The creeps counterattacked almost as soon as the Free Peoples’s flag went up at Tirith Rhaw.
Archers rained down arrows on the orcs and spiders and wargs from the battlements. A formation of heavy armoured soldiers held a line on the lawn as wave after wave of attackers washed up against them. Elves, hobbits, dwarves and men stood side by side against the horde that seemed endless.
Mounted on his magnificent warsteed, Angelos rallied the soldiers, his crimson cape flapping in the wind. He seemed oblivious to the arrows and slings of the enemy. His unflappable demeanor was contagious and kept the line from breaking.
Danyelle followed close behind; only her vise-like grip on the battle flag kept her hands from shaking. When an arrow came too close for her liking, she instinctively ducked, but Angelos paid them no heed.
The grass in front of Tirith Rhaw was drenched with blood and gore. Bodies of orcs piled up, but for every one that was struck down, two stepped in to take its place.
When one of the Free Peoples fell, the line became that much weaker.
“We’re getting butchered out here!” Angelos’s elven adjutant had to shout to be heard over the clash of sword on shield.
Angelos’s brow creased, but he knew the other was right.
“Sound the retreat!” he called to his herald. “Fall back in to the keep!”
Given more time, they would have barred the gate to withstand a siege, but earlier in the day, the Free People had destroyed the fortifications at the front entrance to capture the stronghold, and there was no portcullis or door to close.
As orderly as they could, the army withdrew from the field. Those within the keep had used what precious time they had to reinforce defensive points, and that time was paid for in blood.
Danyelle wheeled her horse around to follow Commander Osgood when she was struck down by a warg that seemed to appear out of the ether. She fell to the ground, raising her metal-plated arms to shield her from the warg’s vicious maw.
Mustering all of her strength, she threw the warg to the side, and reached for her sword. It lunged in to strike, but she was quicker. Her greatsword cut across the warg’s skull, smashing it with a sickening crack!
It fell to the ground, twitching with agony in its final moments.
She cursed herself for dropping the battle standard, and raised it again, leading the soldiers back towards the new defensive line.
A platoon of stout dwarves had formed a shield wall with pikemen behind them and archers behind them.
Those falling back, ran past the line into the keep, the able-bodied carrying the wounded. A withering volley of arrows drove off the nearest pursuers, but more would be coming soon.
“Right here!” Angelos pointed to the ground just inside the shattered gate.
Danyelle planted the flag and raised her sword with a defiant cry. Those around her echoed her call.
Angelos rattled off orders to the officers and sergeants around him.
“Where are my reinforcements?” he shouted to no one in particular. “Two platoons here! Hold the reserve on the second level.”
A screeching howl from outside the walls made Danyelle’s skin crawl.
“Here they come!”
The first attack crashed into the shield wall and broke, repulsed by the pikes and javelins of the defenders. Rune-keepers rained down fire, lightning and ice. Others called up on their ancient powers, invoking Oromë, Eärendil and Elendil, bringing a blinding light to drive back the darkness.
Danyelle tried to stand as steady as she could, knowing her sole job was to bear the flag of the Free Peoples’s Army.
A runner tugged on Angelos’s arm. “My lord, the enemy is bringing in another force. At least two companies. Captain-General Verdantine orders you to fall back to the second level.”
The big man swore freely, but he could see there was no other choice. It seemed that the main creep force was descending on Tirith Rhaw. The assembled soldiers could not hold out against such an onslaught.
“Lieutenant Graeme!” he called to the ranking officer holding the defensive line. “I need five minutes!”
“Aye,” the other man replied grimly. “You’ll get it.”
Danyelle saw a look pass between the two, and she wanted to shout out, as if to deny the orders that were being given. Lieutenant Graeme raised his sword and Commander Osgood saluted him in return.
“You can’t—” she started, but Angelos stopped her with his glare.
“Fall back,” he growled in a voice that made Danyelle’s blood run cold. “Fall back! Retreat to the upper level!”
The bulk of the force retreated into the depths of the fortress. Angelos waved them all on, until only the rear guard remained. Their ranks were thinned, but still they fought on.
Danyelle wanted draw her sword and rush in to the fight, but her feet seemed frozen where she stood.
A cascade of arrows raked the remaining defenders, many of them falling, including Lieutenant Graeme, his lifeblood spilling out on to the ground.
Those still alive broke, and they desperately tried to escape from the coming attack.
