Flavor text: Against the Shadow

With the previous two articles in this series being rather short, we leave that behind us now, as the quests now come with dialogue and an ending. Because of that, I will now be adding a “completed” section for each quest if it is applicable. The narrative in this one is a lot stronger than the previous two cycles, so I hope you will enjoy the story here!


Peril in Pelargir

Start: The shadow of Sauron has risen with increasing violence against the kingdom of Gondor. Our heroes have traveled southeast by ship from the Grey Havens at the request of the White Council, ready to aid the descendants of Númenor in their defense against the forces of Mordor. Upon reaching the port of Pelargir, they are greeted by Lord Alcaron, a nobleman from the city of Minas Tirith. Lord Alcaron has urgent information for Faramir, but he is frightened that the Enemy is after him. He asks the heroes to deliver a scroll to Faramir. The heroes agree when a band of ruffians appear, intent on intercepting the message…

Into Ithilien

Start: Having reached the eaves of Ithilien, our heroes enter the green woodlands in search of Faramir, seeking to deliver to him the scroll of Lord Alcaron. There they are met by Celador, a ranger of Gondor, who informs the heroes that Faramir has taken his men to Cair Andros in anticipation of an assault against the island fortress. Celador offers to bring the heroes to Cair Andros by secret paths–after the rangers ambush a company of Southrons marching north on the Ithilien road. Grateful for Celador’s offer and unable to stand by while his men do battle, our heroes volunteer to fight alongside his rangers…

The Siege of Cair Andros

Start: The island fortress of Cair Andros guards Gondor’s northernmost causeways over the Anduin. Our heroes reach the causeway and enter the fortress as skirmishers appear on the eastern shore. They find Faramir in the Citadel and deliver to him the scroll of Lord Alcaron. Drums are heard, and horns, and the tramping of many feet. An army of Orcs and Southrons prepare a three-pronged assault, and the heroes gird themselves for battle. For if Cair Andros falls, the doom of Gondor is nigh…

The Steward’s Fear

Start: The heroes arrive in Minas Tirith with news of victory at Cair Andros and a message for Lord Alcaron from Faramir. Upon arriving at the city, they learn that Lord Alcaron is traveling on important business north in Anórien. Even so, the heroes are soon furtively summoned to the White Tower by none other than Denethor, the Steward of Gondor himself. Word has come to Denethor of the heroes’ bravery in the defense of Cair Andros, and he’s learned the heroes have the confidence of Lord Alcaron. In Denethor’s mind, such trusted new arrivals are perfectly suited for a special task of a clandestine nature.

In the privacy of the Steward’s inner chambers, Denethor asks the heroes a delicate favor. He fears that a conspiracy has taken root within the walls of Minas Tirith: a cabal under Mordor’s bidding that seeks to usurp the stewardship and deliver Gondor to Sauron. He asks that the heroes discover the truth of this matter…

Completed: With the champion of the cabal destroyed and the conspiracy seemingly vanquished, Denethor’s relief was palpable and his reward substantial. Yet, as the White City I resettled into tentative content, a quiet unease remained with you. Subtle clues had not been reconciled, and certain witnesses were no longer to be found. Despite the undeniable power of its defeated champion, the ambition of the conspiracy had seemed greater still.

During the weeks that followed, you probed quietly for additional answers. Little by little, you made progress until you suddenly found yourselves near the heart of the darkness. Like a viper trapped in its nest, coiled and venomous, the hidden mastermind, who indeed had survived, launched a desperate strike on our heroes. But as so many foes before them, the assassins from Harad were unsuccessful.

With his champion defeated, his best killers dead, and his identity on the cusp of being unveiled, the secretive servant of Mordor chose instead to escape the city with his few remaining retainers.

Upon learning that his shadowy nemesis still drew breath, Denethor urged the heroes to take up the pursuit. And so your hunt began, equipped with fast horses and the seal of the Steward. Unfortunately, the secretive villain had a substantial lead, and you found yourself following his shrewd course for near a fortnight.

