form itself alongside the lines of light infantry north and south of the main army.
His messengers had not been gone for long when he realized that these orders were in vain, for the Oliphaunts charged with a speed that was incredible for beasts of their vast bulk. Roaring in fury, their small red eyes glinting angrily, the vast columns of beasts smashed head-on into the ranks of the Gondorian heavy infantry, their heads twisting back and forth as they used their mighty tusks to sweep the Gondorians' long spears out of their path.
King Ciryaher's mount screamed in fear and threw him from its back, moments before it was crushed beneath the immense foot of a charging Oliphaunt. The King slammed into the ground and lay there, gasping for breath, staring upward in awe as countless massive beasts surged over him. Only by keeping flat on his back and in the narrow space between their massive legs did he manage to avoid being crushed under their heels.
The King's heavy infantry fared far worse than he did. Their spears swept aside by the Oliphaunts tusks, they had not even time to draw their swords before they were crushed under foot. The Haradrim archers mounted atop the Mumaks began to unleash volley after volley of arrows into the heavy infantry, the arrows from their compound bows slicing through the Gondorians steel armour and cutting them down like flies. The Gondorian archers who formed the third row of the heavy infantry fired their own volleys back in reply, but while many of the Haradrim archers were slain by these volleys, the Oliphaunts themselves seemed only to be further enraged by the arrows that lodged in their heavy folds of skin, without being in the least harmed by them. Roaring in fury, they charged straight at the archers, smashing clear though the second line of heavy infantry. Then countless archers were trampled under foot, while others were gored on the Oliphuants' sharpened tusks.
Meanwhile, as the Gondorian heavy cavalry desperately engaged the Haradrim cavalry in order to keep open the lines of retreat to the city, the the Gondorian light infantry and cavalry had not been idle. Once the light cavalry formed up alongside the light infantry, they charged at the flanks of the Oliphaunts, hacking and slashing at the beasts' tendons with their longswords. Many brave soldiers were trampled underfoot, but they were faster and more maneuverable than their heavy infantry counterparts, and thus many others found their marks. The Oliphaunts whose tendons they sliced open reared up in agony and rage, only to crash over on their sides, bearing their mounted archers to their doom as their wooden castlets were smashed into pieces and the Gondorian light infantry ran amongst them, slaying them mercilessly. Other Oliphaunts, reacting with fury and panic to the bellows of their wounded kin, began to scream and rampage back and forth themselves, throwing off their riders and attacking each other in their madness.
As the Sun rose higher in the sky, and the desert sands burned under its fierce rays, the lines of both Gondorians and Southrons lost any semblance of order as the entire battlefield degenerated into a chaotic, bloody rout. Oliphaunts were running rampant, sometimes attacking the Gondorians, sometimes attacking each other as their riders struggled to control them. The Haradrim heavy cavalry had suffered terrible losses, yet even so it still vastly outnumbered the Gondorian heavy cavalry, and random skirmishes between them were being fought all across the battlefield. The sand and dust thrown into the air by the charges and counter-charges of small parties of desperate Men from both sides covered the entire battlefield in a thick haze, choking Men and beasts as they frantically hacked and slashed and gored each other in their fury.
One party of Gondorian light cavalry, narrowing evading the charge of an enraged Oliphaunt, rode almost headlong into an amazing scene. Standing atop an ever-growing pile of Haradrim corpses, King Ciryaher of Gondor was engaged in desperate, bloody combat against dozens of Haradrim warriors who had been thrown from the castlets of Mumaks which had been laid low by the tusks of their rampaging kin. Many of the Haradrim had lost their arrows, but others continued to fire them at the King, whose broad shield of triple-plate steel, laden with so many arrows it looked like a pin-cushion, had alone preserved him from death. Even so, he had taken one arrow in the thigh of his silvered armour, and another in the shoulder. Incredibly, he fought on, using his heavy longsword to rain a storm of blows on his adversaries, who ran at him again and again, slashing at him with curved daggers when their arrows were exhausted.
"To the King! To the King!" cried the cavalrymen, and they charged the Haradrim from behind. Taken unawares by this sudden charge, many Haradrim perished at once, and the rest turned and fled, though not before felling a few of the lightly-armoured Gondorian cavalrymen with their arrows.
"Your Majesty!" cried the Gondorian cavalry officer, the once-white plume of his silvered helm spattered red with blood. "You are gravely injured! Where is your bodyguard?"
"All dead," gasped the King, gasping with weariness and grimacing with pain. "They died in the first charge of the Oliphaunts. How I survived, I know not." He began to wobble unsteadily, and then sank to his knees.
"Quickly, lads!" cried the officer. "Help him mount a steed!"
While the others formed a defensive circle, two of the men quickly dismounted, removed the wounded King's battered, arrow-laden shield, cleaned his bloodied sword on the robes of a fallen Harad-man and resheathed it in its bejeweled scabbard, and then helped Ciryaher mount a horse which had but moments before lost its rider. Once the King sat firmly in the saddle, clutching the reins, the cavalrymen screened him as he rode forward, weaving though a thick could of dust, dodging past another charging Oliphaunt and the hail of arrows from its Haradrim archers before they found another clearing amid the chaos.
