Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Messages: 19. The bridge (continued)
The Great Hall formed the centre of the partly collapsed structure. Four doors led into this part of the building, facing north, south, east and west. The doors had been forged of iron, and all of them were still there. Anakil tried to open first the eastern, then the southern door. Both doors had not been opened in many years, and the boy was not strong enough to move the rusted iron hinges.
He tried not to think of Irion, but his mind kept straying to the black arrow that now protruded from the other boy’s back. Anakil had worked with the healers often enough to know that it was a dangerous wound. Maybe, if they could find a healer and a stretcher fast, Irion’s life could be saved, but Anakil had not seen a single healer on the bridge. He tried to hold back angry tears and failed.
He was out of breath when he reached the western door of the hall. He pushed against the heavy iron wings with his free arm and was almost startled when the door opened without a sound.
His mother had told him stories of a time when Osgiliath had been the mightiest, most beautiful city in all of Gondor. Standing at the open entrance to the Great Hall, it was easy to imagine the glory and proud dignity of Gondor’s past. The dome of the Hall had collapsed a long time ago, and the moon and stars lit the circular room, bathing it in a soft glow. The centre of the room was buried under a large pile of debris, higher than two men, while in other parts there wasn’t a single fragment of stone on the floor. The sounds of battle were clearly audible through the open roof, reminding Anakil that he had not come here to be lost in memories of the past.
Two large tents had been set up amidst the rubble. Neither were marked, but Anakil knew one was the personal tent of Captain Boromir, while the other housed the council chamber of Osgiliath. He had come here to destroy both.
He strode over to the tent to his left and cast aside the tent flap. His torch lit a sparsely furnished interior. There was a small wooden table with two chairs. A pitcher of water and a wooden cup had been placed on the table next to some maps, letters, papers, a seal, a sheathed dagger and a vial of ink. At the rear of the tent were a cot, a mattress on the floor next to the cot and a comfortable chair covered with clothing and armour. Otherwise the tent was empty.
Anakil had expected something different from the personal tent of Gondor’s Captain General. Something exciting, something that proved that a hero called this place his home in the field. Something that distinguished the place immediately from all the other tents in Osgiliath. There was nothing personal there. Nothing that hinted at the man behind the title, nothing the Captain General would miss after this day.
Reluctantly Anakil entered the tent. He circled the small table, kicked at the mattress on the floor, and took a look at the papers and letters. Most were in the handwriting of the Captain, a handwriting the Poet had taught him to recognize on first sight. He had come here to ensure no confidential letter or map would fall into the hands of the enemy, therefore he did not touch a single piece of paper. But he took the seal of the Captain General and stuffed in into the pocket of his breeches. Slowly he picked up the small dagger and unsheathed it. The weapon was finely crafted, the polished blade glistened in the light of the torch. Anakil strapped the weapon to his belt. Maybe they could use the weapon to cut out the arrow from Irion’s back. Maybe the Captain would be glad to see his seal and dagger again when this night was over.
The sounds of battle reminded him why he had come to this place most boys never saw. He touched the torch to the table and waited until the wood caught fire. Then he quickly left the tent, setting the flap on fire as he went. The dry cloth took only seconds to be engulfed in flames.
Dark smoke made him cough. Dried tears clung to his dirty face. He hastened to the second tent that had to be the council tent of Osgiliath. Despite his curiosity, the boy decided that he had wasted enough time on the first tent. He set this tent on fire as well and waited until he was sure the fire would not burn out before there was nothing left to consume.
The council of Osgiliath would never again discuss matters of the garrison in the Great Hall. The Captain General would never return to his personal quarters.
Black smoke rose through the collapsed dome of the Great Hall, announcing that, even though the army was still standing strong, the bridge of Osgiliath was lost.
Anakil left the Great Hall without looking back.
One line had dissolved into a mass of blood, screams, gore, pain and death. Only a few warriors that had fought in the first line of defence were left standing. The path in front of the Great Hall where the two armies battled for control of the bridge was covered with bodies. The screams were deafening. The assaulting Orcs and Southrons had to climb over piles of fallen warriors, their own and men of Gondor alike, to reach Gondor’s desperate defence. Archers pulled arrows out of dead bodies to fill up their spent supplies. Some that lost their footing in the chaos fell upon swords and daggers lying on the ground and stabbed themselves. For every scream that was silenced by death two new ones joined the gruesome chorus. But despite their losses Gondor stood firm.
