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Messages: 9. Osgiliath
Anakil’s left hand still grasped the torch as he sprinted over the great bridge to the western shore of the Anduin. Shortly before his feet touched solid ground again, he stopped to catch his breath and peer over the high parapet down onto the black water, flowing southbound towards the sea.
The broad, stony arch of the bridge, wide enough to contain two rows of houses, was carried by six broad piers of varying strength and height. The bridge had been partly broken by forces from the east more than 500 years ago and had never been rebuilt. But all six piers and the greater part of the stony arch and the ruins, mostly on the western side, had remained entirely unscathed. The soldiers of Gondor had repaired the bridge with sturdy wooden planks, closing the gaps that had loomed between the first, second and third pier on the eastern side. They had secured the minor damages on the western part of the arch as well. The bridge was the only connection between Ithilien and the plains of Gondor, except for some fords and the ferry at Cair Andros, and therefore it was fiercely guarded. Some soldiers dreamed of restoring the great bridge and the houses on it to their former glory, but it was impossible to realize such an expensive operation in times of war.
The Anduin was wide and therefore slow and shallow at Osgiliath, but in the middle, between the third and forth pier, it was deep enough for all ships to sail without the peril of grounding on the riverbed. The bridge arched high above the Anduin, but not high enough for the masts of tall ships to pass beneath. For those ships unable to pass, the people of Osgiliath had dug shipping canals into the bed of the Anduin, leading to quays on both shores. The quays were in ruins as well, and time had filled the shipping canals with sand and sediments stirred by the moving water. Only a single canal leading to the western quays had been dug out by Captain Boromir’s soldiers, and the quay had been partly rebuilt, to allow ships from the south to land and provide the garrison with supplies. But the channel was narrow, and only a few knew its exact location, for it wasn’t recorded on any map.
One ship was docked on the quay, a small trader from the south, most probably filled with cloth and wine. There were a few lights on the ship, a lantern swaying softly in the wind, otherwise the quay was dark.
It was quiet between the ruins, only the guards and the officers were moving about. None of the ruins had been completely rebuilt, but some of them had been equipped with wooden roofs to make them more comfortable. Those ruins on the bridge served as homes for the ranking officers, quarters for guests and storerooms for supplies. The big kitchens and dining halls were situated there as well.
The soldiers were camped on both shores. The greater part of the fighting company had put up their tents on the eastern shore, the western shore was used mostly for training purposes. There were some healers camped there as well, to patch up those who sustained injuries during training.
Anakil stood on tiptoe so he could spit over the parapet into the dark water. He still could not believe his luck. He was a liar, a thief, a deserter, a stupid idiot, and here he was, assigned to enter messenger’s training as soon as his wounds were healed. They hadn’t hurt his body, they hadn’t send him away to die, they had just let him suffer the agony his own thoughts had provided him with. Captains of Gondor were too clever to rely on force, they worked in more subtle ways than Anakil had ever thought possible.
He spat into the water again, trying to rid his mouth of the foul aftertaste of fear. In the darkness of the night, he could still imagine the Black Gate, laughing at him, but it was not waiting for him any more. There were others who had to go there, and even though Anakil didn’t wish to take their place, he pitied them for the gruesome fate most of them would meet. A fate more terrible than an afternoon in the heat, full of fear.
He rubbed the left side of his face against his left upper arm to wipe away dirt and sweat. Captain Boromir had spared him the fate he had vividly imagined all day long, but he still had to survive the encounter with Lieutenant Darin. Unconsciously his feet had taken him to the western shore of the Anduin, for Lieutenant Darin and the other boys most probably were in their quarters on the eastern shore. The boy was still confused, a little afraid and weary beyond fatigue, he didn’t feel ready for this confrontation just now. The healers on the western shore were less busy than their eastern shore colleagues, he could let them take a look at his injuries. He spat into the water for the last time and continued on his way to those healers.