The King turned to one of the cavalrymen, who bore a battered silver trumpet on a chain slung over his shoulder.
"Can you sound that trumpet loudly enough for other trumpetrs to hear it, and repeat the call?" he asked wearily.
"Of course, my liege," nodded the man, his youthful face twisted with worry as he stared at his injured sovereign.
"Then sound the retreat," replied the King, gazing downwards. "Retreat to the Eastern gate! We can no longer endure the fight out here. I was a fool to think we could."
"Your Majesty," replied the man somberly. Taking up his trumpet, he sounded the retreat, four short, swift notes, repeated again and again. The blasts from the trumpet carried far, and were soon taken up by the surviving trumpeters who heard the call amid the din of battle.
"Now ride for the Eastern Gate," cried the King. "Ride!"
Galloping as fast as they could, the cavalrymen and their King wheeled about, passing through the thickest coulds of dust, until they found themselves within the date groves that fringed the city. The retreat had been sounded by all the surviving trumpeters now, and the remnants of Gondor's army in the field – cavalry and infantry, both heavy and light – wheeled about and made for the city, the cavalry fighting a desperate rearguard action against the Haradrim horsemen and Oliphaunts to provide the Gondor-men on foot sufficient time to retreat within the city's walls.
Already, a sizeable column of Gondorians had managed to make it within the Eastern Gate. Yet as the King looked westwards towards the city, he could see several columns of smoke rising from some of the less wholesome quarters of the town. Angered and alarmed by this unwelcome sight, he spurred his steed through the gates, and hailed an officer, who was rushing from the nearby barracks towards the stairs that led to the battlements.
"You there, captain!" cried the King.
"My liege!" saluted the panting officer, stopping his run at once and standing at attention.
"What is this smoke rising up from within the city? What is happening?"
"The accursed Umbarians, my liege!" shouted the officer. "Traitors amongst them have stirred them up, telling them that their kin shall soon liberate them from the yoke of Gondor. Now riots are flaring up all over the city!"
The King nearly screamed with frustration at this news, though he managed to retain his royal dignity. He had planned to order the Men on the battlements to use their catapults in a sustained bombardment to drive off the Oliphaunts and Haradrim cavalry once they were within range. How could he afford to pursue this course now, when the entire city might flare up in mass rebellion at any moment, trapping the Men on the battlements between bloodthirsty Haradrim to the front, and vindictive Umbarians to the rear? He had only one choice.
"These are my orders," said the King. "As soon as the Haradrim are within range, discharge the catapults at them, to ease the retreat of our forces into the city. Once the last of our Men are safely inside the city, close and bar the gates. But then, before the Haradrim can muster another charge, our Men on the battlements must step down and retreat into the Citadel, along with the rest of our army. Our only hope now is to hold the Citadel, until the reinforcements arrive by way of Pelargir and Ithilien."
"What of our settlers, my liege?" asked the officer. "They are in grave peril."
"We shall allow them into the Citadel if they can reach it, naturally," replied the King. "But I fear we cannot afford to scour the streets of city, searching for them one by one to lead them to safety. That would cost us precious time, and only lead to many more of our soldiers being killed by the rebels and outlanders."
"I understand, my liege," frowned the officer. A grim decision, but he knew it was necessary.
"Here!" cried the King, removing a mailed glove from his right hand, and taking off a golden signet ring, grimacing with pain from his wounded shoulder as he did so. "Use this ring as my token of authority for this order! Ensure that your superiors obey my commands!"
"It shall be done, my liege!" cried the officer, who took the ring, saluted, and then scurried towards the stairs adjoining the nearest battlements.
"Come!" cried the King, turning to his party of cavalrymen. "I am wounded and in pain, and have great need of a doctor. We must make for the Citadel ourselves at once!" He wheeled about, screened by his light cavalry as he rode past the streaming column of bloodied, exhausted infantrymen hurrying toward the Citadel.
At length they passed through the barricades outside the Citadel's only gate, which faced west toward the public square and the harbour, and they entered into the cool recesses of the marble-columned entrance hall. The King dismounted and stood on his feet, wobbling slightly, before crashing suddenly to the ground. The cavalarymen likewise dismounted and rushed to his aid, frantically calling for medics, who soon appeared on the scene.
Meanwhile, as the last of the surviving Gondorian infantrymen passed through the Eastern Gate, the cavalry were being pressed back through the date fields by the Haradrim. Once they saw that the infantry had made it into the city, the Gondorian cavalrymen then turned towards the Gate themselves and spurred their steeds as they ran for their lives, the bloodthirsty Haradrim and ferocious Oliphaunts hot on their heels. The heavy doors of the Eastern Gate were slammed shut just moments before the vanguard of the Haradrim reached the city walls, the Oliphaunts surging through the date groves not far behind them..
