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Messages: 17. The 20th of June Part 3
The horses had been nervous and skittish ever since the battle had started, and being on the open bridge had not improved their behavior. Anakil led two animals on short reins. He tried to calm them with his voice and hands, but he knew he was not very convincing in his efforts. He wouldn’t have been able to fool a blind and deaf man into believing that everything was all right, how could he think about calming down two horses? The boy’s breaking voice was trembling, his hands cold and sweaty. The reins had chafed open the flesh between his thumbs and his index fingers.
The battle was coming close. He could almost make out the faces of the fighting men between the ruins, red in the flickering light of small fires. There were two voices audible above the noise, the Captains’, and even though he could not understand the words, he was glad that there were still human voices directing the chaos.
But then something changed. The horses sensed it first and bolted in terror. The reins were ripped from Anakil’s hands, leaving bloody marks on his palms. He cried out in protest and anger, until suddenly, mere seconds later, he felt it as well.
Whatever there had been left of order was gone. There was no sense to be found in anything any more; darkness itself seemed to be out of control.
Everything, everyone - all the bodies and voices and swords and sounds, fire and smoke, the air itself and every bit of light - stopped, turned and fled to the west. The only path to the west was the bridge, and suddenly the high arch over the water was crowded with men, beasts, shadows. The ground shook under the impact of boots and hooves; the wooden planks creaked under the onslaught of weight. There was a terrible shrieking in the air, louder and more terrifying than anything audible in the fighting before. Darkness was moving, as fast as a fast rider, clouded by terror.
Nothing was important any more. Anakil closed his eyes to block out the approaching horror. He did not care that the enemy set foot on the bridge. He did not care that he had lost the horses in his care. He did not care that he deserted his post. He did not care that black arrows reached the bridge, pierced the flesh of men next to him, caused them to stumble and fall, that bloodied blades brushed past him, tried to reach him, met other targets, sometimes just cut through the air without causing harm. He did not care whether he lived or died. All he cared about just now was one single thought:
He wanted it to stop.
He wanted to reach a place where there would be peace and light, where he could breathe freely again.
At first he did not realize he had started to stagger forwards. His eyes were squeezed shut, he pressed his bloody hand to his ears, and he stumbled over bodies, stones and wood to cross the bridge. Other fleeing men bumped into him, caused him to slow down to regain his balance. He heard voices trying to shout over the chaos of an army in disordered retreat, but he did not listen to them. Something struck his leg just below his knee, and he went down. He had to take his hands off his ears to soften the fall. Sharp rocks and pebbles cut into his palms. He did not notice the pain. He pushed himself first to his knees, then to his feet again and continued moving. Nothing mattered except getting away. He did not waste energy on opening the eyes and facing reality. Heavy hooves kicked him, sharp teeth grazed his collar. He went down again, regained his feet again, only to continue moving, just moving, away from the darkness and the shrieking, away from the living shadows that threatened to trample him, swallow him.
Something caught his ankle and forced him to stop. He struggled to free his leg, but a tight grip on his left foot him prevented him from moving. He shouted a cry of anger, fear and frustration, and the human sound, even though it was a sound of terror and despair, helped him to clear a part of his mind of the panic that had taken hold of him.
Slowly he opened his eyes and shook some damp and dirty hair out of his face. He was on the highest point of the bridge, close to the parapet that ran along the northern road. His hands were in pain. He stared at his palms in the flickering firelight and noticed blood and dirt. He remembered falling down more than once, remembered the feeling of pebbles and sharp stones cutting his flesh. He lowered his gaze. His breeches were torn at the knees, and there was blood and dirt there as well.
A long, thin piece of leather had wrapped itself around his left ankle, tying his foot to the ground. He reached down to free himself and realized the leather was part of the loose reins of two horses. The horses were to his left, stopped in their flight by the reins that they had dragged over the road and that had become entangled between fallen stones and wooden planks. The animals were frightened, kicking out with their hind legs, neighing; their eyes wide with panic.
Anakil freed his ankle. He was too occupied coping with his own fear to take in the chaos around him. But he had found something that tied him to a small part of reality, that prevented his mind from blocking out everything, from giving in to the terror and the urge to flee to the west.
He was not alone.
He was needed.