The small, dark haired, terrified boy bowed, turned around and sprinted away, clutching the flickering torch in his left hand. The boy seemed to know his way around the ruins on the bridge, he didn’t slow down or stumble while avoiding fallen stones on the ground. Captain Boromir reminded himself that the boy was a soldier of Osgiliath, it was expected of him to know his way around the garrison. Children were fighting this war!
The retreating figure vanished behind a fallen building of old, a building that had been a great house many years ago. All those ruins had been great buildings in the time of Osgiliath’s greatness, standing proud in the shadow of the Great Hall and the Tower of the Stone.
It was a dark night, and he heard his Lieutenants uttering orders to double the watches. The activity of Orcs and Southrons had increased in the last month. Everybody knew that Osgiliath, even though the strongest and best defended garrison in Gondor, was no safe haven any more. Two out of five patrols on the eastern shore of the Anduin did not return. Most that did return reported bands of Orcs and Southrons spying in the woods of Ithilien, moving in a half circle around the capital of old. Osgiliath relied partly on the reports of the Ithilien Rangers, who were the best scouts, appearing and disappearing as it served their purpose.
The arrival of Lieutenant Mablung’s exhausted and injured company had shattered whatever hope the Ithilien scouts had held up. If a rather large scouting company of Ithilien had to flee from the advancing enemy, the enemy’s strength must have increased noticeably.
The costs of this war were high and mounted higher with every passing day. Boromir had gotten used to the sight and smell of the dead long ago, but it got harder and harder to ignore that no benefit for Osgiliath or Gondor resulted from those men’s ultimate sacrifices. They died, simply died, at the hand of an overwhelming enemy.
Boromir was an idealist by nature, but the many letters his aides wrote to inform families in Gondor of the death of a loved one sometimes left him doubting everything he and his men had accomplished.
Now there was this boy. This boy that had run away from Osgiliath to escape an unpleasant and disliked duty. This boy that had crossed the woods of Ithilien unscathed, on the back of a working horse, that had fought Orcs and saved a comrade’s life, and that had returned likewise unchallenged, wounded, with a wounded messenger in his care and three letters from Henneth Annûn in his dirty pockets. That small boy had accomplished more than many scouts and soldiers that had dared to enter the woods of Ithilien: That boy had stayed alive.
That boy could mean that nothing was lost, that everything was possible. The men desperately needed some hope, a story with a happy ending, even if it was only a lucky little boy on a working horse. A lucky little boy on a working horse that had stayed alive. Even the smallest, most insignificant soldier could make a difference.
Boromir sighed and turned away from the darkness. The boy had taken the only torch in this area of the yard, he had to go inside to read his brother’s two unopened letters.
The yard had fallen quiet, for his Lieutenants had gone to the check the watches on both shores. Only the guards at the entrance to the ruin of the Great Hall had remained at their posts. The men bowed their heads as Boromir walked through the great gate and passed into his headquarters. Flickering torches on the walls lit the interior.
The base of the Great Hall was a perfect circle. Once there had been a well-lit corridor around the outer rim of the circle, connecting heavy wooden doors that had led to rooms on the outside walls. Now there were only holes in the walls where the doors had once been, the wood had rotted away a long time ago. Most of those rooms, as well as the greater part of the corridor, still had a roof, and therefore these places were used to store maps and other important items that had to be kept away from wind and moisture.
The most significant part of the building was the Great Hall. It formed the centre of the circle, and it could be entered through only four doors, facing north, south, east and west. Those doors had been forged of iron, and they were still there. The eastern door was never opened, even though it was the door closest to the only entrance to the building. Boromir always entered the Great Hall from the west, and by silent understanding, everybody else did so as well.
Boromir took one of the torches and made his way through the wide, partly destroyed corridor to the western door. The door was closed, obscuring the view into one of Gondor’s legacies of the past. He touched one of the heavy iron wings with the tip of his boot, and the door opened without a sound.
