Captain Grondmir cautiously lifted the hood of his mottled grey and black cloak as he peeked between the boulders of his hiding place. Those at the fringes of the enemy encampment a hundred yards away had no inkling of being spied upon. A couple of bored Orcs on picket duty exchanged a bit of gossip less than a third of that distance from Grondmir’s place of concealment. Had they bothered to look in the Captain’s direction, they would have seen nothing but a shapeless lump among the basalt outcropping.
Grondmir waggled a finger behind him. He felt, rather than heard, a ranger stealthily moving up to his position. “What do you make of that?” he whispered to his similarly disguised companion.
“Give me your glass,” Pocosin whispered back. The young scout took the proffered spyglass and spent several minutes carefully scanning the visible portions of the camp. “It’s a semi-permanent camp, sir. From the size of their latrines and spacing of pickets, I’d say there are fifty or sixty troops, maybe a few more.
“Humph!” Grondmir snorted. “Too many for a raid.” He took back the spyglass and inspected the camp for himself. “Let’s get back to the others,” he whispered a few minutes later.
The pair crawled away from the camp, keeping as low to the ground as possible until they reached the denser cover of a young hemlock grove.
* * *
Goleck Dune stood watch as his fellow rangers huddled in their cloaks and ate a late lunch of dried meat, cheese and stale bread. He gazed briefly at an ominous autumn sky. Dark clouds were moving in rapidly. There would be rain within a few hours. None of the group looked forward to another dreary, cold night in the wilderness. There would be snow soon.
Despite the discomforting cold, none of the rangers even suggested building a fire, for stealth and invisibility were their greatest weapons. They also had their best successes against the enemy in adverse conditions. Orcs always seemed to be most careless during the foul weather.
Three distinct clicks of the late season Rock Cricket sounded from somewhere deep in the woods. At the faint snap of Dune’s fingers, the rangers immediately formed a defensive ring, half the men silently drawing their swords, the others nocking arrows. The Sergeant waited patiently, his own bow at the ready.
Three cricket clicks sounded again. Dune pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth, clicking three times in reply, then three times again a few seconds later──the recognition code. Three clicks sounded again from the woods. “The Captain’s coming,” he whispered to his mates as two familiar figures emerged from among the forest of tree trunks.
“What news, Captain?” Dune asked as the officer and scout crouched low with the others.
“The Orcs have their camp set up about a mile north of here. There’s too many for a direct assault, but Faramir can be here within a day with the main body of troops. I’m sending one of you off to the south to report the situation.” At that moment, Faramir and a company of rangers were encamped just south of Morgul Road after conducting a month’s operations in the woods north of Emyn Arnen.
“I’ll go,” volunteered a young ranger named Cristmir Brethil. “I can outrun anybody in these woods, be they Men, deer or Orcs.”
The Captain nodded. Cristmir was well-known for his speed, sharp eyes and stealth. “The rest of us have work to do,” Grondmir continued. “The Orcs will be at a bit more vulnerable to an attack if we can cut off their supplies for a day or two.” He briefly glanced up at the rapidly darkening sky. “We’ll move out as soon as the rain starts. We can be southwest of the enemy encampment and infiltrating their supply route before it’s completely dark.”
“What’s the camp look like, Captain?” one of the rangers asked.
“It’s definitely a temporary base camp for their raids on our river settlements north of Osgiliath. It’s got to be dealt with quickly before they bring in more troops. The twelve of us, minus Corporal Brethil, aren’t enough to raid it, but we can make sure they’re mighty hungry and pissed off by morning. Are you ready for a brawl, boys?” he grinned.
“I’m game,” Sergeant Dune said grimly. The others nodded in agreement.
* * *
Three Orcs moved glumly northward through the misty, rapidly darkening Ithilien woods, returning from a somewhat curtailed scouting trip. For over three hours they had moved in single file, fifteen feet apart, but their intervals rapidly decreased as the weather conditions worsened and their tempers along with it.
“Captain Míkneb is going to have our scrotums if he finds out we disobeyed orders,” whined the second Orc of the trio. “We could have at least kept heading south until the storm broke. If we get back early he’s going to know that we didn’t scout all the way to Morgul Road.”
“Quit your damned blabbering,” muttered the leader, a tall Uruk. “Do you think that those damned rangers are stupid enough to be mucking around in this damned rain? The only thing we would have seen for those last few miles would have been more damned woods!”
“Yeah, shut up,” the third said sulkily to the second. “I’ve already had enough of this cold rain. It’s starting to sleet too. Captain Míkneb can go diddle himself with a wooden spoon.”
