11. The Boys
The sun filtered through the open entrance of the big tent. By the sounds of active life and the smell of food, Beldil guessed it to be around midday. His stomach rumbled in response to the smell, and his mouth was dry. He slowly opened his eyes to discover that there were twelve cots in the tent, all of them empty except his. His dirty clothes and boots had been removed, and a set of clean clothes had been laid upon a wooden chair next to his cot. He moved a hand to touch his body under the light blanket. He still wore the clothes Damrod had given him after the bath, a simple shirt and breeches. His feet were bare, and he scratched the sole of his left foot with his right toe.
He felt surprisingly well. The injuries on his arms and legs itched, but there was no troubling pain there any more. His skin and hair felt clean for the first time in over a week. He decided that he owed Damrod a bottle of brandy, should he get his hands on one before he met the Ranger again.
“Hello?” he croaked, to test his voice and maybe get someone’s attention. “Anybody here? I’m awake.”
His voice was no loader than a breathed whisper, but a dark haired head immediately peered into the tent from the outside. “Are you awake?” a young breaking voice asked, and for a second Beldil thought it to be Anakil.
“Troublemaker?” he whispered.
The boy stepped into the tent, and Beldil saw he had been wrong. The boy was about Anakil’s age, but he was a lot taller and stronger, and he wore the simple clothes of the healers. Beldil realized it had to be one of the aides.
“How are you feeling this morning?” the boy asked.
“Could I get some water, please?” Beldil croaked. His mouth was dry, and his tongue felt as if he had dipped it into fine sand.
“Of course.” The boy disappeared and returned a minute later with a small water skin. “Are you able to sit up?” he asked, while he knelt down besides the cot. “Don’t be ashamed if you are too weak. Save your strength to heal your body.”
Beldil raised his head, but when he started to lift his upper body from the soft mattress, his muscles started to tremble in protest. He closed his eyes to avoid the nauseating dizziness, and his face twisted into a mask of exhaustion. The boy’s left arm reached across his shoulders to steady him, and Beldil gratefully accepted the assistance.
“Take it easy, Beldil,” the boy said. “I will be in deep trouble, should anything happen to you. You don’t want to get me into trouble, will you?” The boy brought the water skin to the messenger’s lips and allowed him to drink small sips. “You have been asleep for almost twelve hours. Give your body some time to wake up. If you take it easy, you will be on your feet in no time, and I won’t be in trouble. Do we have a deal?”
Beldil nodded slowly. “What kind of trouble?” he asked. His voice was stronger, now that his tongue was no longer a dry obstacle in his mouth.
“I had a little talk with your Ranger friends. You know, Lieutenant Mablung and the other fellow that bathed you during the night. They left in the morning with all those Rangers, and they told me to take good care of you, otherwise I’d be in big trouble.” The boy smiled. “They looked to me like men who live up to their words.”
“They are.” Beldil smiled in return and continued to drink slowly.
“The healers will take a look at you later on. They are all on the bridge for lunch, for you are the only wounded we have in our care this midday, and you were asleep and in no danger.”
“I feel quite well. Well enough to be hungry. Would it be possible to get some lunch as well?” Beldil’s stomach rumbled again.
The boy smiled and carefully settled the messenger’s upper body back onto the mattress. “The healers have to decide what kind of food you’ll be allowed to eat today. You’ll have to wait for their return.”
“I will survive.” The messenger wiggled his toes again, for he was sure he could move them without causing himself any discomfort. “How is Anakil?” he asked.
The boy’s friendly face fell. “I haven’t seen him since his return. I know he brought you here. I know that you most probably are in his debt.” His dark eyed narrowed, and his breaking voice trembled with anger. “But nevertheless I hope that scum is rotting at the bottom of Anduin.”
Beldil contemplated about the boy’s sudden outburst for a moment. The last thing he remembered about Anakil was the boy’s arm around his waist on the back of the ugly horse that had brought them back to Osgiliath. Mablung had taken the boy to see Captain Boromir shortly after their arrival in the ruined city. There had been no opportunity to speak to Captain Faramir in Henneth Annûn, and Beldil did not see a way to speak to Captain Boromir now. He had hoped to be able to help the boy, but he had failed again.