Boromir had fought many battles, but none could be compared to this last stand on the narrow bridge. Their minds had been touched by a dark shadow. Many of them would not see bright sunlight end this darkest of all nights. Never had he seen such courage, never had he been prouder of every single man that had chosen to stay and fight in the aftermath of the dark terror.
His sword was bloody, his gloves were sticky with grime, every single muscle in his body ached. His long sword was no longer a simple weapon; it was an extension of his arm, an instrument of fury and desperation. Most of those that had fought by his side lay at his feet now, he could hear some of them crying for wives and children they would not see again. He would do anything to spare his men the pain, but he did not possess this power. He could only wield his sword, cut through flesh, bring pain and death to the dark creatures that chose to approach him. His face was soiled with blood and grime, the blood of Gondor and the blood of the darkness.
He knew this night would be the longest of his life. He did not shout words of encouragement to his men any more. He preferred to fight in silence, and for the first time, he did not act against those instincts. There were no words left.
In his dance with death, he moved northwards. The stony parapet of the bridge was to his left, he could touch it with the tip of his sword. Orcs climbed the parapet and threw daggers into the fighting crowd. Men of Gondor hacked at the creatures’ exposed ankles with their swords, but it did not matter how many they pushed into the cold waters of the Anduin. Reinforcements of the enemy quickly filled the gaps in the attack. Some enemies passed the Captain General, were killed by those warriors behind him.
The catapults were in position. He could see one large machine behind the lines on the northern road, the other two had been dragged to the south. Southron engineers were preparing to fire. They would kill many of their own soldiers with their burning shots, but they had never before hesitated to kill their own warriors if it served their purpose. Those catapults would bring quick defeat to the desperate lines of Gondor. Boromir was sure every man, Southron and Orc on this bridge was aware of this, and he valued his men even more for their courage to stand strong in the clear knowledge of defeat.
He could not see much, but there was some movement behind the enemy’s line. He prayed that Faramir and his group of men had found passage through the ruins to fight for a catapult. He could smell the dark smoke rising out of the collapsed dome of the Great Hall. All important papers of the council were destroyed; the enemy would capture nothing of strategic value in Osgiliath’s headquarters.
A cut above his eyes started bleeding. He did not remember whose sword or dagger had touched him. Pain was not important. He wiped the blood out of his eyes with his dirty glove. More enemies perished at his feet. The warrior next to him dropped to his knees, his left arm severed from his body. Boromir killed the Southron who had wielded the fatal blow, but there was nothing more he could do for the man. The soldier of Osgiliath would bleed to his death on the stones of the northern road.
“The eagle is on his way to destroy the foundations of old,” a deep voice called to him, and a sword descended from above, splitting the skull of a Southron. The Poet had climbed the parapet, and his great blade never missed. “I have sent the bear’s cub into the bear’s cave.”
“Do you ever stop spouting poetry and riddles, Poet?” Boromir breathed, surprised to have found calm words immediately.
“As long as I am able to draw breath, I will enrich the air with the sound of words, my lord. For words are never wasted, and beautiful words will be remembered when all other things have vanished from memory.”
Boromir smiled a grim smile. “We will remember the beauty of your sword as well.”
The Poet chuckled. For the first time, his sword missed. He had put great force behind what would have been a killing blow, but the great blade did not meet a target. His body followed the movement of his arms, and he had to step sideways to keep his balance. Two Orcs used this short advantage to slash at his feet with their long daggers. The Poet managed to avoid the thrusts, but he moved too quickly and without looking down. One of his boots tripped on the edge of the parapet. His tall body swayed back and forth, out of balance. An orcish dagger reached his thigh, drawing blood. He did not scream when he disappeared in the waters of Anduin far below.
“Poet!” a voice shouted from somewhere behind. “Poet! Poet!”
Boromir remembered that he had never found out the Poet’s name. Now the Poet was gone, only a memory of poetry and riddles. The Captain wanted to howl in anger, but he knew his enemies would use every single moment of distraction to overpower him. He was one of only about one hundred swordsmen still standing on the northern road.
The northern catapult spouted fire. A burning shot sailed through the clear, dark sky, beautiful to behold despite the destruction it was about to cause. The Southrons and Orcs of the first lines shouted in triumph.
Boromir cursed. “Incoming!” he shouted. “Incoming!”