The cold sprinkle turned to a steady drizzle as the trio headed across a wide clearing. Their boots squished on already waterlogged leaves as they threaded their way through a maze of widely spaced stumps and scrubby second growth. Quality lumber had been harvested from this part of the woods during more prosperous times.
The Uruk glanced only briefly at an odd-looking grey and black boulder among the mossy stumps. He halted suddenly, looking up at the sky with bared teeth. He gripped the hilt of his sword as increasing amounts of cold sleet began to pelt down mercilessly. If it had been possible to attack the sky at that moment, he would have done so. He lowered his head, kicked at a clod of leaves in frustration and plodded onward.
“Hey! Wait up, you guys,” the third Orc said urgently. “I’ve got to take a leak.”
“Hurry up!” growled the leader, his immediate thoughts on a hot fire and a steaming bowl of gruel. He and the second Orc stared sullenly at the wet leaves. It would be completely dark in another hour.
“Ah, that’s better,” Orc number three sighed as he relieved himself. “What?” he muttered, turning his head. Out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn that the boulder among the stumps had moved. He failed to detect a faint swishing sound a fraction of a second before a hurled tomahawk split his skull.
“Ambush!” the Uruk shouted belatedly as the mundane boulder suddenly morphed into a cloaked ranger. Even as he drew his sword, an arrow streaked across the clearing, passing through the second Orc’s gullet.
“Mannish scum!” yelled the leader as his companion fell over backward, clawing at his throat. He raised his broadsword in a deadly two-handed grip as he charged in great bounds toward the ghostly figure. Before he taken five strides, however, the marksman nocked again with incredible speed, sending an arrow though the Uruk’s cuirass and torso.
“I’ve had worse than this before,” the Orc growled in agony as he doubled over momentarily. “Now die!” He raised his sword again, only to find himself staring at a ranger’s cloak draped over a bush. “Behind you,” came a sarcastic voice over his shoulder.
The Uruk whirled about, his sword hissing in a great arc intended to decapitate any opponent standing behind him. Unfortunately for him, Cristmir Brethil was not any opponent, nor was he standing.
The ranger rose from his crouch and thrust in one smooth motion, driving his sword point through the enemy’s neck. The Uruk gargled horribly on his own black blood as he staggered backwards, tripped over a stump and fell in convulsions.
“Where do they recruit cretins like you?” Cristmir muttered in disgust as he wiped his sword with a handful of leaves. He quickly recovered his weapons and cloak before vanishing into the darkness.
* * *
Grondmir’s squad moved slowly but steadily toward the northeast under an icy drizzle as the sky rapidly darkened. An occasional flash of lightning lit their way. The Captain signaled a halt when he spotted what they were probably looking for. The squad instinctively crouched for cover as he gestured for his
scout to join him.
“What is it, Captain?” Pocosin whispered as he hunkered down at the officer’s side.
“Look there!” Grondmir said as another brief flash of lightning lit up the terrain. A low, stony ridge extended eastward toward the Southward Road and westward, roughly in the direction of the Orc encampment. “This is a likely route for the enemy to be bringing their supplies in,” he whispered hoarsely. “They can move across the rocks repeatedly without leaving much of a trail.”
“Not so slight that a ranger can’t detect it,” Pocosin replied. “I’ll check it out.”
Grondmir signaled for Goleck Dune to join him as the scout moved forward several yards to inspect the low ridge. “This is excellent ground for an ambush,” he whispered into the Sergeant’s ear. “We have brush before us for concealment and low branches overhead. The Orcs can move quietly and easily over that outcropping, but they’ll have not a blade of grass to hide behind. Post the men at twelve to fifteen foot intervals.”
The rangers quickly took up their assigned positions. More flashes of lightning revealed the scout at work several yards away. He seemed to be sniffing the ground. Presently, he moved soundlessly back to his commander’s position.
“It’s as you suspected, Captain,” Pocosin reported. They’ve been using the ridge for quite some time in an attempt to conceal their path to the Southward Road. A few fresh tracks lead away from the camp. The next Orcs to pass this way will most likely be coming from the east bearing supplies.”
“We’ll wait here then,” Grondmir whispered as he uncased his bow and arrows. Take up your position to the Sergeant’s right.”
“Good work, Poke,” Dune whispered to his nephew as the youth positioned himself behind a suitable bush.
Each ranger now strung his bow and held it against his chest within his cloak. Their camp gear had already been placed out of the way. The long wait began. They would hold their positions until daybreak if necessary. A few rangers glanced skyward as the lightning ceased and the precipitation abated. The storm was moving off.