The two terrified horses needed his help and guidance to reach a safer place alive and unharmed. He tried to talk to them and realized he did not have a voice. As soon as the horses were no longer tethered to the ground they started pulling on the reins and dancing around the boy. Anakil tugged forcefully on the reins to turn their heads towards the western shore, and they moved into that direction, together as one, as if pulling a carriage, the small, light human body between their strong necks. Anakil clung to the reins at the bit of the bridles and led himself be dragged along, taking great care to stay on his feet and between the horses, protected by their bodies but not trapped between them.
His gaze focused on the road ahead, and in the chaos of the retreat he recognized the Captains. They were standing back to back next to the Great Hall of Osgiliath, their swords drawn. The great blades were gleaming in the light of the torches in the yard and of small fires. Captain Boromir faced the western shore. Anakil could hear his deep voice booming above the chaos, shouting orders none of the fleeing men choose to acknowledge. Captain Faramir looked to the east. Anakil was close enough to see the fear, anguish and panic he felt mirrored on the Captain’s face. But despite the agony of facing the terror the Ranger Captain stood firm at his brother’s back, shouting as well, trying to convince the terrified men that not everything was lost, that there was still a chance to protect the direct path into the heart of Gondor, that the threatening darkness was not invincible. The Ranger Captain had lost his cloak, and his white shirt was burned and dirty, showing glimpses of the chainmail he wore underneath.
Anakil did not understand every word the two Captains were shouting, but it was enough to see them, to focus on something more real than the terror around him. “Easy, boys!” he shouted at the horses and was surprised to hear his own voice again. He tugged at the reins he held in both hands, and the animals slowed down a little, their ears pressed flat to their skulls to listen to the human voice. “Easy!” Anakil repeated. “Easy, boys!“ He did not know if he was talking to calm down the animals, or if he wanted to assure himself that the horror would be over soon. The horses stopped in their fast walk and turned their heads to look at him. “Easy!” he said again. He started to take in his surroundings and realized that many men streamed past him. Most of the horses had already reached the western shore, only a few of them were still under the control of soldiers or boys.
Then he felt the shadows again, moving faster, very near now. The terrible shrieking began again. He heard the soldiers next to him, the enemies behind him, the horses, his own voice, cry out in fear. The shadows were not only moving faster, they were accompanied by thunder now, loud and threatening like the heavy hooves of horses on wood and stone. Anakil wanted to turn around to face the darkness that was about to swallow him, but he was unable to move his head. The horses reared. The boy clung to the reins; his feet were lifted off the ground. A second later he felt solid stone under his boots again. He expected, almost wanted the horses to bolt and drag him along, but they did not run. They were paralysed with fear, their bodies trembled but they did not flee. Anakil felt the shadows and the thunder brushing his neck. He wanted to cry out in fear once more, but his voice was gone again.
Then the shadows had passed him, darker than darkness, shrouded in a cloud of terror. He thought he caught a glimpse of horses and riders, black and terrible, but he could not be sure. Maybe there were just shadows in the flickering fires.
“Watch out!” he heard the voice of Captain Faramir. The Ranger Captain saw and felt the shadows approach, grabbed his brother who faced in the other direction by the shoulders and pushed him away from the road into the yard of the Great Hall, throwing him to the ground.
The shadows passed over where the Captains had been only seconds before. Then they were gone.
The thunder of hooves faded in the distance, and the darkness of the night became bearable again. Anakil realized he had been holding his breath and sucked in air greedily. The air seemed cold and fresh, and he had never tasted anything this good. There was ash and the stench of death, but there was no suffocating terror any more.
No more arrows pierced the darkness. The horses remained still. A few stars were visible in the dark sky, illuminating an eerie scene. Every living being, even the enemy, seemed to catch its breath.
“Form a line of defence!” Captain Boromir’s voice. The Captain strode out of the yard of the Great Hall, his cloak and hair dusty from the fall but his head and sword raised high. “The bridge is not lost. Gondor is not defeated! Osgiliath to me!”
“Ithilien to me!” Captain Faramir stood on a fallen stone in the yard to be seen by his men. “The shadow has disappeared. Ithilien to me!”