“What did he do to you, young friend?” he asked tentatively.
“The Captain of the Dwarves? He left!” The boy straddled a chair and put his arms on the backrest. His fingers were clenched into tight fists.
Beldil was glad the chair was between himself and the angry youth. He was not in the condition to defend himself except with words, should he accidentally provoke the young aide further. “Did he harm you with his actions?”
“Yes, he did!” The boy cocked his head. “He was one of us. He left. I don’t care if he lives or dies, but he left his work with us. We had to split his duties between us. It was supposed to begin training to become a healer in the middle of this month. My training got postponed because I had to take over Anakil’s duties. I’ve waited long for the opportunity to train. He ruined it for me!” The boy jumped to his feet, too agitated to sit any more. “Lieutenant Darin was furious! The Lieutenant is not the easiest commander to cope with, but those last days, he was definitely worse than I have ever seen him. Life was hell. First he thought that some of us had to have known about Anakil’s leaving, then he was afraid we would take him as a shining example and disappear as well. You know, Beldil, messenger of Gondor, it is not easy to be a boy in the garrison of Osgiliath.”
“I have been a boy myself once,” Beldil said calmly. “I know what you are talking about.”
“You have been a boy!” The boy sat down again. “But you have not been Lieutenant Darin’s boy! You have not been Lieutenant Darin’s boy the last week, while this scum of the garrison was having fun riding in Ithilien. You don’t have to call this coward comrade.”
“Call him whatever you want to, but don’t call him a coward!” Beldil said. He wanted to growl, but his voice was not strong enough.
“I call him a coward because that is the truth! Only a coward disappears without a word!” The boy moved around the chair to stand close to Beldil’s cot. “Why do you speak for him, messenger? Don’t tell me you consider the Captain of the Dwarves a friend? He does not deserve any man’s friendship!”
“Calm down!” Beldil said. “I don’t want to argue with you.”
“You don’t?” The boy’s face was turning red with anger.
“Whoever left you alone with a wounded man obviously didn’t tell you that you have to behave yourself around those who need your help,” a calm voice said from the entrance of the tent. “Maybe that’s the reason they postponed your healer’s training. Did you ever think about that, Irion?”
“The Captain of the Dwarves in the flesh.” The boy turned on his heels. “Welcome back, Anakil.”
“Don’t…,” Beldil started. He didn’t like the fire he had seen in Irion’s eyes before the aide had turned around to face Anakil and cursed his inability to intervene further.
“You don’t have to speak for me, Beldil. I can defend myself alone for once.”
Beldil was surprised by the firmness of Anakil’s hoarse voice and craned his neck to take a look past Irion’s body at the boy at the entrance of the tent.
Anakil was dressed in simple black breeches and a clean white shirt. He appeared well rested and in good spirits, and despite the unpleasant situation his narrow shoulders were squared and his head was raised high. He didn’t carry his injured arm in a sling any more, but the injury appeared to trouble him a least a little bit, for he pressed his right arm against his abdomen as he stepped into the tent. Without the dark cloak, the messenger’s shirt, the bow on his back and the short sword at his belt the boy appeared even smaller than Beldil remembered him to be. Irion towered at least a head over him and was broader and stronger in build. Anakil’s left ear was a little bruised and discoloured, otherwise he seemed to have survived the Captain’s and Lieutenant’s punishment intact.
Beldil was almost startled when he looked into the boy’s eyes. While with the Rangers, Anakil’s dark eyes had always been in motion, scanning the surroundings, observing the people around him, taking in everything at once, like a nervous horse whose ears twitched to hear its master’s voice and the noises of nature at the same time. Now the dark eyes were perfectly motionless, fixed on Irion’s face with an intense stare. Small and unarmed as he was, the boy appeared older, more experienced, more at ease with himself than Beldil had ever seen him before.