Pocosin pulled his cloak snugly about himself, making sure that the end of the cord fastening it about his neck was within easy reach. Normally, standing in a cold drizzle like this would soon have him shaking uncontrollably with cold, but his blood was too high for him to notice. His eyes nervously shifted back and forth. He had killed two Orcs in hand-to-hand fighting several months ago, but this was the first time would be permitted to actively participate in an ambush. The thrill of the hunt now coursed through his veins.
An hour passed, then two. Pocosin occasionally risked a glance to either side. His uncle stood stoically motionless. Was the Sergeant’s blood coursing as excitedly as his nephew’s? Thunder rumbled in the distance, growing steadily fainter as the storm receded. Except for an occasional downpour of droplets from the overhead branches, the woods gradually quieted. In spite of his growing anticipation, Pocosin’s mind began to wander.
= = =
Pocosin enjoyed the warmth of the mid-October sun on his back as he painstakingly cut a small pile of turkey feathers into fletches for the dozen or so arrows arranged on the table before him. It had taken weeks to dry the wood properly and scrape the thin branches into uniform dowels for the shafts. Two days ago, one of the Henneth Annűn smiths had given him a set of well-made iron arrow points
Captain Grondmir stopped on his way to Prince Faramir’s office to admire the youth’s work. “Your father taught you well, lad,” the officer said approvingly as he looked over the scout’s shoulder.
“Not just my father, sir,” Pocosin said without taking his eyes off his work. “My grandfather and Uncle Goleck also gave me many lessons in the craft.” Pocosin had begun learning the rudiments of arrow making at the age of seven.
“You should be choosing the more subdued colors,” the Captain commented, noting that the lad was cutting his fletches from the most iridescent, blue-green parts of the feathers. “Although unlikely, a gaudy colored feather protruding from your quiver could give your position away to a sharp-eyed enemy.”
“I prefer the brighter colors,” Pocosin insisted, setting a finished fletch aside and starting on another. “It’s a matter of pride that my arrows look good. Besides, I’ve yet to bring down an Orc with my bow. My first kill will have my mark on it.”
Grondmir frowned, finding the scout’s attitude disturbing. Pocosin had not too long ago killed two Orcs in close-quarters combat. He had not exhibited any sort of blood lust at the time. Perhaps he was growing jealous of the older men who had shot down Orcs before his eyes. “Do you hate Orcs, lad?”
Pocosin paused, gazing across the small camp clearing a hundred yards south of Henneth Annűn. “Yes. Orcs are ugly, evil creatures which must be wiped from the face of the earth.”
“Let me give you a piece of soldierly advice, boy,” the Captain said, sitting down on the opposite bench at the small work table. “These are dark thoughts and ambitions that you’re harboring. It’s bad luck to take pride in killing. Those Orcs we’re fighting today might be our allies twenty or thirty years down the road.”
Pocosin dropped the scissors and regarded his superior as if the man had just gone daft. During the short time he had served under Grondmir, the youth had never seen another ranger who slew the enemy with such overt relish. “Orcs, our brothers-in-arms? With all due respect, Captain, that’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of.”
“Just remember, boy,” Grondmir said as he rose to go about his business, “it’s the simple-minded Orcs who enjoy killing because they don’t know any better. Men are supposed to be above that sort of thing.” He clapped the scout on the shoulder and strode off toward Henneth Annűn.
Pocosin had barely returned to his work when he spotted his uncle crossing the clearing with a fishing pole and a string of several bass. The rangers in his squad would be having fried fish for supper that evening. “Nice arrows, Poke!” the Sergeant said cheerfully. “I saw you having words with the Captain. Any news as to when we’re going out again?”
“No, Uncle. He just stopped to have a look at my work.” The youth finished cutting the last fletch and carefully glued it to one of the shafts. “Uncle Goleck, is Captain Grondmir losing his taste for killing Orcs?”
Dune scratched his beard in perplexity for a moment. “Can’t say that I’ve noticed. Why? Was it something he said just now?”
Pocosin shrugged. “He said I shouldn’t take pleasure from killing Orcs, yet he’s single-handedly killed more Orcs that anyone else in the company.”
“That doesn’t mean he enjoys it, Poke. The Captain is simply good at what he does. It’s true that he’s slain a lot of the enemy, but I’ve never once seen him laugh or brag about it.”
Pocosin carefully glued another fletch in place. “Just the same, I look forward to putting this arrow into one of the buggers.”
