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Messages: 22. The Survivors Part 3 - Two shores
He felt nothing at all. Somewhere in the back of his mind Anborn knew he should feel pain, exhaustion, hunger and cold, but all of his senses were numb. His bare feet were bloody, his body covered with wounds both large and small, his hair damp. He was clothed only in his undershirt and breeches. He could not remember when he had eaten his last decent meal, but he was not hungry at all.
He was alive.
He did not yet know whether being alive was a good thing. He had fought the river, and at least from that fight this night he had emerged victorious, even though the river had claimed his sword, his boots, his shirt and his cloak. But it had drained the last strength from his weary body, and now he was moving on sheer will alone, too stubborn to just collapse on the riverbank and get some rest. There might be comrades upriver who needed his help, and as long as he did not feel any pain, as long as his body was ready to move, he would continue walking, all the way to Cair Andros if necessary.
His eyes were open, but they did not see much - only darkness and shadows, the colours of the night. Water trickled from his hair onto his cheeks, sometimes a single drop found its way into one of his ears. He did not hear anything; the sounds of the flowing river nearby went unnoticed. He was deaf and blind, and his mind was too numb to remember the friends and comrades who had fallen, or to feel the grief and loss and terror of this night’s battle.
In this state, he was more dangerous than a fully alert warrior, for he was acting on instinct alone, the instincts of a Ranger, a predator. Nothing was important except survival and the distant thought of people who might be in need of his help.
The faint glow of campfires in the distance caught his attention, and he quickened his pace. The fires illuminated the great bridge of Osgiliath, now in ruins like all the other structures of the ancient city. They had destroyed beauty this night, beauty wrought out of stone and, more important, the beauty of many souls. A distant sting of pain and guilt penetrated the haze that blocked out his feelings for a second, making him flinch with pain.
The campfires were very near now, clearly distinguishable between the ruins of Western Osgiliath, and there were shadows moving about, the shadows of men. Anborn’s foot bumped into a larger stone, and he lost his balance. His numb arms were unable to break his fall, and he crashed face first onto the riverbank. A muffled sound of pain and anger escaped his throat, and he slowly rolled on his back. His gaze focussed on a dark sky full of stars.
“Who goes there?” a voice called out to him.
He jumped to his feet like an animal, ignoring the protest in his heavy limbs, and his eyes caught movement to his right. His fingers balled into fists and he jumped at the moving shadow with a loud cry. Strong arms caught his wrists and held his arms immobile, while another arm caught him from behind and pressed a dagger to his throat. He kicked back with one leg, and one bare foot connected with a knee. His attacker yelped in pain and surprise, and the pressure of the dagger at his throat lessened, but only for a second.
“Identify yourself,” a voice whispered in his ear.
He he had to concentrate to remember his name. There was only exhaustion and emptiness in his thoughts. But before he could summon up the strength to speak, his wrists were released. “Anborn?”
The dagger disappeared, and a warm cloak was thrown over his cold shoulders. “Anborn!” He nodded, recognizing his name, and found himself caught in a joyful embrace. “Anborn! It’s Tugor and Mohar! We are so glad to see you. You are the first of those who fought on the bridge to make it back to camp.”
The warmth of the cloak brought some feeling back into his body, and the familiar voice helped to clear the haze that surrounded his head. Pain and cold drained the last energy from his weary body, and his knees gave out under him. Two pairs of strong arms caught him and supported him.
He tried to smile at the two young Rangers, but the smile died on his face. Tugor had a bloody slash across his face, stitched but not bandaged, dried blood still covered his cheeks and dirtied his hair. Mohar’s neck was bandaged, and a piece of his left ear was missing. Both young men looked hungry and exhausted, and blood still stained their clothes and weapons. “What are you doing out here on guard?” Anborn asked. „You look as if you left the healers’ tent without permission.”
“All men who can walk and hold a weapon are on active duty,” Tugor explained. “And still there are too few of us to search the riverbank for survivors. There are too many wounded and too few healers. And too many dead…,” he added in a low voice.
They started walking towards the ruined city.
“The Captain?” Anborn managed to ask, even though he dreaded the answer.
“As I said, you are the first of those who fought on the bridge to make it back to camp,” Tugor said slowly. “Some of the older able-bodied soldiers of Osgiliath able to walk and talk are trying to establish order in the garrison. They sent us to stand guard near the river. The few Ithilien Rangers I have seen so far are among the wounded. The only officer of Osgiliath I have met has less than an hour to live. Whether there are other Lieutenants still alive, I do not know. The Captain is missing.” Tugor sighed. „The Captain General as well.“
He had made another mistake this night. Maybe, he thought, it was in his very nature, maybe he was unable to do anything right. The river was wide and cold, there was darkness, and he was alone. The eastern shore was still very near, and the western shore a lifetime away. His arms and legs were throbbing with pain, and he was breathing hard.
He could not defeat the water again tonight. His body was too exhausted to fight against the waves much longer, and in his mind he knew that he was not willing to try. Anakil of the Anduin did not want to drown in the river that had always been his friend.
He turned to float on his back, moving his arms and legs to keep only his head above the waterline. The current carried him to the southeast, towards the shore he had tried to leave behind. He thought about the Poet and the strong and loyal working horse, and he realized that neither the Poet nor he were heavy riders. The strong animal most probably would have been able to carry them both and still have managed to escape. But he had not thought before he had acted – again! – and now here he was, exhausted, cold and alone, and on his way back to the eastern shore.
