Of Stewards and Rangers
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Phrygian Flute, The: 2. A Rose Falls
“Hew down the bridge, Sir Consul,
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me.
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
~Lays of Ancient Rome: Horatius~
Thomas Babbington, Lord Macaulay.
THE RAIN HAD come again, no storm this time, but a soft yellow mizzle, gentle and incessant, bright as fire-sparks in the pools of light along the rampart walls. It fell silently on the swords and shields and armour of the defenders, and on the sappers who lay waiting with sharpened axes in their small swift boats under the last bridge that joined the east and west banks of Osgiliath.
The bridge had once been a grand affair, fashioned out of the same white stone as much of the city itself in the glory-days of the South Kingdom. A man could still trace with his fingers, here and there on the crumbling moss-grown masonry, the faded reliefs of seven stars and a white tree, faces of nameless kings and lost battles. But many lives of men had passed since any had seen the great bridge shining with newness in the summer sun, or felt the smooth sharpness of its fresh-hewn stone. Long ago, it had fallen into ruin, and in some ancient battle, forgotten by song, the bridge had broken under the weight of age and the trampling feet of war. Though in after years, the men of Gondor built another bridge in wood to join the shattered arms of stone that still reached out from either bank, it was but the bare bones of a creature once living, once beautiful in the flesh.
Osgiliath herself had never quite been a fortress city, and it was only in the long years of Gondor’s slow decline, that the fortifications of the east bank had been hastily thrown up in the face of the oncoming darkness, with wood and stone gathered from the ruins. Time and again, the Enemy had broken through; time and again the men of Gondor wrested the city from the Enemy. So the tide of war ebbed and flowed over Osgiliath. On this night of nights, her defenders stood armed and in silence along the rampart walls, spread far too thinly for their Captains’ liking. Now and then, they looked from the black, soundless woods to the rain-blurred lights of the west bank, where the wounded and a small handful of men remained to guard the city.
Waiting, waiting. It seemed to Faramir that all his life had been spent watching and waiting in the wings. This night was no different, for he knew well the long, tense silence before a battle, the fraying of tempers, and the fear that lurked under the trembling fingers and bright eyes of men. Taut as a bow-string, they were, and he knew it. He stood, leaning lightly on his bow, as was his habit, staring into the tree-darkness to the south. For a long while now, nothing had moved save for a pale mist, crawling along the forest floor. Once, a small woodland creature had broken from the trees, and a young ranger beside him had drawn and nearly loosed into the dark. They had all laughed then, softly and breathlessly, and the boy, Beleg had laughed red-faced, with them.
Tonight, the southern rampart was his command, and the song of the Great River that once lulled the people of Osgiliath to sleep in ages past rushed still; but it did not lull the living now. On the northern wall, Boromir and his men were keeping also their vigil, to the east, another captain, and down in the rain-wet ruins, Mardil and his reserves waited. They had left only the west unwatched, for the swift Anduin would guard it against all comers.
Faramir had many things on his mind that night, and not the least of them, the fate of two score scouts who had not answered when the curlew call had echoed through Ithilien that afternoon, and the worry line between his brows deepened.
Behind him, a cheerful voice said, “Belly ache, sir?”
He started, and turned. It was only Mablung. Faramir smiled, and made way for him. “Hardly. It was the scouts, rather, that I was thinking of.”
“Well, they might come riding up yet. We could send out a sortie then, and bring them in. About time they pulled their weight in this thing, though of course, they could be -” and Mablung paused, his face grim.
“Beyond aid, or for that matter, any need of it. The Enemy would have made short work of them by now.”
“Aye sir, but there’s always hope,” Mablung said simply.
Faramir smiled. “Always, Mablung.”
Then they fell silent, and turned back to the dark.
With a terrible swiftness, the Enemy fell upon them. They had no warning, save for a rustle in the woods; then a host of shadow-men dashed from the forest-eaves and hurled themselves against the rampart, baying like wolves. It was then that the heads came over the wall, bounding, bloodied, their eyes open still, rolling to rest at the defenders’ feet. No need now to ask after the scouts, for they had returned at last. And as the long scaling poles crashed against the walls, a clear voice, ragged with rage rose in the dark, and the rangers bent their bows and loosed as one man.
Elsewhere, black night burst into flame, and wave upon wave of orcs and Easterlings swept upon the northern breastworks and the gate; and the very stone of the city walls trembled. Arrows sang in the gloom , fell with the rain upon the massed hordes and stirred them to fury. Above the surging strife, the shrill battle-cry of the Easterlings rose ululating, and mingled with the harsher war-song of the defenders, and somewhere a hunting horn brayed.
Brushwood, flung against the walls kindled with a blue-hearted flame that no water could quench, and all over, men and orcs struggled hand to hand, in a reeling, whirling battle-line. There were few, too few of defenders, and now they were hard-pressed on all sides. Then it seemed to Boromir that the heaving hosts of the Enemy parted as the sea parts before a rock, and a troop of orcs came charging up to the gate, with a great tree-trunk for a battering ram.
With a boom like thunder, it struck, and men on the northern ramparts lost their footing. Some fell, yelling down into the forest of spears below. “Brace the gate,” Boromir cried, and with an order to fire like the fiends of Angband, he dashed down the rampart stairs, and waving up Mardil and his reserves, made for the gate. From the parapet, archers drew bow, but the orcs, heedless of loss, brought the ram crashing again and again, and the sturdy wood began at last to shiver. The reserves flung themselves hard against it, but there was little even Boromir could do, for the iron framework of the great gate groaned and bent, and at last, it tore apart in a shower of splinters. And the Enemy came swarming in.