Dune pursed his lips and thought it over for several seconds. He was a simple country bumpkin and not good at handing out philosophical advice. “The point is, Poke,” he said slowly, “is that killing happily is not the same as killing well. If you make a wicked game out of it, it’s going to make you slip up some day.”
Pocosin opened his mouth to speak, then changed his mind and reached for the next arrow shaft.
“I have to get these fish to the kitchen before they start to spoil,” Dune said, realizing that the conversation was over. “I’ll see you at supper, Poke.”
= = =
The clicking of Rock Crickets suddenly brought Pocosin out of his reverie. He briefly glanced to his right and left. The rangers continued to stand motionless, made nearly invisible by their cloaks and the near total darkness.
“It must be getting close to dawn,” Pocosin thought. The clouds were breaking slightly and he thought he could detect a bit of morning twilight. Two or three Rock Crickets continued to click at random intervals. The scout knew the difference between a real one and a ranger’s imitation. Rock Crickets always clicked five times. Rangers signaled in multiples of three clicks, something the Orcs never seemed to pick up on.
Poke’s heart suddenly skipped a beat as three sets of clicks sounded from the far end of the line to his right. Someone was coming up the trail! The stealthy pad of footsteps became faintly audible as several dark figures bearing sacks and boxes came into the lad’s view. His right hand reached up furtively within his cloak, tugging slowly downward on the collar string. He brought his bow to the horizontal as the cloak fell open, his left hand now moving toward the quiver hanging from his belt. In a well-practiced motion, he silently nocked his first arrow.
Three clicks sounded from the far left──the lead Orc was nearing the end of the ambush line! Pocosin’s heart pounded within his chest, the cold and remaining drops of drizzle completely forgotten. “Wait for it!” he whispered to himself, lifting the bow as he tracked a tall Orc coming into his field of view.
Four rapid clicks sounded from the left. Pocosin drew and released in one smooth motion, reaching for his second arrow at almost the instant the first struck home. His comrades’ missiles swished through the darkness, striking with deadly accuracy as he nocked again.
An Orkish roar of pain and rage rang out as Pocosin’s opponent ignored the arrow protruding from his side and hurled an axe in the scout’s direction. Poke had no idea if the Orc had actually spotted him in the darkness. Crouching low as the axe looped harmlessly over his head, Pocosin drew back and loosed again before his enemy could draw steel and charge. The second arrow struck just above the Orc’s cuirass, entering his neck with a loud “thwack!”
Sounds of general mayhem now came from the right end of the ambush line as a few rangers had to draw steel to engage the last Orcs in the column. There was just enough light for Pocosin to spot a dark figure rising from the ground. An Orc had somehow managed to escape the initial volley. The scout shrugged off his cloak as he nocked his third arrow, smoothly tracking the fleeing enemy.
“Wait, Poke!” Sergeant Dune’s hoarse whisper erupted from the darkness.
Too late! Pocosin’s blood raced through his veins as he drew and released. The figure staggered, falling with an oddly high-pitched cry.
“All down!” Someone called in a loud whisper from the right. A few wounded Orcs groaned as they were finished off with swords or knives. Several rangers wasted no time in despoiling the sacks of grain and boxes of dried meat. Within hours, the corpses and food would be fouled by scavengers.
Pocosin stood stunned, not even aware that he had nocked a fourth arrow. The entire engagement had taken no more than five or six seconds.
“Rangers, back to your positions!” Captain Grondmir ordered from somewhere to Pocosin’s left. “Gather up your things!”
Barely had Pocosin donned his cloak and packsack when the order to move out was given. The rangers moved rapidly southward, keeping in single file. The thinning dark clouds scudded across a rapidly brightening sky. Within an hour, the rangers were five miles or more from the ambush sight.
The rangers took cover in a defensive circle as the Captain called for a halt. Pocosin drew his cloak about him as he held his bow at the ready. It was a time to catch one’s breath and take a drink of water, but not to breakfast or relax.
A strange sound, like that of a wounded sheep bleating, caused Pocosin to turn his head. Captain Grondmir was entering the circle of men last, having been at the end of the column when the rangers left the ambush site. The men gasped in shock and some sighed with pity as the Captain gently lowered a wounded youth to the ground. “Give him some water,” he said to the nearest ranger.
“Who is he, Captain?” one of the men asked softly.
“A slave,” Grondmir replied wearily, “probably a boy that the Orcs took captive on one of their last raids near the Anduin.”
The boy cried pitifully and coughed up blood for several minutes, then went quiet.
“He’s gone, Captain,” said the ranger holding his canteen to the boy’s mouth.