The river swept him downstream, and his feet touched the sand far to the south than where he and the Poet had reached the shore after the downfall of the bridge. He staggered out of the water, immediately missing the waves that had carried a part of his weight. His legs wanted to give out under him, but he did not let them, for he knew he was most vulnerable on the open shores of the river. His bare feet were cold but not yet numb, small stones hurt like burning irons and twigs seemed to pierce his toes when he stepped on them.
He hoped the Southrons and Orcs had not sent scouts to look for him and believed him either drowned in the river or out of their reach on the western shore, but he could not be sure. He was far away from the ruins of Eastern Osgiliath, and he posed no threat to the enemy, but he knew he was also far away from safety.
The trees of Ithilien stood close to the river, but not close enough for his liking, for he was moving slowly, breathing hard, to reach their protective cover. He breathed a shuddering sigh of relief when he reached the dark wood. The roof of leaves was dense enough to block out the light of the stars, but he was not afraid of the darkness. The darkness was his friend for now, it would give him shelter for the rest of the night, guard him while he tried to regain some strength. Water dropped out of his unruly short hair into his sodden clothing, and his teeth clattered with cold. The thick trunks of trees loomed black in the darkness, and the thorny underbrush cut into his already abused feet, but he moved deeper into the embrace of the forest, until he could not see the distant glow of the river any more.
Somewhere in the back of his mind he began to wonder if this night would never end, if there would be eternal darkness and suffering. There had been long nights before, nights full of fear and incomprehensible terror, but never before had a single night lasted this long.
He was afraid.
Suddenly he realized how utterly alone he was.
He collapsed against the trunk of a big tree, his feet too tired and sore to carry him any further. Another sigh escaped his lips, turned into a sob, and he buried his face in his hands. Wetness pooled from his eyes to find many paths down his cold face, and his chest laboured to suck in air between silent sobs. He pressed his eyes shut to avoid the darkness of the forest, to flee into a darkness as black but more comforting, to shut out everything except his pain and grief and exhaustion.
He was too tired to sleep, too tired to block out all the sensations that he had successfully kept at bay until now, too tired to pretend that he had at least some measure of control. He wanted to wake up to find himself in his cot in the garrison, to find out that this night had been nothing but a bad dream, that nobody had fought and died, that the last hours had been nothing more than figments of his imagination. He longed for the warm embrace of his mother, for the soothing voice of his father, for the comforting protection of his brothers. He wanted to feel warmth again, but he could not believe there would come a time when he did not feel empty and cold.
The familiar darkness behind his closed eyelids brought forth thoughts of how much they had lost this night.
A part of their pride.
Maybe even the Captains all of them loved and followed with a willing heart.
So many men were dead.
Men he had known, men he had called comrades. Maybe his brothers were dead as well, dead and left behind like the many dead soldiers he had seen while escaping Eastern Osgiliath. Maybe he had passed Anagor and Anarion and had not seen them, had missed his only chance to say farewell.
He had not said a proper farewell to those friends and comrades whose corpses he had seen. He had stood next to Irion’s dead body, but he had been in a hurry and had not even been able to say a few words for him. He had only told him he was sorry. Irion, who would only be remembered as one of the many boys that died at Osgiliath.
Anakil remembered seeing some of the other boys, together with Lieutenant Darin, dead, in the Eastern garrison. A few weeks ago, he had been one of them. If he had not left for Ithilien, he would have been one of them this night. Maybe it would have been better to just die with them. Then everything would be over now.
Like it was over for Beldil. Anakil’s shivering body was wracked with coughing, for he was sobbing so hard that he was unable to breathe. He had saved Beldil’s life in the woods of Ithilien, and now his older friend was dead. The boy had not seen the messenger die, but even if he had survived the downfall of the bridge, the injured man would have never been able to swim to shore.
So many dreams had died that night.
Irion had wanted to be a healer. Beldil had wanted to see his family again, find a home in the white city and be a messenger in a time of peace. How was it possible that so many dreams had died that night, and Anakil of the Anduin, a trouble making horse boy who had used ti dream of being a warrior, was still alive?
His exhausted body did not give his brain the time to come up with an answer. Somewhere in the middle of thinking the question, his sobbing abated, for he had cried himself to asleep.
Many campfires lit the ruins of Western Osgiliath, casting the ancient city in an eerie flickering light. Shadows were dancing everywhere, and from every corner, every hidden pathway, even from the rebuilt quay there were strange noises to be heard, crying, moaning, the sounds of grief and terror. The fighting was over, but still there was no sign of dawn. There were barely enough able-bodied men to guard the garrison. Those who could stand stand and hold a weapon patrolled alone or in small groups, obeying the commands of the elder soldiers who tried to establish a certain degree of order; but some were still caught in the aftermath of the terror of the fallen bridge.
There were no officers present, for those who were not among the wounded, dying and dead had stayed on the bridge with the Captains and had not yet returned.
Anborn saw very few Rangers among the living men when he limped along the main path of the city, and his innards knotted with fear and grief. The Rangers were a small company, veterans like Anborn knew most of his comrades by name, and he had traded stories on long cold winter nights with many of them. Losing a fellow Ranger was like losing a good friend, and he feared that he had lost many good friends today, to the blades of the enemy, to the might of the falling bridge and to the power of the river.
