Unfinished plots, still a happy reader
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Messages: 12. The poet
“Those reports are older than two days. They are useless!” Boromir balled his left hand into a fist in frustration. “Everything changes in two days.”
“They are the best we have, Captain.”
“I know.” Boromir sighed softly and relaxed his hand. “But we need better information. The enemy is moving fast. We will lose track entirely if we continue to be two days behind.”
“We are lucky it is only two days. It could be worse.”
The council tent of Osgiliath was lit by many small lamps and torches. The commanding officers of the garrison sat in simple chairs around the large wooden table. Only the two officers on duty at the shore watches were absent.
Boromir let his gaze wander from face to face, carefully looking at each of his Lieutenants in turn. He did not like the concern and weariness furrowing their brows, tightening their mouths, narrowing their eyes. He knew their faces mirrored the one he saw when looking into a mirror. His officers knew as well as he did that something was stirring east of the Ephel Dúath, something without a face yet, but maybe of a name that was not spoken aloud in Gondor.
The heavy table was partly covered with a large map of Ithilien. Small green, red and blue arrows marked the reported positions of the enemy, green for orcs, red for Southrons, blue for unidentified parties. There were some white arrows as well, along the river and scattered throughout Ithilien; the positions of Gondor’s soldiers. Only the positions of the white arrows were confirmed, and there were frighteningly few of them. The enemy was moving, back and forth, in circles and in lines, seemingly without a discernable pattern.
Scouts that had contact with the enemy were usually gone for four days. It took them two days to reach good positions, or to follow a sighted party of the enemy to discover a pattern in movement, to count the numbers and to judge the strength of defence or offence. If they returned, most of them reached Osgiliath within two days after abandoning the enemy. If they returned... Some of them left the garrison and were never seen again.
Two days was too long a time to work with, but the Lieutenants were right, this was the best they had. They could not send mounted scouts into Ithilien, for they had not enough horses and could not afford to lose even one of the animals. In addition to that, mounted scouts would be easier to spot and therefore even more in peril of being ambushed than scouts travelling by foot.
They could not rely on the Ithilien company either. It was a one day ride or two days march to the main hideout in North Ithilien, even farther to South Ithilien. The Ithilien Rangers assembled enough information to get along themselves, but they could not share their daily reports of the enemy’s movements with Osgiliath.
But the Lieutenants were right again. It could be a lot worse.
Boromir finished the observation of his men, fixing his gaze on Lieutenant Darin. The Lieutenant did not notice that his Captain’s attention was turned towards him; he was staring at his hands that lay folded on the table. “I talked to Beldil, the messenger that arrived here from Henneth Annûn yesterday. He saw nothing of the enemy during his journey along the river. He could only confirm Mablung’s general words about Ithilien.”
“What about the boy?” the commander of the healers asked.
Lieutenant Darin quickly raised his head. “Anakil caused nothing but trouble, Captain,” he said.
“He returned,” Boromir answered. “On horseback. With a wounded comrade. The men will remember that, maybe even longer than three weeks. But that does not solve the problems we face.” Boromir smiled grimly. He had expected the question and the Lieutenant’s reaction. “The boy showed that it is possible to pass though Ithilien unscathed, but was lucky. The men will talk about him for a while. But the talk will die down eventually, and nobody will remember his name three weeks from now.”
“We could double the scouts.”
Boromir leaned back in his chair to simply listen to the discussion. His men knew they could speak their thoughts freely in his presence. He wanted to hear everything that was in their minds. Maybe together they could come up with a solution nobody would figure out alone.
“We don’t have enough men to do that.”
He had requested additional scouts from the garrison of Cair Andros to cover his losses. Cair Andros had not been able to send a single soldier.
“We could send pairs of two.”
When he had been a simple young soldier in the army, they had scouted in groups of three. Those times were long past. The garrison would be empty and undefended if they still sent out groups to do scouting work.
“We don’t have enough men to do that, either.”
He didn’t even think about asking for scouts from Ithilien. Faramir did hardly have enough men in North Ithilien to guard Henneth Annûn. There hadn’t been a message from South Ithilien for almost two weeks. South Ithilien couldn’t even spare a regular messenger. Boromir knew that the Northern and Southern Rangers had secret hiding places near the Ephel Dúath where they met or left messages concerning the enemy. Sometimes Faramir included some information about South Ithilien in one of his infrequent letters, but none of the Northern Rangers had been to the South for a long time.
