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Messages: 16. The 20th of June Part 2
The Southrons stormed the clearing like a swarm of bees. Their advance was fast and seemingly disordered, as if they their speed and quick movement might confuse and frighten the opponent enough to simply trample them with their feet. The small clearing was almost completely covered, and still there were warriors streaming in large numbers out of the twilight between Ithilien’s trees. The line of defenders seemed almost small in comparison to the numbers of invaders moving towards the ancient city of Osgiliath, like a river flooding a field in spring.
In the bright light of the sun, Faramir could see the banners of the Southrons flying in the light afternoon breeze. All banners showed the serpent of the South, some of them tall, menacing, black, others small and almost beautiful. The Southrons were proud and fierce warriors, they answered to their Kings alone. Their Kings had fallen prey to those whose name no-one ever spoke, therefore they fought in the shadows and answered to the forces of the darkness. Their faces were smeared with red paint, like blood, their dark hair flowed in long braids over their shoulders, their gleaming armour reflected the rays of the sun.
“First rank fire!”
Another wave of arrows pierced the air at Boromir’s command. The wave tore apart a good number of Southrons in the first lines of the charge. Their heavy bodies tumbled down into the dust of the clearing, for a moment slowing their fellow warriors behind them. Most attackers just trampled over their dead and dying, others jumped over the bodies with cries of anger.
“Second rank fire!”
Some more Southrons joined the dead, felled by the next wave of arrows that brought death and pain upon them.
“Swordsmen make ready!”
The archers were firing at will now, for the Southrons had almost reached the defense lines of Gondor, and there were only seconds left before the armies met each other.
“Swordsmen first line, archers fall back!”
The swordsmen that had been standing by moved a few paces forward, to cover the two ranks of archers who quickly dropped their bows and drew their swords to fight the enemy in close combat.
The earth seemed to shudder under the impact of boots. The Southron army slammed against the line of Gondor’s defense like a wave against the rocky coast in the ocean at Dol Amroth. The air rang with the sound of battle cries and steel meeting steel.
Thoughts were useless the moment two armies met in an embrace of death.
Faramir was able to protect his soul from the madness that had become reality by permitting his consciousness to take in and understand the horror around him. It would reach his mind eventually and would have to be dealt with, but later, much later, when the dead were buried and the wounded taken care of, when the swords gleamed in the sunlight without the treacherous dark spots of dried blood marring the blade, when it was safe to show pity and compassion, to be human again.
Maybe someone would tell breathtaking stories at campfires a few days from now. Maybe there would be glory. Maybe some of the screaming men would be called heroes in the future. Maybe there would be silence again.
For this was battle, and there was no silence enjoyed, no glory felt, there were no heroes born, no stories lived in the onslaught of chaos. There was only madness, fire, smoke, disgusting smell, unbearable noise, pain and death.
The Southrons were fierce warriors, but they lacked the skill and precision the men of Gondor possessed. Faramir had learned in early childhood to channel brute force into subtle advances. His teachers had shown him how to wield a weapon efficiently, to shepherd his strength as long as possible, for a battle could last long.
In the chaos of moving bodies, Faramir could see his brother fighting several Southrons at once a few feet away. He saw that even though his brother was one of the most physical formidable men in Gondor, his size and strength was only enhancing the skill with which he wielded his heavy sword, he did not depend on it alone.
Boromir’s blade was dripping red with the blood of enemies. “Gondor!” he cried. Faramir knew that his brother preferred to fight in complete silence, but he shouted nevertheless to reassure his men that he was fighting with them, that he would always be right there at their side.
“Gondor!” Faramir echoed the cry, and Gondor’s soldiers cheered their Captains’ voices that were barely audible above the noise of battle.
In its prime Osgiliath had been a city that could not be compared to other cities in Gondor or in lands far away, and even in ruins the city was unique. When the city was first built, all buildings had been on the great bridge, and therefore had been safe and easy to defend. When the city had grown and started to flow out to both shores of the Anduin, the inhabitants of the past had built a high wall of stone in a half circle, starting and ending at the eastern shore of the river Anduin. This wall had been destroyed a long time ago, and the fallen stones had been used to built houses and repair the bridge. Some stones still lay where they had fallen, but they blended in with the ruins of the houses and towers and did not serve their purpose any more.
The forces of Gondor were too few in numbers to rebuild the old wall, and therefore they had to depend on the maze of ruins that had been the eastern part of the city for protection. There were no ramparts, no ditches, no wooden gates, no other obstacles to keep the enemy off the bridge but ruins and the army of Osgiliath itself.
Hurrying over the high arch of the bridge Anakil had a good view of the clearing between the ruins of the city and the trees of Ithilien. He was half a mile away, but already he could smell the smoke of burning grass, hear the cries of pain and death and the sound of swords meeting in anger. The Lieutenants at the catapults shouted orders and curses that could be understood above all other noise. Sometimes there were orders shouted in a language the boy did not understand, the orders directed at the enemy.
Anakil stopped at the parapet to get his ragged breathing under control. He had never seen a battle before, and even though he was at a safe distance, he was terrified. He had often dreamt of battles, but in his dreams a battle had been different. He had been a great Captain, he had led his men without fear, and of course not a single one of his men had suffered injury or died. The enemy had feared him as they feared death, and he had killed many of them with his great blade, alone on his part of the battlefield, visible from afar, encouraging his men, terrifying his enemies. In his battles there had been no noise, no fire, no smoke, no death, no fear.
“This is not the time to repeat a lesson I already taught you, but may I remind you that messengers are supposed to meet at the stables, my young apprentice?” the Poet whispered in Anakil’s ear and gently took his right arm.
Anakil did not move. “I have never seen so many men fighting before,” he whispered. “I have been here ten month now, but there has never been a battle, there have only been drills. I never guessed a battle would be like that. That’s horrible.” He pointed to the battlefield with his left hand. “They are slaughtering each other. How can they distinguish between one of our men and the enemy in this chaos and smoke?”
“Rest assured, they can. They are warriors, my young apprentice. Their duty is to protect Gondor and all those that live inside her borders. That includes you and me as well as the soldier fighting next to them.”
