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Messages: 18. The bridge
Captain Boromir’s cry was echoed by many voices. Even though he could not see them, Beldil could hear the two armies battle for control of the passage to the heart of Gondor. The messenger was not able to fight, but he could shout. And he did shout, louder than he had ever shouted before.
The numbness in his limbs vanished, and he felt pain in his broken wrist and injured arm. Maybe he had fallen down during the panicked flight from the eastern shore and could not remember it. He ignored the flaming agony as he cast away the sling that supported his right arm and bent down to pick up a fallen sword from the dust of the road, even though he knew his arm did not have the strength to wield the weapon in battle. But in the unlikely event that the lines of defence broke before the onslaught of the enemy, he would be able to fight for himself as long as his weak arm would allow him to do so. He was determined not to run but to stand strong, despite the knowledge that the odds seemed to be against them this night. No foul Orc would set foot on the western shore of the Anduin as long as one soldier of Gondor still drew breath.
Beldil raised the sword in defiance and anger, but unbearable pain in his right upper arm stopped the movement. Unwanted tears blurred his vision. He squeezed his eyes shut and concentrated on breathing for a moment. The pain lessened eventually. Slowly he lowered the weapon, but he did not release his desperate grip on the sword hilt.
Beldil’s mind was clear now, but the memory of everything that had happened between leaving the eastern stables and seeing Captain Faramir dismount a bare backed horse from behind the lines near the yard of the Great Hall was hazy. He remembered limping along the northern road of the bridge, surrounded by fire, smoke and terror. And he recalled stopping in his flight, overwhelmed by agonizing fear, unable to feel and think, while a terrible shadow passed him. But the shadow was gone now, as was the panicked fear.
He had never felt this useless before. There was nothing he could do, aside from praying that the defences would stand strong.
The lines of men facing east fought an overwhelming enemy, screaming and shouting, proving once more the valour and courage of Gondor. Arrows pierced the air, and Beldil staggered backwards, dragging the sword along. He had to force himself to stop his retreat, otherwise he would have continued to the western shore. The nameless shadow that had terrified Gondor’s forces was gone, but in the aftermath of the terror it was easy to give into despair.
The messenger did not understand what could possibly have overcome the combined strength of Osgiliath and Ithilien with impossible ease. What was terrifying enough to put fear into the hearts of the boldest, to scatter Gondor’s fighting retreat into nothing but panic?
There were a lot of flickering fires on the eastern shore, no remains of battle but controlled campfires. It was painful to see that Southrons were in the process of securing the eastern part of the ancient city. Beldil could make out Orcs pulling three catapults on the arc of the bridge to support the ongoing fight.
Close behind Gondor’s fighting lines there was still a lot of confusion mixed with beginning resignation. Leaderless horses wandered about, men reluctantly made their way back from the western shore to support those that had already found the courage to fight in the defence. Some were still too terrified to raise their weapons; they hid between the ruins or staggered to the west. There were wounded everywhere, crying for help, moaning in pain. Nobody stopped to assist them. Beldil did not recognize a single healer among the men on the bridge.
He missed the boys as well. He had grown used to the sight of the small soldiers running about, and their absence was painfully obvious. He hoped that at least some of them had made it to the western shore alive.
“Do not climb the parapet! Hold the flanks!” Captain Boromir’s voice was a little hoarse.
The Captain had started the fight on horseback, but he was not visible any more. He had either dismounted or the horse had been killed. The two rows of houses on the bridge ensured that the enemy could attack with only a limited number of Southrons and Orcs, and few archers were able to pour deadly arrows on the defence of Gondor. Therefore even though they were outnumbered, the army of Gondor was able to hold its ground. The bridge and the ruins consisted of stone, blazing fire was not among the weapons they could use, but neither could it be used against them.
Beldil leaned heavily on the sword and let his gaze stray to the ruin of the Great Hall. A group of men were gathered in the small yard. The messenger recognized the Ranger Anborn among them, and for a moment he caught a glimpse of two small soldiers, one of them slender like a boy, the other a little taller and broader, but still not tall enough to be mistaken for a fully grown man. He did not see the small boy’s face, but he was sure he had spotted Anakil. That boy was attracted to trouble like a moth to light.
The messenger decided that he had to return a favour.