“We need to extend our patrols to meet the Ithilien Rangers and exchange information.”
He would love to work more closely with the Rangers, but that had been tried before, and it had resulted in the death of many. The distance between Osgiliath and the Rangers’ hideouts was simply too great for close cooperation.
“That would take even longer than two days.”
They had to get more soldiers to guard the bridge over the Anduin, the direct passage into the heart of Gondor. He needed to go to Minas Tirith and inform the Council in person about the situation. The Council had to understand the growing severity of the situation at hand. Maybe he should have gone weeks ago, instead of writing letters.
“We need reinforcements. The men sent to us from the city barely cover our losses.”
Men died every week. The situation worsened with every death. And the enemy was moving. The council of Osgiliath was unanimous concerning that observation.
“Darin, what about the boys? There are so many of them. Some of them must enter weapon’s training.”
Darin snorted, his face grim. “I send the boys into training when they are ready.”
“Then ensure that they are ready soon.”
Lieutenant Darin put both hands flat on the table and rose into a half standing position. “I cannot force them into maturity. They will be ready soon enough.”
“No offence to your judgement, Darin. Sit down.”
Boromir trusted his men to behave themselves. They were officers of Gondor, men not unconcerned with honor. There had never been a fight in the council tent. The men argued, sometimes long and emotionally, but they always attacked with words and gazes, however hard and unyielding, never with physical violence.
“We could send the scouts in shorter intervals if we could find a way to give them more time to rest in between their missions. Scouts that have to take over a watch every second night are of no great use in the woods of Ithilien.”
“We will include all officers in the watch roster,” Boromir said immediately. It was not customary for officers to stand watch. One Lieutenant was supervising each shift, but they did not have to lie down in the dirt, their bows ready at hand. He didn’t care that some of his men would be offended at standing on watch with the soldiers, but he would make sure they did not speak up. The decision was his, and his voice clarified that he was not willing to argue about it. “Starting this night, no scout will be on watch any more. Make sure that I am included in the roster as well.”
“What about the boys? They have eyes as well, and some of them are very able to wield a bow.”
“None of the boys is ready for watch,” Lieutenant Darin protested. “But the Captain is right, all of us are able. I will see to it that the duty rosters are changed.”
“I would like to see the roster as soon as it is finished, Darin.”
“Of course, Captain.”
Boromir thought about the boy Irion he had seen this midday. The boy had been small, his black eyes innocent, his slender body not yet strong enough to wield a long sword. That boy deserved being allowed to be a boy as long as he chose to be. Gondor was still strong. Gondor would not rely on children to fight this war.
Boromir clenched his left hand into a fist again. Officers on watch would bring some relief to the scouts, but they would not solve the problems at hand. He hated being forced to leave his men in times of crisis, but there was no other way. He had to talk to the Lords of the city, convince them to regroup the army, to focus more on the defense of strategic points. “I will go to Minas Tirith at the end of the month,” he said bitterly, by way of pointing out that their search for easy solutions would lead into nowhere. “I will argue our case before the Steward and the Council in person.”
“Why go at the end of the month? Why not immediately?”
Boromir folded his arms across his chest. His voice was hard. The Lieutenants knew their Captain was not looking forward to entering a council chamber, arguing with the Lords about things they had never seen and therefore could not fully grasp. “I will send a message first, announcing my intentions. But it would be foolish to leave shortly after that letter arrives in Minas Tirith. The Lords will not really believe the urgency of my words if I am able and willing to leave my post at any time without being sent for by the Steward. My delay will help to convince them that Osgiliath is in need of every soldier, regardless of officer or boy. I will give them some time to discuss matters between themselves first. Most of them have not been at a garrison for a long time, if at all. Their discussions about how a war has to be fought tire me. Besides, I feel uneasy at the thought of leaving now. The enemy is moving, and if he moves further, I would like to be here.”
“We should send a message to Captain Faramir as well, informing him of your intention, Captain. In his last letter Captain Faramir complained about the same problems we face. Captain Faramir has not left Ithilien for a long time now…”
Boromir rested both hands flat on the table before him to keep his fingers from twitching. The city was a safe haven for him. He could sleep soundly in the sturdy circle of the white walls, for the city was his home. He loved the place with a fierce determination that sometimes surprised him, almost frightened him.