“But how can they see who fights next to them?”
“Sometimes they cannot see it,” the Poet explained. “They can always hear it. Listen to their shouts. They shout the name of the land or Captain for which they are fighting for.” He applied gentle pressure to Anakil’s right arm, and the boy hesitantly continued on his way to the eastern shore.
When they left the bridge, they could not see the field of battle any more, but they could hear it loud as thunder. There was a strange smell in the air, worse than the smell of burning grass. It took Anakil some time to realize it was the stench of burning flesh and fresh blood. He fought the urge to retch and tried not to think of the boys of the eastern garrison who had to be somewhere at the edge of the battlefield, preparing arrows and shields, putting out small fires and caring for wounded. He had been one of them, had prepared for those tasks a hundred times in as many drills. But this was not a drill, and suddenly Anakil realized that being a boy in Osgiliath was more than being a useless servant who had nothing to fear except Lieutenant Darin’s wrath.
Most messengers had been on the eastern shore when the garrison was called to arms, and therefore they had already prepared a few horses for departure. The animals were nervous, moving about as far as their reins allowed them to go, snorting and neighing. The door that led inside the main stables was closed. Every few seconds there was the sound of heavy hooves thundering against wood, and Anakil wondered if the few boys and the Warden who had to remain in the stables during a daytime attack could cope with the frightened animals.
Beldil was there with the messengers, without his messenger’s shirt, but nobody objected to his presence. He smiled at Anakil and twinkled. Anakil tried to smile back, but his face didn’t obey his commands and turned into a grimace instead.
Beldil’s smile broadened. “You look worse than the horses, Anakil,” he said and slightly bowed to the Poet. “It took you a long time to get here, Poet, the others were getting worried.”
“My young apprentice and I were on the western shore when the trumpet called,” the Poet answered and bowed in return. “Is there any indication how the tides of battle are turning?”
Beldil shook his head. “Not yet. They have brought in the first wounded and some dead, but for now the opponents seem to be evenly matched. The defense stands strong.”
“I have heard nothing, not even rumors, so I suppose they are unharmed and fighting.”
The Poet bowed his head again and went away to talk to the other messengers.
Anakil leaned against the wall of the stables and put his hands flat on the cold stone behind him to keep them from trembling. “I don’t understand it, Beldil” he breathed. “I just don’t understand it!”
“What is there to understand?” Beldil asked.
“Everything!” Anakil shook his head in an attempt to clear his thoughts. “This noise. This smell. This smoke. Look at the sun! It is a fair day, a wonderful day…I had so much fun working with Anborn and now…now everything has turned into hell! Just like this! Listen to the screams. They are dying out there. I don’t want them to die!” He covered his eyes with one hand. “All my life I have dreamt of being a great warrior. All I wanted was to be able to wield a great sword in a great battle. There is a battle now, and all I want is for it to stop!”
Beldil put his bandaged wrist on Anakil’s shoulder. “Believe me, most of those who are fighting out there are feeling exactly the same right now. But still they fight, not because they want to, but because they have to. They are there to keep Gondor and everything they love in this world safe.”
“This is ridiculous!” Anakil lowered his hand and nodded. “I am acting like an idiot, am I not?” he asked and managed a smile.
Beldil chuckled. “No, you are acting like a lad who has to listen to his first great battle. I have seen worse reactions. In Ithilien, we fight many battles, but most are small and swiftly over. Some are no more than a skirmish between scouting parties. A skirmish like you and I fought with those Orcs.”
Anakil snorted. “I did not fight in any skirmish. You and Anborn saw my fighting abilities today. You fought those beasts, I was just lucky.”
“And I am glad you were lucky.” Beldil scratched his scarred forehead with his bandaged hand. “Let me tell you something. The new lads in the Ithilien company are always positioned somewhere in the trees with their bows, where they are in no great danger and can watch what is happening below, to show them what it is like to fight outside the training ground. Captain Faramir and Lieutenants Mablung and Damrod are always very careful around them. You never know what happens when a young man gets introduced to battle. Most battles are neither a pretty sight nor easy to stomach, but they never tell you about this at home.”
“How can you be so calm?” Anakil’s hand started trembling again, and he put it back against the cold wall. “Don’t you want to either run away or run to join them in the field?”
“I am not able to help right now, and that is frustrating, but rest assured, the messengers will come to play their part in this soon.” Beldil’s bandaged hand pointed to the Poet, who had gathered some of the messengers around him and talked to them in quiet tones. “Like me he is not one of Osgiliath, but they turn to him for advice, for he is the most experienced. He knows how to keep them calm. The most frustrating part of being a messenger is the long wait. Look at them. They are ready to ride off any second. Most of them are great warriors who can better most of those that are fighting right now, but they have to stay. They have to listen to the battle but are not allowed to take a part in it.”
“Why are you not afraid?” Anakil raised one hand, and it was still trembling. He sighed and put it in the pocket of his breeches. “Don’t you fear that the enemy will break through the defenses and enter the city, take the bridge?” He looked down at Beldil’s injured arm and wrist. “You are not able to defend yourself.”
“As long as you do not hear the call to retreat, we are safe between the ruins,” Beldil answered.
“I hate this war!” Anakil whispered.
“Everyone hates it,” Beldil smiled. “But as long as there is one man in Gondor left standing, we will continue fighting.”
The line of swordsmen had dissolved into small groups, but the two lines that had been bowmen in the first moments of battle were standing as one. Those that had been on the western shore when the call to arms sounded had arrived now and formed a third standing line. Some from the second and third lines had picked up their bows and sent arrows over their comrades’ shoulders into the mass of the attacking Southrons, every single one meeting a target at this short range.
The catapults fired in short intervals, spouting fire and death. The Lieutenants of the catapult crews were shouting and cursing to force their men to reload faster. The enemy seemed to have two catapults hidden in the trees, but the weapons were not visible in the twilight of the forest. Their positions could only be guessed by tracing the balls of fire they poured onto Gondor’s defenses. Every now and then one of Gondor’s catapults fired a blind shot into the trees. The enemy’s catapults did not cease their fire.