The King's orders had by this time been passed along the walls, and no sooner had the Gate been closed than the catapults were unleashed against the Haradrim cavalry and the Mumakil. A rain of missiles, boulders and flaming pitch descended on the Southrons, slaying many of the Mumakil outright, and driving the rest into a chaotic, panicked retreat. Many of the Haradrim cavalry were also slain, though others dodged the missles and began hammering on the gates with the hilts of their long swords, screaming with fury for the blood of their foes. The Mumak-riders had by this time regained control of their beasts, though they now formed them up in a line just beyond the reach of the catapults, waiting for the Gondorians' next move.
But no further missiles were sent over the walls, and it was soon apparent why. The Gondorian guards stationed on the walls had already evacutated them, running down the stairs to the nearest thoroughfares, and streaming in orderly columns towards the Citadel. Not a moment too soon, for the fires of arson and the cries of looters and rioters were mushrooming across the city with incredible speed. Angry mobs of men and women, bearing illegal weapons they had kept hidden for many years, were forming in the streets, under the command of cryptical figures dressed in robes of sable. Slaying the handful of brave Gondorian settlers who had still dwelt in the city, as well as the known and suspected Umbarian collaborators, and burning the shops and homes of both, many of the rabble pressed toward the Citadel. They moved with increasing speed as they reached the broad and straight thoroughfares of the ancient Numenorean core of the city, threatening to cut of the escape route of the Gondorian forces. Others rushed towards all three of the city's gates, opening them from the inside.
The Haradrim cavalry gave a trimumphant cry before surging through the Eastern Gate in pursuit of their hated Gondorian foes. They were hailed by the jubiliant cries of many Umbarians who greeted them as liberators. The Mumakil now pressed through the date groves, right up to the city walls. They proved too large to pass through the gate, and thus while most of them fanned out along the city walls to the Northern and Southern gates, in order to prevent any of the Gondorians from escaping, many of them awkwardly lowered themselves to the ground so that their archers could dismount and pass through the gates on foot.
The last lines of retreating Gondorian cavalry and guardsmen, now found themselves harassed by angry mobs on all sides, and pursued by Haradrim cavalry and archers in hot pursuit. The Gondorians were hardened warriors, and easily cut their way through the mobs. Even so, many of them were slain by the stray blows of Umbarians, and the expert attacks of Haradrim, before the last survivors managed to retreat within the safety of the Citadel. Its heavy iron gates were closed by the action of levers and chains, snapping shut with a resounding clang against the polished marble of the fortress wall.
By this time the afternoon was well-advanced, and the Sun was already beginning to sink into the West, staining the sky with a ruddy glow that was reflected by the shimmering waters of the Bay of Umbar. As a vast mob of torch and pike-bearing Umbarians and heavily-armed Haradrim surrounded the Citadel, they hammered against the gates, driven back by hails of arrows and missiles from the walls, only to surge back again, the Haradrim archers firing their own storms of arrows over the Citadel's battlements at their unseen foes.
As night fell, and the stars began to shine in the swiftly darkening sky, their cleanly light was mocked by a tapestry of angry red torches that spread across Umbar, clustering about the walls of the beleaguered Citadel. The Black Serpent cultists who had led the army of the Southrons now rode within the gates, greeted by a party of their fellows, and then made their way towards the heart of the city.
Thus, in a single day, Gondor's Army of the South been devastated by a humiliating defeat, and the road north lay open for the Haradrim to sweep into the heart of Gondor's empire, even to the Eastern Gate of Osgiliath itself.
King Ciryaher lay in a large, comfortable bed in the marbled chambers which were reserved for his exclusive use during his visits to Umbar. The smooth white walls were decorated with delicate patterns inlaid with ebony and gold, and lit by many heavy bronze candelabra. The King was dressed in a long, simple tunic of soft white wool, which hid from view linen bandages wrapped around his left thigh and shoulder. The surgeons had removed the arrows (which thankfully had not been poisoned) that had been embedded in those places. With the aid of soothing poultices and pain-killing draughts, the King had begun to heal himself, and draw once again on the immense store of innate vitality that was his by virtue of his ancient Numenorean lineage.
His mind turning aside for the time being his sorrow at the terrible slaughter of his loyal Men that had witnessed that morning, he was already formulating new, if desperate plans. He weighed in his mind many different stratagems for holding the Citadel against the vast mob hammering at its gates, until the reinforcements from Gondor could arrive to defeat the Haradrim that would garrison the city and restore order – a deliverance he could not expect for nearly a month. He did not care to contemplate the condition in which the settled lands of the Vale of Anduin would find themselves by that time, having faced the onslaught of the bulk of the Haradrim's forces.
The steel shutters on the narrow slit windows in the Western wall of the chamber had been closed and barred, to prevent any stray arrows from finding their way through. Even so Ciryaher could hear clearly the angry shouts and cries of the mob, and the howls and jeers of the Haradrim. He cursed them them all at length, and then turned his attention back to his plans. As he sipped warm, spiced wine from a golden, bejeweled up, and mulled one stratagem over another, he heard a knock at the heavy polished doors of solid ebony that led to the anteroom beyond his private chambers. He looked up, and saw a guard poke his silver-helmed head through the crack between the doors.