The bridge of Osgiliath was built to contain two rows of buildings and towers as well as two streets. Compared to average bridges the construction was vast, unique in the land of Gondor, but those who had constructed it had never thought that it might serve as a battlefield someday. There was no room for an army to manoeuvre and move in good order. The enemy could not use his advantage in numbers to simply overrun the army of Gondor and set foot on the western shore of the Anduin. The lack of space on the bridge forced Orcs and Southrons to attack the forces of Gondor in a long but narrow column, nothing more than a spearhead of their army. The buildings at their back assured that only the first lines of the assault spanned the width of the bridge. The reinforcements impatiently awaiting their turn to engage Gondor had to stand either to the left or to the right of the buildings and therefore could not coordinate their movements easily, for they could not see each other.
Boromir knew his men did not mind the limited space on the bridge, for they were skilled fighters and did not depend on having room to manoeuvre. They had taken up position in front of the yard of the Great Hall where no buildings obscured the view and prevented communication by sight. The lines moved as one, keeping the enemy at bay. The stony ground of the bridge was littered with dead Orcs. Archers poured burning shots onto the assaulting army. The Lieutenants shouted orders to synchronize the waves of arrows.
Boromir’s horse was killed in the first minutes of the battle. A spear pierced its chest, and the Captain General had to leap to the ground to avoid being thrown into the ranks of the enemy. He stumbled and almost fell, but soldiers of Gondor grabbed his shoulders and prevented him from losing his balance. One of the men was killed by an Orc blade in this moment of distraction. Boromir felt the strength leave the steadying hand on his shoulder as the man crashed lifeless to the ground.
Soldiers of Gondor were prepared to die for their Captains. He had known this for a very long time, but he had never actually felt the life leave one of his men who had placed himself in danger to protect his Captain.
The Captain General’s blade moved restlessly, slicing flesh, severing limbs, stopped in its path by bones and armour. The black, gruesome faces of Orcs appeared before him and vanished from his field of vision when the creatures dropped to the stones under his feet. He did not count the number of slain enemies.
He only knew that maybe five hundred soldiers of Gondor were fighting this battle. Last morning he had had command over more than two thousand men. Five hundred were left standing. Some, he did not know how many, had fled to the western shore. He did not dare to think about how many they had lost.
The wound below his right shoulder throbbed, but he ignored the pain. He did not have the luxury to let himself be slowed by injury, by doubt, by fear. The defences had to hold, and even though they did not have the strength to win back the eastern shore tonight, they had to hold the bridge and protect the western shore.
Some Orcs tried to climb the parapet to pass the lines of Gondor and attack from behind, but they were pushed into the waters of the Anduin. Boromir did not know whether Orcs were able to swim, but he sincerely doubted it. The shrieks and splashes as the armoured bodies hit the water accompanied the loud music of battle.
“Faramir!” he shouted and pointed at three catapults the enemy was slowly dragging along the northern road towards the Great Hall. It would take at least twenty minutes to get the catapults within range of Gondor’s line, but when they started pouring fire and death from a safe distance, Gondor would not be able to formulate a successful answer.
His brother was within sight but out of earshot, Boromir could see him engaging two Southrons at the same time. Boromir avoided a Southron’s spear that threatened to pierce him and shouted at the top of his lungs: “Faramir!”
“He cannot hear you, my lord Captain,” a deep voice next to him said.
Boromir turned his head and managed a grim smile. “I never thought to see you bloody your sword in battle,” he said to the tall, lanky man that fought at his side.
“Desperate situations call for desperate measures, my lord,” the Poet replied and returned the smile. His face and messenger’s shirt were smeared with blood of the enemy, and his long sword killed with remarkable ease. His grey eyes sparkled in the dim light of the moon and some stars as he raised his left hand in a short salute. “It is an honour to fight at your side, my lord. But if you will trust me with your thoughts, I will be happy to relay a message. I am a courier of words and thoughts, after all.” He spoke as calmly as if he was on the training ground. His sword moved in a forceful arc to behead an approaching Orc. The severed head dropped to the ground, the body followed seconds later. “As always, I consider it an honour to offer my services as bearer of spoken words.”
Boromir snorted and explained in short sentences what he wanted Faramir to know.
