Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Messages: 13. The watches
Osgiliath’s eastern perimeter was guarded by three half circles of watches. The center of those rings was the bridge, and the inner half circle began just behind the last tents and buildings of the garrison. It consisted of ten men, each one of them armed with a short bow and a sword. They were in shouting distance to the first tents, so there was no need to supply them with horns. They were always moving, guarding a defined area, meeting with the watches to their left and right to exchange observations and assure that the other was still there.
The second circle was made up of twenty men, all of them armed with a bow and equipped with small horns to make themselves heard if necessary. Most of them carried their swords as well, but they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to, for they were not allowed to move about or even rise, except in defense or to determine the origin of a sound. They lay hidden in fixed positions, behind trees or just flat on the ground, listening and trying to scan the darkness for movements. If everything went as planned, there was no movement at all within visual range of the second watch circle.
It was the third circle’s duty to prevent any living being on two legs that did not have business with the Osgiliath company from getting close to the garrison. The third circle consisted of thirty-six men, eighteen of them stationary on the ground like their comrades in the second circle, the other eighteen constantly moving back and forth between those positions, searching the meadows and woods for suspicious activities. It was a fifteen minutes’ march to the third watch circle, too far for any runner to warn the garrison about approaching danger. The men of the third circle were armed with short bows and swords. Those that were moving were equipped with fast fire-arrows, to shoot high into the dark sky and therefore draw attention, the others carried great horns.
Captain Boromir could feel the outline of the horn of Gondor at his hip. It had started raining early in the evening, and even though the rain was quite warm, he could think of many far more comfortable positions than lying face down in the mud, water pouring down his cheeks and neck and further down over his shoulders and back. His hair was plastered against his shoulders, and the dark cloak he had spread over his prone form was soaked and provided neither warmth nor comfort at all.
It had been a while since he had last lain on watch like this. He had forgotten how boring and straining two hours alone in the darkness behind a tree or on the ground could be. The air was still, the rain poured down in straight lines. He was in the third watch circle, too far away from the garrison to benefit from the light of the campfires and the many torches on the bridge. It was completely dark, all he was able to see was the outline of a big tree a few feet ahead. The heavy rain splashed on fallen leaves, on the muddy ground and into small puddles, drowning every other sound. He didn’t even hear the moving watch until the man was close behind or right next to him. He had his bow ready in his hands, and he prayed that his relief was careful enough to hail him in the darkness, otherwise the poor man was in danger of catching an arrow.
Everyone was nervous. The soldiers had been informed about their commanders’ suspicions that the enemy was moving. They also knew the officers were starting to take over watches. Boromir had made sure the men had been reminded that the officers had not lain on watch for some time, and that everybody should be careful around them, the moving men and the relievers alike.
A drop of water had found its way under his chain mail and leather shirt to his bare back, slowly moving over his damp skin to his side and to the ground. He wanted to move his arms to scratch himself and to wring the water out of his hair, but he had spent his time on more than enough watches in the past to know it was essential to lie still and endure every discomfort nature happened to throw his way.
A small beetle crawled out of the darkness and made his way through mud and rain close to Boromir’s face. Small drops of water bounced off his dark solid back, and Boromir regretted that he hadn’t brought his shield with him, to ward off at least some of the wetness. The beetle stopped for a moment, turned its little head and looked at Gondor’s Captain General. Boromir softly blew at the small creature and the beetle scurried away into the darkness. Unfortunately not all opponents could be forced into retreat by a simple soft breath.
Boromir remembered Faramir’s last personal letter about his brother’s deeds in Ithilien and decided that he deserved his drenching after all. He had spent almost every evening either in his tent or with his men at a campfire, while Faramir had led many patrols in Ithilien, waylaying Orcs and Southrons, spending much longer hours in the bushes and muddy clearings of Ithilien than the duration of a watch at Osgiliath. He tried to justify his degree of comfort by reminding himself that he had made decisions while sitting at the campfire or in his tent, but Faramir and his Lieutenants also made decisions, decisions concerning the life or death of their men, and they did it in their hideout as well as in the mud during an ambush. The officers of Osgiliath had been spoiled a little in the past, and now that this had changed, they did not have the right to complain. Boromir would make sure that his officers didn’t discuss his orders behind his back, not even when they were off duty.