The Great Hall had been one of the greatest pieces of architecture of all of Gondor, and even in ruins it emanated the glory and proud dignity of its past. The dome had collapsed, and not a single fallen stone had been moved since that day. In some areas the debris was piled higher than man height, while in other parts of the room, there wasn’t a single fragment of stone on the floor. Wind and water had washed away whatever pictures might have been on the walls and on the floor, and on clear nights, the moon and the stars lit the room, bathing it in an eerie glow. The thrones of Isildur and Anárion had once been in the centre of the circle, being the centre of the building as well as the centre of the entire bridge. They were buried under a large pile of debris now, higher than two men, and most probably they had been completely destroyed by the heavy stone fragments.
Boromir had set up two large tents amidst the rubble. One served as his personal quarters, and nobody had ever seen the inside except his brother, on the very few occasions he had visited Osgiliath. The second tent was the council chamber of Osgiliath, where Boromir met with his Lieutenants every morning and sometimes in the afternoon as well to discuss the affairs of the company.
Boromir considered himself a man of action. He preferred to remain among his men rather than command from the safety of the White City. His Lieutenants were soldiers like him, they didn’t need many words and didn’t tend to discuss facts that couldn’t be changed. Therefore their council was honest and lacked the tactics and politics of the Lord’s of the city, wrapped into careful words. The Captain of the White Tower had never been a man of unnecessary words. He had opened and closed many councils in Osgiliath since he had last spoken to his father the Steward in person. He had been away from the White City far too long. He knew the Steward would send for him soon to discuss the affairs of Gondor’s army with the Lords of the realm.
He entered his personal tent, lit a bright lamp and extinguished the torch. His tent was spacious, almost as big as the tent that served as council chamber. The only furniture was a small wooden table with two chairs. A pitcher of water and a wooden cup had been placed on the table next to some maps, letters, papers and a vial of ink. At the rear of his tent were his cot and a more comfortable chair, covered with his spare clothing and armour. Otherwise the tent was empty.
He kept no other personal belongings in his quarters in Osgiliath. He had stopped counting the years he had spent in this tent, but he was careful that it remained just that, a tent he used in times of war. Minas Tirith was his home, and he would return there to be Lord of the city and Steward of the realm one day, so he kept his personal items in his rooms in the White City.
He smiled a little as he cleared a spot on the table to set down the lamp, before he lowered himself onto a chair to read his brother’s messages. Faramir would, given a personal space as large as this tent, clutter it up with books and maps and other things in no time. It had been more than three years since he had seen his brother, but he seriously doubted Faramir would ever change in that matter.
He put the already opened message about the boy onto the table, drew his dagger and scrutinized the seals of the two closed messages before deciding which one had to be opened first. One definitely was a personal letter. The seal was upside down, indicating the content was neither official nor of importance to anyone other than the recipient. The personal words of his brother had to wait until he had taken care of business.
He sliced open the official letter and removed the piece of paper. It was a short letter, penned down in Faramir’s neat handwriting, covering less than half of the small sheet. It was a letter his brother had written more than once, a letter he himself did not have to write, for in a garrison of Osgiliath’s size, aides wrote down the daily business.
Reporting the death of a soldier was daily business. Boromir signed all those letters, he read all the names of the dead, but sometimes he had no face connected with the name. Faramir did not have an aid to do the difficult duty of writing a letter to the family. Ithilien was a small company, Faramir was acquainted with every single one of his men, and Boromir knew his brother grieved for every dead Ranger. Boromir grieved as well, but only for the dead brother in arms he had not known well or not at all. He would give a lot to spare his brother this pain, but he knew too well that this didn’t lie within his powers. He had always protected his younger brother when they had been boys in the city, but he could not protect him from the cruelty of war and the responsibility of command.
The brothers had promised each other to write often when Faramir had left the White City to take over the command in Ithilien many years ago, and in the beginning, they had kept that promise, sending letters with every runner and messenger that passed between Osgiliath and Henneth Annûn.
With passing years their letters had never stopped entirely, but they had become infrequent, as well as their rare meetings. Boromir had to divide his time between Minas Tirith and Osgiliath, being aid and student of his father the Steward, Captain General of the army and commanding Captain of the Osgiliath at the same time, while Faramir had to prepare the Rangers of Ithilien to withstand the increasing force of the enemy in the east.