Leading north and then westward along the foothills of the mountains, the enemy’s trail has taken you to the edge of the Druadan Forest, a wild place with a reputation for danger…

The Druadan Forest

Start: The heroes have unmasked a dangerous conspiracy within the walls of Minas Tirith, but the nameless mastermind of the cabal managed to escape the city before his true identity was revealed. At the request of Denethor, the heroes have pursued the clever villain and his henchmen northward. The conspirators’ trail has lead them north beyond the Rammas Echor, and then west to the doorstep of the Drúadan Forest, an ancient land with a hostile reputation. Now our heroes move to track their quarry among its ancient trees and strange stones…

Completed: The small rough hands of Drû-buri-Drû gently touch yours in friendship. His eyes are sad for those lost in the needless skirmish.

”Dru-buri-Dru shall remember that not all Tall Men would be enemies,” he rumbles, his voice bringing to mind roots in old earth and stones in deep rivers. “ Drû-buri-Drû shall tell Ghan-buri-Ghan that there are some Tall Men who would touch the Wild Men in ways other than steel. ” The small man gives you a final look of appraisal and then barks a command to his kin. The Woses begin to blend back into the silent obscurity of the forest. Drú-buri-Drú moves to follow but turns a last time before the forest absorbs his presence.

“There is a bad smell in the air,” he observes as his face tilts to glance at the eastern sky. “Mór-sari-Mór says there are bad years coming for both Tall Men and Wild Men.” He raises his hand in farewell and then he is gone. You find yourselves alone with the grey rocks and the ancient canopy of the Drúadan once more. Muffled in the distance, you hear the voice of Drû-buri-Drû faintly lift above the forest murmur, “May you stand against the Shadow.”

Relieved and tired, you emerge from the forest. You are glad to be alive and satisfied to have seen the end of the conspirators. With the Drúadan behind you, you make your return eastward and southward to Minas Tirith.

On the morning of the second day, you wake to multiple columns of smoke trailing the eastern sky. Farmsteads and towns of Anórien are burning. Evil has come to the lands north of the Rammas Echor, and its people will be in need of help…

Encounter at Amon Din

Start: Having escaped from the Drúadan Forest and witnessed the demise of the conspirators by the arrows of the Woses, the heroes have begun their journey back to Minas Tirith. In the morning of the second day, they awoke to a grim sight. Dozens of columns of smoke were rising across the hilly farmlands of Anórien.

It seems death had crossed the Anduin after all.

As our heroes warily approached the nearest of the fires, they came upon two farmers hiding in the hedges. The frightened bondsmen told of roving bands of orcs scouring the countryside, bringing destruction to the defenseless herdsman and farmers of the surrounding lands. They told of a particularly cruel group that assaulted the nearby village during the night. They feared the villagers were dead.

Approaching the village, the heroes saw signs that the citizens may not have been completely helpless. Several orc bodies lay crumpled in the streets, and a crude barricade of horse carts and earth-covered hay bales protected the town’s inner square. Only the buildings on the outskirts of the town seemed to be sacked and burning.

As the heroes approached the barricade, the villagers eyed them suspiciously, their expressions wavering between mistrust and hope of assistance. Smoke lay in a thick haze in the streets, reddening eyes and shortening tempers.

What appeared to be a nobleman and his escort of guardsmen were helping the villagers with the defenses and in caring for the wounded and burned. They seemed haggard and tired from the night’s fighting. As the heroes approached, the sooty and weary nobleman squinted through the acrid haze at the newcomers, his hand moving to his sword. Then, as a faint gust of wind cleared the air for a moment, the nobleman broke into a wide grin of recognition. It was non-other than Lord Alcaron.

“Out of the west comes hope unasked for,” he called. “May I be the first to say that you are well met indeed!”

After a brief greeting, Lord Alcaron grimly told the heroes of the plight into which they had fallen, and how he had been sent northward about a month ago on the realm’s business. Denethor had deemed it wise, in case Cair Andros should fall, to raise the levy of Anórien and prepare for the evacuation of the northlands to the safer side of the Rammas Echor. Upon receiving news of the victory at Cair Andros, Alcaron disbanded the levy, and for the past week or so has been seeing to the Stewards’ business in the region.

“Alas” he grimaced, “even as the victory of Cair Andros held back the tide of Mordor, the defeat must have left a substantial number of the enemy trapped on the western side of the river.” Alcaron sighed, “One would think those vile creatures would seek to return to their master by any means possible.”