The whispered word was the most beautiful sound Boromir had heard in a while. He nevertheless aimed his arrow in the direction the voice had come from until he could see a soldier approaching in the rain, his cloak drawn closely about his body, his face pulled into a grimace of misery.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” Boromir whispered and rose into a standing position. His breeches and cloak were heavy with water and mud, and he knew the expression on his face mirrored that of the soldier.
“Captain!” the soldier replied in surprise, then a toothy smile crept onto his face, and Boromir saw that the man had to pull himself together to repress a chuckle. “It’s an honor to be your relief, my lord. Have a good night.”
Boromir nodded in understanding. He had forgotten how good it felt to be just one of the men from time to time. He waited until the guard had lain down onto the ground and made his way back to the camp.
Four torches were lit in the big healers’ tent, therefore the tent was glowing invitingly, a soft light in the darkness and the rain. Anakil hurried to get inside and shook his head like a dog to rid his hair of the water. Beldil was not the only patient any more, so the boy very quietly took a chair and sat down next to the wounded messenger’s cot. Beldil was sitting upright, supported by several pillows, in serious battle with a large bowl of soup.
Anakil shrugged off his wet cloak and hung it over the backrest of his chair. “You look much better,” he said by way of greeting.
“Where have you been all day, Anakil? Getting into trouble again?” Beldil raised his head and smiled. “I am much better indeed. I’m even able to eat on my own.” He carefully moved his right hand in which he clutched a large spoon. “I will be on my feet in a few days. The healers even encouraged me to eat as much as I can stomach. You know, sometimes I am more than eager to follow the healers’ advice. Vegetable soup with chicken. It’s just great. Do you want some? I can get as much as I like. I just have to order.”
“Thank you, but I already had dinner.” Anakil smiled and shook his head. ”And I have not been in trouble for hours.”
“That’s hard to believe.” Beldil carefully moved the spoon to his mouth.
“Honestly, I spent the better part of the afternoon alone in the messengers’ tent, thinking.”
Beldil lowered the spoon and chuckled. “You have met the poet,” he said, and it wasn’t a question.
Anakil’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Who told you?”
“News travel fast in Osgiliath, but some news is not interesting enough to travel at all.” Beldil chuckled again. “I see it on you face. He can talk to someone for fifteen minutes and make that person think about his words for hours. You have this thoughtful look on your face right now. How is the old scarecrow?”
“The Captain sent him to Minas Tirith with a message. Later another messenger went to the city as well, but I don’t think the errands were connected. The poet will be back by tomorrow evening. He told me he will be my instructor in the ways of messengers.” Anakil shrugged. “I think I am all right with that.”
“You are a lucky little bastard, Anakil.” Beldil continued eating. “The poet is the most experienced messenger in all of Gondor. The Steward himself trusts him with his most important and most secret errands. He can be – different – sometimes, but he can teach you more about written words than every other messenger in the army. Nobody even knows his real name, not even the Captain…only the Steward knows, I think.”
“I know. And I am determined to win that bottle of brandy.”
“Good luck.” Beldil grinned. “I will remind you of your youthful enthusiasm and innocence a few years from now.”
“You don’t have to remind me.” Anakil shrugged and put a hand through his hair to push some wet strands out of his face. “Did you forget that I always remember?”
“Then remember the last advice I will give you this evening...”
Anakil cocked his head in anticipation. “Yes?”
“…never underestimate the poet.”
“I won’t,” Anakil promised. “I promise, I won’t get into trouble again.”
“Is it your ear that has persuaded you to be a good boy for the rest of the day?” Beldil pointed at Anakil’s discolored ear and smiled. “Do you have any other new injuries? And how is your arm?”
