1. On The Flood
When he had been younger, children had played with abandon within the walls of stone. People had come out of the city to the flatlands and spent warm afternoons on the banks of the river eating, drinking and making merry in the orchards and tilth that flourished there. But now the children within were few and when people would leave the city, it would be for the hills under orders from the lords. Those who came out to the flatlands in these days came from matters related to military strategy.
They faced danger on many fronts from enemies who lay east and south. Their allies lay north but it was unsure what help could be hoped for from them.
It was but a simple errand that he came on and one that would ordinarily take little time but his heart was heavy and he found his mind running astray as he dismounted from his horse and trudged his way towards the river bank to decide where his men should dig the new trenches. Already the plains that were normally lush and fertile from riverine silt lay scarred by such defensive measures. But that was not enough now for fears of an imminent attack from the south had risen manifold the last few days. They had gleaned knowledge that the enemy’s movements along the long stretch of road that connected their land to other lands far to the south had increased by enough extent to cause worry.
The trenches on the west bank would form one line of defence. East of the water lay Ithilien, defended as it had been for long by its rangers. But even they could not be expected to hold back an entire army should one descend upon them. The river would be Gondor’s first and best line of defence. If they could hold its passage as they had done earlier, the city might stand a while longer. But if they could not, the trenches would be the second line and if even those did not hold out, all that would remain to protect the city would be the wall running around it. He wondered if the structure was fortified enough to hold back a truly mighty force. Once the wall fell... he dreaded to even think what might happen.
The ground sank with ease underneath his booted feet, the mud softened by the dampness of the area. They could not dig so close to the bank; not when the surface was as soft as this. They would have to build the trenches farther away in the drier patches. And they would have to begin work soon for he could see it would take them some time to complete their work. After marking out the spots at a sufficient distance from the water’s edge, he returned to the river and stood silently, watching unseeingly as the waters lapped rhythmically against the banks. There was no wind, no light breeze carrying the scent of the river and the rushes nearby. The air was heavy and oppressing.
He was about to turn away and return to his camp but he wanted one more look at the river before he left. He had fond memories of the gleeful times spent by its side and those memories were now all he had of those who would not return and of times that could never be regained. Of times when he and his brothers had had been children unaffected by nameless fears and the distant memory of a father who had carried him on his shoulders along these very shores.
The river sparkled in the sunlight now as the still air hung heavily over the land. Colours reflected off the water, a hint of gold here, some blue there, a little green, but mostly grey as the skies above. An odd flash here and there would result each time a bird dived in for fish. When he had been younger he had often heard the minstrels sing lays about the river, praising it as a provider and a defender. They called it the Great River for it truly was a great river. It arose in lands to the far north that few in Gondor had even dreamed of visiting and made its massive way down, its current egged on by stiff winds from the north, until it emptied in all its majesty into the sea at Belfalas as it had done for ages.
The plains around the city were lush and fertile because of the river. Each year the crop was bountiful and never in all his life or in his parents’ lives or in his parents’ parents’ lives had there been a shortfall in the harvest from the flatlands. The granaries in Minas Tirith were rarely empty, a fact that eased some of the pressure off the populace in these troubled times. Even the fish from the Great River it was said, tasted better than the fish from the streams of the Ered Nimrais or even the fish from the sea that the carriers brought over from the princedom of Dol Amroth. The city itself stood intact all these years because of the river, for to cross it would take much of any foe’s might.
His father had often told him that and taught him the songs. He had brought him to stand where he stood now and told him to watch the water and drink in the sight, and to be thankful. A river was a giver, he had said. It always gave, and what it took, it returned manifold. And the Anduin was the greatest river in all the known lands.
A sudden draught of cool air brought him back to the present. He knew he should return soon but the rushes were swaying hypnotically as the north wind blew over the water, rustling with a musical quality, and the river almost seemed to dance in accompaniment. The smooth ripples lay disturbed and the smell of water and wet grass, familiar from his childhood days, hit his nostrils.
A glimmer of silver caught his eye. He knew immediately that it was not from the rays of the sun striking off the water’s surface. It was a gleam of brightness in the grey of the river, bobbing its way towards where he stood, deep in mud and grass. There was something strange in the river, something that shone in the sunlight like a precious metal. But what it was he could not make out yet.