He knew Faramir loved Minas Tirith and all of Gondor as deeply and truly, but he also knew that Faramir’s sleep was troubled in the embrace of the walls. Faramir’s childhood home was Minas Tirith, there was no doubt about that, but his brother had found a second home: Ithilien, the wonderful garden of Gondor. Every visit to the city, every confrontation with the Steward and the Lords, troubled his brother’s mind, and he wanted to spare him this additional burden, for guarding Ithilien was a burden heavy enough to bear. He knew he was trying to protect Faramir, against all odds, speak for him like he had done when they had been little boys, but there was nothing he could and would do about that. Faramir was his little brother, after all…
“I will send word to Faramir when I return. Ithilien cannot spare its commander right now, nor the escort to get him safely to Cair Andros or Osgiliath. Should my efforts be in vain, I will send for him, but not earlier than that.”
“Besides, we don’t have a messenger at hand who would be willing and able to travel Ithilien alone. The Ithilien messenger Beldil is wounded, and the other lads who have been to the northern hideout before are either injured as well, occupied in the city or cannot be spared elsewhere.”
Lieutenant Darin’s face was grim. “The young boy – messenger - Anakil knows the way, but he is wounded, and I would strongly advise you against placing a matter of that importance on his young and inexperienced shoulders.”
“I will not send him, Darin.” Boromir frowned. “But we have to have messengers available for urgent matters into Ithilien. I will send a letter to the city to order those messengers that know the way into Henneth Annûn back to Osgiliath. Darin, get the order to your boys to ready a horse. The messenger will leave before dusk.”
The Captain scanned his officers’ faces again. “Is there anything else?” The men met his questioning gaze. They trusted him, respected him, that was all he requested of them. There were no secrets between the Captain-General of Gondor and his brothers in arms. Some smiled briefly at their commander’s gaze, but nobody spoke.
Boromir struck the wooden table with his flat hand. “We meet again tomorrow, one hour after sunrise. The council is closed.”
The grey-haired man that had greeted the boy stepped out from behind the shelf. Anakil put his bag on the floor and scratched his nose with both hands to cover a chuckle. But he could not scratch away the smile that refused to leave his face.
The man was tall, almost as tall as Captain Boromir, but his body was alarmingly thin. A worn but clean messenger’s shirt had been pulled out of crumpled breeches and hung down almost to his knees. His leather boot were old and seemingly of two different colors, but on second glance Anakil saw that it was indeed a matching pair of boots, only in different state of muddiness.
It came to Anakil’s mind that he had never before seen a human being that looked like the failed attempt at crossbreeding a mouse, a bat, a snake and a scarecrow. He had to suppress the strong urge to giggle like a little girl.
“You may put your personal treasures on one of the homely resting places, young friend,” the man said. He had a deep, pleasant voice, a voice befitting a more heavily built man than him. Anakil would have expected him to either croak like a growing boy or sing like a bird, according to his stature.
“Thank you, my lord,” the boy said, glad to be able to direct his grinning face to the floor to pick up his bag.
While Anakil carried his bag over to one of the cots, hopefully not one next to the scarecrow, about which, of course, he couldn’t be sure, the grey-haired man rummaged on one of the shelves, quietly muttering under his breath. Anakil did not understand enough to make sense of the words, but he was sure he heard the word “small” several times, used almost as a curse. The boy quietly sat down on one of the chairs at the cluttered table, watching the man without being able to wipe the broad grin off his face.
Finally the man turned around and tossed a bundle of shirts in Anakil’s direction. Anakil caught two of them, the third dropped onto the floor. He quickly stooped to pick it up.
“Those are the signs of your office. Wear them with pride, and in remembrance to those who have worn them in the past. You might think you will be honored just because of those signs, but beware, things might not come to pass as you expect them to. You might discover that you have to earn those signs’ respect first. The people of the written word choose those whom they trust to wear the tree, but it remains with the tree alone to confirm the choice.”
Anakil touched the three shirts with the tree of Gondor embroidered at the neck. He had worn one of those shirts before, but he had not had the right to do so. But these three shirts were meant to be his, his signs of office. “I will honor these signs, my lord.”
The man smiled and stuffed the shirts he had pulled out of the compartment while looking for small ones back onto the shelf. “And, my young friend, keep them clean!”
“Off course, my lord.”
The man covered the distance between the shelves and the table with two big strides and sat down on the tabletop, not caring that there wasn’t really a free space for him to sit. Anakil hoped the papers the man sat upon were not of importance to anyone. “Anakil son of Anabar of the Anduin.”