“My arm will be all right soon.” Anakil rubbed his arm carefully. “The healers declared me ready for light duty already. Concerning the ear…” He shrugged. “I got what I deserved… Maybe I got even less than I deserved.” He shrugged again. “You know, Beldil, some people get executed when they leave their post in times of war. I didn’t just leave my post. I lied. I stole something. And I was very stupid. And all they did to me was twist my ear a little and squeeze my shoulder a little and force me to become a messenger and make me think…” He stopped in his speech. He liked Beldil and trusted him, but he didn’t want to talk about the fear and panic he had endured during the ride from Henneth Annûn to Osgiliath just now. He didn’t want to bother the injured man with the nightmares that would come soon, dreams of the black gate and severed limbs. “It’s not important what they made me think,” he added. “They left me alive and in one piece. I think Captain Boromir did me a favor by sending me to the messengers.”
Beldil smiled at that. “You have grown up a lot during those few days in Ithilien, Anakil,” he said. “I think Captain Faramir and Captain Boromir saw that potential in you. They did not only see your mistakes, they saw that you were able to learn. Captain Faramir saw something similar in me, too, about ten years ago. He has a special way with people.”
“Captain Faramir is a wise man. He really understands what people are thinking. There was no need to fear him. I know that now. There was no need to fear Captain Boromir as well. I think I will be fine from now on.”
“You will be fine.” Beldil put his spoon aside and slowly raised his right hand. “Welcome to the messengers, Anakil.”
Anakil carefully grasped the young man’s hand and squeezed firmly.
As promised, the poet returned the next afternoon, together with three messengers from the city.
Anakil had spent the day dozing on his cot. He was restricted to light duty only, but there was no light duty available for messengers in training at Osgiliath. He had dusted the shelves and checked the shirts and saddle bags for holes in the morning, and he had written down some childhood poems that had come to his mind to practice his writing. He had visited his brothers’ tent around midday, but Anarion and Anagor hadn’t had any time for him. Anarion had been asleep after a long night of watch on the bridge, and Anagor had been on duty somewhere in the garrison.
The three newly arrived messengers put their saddle bags on three free cots in the messengers’ tent and disappeared to visit friends and catch up on rumors in the garrison.
Anakil had not slept much in the night, for the nightmares he had feared had finally arrived. Every time he closed his eyes he saw the Black Gate looming in front of him. He wanted to run away, wanted to climb up a tree and hide, but when he tried to snatch a low hanging branch to pull himself up, he discovered that his hands were gone. The stumps that were the ends of his arms were bleeding, and when he turned around to flee, there were Orcs everywhere, grinning and shouting at him, mocking him; the small helpless boy that could not hide his fear.
It hadn’t been difficult to stay awake and escape the dreams at night, but he was tired now and glad for the opportunity to dream with open eyes and therefore be able to choose in which direction his thoughts would stray.
He didn’t realize the words were meant for him and didn’t move at all to catch something wrapped in a blanket the poet tossed towards him. The bundle landed squarely on his stomach, and he winced in pain. Something hard and heavy was inside the blanket. “Ouch,” he breathed.
“The time for dreams is over, my young apprentice. You will learn everything there is to learn about delivering messages, and you will learn everything there is to learn about protecting messages. A weaponsmith of the armory in the city repaid an old debt of honor…”
Anakil slowly sat up and unwrapped the bundle that had landed on his stomach. It was a short sword. A few rich men ordered them for their growing sons, for practice purposes until the boys were strong enough to wield a longer weapon. Anakil had never touched one of these very rare swords. The scabbard was plain and undecorated, but as Anakil carefully grasped the beautiful hilt and unsheathed the sword, he recognized that the blade was of superior quality. On the blade, just below the handle, there were some curved lines, like the symbol of water. Anakil twisted the sword in his grip and moved it through the air, testing its weight. His arm protested with a stab of pain at the unexpected strain. He quickly laid the sword in his lap to rub the throbbing wound. “It is beautiful,” he said. “It must have been very expensive. Those swords are only made on request.”