A wave of burning arrows skewered a group of Orcs, yet their dark cloaks did not catch fire. Boromir had noticed before that some of the Orcs seemed to have treated their clothes with some fire-resistant substance. One of them plucked a burning arrow from his shoulder and continued attacking. But the dark, stringy hair that stuck out from below their helmets and leather caps was susceptible to flames. As the attacking Orc threw the burning arrow aside, his hair caught fire, and seconds later his head was enveloped in bright flames. The creature shrieked in pain and bolted in panic, setting some of his comrades on fire in his desperate battle with the flames.
The bowmen continued firing, concentrating on the Orcs’ heads, turning more and more of them into living torches. But they could only keep the onslaught at bay; they could not force the enemy to retreat. For one casualty of Gondor the enemy lost ten. But Orcs and Southrons did not slow in their assault and continued trampling over the dead bodies of their comrades, sometimes shoving them aside in fury, to reach Gondor’s lines.
“Tell Faramir to take all the men he needs,” Boromir ended his explanations. “There have to be some engineers among the living. We will hold position as long as necessary.”
“Captain Faramir knows that he does not have the luxury of time today. He will shoot a fiery arrow as soon as everything is prepared.” The Poet bowed deeply, his eyes scanning the enemy for any possible danger. “I will be back soon to fight at your side once more, my lord.” The old messenger ducked to avoid an arrow and disappeared in the fighting lines.
“Let go of me, Irion!” Anakil hit the fist that clawed at his shirt with his flat hand. “I can follow you on my own.”
“I’m sorry.” Irion removed his hand. “I am a little … nervous.”
Anakil chuckled. “Me too, I guess.” The chuckle turned into a cough. There were no great fires on the bridge, but he had inhaled a lot of smoke on the eastern shore.
Irion’s shirt was torn and dirty. Anakil noticed a shallow cut on the boy’s back, and there was blood in the dishevelled black hair. The other boy was not armed, and suddenly Anakil remembered the short sword dangling at his hip. He had not thought of it during his flight to the west. He touched the hilt with his fingertips. The battle was very close, the screams and sounds of steel meeting steel were deafening. Sometimes a stray arrow passed him or landed at his feet, and he put out the small burning shot with his boot without giving it a thought.
Irion led him across the yard to the entrance of the Great Hall. Anakil remembered this yard well; here the frightened boy that had returned from his adventure in Ithilien had received proper punishment at Captain Boromir’s hand. His career as a messenger had started here, and now he was back, not as a proud messenger but once more as a frightened boy.
There were no guards at the great gate. No torches lit the group of men that had gathered close to the entrance to the ruin, but Anakil recognized Anborn’s sturdy back among them.
Irion stopped close to the Ranger, and Anakil decided to stay a step behind him. “Anborn. I’m sorry,” Irion panted. ”There are no boys on the bridge,”
Anborn turned around. His cloak was bloody, but his face was remarkably clean.
“I did not find Lieutenant Darin. No one has seen him on the bridge,” Irion continued. “I looked everywhere. I’m sorry.”
Anborn nodded, his expression unreadable. “Thank you for your help, Irion,” he said and put a hand to the boy’s shoulder. “I am afraid we have to depend on you alone then.”
“Anborn…,” Anakil started, but a strong urge to cough stopped him.
“Troublemaker?” Anborn said, surprised. “I did not see you. You look terrible.”
Under other circumstances Anakil would have been offended that Anborn had not noticed him behind the taller boy, but this was not the time or place for gestures of unnecessary pride. “Anborn….” Anakil wanted to answer, but all he could do was cough. One of the men handed him a waterskin, and he drank greedily. Irion took a step backwards and slapped his back. The water helped clear his throat. “You need boys, you have two of them,” Anakil finally managed to say.
“I had hoped for more of you, but I am sure you two will manage just fine,” Anborn put one arm around each boys’ shoulders and pulled them into the centre of the assembled men. “Listen, this is what we should do,” he started; his speech faster than Anakil knew was his wont.
The boy could feel the strain in the muscles of Anborn’s arm. The experienced Ranger was nervous as well.
Anakil guessed there were about forty men gathered in the yard. Most of them wore the dark cloaks of the Ithilien Rangers, but there were some in the garb of Osgiliath as well. It was too dark to see their faces. All of them carried long swords and had not bothered to sheathe them. They were impatient; most were constantly moving, obviously eager to join the battle raging behind them but bound to this place by curiosity.