Faramir’s personal letter was long, several pages of small writing, funny and sad stories of the Ithilien Rangers that had taken place in the last months. Faramir had always been good at writing down stories, and Boromir found himself laughing out loud for seemingly the first time in days. There was a story about the horse boy from Osgiliath as well, about how his big and heavy horse had tried to enter the tunnel that led into Henneth Annûn, and how Faramir and some of his men had tried to prevent it from entering without injuring the animal and without getting injured themselves; a story that of course had not been contained in the official letter about the boy he had read in the yard.
Boromir had never been to Henneth Annûn. His duties did not leave the time to travel to Ithilien and visit his brother’s hideout. When the war was over, when Ithilien was at peace, he would go there and take a look at the Window on the West. But until this war was over, he had to fight for Gondor, harder and longer than anyone in the line of the Stewards had fought before him.
The brothers had always been honest with each other, they had always written down their fears and sorrows. Therefore, Boromir knew that Ithilien was falling, slowly but inevitably. The Ithilien Rangers were strong and clever, but they could not defeat the forces from the east, they could only delay their progress. The cut in supplies for Ithilien made it even more difficult for the company to get along, and Faramir and his men were weary. Faramir had not been to the safety of the White City for quite a long time now, and even if he had, Boromir knew Minas Tirith’s walls did not bring much peace and hours of quiet and rest to his younger brother.
Boromir would lead his men to the Black Gate and back to bring Gondor much needed peace, and he knew that Faramir and all the other Captains of the realm would follow him, but he also knew that this was one of the few things he could not do. He had fought many battles and had been victorious against impossible odds. His father trusted him, his brother loved him, his men loved him, the people of Gondor loved him, but nevertheless he was just a man, and there was one single battle he could not win yet.
He remembered the admiration that had been in the small, dirty boy’s fearful gaze less than an hour ago. This boy trusted him to set things right, and he would do so, regardless of the personal costs. He would not disappoint the trust this single boy had in his strength, nor would he disappoint all of Gondor. Gondor might be weakening under the strain the enemy put upon it, but Gondor would not fall. It would not fall as long as he was Captain General of the army, and it would not fall when he’d become Steward one day. He owed this to the dirty boy, to his people, his men, his brother, his father and most of all to himself.
He put the two official letters aside and stuffed his brother’s private words into the pocket of his cloak. He would read them again before going to bed, but he wasn’t tired yet. It was two hours before midnight, the largest part of the garrison should already be asleep by now.
Boromir rubbed his eyes and sighed.
As Captain General and heir to the stewardship, the men respected him and loved him with fierce determination, but there was not a single one of them he could call a close personal friend. Such was the burden that was attached to command and responsibility, and he was used to bearing the loneliness of the nights and the lack of laughter and company. He had never had close friends, except his younger brother when they had been boys in the city. All of his few childhood companion were long dead or stationed at garrisons far away. He dined alone, for during the meals the men exchanged their stories, and he did not want to silence them with his presence.
He decided to take a bath in the shallow river below the bridge before retiring for the night. The bathing place was always crowded during daytime, but he guessed he would be alone now with the guards and the darkness. He did not like to reveal his battle scarred body to the men, some of whom thought him invulnerable. He didn’t want to shatter their illusions. He shrugged off his heavy cloak and left his tent.
The healers’ tent was well lit, and one of their aides greeted Anakil with a smile, as he slowly made his way to the entrance.
“Good evening,” the aid said. “You are looking for help, I suppose?”
Anakil was relieved that he didn’t recognize the face and voice of this particular aid. It was none of the boys from the eastern shore. “Good evening to you,” he replied. “I was sent here to have the healers take a look at my injured arm.” He gestured to his sling with his head. “I returned from Ithilien this evening.”
“You must be the trouble making horse boy everybody is talking about. The one that has been to North Ithilien and back. Anakil of the Anduin, isn’t it?” The aid took Anakil’s elbow to lead him inside the tent.