“It was forged for a young man of your age and size, but sadly this young man left the face of Arda before the weapon was finished. The smith who forged it had already started to engrave the family’s sign below the hilt. He didn’t finish the sign when the young man died, and he didn’t even try to erase it either, for nobody buys a sword that was meant to serve a young man who died an untimely death. The sword had been simply put away, until I asked for it, so there are still those curved lines visible. Curved lines, like flowing water. Anakil of the Anduin, this sword was meant to be yours. I will show you how to wield it as soon as your right arm is strong enough again.”
Anakil didn’t know what to say. He carefully sheathed the sword and belted it around his waist. “Thank you,” he finally said. “Does it have a name?”
“I will choose a name for itself when it is ready,” the poet replied. “Swords are like words, my young apprentice. You will never be able to fully understand where they’re going to lead you. When you have the right name for your sword in your mind, it will let you know.”
Anakil put his left hand on his new sword and got up from his cot. “Thank you, Poet,” he said again.
“You were curious enough to ask someone for my name. I like that.” The poet smiled and sat down on the edge of the wooden table. “Now sit down and help yourself to paper and ink. Make notes when I speak to you, because I don’t like to repeat what I have already said. What do you know about seals?”
Anakil hurried to clear a spot on the table and grabbed everything he needed to make notes. “Nothing,” he confessed.
“Seals are important. Never ever break a seal. The seal is part of the information you have to carry safely from one place to another. Seals tell you a lot about the content of the message. Every Captain and Lord has his own seal, to inform the recipient about who has written the message or, if he had not written the message himself, who vouches for the content.
“I will show you all the different seals that are known in Gondor. You have to recognize every single seal at first glance, and you have to learn to distinguish the handwriting of the Lords and Captains as well. If the Lord or Captain sends you on the errand in person, like Captain Boromir did yesterday, the message is very urgent. If a Captain or Lord has written the message that carries his seal in person, this message is very important. All messages are important, but those messages have the highest priority. If you are sent to the city with five messages to deliver to five different people, the messages that have been written by the owner of the seal have to be delivered first. Nobody tells you that when giving you the errand. They expect you to know, and more importantly, I expect you to know.
“You will learn to recognize Captain Boromir’s handwriting first, because his is an easy one to learn, and you will see it quite often in Osgiliath. The handwriting of the Steward and of Captain Faramir are a little difficult to tell apart, but you will learn to see the differences in time. Those three are the most important men in Gondor, so you will learn their handwritings first.
“The position of the seal is important as well. There are four possible ways of placing the seal on the wax. If it is in upright position, it is an official message containing information important to the recipient. If it is upside down, the content is personal. A seal pointing to the east consist of the transcript of an intercepted message of the enemy. A seal pointing to the west contains new orders to a Captain from the Steward, or orders from the Captain General to the Captains.
“You will certainly ask why you have to know about that, for you will never read the messages entrusted to your care. The solution is simple. Imagine you are about to be captured or killed by enemies. If there is no way to save yourself and therefore save the messages you carry, you have to destroy them. Imagine you carry many messages, but you don’t have enough time to destroy all of them. You take a look at the seals and destroy the messages with the seals pointing north and west first. Then you destroy those where the seals are pointing east. A personal message cannot cause much harm should it fall into the hands of the enemy. Do you understand what I am talking about, my young apprentice?”
Anakil nodded. He put the pen down and folded his arms across his chest. He had not written down a single word.
“Don’t you want to make notes?” the poet asked.
“I am cursed or in this case blessed with a good memory,” Anakil said. “I don’t want to put unnecessary strain on my arm.”
The poet nodded, not questioning the young man’s words. “Then listen carefully and remember.”