“We cannot win this fight. We cannot even hold the bridge until morning. We cannot expect reinforcements within the next twenty-four hours, therefore we cannot harbour any hope of successfully defending the western shore.” Anborn’s fast words were hard, but they were the truth. Anakil could feel the man’s fists clenching and unclenching. None of the assembled men dared to utter a sound of protest. “We can only hope that our defences will stand strong until we have found a way to destroy the bridge.”
“Destroy the bridge?” Anakil had not meant to think aloud, but he could not take back his words. The bridge had been built to stand for centuries, nobody had ever thought that it would have to be destroyed some day to protect the western shore from the evil that lived in the east. “How?” he added.
“The bridge was broken in the past and mended with wooden planks. We must destroy or burn every piece of wood that was used to repair this bridge. Should we fail in our endeavours; the western shore will eventually fall.”
Anakil and Irion shared a look. They were errand runners that knew the bridge well, far better than the men of Ithilien and better than most men of Osgiliath. They knew exactly where the wooden planks Anborn was talking of were located. Gondor had retreated to fast and without order, now there was an army of Orcs and Southrons between them and those planks. Irion slowly shook his head and closed his eyes. They did not have catapults to destroy the plank or set them on fire, and it was impossible to spread flames of this magnitude by arrows alone. Anborn was right, Gondor’s defences would not last the night.
“Anborn, this is madness,” one of the men objected.
Anakil nodded eagerly. “The crucial planks are located between the first three piers on the eastern side,” he explained. ”We are between the third and the forth, and so is the greatest part of the enemy’s army.” His hands moved restlessly while he spoke. “I know this place well.”
The men of Ithilien groaned in desperation, Irion and those of Osgiliath nodded in agreement.
“That’s why you and Irion are here,” Anborn said. “The men of the garrison told me there is no one that knows this place better than the boys and errand runners from the eastern shore. You have to find a way for us to reach the planks. Captains Boromir and Faramir and our forces can deal with an army cut off from reinforcements.” He silenced the boys’ and the men’s protests with a sharp gaze. “Listen to me before you object. We do not have much time at hand.” He squeezed Anakil’s shoulder.
“This is what we will do,” he started again. “Anakil and Irion will each lead a company of twenty men behind the enemy’s main forces on the bridge. I do not know this garrison well, but there has to be a way to pass through the ruins of the houses and towers between the roads without being noticed. It is dark, and they do not expect us to try and slip past their lines. The company that reaches the planks first either destroys them beyond repair and throws them into the river or paints them with tar and sets them on fire. We will move in complete darkness. As long as the enemy does not know that only two small companies unable to harm their main forces have slipped past their lines, they will approach us with extreme caution and maybe leave us the opportunity to do what we have to do.”
“This is madness!” one of the men shouted. “If we reach the planks, and I sincerely doubt we will, no one in the companies will leave this battlefield alive. The bridge is vast, and most planks span the entire width of the structure, we will never be able to move about this freely to destroy their entire length. Tar burns well, but not well enough, the enemy will put out the fires, and we will have achieved nothing. Your plan is nothing but useless suicide.”
“It might be suicide, but if we succeed, it will save us all.” Anborn’s voice was almost pleading. “I will listen to suggestions, but if you have none, then this plan is our only chance.”
“What if the planks are not destroyed easily?”
“What if there is no way?”
“The safety of Gondor depends on the leadership of two boys?”
“If we have to die today, I would rather die fighting then be slain in the yard of some ruin.”
“Does the Captain know about this madness?”
Anakil searched and found Irion’s gaze. They had to cross more than a thousand yards to reach the first planks. The other boy shook his head. Anakil felt the same, but Anborn was right. They had to try to destroy the bridge, and without catapults to bring down the structure, burning the planks was their only chance. Anborn had trusted him on their ill-fated hunt in Ithilien, and now he trusted him to find a way where there seemed to be none. He closed his eyes and imagined moving through the scattered ruins on the bridge, hiding behind fallen stones and in roofless buildings. A lonely soldier might be able to remain hidden, a company of men would be too obvious to be missed. But maybe Anborn was right, maybe, under the cover of darkness and confusion, there was a way. He would find it or die trying.