Boromir fought back to back with one of the Rangers whose name he could not remember. To his left he sometimes caught a glimpse of his brother, who had paired in the same fashion with another Ranger. The grass was burning around the Ranger Captain and his man. The ground was covered with the bodies of enemies and men of Gondor alike.
Some of the bodies were moving, trying to crawl back towards the ruins to get the attention of the healers. Those who reached the standing lines were picked up by their comrades and dragged to safety.
A small boy, no older than fourteen, appeared in the first standing line, carrying waterskins around his neck. The boy was unarmed, his dirty hands were dangling at his sides, his eyes wide with fear. He seemed oddly out of his place in his clean white shirt.
“Water?” he asked hesitantly.
“Get out of here!” Boromir heard his brother’s voice.
“Get behind the ranks!” Lieutenant Darin’s voice shouted.
The boy turned into the direction the first voice had come from.
“Get out of here!” Faramir shouted again, coughing.
The boy nodded and turned around. Two large, dirty hands from the third rank, Lieutenant Darin’s, grabbed the boy’s shoulders and pulled him towards safety. Smoke obscured Boromir’s vision. A burning shot crashed into the second rank. Men howled in pain. Others shouted for water to extinguish the new source of flames and smoke. The boy cried out. A fast growing red spot appeared on his white shirt where a black arrow protruded from his back. The boy’s legs gave out, and he fell to his knees. The hands on his shoulders disappeared. The slender body swayed a moment, then the boy sank down face first onto the bloody grass.
Boromir howled in pure anger, turned to one side to get a better view of the battle around him and drove his sword into the side of a Southron that tried to pass him to attack the Ranger at his back. From the corner of his eye he could see an enemy dropping a short bow and rushing at him. The Captain ducked in time to avoid being beheaded by a broad sword. The Southron that would have slaughtered him was attacking once more, and Boromir realized he did not have room to defend himself with his long sword. He jumped aside to avoid the blade that was descending from above to split his skull, changed his sword from right to left hand and reached for the dagger that he always kept at his belt. He threw it in a fluid motion, and the short blade buried itself deep in the enemy’s left eye. Boromir breathed a sigh of relief as the Southron dropped his sword and crashed to the ground. The Captain coughed in the smoke and grabbed his sword with both hands, just in time to parry a blow from another Southron who had taken his fallen comrade’s place.
From the corner of his eyes Boromir saw his brother raising his bloody sword. “Ithilien to me!”
The call was passed through the fighting ranks. “Ithilien to Faramir!”
The Ithilien Rangers obeyed at once. Fighting and shouting, some of them with bloody faces and limping, they cleared themselves a way through the scattered enemies to reach their Captain. Soon there were at least two dozen of them at Faramir’s side, some of them fighting to keep the attacking Southrons at bay, the others listening to their Captain’s quiet orders. The group of Rangers neither shouted cries of battle nor took formation for an attack. Suddenly, quietly and seemingly as one, the group was gone, had disappeared behind the standing ranks. Boromir trusted his brother enough not to question whatever he had in mind.
One of the catapults fired a shot into the trees. Something in the twilight of the woods erupted into flames. The catapult crew howled in triumph. Trees did not burn this bright and fast, they must have hit either the enemy’s catapult itself or the tar the Southrons used to set their shots on fire.
“Continue firing!” Boromir shouted. “Drive them back into the trees!”
There was a sudden noise at his back. Boromir turned on his heels, just in time to avoid the broad sword of an enemy that was moving to sever his head from his body. The blade met his right arm instead, just below the shoulder, where his chainmail protected his skin. The impact sent him stumbling backwards, and he felt blood drenching his shirt. Despite the pain his sword moved quickly, stabbing right through the enemy’s throat. He had to kick against the fallen body to free his blade. The Ranger that had fought at his back lay face first on the ground. Two arrows pierced his throat, but he had still grasped the hilt of his sword tightly with his right hand.
Boromir turned his back to the standing ranks to get some protection. “More swordsmen to the front!” he ordered. He knew it was dangerous to weaken the ranks, but the men that were fighting outside the lines could not cope with the onslaught of Southrons any longer. He did not want to condemn those men, most of them his brother’s Rangers, to meaningless slaughter.
“Gondor!” This battle cry had been shouted again and again from inside the ranks, but this time it seemed to come from the right of the clearing. “Gondor!” There was a lot of fire and smoke to his right, where some ill aimed shots of the catapults had done no harm except setting the grass on fire earlier in the battle, forcing the Southrons to stay clear of the flames in their assault. The fires had burned down eventually, leaving only black, scorched earth and a wall of smoke at the enemy’s flank. Black shapes appeared in the smoke, leaping over glowing fires and ash. They had dark hoods and masks pulled over their faces, and their long cloaks were dripping wet to protect them against the suffocating smoke. They stormed into the enemy’s flank with their swords raised high, crying and shouting like madmen.
Despite the dark masks, Boromir could make out his brother leading the attack. The Rangers must have circled behind Gondor’s defenses down to the river to wet their cloaks. Thereafter they had found a way, under the cover of smoke and chaos, to approach unnoticed from the right. Rangers were experts at disappearing when they did not want to be seen, and Boromir was glad to have them at Osgiliath today.
The Southrons were confused to find Gondor’s soldiers in their midst, and it took them some time to reorganize their forces to cope with this new center of battle. Faramir’s force was small, he couldn’t do much harm to the enemy, but he drew some of them away from the ranks that protected the city.
A single horn cried out.
Slowly, absolutely unexpectedly, the advance on the clearing halted. The sun that filtered through the thick smoke showed the defenders of Gondor an army holding its position. At first Boromir considered this to be a trick. He had the words on his lips to order an advance, but he did not shout them, for another horn called out from behind the enemy’s army. The warriors that had been so fiercely trying to breach Osgiliath’s defenses started to move backwards towards the treeline.
“Hold position!” Boromir shouted. “Hold position! No pursuit!”
They did not take with them their wounded and dead, but nevertheless moved painfully slowly, as if they had all the time in the world. The soldiers of Gondor watched them in silence, uncertain if they had the right to cheer a victory. Even the hooded Rangers on the open field did not send any arrows after them.