The messenger needed a moment to realize that this environment, foreign to him as he did not belong to this company, was familiar ground for Anakil. The boy did not have to scan the surroundings and closely observe the people he dealt with, for this was his home. He knew the place and the people that lived here and was able to concentrate on more important things. Anakil was not insecure about what to do, for he did not face the grown up strangers of Henneth Annûn or powerful officers of the realm, but a boy he obviously knew well.
“Good morning, Beldil,” Anakil said, his eyes never leaving Irion’s face. “How do you feel this midday?”
“Well enough,” Beldil replied.
Irion crossed his arms across his chest. “And you look too well for someone who, if I pretend to believe some of the rumours, killed an Orc and a Southron and crossed North Ithilien on the back of an old working horse.” Beldil still didn’t like the tone of Irion’s voice.
“I know there are a lot of rumours circulating in the company.” Anakil stepped forward until he stood at the foot of Beldil’s cot. “As it is with rumours, most of them are not true, of course. Therefore you don’t know what I did and didn’t do, but nevertheless you called me a coward. You called me unworthy of someone’s friendship. Prove your words, Irion.” Beldil did not like the tone of Anakil’s voice either. This wasn’t the frightened, exhausted boy he had got to know in the wilderness of Ithilien, this was a young soldier of Osgiliath defending his honour.
“You ran away,” Irion said, his words cold and emotionless. “You left your post.”
“I cannot deny that.” Beldil heard a slight tremble in Anakil’s voice. The boy was not as sure of himself as he liked to appear. Leaving a post was a severe offence against every known rule in the army. Whatever good had eventually come out of this deed in the end, the boy could neither deny nor excuse this wrong.
“Only cowards leave their posts. You just admitted that the rumours are not true. I bet that counts for those rumours that lift you up to be a hero.”
“Maybe most rumours are not true. Maybe some are. You are not the right person to judge me.” Anakil’s voice was steady again. He tucked his left hand into the pocket of his breeches.
“And before you mention it, I already met Lieutenant Darin’s wrath.” He cocked his head and rubbed his left ear with his shoulder.
“I can see that.” Irion uttered a short, bellowing laugh. “I recognize his handwriting on your ear. Tell me, Anakil, what did he do to you? I bet he didn’t take you in his arms like a lost son. Did he shout at you? Strike you? Hurt you? Have you been afraid, little coward?”
“Don’t call me a coward. I usually don’t care what you and the others call me behind my back, but I will not tolerate the word coward. Not any more!”
“Peace, Anakil,” Beldil said. “There is no need to quarrel. Let the matter rest for now.”
“No, I won’t. I have to admit I bow to the Captain, for I am more than a little terrified and in awe of his position. I am wise enough to bow to the Lieutenant, especially when he is angry.” Anakil pulled his hand out of his pocket and pointed at Irion. “But I don’t bow to him! He might be taller and stronger than me, but nevertheless he is my equal. If I don’t stand my ground before him, you can rightfully call me a coward.”
“I heard you spent the night at your brothers’ tent,” Irion said. “You hid behind your big brothers. You always look up to them as if they were the Captain himself.”
Anakil lowered his head, covered the distance between himself and Irion with three quick steps and slammed himself headfirst into Irion’s abdomen. He was smaller and more slender than Irion, but he was faster and had the moment of surprise on his side. Irion dropped ungracefully onto his backside and stifled a yelp of pain and surprise.
“Look who’s looking up at me now,” Anakil said grimly and straightened his back.
“Anakil!” Beldil said. “This is a place of the injured. Don’t fight.”
“He is injured now, look at his pain stricken face.” Anakil said. “I don’t intend to fight any more. And I apologize that you had to be witness of this unpleasant exchange. It is over now.”
Beldil remembered a time long ago, when he had been a boy in the army. All boys had stuck together when they had deemed it necessary to unite their forces, but most of the time they had quarrelled about trivialities, trying to prove their superiority, trying to be more grown up than others, oblivious of the fact that every unnecessary fight had proven once more that they had still been boys who did not know when to stop. Nothing had changed between the young boys of the army.
Irion scrambled to his feet and moved forwards, preparing to strike back. He was not ready to accept the defeat. Anakil crouched to block the expected blow, but suddenly Irion stopped dead in his movement and lowered his raised fist.