Any thought Danyelle had of joining the battle ended when strong hands spun her around.
“We need to go!” I was Aeron Rea. His shining armour was covered in gore.
“They’ll die!” Tears ran down her cheeks.
“They’re already dead!” His earlier charm was gone. His voice was hard. His eyes blazed with anger. And helplessness. “And many more will die if we don’t get upstairs to lead them!”
Danyelle picked up the battle flag and ran. She ran away from the screams of dying men and dwarves that would haunt her dreams for years to come. Nearly blinded by sweat and tears, she ran towards the second line of Free Peoples, who were given a few more minutes of life because of the sacrifice of their comrades.
Angelos was on their heels, the last of the soldiers to make it to the line.
The reavers and wargs came soon enough, the first of their number falling to the arrows and lightning of the Free People. But more surged in behind them.
Angelos and Aeron tried their best to rally the defenders, but it was quickly apparent the second line would not hold for very long. They were really buying time for a third line to be hastily thrown together. Only then did they have a prayer that Sauron’s minions would tire of the attack and return to Gramsfoot to lick their wounds.
Deep down, Danyelle knew these new orcs—the uruk-hai—did not feel fear. They did not value their lives as elves and men did. They were relentless and would only cease their assault when they were destroyed.
Still new to the battlefields of Middle-Earth, they were terrifying to the Free People. They were bigger and stronger than normal orcs. They were smarter and more cunning than the others. And they did not wilt in the sunlight, which had traditionally been an advantage for the alliances of men, elves, dwarves and hobbits.
The second level of defenses held for a time, but it, too, eventually collapsed.
Sensing victory, the creeps pressed forward with increased ferocity.
Again, Danyelle, Aeron and Angelos were the last three to abandon the line. Carrying the battle flag, she rounded a corner on the topmost level of Tirith Rhaw and came face to face with a firing squad of elven archers.
Their arrows whistled past, missing her face by mere inches to strike into the oncoming rush of monsters.
The dwarves began to chant and stomp their feet, singing an ancient hymn of battle. Soon enough the men, halflings and even the elves joined in, for what many knew would be their last stand.
“Rally on me!” Angelos called out to those around him as the wargs and orcs rushed in.
Danyelle planted her banner next to Captain-General Verdantine for all to see.
A massive orc crashed through the shield wall, knocking aside man and dwarf alike.
Without hesitation, she drew her sword and stepped into the breech. The colours could not retreat any further. Her blade crackled with power and she drove it into the beast’s gut. Still it fought on.
Her mailed fist landed against its jaw again and again as it howled in agony.
Wrenching her greatsword free of the orc, she raised it high and drove it through its neck.
Kevan and Maerleene were at her side in an instant, fighting back the onslaught.
“Where are those reinforcements?” Angelos shouted out as the fighting raged on. The halberd in his hands dripped with the blood of a dozen wargs and orcs.
“I thought you liked cutting it close!” Aeron laughed morbidly.
“Not this close!”
Still Danyelle and the others fought. They had no choice. Her arms tired of swinging the greatsword, but with every killing blow, she summoned the strength to deal another. She called out targets to those around her, focusing the fire of archers on the enemies that needed to die first.
The sound of a horn cut through the air. Then another. And a third.
They were closer than Danyelle expected.
Another wave of creeps had formed up to make a final charge at the desperate defenders atop Tirith Rhaw.
Danyelle steeled herself for one last charge when the wargs began to howl, not with victory, but in agony.
The orcs wheeled around to face a new foe. The thunderous sound of mailed boots on the cobblestones signaled the arrival of Captain-General Isarawyn and his force.
Unprepared for an assault from the rear of their lines, the orcs fell quickly, the hunters becoming prey.
Those who were not initally cut down tried to escape, but they found that the ground beneath them had turned to tar and the archers cut them down easily. Others burst into flame or were struck down by lightning bolts that appeared out of a cloudless sky.
Secure in victory, two old friends regarded each other.
“You’re late,” Angelos said, relief in his voice.
The elf merely nodded, on one hand knowing that his arrival had crushed the creep force, and on the other knowing that many had died in the last few minutes who might have been saved had his arrival been timelier.
Danyelle wiped the sweat from her brow and noticed her glove was covered in blood. She removed the gauntlet only to find blood running down her arm under the armour.
She began to feel dizzy.
“Healer!” Kevan caught her as the world began to spin.
And then everything went black.
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