Anakil ignored the help and stopped dead in his tracks. “Everybody is talking about me?” he whispered, mortified. “How can everybody know I have returned? I entered the garrison less than an hour ago. This cannot be!”
The aid chuckled quietly. “This is Osgiliath,” he said. “News travels fast. But don’t worry, you are safe with most of the lads. I am not so sure about your Lieutenant, though. People say he is running around the garrison, cursing you and all your ancestors, looking for you.”
Anakil could imagine Lieutenant Darin’s words and face. “Please, should he ask for me, don’t tell him you saw me!” he whispered. “I don’t want to meet him today. Maybe his fury will abide during a good night’s sleep.”
“I promise I won’t tell him,” the aid said, freed the torch from Anakil’s tight grasp and carefully urged the boy to step inside the tent.
Anakil did not resist any more and gratefully accepted a cup of water and a seat on a soft chair. His arm itched and burned, his face was sweaty and dirty, and he had to force his eyes to remain open.
“Anakil of the Anduin, I suppose?” The voice was deep and friendly.
Anakil turned his head and greeted the healer with a tired nod of his head. “I am Anakil, my lord.” The aid had quietly disappeared.
The healer lit some small lamps hanging from the roof of the tent. “I know you are tired and weary. I will just take a quick look at your arm, then you can go to sleep. I know you have been riding all day, and Ithilien’s sun is merciless.”
“Does everybody here know everything about me?” Anakil asked, desperation in his voice.
The healer smiled and put a soothing hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Lieutenant Mablung was here more than half an hour ago, telling me you would most probably come to visit me soon. The Lieutenant told me you helped an injured comrade to reach Osgiliath. I honestly don’t care if the other stories about you are true. It is my duty to heal, not to judge. Take off your shirt and show me your arm. Do you need help?”
“I can undress on my own.” Anakil got rid of the sling and carefully pulled his dirty shirt over his head. He wondered how Lieutenant Mablung could possibly have known he would turn up at the healer’s place on the western shore. The Ithilien Rangers seemed to understand the twisted way of people’s thoughts and deeds quite well.
The healer cut the bandage on his arm away with a small but sharp knife. The stitched wound on the boy’s arm was blue and red in colour, but it didn’t hurt very much when the healer carefully probed the injured flesh with his fingers.
“Arrow?” he asked. “No poison?”
Anakil nodded. “Just an arrow. From a Southron. It doesn’t hurt much any more. It just itches like hell.”
The healer nodded slowly. “Itching is good, it is an indication that the body is working to repair the damage. I advise you to keep the wound clean but not bandaged for a few days. Don’t move your arm more than necessary, but you don’t have to wear the sling if you don’t want to. If anything changes for the worse, see a healer immediately. You don’t want to risk an infection, do you?”
“Of course not, my lord,” Anakil said.
“Dou you have any other injuries?”
“Just a few scratches, my lord. And a bump at the back of my head. I fell off a tree.” Anakil didn’t want to explain in detail how that accident had happened, and the healer didn’t ask.
The healer smiled again and ruffled Anakil’s hair to carefully touch the back of his head. “I am not your mother, but I advise you to take a good nights sleep and a bath. You look exhausted and you don’t smell very good, you know, young friend. And don’t climb any trees in the next few days.”
Anakil nodded slowly. “I understand, my lord. Thank you.”
“No reason for thanks. Get going, the night will be over in the morning, Anakil. Sleep well.” The healer ruffled the boy’s hair again and disappeared behind a curtain that divided the tent into many compartments.
Anakil pulled his shirt over his head, left the tent and strolled through the ruins, training yards and stables on the western shore. He was weary beyond exhaustion, but his thoughts were running wild, and he knew sleep would not come to him yet.
The darkness of the sleeping garrison was slowly soothing his troubled mind. He called the passwords to the guards he met in the dark, and they let him pass without questions. He was just one of the boys, one young face among many, in the darkness they did not see his dirty face, did not think about the strange way he pressed his right arm close to his body, and they were not able to smell the sweat.
