Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Messages: 21. The survivors Part 2 - The ruins
The stables were empty, and there was complete darkness. They were alone. The Poet set Anakil down as soon as the heavy wooden door closed behind them. The old messenger’s breathing was loud and laboured, and Anakil felt bad for being the source of his exhaustion. “Are you all right, Poet?” he whispered, concerned.
“You are heavier than you look, my young apprentice” the Poet answered. “I am afraid I need a place to rest and regain some strength soon.”
“I will light a torch and…,” Anakil started, but the Poet interrupted him quickly.
“The darkness is our friend and ally!” he said. “We do not want to draw the enemy’s attention to our being in their middle.”
Anakil nodded, then he remembered that it was dark indeed, and the Poet could not see his movement. “You are right,” he whispered. “I know this place well, even in darkness. Take my hand, I will lead you to an empty stall. Nobody will see us hiding in there if they open the stable door.” He touched the Poet’s arm and felt the man tremble slightly. Their clothes were still damp, and the Poet had carried him for a longer time than Anakil had thought the gaunt man able to. His own feet were bare, and the stony floor of the stables felt cold as ice.
The Poet grasped the boy’s hand. Anakil extended his free arm to feel any unexpected obstacles before walking into them and started moving towards the few closed stalls of the stables. He unerringly found his way in the darkness, but nevertheless he breathed a sigh of relief as his hand touched the wood and iron of one of the stalls that had housed the more difficult horses until earlier this night.
He let go of the Poet’s hand to fumble for the heavy lock, for to his surprise he found the stall closed. The Poet’s breathing had calmed down a bit, and the trembling in his hand had lessened, but Anakil knew that only rest and food could restore his companion to his normal strength.
“Sometimes we feed the animals stale bread left over from the meals. When we have found a place to settle down, I will try to find …”
… THUD …
He was interrupted by the sound and feel of heavy hooves thundering against the wood under his fumbling fingers. Hot breath brushed his hair, and a wild neigh pierced the silence.
He stifled a shout, let go of the lock and jumped back in surprise, bumping into the Poet, who grunted and staggered backwards, but caught the boy around the waist and somehow succeeded in keeping both of them from hitting the floor. There was another loud neigh, heavy hooves thundered against the wood once more, then there was silence.
Anakil could hear the blood thundering in his ears. He had never been so startled in his entire life. For a moment his legs felt as if they were not able to support him any longer, and he welcomed the Poet’s arm around his waist, otherwise he knew he would have collapsed to the floor.
“The Southrons do not house their horses in closed stables.” The Poet was the first to regain his speech. “This must be an animal of Gondor, the horse that went mad. I should have thought about it and informed you in due time. I apologize for my mistake, young Anakil.”
“We left one horse behind?” Anakil gasped. He felt confident on his legs again and shrugged off the Poet’s supporting arm. “This is one of ours?” The heavy hooves struck the wood once more. Anakil flinched and was glad that the Poet could not see him.
“One of the garrison’s heavy working horses started to be difficult to handle days ago and has been confined to the stall ever since,” the Poet explained. His voice was strong and confident, despite the fatigue he had shown mere moments before. Anakil envied the older man his calmness and strength in facing the incalculable surprises of war. “I overheard some stable hands talking about it a few days before this terrible night. The horse was unmanageable; I am not surprised that none of the boys felt fit to handle it in the hurry of the retreat.”
The horse was not ready to calm down, Anakil could hear it move restlessly about the confined space, nickering and neighing. The boy sat down in front of the stall and pulled at the Poet’s hand, indicating him to sit down as well. The Poet complied readily enough, trusting his young companion that this was a safe place to be.
The door to the stables was closed, they could only imagine the enemy’s camp that surrounded their hiding place. The moving horse in the stall drowned out every sound that made it inside the building. Anakil realized that his fear of their situation seemed to have disappeared, and to his surprise he felt guilt form a hard knot in his stomach.
He had been responsible for the horses’ welfare for a very long time, and now that he was training to be a messenger, he had never spared a thought for his former charges and loyal companions. They had left one of his charges on the eastern shore to fall into the hands of the enemy, and he had not known anything about it. His father would give him a well deserved tongue lashing for forgetting that the horse you rode could be more important than the weapon you carried. “Do you know which horse we are dealing with?” he asked.
They were not touching in the darkness, but the Poet’s voice was very close. “Nobody felt the need to tell me his name, but I have heard that it is one of the working horses, brown, big and exceptionally ugly.”