“Their withdrawal is meaningless!” Boromir broke the eerie silence. “This is a strategic retreat. We have not defeated them yet. They will be back, and we will make them leave for good then!” He sheathed his sword and put his left hand to his bleeding right arm. The wound was not deep, and the pain was bearable. “Third standing rank stays as guard. Nobody moves onto the battlefield without Captain’s permission. The Rangers will bring in the injured.” He waved to his brother who was busy talking to his small force. “Faramir! Scouts!” he shouted.
Faramir nodded, and five of his hooded Rangers disappeared into the woods where the army of Southrons had withdrawn.
“Those who need the healers’ attention, go and get it now. All the others, get some rest. I assure you, we will fight again today!”
Anakil sat down against the wall of the stables and tried to ignore the noise of battle from the clearing and the sound of heavy hooves against wood from inside the stables. The Poet and the other messengers took turns leading the horses around the stables to keep them calm. Most men behaved like soldiers off duty, sitting on the ground chatting about home and exchanging gossip and news from all parts of Gondor. Anakil envied them their experience as messengers, the ability to relax despite the knowledge that a battle was going on less than half a mile away.
Suddenly the noise from the battle died down. Beldil smiled and sat down on the grass next to the dusty road at the stables, busy chewing a piece of dried meat. “The fighting has stopped and they haven’t sent an urgent message to the city,” he explained. “That is a good sign. It means the defenses have been strong.”
“Is it over now? Did we win?” Anakil asked. “Why don’t they cheer?”
“I don’t think it is over. I guess the enemy has withdrawn to regroup, but that is a good sign indeed.”
“How can there be any good sign on a field where two entire armies meet for only one purpose: To slit each other’s throats?” Anakil sighed. He hated talking about this, but Beldil was his friend. “I am scared of the sight of battle,” he confessed. “I am disgusted by the smell of battle…does that mean Irion was right to call me a coward?”
“You are not a coward, Anakil, you are young and naïve.” Anakil started to object, and Beldil raised his hand. “Don’t take that as an insult. I envy you your naïveté concerning battle.” Anakil relaxed a little, and Beldil smiled. “It is worse to watch or listen to a battle than to actually fight in it. In battle, you do not think, you just try to survive and win the day. You do not have time to think. What we are doing right now, sitting around doing nothing, that is the worst that can happen to you in the army.”
Anakil shook his head. “There was some kind of sense in everything I experienced in the army so far. But today I don’t understand anything any more.”
“There is no sense to be found in war,” the Poet said from above.
Anakil turned his head. The Poet stood to his right, leading one of the horses on long reins.
“We are not at war because we love fighting and killing. Soldiers try to convince themselves that they enjoy being a warrior to keep themselves sane, to avoid succumbing to the horror that can be caused with a sword or a bow. They call a weapon beautiful to be able to like it, to not hate themselves because they do what they have to do. But most of them kill to protect. Only those that have given in to madness kill to feel pleasure and satisfaction in taking a life.
“War is not beautiful, my young apprentice. A second after war is declared, war does not make sense any more and develops a life and will of its own. You cannot control war, like you can control an army; you cannot understand war, like you understand an army, because in chaos there is nothing to control and understand.”
“Then why are we at war? We have been at war all my life. If nobody can control war, why doesn’t the Steward end it?”
“The Steward did not start this war; therefore it is not in his power to end it. I cannot read the Steward’s mind, but I know that the shadows have almost obscured the light of the sun. It will be over soon,” the Poet said.
“Are you sure about this?” Beldil asked.
“I have seen madness and chaos. I know what it feels like to loose control.” The Poet stroked the horse’s neck. “The Steward does not have much left to lose,” he whispered barely audible.
The healers would be busy this afternoon and evening. Both the Ithilien and Osgiliath Companies had suffered considerable injuries and losses. Faramir’s small group of Rangers brought in the injured from the open field. The dead were left where they had fallen, next to their dead enemies on the burned grass of the field. Only those whose clothes had caught fire and whose flesh had started to burn and smell were dragged aside to put out the flames and contain the stench that began to settle down on the battlefield.
Faramir removed his dark, damp mask from his face and threw back his hood. His wet cloak was heavy, and he slicked back his soaked hair from his face with both hands. His eyes watered in the thick smoke. A few tears had cleared strange paths on his dirty face. He tried to make out his scouts in the twilight between the trees of Ithilien, but they had already disappeared into shadows.
Anborn stopped next to him, supporting a wounded comrade with both arms. “Captain?”
“I am not hurt, Anborn.” Faramir reached out to remove the mask from Anborn’s face that had shifted upwards and started to obscure the Ranger’s vision. “Take some rest, they will be back soon.”
Anborn nodded gravely. “I know. I don’t understand why they left.”
“I don’t understand it, either. All I know is that they will regroup, and they will be back.” Faramir put one arm under the injured Ranger’s shoulder and helped Anborn support the wounded man.
They reached the standing line that had been left as guard, and soldiers of Osgiliath lifted the injured Ranger from their arms. Faramir nodded his thanks and took a look around. The ranks had dissolved quickly. Most of the wounded that had not been able to leave the field without help had already been brought away. The open field between the ranks and the trees was empty now, except for the dead of both sides. It was dangerous to walk the clearing where the main part of the battle had taken place, for it was within range of any bowman that might hide in the trees.
Faramir took off his wet cloak and draped the heavy garment over his shoulder. There were no more injured to bring to the healers. The soldiers of Osgiliath started to carry away the dead that had fallen close to the ruins, comrades and enemies alike. The Ranger Captain bent down to help, and his gaze fell on the slender body of the boy that had tried to bring water. He knelt down and pulled the single arrow out of the small body. Carefully he wrapped his cloak around the still form and turned the boy on his back. There was no blood on the boy’s face, only a little dirt. His eyes were closed. The arrow had pierced his heart; he had been dead before his head had hit the ground. There had been almost no pain, only surprise; his features were relaxed, as if he was sleeping. “Children are fighting this war,” Faramir whispered. He lifted the small body into his arms and stood.
“He was a soldier, Captain,” Anborn said gently.
Faramir shook his head. “He was still a child.”