He tried not to think about what was lost but what had been protected when Tugor and Mohar helped him to settle down at an abandoned campfire and left him in search of clean water and bandages. There was no space in the healers’ tents for those who only needed a few stitches, food, water and a good night’s rest.
Anborn allowed himself the luxury of closing his eyes and letting his thoughts stray. He was too exhausted to move, too numb and beyond caring to mind his many wounds, even though the warmth that slowly crept back into his limbs brought with it an overwhelming pain. He had thought never to be warm again only a few hours ago, and he relished the sensation and ignored the discomfort.
He remembered the catapult, the tower, the small company behind the enemy’s lines, the deafening sound as the bridge started coming down. After that, there were no clear memories, only single pictures, emotions, sounds, light and darkness. Someone had pushed him into the darkness of the river, maybe the Captain, maybe one of the enemies.
The Captain …
He remembered the Captain’s voice behind him, shouting at him, fading into nothingness only seconds before the cold, wet darkness had enveloped him. He prayed that the Captain had defied both bridge and river, for the man he loved above all others and for the Rangers, who, without their respected leader, would disintegrate into just another bunch of ill equipped, desperate soldiers in a war where hope was almost lost.
Anborn buried his face in his hands. Even on a night like this, when they had lost so much, old fools like he still dared to hope that the light would return. Maybe it was this tiny glimpse of hope even the overwhelming terror had not been able to kill that had driven them behind the enemy’s lines, to destroy something of pride and beauty to keep the White Tower safe, if only for another day, or another week, or maybe even for another year.
Tugor returned with hot water, blankets and bandages and made him lay down next to the fire. Mohar had gone back to his post at the river. The young Ranger cleaned and bandaged Anborn’s many wounds, even though he could not stitch the deeper cuts. Harsh red scars would remain for a long time, until they slowly faded to no more than white lines on tanned skin, little more than memory. Anborn did not care. At the moment there was no woman to touch him and share his bed, and honestly, he did not expect to live long enough to meet one.
The men spoke little, and Anborn suppressed the occasional groan of pain that wanted to escape his lips. The sounds of pain were loud enough without him adding his voice. They were Rangers of Ithilien, they preferred stealth and silence.
“Who has taken over command?” Anborn asked, as soon as the worst injuries were taken care of and he trusted his voice to be level and even.
“I don’t know,” Tugor answered calmly. “I don’t know the men of Osgiliath by name, but they are good men, and they do everything in their power to bring back order. The few Rangers I have seen tend to themselves, their dead and their wounded. There is nobody there to patrol the riverbank and look for those that are missing.”
Anborn pulled a borrowed blanket tighter about his shoulders. “We are lucky the enemy is confined to the eastern shore and cannot reach us here with his catapults,” he said glumly. “Without the bridge destroyed…” He did not finish the sentence. All of them remembered the unspeakable terror the shadows had cast upon them, closely followed by desperation in the face of an overwhelming enemy. “I suppose all our supplies have found a resting place on the bottom of the Anduin?” he asked, just to disturb the silence that started to envelop them. “I feel close to starvation.”
“There are rumours that there are a few barrels of wine down at the quay, all other supplies are lost,” Tugor replied. “I saw a messenger riding off to the White City an hour ago. I hope he will return soon with help from the city guard.” The wounded Ranger rose from the fire and dusted his long cloak. “Until reinforcements arrive and more men return from the river, our swords are the only protection our healers can hide behind. I have left my post in the ring of guards long enough; I have to return to duty.” He carefully clasped his comrade’s hand. “Get some rest, Anborn.”
Anborn shook his still wet hair, the long dark strands brushing his cheeks like small whips. “If you declare yourself ready for duty, I can do so as well.” He rose from his position at the fire, suppressing a groan of pain. “I will get myself boots, a shirt, a cloak and a sword, and then I will join you.”
The two dark shadows moved along the shoreline in silence, one of them limping heavily, the other walking unhindered but his head bowed with exhaustion. They did not talk. Every step farther north confirmed that their worst fears were reality. They were alone. The river, flowing silent and beautiful at their side, had swallowed not only the stones of the bridges and the army of the enemy, but their own men as well. Many had remained on the bridge despite the terror, despite the knowledge that there was no hope of victory against an overwhelming enemy, and their courage and devotion had led them to a wet, cold grave. The river, silent and beautiful, was the graveyard of Gondor’s finest.
The bodies appeared behind a small bend of the river. There were many of them, some of them bumped each other as if fighting for a little more room in the shallow water of the riverbank. The river was not ready to release its hold on them, their lifeless shells bobbed in the gentle surf, their arms and legs moving as if trying to crawl onto the grassy shore. Some of them lay on their backs, and the white tree of Gondor on their shirts shone ghostly in the moonlight. Why so many dead had been carried to this place, the two Captains did not know.
On the grass of the riverbank, only a short distance away from the dead in the river, a small figure sat cross-legged between two bodies. Faramir met Boromir’s grief-stricken gaze for a moment, then he quickened his steps to a pace his limping brother could not keep up with. Both of them were grateful to find at least one of their men still breathing.
The survivor, a young man whom in other times Faramir would have considered to be no more than a boy, had dragged the two bodies out of the water onto the dry land, the signs of his effort still visible in the sand. Faramir stopped some strides away from the bodies on the grass, deeply moved. One of the men must have been dead before the bridge had collapsed, his chest was bloody, and one of his feet was missing. The other man bore no signs of injuries, he must have drowned. Both had their hands neatly folded on their chest, their eyes were closed, their damp black hair had been carefully brushed out of their faces. The young man between them rested one hand on the shoulder of each, and his dripping body was wracked with silent sobs.