The horse snorted and stomped his hooves on the ground. Anakil was on his feet in a second and forced open the lock to the stall before the Poet could try to stop him. “GLAURUNG!” he shouted, angry, as he opened the wooden door and stepped into the stall with his hands on his hips. “What do you think you are doing?”
“Anakil!” the Poet’s voice warned him from outside the stall. “Anakil, be careful!”
“Glaurung, it’s me!” The horse stopped moving about, and the boy stepped further into the stall, too angry with himself and with the horse to even consider the danger of his actions. “He has never hurt me, Poet,” he explained. “He will not start today.”
The boy knew this horse well, and he refused to believe that it would harm him. They had grown up together, they had faced the dangers of Ithilien together, and now fate had brought them together in this dark, hopeless place in the middle of the enemy’s camp, where they might need each other to be able to see the next sunrise. He refused to believe that his childhood companion would trample or bite him, despite the horse’s behaviour a few moments before.
And he was right. After a moment of hesitation, the horse greeted the boy by rubbing its big head against narrow shoulders in a gesture of affection. “Glaurung, you are nothing but big trouble.” He seldom called the horse by its given name, only when he was very angry. The horse seemed to realize its young master was upset, for it nickered in a friendly way and lowered its nose to search the boy’s clothing for something edible. The boy smacked the big head with a flat hand, harder than in play but not hard enough to be mistaken for serious punishment.
The horse’s breath was hot on Anakil’s face. The boy reached out to hug the strong neck and press his body against the horse’s flank for warmth. “You are nothing but big trouble, old boy, but I am glad you are here!” The horse nickered again, a low, friendly sound, and Anakil tenderly stroked the long, dishevelled mane.
Sometimes there were friends to be found in the strangest of places.
“Anakil?” The Poet’s voice was close behind, but the boy knew the old messenger was still outside the stall. “Did the beast harm you? Anakil?”
“He would never hurt me, Poet,” Anakil repeated, and he was glad that the Poet could not see the tear that had somehow appeared on his cheek. He pressed his face into the horse’s mane for a moment to wipe away the moisture. “We grew up together on my father’s farm. My father sold him to the army not very long ago. We have never been parted in our entire life. I guess he was behaving badly because he did not understand why none of his masters was there with him any more.” Anakil caressed the animal’s nose. “We have found a strong and loyal ally, Poet.”
Anakil could hear the Poet entering the stall. A hand reached out for him, touching his arm, and he took the hand and guided it to the horse’s neck. The Poet carefully stroked the thick muscles below short hairs, and the animal did not move to avoid the touch. “Are you sure you can control this animal in the darkness, my young apprentice?” the Poet asked,
Anakil nodded. “I need no bridle and no light, I can guide him with my voice, my lord. Trust me.” He whispered a few words into the animal’s attentive ears and touched the horse’s forelegs with his hand. The horse obediently lay down on the cold floor. Anakil pulled the Poet down with him to lean against the warm body. “He will provide us with warmth and protect us with his life until we have regained some strength and have found a way to get out of here,” he said.
Now that there was silence in the stables, they could hear the sounds of the enemy’s camp again. Anakil wrapped both arms about the horse’s neck, more for comfort than for warmth, for now that they had some time to think, he could feel the fear and panic return, emotions he had been able to suppress for a short moment, but now he could barely keep himself from trembling, as fear and hopelessness clouded his mind like a dark blanket. “I would appreciate it if you would come up with a way to the west before the Southrons have established an orderly garrison, and before first light,” he whispered.
The Poet chuckled in the darkness. “I promise you, my young apprentice of the Anduin and of the wild horses, that I will do my very best.”
There was darkness. He was unable to see anything at all. He could smell the grass and the earth, and he could hear the river flowing nearby. There was breathing next to him, the much welcome sound of another living being, and the sound reminded him that he should breathe, too.
Faramir opened his mouth and sucked in air greedily. The air rushed down his throat to fill his lungs, and his body began shaking with coughing. He felt a strong hand on his back, another one on his shoulder, supporting him, helping him sit to ease the coughing. The fit subsided slowly, and he was able to breathe more freely, but still the hands did not let him go.
Both supporting hands moved to his back, while his cheek was carefully pressed against something warm, firm and damp; a shoulder clad in damp clothes, he decided. He did not fight the warm embrace but opened his eyes to see the river very close, lit by a sky full of stars and the moon. “Easy, little brother,” a well-known voice whispered into his ear. “Don’t move, just breathe for a moment.”
“Boromir.” Memory came back to the Captain of Ithilien, memory of the battle, of the loss of Eastern Osgiliath, of the downfall of the bridge, of fighting the waters of Anduin in a desperate struggle for life. His arms came up to return his brother’s warm embrace, and he managed to smile at Boromir’s broad shoulder. “Still alive, brother?”