“Incoming!” The shout was repeated throughout the thin lines.
Some of the men froze in shock, raising their eyes to the sky to stare at the fiery shot coming towards them. Most of them were killed in this short moment of distraction.
Boromir did not care where the shot would cut a hole into their defences. He was determined to die fighting and take with him as many enemies as possible. His arms were numb, but his mind did not allow his weary body to stop moving.
Suddenly there was a cheer. The battered lines of Gondor broke into a deafening howl of triumph. “Faramir!” they shouted. “Faramir!”
For a second Boromir turned his head, his sword still moving in front of him to ward off enemies. The shot had passed high over the lines of Gondor, hitting the tall tower at their back.
“Faramir!” Boromir joined the cheer. Tears welled up in his eyes. He felt a sudden urge to hug and kiss his brother. “Faramir!” he shouted, his hoarse voice louder than the noises of battle.
Irion was dead. Anakil knew his fellow boy had left this world the moment the flickering light of the torch illuminated the body on the floor. Irion’s face was relaxed, there was no more pain and agony. Blood had stopped coming from his mouth, and his eyes were closed forever. The arrow was no longer lodged in his back, someone had pulled it out and tossed it aside.
Anakil knelt down next to his comrade and touched a cold hand with his fingertip. He felt tears blur his vision and angrily wiped away the moisture with his dirty sleeve. “I’m sorry, Irion,” he sobbed. “I didn’t mean it when I called you an idiot.”
There was no reply. Irion’s deep voice would never again call him a coward.
“Get out of there, fool of a troublemaker!”
Anakil dropped the torch in surprise and quickly snatched it up again before Irion’s clothes could catch fire. “Beldil!” he gasped and rose to his feet. “The Poet?”
“The Poet is all right. It takes more than a few Orcs to kill someone like him. Come on, we have to get out of here. The defence will not hold much longer.”
Anakil did not move. He looked down at Irion’s body. “We cannot leave him here,” he said. “We have to take him to the western shore to give him a proper burial.”
Beldil shook his head. “We cannot and will not take him with us. He will not be the only one we have to leave behind.”
“Believe me, he would understand.” Beldil shot the boy a meaningful glance and left the corridor of the Great Hall.
Anakil cast a last look on Irion’s now peaceful face. “I’m sorry!” he whispered and followed his older friend into the open yard.
Close to the entrance to the Great Hall lay the dead bodies of three Southrons and two Orcs. The Poet was nowhere to be seen. The noise of battle was almost unbearable, but Anakil did not have to concentrate any more on ignoring them. A few hours ago the sound and smell had disgusted him, had almost made him sick, now he was able to block out everything; sound, smell, fear, pity, grief. He had seen so many men die, he had felt terrible shadows, his mind no longer took in the terror around him. Of course he understood that everything had changed for the worst, that Gondor was losing the battle, that many had died and would die in the last minutes of the desperate defence, but he did not care any more. He did not care whether the battle lasted forever, whether there would be a morning at all. He was just there, without emotion, his mind blank.
Beldil hastened across the yard and made his way to the northern road. He still dragged the heavy sword behind him, the tip shrieking on the stones of the roads. Anakil followed his friend, the torch from the Great Hall still clasped in his right hand.
Irion was dead. Boys died in battles. The thought slowly made its way into his conscious mind. In all those stories about battle nobody had ever spoken of the dead boys. They told heroic tales about fallen warriors, about desperate fights against an overwhelming enemy, about treacherous arrows and bad luck, but there were no tales about the dead boys. How could it be that the warriors lived on in tales and songs, and the boys were forgotten? Just because they did not fight didn’t mean they lacked courage, didn’t mean they did not stand strong for Gondor. “I will remember the boys!” he whispered. “And the messengers. And the cooks and healers.”
Beldil limped behind the fighting lines to the northern road, but suddenly he stopped. “Valar!” he shouted.
Anakil followed his gaze and saw the Poet standing on the parapet, battling Orcs and Southrons that tried to assault the Captain General on the road. The parapet was narrow, and the tall messenger moved his feet only an inch at a time so as not to lose his footing on the stones. The line of defence on the northern road had become thin, sometimes one of the enemy succeeded in slipping past Gondor’s warriors to attack from behind. A great catapult was in position behind the enemy’s lines; it would soon be ready to fire.
“What is he doing?” Anakil shouted.