Faramir reluctantly stepped closer. He did not want to disturb the man, but this was not the time to mourn the dead. The soldier’s young face was unfamiliar; it was a man of Osgiliath. “Soldier,” he said softly. The young man did not react. “Soldier!” he said louder, in his Captain’s voice.
The young man slowly raised his head, his pale face streaked with tears, his nose running. He looked very young and lost, his big grey eyes glistening in the light of the moon. He did not say a word, just looked the Ranger Captain in the eyes, his gaze full of terror and agony.
Faramir knelt down next to the dead bodies. “Are you injured, soldier? Do you know who I am?” He needed the youth on his feet, for he knew there were not many soldiers left of both Osgiliath and the Rangers. The enemy would regroup and strike again. But he could not order the young soldier to set aside his grief, for it was this grief that proved that this youth was what they had protected with their blood: young, living, feeling, breathing men, women and children, caught in the middle of the terror of the night.
“I know you, Captain Faramir, my lord,” the youth said, his voice hoarse and breaking. “I am not injured, my lord, just a little wet. I hail from the coast, my lord, I know how to best a river.”
Faramir bent forward and touched the man’s bloody forehead. “There is a cut above your eyes. I want you to see the healer as soon as possible and than report to me for duty. Can you do that?”
“It is just a cut.” The youth looked down at the faces of the dead men beside him, and a strangled sob escaped his throat.
“Did you know these men?” Faramir asked. He had never seen the faces before; they must have been of the Osgiliath Company as well.
The youths head pointed to his left. “This is Maglor,” he said. “A friend.” His head moved to point to his right. “This is Enros. My second brother. We shed our gear together and jumped into the water together. We found Maglor and intended to carry him to shore. But after a while, I could not carry him any more, and I let go. And suddenly, my brother was gone, and I could not find him in the waves. I saw him again moving in the surf, his hand still grasping Maglor’s cloak.”
“I am sorry for your loss,” Faramir said, and he meant every word. His gaze drifted downstream to the limping form of his brother, and he had to fight the sudden urge to run to him and hug him tightly. Once again his shoulders slumped with relief at seeing his brother alive. Boromir had always been the stronger one of them, had always protected him with his strong arms and loud laughter. He could not imagine losing Boromir, could not imagine seeing his brother’s dead body in the waves of Anduin and being unable to save him.
This young man had lost a brother and a friend. Faramir put a heavy hand on the man’s shoulder. “Take all the time you need, then report to duty.”
A few golden rays of the early morning sun found their way through the thick forest of Ithilien to greet all living beings that had slept below the trees or hunted in the darkness. A light breeze stirred the roof of branches and leaves, and the cool air of the morning lazily tickled Anakil’s nose.
The boy opened his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. The light had returned. The longest night of his life was finally over. The waters of Anduin glinted in the west, sparkling like a thousand diamonds under the morning sun. Not a single bird sang in the thick undergrowth of the forest, but today Anakil did not care that the peace of the wilderness was a lie, that the wood was bathed in eerie silence. He was glad that there was light again, and he was glad to be alive.
His clothes had almost dried during the night, and the morning brought warmth back into his cold and tired limbs. He lay with his back against a tall tree, his legs halfway buried in a pile of leaves. He rubbed his eyes with his hands and discovered that there was blood and dirt on his face. He had swum through the river twice; therefore the blood must be his own. He did not care. He was not in pain. His stomach rumbled and reminded him that he had not eaten for a very long time. His mouth was dry. He did not dare to show himself on the open riverbank, so he looked for leaves still wet with morning dew and he sucked greedily at them.
Slowly he pushed the pile of leaves off his legs and discovered that his bare feet were a mess. They were almost black with dirt and dried blood, and even though he did not feel the pain now, he knew he would the moment he tried to walk on the many cuts and bruises. He remembered running and crawling from the river into the woods, remembered the pain. There was nothing he could do about it now, there were no shoes to be found in the wilderness of Ithilien. He pulled his shirt over his head, ripped off both sleeves and wrapped them about his feet in a futile effort to bandage them, then he pulled the sleeveless shirt over his head again.
He was alone, he was unarmed, and he knew he could not stay near the river. He did not know how many enemies had taken Eastern Osgiliath, but he knew that they would eventually find him here. He did not want to think about what they would do to him if they caught him alive. He needed to keep his mind focussed on his survival; it was dangerous to think about what was lost and what might happen to him in the future. The terror of the night was no more than an awful memory in the light of day, but the boy knew that it would return by nightfall, unless he did something about it.
He wanted to go home.
Home was a little more than a mile away and nevertheless it was far out of his reach. He was too weak to swim to the western shore, and he could not fight. He needed help to find his way home, and there was not much help to be found in Ithilien in these dark days. There was no Beldil to ride with him, and the Poet and Glaurung were gone as well, on their way to the north, to Cair Andros and to safety. Nobody would come looking for him; in the aftermath of a battle of this magnitude he doubted that anyone other than his brothers would even miss him.
He did not want to think about his brothers now. He had to believe that he would see them again. He needed a reason to go on, he needed the belief that they would be there when he reached home.