"Your Majesty," said the guard.
"I gave you strict orders I was not to be disturbed until morning!" cried the King. "I am wounded and tired. Can I not have a few hours of peace, before girding myself for the hard day of work that lies ahead of us?"
"Forgive me, your Majesty," replied the guard sheepishly, "but you have a visitor. He must speak with you at once."
"Tell him to cast himself into the Sea!" snapped the King. "I'll receive him along with the other generals after I have breakfasted at dawn."
"He must speak with you at once," repeated the guard, opening the doors and allowing the visitor to enter.
Astonished by this open disobedience, Ciryaher was about to leap up from his bed, wounds or no wounds, and severely reprimand the guard, when his unwanted visitor strode through the doors. The Man's ebon staff clacked on the marble tiles of the floor, and his long, brightly-coloured robes trailed behind him.
Ciryaher stared at his visitor, dumbfounded, as he dropped his gilded cup to the floor with a clatter, sending its precious contents spilling over tiles.
"You!" he cried, unsure whether he was asleep or awake.
"I do have a proper name, your Majesty," smiled the man, his dark eyes gleaming strangely amid his lean, sun-bronzed face, framed by tangled white hair and beard. "Several names, in fact."
"Curunir the White!" replied the King, abashed. "I have not seen you in more than forty years! Not since you tutored me in the archives of Minas Anor, where my late father had sent me to finish my education. I was barely more than a youth then, and you were already an old Man. How can you still draw breath, if you be not of the blood of Numenor?"
"You might say I am of a vigorous line myself, O King," smiled Curunir. "Though you can see my beard is white, now."
"Aye, that it is," murmured the King. "Well, no matter. But how did you get here, through that mob of savages and traitors outside the gates? And what are you doing in that ridiculous garb, dressed as if you were one of the Haradrim yourself?"
"That is a long tale, your Majesty," sighed Curunir. "Too long to tell in full, at least for the moment. Suffice to say that for many years I have been exploring the lands east of Anduin. In time I found myself in the southlands, and came across a plot by the Haradrim to attack Umbar and invade Gondor. They tamed Oliphaunts, or Mumakil as they called them, for use in war, as you have learned to your chagrin. I disguised myself in their garb, stole a stray horse of theirs, and rode hard for Umbar."
Curunir frowned. "But alas, the journey took many months, and I set off too late; the Southron army was always several days ahead of me. By the time I arrived at the Southern gate of Umbar this afternoon, the battle had already been fought and lost by Gondor, and the gates of the city had been thrown open by the treacherous Umbar-folk. Disgusied as a Haradrim rider, though, I had no difficulty entering the city and making my way to the public square and the gate of the Citadel. It was more difficult to convince your guards to let me in, before they closed the Citadel gates. But," he smiled, "I can be very persuasive."
"So it appears," said King Ciryaher, getting up from bed and limping over to a high-backed ivory chair. Signalling to the waiting guard to close the doors, he seated himself, and gestured to Curunir to join him in a nearby chair.
As Curunir took his own seat, he continued, "When I had heard you were being tended to by your surgeons, I withdrew, taking some much needed food and rest. Then, when evening came, I arose and sought you out in your chambers."
"And here you are," the King said wryly. "It seems I might as well not have guards standing in front of my chambers at all. In any event, I am glad to see you alive and well, my old friend. But alas, indeed, that you have come too late. I had thought to defeat the Southrons in pitched combat, but now I recognize that my cautious generals were correct, and I was reckless and foolhardy. Their Oliphaunts, or Mumakil as you called them, are a foe the like of which we have never fought before. Our tactics were more than adequate to handle their cavalry charges, as I thought they would be, despite the fears of my generals. But once they charged us with their Oliphaunts, the game was up. And the treachery of the Umbar-folk was the final blow. Curse the lot of them!"
He sighed heavily. "I am wracking my brains to determine how we can hold out 'till our reinforcements arrive from Pelargir. My generals tell me that we lost near twenty-thousand Men on the field of battle today. Even so, between the survivors of our army, the garrison on the walls, and the guards of the Citadel, there are full forty-thousand Men crammed within this keep. There are cisterns of spring water within the Citadel, of course, but we have food enough to last so many men for no more than two weeks. And I know not how long our store of arrows and missiles will hold out. I rashly dispatched our ten ships in the harbour to Pelargir, so that my generals' courage would be stiffened by the realization that they could not hope for an easy retreat if the battle went ill. But, thanks the treachery of the Umbar-folk, no ship can weigh anchor at the docks of Umbar in any case. Our ships would have to land along the shores of the Bay, and our reinforcements besiege the city walls from without." He sighed. "And what will become of our rich lands in the Vale of Anduin when the main force of the Haradrim surges through them, I care not even to think."