“No such luck. Instead they’ve come west to punish the local countryside, burning and murdering where they go”. Alcaron went on to tell of how the roads of Anórien had quickly become far too dangerous for traveling. Even with an armed escort, Alcaron was forced to seek the tenuous security of the present village.

“A large group of the enemy has descended on the lands surrounding the Amon Dîn,” he continued, gesturing at the great hill that dominated the northern skyline. “They’re led by a particularly nasty captain who calls himself Ghulat.” He spat out the ugly name and pointed at the barricades. “We barely held them here last night. I don’t think they were expecting any resistance.”

“The enemy will not make that mistake again.” Alcaron wearily glanced at a group of tired villagers leaning against a nearby wagon, armed with harvesting scythes and hayforks. “I didn’t like our chances of surviving another night.”

He turned to the heroes, a wide smile breaking across his sooty face. “Now that you’re here, I find cause for hope. Maybe we’ll save this village yet. What do you say?”

Completed: Ghulat is dead and the village is safe. In the death and ruin, a stoic Alcaron reminds you of how much worse a punishment these lands would have suffered should Cair Andros have fallen. Even as the villagers bury their dead and begin repairs, the wives bring out their best foods and tablecloths to celebrate the village’s survival and to give thanks to their saviors. As you feast, the distant fires seem much diminished. You hope this is a sign that local populations elsewhere are also managing to overcome the marauding bands.

Lord Alcaron proves a pleasurable companion on the return road to Minas Tirith. He beams of pride in the countryside, extolling the history of Anórien and of how the ancient walls of the Rammas Echor were built by Denethor’s father, Ecthelion the Second. Alcaron points to where great efforts are underway to repair the old defenses. “Gondor will never fall,” he exclaims, “not as long as its people live their lives in defiance.” He avoids looking east, the flicker of doubt in his eyes betraying the bravado of his words. As the towers of Minas Tirith rise into prominent view under the white peak of Mount Mindolluin, a group of riders carrying the banners of Gondor come upon you on the road. As they approach, you see they are soldiers of Gondor in full plate, their faces serious and intent upon their task.

The captain of the company approaches, nodding respectfully as he recognizes Lord Alcaron. “The Steward is calling the Pelennor to arms” the captain says. “With the enemy repelled at Cair Andros, Lord Boromir takes advantage of their disarray and we move to retake Osgiliath.” He gestures east. “I am to send all able swords to join Lord Boromir’s forces.”

As the soldiers continue north, Alcaron shrugs. “I guess the feather beds and sweet wines of Minas Tirith must wait a few days more.” He turns his horse to take an eastern roadway. “Lord Boromir is not one to be kept waiting.” He stops for a moment and looks questioningly at you, patting the pommel of his sword. “Able swords? I do hope we can ride together for a few hours more, friends of Gondor.”

You glance east, where the black peaks of the Mountains of Shadow are crowned in a sullen have of grey cloud. It seems Gondor has not finished with you yet…

Assault on Osgiliath

Start: After saving the villagers near Amon Dîn, the heroes have joined with Lord Alcaron to assist Lord Boromir’s forces in retaking Osgiliath. At the army encampment, you are thrilled to again meet Lord Faramir, and you are introduced to his brother Boromir, eldest son of Denethor and renowned hero of Gondor.

Nestled on both sides of the Anduin lies old Osgiliath, a crossroads city bridging the great river. In the long war against Mordor, control of Osgiliath has been a critical piece. One that Boromir means to reclaim. As the sun breaks over the Mountains of Shadow, beating at the still river fog, the great horn of Gondor sounds from Boromir’s lips. As its sound fades into the morning, the men of Gondor cry out as one. They cry for battle and the ruin of foes, their swords lifted to the sky. Come death and come honor, the newest battle for Osgiliath begins…

Completed: The battle finally comes to an end.

For a while there is silence. There is no clanging of weapons, no thuds of arrows, no screams of pain. Just silence, breathing, and exhausted stares. The bodies of men and orcs litter the streets and waterways of Osgiliath, carrion debris scattered by a hard wind.