“Yes, my lord,” Anakil said, even though it had not sounded like a question.
“The young man seeking adventure and honor with a noble steed in the green meadows of Ithilien. The heroic thief that stole one of the signs of office you are to carry now, to do something very wrong and got away unscathed, for, even though he did great wrong indeed, he also did something right.” The man had his eyes closed, his long legs swinging back and forth without touching the floor. “So your journey has finally brought you to my doorstep.” The man opened his eyes again, the startling blue irises cold as ice. “Can you read?”
“Yes, my lord.”
The grey-haired messenger did not carry a symbol of rank, but Anakil was sure he was no ordinary messenger. His pleasant voice had turned into the commanding voice of an officer, a voice the boy had heard often enough. Suddenly Anakil didn’t encounter any more problems with wiping the grin off his face. “Yes, my lord.”
“Well…,” Anakil paused. “Yes…I think…my lord.”
The man folded his long arms across his chest. “Don’t think. I don’t want your thoughts. Thoughts are dust and ashes, less than memories when you leave the circles of this world. I want facts, for facts remain. Write something down.”
“Now.” The man picked up a pen, a vial of ink and a rumpled sheet of paper and placed it before Anakil. “Write down your name, your father’s name, your mother’s name and your brothers’ and sisters’ names, should you have any.”
Anakil dipped the pen into the ink and started writing. His injured arm throbbed in protest, but he was writing down a few words, not an entire letter. The pain was bearable for the short time.
“And I warn you, do not soil your family’s names by just scrawling them down like someone who has no respect for them, for names bring great power to those who know how to use them wisely, more than you are aware of right now.”
“Beldil already taught me that words are weapons, a power that is as dangerous and terrifying as any other weapon people use in times of war.” Anakil put the pen aside and handed the paper over to the man. Then he carefully rubbed his right upper arm.
“Beldil is a good man, wiser than most of his tender age.” The man scanned the words on the paper and nodded. “Nice enough, Anakil son of Anabar. Nice indeed, for someone who tries to hide an injury.”
“You called words dangerous and terrifying, and you are right, they are all of that.” He folded the paper and put it into a small pocket of his breeches. “But nevertheless, there is a beauty in them few have ever been granted the ability to fully understand. A sword can be a beautiful sight in the hands of an able swordsman, an arrow on fire can paint a glowing path into the sky, a stone flying from a catapult can make the earth tremble under its impact, but there is something all those beautiful, terrifying things have in common. Do you know what that is, my famous young apprentice?”
Anakil thought for a minute and shook his head. “No, my lord.”
The man nodded and jumped off the tabletop. “The use of force,” he said, his voice suddenly loud enough to fill the entire tent. Anakil thought he saw the tent walls vibrate. “You don’t need great strength of the body to destroy with the beauty of words. Most times, it is enough if they’re whispered. Do you know which words are the most terrifying, the most powerful and at the same time the most beautiful?”
“’I want…?’” Anakil asked.
The grey-haired man shook his head and put his hands in his pockets. “Good choice for someone so young, but it is not what I had in mind. Maybe you are too young to have ever thought about the meaning of those three words.” He smiled and leaned forward to whisper in Anakil’s ear: “I love you.”
Anakil’s eyes widened in surprise. The man was right. He would do a lot to hear those words whispered into his ear by a beautiful girl at home. He would risk a lot if promised those words as a reward, far more than the girl’s father could force him to risk by threatening him with a sword. “You are right, my lord.”
“Of course I am right.” The man straightened. “I have wielded words and swords for a time much longer than the short period of time you have breathed Arda’s air. I will teach you to wield a sword. And I will teach you some secrets of words. Most of them cannot be taught, though, you have to discover them by yourself.” The messenger straddled a chair and rested his arms on the backrest. “I know you have been sent here by the Captain to be what you once pretended to be.” His blue eyes suddenly reminded Anakil of the patience and understanding he had seen only once before in his life, in his mother’s eyes. The pleasant voice resembled Anarion’s soft tones, whenever his eldest brother had explained to him one of Arda’s wonders in his early childhood. “There is something you have to understand, my famous young apprentice. I want you to listen carefully and to remember my words, should you ever be in doubt or in despair.”
Anakil nodded slowly. “I always remember.”