“Maybe we can find a way!” he said. Nobody listened. The men were shouting without order. Some of them grasped the hilts of their weapons and turned to join the fighting lines. “We can find a way!” he shouted.
Anborn squeezed his shoulder. The men grew quiet. Irion stared at him in shock, then he understood. The battle was near, and it was desperate. Anborn’s plan was madness, but madness was all that was left to them just now. This was the only way. They had to appear sure of themselves, even though in truth they were far from it. “We can find a way,” Irion confirmed.
“The bear’s cubs want to enter the dragon’s lair?” a deep voice asked. The Poet.
“We do not have time for discussions.” Anakil recognized Captain Faramir’s calm voice. The group of men parted to admit the Captain to their midst. Anborn stepped aside and nodded at his Captain. His hand disappeared from Anakil’s shoulder, and without the warm, reassuring gesture Anakil knew he did not appear so sure of himself any more.
“I agree with you that Anborn’s plan is madness and would most probably lead to the death of all men involved. But nevertheless I thank all of you for considering it,” the Captain said. “There is another way of bringing this bridge down. As we speak, three catapults are being dragged onto the bridge to support the enemy in battle. We cannot capture those catapults and hold them for long, but that might not be necessary.”
He pointed to a tall tower just behind the Great Hall. The tower was built of giant stone blocks, and defying all odds and old age, it had not crumbled to ruins centuries ago. Wooden planks supported its lower parts. Nobody was allowed to climb it, for the engineers feared it might eventually collapse when placed under too much strain and take parts of the bridge with it. Anakil knew that not even the most careless of the boys had ever tried to climb that tower at night.
“I have talked to the engineers. They agree that one or two well placed catapult shots would be sufficient to collapse this tower. It is high enough; most likely the weight of the falling stones will crumble a part of the bridge and deny passage to the western shore.
“The enemy will drag the catapults to a position close behind their main forces. That means, once they are in position, they will be about two hundred yards away from us. We have to break their thin lines in front of this yard long enough to reach the first ruins.” He gestured to the east. “Then we have to fight for passage through the ruins to reach the catapults, capture one of them and manage to fire at least one, maybe two shots.
“I do not doubt that we will encounter heavy losses in this endeavour, but destroying a part of the bridge is the only chance we have of protecting the western shore. Captain Boromir and the army will hold position for as long as it is in their power, but I don’t have to tell you that our time is limited. Are you with me?”
Anakil realized that, should they succeed, Gondor’s army on the bridge would be cut off from the western shore as well. The tower they had to destroy was behind their lines. He was sure the men knew this, too, but they cheered nevertheless. They questioned the desperate plan of a simple Ranger, but they would never oppose their Captain’s decision.
Captain Faramir raised his hand, and the men grew quiet immediately. “Anakil. Irion.“ The Captain looked at both boys in turn. “We need your help. You have to describe the best way we can take once we have reached the first ruin.”
Anakil looked for the Poet, but he did not see the old messenger in the circle of men. Anborn smiled at him, still grateful for his earlier support.
Two hundred yards; two collapsed structures meant two hundred yards. Two hundred yards and thousands of enemies. Irion elbowed his ribs, and Anakil let his gaze stray to the first ruin the men had to pass. “If you are able to breach the enemy’s line and reach the ruins, it would be best to enter the ruin on the right, for the wall facing west has partly collapsed,” he said.
“If you enter the house on the right side, you will face few obstacles. The debris from the collapse is concentrated on the left side,” Irion said. “I have often used this house as a shortcut to reach the kitchens – my lord Captain,” he added, but Faramir told him to skip formalities and continue. Irion bowed a little. “There are many moss covered stones inside, you have to be careful not to slip.”
“It is summer, the moss is reasonably dry,” Anakil said. “There is only a single room. The eastern wall still stands, but there are no doors any more, only holes in the wall. One on the left, another one on the right side. The holes are wide enough to allow two men to pass at the same time.”
“There are many fallen statues in the yards behind which you can take cover. I do not think the enemy’s army uses the yard, it is too small, and there is too much debris scattered about. Keep to the centre of the yard, there was a path there once, and there you are best shielded from view.”