“Protecting what is already lost!” Beldil replied.
Three Southrons slipped past the Captain General to attack from behind. Two of them fell victim to the Poet’s great blade, the third was out of his reach.
Anakil had never been this close to battle before. Fifteen feet away the warriors of Gondor fought to buy some time for Captain Faramir; ten feet away, at their backs, there was a Southron that would attack them from behind, kill them. Anakil did not know how to fight. He only knew that somehow he had to stop that Southron.
The boy tossed away the torch and drew his short sword. He stepped forward to stand in front of Beldil. The Southron that had ignored the small boy and the messenger before saw the movement from the corner of his eyes and turned around to identify the possible threat. A grim smile appeared on his gruesome painted face.
Anakil clenched both fists around the hilt of his sword to keep his arms from trembling. Lying. Stealing. Deserting. Being stupid. – Being a really lucky little bastard. Maybe he had been wrong about that, maybe he wasn’t a lucky little bastard after all.
“Anakil!” he heard Beldil hiss from behind. “We have to run!”
Anakil shook his head. Irion had tried to run from the Orcs, and now he was dead. He did not want to die. He would not make the same mistake and turn his back to danger.
The Southron’s smile widened, and he slowly stepped closer. Anakil’s sword did tremble now, but he did not step back. “You have courage, little one,” the Southron hissed in the common tongue. His accent was hard and ugly, and Anakil winced. “But courage is not enough today.”
“Don’t call me little one!” the boy shouted. This was worse than the dreams of death at the Black Gate. This was reality.
The Southron raised his sword and attacked. Anakil moved to block the blow. Steel met steel, and the sword was almost knocked from the boy’s hands. His wrists ached from the powerful impact. The Southron was fast, he did not need any time to recover. Anakil’s sword was still down. The boy knew he was dead. The great Southron blade moved to sever his head from his body. Anborn’s and Beldil’s advice from the training ground was forgotten. Nothing mattered in this moment between life and death. There was only the blade that would end his life if he did not find a way to defeat it. Anakil let himself drop to his knees, swinging his sword in a circle above his head to stop the enemy’s blade. His sword was knocked from his hands. He was utterly defeated. He had lost his weapon, and he was on his knees. The boy closed his eyes and waited for the agonizing pain that would precede death.
Pain did not come.
He slowly opened his eyes again to see the Southron lying on the ground in a fast growing pool of blood, Beldil’s sword piercing his throat. The boy jumped to his feet and turned around. Beldil was on his knees, clutching his broken wrist with his right hand; his breath was coming in laboured gasps. “Never go down on your knees in real battle!” he breathed. “Do you never listen to what people tell you?”
Anakil smiled and put a hand on Beldil’s shoulder. “Thank you!” he said. Still smiling, he helped his friend to his feet. Then his smile disappeared.
The Poet on the parapet had missed one of his opponents, and one of his feet tripped on the edge of the parapet. His tall body swayed back and forth, out of balance. Orcs reached him with their daggers, drawing blood. The messenger did not scream as he disappeared to fall into the waters of Anduin far below.
“Poet!” Anakil shouted. The boy let go of Beldil and rushed to the parapet. The water below the bridge was dark, but he could make out the grey head of the old messenger appearing and disappearing from sight. “Poet! Poet!”
Beldil limped to his side and peered over the parapet as well. “He will be all right.”
Anakil shook his head. “Look! He is struggling! He can’t swim!” He bent down to pull off his boots.
“No!” Beldil grabbed his arm and forced him to look up. “Anakil. Listen to me. We are at war. We cannot escape death, we can only try to avoid it. If you try to help him, you do not avoid death, you invite it!”
“No.” Anakil shook his head and bent down to his boots again. “He cannot swim, Beldil. He will drown!” Anakil knew the river well. The Anduin was broad and slow flowing at Osgiliath, but the current was still strong enough to overpower those unaccustomed to moving in flowing water.
Beldil pulled him up again. “You have to accept that death is part of life. You saved me once.
You cannot save everyone!”
Anakil remembered Lieutenant Darin’s words: YOU NEVER EVER LEAVE A COMRADE! “I have to help him! Let me go!” The boy pulled away from Beldil’s weak grasp and climbed the parapet. He could see the dark water far below. The grey head was still there, struggling for life. “See you on the western shore, Beldil!” He put both hands to his face to cover his nose and eyes and jumped feet first into the darkness below.