“Maybe he was still a child. But he also was a soldier of Gondor, and now he is dead.” Anborn reached out and took the light body out of his Captain’s arms. Carefully he covered the boy’s face with the dark, wet hood of Faramir’s cloak. “I will ensure his resting place is a peaceful one, Captain.”
Faramir managed a small smile. He knew that Anborn had been instructed by Mablung to take care of him in the Lieutenant’s absence. Sometimes he doubted that he really merited his men’s love and care. “Thank you, Anborn. Make sure you get some rest afterwards. You fought well.”
“Captain.” Anborn returned the small smile and carried the dead boy away.
Most soldiers of Osgiliath helped to carry the wounded to the healers and retired to their tents to get some rest afterwards. The third standing line formed a well armed guard at the edge of the clearing, and the Ithilien scouts ensured that the enemy could not launch a surprise attack on the bridge. The boys were busy putting out the last small fires and collecting arrows, swords and shields the enemy had left near the guard line. A small group of soldiers was busy searching the enemy’s dead for valuables and piling the bodies at the edge of the clearing to burn them. Gondor’s dead were carried to a different place, where they were identified by comrades. A scribe took down their names to write the sad news to their families as soon as the battle was over. They would be buried the next morning with all honors a soldier of Gondor was entitled to receive.
There was a constant murmur between the ruins and tents, the only loud noises were the screams and moans from the healers’ tents. The tents were not spacious enough to provide beds for all the wounded, therefore those who had suffered minor injuries rested outside in the grass and were mostly tended to by comrades or sat waiting to receive the healers’ attention. The smell of herbs and blood was in the air, a smell Boromir was well acquainted with, for it remained in a camp for days after a battle was over.
The Captain carefully removed his cloak and chainmail to take a look at the wound on his right upper arm. His shirt was soiled with dried blood and stuck to the cut. Boromir could not help wincing as he pulled the garment off with a forceful movement, reopening the wound. The cut was not as deep as he had feared; it would require a few stitches, but Boromir reckoned it would be sufficient to bandage it now and return to get it stitched when things had calmed down a little. He took a bandage the healers’ aides were handing out to those who could tend to themselves and sat down on a fallen stone to wrap it tightly around his upper arm. His cloak, shirt and chainmail lay in a heap at his feet. He nodded at every soldier that noticed him among the wounded, assuring them that he had suffered only scratches and no serious wounds.
Two dirty hands swatted his struggling left hand away from the bandage and pulled it tight with the ease of someone who was used to care for the wounded. “Still alive, brother?” Faramir asked gently and knelt down to secure the white linen.
“Still alive,” Boromir smiled. He raised his left hand to brush away some grime and dried blood that clung to his brother’s cheek. “You look terrible.”
“I am fine,” Faramir said and smiled up at a wounded soldier who walked by and greeted his Captains.
“They will be back soon.”
“I know. But I guess they want to wait for the cover and confusion of darkness. I can think of no other reason why they have withdrawn.”
“I sincerely hope they do not plan something we cannot guess right now. We can cope with darkness well enough.”
Faramir applied the finishing touches to Boromir’s bandage and lifted the chainmail from the ground. “Do you need help with this?”
“It is only a scratch; I can manage on my own.” Boromir grunted and pulled first the shirt, then the chainmail over his head, careful not to entangle his long hair in the small links. “Your Rangers fought well. Make sure those who are not on scouting duty get some rest. That includes you as well. I have seen most of your men caring for the wounded, even doing some stitching.”
Faramir sat down on the fallen stone next to his brother. “We have only one healer at Henneth Annûn. The Rangers are used to caring for their wounded,” he explained. “I will talk to them.” He put a hand on his brother’s arm, and even though his face was serious, his eyes smiled. ”And I will see to it that you get some rest as well. There are a few hours of daylight left.”
“I do not have the time for rest,” Boromir snorted, knowing that his brother expected those words. “I have spent enough time already caring for a mere annoyance.”
“That annoyance is in need of stitches.”
“The healers do not have the time to stitch scratches.” Boromir rose to his feet, adjusted the chainmail and pulled on his cloak. The dark spots of blood on the front of the dark cloak were barely visible. “I will send messengers to Henneth Annûn and Cair Andros with news of our situation. We have suffered considerable losses and are in need of reinforcements. Maybe Cair Andros can spare some men.”
“No messenger to the city?”
“Not yet.” Boromir shook his head. “The Steward cannot spare a single man of the guard, this much I know. I do not want to worry the Lords with news of a battle that is not decided yet. I will ride to the city in person by dawn, whatever the outcome of the night may be. I have been absent from the city far too long.” He cast a meaningful look at his brother. “And so have you.”
Boromir was standing closely in front of Faramir, blocking the view of his brother’s face for those who passed on the narrow roads between the healers’ tents. “I know.” Faramir used the moment of privacy to sigh and slip out of the role of commanding officer for a moment, a role Boromir knew was not in his brother’s nature at all. “And I will accompany you and speak to the Council as well. You are right, I have been absent far too long.”
“Father will not be pleased that we have joined forces and commands without asking for his permission,” Boromir said.
“It is for the best of Osgiliath and all of Gondor. The Council will agree with us, and he will not reprimand us before the Council. Not if we come home with a victory.”
“No, not before the Council. But are you ready to face him in private?”
“Has anybody ever been ready to do that?” Faramir rose, and his face changed from that of the silent, gentle scholar Boromir knew he was into that of a Captain, a rock his men could rely on, the man he had to be in times of war. Boromir knew he was the only one allowed to see both faces in these times of crisis. “Let’s not speculate about what might be in the future,” Faramir said. “Let’s deal with the situation at hand.”
“Captains?” Someone cleared his throat behind him, and Boromir turned around.
“Yes, Anborn?” Faramir answered for him.
“Captains, I request permission to enter the field of battle with a group of men, all volunteers, to bring in the fallen.” The Ranger spoke to Boromir, but his eyes were on Faramir as well. “The guards reported that they hear some moaning, it is possible that some of those we left for dead are still alive.”
“How many are in this group you speak for?” Boromir asked.
“Twenty-eight, Captain. Eighteen of Ithilien, including myself, and ten of Osgiliath.”