He pushed himself to his feet. He was somewhere in the wilderness south of Osgiliath. He had never been in the southern part of Ithilien before. There was not much known about this part of the Moonland, maybe because there simply was nothing there. Ithilien had been emptied long before he was born, there were no friendly farmers or horse breeders to be found to help him. He had heard something about Rangers in the south, but he knew nothing more about it, neither their names nor the place where they dwelt. He decided that there was no help to be found in the south.
But there were two places in the north he knew, Cair Andros and Henneth Annûn. There were soldiers of Gondor in the north, and he could prove with his ripped shirt that he was a messenger of Gondor. Some Rangers of Henneth Annûn might even remember his face. His only way to help and home led to the north.
He could not take the easiest path close to the water. There was a garrison of Orcs and Southrons at the river now. He had to go east, as close to the Dark Mountains as he dared, and then turn north, passing Eastern Osgiliath hidden in the wilderness, on his way to Henneth Annûn. It was a dangerous and lonely way, but he knew that there was no other choice.
He had survived the shadows and the darkness, and the light of the morning had shown him that hope was not completely gone. He still did not want to die, and as long as his aching feet would could him, he would walk the wilderness of Ithilien and hope that a small boy would not be noticed by the eyes of the enemy.
His feet hurt like fire when he turned his back to the river and started walking eastwards, but he bit his lip and ignored the pain. His nose was running, and he angrily wiped the moisture away with the back of his hand. There was enough light to find a path through the undergrowth. The light had indeed returned to Ithilien, if only for the short duration of a summer day.
The first rays of the sun bathed the broken bridge in a golden light and destroyed the hopes of those who had dared to believe that this night’s terrors had been nothing but a bad dream, a game the darkness had played with their minds and souls. The pride of Osgiliath was ruined, the east was lost, and in the tents of Western Osgiliath the healers still worked to save some of those who had fought in the darkness.
The light of the morning showed what most of them had feared, that not many of the Osgiliath garrison and the Ithilien Rangers were left standing, and almost no one had escaped without injury. There were no provisions on the western shore, all their bread and dried meat and cheese had been stored near the dining halls on the bridge, and now everything was gone.
Except Anborn none of those who had fought on the bridge had returned to the west, but with the first light of day, the first dead bodies of both men and enemies began appearing near the riverbank or even reaching the shore. There were few of them, for those in heavy armour would not float to shore but sink below the waves. The few guards around the garrison called for help to draw their dead from the water and carry them into the garrison, where they could receive a proper burial. But there were few men available for the many heavy tasks, and they could only retrieve those who washed up next to the remains of the bridge, they could not spare a single man to walk downriver and look for more dead or any survivors.
There was no officer present, and the Captains were still among the missing. The oldest of Osgiliath’s ranks had established good order, but they were as exhausted as their men, and the view of eastern Osgiliath across the river, with burning campfires warming Southrons and Orcs, did nothing to lighten the men’s hearts.
Anborn sighed at his guard post on the river and pulled the borrowed cloak tighter around his shoulders. The morning sun brought warmth to the air, but it did not banish the cold from his heart. Most of the dead that reached the shore were Rangers of Ithilien, for Rangers did not wear heavy armour when fighting, and their bodies were light enough to be carried by the waters. He had pulled more than one comrade onto the grassy shore, but to his surprise, his tired eyes had stayed dry. His grief went far too deep to be cured by weeping. His mangled body ached, he did not care. His only hope was to find someone alive, to welcome a weary comrade home who had bested the enemy, the bridge and the water.
The sun rose higher in the east, bathing the river in a blinding light, blocking out the horror that had been Eastern Osgiliath only a few hours ago. Anborn turned his head to watch the rushing and swirling water for a moment. His eyes tried to follow a single patch of foam drifting in the current, but he failed and lifted his gaze instead to the dark trees of Ithilien on the other riverbank.
The world appeared to be very peaceful and quiet. A light breeze made him shiver slightly, and he lifted his eyes further, to stare at the dark shadows visible on the horizon, the Dark Mountain that hid the Dark Lord’s land from their view. The terror that had driven them to madness on the bridge had come from there, he was sure of that, and in his heart he knew that they would see, feel and hear this nameless terror again before the end.
“Anborn?” someone called his name, and he tore his gaze away from the water.
A soldier of Osgiliath appeared behind him, in full armour but without his helmet. His black hair had nearly all been burned off by one of the many fiery arrows of the enemy. “Get yourself down to the quay immediately; you are relieved of your post. Some of your Rangers have acquired some meat and bread from the farmers of the riverbank, and they told me to get you so that you will receive your share.” The soldier clapped Anborn’s back and pulled a piece of bread out of the pocket of his cloak. “They are good lads, your comrades, they share with all the men that are on duty and keep almost nothing to themselves. They even sent some meat to the healers’ tents.”
“They are good men,” Anborn replied. “Any news of the Captains? Have they returned?”
“They have not been found yet,” the soldier said.
“Returned,” Anborn insisted. “For they will return.” He nodded his thanks to the soldier. “I will relieve you when I have eaten.” The Ranger pulled his hood over his head and slowly made his way downstream to the quay of Osgiliath. There were few guards down at the riverbank, and even fewer at the remains of the bridge. The bridgehead was intact, as were the first two piers, but in the middle of the structure there was a great hole, too wide to be mended with wooden planks or even secured with ropes. The only way to cross the Anduin at Osgiliath was by boat now. But the enemy had not tried to reach the western shore that way, hopefully because they thought Gondor’s defense too strong, perhaps only because they were regrouping. Anborn hoped for the first but feared the latter.