Some of the men obeyed. The terror was gone and the shadows had passed into the west, reason returned to Gondor’s army. The men saw many enemies on the eastern part of the bridge, slowly, almost hesitating approaching the Great Hall of Osgiliath in a mass of bodies and swords. The force of the onslaught had disappeared with the shadows. Gondor’s soldiers knew how to fight an army that was not shrouded with terror and darkness. Seeing some their comrades take up positions again, more soldiers overcame the terror and joined the lines, listened to their Captains and Lieutenants again.
“Ithilien to me!”
“Osgiliath to me!”
Every man within earshot moved to be at his Captains’ side. Three lines of defence formed quickly, two lines of swordsmen in the front, at their back a line of archers. The enemy’s approach stopped, giving Gondor’s forces precious time to form an organized defence out of chaotic retreat.
“Ithilien to me!”
“Osgiliath to me!”
Anakil found himself and the horses on the wrong side of the line. His hands grabbed the bridles of the terrified horses, and he started pulling the animals forward. For the first time during the retreat on the bridge he noticed that the northern road was littered with the bodies of dead, injured and dying. The horses followed his lead. He kept talking to calm them.
Suddenly a bloodied hand took hold of the reins of one of the horses. “Thank you, Anakil,” Captain Faramir’s voice said. The Captain leapt on the bare back of the animal and steered it towards the closing lines of defence.
“Get behind the lines and out of trouble, boy,” Captain Boromir’s voice advised. The boy let go of the bridle of the remaining animal and stepped back to avoid the boots that barely missed his head as the Captain mounted the bare backed horse. The messengers and boys had not bothered to ready every horse they had led out of the stables during the retreat to the bridge.
Anakil took the Captain’s advice and made his way to the back of the lines.
Boromir of Gondor looked down at what was left of the Osgiliath garrison and the Ithilien Rangers from his elevated position on the back of the frightened horse. He saw his brother close by, also mounted, struggling to get the attention of the bare backed animal. Faramir was talking to the skittish steed, and for a moment Boromir envied him the ability to find words of comfort in a moment like this. He had no words to calm down his nervous mount; all he could do was keep the horse under control with his strength and weight.
The forces of the enemy were a few hundred yards away, holding position to regroup on the narrow bridge. They had suffered numerous losses, but compared to the army of Gondor their strength was overwhelming. Boromir guessed they outnumbered his frightened soldiers more than five to one.
He had fought and won battles against all odds. He had always been able to count on the skill and courage of every single man of Gondor. He had always known that Gondor was strong, that Gondor would never lose neither hope nor heart.
His heart swelled with pride at the knowledge that despite the fall of eastern Osgiliath nothing had changed. He could see determination in the faces of the men that looked to him for orders. He could hear it in the Lieutenant’s voices that were calling for discipline and courage. Despite the shadow that had touched them moments ago, that had put fear into the hearts of the boldest, despite the knowledge that they had fled like boys and had left the wounded behind, despite facing death in the darkness of the night, Gondor was still strong.
The Ithilien Company, greatly reduced in numbers but unbroken in will, had gathered as one at the left flank of the third line, holding up the hope that even though eastern Osgiliath was lost, the lands of northern Ithilien had not fallen as well.
The two Captains cantered in front of Gondor’s defences, placing themselves boldly in plain view of the enemy’s archers, but they were neither challenged nor attacked. The enemy’s advance had come to a stop three hundred yards before the yard of the Great Hall where Gondor’s defences were assembled. Only Gondor’s two Captains on the bare backed horses moved between the two bloodied armies confined to the span of the great, but suddenly much too narrow, bridge.
“Hold position!” Captain Boromir shouted. “Hold your fire! Nobody moves to attack!” His horse reared, and the Captain forced it down with his weight. “Hold position!” he repeated. “Those who have not yet joined the lines, report to your Lieutenants!”
“Assemble in good order!” Captain Faramir added. “Those unable to fight take cover between the ruins. Ithilien answers to Osgiliath!”
Anakil looked for the Poet, but he did not see the old messenger. It was very dark now on the bridge, most of the fires had burnt down to nothing but glowing ashes. There was nothing left to be eaten by the flames between the ruins.