"Fear not, your Majesty," smiled Curunir. "I have arrived too late to warn you, but not too late to succor you. If you will accept my aid, then the army of Gondor shall stand victorious on the field of battle by the end of tomorrow."
"How is that possible?" asked Ciryaher, his grey eyes narrowing with skepticism. But as Curunir explained his plan, the King's eyes widened in wonder.
"If you can truly wield such powers, then you are mightier by far than any King in your own right," marveled Ciryaher.
"I merely seek to do what I can to aid Gondor," demurred Curunir. "And to speak plainly, I do this less for Gondor's own sake, than for its importance in the broader scheme of things. Dark times are coming to Middle Earth, and Gondor is a rock that must weather the storm. On this all depends. But, to return to the present, do you assent to my plan?"
"I do indeed," nodded the King gravely. "I only hope that it will work."
"Have no fear, your Majesty," smiled Curunir. "I shall not fail you."
As the Sun rose over the sands of the desert to the east, she gazed upon a scene of chaos and ruin. The broken bodies of tens of thousands of Men and beasts, Gondorian and Southron, lay scattered across the battlefield, a ghastly reek beginning to rise as the heat of the Sun spurred them to a swift decay.
The walls of the Umbar were surrounded by thousands of Mumakil and their riders, the bulk of whom it seemed had managed to survive the battle. The riders remained aboard their beasts, while the archers had descended to the ground, and made camp in the shade of the date groves, their chieftains pitching tents for themselves and celebrating their triumph with drunken revelry. Within the city walls, countless plumes of smoke were rising from scattered shops and houses, testament to the fearsome revenge that the Umbarians had inflicted on the handful of ill-fated Gondorian settlers as well as collaborators of their own blood.
The Central Market and plazas surrounding the high white walls of the Citadel were thronged with countless thousands of Umbarians and Haradrim, bearing all manner of makeshift and genuine weapons. Most of them kept their distance as they exchanged volleys of arrow and missile fire with the Gondorian soliders who lined the battlements of the Citadel. But small parties of brave warriors, shields slung over their backs, were constantly rushing the gates of the Citadel with battering-rams cut from the date palm trees, each party mananging to land several blows against the heavy iron gates before being cut down by arrows from above. The gates were strong enough to be impervious to such assault, but this display of bravery by the Haradrim demoralize the Gondorians, not one of whom had any idea how they would survive once their store of arrows and of food ran low.
Suddenly, a word was given on the battlements, and the Gondor-men withdrew. The Haradrim and Umbarians held back at first, expecting some sort of trick. But when several volleys of their arrows went unanswered, they were suddenly exultant, and rushed towards the gates and walls of the Citadel. They took up more battering rams and began hammering at the gates relentlessly, eager to break through and deal death to their cowardly foes inside. The Black Serpent cultists stood by, urging the Haradrim to smash them open, and let the slaughter begin.
Suddenly, a lone Man appeared on the parapet high above the gates. He was dressed in the bright, flowing robes of the Haradrim, but his visage was that of an outlander, and he bore a strange staff of ebon, capped by an opaque white sphere. His long white beard and hair were rustled by the searing air of the East wind.
"Greetings, o devotees of the Black Serpent!" said the Man, speaking in an antique dialect of Near Harad. His voice was deep and resonant, and echoed for miles, leading the mob of Umbarians and Haradrim to cease their labours and stare at him in silence.
"Who art thou?" cried one of the Black Serpent cultists, a twinge of fear growing at the back of his mind that he had seen this outlander before, albeit in different garb.
"Surely you remember me," smiled the Man. "My name is Curunir the White. We met atop the great pyramid of Tibasht, some months ago. Your friend Ibal the Sorcerer would surely know me, if he had not departed the lands of the living."
The Black Serpent cultist turned pale, along with his comrades who had been present at the pyramid of Tibasht. The other cultists glared at them, and then stared warily at this mysterious stranger. The chieftains of the Haradrim who stood nearby began to mutter darkly amongst themselves at the news of the death of Ibal, whom they had long counted as a sorcerer of great renown.
"I bring tokens from your Blue Masters," smiled Curunir. "Shall I give them to you?"
"Yes, give us the tokens, outlander!" cried one of the Haradrim chieftains, a scowl on his swarthy face. "These Serpents claim to speak on behalf of the Blue Masters, yet for months they have given us no proof of their authority." The Black Serpent cultists gave the man a murderous glare, but soon returned their attention to the foe on the battlements.
"So be it," replied Curunir. Laying aside his staff, he disappeared behind the parapet for a moment, and then reappeared, bearing a large saddlebag of cured leather, painted in the style of the Haradrim.
"Here are your tokens!" cried Curunir. "Read them and take heed!"
He opened the saddlebag and emptied it over the parapet, sending the contents tumbling to the stone flags of the square below. The Black Serpent cultists jumped back, only to stare open-mouthed in horror as they saw what had fallen to the ground; two shattered, mouldering skulls amid fragments of bone and crystal, swathed in two unmistakable robes of sea and sky blue. The Umbarians present frowned in puzzlement, but the Haradrim warriors and their chiefs appeared thunderstruck.