The Ranger thought of Mablung, Damrod and the other Rangers that had remained in Henneth Annûn, and he hoped that they were well. It was a reassuring thought that at least some soldiers of Gondor had remained in Ithilien, that the last foothold in the beautiful land east of the river was not completely lost.
The sight that greeted him at the quay almost made him smile. Out of the four Rangers there, Mohar was the only one able to walk. The three others had their legs, feet or knees bandaged, but that did not prevent them from guarding several barrels and boxes of food and drink.
Mohar looked frightening with his bloody face, bandaged neck and his missing ear, but there was a friendly smile on his lips, and he coordinated the food rations with the ease of someone who had dealt with hungry soldiers before. The other Rangers appeared in good spirits as well, despite their injuries. The river carried the dead back to the shore, but this place at the quay was full of life.
“Anborn!” Mohar greeted the Ranger with a smile and a friendly wave. “It’s good to see your ugly face in broad daylight again. Take a seat and have a bite of bread and some cold bacon. The farmers that live upriver have sent us everything they can spare. They are good and decent people, the people of the riverbank. They asked about their sons, but I did not know a single one of them. I hope they were not on the bridge.”
“Many people were on the bridge,” Anborn said sadly. “I cannot and will not believe that I am the only one to return alive.”
“There will be others,” Mohar assured him. “Give them time. Maybe some of them did not want to walk upriver to camp in the darkness.” He handed Anborn a large piece of bread and a few slices of bacon. “I fear there is only water in the barrels, the few drops of wine we received are already gone.”
Anborn thanked the young Ranger for the food and took a seat on an empty box to eat, his eyes scanning the quay and the river southbound. Mohar sat down next to him and put a warm hand on his shoulder. “How many have you pulled out of the water?” he asked gently.
“How do you know…?” Anborn started.
“I have asked men to fetch the guards from the river to get some food. All of those who have been tending to the dead have this certain look in their eyes. You have it as well,” he explained.
Anborn rubbed his hands over his eyes. “There are few of us left, Mohar,” he said. “So few. I fear that when we return to Henneth Annûn and tell the lads who will never come back, there will be no laughing, singing and dancing for many evenings.”
Mohar sighed. “Believe me, I do not feel like smiling and laughing at all, not now, and most probably not tomorrow, but for those from the riverbank I smile and laugh and try to help them forget the horror and death for the time they spend here to eat.” The hand on Anborn’s shoulder squeezed firmly, then it let go. “I have to continue smiling for a while; they have put me in charge of the food until there is none left. Enjoy your bread, Anborn. We will talk again soon, I hope.”
“Thank you, Mohar,” Anborn said. “It is good to know that there are people like you to cheer those who have the heaviest burden to bear.”
Mohar clapped him on the back and left him alone.
There were not many people down at the quay, most of the soldiers took their food and returned to their posts. Mohar and the three injured Rangers succeeded in cheering those who did stay for their meal, so there were some smiles and even some laughter in the air. They were facing the death of many, but still there was life to be found in this dark place. With the first sunrays laughter had returned, and suddenly Anborn knew without a doubt that as long as there was a sunrise to bath the White Tower in golden light, Gondor would not lose hope.
His gaze strayed to the south again, beyond the stones of the quay and along the riverbank, until a bend in the riverbed hid the waters from his view. Two dark spots on the green grass had not been there before. He shielded his eyes with his hand and rose from his seat to take a better look. The dark spots were moving towards the garrison, slowly but steadily. They were too tall to be animals and moving too casually in the open to be of the enemy.
“Mohar!” Anborn called. „Down there! Do you see what I see?”
Mohar came to stand beside him and gazed southbound as well. When he looked Anborn in the eyes, there was a smile on his face, but this time the smile included his eyes. He threw his arm about Anborn’s shoulders and squeezed him until the older man winced with pain. “Survivors!” the young Rangers shouted at the top of his lungs. “Survivors approach from the south!”
The men at the quay started to cheer, and soon word reached the rest of the garrison. The silence of the morning disappeared in shouts and laughter.
There were no able-bodied men without a post to meet the two survivors, but the men at the quay observed their approach closely. The taller and broader one was limping heavily, leaning on his slightly smaller, more slender companion for support. Both were clad in dirty shirts and breeches, and their black hair, the taller one’s long and unruly, the slender one’s short and wild, hung about their heads. When they were close enough that Anborn could take a look at their faces, his heart forgot to beat for a second. He felt his eyes water, and for a moment he thought it strange that he had been unable to weep with grief a few moments before, but that he was able to shed a tear with happiness.
“The Captains!” he shouted at the top of his lungs. “The Captains have returned!
The garrison cheered again, so loud and long that Anborn was sure the sound carried across the river to be heard in the eastern garrison as well.
Thoughts were his enemy. Thoughts of home, thoughts of his brothers, thoughts of Beldil. Thoughts of food, of a warm bed, of clean clothes, of shoes. Thoughts of a time when there was no pain. Anakil had found a small spring with cold water to drink and wash his feet, and he had eaten a few berries he had picked along his way, but he was still hungry.