You pry your fingers from weapons sticky with blood, shoulders aching from forgotten strokes.

Then the Horn of Gondor breaks the silence in triumph. The banner of the Stewards is unwrapped from the top of the white river bridge. The primal cry of victory that follows begins with Boromir, his sword held high in the air. The cry grows until you inexorably join it. The sound of it, the exhilaration of it, vibrate the marble pillars around you. It is the sound of victory, older than the city, older than the river that runs through it.

A claw of the enemy has been cut and it has retracted. He was repelled at Cair Andros, and His hold on Osgiliath has been broken. In the eyes of the men around you, you see the light of Numenor awoken. Gondor’s first sons, Faramir and Boromir, and Boromir especially are worshipped by the men like the scions of old returned. It is a great day.

That night, Lord Alcaron and Lord Faramir find you in the merry glow of the campfires. Alcaron is exhilarated and enthusiastic, Faramir reserved. “ We won’t stop here,” Lord Alcaron exclaims and points eastward into the darkness. “ Tomorrow we follow them; we hunt them.” He smiles and clenches his fist. “ We don’t stop until their black bones break on the mountains.”

Faramir sits down by your fire, looking weary. “ Our Lord Alcaron has convinced my brother we should pursue the enemy into Ithilien” he says calmly. He reaches for a stray stick and starts to rummage absently in the fire, his eyes distant. “ We leave at first light.”

“Ithilien will be ours again!” Alcaron doesn’t let Faramir’s solemn demeanor reduce his spirit. “ We’ll be at Sauron’s doorstep, rather than he on ours.” Faramir glances at the excited nobleman, visibly uncomfortable with the Enemy’s name spoken so casually. Alcaron doesn’t seem to notice. “ We’ll hold the southern road. We’ll bleed him!” He grabs Faramir’s shoulder. “ And whom better to take and hold that realm than the one who knows it
best?” Alcaron smiles at Faramir, hoping to recruit his enthusiasm. Faramir doesn’t bite.

“ This goes against my advice,’’ Faramir says, “ but my brother wills it, so I go.” He tosses the stick into the flames and rises, eyes still on the fire. “ Gondor owes you a great deal, friends of Gandalf ” he says, his eyes meeting yours. “I cannot ask you for more than what you’ve already given.” For the first time this evening, his lips turn to a faint smile. “ But I would be honored of your company once more, should you grant it.” Faramir nods as he leaves. “I ride at early dawn.” He steps beyond the light of your fire and you soon lose sight of him in the labyrinth of campfires that surround Osgiliath at night.

Lord Alcaron claps his hands once and stands, his smile wide. “I ride with Faramir and his rangers tomorrow!” He pats each of you on the shoulders and follows Faramir, his request unsaid.

It wasn’t a difficult decision. You soon find yourselves in the darkness before dawn assembling with Faramir’s men at the eastern edge of the city. As the first band of light grows above the Mountains of Shadow, Alcaron notices you. He grins and winks an enthusiastic welcome. Moments later the column of rangers begins to move, Faramir at its head. Once again, you are heading east into darkness and danger…

The Blood of Gondor

Start: In a great victory for Gondor, the city of Osgiliath has been retaken and the river Anduin is once more under the Steward’s control. Alongside the Lords Boromir, Faramir, and Alcaron, the heroes fought bravely to recapture the ancient city.

With the defeated forces of orcs and evil men retreating eastward, Lord Alcaron had urged Boromir to pursue the scattered enemy. “Don’t let a single one of them return to foul the Pelennor again!” Alcaron pleaded. “We should hunt them. Pursue them until their black bones break on the mountains.” Flush with the confidence of victory and swayed by the nobleman’s passion, Boromir agreed and asked his brother to take on this endeavor with his rangers. Faramir reluctantly consented.

By the request of Faramir, our heroes joined the incursion. The morning after the fall of Osgiliath, the company of rangers began their foray into the autumnal forests of Ithilien.

In the days that followed, the rangers managed to track and destroy a number of enemy mobs. Their carcasses were left to the elements: skeletal warnings to those of Mordor who would cross Ithilien again. It was late afternoon on the third day before the company came to the old crossroads near the foothills of the mountains.