The army of Gondor that had formed three lines on the northern and southern road, around the yard of the Great Hall and a few more ruins, seemed small and fragile. How could it be that there were so few of them left? Anakil did not want to think about all the men they had lost in the fight and the retreat. They could hear screams from the injured and dying somewhere on the bridge. They had left comrades behind on the eastern shore, injured men unable to walk, healers unwilling to leave their patients, boys too frightened even to flee, archers trapped somewhere between the ruins.
Anakil covered his face with his hands for a moment, leaving bloody marks on his cheeks. The first thing he had been taught after joining the army had been one simple rule:
You never ever leave a comrade!
They had failed bitterly this night. All of them. He could only hope that the enemy had been merciful enough to grant a quick death to those they had left behind in their panic.
He did not know what to do next. He was no boy any more, his place was not behind the lines where the boys had to regroup and report to the Lieutenant. Messengers were requested to meet at the stables, that was all he knew about being a messenger during a battle, but there were no stables on the bridge. Of course there were stables on the western shore, but he did not think it would be the right thing to do to set a foot on the western shore just now. Some of those that had reached the western shore in the retreat were slowly returning to join the defence. The boy desperately hoped that his brothers were somewhere among the men. He did not see them in the lines of defence, but he was too small to see many faces.
“I am glad to see you are still among the living, my young apprentice,” a deep voice addressed him from behind.
Anakil turned around. His first thought was to throw both arms around the Poet and tell him how good it was to see him alive, but he knew the Poet would not welcome such a desperate gesture of affection. He restrained the impulse and just nodded at the tall man. “I am glad that you are alive, too,” he said. His voice was more hoarse than usual; he had inhaled a lot of smoke and dust.
It was good to see a familiar face, to have someone to talk to, someone who might be able to provide some answers. “What do we do now?” he asked. “I know that messengers are supposed to meet at the stables, but I am not sure whether it would be wise to go to the western stables. I don’t know what to do. Nothing makes sense. There are so few of us now. So very few. So many are gone or on the western shore, so few are left in the line, and there are so many of them. I know we cannot repel an attack, but I know we cannot retreat further, for we need the bridge…” He realized he was rambling about and stopped his own flood of words. The Poet was listening patiently. Anakil remembered what he had learnt about words in the past weeks, about the power that lay in words, information, knowledge and understanding.
“I don’t understand it,” he started again. “We do not have a chance of winning a fight on the bridge. Why did we retreat in the beginning? Why did the army choose to fight between the ruins?”
The Poet chuckled and smiled. “So many questions, but alas, so little time at hand for answers.” Anakil was shocked by the affectionate, almost tender smile on the narrow, dirty face. “My young apprentice, it is better to have a living army, ready to continue fighting this battle and many battles in the future, than to sacrifice the men on a battlefield that is already lost.”
Anakil understood what he meant, but he did not want to believe that the place that had been his home for ten months would never be the same again. “Captain Boromir has never lost a battle before,” he whispered. “Why Osgiliath? How could this happen? What did we do wrong?”
“Sometimes things happen without anyone doing something wrong.” The Poet put a heavy hand on Anakil’s shoulder. “Things happen, my famous young apprentice.”
Things happen. The Rangers of Ithilien had often told him that sometimes things just happened without obvious reasons. “What do we do now?”
“Sometimes the power of words is not strong enough. Sometimes there is no use in talking because nobody is listening.” The Poet put his free hand to his sword. “A long time before you were born I promised the man who is our lord today that if I ever saw a time where the power of words have failed, I would add the weight of my sword to the weight of words, even though I stopped fighting that way a long time ago. Today I will honor this promise.”
“So you and I have to fight?” Anakil knew he was not able to fight in this battle. He could hold a sword, he could behead an Orc from behind, but he could not fight a battle and hope to survive it. “Even if there is so much lost already?”
“We fight.” The Poet bowed his head in a crisp salute. “For even though we have lost much, there is still a lot left to loose. May the Valar guide your steps, until we meet again, my young apprentice.”
The Poet bowed again and disappeared in the lines of defense.
Boromir saw that Faramir’s face was grim, dirty and bloodied, but his eyes sparkled with the unbending will to protect the heart of Gondor. The eastern shore might have fallen; the bridge was not lost yet. Boromir searched for his brother’s gaze, and when their eyes met for a moment, he saw that they understood each other. None of them knew what it had been that had driven the men into chaotic retreat, that had clouded their hearts with shadows and had filled their minds with terror, none of them knew why the enemy was regrouping before attacking again, but both of them knew what had to be done.
