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The squad headed towards the exit. The rangers in the first row walked shoulder to shoulder and held shields that overlapped at their edges, forming a wide barrier that orcs' arrows could not penetrate. Just like earlier, when they had been retreating, only a step behind them were the archers. But now, after those first two rows, there were the men who carried spare oil and lamps.
Faramir was in the first row. Soon after they left, he moved his shield a little bit just for a split-second, and quickly beheld the situation. The grey circle in the distance was a little darker than when they had first approached it. And in fact, he was even satisfied because of it – as much as it was possible to be satisfied in complicated circumstances like these. But the fact that was important right now was that the eyes of the orcs had surely already started to adapt to the darkness, and Faramir believed that the rangers' action would bother them – at least for several moments – which would be very important for his men. On the other hand, there still was enough light and the men would be able to fight.
He cast a quick glance towards the exit and he noticed the move. He had no intention to allow the orcs to attack first, so he immediately gave the order.
They were coordinated; they had repeated those moves countless times back in the days of their training, as well as later in battles. They could perform them day and night, in any situation and on any terrain, with their eyes closed if necessary. The first row stopped, all of them in the same moment, and tilted their shields to make some two inches of space between them. The archers were already prepared and released the arrows. Shields had to be overlapped again instantly – to protect them against eventual attack – so there was not much time for precise aiming. But accuracy wasn't essential right now, actually; all the orcs standing there would surely get a hit. Maybe it wouldn't be fatal, but wounding was also good enough – it would exclude some of the opponents out of the upcoming battle.
And they could not give the orcs a pause. Only a few steps later, the order was repeated.
Stopping again, tilting the shields again, another volley. And the same action repeated every few steps.
Not surprisingly, things didn't go smoothly. After all, Faramir didn't expect the orcs would let them just promenade to the exit. Although painful cries witnessed that the rangers' arrows hit their targets, the orcs tried to counter. Every now and then he felt a blow to his shield, and vibrations transferred to his hands and shoulders. He held it tightly, aware that he must not move it at all, so that everyone in the formation would remain protected. They held their positions one next to the other, a little bent down to be covered better, knowing they should not allow even the smallest hole in their wall. Their plan – and their lives – depended on it.
Step by step, volley by volley – from both sides. But the rangers did progress, and as they were coming closer, they released the arrows more frequently to chase off the orcs further. Reaching the exit was crucial and everything depended on the success of that very phase of the operation; it was impossible to carry out the plan while still in the tunnel. However, when they were only ten feet away, the orcs swarmed inside.
"Damn!" muttered Faramir furiously. "Charge!"
The rangers swiftly drew their swords and fired on the orcs. The clamour was tremendous for the ring of steel echoed in a small space. The orcs fell under rangers' blows and the squad managed to go forward. We must be quicker, a thought flashed while Faramir cut down one orc and moved to the next one, drawing all the strength and speed he had in his muscles. Not looking at the ground but the opponents in front of him, he stepped on the fallen orc – and it was nearly fatal. He lost his balance and barely avoided orc's attack. But he quickly regained it and counter-attacked, and managed to eliminate the threat. And then the rangers reached the exit.
"Prepare to throw!" shouted Faramir as loudly as he could, over the noise around him.
A stroke; an orc down; a step forward; next stroke... and then the first row came out of the tunnel. But it still wasn't enough – they had to advance at least two steps more so that those carrying oil had enough room to throw it. Everyone around him knew that too, so they fought with all their strength. But now that they were out, peril became even bigger because the attack with the arrows started from the above. The rangers had to fight the orcs in front of them and to shield themselves from the arrows from behind – all at the same time.
"Charge!" yelled Faramir and threw himself among the orcs, hoping that the arrows would stop coming if the rangers intermix with the enemies; in that case, the orcs wouldn't be able to shoot without risk to hit their own. They fought as hard as they could, and soon conquered a little more space. And then it was finally possible to realize what Faramir had expected with utmost impatience.
The orcs in the first row, preoccupied with fighting as they were, probably didn't even see several burning projectiles that flew over them and fell behind them – among those in the background. The bottles, wrapped up in cloths and lit before throwing, broke when they hit the ground; the oil in them spilled and caught fire instantly. About ten fires flashed in the dusk. The rangers spent all the spare oil they had – but with the passage blocked, Faramir knew they would not need the lamps at all if they didn't overpower the orcs. In that case, there would be no return for them.
Some of the bottles hit the orcs too, so the fire caught their clothes. Painful cries filled the air, and chaos spread through the horde of orcs – they were distracted and temporarily blinded. The orc band stopped for a few moments, not being able to consolidate.
Those were the moments the rangers desperately needed – and got. Raising up on the balls of his feet, Faramir risked a quick glance around. It seemed that not the whole army of the orcs was present, and although it was impossible to be accurate in the dusk and in just one split-second, he thought there were not many more than fifty. It was the ratio they had often experienced before, and from which they usually came out as winners; the orcs were less skilled and two orcs to one ranger was never enough for the orcs.