“Still alive.” Boromir started laughing, a deep laugh that Faramir could hear as well as feel rumbling against his chest. “But, I fear, this time we are both in worse shape than when we last saw each other.”
Faramir pulled back to look into Boromir’s face and felt his muscles ache in protest at the movement. Boromir kept his hands on his brother’s shoulders, and Faramir was glad for the support, for he felt weary and bruised, even though he did not seem to be seriously wounded anywhere. He shiverws with cold, though, for his clothes were still damp, and his chainmail pressed the fabric firmly to his body. Boromir’s mail lay next to them in the grass, and the Captain General looked far more comfortable then Faramir felt. “I did not think I would make it,” Faramir confessed, shaking his head to clear his thoughts. “And I thought I had seen you for the last time when the bridge came down behind us.”
“It is not so easy to get rid of me, brother,” Boromir replied, still smiling. Then his face darkened. “You scared me for a moment. I found you lying half in and half out of the water, unmoving.”
“I do not remember when and how I reached the shore,” Faramir confessed. “Did you wait a long time for me to wake up? I suppose you have sent the others upstream to camp to give aid to the healers or seek their attention?”
Boromir’s face darkened even more, and he squeezed his brother’s shoulders before letting go of him. “Faramir, I ended up half a mile downstream from here, and on my way upstream I did not find a single man on the shore, either dead nor alive. I fear we have to mourn numerous losses this night. But the bridge is destroyed, and the West is safe.”
For now! Faramir wanted to add, but he did not say the words, for he knew that his brother did not have to be reminded that this night’s dead had only bought them some time; they had not won the war.
Eastern Osgiliath was lost, the great city was split into two, and Faramir knew that this loss pained his brother greatly. The old capital had been in ruins for centuries, but it had always been the light in the darkness, the command of the Captain General, the stronghold that had never wavered, that had held open the passage into Ithilien. Now Ithilien was on its own, connected to the rest of Gondor only by the Cair Andros ferry. And if Osgiliath could fall in only one night, Cair Andros was not a safe harbour any more. Faramir desperately hoped that Henneth Annûn was still hidden from the enemy’s hordes, and that Mablung and his men were well.
“The bridge is destroyed, and the West is safe,” he confirmed, his voice firm.
Slowly, carefully, Faramir pulled his chainmail over his head and discarded it next to Boromir’s in the grass. “It is still dark,” he said. “For a time, I was sure none of us would live to welcome another sunrise.”
“We will live to see many sunrises, little brother!” Boromir rose and offered a hand to his brother to pull him to his feet. Faramir accepted the helping hand, and together they started to walk upstream. Boromir was limping heavily, and without hesitating or asking for permission, Faramir slung his arm around his brother’s shoulder for support. The discarded sets of mail they left behind.
“It was an honour to fight at your side, Captain,” Boromir said, breathing heavily. Being alone with his brother, he did not hide that his injured leg pained him greatly. “Your Rangers fought bravely, we could not have done without them.”
“They are good men,” Faramir replied. “The best.”
“I fear the men of Osgiliath will not agree with your judgement – and their Captain will put in a word in their favour, too.”
Faramir was glad that his older brother’s spirits had not been broken by the events of the night. Gondor needed her Captain General’s strength and confidence, now more than ever before. “I am too weary to start a fight about this matter,” he confessed.
“Always avoiding a fight he cannot win.” Boromir slapped his brother’s back. “You have always been the wiser of the two of us, saving your strength for the fights that really matter.”
“No fight truly matters,” Faramir objected. “Only peace does.”
Boromir sighed heavily, and they spoke no more.
The garrison of the enemy was slowly quieting down. The shouting they heard inside the stables became more and more infrequent, and every now and then they could hear someone, Southron or Orc, open the door and peer inside, but the strong odour of horse dung and straw seemed to drive those intruders away. For now. The stables were a good place to hide for two men who did not want to be seen, but they were far from being a safe place. Thousands of Southrons and Orcs had driven the men of Gondor out of Eastern Osgiliath, and sometime during this night or later in the morning they would claim every conquered ruin for their own purposes.
Anakil toyed with the small knife he had taken in the Captain General’s tent. He had offered the weapon to the Poet, but the Poet had told him to keep the knife for now, for if they were discovered or captured, the enemy would concentrate on the older man, considering him the more dangerous enemy, therefore it was more likely that the boy could make use of the weapon.