"Do you not like them?" asked Curunir, again taking up his staff and waving it in a subtle gesture, his sallow face bearing a mocking smile. "Are they not pleasing to you? Surely, my Haradrim friends, your Black Serpent leaders informed you that the Blue Masters were dead? It would be shocking if they had deceived you, falsely claiming to speak on their behalf."
"Lies!" shrieked one of the cultists desperately. "Do not listen to him!"
Some of the Haradrim chiefs drew their curved swords and stood beside the cultists to protect them, but many others screamed curses and threats at the cultists and their loyalists, accusing them of base lies and treachery. The Umbarians fell back, alarmed by this turn of events, as the Haradrim warriors began to line up behind their respective chiefs, shouting curses and jibes at each other as was their custom from the days of their tribal feuds.
"Nay, it is the Black Serpents who have lied to you!" cried Curunir, his dark eyes flashing fiercely as he turned his attention to those Haradrim confronting the cultists and their loyal followers. "Kill them, both Serpents and false Men of Harad! Kill them all!"
Howling with rage, the Haradrim chieftains whom Curunir had addressed unsheathed their swords and charged at the Cultists and their own Haradrim followers, who in turn called on their warriors to aid them. Within moments, the Haradrim in the square had formed into two broad camps, hacking and stabbing at each other ferociously in their bid to either kill or protect the Black Serpent cultists, depending on where their loyalties lay. The Umbarians, full of fear and doubt, swiftly withdrew from the square, retreating down the streets and alleys of the city into their own homes until they could learn which side had won the debate.
The words spoken in the Voice of Curunir seemed like an infection that struck the Haradrim listeners with fury, and which was passed on to those Haradrim with whom they came in contact in a spreading wave of madness and violence. The fighting in the square soon spread throughout the city, as the ancient tribal feuds and blood vendettas that the Blue Wizards had held in check suddenly resurfaced. Believing their common enemy the Gondorians to be defeated, and freed from any shackles of restraint by their Blue Masters, the Haradrim turned and fought ferociously against each other, clan against clan, tribe against tribe, until the fighting spread beyond the city walls and amongst those Haradrim camped amid the date groves. Even the Mumak-riders joined in, leading their mounts against those of rival clans, until the fields outside the city walls were soon thundering to the clash of the giant beasts, in an echo of the previous day's battle against the Gondorians.
All day long the battle raged, from the docks by the harbour to the desert sands far beyond the city, as the Haradrim tore into each other with incredible ferocity. No quarter was asked or given, and no prisoners were taken. The streets and alleys of Umbar ran red with the blood of the Haradrim, which filled the drains and ran towards the shore until even the waters of the harbour were stained with ichor. The dreadful slaughter of Mumak by Mumak was relentless, for those mighty beasts, driven mad by the scent of their own kindred's blood, were so full of rage and fury now that they blindly tore into each other, heedlessly trampling the Haradrim underfoot, far beyond the control of their doomed riders. Those horses of the Haradrim whose masters had been slain fled in terror, scattering far beyond the city in all directions in order to escape the clash and din of battle and the reek of blood and death. The Umbarians trembled with their mud-walled houses or pillared mansions, wishing fervently that they had never allowed their distant Haradrim kin within the gates of the city.
Had the entire Army of Gondor fought against the Southrons for fully a week, it could not have inflicted on them the carnage they wrought against themselves within a single day. And the Haradrim owed their doom solely to the efforts of Curunir the White. Indeed, in later years, it became a proverb amongst the folk of Umbar that A Wizard's voice is deadlier than a hundred-thousand swordsmen.
Curunir himself watched the bloody scene unfold from the battlements, his face and eyes devoid of passion. Then, as the Sun began to sink into the West, and its ruddy glare stained the distant Sea as crimson as the bloodstained waters of the harbour, he judged the time was right to administer the coup de grace. Descending from the battlements into the Citadel, he gave the signal to the Gondorians to unleash the final stage of his plan.
To the clear peal of silver trumpets, the gates of the Citadel were lowered, and the cavalry of Gondor, from the leather-clad lancers to the steel-armoured knights, surged forth into the square. Dividing into three columns under the leadership of three generals, they poured along the main thoroughfares, North, South and East, that led to the three gates of the city wall. They took utterly by surprise and devastated the diminished, exhausted and disorganized forces of the Haradrim they found along their paths. Meanwhile, the light and heavy infantry of Gondor followed in their wake, slaying those Haradrim they found along the city walls, retaking and closing the city gates, and fanning out through the narrow streets and alleys of Umbar, breaking into the houses and confiscating the weapons of the thoroughly cowed and demoralized Umbar-folk.
All throughout the night, the streets of the city echoed with the clash of sword on sword, and screams of anguish and despair, as the remaining desperate Haradrim were slain both by Gondorians and their own kin, while the surviving Black Serpent cultists and those Umbarians who had figured prominently in the mob that had supported them were hunted down and put to the sword by Gondorian guardsmen. Curunir personally took command of the purge of the Black Serpent cult, not one of whose members within the walls of the city survived to tell any tales of the Blue Wizards and their deeds.