Anakil turned his head to see what had startled the other boy. He immediately straightened and clasped both arms behind his back. Beldil had to raise his head from his pillow to see what had ended the fight.
Two large forms filled the entrance of the tent. Beldil recognized Captain Boromir immediately. The second man, a heavy soldier with the insignia of a Lieutenant, was a stranger to him, but he guessed that it could only be Lieutenant Darin.
“Irion! Anakil!” The Lieutenant bellowed. “Are you out of your mind?”
“Lieutenant,” Anakil said and bowed his head. “Captain.” The boy stepped back to stand next to Irion, their quarrel forgotten.
Irion mirrored Anakil’s position, his hand clasped behind his back, his back straight, his gaze directed towards the floor. “Lieutenant Darin. Captain Boromir,” he said as well.
Beldil eased his head back onto the pillow. The two boys who had been at each other’s throat a moment ago slowly shifted their positions to stand as close together as possible. The messenger had to repress an amused chuckle.
“Irion,” Captain Boromir said. “I think you are needed elsewhere.”
“Yes, my lord Captain!” The boy closed his eyes in relief and bowed deeply. “Captain. Lieutenant.” He crossed the tent with measured steps, squeezed himself past the Captain’s broad frame through the entrance of the tent and disappeared. As soon as he was out of sight, his slow steps quickened into a fast run, as if he was afraid the Captain might change his mind and call him back.
Anakil’s gaze followed his retreating comrade. Beldil didn’t need to be able to read minds to know the boy wished to be dismissed as well. His casual bearing was gone, for now he was not dealing with another boy but with those two officers who had been his worst nightmares in the last twenty-four hours.
“Anakil, how is your ear?” Lieutenant Darin asked, and even though there was no concern in the officer’s voice, the question was almost friendly.
“Better than my shoulder, my lord,” the boy replied.
Beldil had not noticed any injury to the boy’s shoulders. Anakil’s shoulders had been fine when they had seen each other last evening. The boy must have been punished severely by his superior.
“The healer will take a look at your shoulder later on,” Lieutenant Darin said. “I had a long conversation with the Captain about you this morning.” The Lieutenant paused to give his superior the chance to speak, but Captain Boromir remained silent. “You are to be transferred,” the Lieutenant continued. “Follow me. We have to talk.”
Anakil glanced at Beldil for a moment, his lips pressed into a tight line, his eyes troubled. Beldil felt sorry for the boy who did not have the self-confidence to defend himself before his superiors, as he had just done before his comrade. He smiled at him, and Anakil forced himself to smile back.
The gesture turned into a grimace. “I will come and visit you later, Beldil,” the boy croaked.
“Of course.” Beldil nodded reassuringly.
Anakil bowed before the Captain, who stood silent like a statue at the entrance of the tent, both hands behind his back. “My lord Captain.”
“Let’s go, Troublemaker.” Lieutenant Darin took the boy’s right shoulder carefully, as if the slightest touch would hurt the boy, and guided him out of the tent.
“My lord Captain,” Beldil started. “About the boy…”
“Don’t worry about the boy,” Captain Boromir interrupted and his unreadable features lit up with a small smile. “He has received severe and sufficient punishment yesterday. There is no need to reprimand him further. Darin will ensure that the boys keep their hands off him.”
The Captain stepped inside the tent and sat down on the chair that Irion had left close to Beldil’s cot. “Do you feel well enough to answer a few questions?”
Beldil’s stomach rumbled, and the messenger smiled. “I will do anything that earns me a good lunch, my lord.”
“If you can think of food already, you cannot feel so bad, soldier.” The Captain folded his hands in his lap. “Tell me of Ithilien,” he said. “You are one of few who have travelled that land and still draw breath. What have you seen?”
Anakil was afraid that things had just started to go downhill – fast.
He had woken in his brothers’ tent after a long and untroubled slumber. Mercifully, there had been no nightmares this night, and he had felt strong enough to face whatever the day had in store for him. His brothers had left clean clothes and boots on a chair, and after he had dressed and stolen a small breakfast from Anagor’s secret supply of bread and dried ham, he had set out to find Beldil.