Captain Faramir and the men listened carefully, trying to commit the boys’ words to memory. Some had their eyes closed to better imagine what the interior of the ruins looked like. They could not take torches with them, and they had to move fast.
“The next building behind the yard is a fallen tower,” Irion continued. “It has collapsed completely, there is not a single room left of the structure any more.”
“You can climb the debris quite easily during daylight, but I would advise against it in the darkness, for you need both hands to do so. Keep to the left, there is a single headless statue standing where the northern windows once were. Behind the statue there is a narrow path along the foundations, littered with small stones, but it is faster to pass by there than circle the entire structure.”
“When you have passed the ruin of the tower, you reach a broad path that connects the northern and southern road, almost as broad as the path before the yard of the Great Hall. The enemy will most probably use this road, but you do not have to cross it, for now you are well behind the enemy’s lines and hopefully able to see and reach the catapults.”
“We could guide the company, if you will allow us, Captain.” Anakil did not know why he made this offer, and the moment the words left his lips he prayed that the Captain would refuse their aid. He was not a soldier, and what the Captain had in mind was not suited for either boys or messengers. Irion stared at him in shock, Irion, who had called him a coward not so long ago. Their differences were forgotten, they had to work together, and to be honest, Anakil was glad to have the taller boy at his side just now.
Captain Faramir put a hand on each boy’s shoulder. “I appreciate your courage, but for you
I have another task in mind. The Poet will explain everything to you while we gather our strength and do what has do be done.” He raised his voice. “I need eighty men. Some of them should be engineers able to aim a catapult. We need all the horses we can get our hands on. Anborn, assemble men and beasts behind the Great Hall. Move quickly, time is slipping through our fingers.” He lowered his voice to talk to the boys once more. “Thank you for your help, young soldiers,” he said. “Poet?”
The group of men in the yard of the Great Hall quickly dissolved. Captain Faramir and Anborn disappeared behind the circular structure, engaged in urgent conversation. Only the Poet and the two boys remained in the yard. The Poet was talking, and the boys nodded at his instructions. Beldil did not understand the words, so he limped over to them.
“Getting into trouble again, Anakil?” he asked. He was slightly out of breath, the sword he dragged behind him with his injured arm was heavy.
“What did you expect?” Anakil spread his arms in mock desperation, but Beldil did not miss the fear and confusion in the boy’s eyes.
“Yesterday I would never have thought it possible that three servants of words from three different places of this realm, under command of three different Captains, would be forced to fight side by side today,” the Poet said. “But now that it has come to this, the snake’s tooth, the eagle’s wing and the bear’s cub will bloody their swords. As I told your Captain a few minutes ago, my young apprentice, desperate situations call for desperate measures.”
Beldil saw Irion open his mouth to ask a thousand questions, but Anakil elbowed his ribs and shot him a meaningful gaze. The boy had grown used to the Poet’s riddles by now.
“I know there are many things you do not understand, young Irion,” the Poet said and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “And I promise you, I will answer all of them, when this day is over and we have time to breathe again. But now go and let the flames do their work of destruction, young soldiers. You will find torches on the walls of the Great Hall.”
Battle cries that were closer than they should be forced all of them to turn around. Southrons and Orcs had breached Gondor’s lines in front of the yard of the Great Hall. Enemies started rushing towards the western shore, most of them tried to reach the roads, but some entered the yard of the Great Hall and came running towards the messengers and boys in front of the entrance to the ruin. The Poet raised his sword, and his battle cry echoed in the yard: “Gondor!”
Beldil tried to grasp the hilt of the sword and raise it in defence, but his arm did not obey his commands. He saw Anakil reach for his short sword as well. The boy’s arm was trembling. Irion stepped backwards. The taller boy was armed with only a small knife, and his eyes were wide with fear.
Gondor’s lines battled to close the breach. Soldiers poured arrows into the approaching forces of the enemy. Beldil could hear Captain Boromir’s voice, but he could not understand the words. He could only make out the orders from the Lieutenants: “Close the lines! Close the lines! Archers fire as one! Close the lines!”
Suddenly there was the sound of heavy hooves on stone. From behind the Great Hall, riders appeared, bound for the bloody breach. They were followed by a large group of men, armed with swords or bows. There were only about a dozen mounted men, and they were struggling to control their mostly bare backed horses, but there were enough of them to bring momentary confusion to the enemy. The Orcs approaching the Great Hall hesitated, seeing these new opponent. Those enemies that had entered the breach were trampled down by the horses, for they carried no spears to stop the beasts.