The orcs who were caught by fire ran around screaming in pain and bumping into the others, creating additional commotion. The others retreated from the flame. But Faramir knew that they would recover very soon, and the rangers had to use those important seconds in which the orcs had not regrouped yet. The rangers rushed onto the orcs in front of them.
And they had more surprises for the orcs. Earlier preparations included coating the swords with oil; as the rangers advanced from the tunnel and ran forward, it was enough just to pass with the blade through the fires burning around for the oil to burst into flame. The orcs were suddenly faced with the opponents wielding fiery swords.
Of course, the swords were not any more deadly because of the fire, and from the experience of previous such battle, Faramir knew it would die out very soon; the oil-coating was thin and burned quickly, and every stab into the orcs's bodies quenched the fire. But the real effect was psychological one: the scared orcs backed down, and the rangers cut them down. By the time the orcs realized that the swords were not magical, it was too late. Many of them fell and the numbers were turned.
The fighting line spread. Most of the orcs retreated in direction opposite of the tunnel, while one group ran up the mountain. So the rangers split into two groups too; Faramir led the bigger part of the squad which chased the orcs forward, and captain Haldar's group pursued those on the upper slopes. One by one, the orcs fell. Finally, those remaining few stopped fighting and tried to escape. But they weren't fast enough.
Faramir then became aware of the silence. It was not completely soundless – he could hear a word here and there – but there were no more shouts, echoes of swords clashing, or hammering of steps. It was over. There was not a single orc alive anymore. As always after the battle, his first concern were his men.
"Are there any casualties? Any injured?" he shouted.
Rangers, somewhat scattered while chasing the orcs, now started to gather around him; Haldar and his group also came nearer. And although some rangers were on their feet and fine, the battle could not pass without consequences. Six more men were killed, and there were several wounded.
"Scout the surroundings while there is still some light," said Faramir to the men around him, and turned to Aranir. The older ranger already opened his backpack and took out bandages and equipment. "Aranir, take as many men as necessary to help you."
Faramir then walked a few steps forward and moved away from the group, and looked around. It was getting darker, but he could still see the shapes of the landscape. Behind him there were steep slopes and mountaintops, and they stretched towards the north and south. But in front of him, looking to the east, the terrain was very different from all other surrounding inaccessible escarpments. Several hundred feet further there was a ravine with smooth, almost flat sides – the Pass of Cirith Ungol.
And behind the Pass, on the almost black background of distant plains of Mordor, he discerned a tower. More precisely, only its top; from where he stood, its biggest part was hidden from his view because it was situated on the opposite side of the Pass. Faramir could see only the uppermost part and the spike on the top. Three thousand years old, he reminded himself. Just like the towers of Cirith Gorgor, this one was also built by the Gondorians – to keep watch on the evil of Mordor and to keep it inside. But history took a very different turn from what the old architects had imagined.
"As for setting the camp, I believe that nobody wants to return into that stench, and that everybody will put their sleeping bags in the open. Me first. And not very close to the entrance," Faramir heard Haldar's voice. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the captain approaching. "And we must hide our presence. As soon as Aranir finishes his work, we have to extinguish the torches. The fire in the night can be seen from afar."
"I hope there are no more enemies who could see us. But you are right. We will quench them." Faramir nodded. If Haldar hadn't mentioned it first, he would have ordered it himself.
They were silent for a few moments, and then they went back. Faramir approached Aranir, next to whom stood two rangers with torches. Having asked for the news, he found out that the injuries were not serious. All seven wounded men had only cuts and shallow stabbing wounds that were not life-threatening. But possible infection was quite another matter, and all the wounds would require frequent cleaning. Anyway, Faramir was relieved; cleaning wounds, applying healing salves and changing bandages were manageable tasks. But if there had been men with serious injuries, he was not sure they could be saved in these circumstances and without a proper healer. Eru, thank you.
The scouts soon began to return. As the darkness was thickening, they couldn't go far. But the surroundings did not offer cover for the enemies; there were no vegetation or canyons suitable for hiding. The terrain the scouts inspected had been empty, and it seemed they would have peaceful night. Faramir almost thought everything was resolved, when the last scout approached him and Haldar. It was one of those young men – children, the term popped up in Faramir's head – whom he had no chance of meeting earlier.
"Captain Haldar, Prince Faramir," the youngster addressed them and stopped, as if uncertain how to continue.
"Go ahead, Isilmir," Haldar prompted him with a nod. "Do you have anything to report?"
"I do, captain. I didn't see no orcs, just like the others," continued the young man, now seeming a little more confident than in the beginning, "but I found one more opening – another tunnel in the rocks, just like the one we came out from." He turned and gestured towards the north. "It is there. I think it's about two hundred feet away, captain, or just a little more," he ended, looking at Haldar.
Faramir frowned. More tunnels? More mysteries? He didn't like the news – it could mean new danger. They had to find out more, as soon as possible. He summoned ten nearest rangers. They had already sat down and started to clean their swords. But just one Faramir's word was enough for all of them to get up instantly. He turned to the scout.
"Isilmir, if I remember correctly?"
"Isilmir son of Brandir, Prince Faramir," replied the young ranger, standing to attention.
"Lead us to the tunnel you discovered."
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