Without the messenger’s shirt and his weapons, nobody had paid attention to the small boy making his way through the garrison on the eastern shore of the Anduin. Anakil had relished the anonymity of being a boy nobody noticed, for he could easily listen to conversations and therefore catch up on rumours and news. He was glad that most soldiers didn’t connect his face to the name Anakil, for most rumours dealt with him.
Some soldiers talked about him in awe, calling him a hero, for he had been one of the very few scouts that had spent time in Ithilien and returned unscathed. Others considered him a traitor, speculating that he might be an orcish spy. People claimed to know he had killed nine Orcs with his bare hands, others said he was the son of a Southron. Anakil had always known that rumours tended to exaggerate and twist the truth, but he had never really cared about that until now. He did not like people that did not know him at all talking about him in this fashion. He wanted to be neither hero nor orcish spy. For a moment he desperately wished to be Anakil the simple errand runner again; a small boy nobody ever noticed. But somehow he knew that Anakil the simple horse boy had died in Ithilien at the very moment he had killed that Orc. If the horse boy had died with that Orc, who had been born on this day? He was not sure about that, but he was planning to get to know the boy Ithilien had turned him into as fast as possible.
His plan had been to visit Beldil, get his things from the boys’ quarters while the other boys were at lunch and report to the healers of the eastern shore to get an official evaluation of his injuries and either a certificate that he was not fit for duty or a restriction to light duty only. Light duty meant he did not have to clean the stables, and since his right arm was injured and nobody would trust him with scissors in his left hand, he wouldn’t even be able to work as a barber.
Lieutenant Darin had warned him that he was not finished with him yet, but after a good night’s sleep and a meal the boy was sure that if he had survived the first encounter with the Lieutenant with minor injuries only, he would survive the second encounter as well.
He had not planned to get caught by the Captain and the Lieutenant in a fistfight with Irion in front of a wounded messenger in the healers’ tent. Therefore he was not so sure about his survival any more, as he obediently followed the Lieutenant out of the neutral ground of Beldil’s tent into the lively garrison.
“Do you have anything to say?” Lieutenant Darin asked. He walked with long strides between the soldier’s tents.
Anakil had to jog to keep up with him. “I am sorry,” he said. It sounded more like a question than like an apology.
“I believe you mentioned that yesterday.”
“Does it help if I am still sorry, Lieutenant?” Anakil raised his left hand to scratch his neck, partly because his neck itched and partly to protect his left ear. “I mean, I am sorry I left. And I am sorry that I almost got engaged in a fistfight with Irion in the healers’ tent.”
“You are a lucky little bastard, Anakil.” Lieutenant Darin stopped next to the ruin of an ancient house and turned around to face the boy.
Anakil stopped as well. “I know.” A liar. A thief. A deserter. A lucky little bastard. He had given all those titles to himself the previous night.
Lieutenant Darin made his way into the yard of the destroyed house. The ruin was beyond repair. A single wall was still standing, the three other walls and the roof had been destroyed beyond recognition, leaving a vast heap of rubble and debris that could not be of any use to the company. Grass and small plants grew between the fallen stones. Moss covered the bigger fragments like a green carpet. A statue stood still erect in the middle of the yard. Fallen stones had severed the head, one arm and one leg from the torso, but the stubborn statue refused to crumble entirely, standing defiantly on one leg, the intact arm pointing to the east. A bird had built its nest where the head had once been. It was too close to midsummer, the nest was empty now, but it sat on top of the obstinate statue like a brown crown.
Lieutenant Darin sat down on a moss covered stone next to the statue. Anakil took the hint and lowered himself on another green clad fragment. The moss was dry and surprisingly comfortable, softening the rough, cold surface of the fallen stones. They were in the middle of the eastern part of the garrison, within plain view of everyone who happened to pass by on the road next to the ruin, but nevertheless they were alone and out of earshot.
“I promised we’d have a talk today,” Lieutenant Darin said. “Now let’s talk. And I want to hear more than a simple: I am sorry.”