By dawn, the last echoes of fighting had died away, and a preternatural calm had descended over Umbar. The streets within the city and the fields beyond were strewn with the bodies of the dead beyond numbering. The slaughter of the Haradrim beyond the gates had been completed by the enraged Mumakil, who had also slain each other with abandon. Of the ten-thousand beasts who had charged proudly over the battlefield only two days before, only a few hundred had survived the carnage. Their riders thrown-off and trampled underfoot, their passions stilled by their exhaustion, they cried and trumpeted mournfully as they withdrew from the city, following by memory the southward trail that would return them to their distant jungle home.
They were followed by a mere handful of Haradrim, who seized whatever steeds they could find and rode southward for dear life, bearing a tale of treachery suffered at the hands of their kinsmen, and of the dreadful vengeance imposed on them by the terrible, stern-eyed Men of Gondor. Of the three-hundred thousand Men who had set out from Tibasht for Umbar, fired by visions of glory and plunder, not one in a hundred ever returned to his own hearth and home.
King Ciryaher, mounted on a steed of dappled grey, rode amongst the streets and alleys of Umbar surveying the carnage, his nose wrinkling at the stench of blood and death. At length, he arrived at the Eastern Gate. There he saw the brightly-robed figure of Curunir, leaning on his ebon staff, standing amidst the charred remains of more than a dozen Black Serpent cultists, and organizing parties of officers to press-gang the Umbarian civilians into collecting and burning the bodies of the dead. The corpses of the Oliphaunts, too vast to move, would be left to rot, their bleached bones littering the desert as a testament to the power and the wrath of Gondor.
As Curunir saw the King approach, he excused himself from his grim labours, and gave Ciryaher a low, sweeping bow.
"Your Majesty," said Curunir in a deep, sombre voice. "I trust everything that has transpired meets with your satisfaction. If I may make so bold, I perceive that the First Battle of Umbar, at which your late father Ciryandil was tragically slain, shall be remembered as merely a test, a trial of strength between the Men of the West and those of the South. But this Second Battle of Umbar, which you had feared lost, shall forever be recorded in the Annals of Gondor as a glorious victory for the Men of the West, one which shall buy peace along the southern frontiers of your empire for many generations."
King Ciryaher stared down at the charred corpses of the Black Serpent cultists, as mute and pitiful as the countless thousands of bodies he had seen in his ride from the Citadel. His face was calm, but his grey eyes were distant and sad.
"Yes," replied the King in a soft voice. "Yes. A great victory, Curunir, as you had foretold. Although…" Curunir raised a dark eyebrow, but the King failed to notice. "Although," continued Ciryaher, "at such a price…"
"It was unavoidable, Your Majesty," replied Curunir evenly. "War is a terrible business; but once it is unleashed, you must see it through to the bitter end."
"Your words are wise, Curunir the White," sighed the King. "And I, indeed all us folk of Gondor are eternally in your debt. You have only to ask me for anything, and it shall be yours."
"Your Majesty is as generous as he is fair," smiled Curunir, bowing again.
"Still," confessed the King, staring through the gates at the countless piles of rotting flesh that had once been mighty Oliphaunts of Harad. "Still, I confess this battle has changed me. I used to view war as a great game, an adventure, or so it seemed to me as I skirmished with Rhunlings and Haradrim on the frontiers in my youth. But it was never like this, never so many dead beyond counting. I see war now for what it is; a dreadful, bloody slaughter. Fate may call upon me to fight again in the future, and if so I shall do my duty; but, no longer shall I glory in it. Hereafter I shall take what pleasure I can in life from the scholarship and lore beloved of my late father Ciryandil, not in the din and strife of battle."
"That is, no doubt, as it should be," replied Curunir, his dark eyes inscrutable.
Two months later, the victory celebrations lined the broad, marble-flagged streets of Osgiliath, City of the Stars from its Eastern to its Western gate, and they lasted for seven days and three. As Curunir had prophesied, the citizens of Gondor had met news of the Second Battle of Umbar with wild enthusiasm, and it was celebrated as one of the greatest of the many victories in the history of that proud realm. True, many mothers had lost their sons, wives their husbands, and children their fathers. But when set against the honour obtained by the annihilation of a hated foe, and the promise of peace in the South for many long years to come, these things, sad though they may have been, weighed but little in the balance in the minds of most Gondor folk. Flushed with pride, they were determined to celebrate and fete the mighty victors of the battle, and none more so than their King, and his trusted aide, Curunir the White. Their anticipation had grown throughout the festivities, for the King and the White Wizard had camped and tarried at the Crossroads of Ithilien throughout most of the celebrations, only entering Osgiliath by its Eastern Gate on the final and supreme day of the revelry, when the fever of victory had reached its peak.