Pocosin felt the men’s stares as he guiltily watched the scene, for there was no mistaking the brightly green-fletched arrow protruding from the boy’s side.
“We can’t do anything more for the poor bugger,” Grondmir announced gruffly. “Let’s get him into the ground quickly and move out.” He met and held Pocosin’s gaze for several seconds. There was neither approval nor malice in the Captain’s eyes, but the scout was very unsettled when he finally looked away.
* * *
Captain Grondmir left Prince Faramir’s council to round up a number of sick and wounded rangers. There had been both good news and bad at the meeting. The good news was that Faramir would be departing immediately with the main body of troops to deal with the Orc camp to the north. Word was already being relayed to Henneth Annűn for a supporting force to move in from the north. The Orcs would either have to retreat or face a major engagement with a larger force.
Grondmir frowned in disgust as he contemplated the bad news. He and most of his men had been ordered to escort the sick and wounded to a secure area near Emyn Arnen. For now, Ithilien’s forces controlled the Morgul Road west of the Cross-Roads. A train of wagons and cavalry was already awaiting the party near the highway. From thence, the train would head south along one of the forest roads to a rest camp in the foothills.
“The nerve of that whelp,” The Captain muttered, “implying that I need a rest on account of my age. So what if I’ve got a few grey hairs.” Grondmir was, in fact, entirely grey, but no one was about to tell him so.
“What news, Captain?” Goleck Dune asked as Grondmir approached his platoon’s mess area. The Sergeant and a small knot of rangers were in the midst of eating a hastily cooked dinner.
“Round up all of the old buggers in the platoon, Sergeant. We’re heading south with the sick and wounded. The young men, including your nephew, are to report to Prince Faramir at once.” He sat down among the soldiers gathered around the small cooking fire and glumly helped himself to one of their boiled potatoes.
“You don’t look too happy, Captain,” the ranger seated next to him observed. “Weren’t two months in the wilds without a break enough? We could all do with a short rest.” The others murmured and nodded in agreement. “Faramir’s only trying to look out for us, sir,” another said. They could all sense their Captain’s disappointment. It wasn’t easy for a professional soldier to grow old.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Grondmir grudgingly admitted as he blew on the potato to cool it, “but I can’t see it that way. Maybe it’s because I’m such an old man!”
The rangers fell silent. The mirth around the campfire was gone.
* * *
Goleck Dune took little time finding those of the platoon who were to join Faramir’s expedition, with the exception of his nephew. He was finally directed to a nearby clump of trees where, he was told, Pocosin had gone to relieve himself. He quickly found the youth, but not as he had expected. Pocosin was crouched in a small thicket, his face buried within his folded arms.
“Hey, Poke!” Dune called gently. It was apparent that the boy had been crying his heart out for some time. “It’s about that lad in the ambush, isn’t it, Poke?” he asked, placing a comforting arm around his nephew’s shoulders.
“He was young enough to be my little brother,” Pocosin said thickly, keeping his face buried within his arms, lest his sobs be heard by his comrades.
“You had your expectations and ambitions set too high, Poke,” Goleck sighed. “I tried to warn you, but I’m just not too good at that sort of thing.” He paused until his nephew’s crying had subsided somewhat. “The important thing you have to do now is move on. You’ve got to be a man, Poke. War’s not a game or an adventure. I think you know that now.”
“I murdered that young boy.”
“No you didn’t. It was an unfortunate accident,” Dune said, patting his nephew’s shoulder. “The lad was in the wrong place at the wrong time. You’ve got to move on now.”
“How do I forget about something like that?” Pocosin asked, staring dully into the forest. “How do you and the other men forget about it?”
“We don’t! We learn to live with it, as you must. It’s part of being a soldier. Just be sure that you’ve learned something from it.”
“Will I ever feel better?”
Dune crouched down next to his nephew and joined him in staring into the maze of tree trunks and undergrowth. “I really don’t know, lad,” he sighed. “Some do, some don’t. Like I said, it’s part of being a soldier.” They crouched in silence for a few minutes. “Report to Captain Faramir. He needs a good scout to guide him on the raid to the north.”
They quietly made their way back to the camp. Captain Grondmir and his men were already gathering up their things to move out.
“Pocosin,” Dune said as they each began to go their own way, “change those fletches as soon as you get a chance. It’s bad luck to keep score.”
Pocosin nodded knowingly, then turned away without comment.
* * * * *
Disclaimer: This is fan fiction based on the world and characters created by J.R.R. Tolkien. It is written solely for the enjoyment of Tolkien fans and I make no profit from it of any kind.