“I am not a heroic warrior. None of the protectors of the written words are known for their valor in battle, nor for their wisdom. There are no awesome songs sung about us at night around the campfire. You are young, my famous apprentice, and all young men crave glory on the battlefield, an honorable life and, if their lifespan is meant to be cut short, an honorable death. Warriors live to protect Gondor with their lives or with their deaths, however they may serve best. Warriors love and protect their commander, come what may.
“Messengers are different. Our honor lies elsewhere. Our first duty is to protect the written words that have been entrusted to our care. For us, there is no shame in hiding and running away. We cannot protect Gondor with our death, because a dead messenger equals a message that will never be delivered. Most of us are valiant fighters, either with the bow or with the sword, but people never acknowledge those skills in us as they do in warriors. Some people think us cowards because of our choice to protect and carry the written word. Those people do not understand the power and beauty of words. Don’t let their words hurt you, for life hurts more than enough without taking to heart the words of fools.
“We are brothers in arms as warriors are, even though we always ride out alone. We love Gondor and our Captains as fiercely as those who surrender their lives to this love, we are soldiers like everybody else, even though our way of expressing this love is different. Are you ready to be different, Anakil of the Anduin?”
“Yes, my lord,” Anakil said.
“Then listen carefully to what I will teach you in the days to come. Listen carefully and remember as much as you can.”
“I will, my lord. The Captain sent me here, and I will not disappoint him. “
“I am glad to hear that, my famous young apprentice.”
“I am glad to hear that, too. I expect no less of you, Anakil.”
Anakil scrambled to his feet at the sound of the Captain’s deep voice. “My lord Captain!” he said.
Captain Boromir stood in the entrance to the tent, holding the tent flap open with one hand. Anakil had never seen him this close in the full light of day. He reluctantly tore his eyes away from the tall, strong and fair warrior to bow deeply. He did not want to get caught staring like one of the boys. He was not a boy any more.
“My lord Captain,” the grey-haired messenger said as well, as he rose to his feet and folded his hands at his back. “What can the servants of the written word do for you today?”
“Ride to Minas Tirith with this message.” The Captain handed the messenger a sealed envelope, which the messenger accepted with a deep bow. “Deliver it to the Warden of the stables, and bring him my greetings. I expect your return by sunset tomorrow at the latest, and with the approval of the Warden, you will not return alone.”
“My lord.” The messenger bowed again, carefully put the message into the pocket of his shirt and stuffed the loose shirt into his breeches. “With your permission, my lord, I will set out immediately.”
“By all means, do so. A horse is being readied for you while we speak.”
Anakil smiled. He knew what would be going on in the stables right now. The boys would hurry to brush one of the horses, saddle and bridle it, decide whether they should strap on saddle bags with provisions or leave the saddle bare to lessen the horse’s burden for so short a ride. They would draw sticks to decide who would have the honor to lead the horse out to wait for the messenger. He would never have to draw sticks again. One day, he would be the one to receive the horse, nod to the boy and ride off.
The messenger grabbed a dark cloak that lay crumpled on one of the chairs. “My famous young apprentice, I have to leave you for now. We will start our studies when I return. Remember what I told you today. Farewell for now.” He bowed his head to Anakil, then he bowed deeply to the Captain. “My lord.” His dark cloak fluttered behind him as he left the tent with long strides.
“It’s strange. I don’t even know his name,” Anakil muttered to himself.
“Neither do I, young soldier,” Captain Boromir said, a smile lightening his stern face. “He is one of the Steward’s messengers from the White City.”
“How do people address him, if you don’t mind me asking, my lord?” Anakil clasped his hands behind his back as the messenger had done it. His right arm throbbed in protest, and he quickly laid it across his stomach to ease his discomfort.
“He is called ‘the Poet’,” Captain Boromir said. “Some of the men have promised a bottle of good brandy to the lucky one who can discover his real name.”
“Why don’t you order him to tell his name, Captain?”
“I will order him, should the need to know his name arise. The Steward is the only one who knows his real name, and even he calls him by the name of Poet. As long as this name is good enough for the Steward, it is good enough for me.” Captain Boromir shrugged. “Some mysteries are not meant to be solved the simple way.” The Captain’s smile widened. “Should you as his student catch his real name by accident, remember to tell me.” The Captain turned and left the tent.
“The Poet,” Anakil whispered to himself. “The master of the humble chamber of the written word.” He grinned to himself. “A riddle is a riddle and a challenge is a challenge.” His brothers would love him until the end of days should he be able to get them a bottle of good brandy for their birthday less than a month ahead.
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