The horse’s body gave them warmth, but they had not found edible food or any water in the stables. Anakil could hear his stomach rumble angrily, even though fear prevented him from feeling hungry at all. They did not speak much. The boy did not like the menacing silence, but he did not want to disturb the Poet’s thoughts, hoping that the old messenger was conjuring up a way to stay alive.
His thoughts strayed to his brothers, somewhere safe on the western shore, maybe helping the healers, maybe resting from the exhausting fight. His treacherous mind told him that it was highly possible that his brothers had died either in the fighting ranks, in the retreat, during the last stand on the bridge or while trying to swim to shore, but he did not listen to this tiny voice of reason. He had to believe that his brothers were alive and well, that he would see them again, that all of them would some day sit at home at the big wooden table, telling mother and father and their sisters stories of this terrible day, laughing and joking. Life, the future, had to have more in store for him than being cold and frightened and hungry, than sitting in the darkness of an almost deserted ruin in the middle of thousands of enemies. He realized that regardless of what he had seen this night, what had happened to him, he was not ready to die.
“We have to get out of here,” he said.
“I have come to this conclusion as well,” the Poet answered dryly.
“But you don’t know how.” It was not a question. Anakil tried not to sound too disappointed.
“There are many ways, but none of them is safe for the two of us,” the Poet explained. “But the hour grows late, and we will feel the lack of water soon. There is no use in tarrying here, my young apprentice. We have to leave the hospitality of this ruin of stone soon or …” For the first time since they had met, the Poet did not finish a sentence.
“Or meet our death trying,” Anakil finished for him.
“Are you prepared, Anakil?” Anakil could feel the Poet’s hand on his shoulder, firm and surprisingly warm.
Anakil felt a smile creep onto his face. He was glad for this smile of desperation, because otherwise he would have wept. “I will never be ready … to die. But I am ready to go. … How will we leave this place?”
“There is no safe way of leaving, no guarantee that the enemy will not recognize us for what we are, therefore there is no right and wrong. We are gamblers this early morning, my young apprentice, and this time, we do not use the power of words in our game but the stealth of silence. Are you able to control the horse?”
“He will do what I tell him to do,” Anakil assured the old messenger.
“Can you tell him without words? Our language is one of our greatest enemies this night.”
“I can do this. We understand each other, don’t we, old boy?” Anakil patted the warm neck he used as pillow for his head, and the horse nickered in response.
The Poet’s hand on his shoulder squeezed almost painfully, then it let go. “You will lead the horse out of here. We will take the fastest way to the northern end of the city, and we have to continue north for a long time. We must go as far as Cair Andros to be able to cross the river safely. We cannot risk using one of the bridles left behind in this stable, for they bear the white tree of Gondor. Keep your hand in the horse’s mane all the time, even if he does not need to be led, for if we are recognized for what we are, it will help you to quickly mount the animal and flee. I will walk beside you and shield you from view, and should someone address us, I will be the one to answer.”
“You want to just walk out of here?” Anakil did not believe what the Poet had just told him. “There are thousands of Southrons and Orcs out there.”
“Sometimes creatures are blind to the truth before their eyes. We fooled them once with our boldness and with the ability to speak their tongue. We can fool them again. Things happen!”
“Things happen. The Ithilien Rangers taught me this much during my brief stay there. There is no safe way,” Anakil said. “You asked me to trust you earlier this night. I still trust you, Poet.”
“Then let us not linger here. The sun will rise soon, and our strength will not return with first light, nor will the enemy be blinded by the first rays of an Ithilien sunrise.”
It calmed him to feel the big horse at his side. Anakil clutched a chunk of mane tightly with his left hand, even though the animal followed him willingly wherever he would lead it. For a moment he closed his eyes in the darkness of the stables and imagined that he was home on his father’s farm, bringing in the horses for the night. He fondly remembered some of those nights, when he had walked down to the river to whistle for the horses, when he had enjoyed the peace and quiet of being alone with the loyal animals, of guiding them home through the darkness. Now he was on his way home as well.
The Poet had one hand on his shoulder to stay close to him in the darkness of the ruin, with his free hand he felt for the door. When his hand touched the wood, he let go of Anakil’s shoulder. “Are you prepared to face the starlight?” he asked.
“Just one thing …Poet …,” Anakil whispered and opened his eyes. “I would like to know your real name.”
The Poet chuckled quietly. “Why?”
“Some of the men have promised a bottle of good brandy to the lucky one who can discover your real name,” Anakil explained. “When we reach the western shore, I need a present for two very thirsty soldiers. My brothers’ birthday is less than a month ahead.”