“To the ruins!” Beldil heard voices from the attacking company of Gondor call, and even though he did not know what the group of men had in mind, he understood that they intended to use the breach for their own purpose.
Three of the horsemen were down, but the remaining beasts raced past the thin line of the enemy and reached the ruins on the eastern side of the road in front of the Great Hall. The riders turned around to assault the enemy again, and in the confusion they caused Beldil watched many men slip through the enemy’s scattered line and enter the darkness of the ruins. More horses went down, throwing their riders into quick death by the enemy’s swords, but those that remained mounted or were thrown to land on their feet continued fighting. The men of the lines managed to close the defence again. Those of the enemy on the roads and in the yard of the Great Hall were trapped.
“Gondor!” the Poet shouted again. He was the only warrior in the yard able to fight. There were five enemies coming towards him, three Southrons and two terrible Orcs.
“Irion! Anakil! Go! Now!“ The Poet shouted. „Beldil! Hide!“
Anakil sheathed his sword and turned towards the entrance of the Great Hall again. Irion hesitated. He caught one last glimpse of the Poet’s raised sword and the approaching enemy.
“Irion, go!” Beldil shouted. He did not want to hide, but he knew he did not have a choice.
“Irion! Come on, idiot!” Anakil cried from inside the structure.
Irion finally turned around, and therefore he did not see the arrow coming towards him. The orcish arrow embedded itself in the boy’s back between his shoulder blades. Irion stumbled forward, crying out in pain and gasping for breath. Beldil dropped his sword and caught the falling body before it hit the ground. The boy was heavy, and the messenger felt his left wrist break again under the strain. He stifled a cry of pain and lowered Irion’s body to the ground.
The sound of steel meeting steel told him that the first enemies had reached the Poet and engaged him in battle. Anakil came back from the darkness of the Great Hall to see who had cried out. His eyes widened in terror when he saw Irion lying on his side on the ground, the arrow protruding from his back, blood coming out of his mouth and nose, his breath laboured and weak. “Irion!” he whispered and moved to kneel down.
“Anakil, go!” Beldil kicked at the boy with his dirty boot. “Just go! You cannot help him!” The messenger did not know what task the Poet had given to the boys, but in this desperate hour every task was important. “GO!”
Anakil avoided the kicking boot, grasped the wall of the corridor for balance and disappeared in the darkness of the ruin of the Great Hall.
There was almost no light at all. There was a lot of noise from the outside, but the men that had reached the collapsed structure behind the enemy’s thin line took great care to be quiet and did not feel the urge to talk. Everyone remembered what the boys had said, kept to the right and tried to make out the opening of the doors in the eastern wall of the ruin. Swords touched fallen stones, boots slipped on moss covered debris, and sometimes there was the sound of a man falling down. They could not light a single torch.
Faramir stayed close to the collapsed western wall and tried to count how many men had made it inside the ruins. The enemy’s breach had been a most welcome opportunity to attack and cross the road in front of the Great Hall without weakening the desperate defences. They had assaulted the breach with almost eighty men, the thin lines could not afford to spare more. In the confusion of the mounted attack the enemy did not realize that Gondor’s warriors had used darkness and surprise to perform an act born of desperation. There was no indication that they were pursued at all.
Maybe fifty had succeeded in reaching the darkness of the ruin. They had known they could not count on the thirteen men on horseback, but to lose fifteen men in the small breach was almost more than Faramir could stomach. They needed every sword and every bow to reach and capture a catapult.
Anborn was the last to enter the ruin. Faramir could make out something dark covering the Ranger’s face, most probably blood. There was no time to ask concerned questions. Anborn motioned him to go on, and the Captain followed his men into the darkness, knowing that Anborn would never allow him to be the one who covered their rear.
The first warriors had already stepped out into the yard of the ruin when a painful cry pierced the silence, followed by shouts of alarm. There was no need for silence any more. Those warriors that still moved inside the dark ruin abandoned all caution and stormed into the open yard through the two narrow openings in the almost intact eastern wall.