He passed under the bridge and realized he had come close to the bathing place. A single guard sat next to a flickering torch, a book on his lap. The bathing place was always guarded, for patrols that returned at night often felt the urge to clean themselves before going to bed.
The water of the Anduin was shallow and not dangerous between the first and the second pier of the bridge. Even Anakil could reach the second pier without being forced to swim. A single man was bathing in the dark river. His neatly folded clothes lay close to the flickering torch. The guard had readied a towel for use.
“Good evening,” Anakil greeted.
The guard raised his head. “Good evening, young friend,” the guard replied. “Soap?”
Anakil had not intended to take a bath that night, but he thought about it for a moment and considered it not a bad idea at all. “Yes, please,” he said.
The guard reached into a small box and handed him a piece of soap. Anakil carefully undressed and waded into the cold, clean river until the water reached his hips. He carefully soaped his body and hair and dove into the water headfirst to get rid of the foam and grime.
He had been raised on the shores of the Anduin, the water was like a second home to him. He clutched the soap with his right hand, pressed the injured arm against his chest and moved his left arm and both legs to swim with forceful strokes. The clear water felt wonderful on his skin, cleaning the scratches on his body and cooling the bump on the back of his head. He kept his eyes closed, for it was way too dark to see anything anyway.
Lack of air made him surface again, and he shook his head like a dog to shake the water out of his hair.
“Be careful where you’re going in the dark, soldier,” a slightly familiar voice told him.
Anakil opened his eyes and discovered a broad chest, less than arm’s length away. He slowly raised his head to look into Captain Boromir’s stern face. “My lord,” he croaked. “I am sorry, my lord. I didn’t mean to…”
“Anakil of the Anduin,” the Captain chuckled softly. “Or should I call you troublemaker? Even with one arm, you swim like a fish.”
Anakil lowered his gaze and was grateful that the water was deep enough that even a man of Captain Boromir’s height was covered to the waist. “I didn’t mean to… I didn’t want to…my lord.” Troublemaker again! He didn’t find the appropriate answer just now. He even wasn’t able to utter a coherent sentence.
His gaze strayed to the Captain’s bare chest and arms, well muscled and powerful. But the skin was marred with the scars of many battles. The Captain’s long black hair, curling with moisture, could not hide the old wounds. Anakil had never thought about the fact that the Captain, any Captain, could be seriously wounded in a fight. How could he? He was the Captain, heir to the Steward, the hero and shining example of every boy on both shores of the Anduin!
Suddenly he realized that the Captain, this Captain of whom he had been scared to death only two hours ago, was only a man like everybody else. He could laugh, he could cry, he could worry, he could doubt, he could despair, he could be afraid. He could feel pain, he could bleed, he could die. He could enjoy a lonely bath in the middle of the night.
The boy pondered if Captain Faramir had been wounded as often as his brother as well.
The Captain seemed to be amused by the boy’s obvious embarrassment. “Close your mouth when you dive again, young Anakil,” he advised. “Good night. Sleep well, young soldier.”
“Good night, my lord.” Anakil decided it would be best to close his mouth indeed and swim away as fast as possible. Why, of all soldiers of Osgiliath, did it have to be the Captain that bathed this night?
He took a deep breath and dived away. This time he kept his eyes open, even though there was nothing to see except the faint flicker of light on the shore.
The river got so shallow that his knees touched the ground, and he moved his head out of the water, gasping for air. Slowly he turned his head to see the Captain’s head and shoulders above the waterline, a safe distance away now.
“There you are, cursed troublemaker! Somehow I knew I would find you here!”
Anakil clenched both hands into fists, and the soap slid out of his right hand. He recognized the voice. He didn’t have to turn his head to confirm who had come to see him. Slowly he rose out of the water and slicked his hair out of his face with one hand. His body was dripping wet, large drops searched their way over his cheeks and nose like silent tears.
“Look at me!”
Anakil squared his shoulders and raised his head to meet Lieutenant Darin’s furious gaze.
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