“Nobody has ever been so bold as to simply ask me.” The Poet chuckled again. “You saved my life in the water, my famous young apprentice, and so here I promise you that I will tell you my name the very next evening we spent together on the western shore.” The old messenger prevented an answer by opening the door and stepping out into the busy city of ruins that had been the eastern Osgiliath garrison some hours ago.
Anakil kept his head down, his gaze fixed on the ground to avoid looking into the eyes of a Southron or even worse, an Orc. The streets between the ruins were busy. He could smell them, he could hear them, and sometimes he could feel them when one of them touched him when brushing past him in a hurry. The two of them walked slowly, casually, trying to blend in, trying to not raise suspicions. An Orc snarled a few words at them. The Poet snarled back at him in the speech of the Southrons, and they continued unharmed.
Anakil chose a path that led them slightly to the northeast to avoid the narrow streets close to the bridge. They had agreed that they would stay away from the river as long as possible while in the city. Only when the ruins lay behind them would they follow the stream northbound.
There were many dead Orcs and a few dead Southrons lying in the narrow streets, but Anakil didn’t care much about them. But more bodies started to appear when they crossed one of the main paths that led to the bridge. The Southrons had left Gondor’s dead where they had fallen; they had not even bothered to clear the busiest streets but made their way over or around the broken bodies of the fallen soldiers. Only the weapons had been collected by the victorious soldiers. Anakil knew what Orcs did to the dead, men and their own, and he shivered slightly. The vile creatures would sate their hunger on his fallen comrades soon.
Dead eyes stared up at Anakil, eyes of men that had served with him, some of whom he recognized. He thought of their names when he passed by. Red blood turned black covered their bodies, sometimes their mouths were still open in the final cry before death. Anakil could not stand the sight very long, and he could not stand the knowledge what would happen to them. With a shuddering a sigh he hid his face in the long mane of the horse.
“Don’t show any weaknesses,” the Poet hissed close to his ear. “The Southrons do not suffer a man who does not face death, and in their reckoning you have already reached the age of manhood.”
Anakil nodded and looked down again, careful to not step on one of the dead or on a severed limb, and careful to quickennig his pace slightly to leave the path of dead as soon as possible. He tried to convince himself that he honored the dead by looking at them for a last time, for still he could not bring himself to look up and face the hordes of the enemy.
They passed the garrison unchallenged and reached the river Anduin at the northern end of eastern Osgiliath. There were no dead here, only the grassy shore and the soft moving waves. The horse stepped into the shallow water and bent its head to drink. Anakil loosened his grip on the horse’s mane and scooped up some water in his hands.
The Poet whispered a warning.
Something hard touched the boy between the shoulder blades, and he stumbled forward and fell to his knees in the shallow water of the river. Quickly he scrambled to his feet and turned around. There was an Orc with a long spear a few paces behind him, and it did not look friendly. Anakil had neither heard nor smelled it approach.
The creature snarled a question at him.
The Poet answered.
The Orc repeated the question, pointing with the spear at Anakil.
Anakil raised his hands in the gesture of: I am sorry.
“He asked you why you do not wear shoes,” the Poet translated and stepped away from the boy to present a second target for the Orc.
Anakil knew that their casual walk was over. The Orc had found them out and would alert his comrades soon. In a few seconds dozens of enemies would surround them.
The boy had made many mistakes tonight.
It was his fault that the two of them were stranded on the eastern shore. His mistake had endangered the Poet’s life. For the first time this night, he wanted to do something right. “Are Orcs able to swim?” he asked.
The Orc snarled at him and waved his spear, unsure what to make of the big ugly horse, the small, slender boy and the old, gaunt man.
The Poet shook his head.
The Orc uttered a shout of alarm
Anakil removed the small knife from his belt and tossed it to the Poet. The old messenger caught the weapon, not caring that he touched the blade and drew some blood. “Anakil …!”
Anakil did not listen to the word of protest. He stepped back to get out of reach of the spear. “Glaurung cannot carry two and escape. The horse is yours. I’ll swim!” Then he turned around and dove head first into the water.
He resurfaced a short distance away and turned on his back to catch a glimpse of the shore. The Orc lay on the grassy shore, his throat cut from ear to ear. The Poet had mounted the horse and was racing northbound. The Orc’s shout had alerted the guards. Some Southrons sent arrows after the fleeing messenger, but as far as Anakil could see, they did not hit their target. Nobody hurried into the water to pursue the boy, but he could hear hoof beats coming from the bridge. The Southrons rode out to chase and capture the Poet.
“I will learn your name and win the bottle of brandy!” Anakil whispered after the disappearing form of horse and rider, then he turned around to swim to the western shore. “Run, Glaurung! Run!”
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