Boromir exchanged a look with his brother, and both of them nodded. “You have my permission,” Boromir said. “But do not linger on the field longer than necessary and watch out carefully for arrows from the treeline.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Anborn bowed his head.
“I will go with you,” Faramir said.
Boromir did not want to object to his brother in Anborn’s presence, therefore he let both Rangers depart in silence.
The noise from the battle was gone, but the stench remained. The roads were busy with soldiers now, a lot of them bloodied, even though it was not necessarily their own blood. Most of the fires had been put out, but smoke and ash lingered in the air, sometimes obscuring the evening sun. The moans and cries from inside the healers’ tents were audible over the entire eastern garrison.
Anakil longed to do something, anything! To go to the healers’ tents to assist or to help carry away the dead. To clean swords or to stand watch in the clearing. Anything to escape the nerve-racking task of waiting. But he was not allowed to leave the stables, so he stayed. They had carried many dead before his eyes, and he desperately hoped that his brothers were not among them.
There was still noise inside the stables. The Warden and the boys had not succeeded yet in calming down the horse that tried to kick its stall apart. The saddled and bridled horses of the messengers had quieted down. The men had knotted their reins to the saddles and let them walk around freely; only two men were guarding them to ensure that they did not wander too far.
Beldil reclined in the grass next to the dusty road, his bandaged arm tucked carefully under his head. His eyes were closed, but Anakil knew he was not asleep. Even was too young to find some rest in the aftermath of battle.
The Poet leaned against the wall of the stables, his eyes cast down, his fingers playing absently with the hilt of his sheathed sword. Anakil could feel the steel of his own blade at his side, and he was glad that he had not been forced to unsheathe it this afternoon.
Captain Boromir came walking down the dusty path at a brisk pace, and Anakil was relieved to see him unhurt. The Captain had dried blood and dirt in his hair and on his hands, but he moved without a limp, and except for a dark patch of blood that was barely visible, his cloak was reasonably clean. The Poet straightened up immediately and called the other messengers to his side. Anakil started to get up to join them, but Beldil’s voice held him back: “Don’t bother,” the messenger said. “He does not have written messages. He will send spoken word to the other garrisons to inform them that we are under attack. The Poet will send those who are most able to defend themselves on the fastest horses.”
Anakil stood but did not walk over to the Captain and the group of messengers. He could not understand the Captain’s words, but he saw the Poet bow and nod. The old messenger called out for four horses, and while they were fetched, the Captain talked to four of the messengers in private. The others that were not needed settled down in the grass again to continue what they had been doing. The four messengers soon bowed to the Captain, mounted the horses and cantered away. Three of them stayed on the eastern side of the Anduin while the fourth made for the bridge.
“Strange,” Beldil muttered.
“What is strange?” Anakil asked from above, while he watched the Captain depart.
“Only one of them intends to cross the bridge. The three that stayed on the eastern shore are most probably on their way to Henneth Annûn. Two of them will escort the one for a few hours, then they will come back with all three horses, while the messenger continues on foot. The Captain did not send someone to South Ithilien, but that does not surprise me, for it is a long and dangerous way to the south. But there was only one messenger that made for the western shore, which means that either Cair Andros or Minas Tirith do not receive a message.” Beldil shrugged. “Or the eastern lads continue to Cair Andros. I cannot read the Captain’s mind.”
Anakil sat down again. One of the horses walked over to the two friends in the grass and nuzzled Anakil’s neck. The boy reached up to pat the animal’s nose. “What do we do now?” he asked.
“We keep waiting.” Beldil said. “Maybe you could organize something to eat? I am afraid there will be no call to dinner this evening.”
The twenty-eight soldiers and their Captain searched the clearing in groups of four or five. Two watched out for any danger that might come from the treeline, while the others bent down to examine the body of a fallen comrade and gently pick him up. Some of the Southrons that were still alive but unable to crawl away were moaning, but the men of Gondor did not have the time to care for them as well. They had come for their dead, not the enemy’s casualties, and those of the enemy that were still alive would be among those within a few hours.
The Rangers of Ithilien had pulled their masks over their mouths and noses to keep the sickening stench of violent death at bay. The soldiers of Osgiliath pressed their sleeves to their faces. The men carried the dead to the guard line and handed them over to their comrades before entering the clearing again to continue their sad task.
Faramir walked in a group of four and was glad that his mask hid a part of his face. There were some Rangers among the dead, men he knew and recognized; and there were those of Osgiliath he did not know, most of them young. He would call them boys if he met them in the streets of the city. Children were fighting this war!
“Captain!” Anborn called out and waved him over to where a group of five was standing in a small circle around a body on the ground. “He is still alive.”
Faramir and his three companions walked over to Anborn’s group. Faramir motioned five of this group of nine to continue with their gruesome task, while the remaining two covered him and Anborn.
“It is a miracle, but he is alive,” Anborn said, looking down at the still breathing form of one of Osgiliath’s soldiers whose body and face was burned beyond recognition. “If we carry him, we will hurt him unnecessarily.”
“Captain Faramir, we should finish it for him,” one of the two soldiers said. “He would ask us for it, if he was able.”
Faramir looked down into the face that consisted only of charred flesh and dried blood. The mouth was slightly open, and gurgling breath escaped black lips. The Captain could not tell whether the black ash that covered part of the body was the remains of the man’s clothes or his skin. He nodded gravely.
“I will do it,” Anborn said. “You go on, I will follow you in a moment.”
“Go on!” Faramir said.
The soldiers turned reluctantly and joined one of the small groups.
“Captain, you do not have to…,” Anborn said.
“This is my task, Anborn,” Faramir said slowly. He would never ask one of his men to do something he was reluctant to perform himself. “You do not have to stay. He won’t fight, I can do this alone.”
“You can order me to stand aside, but please do not order me to leave.”
“I won’t,” Faramir said. “You are welcome to stay.”
Anborn knelt down and gently covered one of the man’s burned hands with his. “I don’t know your name, soldier, but I know you fought well,” he whispered.