He watched it carefully and warily as the eddys carried it near him, then as the retreating tide carried it away, and wondered whether it was cause for alarm in any way. The current brought it near him again and yet again the retreating waves pulled it away, trying to drag it along with them on their seaward journey. He was suddenly reminded of the old puzzle he had heard many moons ago near a bridge that had stood further to the north. Of a frog that tried to climb out of a well but kept sliding back in.
He had been unable to sleep that evening. His eldest brother had been killed two days prior to that and he had then, as he did now, tried to drown his sorrow in his duties. It had rained earlier in the day bringing out the frogs. He had sat in the fading light, hidden under the shadow of a tent, and sought comfort in the gentle sound of the river. And he had unintentionally caught the voices floating near him. The Captain General and his brother had, like him, been watching the water and the ruins of an abandoned city, eerily visible in the dim light still lingering in the sky. Every now and then a frog would croak throatily. And the Captain General had with childish delight recounted the puzzle to Captain Faramir. Together they had stood by the river talking softly, the younger doing the calculations out aloud, using his fingers to count, while the elder simply laughed on and kept calling out random numbers to confuse his brother.
He had watched them as they stood silhouetted against the approaching cover of night and spoke and laughed in soft tones. The murmurs stood out against the sounds of falling dusk, the swirling of the river and the incessant croaking, as their voices still reflected a restrained joy of meeting each other after a long time. It was something he recognised from many such meetings with his own brothers so he continued sitting there, silently watching them. They looked alike in the dark, save that one seemed a little bulkier than the other, and carried with him the symbol of being the elder of the two; a war-horn.
Unable to sleep from the onslaught of bad news and old memories, he had spent the rest of his waking hours under the stars the place was named after, working out how long it would take the frog in the puzzle to come out of the well, preferring to do it in his mind than to scratch out numbers on the mud for he found he felt better when he thought of something other than the brother he would never see again.
And today once again he found himself wondering how long the strange object floating in the river would take to reach the shore so that he would not have to think of his second brother’s death and his mother’s grief, and wonder why it was that the sturdier sons of their land should depart just when it seemed that she would need them.
It was getting closer now, bobbing up and down in the waters that were striking the mudflats gently, until finally it floated lazily onto the mud. Then the tide caught it up again and it lay there spinning slowly in shallow water, turning over and over again, and each time it pierced through the surface it shone brightly as the sun reflected off it, just as gold would or even silver. He moved closer towards it, wading into the shallow water, and bent down to pick it up. His hands closed around a curved object and he fished it out of the water. He could feel the touch was cold as silver.
It was silver.
Silver bound around one half of a war-horn.
He did not have to gaze upon it twice to recognise it. Often had he heard it blow; each time the company had set out. It had been heard to sound last, not long earlier and there had been much wonderment and great worry. But now it would wind no more. The trophy from a hunt in Araw, long years ago when kings had ruled in Gondor, had been cloven into two, never to come together again.
It was a cause for alarm, more so than he had expected. If the horn was in such a state how then was faring the one who carried it by right?
The war-horn had hung from the belt of a brave warrior. A captain of men who had for no known reason accepted into his own famed company of soldiers, Gondor’s finest men, a timid young boy who had neither the build of a warrior nor the latent aggressiveness that seemed demanded of one; and had retained a simple faith in his abilities when the boy himself was unsure of them. He had seemed to understand without being told, why it was so necessary that the boy should become a fine soldier and a good warrior, just as his brothers had, even if not a great one like his father. And had watched him train and grow into just that with the pride and joy of a mother eagle watching her fledglings take their flight through air. A captain who even as he prepared to lead the crucial defence of the passages across the river, had found the time to speak to him and express his grief over the loss he had suffered.
He looked up when he heard a shout from the other bank. He would have known them from their voices if not from their green and brown garb. The pleasant voice of the tallest among them carried over the vast expanse of water as he stared down at the broken shard of the horn of Gondor lying in his hand and wondered what he should say to the brother of the commander he had revered since the day he had joined his troop.
The water swirled around his ankles as he tried to maintain his grip on the mud slipping away under his boots. His father’s words came back to him. The river had returned to the land what it possessed of a loved son.
The End *** “The shards came severally to shore: one was found among the reeds where watchers of Gondor lay, northwards below the infalls of the Entwash, the other was found spinning on the flood by one who had an errand on the water.”
- The Window on the West; Book Four
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