“Fool of a troublemaker!” he heard Beldil’s angry shout, then the cold, wet darkness enveloped him.
“Hurry!” Faramir shouted.
The advantage of surprise and desperation had cleared them a bloody path to the northern catapult. For the first time this night, luck smiled at them. The catapult was loaded and ready to fire when they finally managed to gain control. The engineers immediately changed the aim, while those that were able to stand upright and wield a blade struggled to ward off the onslaught of enemies that tried to recapture the mighty weapon.
Faramir could feel Anborn at his back, repelling every Southron that had realized one of Gondor’s Captains was leading this manoeuvre and was eager to bring him down. No more than twenty-five were left of the eighty men that had set out to destroy the bridge, and those few would not be able to hold their ground very long.
“Prepare to fire!” one of the engineers cried. A second later he gave the long awaited command: “Fire!”
The catapult crew jumped down from where they had climbed the weapon to change aim. The wooden construction moved, forward, then backward, releasing its burning ammunition into the air. The shout of triumph from the party of Gondor was drowned in the cheer from the fighting lines.
“Hold your ground!” Faramir shouted. There was no way they could fire a second shot. They did not have the men necessary to load the catapult and protect it at the same time. One shot had to be sufficient. Otherwise, everything was lost.
The engineers had aimed well, the shot hit the tower at its base.
Faramir realized he was holding his breath. He forced himself to draw some air into his lungs. Slowly, almost reluctantly, the tower started to sway, back and forth. Large stones erupted from its top floor. The lower third of the structure finally collapsed under the strain. The tower disintegrated; stone blocks flew out on all sides. Larger pieces hit the arch of the bridge, stirring dust and ash. The sound of stone shattering stone drowned even the sounds of battle. The armies continued fighting, obscured by flying rock dust and darkness.
The ground shook. The whole arch of the bridge seemed to tremble. Faramir understood immediately. He did not know whether the foundations of the bridge had grown weak with old age or whether the collapsing tower had been a fatal blow to the entire structure, he only knew that the whole segment of the bridge between the third and forth pier was breaking into pieces under their feet. “Into the water!” he shouted. “Fight your way to the parapet, jump into the water! The bridge is coming down!” The bridge would be beyond repair in a few moments, the only path into the heart of Gondor would be closed.
The men did not need further encouragement. They abandoned the catapult and fought to find a way to reach the water below. Only Anborn stayed at his Captain’s side. The Ranger’s face was covered in blood that was mostly his own.
The enemy was confused. Those able to understand what was happening cast themselves into the water or started to retreat towards the eastern shore. Faramir used the momentary confusion to risk a glance towards Gondor’s army. The warriors were not holding the line in front of the Great Hall any more. Most of them were running to the southern road, hopefully able to jump into the water before the width of the bridge finally came down.
It started in the southwest, where the tall tower had been. The Great Hall slowly collapsed and disappeared from sight. The ruins they had used to get behind the enemy’s lines fell into the abyss that was slowly opening up between the two piers. Only a part of the northern road remained standing. The collapse that had started slowly picked up speed, one falling section of the bridge knocked loose the next, a deadly avalanche of stones and dust. Faramir knew he would never make it to the southern parapet in time.
Orcs and Southrons saw the Great Hall and a part of the bridge disappear in the dark water below. All order was gone. Swords and shields were tossed aside.
The bridge was lost.
The battle was over.
“Captain!” Faramir felt Anborn’s hand on his arm. “It is over!”
Faramir did not resist as his Ranger pulled him to the remains of the northern parapet. The southern parapet behind them was already gone. They did not have to use their swords to clear the way. The enemy no longer cared about those men that had brought destruction to them all. Most tried to move to the east, afraid of the water or unable to swim. In their panic many went down to be trampled by their comrades.
The stones of the parapet trembled. Anborn climbed the collapsing structure and turned around to aid his Captain. “Jump!” Faramir pushed against the Ranger’s legs. Anborn lost his balance and dropped head first into the waiting darkness.
“Still alive, brother?”
Faramir heard his brother’s voice above the chaos of two armies in flight. He turned his head and saw Boromir climb the northern parapet less than two hundred yards away.
“Still alive!” he shouted back.
Their eyes met, and they understood each other. The brothers exchanged last smiles, then they jumped into the cold water below.
All that was left of the middle segment of the bridge collapsed in their wake.
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