The moon and some stars lit the exterior, but thankfully the light was not bright enough to reveal clear targets. Gondor’s soldiers appeared as no more than dark shadows in the darkness of the night. Faramir felt Anborn draw his sword as they passed through one of the doors side by side. The Captain was greeted by an arrow that grazed his upper arm. Warm blood felt sticky on his shirt and mail, but there was not much pain. He did not carry his long bow, and his sword was useless just now.
He could see the dark faces of orcish archers surrounding the yard, pouring arrows into the small company of Gondor. Luckily, darkness and surprise still prevented them from taking exact aim, and most arrows missed their marks. None of the enemy had the courage to enter the yard to engage the men of Gondor in close combat.
Gondor’s archers responded in kind, but they could not eliminate the opposition around them. They could only buy precious time for their comrades to cross the open yard and take cover behind fallen stones of the next ruin.
“Hurry!“ Faramir shouted. „Do not look back!“
Anborn sheathed his useless sword again. „Protect the catapult crews!“ he added. Without the men able to aim a catapult, they did not have the slightest chance of success.
“Archers follow close behind!“ Faramir knew there would not be many archers left to follow. The orcish arrows were anything but accurate, but there were many of them.
Faramir and Anborn stumbled over fallen comrades, archers and swordsmen alike, as they sprinted across the open yard. The boys had been correct, the best path ran in the middle of the yard, but fallen stones and bushes did not provide much cover from the arrows that rained down on them.
The wounded knew no one would stop to take care of them. Some of them managed to crawl back to the ruin from which they had emerged, others tried to reach the fallen tower at the other end of the yard. Most of those that had been hit and were not dead yet stayed where they had fallen, praying that the end would come before the enemy reached them.
Faramir did not count how many men were left standing. He ignored the pain beginning to spread in his left upper arm. He could hear Anborn’s laboured breathing close behind him as they hastened across the yard. The men that had survived the crossfire had already found the way the boys had described. There was the headless statue, and there was something that resembled a path between the debris of the fallen tower, now marked by heavy boots and blood. None of Gondor’s soldiers hesitated to walk the narrow path. All of them knew that now they were discovered, they did not have much time, and speed was their only advantage. As soon as the enemy discovered what they had in mind, the small company would face an overwhelming resistance. They did not check for their Captain, for if he was alive, he would catch up with them, and if he was dead, they had to go on without him.
“Orcs have entered the yard,” Anborn breathed from behind. “They are checking on the injured and the dead. It will not be long before they start pursuit and call for a force to destroy us on the broad path beyond this ruin.”
“They will be too late.” Faramir gritted his teeth. He felt the comforting weight of his sword at his side. The sword that had protected Ithilien for twenty years. The sword that would protect all of Gondor in this darkest of all nights. This sword would not disappoint the brother and friend who trusted him not to fail, the father and Lord he had always loved, the lands that were his home, his past and his future alike.
The path that led around the fallen tower was dark and littered with small stones, but at least it was a path. “Keep to the left!” he shouted, hoping his voice reached those that had passed this way before him. “Do not separate!”
The men cheered at the sound of their Captain’s voice.
Faramir and Anborn emerged from the ruin of the tower. Those men that had survived in fighting condition had formed a circle of defence, their drawn swords gleaming in the light of the few torches burning along the almost deserted broad path that connected the two main roads of the bridge. Only a few Southron couriers hurried along to relay messages between the two parts of the enemy’s army. The sounds of the great battle were audible from both the northern and the southern road. For the first time this night Faramir was grateful for the noise of combat, for it proved that Gondor’s forces were still standing strong.
The three catapults stood in position behind the enemy’s main forces, one on the northern road, two had been dragged over to the south. The northern catapult was maybe a hundred yards away. A company of Orcs protected the great machine while Southrons prepared to fire a shot. The Orcs turned to face the small group of men that had emerged from the ruins to regroup on the broad path.
Faramir heard heavy footsteps approaching from behind. The archers that had discovered them in the yard had finally chosen to take up pursuit. Time was running out fast.
During their struggle to reach this place he had stayed at the rear, now Faramir passed through the ranks of his men to lead the charge that would decide the fate of two armies and the western shore. “For Gondor!” he cried and raised his sword. There was no need for orders. The men knew they had to capture the northern catapult or die trying.
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