Faramir walked at the head of the column, our heroes and Lord Alcaron close at heel. As they came to the crossroads, Faramir crossed to the old statue that stood sentinel over the silent junction facing west. Alcaron moved to follow, but Faramir waived him back.

The stone figure, which must have been an impressive sight to those traveling the roads long ago, depicted a king of old seated on a throne. The years had softened its features, moss and lichen growing in its crevices and cracks. Rude scrawls and rough carvings had been made by hostile hands, defiling its stonework. The head of the statue had been knocked off, replaced with a crudely hewn stone. A coarse drawing of a grinning face with a single eye had been painted in red on the stone. The crowned head of the old king that lay to the side was curiously unmarked. It seemed the grass was greener where the head had fallen.

As Faramir reached the statue, he gently touched the stone as if greeting an old friend. He then knelt by the fallen face and sat for a moment. He rose slowly, carefully eying the road and surrounding terrain. No enemy had been seen since the evening before, a fact that troubled him. Above, grey clouds pressed close, and a light rain had begun to fall. In the late afternoon light, the forest seemed to have lost its color; ashen and sullen it seemed to watch their every movement in the exposed space.

Then a look of decision crossed Faramir’s face, and he thoughtfully returned to the company. “We’ve taken this folly far enough,” he said. “There is an unkind change in the forest.” He paused a moment, glancing into the trees. “The lands so near to the Morgul Valley have been under His sway for too long. It’s unsafe to proceed.” Alcaron moved to protest, but Faramir would not abide. “My brother will have to be satisfied with the work done so far. We return to Osgiliath.”

As the company turned westward for their return journey, the silence of the forest broke in the blast of a distant horn. The sound rose and fell like some wounded brass bird. A chilling drone that promised nothing good.

Suddenly, the woods all around the rangers came alive with the rushing black shapes and cruel blades of the enemy. An imposing robed figure led them, and the charging orcs gave him a wide berth. Though his face was mostly hidden by the cowl of his dark-grey robes, the man emanated terrible intent. This was no ordinary ambush.

Lord Alcaron screamed a brave challenge as he drew his sword. Faramir and his hard-eyed rangers simply pulled their blades in a steely whisper and waited for the onslaught to come.

The fight joined like a thunderclap…

Completed:

Even as your bodies shake from exertion, you cannot rest. The victory at Cair Andros. The victory at Osgiliath. Should a son of the Steward be taken by Sauron, then Gondors joy of such achievements would turn to ash in its mouth.

Night falls over Ithilien as you follow the tracks of the Uruk that took Faramir and Alcaron. You run where possible, and hurry when not. Your eyes constantly move from the ground to the darkness ahead, hoping to catch a glimpse of your quarry.

As you near the dread valley of Morgul, the vegetation is increasingly dead or corrupted. The faint smell of decay lies upon the lands, growing stronger with each step eastward. Soon the moon appears above the Mountains of Shadow, bathing the landscape in a soulless light. Though the illumination gives you no comfort, you are thankful for its help as you follow the signs of the Uruk. Of all your dangerous errands, of any defiance to Mordor that you may have shown in the past, this is a task you must not fail!

The dying vegetation slowly gives way to flinty rock and hardened dirt. The signs of the Uruk captors grow fresher, and you sense they are close. You run alongside the tepid, foul-smelling stream of Morgulduin that comes out of the Morgul Vale itself, its stony banks receding eastward into the deepening shadows. As you proceed, you begin to feel the presence of Mordor before you, like a physical weight that taxes you to stop and flee. Tendrils of despair begin to grip your hearts as you remember the stories of this place. Yet still you move on, ceaselessly, inexorably. Ahead, you can feel the baleful presence of Minas Morgul, the Tower of Sorcery.

The Morgul Vale

Start: While pursuing the scattered enemy forces into Ithilien, Faramir’s company of rangers are ambushed by orcs near the old crossroads. During the ensuing fight, both Lord Faramir and Lord Alcaron are captured.

At the thought of Denethor’s son in Sauron’s torture chambers, the heroes begin a desperate pursuit. Following frantic hours of tracking, they find themselves at the mouth of the dread Morgul Valley.