On that fair day, King Hyarmendacil – "South-victor", the name by which Ciryaher was ever after known in the Annals of Gondor – who was bedecked in his gold-filigreed, silvered armour and sable cape, and was wearing his winged and clear-gemmed silver crown, rode at the head of the victory parade in a chariot of solid gold, drawn by eight magnificent black stallions. He passed down the broad, graceful streets of the city, which were full of countless citizens, cheering and waving as they stood under a gentle rain of flower petals showered upon them by maidens standing on their balconies and rooftops.
By the King's side in the chariot stood Curunir the White, his ebon staff held proudly in his long, pale hand, his white hair and beard trimmed and groomed, his tall frame robed in magnificent robes of brilliant white wool, a gift from Hyarmendacil. Rumour had spread amongst the people that this mysterious scholar and traveler Curunir had brought secrets from the Southlands that had turned the tide of battle, and allowed their King to transform a desperate struggle against the vast army of the Haradrim into a swift and total victory for the Army of Gondor. While their King, of course, received the lion's share of the credit for that victory, the people were determined that the courageous, benevolent old Man who had proved so invaluable to him should also receive his fair share of the praise and the reward. Neither the grateful King nor the White Wizard found any fault with the people's sentiments in that regard.
The King's chariot crossed the Eastern bridge over the Anduin, and turned south into the courtyard of the Palace, where it was greeted by a cheering throng of nobles and courtiers, the men in their richest robes and furs, the women in their most elegant dresses and finery. The King dismounted, followed by Curunir, and they strode down the courtyard and up the steps, between two columns of the Royal Household Guard lining the stairs up to the silvered Palace doors. The doors were open, and they passed through them and down the long marble-columned entrance corridor, followed at a respectful distance by the nobles.
Arriving in the throne room, its dark blue roof shimmering with the light of the Sun reflected through its star-gems, the King strode towards his silver throne, turned, and seated himself proudly, the very image of regal dignity. Curunir stood at a respectful distance to his right. The nobles and courtiers filed into the room, stopping short a few paces before Curunir, and their gossip and chatter faded into silence as their King signaled to them that he wished to speak.
"My friends," said King Hyarmenadcil, "my friends, today we celebrate victory."
The nobles began to cheer, but the King cut them short with a wave of his hand.
"My friends," he continued, "there are many who say that I was the author of our victory. And I appreciate your kind words. But I must say plainly, it is not King Ciryaher Hyarmendacil of the House of Anarion whom you should thank."
The nobles began to murmur at these words, and one or two shouted "No, my liege, you are the victor!"
"No," he replied, waving his head somberly. "No, I say again, do not offer your thanks to your King. I merely did my duty. Rather offer your thanks as follows; first, to the brave soldiers of Gondor's Army of the South!"
A loud cheer rose up from the nobles, and a round of applause that lasted for some minutes. The King then gestured for them to be silent, and continued his remarks.
"And second, but certainly not least, offer your thanks to the Man whom you see standing before my throne; Curunir the White! Truly is he known as the "Man of Skill", for it was by his wisdom and his abilities that we defeated the Haradrim. All of us owe him a great debt, and I decree that henceforth he shall rank as a honourary Lord of Gondor, with all the privileges and income accruing to that station. His name and honourary rank shall be added to the Rolls of Nobility forthwith. Offer Lord Curunir your thanks, and your praise!"
The nobles cheered again, though perhaps with a bit less fervour than before, and sustained a lengthy round of polite applause for the mysterious Curunir, the outlander of uncertain origins who had risen so high in the esteem of their King, and to whom it seemed they owed a tremendous debt.
The King again gestured for the nobles to be silent, and then indicated to Curunir that he should speak a few words.
"My dear friends," smiled Curunir, speaking in his smoothest, most mellow tones, "I humbly accept your thanks, unworthy of it though I may be. Indeed, if I may make so bold as to gainsay His Majesty, it is to the King and his brave soldiers that you owe your victory, not to me. I merely offered the King such counsel as seemed fit." A few of the younger nobles began to whisper amongst themselves of the rumors they had heard concerning Curunir's strangely powerful Voice, and the role it had played in the battle, but the White Wizard continued without interruption:
"There is no higher calling than to serve others, and in so far as I have been of service and shall continue to be of service to Gondor, then I shall not consider my efforts to have been in vain. Gondor has won the victory, and on that account her people shall enjoy many long years of peace."
The nobles began to cheer again, but Curunir gestured for them to be silent. "For my part, while I am most grateful for the generous rewards bestowed on me by His Majesty, I ask but one thing of all of you." His voice became deeper and graver now. "Do not let Gondor's vigilance wane! For though long the years of peace may seem to you and your offspring, the day shall come when the storms of war gather again. When that day arrives, Gondor must be ready to answer the call. Be vigilant, and be strong, brave Men of the West!"
The nobles reflected somberly on Curunir's words, until the King indicated that they should offer their thanks for his wisdom. Then they broke into another round of applause, and of cheering, before the King led them from the Throne Room towards the sumptuous feast laid out in the Banquet Hall.