The poet talked until some of the other messengers arrived and disturbed the lesson. They continued early the next morning and worked until midday. Anakil retired for a few hours to his cot while the poet went to the training grounds on the western shore to practice his swordplay. As soon as he returned he continued talking until it was time for supper. There was a lot to talk about and a lot to learn, and Anakil realized he was looking forward to continuing with the lessons early in the morning.
He didn’t have any problems getting up early, for he didn’t sleep well and knew he wouldn’t be able to rest undisturbed at night for quite some time. He had thought about talking to Anarion about his nightmares, but he seldom was alone with his eldest brother, and should he catch him somewhere out of hearing distance of the other soldiers, Anarion was either in a hurry or tired. The simple soldiers had to do more watches than ever before. The occasional fights with small bands of enemies in the woods had cost a lot of lives over the months and years. There were not many soldiers left to do the duties that had to be done.
Anakil spent a lot of time in his brothers’ tent, but when the twins were off duty for the evening, the three brothers talked about funny things that happened in the garrison, sometimes about their home and about their dreams for the future. Anakil did not want to disturb those rare moments of happiness and peace by talking about his fears. The nightmares would lessen and vanish given time, and he was young, he could stomach the lack of sleep. Fortunately, most of the time the poet’s lessons were interesting enough and therefore he never fell asleep or was caught letting his mind drift off a little during one of the messenger’s long monologues.
Anakil had never imagined there was so much to learn about delivering messages. He spent a week listening to the poet and practicing his skills at recognizing seals and handwritings. He visited Beldil at the healers’ tent as often as possible, and he spent a lot of time admiring and carefully testing his new sword.
He had presented the weapon to his brothers on the day he had received it, and his brothers had admired the superior short sword as well. None of them carried a sword of this quality, but Anakil would gladly exchange his good short sword for a more ordinary long one if he could only be tall and strong enough to wield it. His brothers were very proud of him, and for the first time since he had joined the army, the other boys talked to him with respect. The poet had promised him that they would start with some swordfighting in a few days, for the wound on Anakil’s arm had scarred and didn’t trouble him much any more.
The boy remembered what he had told Beldil a week ago in the healers’ tent and smiled.
He was fine indeed.
It had been his first watch in a week during which there hadn’t been a single drop of rain, for which Boromir was very grateful. He wrapped his cloak tightly around his body as he slowly made his way from the third circle of watches back into the garrison. It was a clear summer’s night, a full moon and many stars lit his way. A soft wind swayed the treetops and stirred some leaves on the ground. He called the password to the watch of the first circle and passed into the perimeter of the garrison.
It was past midnight, but the night was warm. Some of the men were still sitting around campfires, laughing and talking. All of them bowed their heads in greeting as their Captain passed by, and Boromir stopped to exchange a few words with some of the men, to grasp hands or squeeze shoulders.
All officers had been included in the watch roster for a week now, but that had not changed much. The scouts still needed two days to get the information about the enemy into Osgiliath. The enemy continued moving, back and forth, close to the river and in the meadows of Ithilien. The soldiers of Osgiliath were unable to gather enough information to see a pattern in the movement, if there was a pattern at all.
It was the night between the nineteenth and twentieth of June. He had planned to leave for Minas Tirith at the end of the month. That meant he had to wait for at least eight more days. Eight more days was too long a time. He decided he would inform the Council of Osgiliath in the morning that he planned to leave in two days. The Lords of the city were talking about what could be done about the enemy’s movement, but the Steward’s messages didn’t raise any hope that they would come up with a fast solution. The Lords had to understand they had to find a way to discover whether Ithilien or even Gondor were in immediate danger before it was too late.
The loud voice of a horn disturbed the peaceful silence of the night. A second horn joined in, followed by a third, then there were too many of them to distinguish them any more.
Boromir turned around and saw three burning arrows painting glowing paths on the dark sky. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword. A fourth arrow appeared from between the trees of Ithilien, and even more horns joined the dreadful chorus.
Then, all of a sudden, the horns fell silent, and no more arrows could be seen dancing in the sky.
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