The Lieutenant had his big hands dangling casually between his strong legs. His face was neither friendly nor furious, so Anakil guessed that he was safe from physical punishment – for now. “Exactly how angry are you with me, my lord?” he dared to ask.
“Be careful, young man,” Darin said. “I am supposed to ask the questions.”
“I am sorry,” Anakil replied. He quickly bit his lips. “Oh, you didn’t want to hear this any more, I know. I am sorry I said that.” He stopped talking before he could get himself deeper into trouble.
“Anakil,” Lieutenant Darin started. Anakil recognized the voice he was using. It was the voice that was reserved for frightened and injured horses. “I think I know what troubles you.”
Anakil had never seen the Lieutenant this calm while talking to one of his boys. Normally he shouted or used brisk, short orders. The boy was surprised by the patience that shone through the Lieutenant’s careful words. It made him appear almost human. Lieutenant Darin had never been human before.
“If it helps, let’s talk about last night first. Even though there is no excuse for what you did, what I did…”
“I deserved what you did, my lord,” Anakil interrupted. “I know that now. I deserved what you did and I would have deserved you dragging me into the boys’ quarters. You were furious, and you had every right to be so.” He did not summon up the courage to meet the Lieutenant’s gaze. “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I am really sorry, my lord.”
“Yes, you deserved everything I did to you. You broke our most important rule. Under other circumstances you would have been thrown out of the army immediately – after the boys had had a little fun with you. But just because you deserved what I did, and just because I was furious, doesn’t mean I had the right to do what I did.”
Anakil slowly raised his gaze.
“I should have talked to you first. I didn’t do that. Therefore I have to apologize as well. Don’t get me wrong, Anakil. I am not sorry that I slapped you and twisted your ear and squeezed your shoulder. I am sorry that I based my punishment on rumours and assumptions. I lost it down there in the darkness at the river. That should not have happened. For that I apologize.”
“Things happen.” Anakil carefully rubbed his injured ear. “And what now, my lord?”
Lieutenant Darin smiled. It was an almost friendly smile. Then his voice regained his normal brisk tone. “As I mentioned before, you are a lucky little bastard. You have made some very persuasive friends. I had a long conversation with Captain Boromir this morning. He told me that you have been punished enough already. You are transferred from the errand runners to the messengers, effective immediately. As frustrating as this is for me, I have to obey his orders. Therefore you can be sure that neither I nor one of the boys or soldiers will lay hands on you. A bruised ear and shoulder are a small price for what you did, Anakil. I hope you keep that in mind. Can we talk now?”
Anakil closed his eyes in relief. A lucky little bastard indeed! He squared his shoulders and started to give an account of everything he had seen and done since he left Osgiliath with Mablung’s message.
Ithilien was falling.
Faramir had known it for years. Boromir had known it as well, but he had tried to push this knowledge away for a long time. He could no longer deny it now. Even Beldil, a simple messenger of the Northern Rangers, knew the truth.
But this simple messenger still had hope, still fought with all the strength that was given to him. Ithilien might be weakening under the growing onslaught of the enemy, but hope was still strong in the hearts of Gondor’s soldiers.
A simple boy had crossed Ithilien on the back of a working horse. A simple messenger had slain eight Orcs. The Rangers of North Ithilien were still safe in their cave, hidden away from the enemy. A single healer did his duty in Henneth Annûn, and he accomplished more than three of his kind in Minas Tirith.
Gondor was still strong. Gondor had neither lost hope nor heart.
But nevertheless Ithilien was falling.
He could see it in the face of the injured messenger. He could hear it in the messenger’s young voice, weakened by injuries but strong enough to tell him about long days and nights in the Ithilien woods; breaking when talking about the death of a comrade; laughing at the memory of a small boy’s ugly horse; thoughtful when pondering the increasing number and strength of the enemy’s scouts.
Osgiliath had noticed the sudden increase of scouts as well. The enemy was moving. Unfortunately nobody had yet discovered what the purpose behind those movements might be.
The movements themselves were bad enough. More men died on scouting missions. Messengers like Beldil returned injured or not at all. The watches had to be doubled on dark nights.