The man moaned, and Faramir realized that he had to be at least partly conscious. The Ranger Captain could not imagine the agony the soldier was in just now. One of his eyes opened slightly, and it cost Faramir a lot of strength to return the gaze. That single eye, in a face of burned flesh, pleaded with him to do what he had to do.
The Captain drew his dagger and gently closed that open eye with his fingertips. He did not know if the man was able to hear him, but he desperately hoped he could. “Be at peace,” he said. “Gondor is grateful for the service you have given her.” He took a deep breath and cut the man’s throat with a forceful movement.
He could not believe he had fallen asleep. The noise in the garrison had quieted down to a whisper, the dusty roads between the ruins were empty, and there were only occasional cries and moans from the healers’ tents. There was still some noise from inside the stables, but it had calmed down as well, and the thundering of hooves against wood had stopped. The sun had almost vanished in the west, and the shadows had grown long and dark.
Anakil sat up from the patch of grass where he had lain down next to Beldil some hours ago and brushed dirt and small leaves off his shirt. “Good morning, troublemaker!” Beldil greeted him and laughed. “Your brothers were here to visit you, but you slept like the dead.”
Anakil sighed in relief. “Are they all right?
“Well enough. One of them - I don’t know which one, they look the same to me - has some burns on his left hand, but otherwise they appeared to be fine.”
“I’m sorry. I did not mean to sleep at all.” He rubbed his eyes with both hands.
Anakil sighed again. “What time is it?”
“About three hours prior midnight, I guess. It will be dark soon.”
For the first time ever, the cooks brought dinner to the eastern shore. There were a lot of wounded that were not able to walk, and most soldiers had not thought of food tonight before the smell of it reached their noses. They sat down on fallen rocks or at small campfires to eat in silence. The guard line had been relieved by soldiers that had not been wounded in the fight. All other men were supposed to get some rest, but most of them did not find the peace of mind to lie down and sleep. A second line of soldiers had formed up behind the guard line; men who listened to the sounds of nature and tried to see something in the darkness of the forest. All of them knew that the Southrons would return soon.
The sun disappeared below the horizon. Her last rays bathed the city of Osgiliath and the river Anduin in an eerie red light. Between the trees of Ithilien there already was complete darkness. None of the scouts Faramir had sent out hours ago had returned yet, and the two mounted messengers that ought to come back to the garrison with three horses were still absent as well.
All natural sounds seemed to have vanished. Silence hung over the ruins, the charred clearing and the forest like a thick blanket. A light breeze stirred the branches of the trees and bushes, the cooling air was almost visible above the burned down fires. You did not have to look closer to realize that the peace of the quiet evening was a lie. Death could be smelled in the air. There seemed to emerge a dark shadow from the east, a shadow darker than the night, a shadow that settled down quietly but heavily on the men’s hearts.
In old stories it was told that Ithilien was most beautiful at night, when most sounds seemed to vanish, when peace could almost be felt in the meadows, clearings, forests and rivers. Faramir believed that Ithilien had been such a place once, and he believed that it could become such a place once again. But he had never seen the beautiful land at peace. The dark shadows that seemed to envelop Ithilien and Osgiliath were far from peaceful, they settled down like a menacing blanket.
The attack came without warning.
None of the scouts made it back to the garrison in time, most probably none of them was still alive. There was neither restraint nor order in the enemy’s approach. They stormed the already battered clearing like madmen. In the twilight of dusk they seemed to be black shadows born out of the darkness of the forest, screaming loud and frighteningly in their foreign language.
Gondor’s guard line heard their approaching footsteps, but there was barely time to alert the whole garrison. The defense was not entirely formed up when the first enemies entered the clearing. The catapults fired their burning shots, setting some trees on fire and basking the assault in an eerie flickering light. Arrows tried to stop the flood of bodies. Some Lieutenants cried for archers to fire as one, but most soldiers were already firing in their own time, realizing they did not have the time to wait for the orders. Enemies crashed to the ground and were immediately swallowed up by darkness. The losses didn’t even slow the assault. They carried no banners, just held their swords raised high. Waves of screaming warriors streamed out of the forest, pushed forwards by a force more powerful than what had driven them to attack in the afternoon.
In the flickering fires of the burning shots and the last light of the day, the enemy’s faces were no more than shadows. But when they were close enough to Gondor’s defenses to distinguish them, not only the human faces of Southrons were visible in the twilight. There were other faces, black, ugly, deformed, horrible, their eyes wide and their mouths wide open in terrible screams.
“Orcs!” someone shouted, and the cry was repeated throughout the ranks. ”Orcs!”
“Orcs!” Faramir shook his head and fought the urge to snort. The Southrons had withdrawn to join their forces with a host of Orcs that was only able to fight in darkness. For a short second everything made sense. Faramir did not have the time for more thought, for the assaulting armies had reached the defense line of Gondor, and there was no sense to be found in anything anymore. Skillfully forged blades met crude metal. Reality was drowned in the sound, pain and feeling of the impact.
Fire and smoke.
The smell of burned flesh and fresh blood.
The screams of the dying, the angry, high pitched battle cries of the living.
The two armies met in a violent embrace for the second time, an embrace that almost pushed Gondor’s defenders to their knees with the force and terror of the onslaught.
“Hold the line!” Faramir heard Boromir’s voice thunder above unbearable noise, confusion and barely repressed panic. “Swordsmen to the front. Archers fire in your own time. Hold the line!”
It was impossible to count them. Orcs and Southrons danced around each other, sometimes slaughtered each other by mistake, but it did not matter to them. There were enough warriors hidden in the trees, waiting impatiently to enter the clearing and fight. They did not even bother to fire their catapults to clear a path for their main forces. They screamed like madmen until their lungs forced them to draw breath, fighting with anger, almost desperation. The men of Gondor fought bravely, but they were no match for the two armies that attacked as if possessed with fury.
Faramir freed his sword from the torso of a slain enemy and took a moment to look around. Some Orcs and Southrons had breached the lines of defense and were fighting their way towards the ruins of eastern Osgiliath. Arrows stopped them, but more and more of their comrades broke through. Soon the arrows would not be able to stop all of them any more. The battle was going to continue in the city. They would not be able to protect the ruins much longer.