They were the sons of the Steward, Captains of his army, but they were also soldiers of Gondor. Soldiers that felt hope and fear like every soldier in the lines behind them. Soldiers that knew what they were fighting for. There would be hope for Gondor as long as her soldiers did not stop caring about the land and about each other and did what was necessary, even though it would be painful.
“Hold your fire!” Boromir shouted again. He knew they would not release arrows without being commanded to do so, but he wanted them to hear his voice.
He could see a large group of soldiers gathered on the western shore. Those men did not have the heart to come back to a place where a terrible shadow had touched them, and he could not condemn them. They had fought well for Gondor, and even though he needed every single man to do what had to be done, he knew those men strong enough to fight to the end had to be enough.
The bridge of Osgiliath had always been a symbol for the defence of Gondor. It had been broken in the past and the broken parts had been mended to be strong and reliable again. But sometimes it was necessary to destroy something that had turned from a symbol of strength into a threat to survival.
Anakil noticed that something was missing behind the lines. There were no boys. Lieutenant Darin was nowhere to be seen or heard. The loud voice of the Lieutenant had always been audible during the many drills. The boy had hated that strict voice, but now that it was gone he missed it. He was no longer afraid of battle. There had been battle and death all day, he had seen so much horror that it did not matter any more if there was more pain and death before the end. Suddenly he was afraid of being useless, of being meaningless, of dying at the hand of the enemy without being missed afterwards.
A hand landed on his shoulder and spun him around. He gasped in surprise. Black, terrified eyes met his, and suddenly he did not feel so alone any more.
Irion was standing behind him. Irion, the boy that had always teased him and that had called him a coward. And Irion was obviously frightened and confused as well, and he seemed almost glad to have found him. “Anakil,” the taller boy gasped, out of breath. “You are needed. A Ranger called Anborn told me to look for you. You are needed. You and me and every other boy we can find.”
Anakil wanted to protest, wanted to state that he was not a boy any more, but he realized that that would be a lie. Right now, he was a boy, because the look in Irion’s eyes mirrored his own expression. “There is nobody there,” he said. “I have not seen Lieutenant Darin. It’s just the two of us.”
“We are needed,” Irion repeated and pulled Anakil away from the lines, into the yard of the Great Hall. “We are needed. Anborn needs us.”
A single arrow shot into the dark sky, missing the enemy but breaking the silence that had once again settled in between the two armies.
“Hold your fire!” Boromir shouted, angry. They needed every second the enemy delayed the attack to fortify the defences. They could afford no provocation.
The bridge trembled slightly, first barely noticeable, then the air was filled with an almost rhythmic thunder. It took Anakil some time to realize where the sound and movement was coming from. The enemy’s army, men and Orcs alike, were stamping their feet. The noise grew louder, suddenly accompanied by the sound of steel moving through the air. Anakil fought the urge to cover his ears and try to block out the terrifying sound.
“Hold your fire!” Captain Boromir shouted again. His horse was dancing in front of the line; he had trouble keeping the frightened animal under control.
Captain Faramir dismounted and handed the reins of his horse over to one of the soldiers that stood behind the lines. Anakil recognized one of the messengers and Beldil standing next to him, and he smiled, although it felt oddly out of place. He had not seen his friend since leaving the eastern stables and was glad to see him alive.
The enemy started shouting. Wild cries of battle pierced the air. The human voices of the Southrons sounded inhuman. The enemy was mocking them, challenging them. Boromir raised his sword, still struggling with the horse, but there was no time to dismount safely. “Gondor!” he shouted, his gaze defying the challenge.
As sudden as the noise had started, the enemy grew quiet again. A horn called out, and the entire army moved forwards as one.
“Gondor!” Boromir lowered his sword, and hell broke loose for the third time that day.
Anakil could not stand the sounds any longer and plunged his fingers into his ears. How could anyone endure this noise, these few seconds before two armies met only a few yards away? He followed Irion, and while he ran into the yard of the Great Hall, his gaze strayed up into the sky. There were many stars visible, and he realized that it was past midnight.
A new day had begun.
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