As the Dead City comes into distant view, they have come upon their quarry at last.

Seeing their pursuers close behind, the breathless Uruk are visibly frustrated. They growl angrily as they halt to confer. A hooded figure in their midst, undoubtedly their leader, calmly directs the vexed orcs. He reminds our heroes of the Morgul sorcerer who led the ambush back at the crossroads. Even while that malefactor lies dead on the forest floor, they don’t relish the thought of facing another of his kind.

The truth is worse. Much worse.

The robed figures decisively gestures at the distant tower, his demeanor brooking no debate. The tallest of the Uruk submissively throws a man-sized bundle over his shoulders. Grunting for two of its kind to follow, the Uruk starts a brisk pace eastward. The robed figure is clearly not about to risk his trophy on the doorstep of Mordor.

As the breakout group moves down the ancient cobblestone road, the remaining Uruk turn to face the approaching heroes. As they enter earshot, the robed figure casually claps his hands and starts to laugh. The sound is hauntingly familiar.

“You’re incurable!” he exclaims. “Why won’t you just die!” He raises his arms in mock frustration as the Uruk pull free their weapons in a rusty cacophony. Their eyes glow with bloodlust.

“Fortunately, you are entirely too late” the robed figure continues. He casually gestures back at the tall Uruk pacing eastward toward the ghastly city. The bundled shape of a prisoner bobs on its ironclad back. “Sauron shall have His prize.” A cloud washes away from the moon as the robed man pulls back his hood “Nothing can stop that now.”

A sickening heartache roils the heroes. Time seems to stand still as the depth of the betrayal hits them. The sickening corpse-light of Minas Morgul seems brighter. The waters of the Morgulduin gurgle in cruel amusement.

“It should be natural, that one as old as I should have mastered patience,” says Lord Alcaron, whose real name is Ulchor. “Yet your persistence has tested me. Congratulations!” He continues, lowering his arms dramatically. “My master wanted both the brothers, but it seems I’ll deliver only the younger.” The traitor shrugs, “still, something tells me the younger is the greater prize.” Alcaron takes a moment to study the faces of his former friends. His smile seems to brighten at the horror he sees there. “Of course, I mean to deliver him your heads as well. As a consolation.”

The traitor nods to the largest of the Uruk. “I’m pleased to introduce my trusted servant Murzag.” As the traitor speaks he nods to the beasts. Murzag and his companions begin to move forward, licking their blades in anticipation. “I hope you’ll find his company eviscerating.”

As the Uruk charge the heroes, Alcaron casually turns and begins to walk toward Minas Morgul. His laughter echoes against the valley walls where unwholesome white flowers seem to drink the sound.

Completed: Beyond hope, you have beaten back the black rider and his minions. Yet, such a victory has bought you mere moments. As if stirred in anger, the corpse-light of Minas Morgul pulsates slowly and ominously before you, like a funeral shroud in a warm wind. The undulating light reflects in the soulless white flowers that soundlessly seem to cry for your acquiescence in death.

The scream of the Nazgul tears into the night air once more. A haunting ensemble of shrill flutes begins to play from behind the city’s bone-white walls. As the doors of the city open once more, something finally breaks inside
you and terror takes hold. Dragging the barely sentient Faramir, you desperately flee westward as fast as your exhausted legs will take you. You never dare look back at Minas Morgul and the sepulchral procession spilling from its gates.

In the years that followed, you would remember little of the flight westward. It is a dim blur of barren mountainsides, rotten leaves, of the nocturnal forest and the haunting face of the distant moon above. When you now glance upon the full moon, you cannot help remembering the dread glow of Minas Morgul, and you shiver.

As the morning broke, a group of the surviving rangers found you slumped by the statue at the crossroads. They were not sure who was in worse condition, the wounded and beaten Faramir or his pale rescuers, unblinking and cold from horror and exertion.

You glance back from the saddle. Minas Tirith recedes into the distance and the Tower of Ecthelion, gleaming red in the sunset, seems to wave a final farewell.