The clearing was covered with dead bodies. Faramir could not determine how many of them were of the enemy and how many soldiers of Gondor were left to defend the ruins and the bridge. They could not stay in the open field to be overrun by two armies sent by dark forces nobody ever spoke of. Faramir knew they had to retreat to another battlefield, to the streets and dark passages of the ruins, where they had a small advantage, for the men of Osgiliath knew where the dusty paths led. Where they could fight like the men of the city most of them had been born to be.
Faramir searched for and found his brother’s gaze. Boromir nodded and lifted the horn of Gondor to his lips. The Captain General blew the order for retreat. The sound was louder than the noises of battle. The men of Gondor who had longed to hear that sound while desperately battling for their lives gladly moved backwards in defense, slowly making for Osgiliath’s eastern perimeter.
“Second and third rank, form up to defend the bridge!” Boromir shouted. “Destroy the catapults you have to abandon. Osgiliath, pair up with those of Ithilien that do not know their way around the ruins. Archers to the buildings! Send a messenger to the White City! Protect the bridge!”
Faramir did not need to encourage his Rangers to follow the orders. Those that were still able to walk moved backwards towards the ruins. There was still hope left. The battle on the open field was lost, but they had not yet lost the day. The enemy might be able to enter Osgiliath’s ancient streets, but they would pay with blood for every stone they walked on.
The horn of Gondor called for retreat.
Anakil raised his head and slowly got to his feet. His hands were trembling again, but the tremor was not as bad as during the first battle. Finally something was happening, something very important in this new battle that had started some time ago. He could feel shadows moving towards the city, shadows like those he had felt in Ithilien, when he had been hunting rabbits with Anborn, moving further east than he had ever been. He did not like the shadows at all.
One of the older boys came running towards the stables, his eyes full of fear. “A messenger to the city!” he shouted, then he bent over to gasp and catch his breath. “Orders from the Captain, a messenger to the city now!”
The Poet called for a horse, and one of the older messengers soon cantered away to cross the bridge.
“There are thousands of them. Thousands! Southrons! Orcs!” The boy almost sobbed. “Some of them are living shadows! They have come back from the dead. There are so many of them.”
The Poet put a soothing hand on the boy’s shoulder and bent down to whisper a few words into his ear. The boy nodded slowly and wiped his nose with the back of his hand.
“What do we do now?” Anakil asked, playing nervously with his trembling hands. He had somehow gotten used to the smell that lingered above the eastern part of the garrison. The noise of the battle was very near. Smoke obscured the pale moon.
“We retreat as well,” Beldil answered. “The battle has reached the outskirts of Osgiliath. Hopefully, our warriors can hold the advance there, but we cannot depend on that. We have to retreat to the bridge. Take as many horses as you can guide alone and follow the others.”
Anakil nodded, relieved to be able to leave the eastern shore. “What about the wounded?” he asked. “Don’t they need the horses to carry the wounded?”
“The healers will care for the wounded. They have a lot of aides and many litters,” Beldil said. “Hurry, we do not have much time.”
Anakil nodded again and disappeared inside the stables to fetch some of the horses.
The ruins of Osgiliath slowed the advance of the Southrons and Orcs, but Gondor’s forces could not stop their assault. With fire, smoke, steel, terror and madness the enemy slowly but steadily entered more and more streets of the ancient city. They left their dead and dying in their wake, as well as the fast growing losses of Gondor. Impenetrable darkness seemed to move with them, darkness that was deeper and far more menacing than the darkness of the night.
The ruins were burning. Smoke rose from every patch of grass. Screaming, shouting, cries for help. The noise was unbearable. Some had climbed the ruins to shoot and pour fire from above. Most of them were pierced by many arrows. Gondor’s catapults burned where they had been abandoned by their crews. Lieutenants and experienced soldiers tried to form defense lines in the narrow streets. Most of them were just trampled down by the advancing enemy.
Two lines held the bridge, spouting fiery arrows onto the advancing troops, covering the slow retreat. Most of the horses had found a refuge behind those lines. Messengers, boys and wounded that were not able to fight waited anxiously, cursing their own inability to fight and protect. The healers were still busy carrying litters with sick and wounded men behind the protection of the line. The horses were frightened, moving restlessly, drawing their masters’ full attention. The waiting men on the bridge only whispered to each other. A few torches lit the night, the only other light came from the flames of the eastern shore.
The two Captains fought with their men, shouting orders. Both of them knew they could not expect reinforcements for at least a day, they had to protect the bridge and the path into the heart of Gondor with those men that were left standing between the ruins of Gondor’s pride of old.
Something hard stuck the back of Faramir’s head. The Captain went down, his vision blurred. He landed hard, the hilt of a fallen sword buried itself deep into his stomach. He closed his eyes to avoid the dirt and ash his body stirred on the ground. His hearing gave out for a second. When his senses cleared, he heard his brother shout his name. He opened his eyes and saw Boromir rush towards him, killing two Orcs on the way. His brother’s eyes reflected a strange light. Faramir was still stunned, but he started to feel an uncomfortable heat that was spreading on his back. Boromir bent down, grabbed his brother’s body with one gloved hand and rolled him around. It was then that Faramir realized his borrowed cloak had been on fire.
“Thank you!” he coughed.
Orcs were all around the brothers, but Boromir held them at bay until Faramir had shed his cloak, scrambled to his feet and readied his sword. “We have to protect the bridge!” Boromir shouted. “For the moment the eastern shore is lost, but they have not yet set foot onto the bridge.”
“Gondor’s soldiers cannot retreat further!” Faramir shouted back. “The healers have not yet evacuated all the wounded.”
“We will win back the east! For now, we have to protect the bridge!” Boromir reached for his horn to sound the order, but he never wielded it.
For suddenly, there was an unnatural shrieking in the air. Shadows born between flames attacked, stronger than any warrior made of flesh. Darkness itself took on shapes, tall and terrible, like riders of death, black. The air grew darker than darkness could possibly be, alive with tangible fear and unbearable horror. Every breath consisted of agony, choking and burning. Terror clouded the minds of the bravest. Reason and courage were abandoned.
The army of Gondor dissolved and fled in panic.
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