They met with a grinding roar of shields, but in that instant, a screech rent the night sky, and the defenders, looking up saw four shadows winging out of the dark, and it seemed that the torch-light sputtered and dimmed with their coming. The terror-cries of men rose, and many, throwing down their arms, broke and ran for the bridge, and the Enemy poured after them, hewing and howling as they went. And the faceless wraiths, whose eyes glowed like coals in the gloom slew with deadly maces.
The city was burning in earnest now, despite the mizzle, and men were flying from the ramparts in horror. But from somewhere, the came the sound of a great horn booming, and a familiar voice crying for order; and slowly, men ceased their flight and began to turn at bay.
* * *
The pursuing Haradrim came storming down the southern ramparts, but the rangers, with hard-held courage were pulling out in orderly fashion, and in the retreating press, their captain grimly fitted his last flaming arrow to his bow. It sped up and up into the night, fizzling out in the rain, and struck one of the winged beasts in the neck. With a cry, it reeled and tumbled away into the dark.
He would have drawn bow again, but a ranger fell, and a warrior of the Haradrim leaping into the breach, brought his bright blade flashing down. Faramir’s bow, parrying, shivered in pieces, and swiftly, he drew his own sword and swung. The man dropped with a gurgling cry, but two more sprang up in his place. Beside him, another ranger went down, whimpering. It was the boy, Beleg. He hauled the child up by the waist, and weighed down by his burden, stumbled back.
Then, Damrod’s voice yelling in his ear, and a hand dragging desperately at his arm, “Leave him sir! Leave him. There’s nothing more you can do. He’s dead!”
And so he was. In the flickering torchlight, the boy’s eyes were black and still and Faramir saw for the first time, the deep wound in the hollow of his throat. So, he let go, and the face of Beleg slipped away, a pale blur into swirling dark.
The retreat sounded, and little by little the men of Gondor came together, pulling back to the bridge. The Nazgul swooped still, but those who yet wielded bow and arrow held off the ravening shadows for a time. But the defenders gave ground, and on each step they yielded lay a dead man. In the star-lit dark orcish arrows flew thick and fast, and men fell and did not rise again.
Company after company, they made for the bridge, leaving only a small rearguard to keep the seething Enemy at bay. Boromir, in the thickest press, swung again and again, and his sword was reddened to the hilt. Then another man’s shoulder crashed hard against his, a calm, familiar voice shouting above the battle-storm. Faramir, with a great smudge of soot on his cheek. “We cannot hold them. The bridge must go!”
So the moment had come at last. They were surrounded now by a vast sea of screaming orcs, a knot of gallant men grimly holding the bridgehead to the west bank, growing steadily smaller. Not more than twenty men now. Soon, he knew, there would be none left.
“Hew down the bridge!” And Boromir’s mighty voice rang above the crash and din about them; behind, the cry was taken up and echoed through the night in a grim chorus, and the sappers began their work.
A man beside him dropped, felled by a battle-axe between the eyes, and two orcs came yelping in. Red rage rose within him, and with a terrible cry Boromir swung his sword and cut both down with one blow. And now, he gave himself over to fury, and drove forward with all his strength, thrusting the great boss of his shield into the faces of his foes, and behind him, men rallied, and for a while, the rough shield wall crept forward.
In their small boats, the sappers hewed away like men possessed. Above the tumult, they heard voices, and the shrill fear rising in them. “The bridge! Cut down the bridge!” As the last of the eastern garrison fled across, and the valiant little rearguard stood their ground, but still the bridge held.
A flight of black arrows screamed overhead, and the small company on the east bank fell back abruptly, and many holes were torn in their ranks. A black shadow shrieked, stooping down from the air, and for an instant, men leaping forward, stumbled in fear over the hampering dead at their feet, and slipped on the rain-wet ground. It seemed for a moment, that the shield-burg had broken at last.
“Hold, my brothers, hold them!” roared Boromir. There were hardly more than a score left now, and many, so many were weary and weakened with many hurts. And for a little while, they held out against the crushing might of the Enemy. But, slowly, they gave way, and were driven onto the bridge. Weakened spars creaked beneath their weight, and with each step, Boromir felt the timbers shiver and moan like a wounded thing. Not long now, before it would go altogether.
Far behind, a triumphant yell, and turning back, he saw with a wave of relief, in the flaring torchlight on the west bank, that the last of the garrison had won through. “Pull back!” he cried, “Pull back! To the west bank, my heroes; the battle is done!” So, back and back they went, the rushing water black beneath their feet, dragging the wounded after them, and slipping the dead into the dark waiting arms of the Anduin.
Less than spear’s throw now to safety. A storm of arrows from the waiting defenders soared and fell like black rain into the Enemy mass. Still, the orcs hurtled after, with their short wicked swords, giving tongue, swarming over their dead and wounded; and Boromir, thrust back by the force of their coming saw Faramir standing his ground still, a cold light in his pale eyes. Orcs fell before his blade, yet one, mightier than the rest hurling itself upon him, splintered his shield with a single sweep of its great spiked club. Then he saw his brother go down.
“Faramir!” he cried, and leapt forward. Then, Boromir heard above the battle-clamour, a sharp cry of dismay rising from watchers on the west bank. The ground gave suddenly under his feet and the pale, clouded stars whirled overhead. All about him was the rumble of thunder, a deafening crack, then a sudden sensation of falling, falling into nothingness. The shock of icy water struck him like lightning, and before he could cry out, a drowning darkness closed over his head, and he sank, down and down into the deep.
With a groan, wood and rotten stone caved at last; and men and orcs tumbled together, scrambling on the crumbling beams, and the night waters came roaring and crashing over all.
And in a ruined library on the eastern bank, a rose bush burned, and three pale blossoms fell, one by one into the rising flames.
* * *
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