You remember it all. The bear-hugs and gratitude from Boromir at Osgiliath. The careful ministrations in the Houses of Healing as your bodies mended and your minds forgot. The grand celebration in the court of Denethor, filled with flowers, smiles, and deep red wine. You remember the Steward pledging the friendship of the White City. You remember words, and handshakes, and music. You recall the parting with Faramir, the endless gratitude in his eyes the most precious reward of them all.

Then your eyes invariably move eastward, and your hearts sink as you remember what you’ve been trying to forget. The ambush. The brooding watchfulness of Minas Morgul. The cold terror of the Ringwraith. The treason of a friend.

You turn back and sput the horses on, toward the sunset, toward the Gap of Rohan. You feel comforted with Gondor at your back. By its strong, willful, and unyielding resistance to the shadow. You sense that you’ll see its green fields and white towers once more.

Until that day, other adventures lie ahead.

Epilogue: Ulchor’s backstory

Ulchor sat in the common room of the Leaping Fish, waiting for the pawns of his scheme to arrive. He smiled politely at the human cattle as they milled in and out of the tavern, subtly raising their glasses, tipping their hats, or mouthing a quiet “g’day M’lord”. He had never liked the sea, and he found the pungent smell of fish and seaweed that clung to the walls of Pelargir revolting. He would not be sad to leave this place or its pathetic salty people.

Life in Gondor had been painfully long. Too long. Thankfully it was soon ending.

Ulchor struggled to imagine the limits of his master’s cunning. Sauron was patient as the night, delicately weaving His plans into the fabric of the west, planting black seeds that would long lie dormant, biding their time to bloom.

Ulchor sipped at his wine, remembering.

After word reached Barad-Dûr that a second son had been born to Denethor, Sauron had begun to hatch a plan. A plan which, decades later, would find Ulchor in this cesspool of rotten boats and briny smells that the Gondorian fools called a city.

He’d been summoned and he had not idled. Without delay, Ulchor left his blood-wives and thralls at his stronghold on the shores of Núrnen. He hated the salty air of the place anyway. Besides, when Sauron summoned, one did not linger. There were few left of Ulchor’s kind, and the Dark Lord greatly values their services. Unlike the Yrch, Ulchor’s kin was competent, intelligent, and truly cruel. They were a people cunning beyond normal reckon, and in their veins they carried the wisdom and long life of Westernesse. Some in the West called them “Black Númenorians,” but few truly knew their powers, nor the depths of their hatred towards Elendil’s heirs.

It had been more than sixteen years since the small holdfast in Anórien had been ravaged by a sortie of orcs. Every bondsman in its surrounding area, every servant, the entire noble family, had been brutally murdered. Except, when help finally arrived, they found the nobleman’s son still alive. Miraculously, he was saved by hiding in the keep’s stone culverts, and so had avoided both the burning and the notice of the orcs. When they found him, the young man was near death, famished, smoke-crazy, and out of his mind with grief and horror. But the boy had survived, and so did his line. The holdfast was rebuilt in time, and new farmers were invited to till the unfortunate land. The son became Lord, and the Lord became strong. He garnered influence across the region, and became respected in the courts of the Steward.

Fools, thought Ulchor. The boy’s bones were buried under heavy boulders in the stream behind the stone hall. Not a soul had been left alive to doubt the story of the traumatized young survivor. When distant relations had arrived to help in rebuilding, they had embraced him as their own. Some of the wives had actually commented on how he had taken after his father or how he had his mother’s eyes. The sorcery that had given youth to his features had been very effective.

And so had he. Ulchor took another drink as emphasis. He relished the thought of the days to come. When the remnants of the West would be cast into the same hated sea that drowned the homeland of his ancestors.

Soon, the emissaries of the White Council would sail into Pelargir’s harbor. And because of his ingenuity and misdirection, they would come to trust him. He would them just as he had fooled everyone else, and with the credibility of his name, they would help him get closer to his prey than ever before.

He could have claimed the older brother already. Lord Boromir was competent and strong, but he was boastful, stubborn, and quick to action. No, it was the younger brother who was difficult, with his clever eyes and sad smiles. Sauron wanted them brought before him, but Sauron did not know them as he did. Ulchor, who the cattle called Alcaron would ensure the truly dangerous of Denethor’s sons would not slip his patient net.

And when he struck, Gondor would find itself without its mightiest sons.


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