The sun had climbed high; golden rays of light lit the fallen leaves between the old, tall trees. A warm wind stirred the dry branches high above, the only sounds in the thick forest. There were no animals in the damp grass and in the underbrush. The boy was slowly moving east, away from the shore of the Anduin, further east than he had ever been, even on his ill fated hunt with Anborn some time ago. The silence was eerie, almost menacing, and the farther east he ventured, the heavier the silence lay itself on his heart. He knew that he feared the east even more than he should, but he was just a boy, and dreams of the Black Gate had tortured him at night not long ago.
On a clear day, he could see the mountains that surrounded the land whose name nobody ever spoke from the bridge of Osgiliath. The bridge that he would never cross again. He was glad that he could not see the mountains now, for the roof of trees blocked his view to the east. He missed the soothing cold metal of a sword or even a knife at his side. How could someone walk this land, alone, unarmed, and not be afraid of every sound, of every falling leaf? How long could he force himself to move eastward, how far away from Eastern Osgiliath dared he venture before his courage left him and he had to turn to the north? He had lost all sense of distance. He was walking with his head down, his gaze fixed on the ground to avoid sharp stones and twigs. His lower lip was bitten bloody, for his bare feet hurt like fire and sometimes he had to prevent himself from crying out in pain.
He stepped into a small clearing and raised his head to take a look at the sun. The sun was at his back. He shook his head, but did not correct his path. He did not know how long he had been travelling northeast, and he did not care. He only hoped that he was already north of Osgiliath. His feet went numb, and he was grateful, for the pain lessened. He crossed the clearing to enter the wood once again, northbound this time, no closer to the shadows any more. Whatever dwelt in the land behind the dark mountains, in his mind it was like the shadow in the darkness. He had seen and heard and felt the darkest shadows on the bridge this night, and the only thing he knew was that he never wanted to see them close again.
He should have stayed at home. Nobody would have thought ill of him if he had stayed at home to help his handicapped father with the farm and the horses instead of joining the army. With his two brothers serving their Steward, the honour of his family was safe. He could be at the riverbank breaking horses to the saddle in the bright sunlight just now, with his stomach full and his young nieces to watch and admire him. He could be far away from pain and death. But he had left to be a warrior, and here he was, an old messenger’s apprentice, alone in the land between the river and the dark mountains.
His situation was close to being hopeless, but he marched on, for despite pain, hunger, thirst and fatigue, he still was not ready to die.
He would have continued walking until his strength gave out or the darkness told him that it was time to rest, but he was stopped in his march by an arrow that whirred out of the underbrush to his right and embedded itself close to his feet. He halted in his steps, raised his head and took a look around out of dry, red, burning eyes. He seemed to be alone in the thick wilderness; there were only trees, bushes and shadows. But the arrow was real, its brown wooden shaft still vibrating with the force of its impact in the ground.
Suddenly the shadows became alive, and four dark, hooded figures stepped into his path. Two of them bore longbows with arrows nocked, and those arrows pointed at the boy’s face. Anakil sighed wearily, too tired to be startled.
“Who goes there between Ithilien’s trees?” one of the figures asked.
Anakil’s eyes widened, and his head moved abruptly to gaze at the speaker. He remembered the voice, and a sigh of relief escaped his lips. “Lieutenant Mablung!” he exclaimed, and a smile appeared on his dry and bloody lips.
“Troublemaker?” Mablung asked, recognizing the hoarse voice of the horse boy he had met in Osgiliath. The Ranger Lieutenant threw back his hood, and at his silent command the two archers lowered their bows. “Trouble making horse boy! There you are again. Are you making a habit of appearing in places where you are least expected? You had better have a good reason for being out here alone, without shoes and weapons, ragged and dirtier than a stray dog.” The Lieutenant’s voice was stern, but a small smile played at the corner of his mouth.
Anakil coughed, and the Ranger uncorked his water skin and handed it to the boy. Anakil drank greedily, and when he was finished, his voice was almost steady. “Eastern Osgiliath has fallen,” he said. “The bridge is destroyed.”
“That is a good reason.” Mablung’s smile disappeared, and a strange light flickered in his eyes. His companions threw back their hoods to reveal their heads, and the expressions on their faces were grave, almost sad.
Anakil remembered their faces but not their names. They were also Rangers of Northern Ithilien, he had seen them in the cave during his short stay there. Two of them were brothers who always went out on patrol together.
“Did you not know? We sent a messenger to inform you about the battle,” the boy said. Three messengers had left Eastern Osgiliath before dark, and at least one of them had been bound for Henneth Annûn.
Mablung shook his head. “We are on a mission to find out what has delayed the Captain’s return to his command. We did not receive a message from Osgiliath in over a week,” the Lieutenant explained. “Neither from the Captain General nor from our Captain. We could only hope that Captain Faramir and the wounded had reached the river safely after the battle with the Orcs.”
“They did,” Anakil confirmed, remembering the arrival of the Rangers. “But shortly thereafter the enemy attacked with overwhelming forces, and the east had to be abandoned. The bridge was destroyed to deny the enemy passage over the Anduin.” Anakil lowered his gaze. “That is all I know. I found myself on the wrong shore of the Anduin when the fighting was finally over.”
Mablung put a heavy hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I see by your shirt that you are a messenger of Gondor now, and even though nobody has sent you on your way with a message, you are the only one who can tell us something about what happened at Osgiliath. You will be our guest at Henneth Annûn to tell us everything you know. From the look of you, you need food, rest and the healer’s attention.”
Anakil nodded. “Yes, Lieutenant.”
Mablung stepped back to whisper some orders to two of his men, and the two Rangers donned their hoods and disappeared swiftly into the underbrush. The third man stayed with them, his hand at his bow.
“Let’s go to the north, Troublemaker,” Mablung said. “If we make haste, we will reach Henneth Annûn by tomorrow morning. Damrod is awaiting our return most eagerly.”
Anakil tried to keep up with the Rangers’ brisk pace and sure footing in the underbrush, but his abused feet did not want to serve him for very long. Soon he found himself panting heavily, and after a short while, his knees gave out under him, and he collapsed to the ground. He felt cold sweat running down his spine and dampening his temples.
Mablung was kneeling at his side immediately, touching his wrist to feel his pulse and putting his other hand to Anakil’s forehead. “Troublemaker, you are burning up!” he exclaimed.
“I am sorry,” Anakil whispered. His feet were numb now, but he could not force his legs to obey his mind’s commands. “I have swum long and walked even longer, now I cannot walk any more. It has been a long and terrible night.”
Mablung picked the boy up and helped him settle comfortably in his strong arms. “You are not heavy, I can carry you for a while,” he said loud. Anakil’s head ended up nestled against Mablung’s shoulder, and the Lieutenant turned his head to whisper into the boy’s ear: “The Captain. Do you know how he fares?”
Anakil shook his head and whispered back: “I don’t know. I don’t even know whether Captain Faramir and Captain Boromir are still alive.”
Boromir could not even think of riding to the city to give the Steward a personal account of last night’s battle. His injured knee made it impossible for him to sit a horse. Messengers had been sent with the most urgent information and requests, a detailed report would have to wait until both Captains were able to make the journey. Faramir was well enough to master a horse, but Boromir thought it unwise to send his brother alone to their father with news of a lost battle, with yet unnumbered dead and injured. Osgiliath was the Captain General’s command, and the Captain General would answer to the Steward. He could not allow his younger brother to face their father’s biting tongue alone, especially after a defeat that was not Faramir’s responsibility and that would have been even more devastating without the courage of the Ithilien Rangers. The Steward, Boromir thought grimly, would have a different view of this matter, but Boromir knew that without his brother’s recklessness, the bridge would still be standing, and the enemy would be pounding at the gate of Minas Tirith.
Of the company of Rangers, less than a quarter had survived the battle, and most of those who still breathed were among the injured. The men of Osgiliath had to mourn many dead as well, but their numbers were far less than those of the Rangers. Boromir had lost most of his officers, and he had already made a list of names that, with the Steward’s approval, would fill in the empty commissions. Scribes were still busy penning down lists of the dead, the injured and the living. It would take days to write the letters to inform Gondor’s families of the loss of their sons, husbands and fathers.
Boromir remembered his brother, dirty and still clad only in his shirt, boots and breeches, acting as his own scribe today and walking about the camp with ink and a sheet of paper, writing down the names of his own dead. Boromir knew Faramir would write all letters himself, for his brother saw it as one of his duties as Captain of a small company to thank them for their loyalty with friendship that was not ended by death. Writing letters to families and bringing order to the bereft garrison was all they would do the next days until they were able to ride to Minas Tirith.
Luckily, Boromir’s injured knee was only badly bruised. The healers had assured him that there were no broken bones, otherwise he would not have been able to walk. His knee was bandaged, but he had refused tha aid of a stick and had endured the pain all day. His man needed to see him on his feet and in good spirits, so he had ignored the discomfort. The Osgiliath Company had lost a battle, but they had not lost a war. A nameless terror had passed over the river, but it had not reappeared to haunt them, and even though Eastern Osgiliath was lost, a thought that filled Boromir’s heart with pain, there were still Rangers in Ithilien to follow the enemy’s movements, and to warn the soldiers on the western shore should an attack be launched at the heart of Gondor.
The sun had already disappeared in the west to give way to another warm, star filled summer night when Boromir entered the tent he had chosen as his new personal quarters. Compared with the tent he had burned on the bridge, these quarters were small, with barely enough room for a small table and a cot, but it allowed him the small amount of privacy he desperately needed after a long day and an even longer night.
He pulled his shirt over his head and bathed his face in a bowl of cold water someone had put upon his table. There was a towel as well, and he dried his face and rubbed at his neck. A soft snore startled him, and he turned around to find his cot already occupied by a tall body. Black, unruly hair fell into a pale, peaceful face, and Boromir smiled as he recognized his brother.
Faramir was fully clothed and no blanket covered his sleeping form, he must have fallen asleep waiting for Boromir. The Captain General bent down to smooth a dark lock away from his brother’s forehead, glad that after last night’s battle, he still had a brother to occupy his cot.
He was too tired to get himself another mattress, too weary to sleep on the floor, and he could not bring himself to wake his brother and chase him away, so he simply pushed the tall body aside and settled down next to him in the narrow cot. They had often shared a bed and even a blanket when they had been children in the White City, and he knew his brother would not mind if they did so again. The Captain General pulled a warm blanket over both of them and closed his eyes. The softness of the cot, the warmth of his brother’s body next to him and the sound of soft, regular breathing swiftly put his weary mind at ease, and he fell asleep.
And this night, for the first time, Boromir understood clearly how troubling his brother’s dreams could be, for he dreamt as well.
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