The Lords in Minas Tirith knew about the movements of the enemy, but the council had not come up with a decision on what should be done about it. Boromir believed he could predict the outcome of days of hot discussion in the council chambers. Ithilien should solve the problem. The Ithilien company, small in number but strong in will, had always held up the hope that not everything was lost.
But Ithilien was falling.
Boromir had talked with Lieutenant Mablung about the situation of the Ithilien company, and now the messenger Beldil had confirmed the Lieutenant’s word. An ill supplied, weakening company could not live up to the expectations placed on them by the council of Minas Tirith. Boromir longed to talk to his brother, longed to see that Faramir was well, but as long as nobody found a pattern in the enemy’s increased movements, neither he nor his brother could leave their respective commands.
There were too many possibilities. The human population had left Ithilien years ago. The land between Ephel Dúath and the Anduin, once the beautiful garden of Gondor, was empty now. Nevertheless Ithilien was of great strategic value, the last stronghold protecting the lands of Gondor west of the Anduin.
Maybe the enemy planned to launch a major assault on Ithilien in general. Or he planned to attack the garrison at Cair Andros, to cross the Anduin in the North and march towards Minas Tirith. Maybe he even planned an attack on Osgiliath, to take the fords and directly reach the heart of Gondor. Or he just wanted to wear down Gondor’s strength by small but deadly battles. There were too many possibilities. All of them were logical enough to be considered. None of them left room for movement, and certainly none of them allowed the Captains of Gondor to meet just because they were brothers and longed to see and talk to each other.
Boromir had spent the night penning a letter to his brother. It had turned out to be the longest letter he had ever written in his life. He listed all tactical possibilities in as much detail as he could think of. He had never been good at writing down his thoughts, but he knew that Faramir would understand him. Maybe, between themselves and their very different commands, they would come up with a solution about what the enemy was up to.
They were both soldiers of Gondor, after all. Soldiers that felt hope and fear like every other soldier in Gondor’s army. Soldiers like the wounded messenger Beldil, who had, after he had finished his report, tentatively asked about the boy, Anakil, that had saved his life. Gondor would remain strong, as long as her soldiers did not stop caring about the land and about each other.
He had left Beldil in the healers’ care to catch up on his duties in the garrison. He knew the soldiers drew strength from his presence, and therefore he slowly walked across the bridge to the western quay to check on a ship with provisions that was expected for today. His heavy boots thundered on the wood of the bridge.
This bridge was like the defence of Gondor. It might have been broken in the past, but the broken parts had been mended, and now it was strong and reliable again.
Anakil was glad Lieutenant Darin accompanied him when he entered the boys’ quarters to get his few personal things. Most of the boys were not present, but the few who had sought out their cots to find some rest from the heat of the day glared at him with angry eyes. None of them spoke a word, and Anakil knew he owed this silence to Lieutenant Darin’s presence. Without the Lieutenant, he wouldn’t have been able to enter the boys’ quarters and leave again without a scratch. He vowed to himself that he would never enter those quarters again.
He was not a mere boy any more. Anakil the horse boy had died together with that Orc, or maybe, he admitted grimly, a little later, after he had emptied his stomach onto the ground of Ithilien. Now there would only be Anakil, the messenger, a soldier of Gondor.
He would not miss the boys of Osgiliath. There were few among them he called friends. Most of them had always teased him and laughed at him, he had never really been one of them. He had always been different.
Suddenly he missed the Rangers with their easy companionship and roaring laughter. He had been there for only a few days, but somehow they had naturally taken him in as a small part of their company.
Anakil smiled in memory of a certain Ranger. Anborn was driven by fierce loyalty to his Captain, his comrades and his land. He would never have lost it like Lieutenant Darin at the river. Anakil missed the deep voice, the rumbling laughter, the heavy boot on his shoulder, the lopsided smile. The Ranger had been hard on him only because he cared. It had taken the boy too long to realize that Anborn had never hated him but had always tried to protect him from the rough reality of Ithilien. Nobody had ever cared much about him before. He sincerely hoped to see the Ranger again to thank him for everything he had done.
Lieutenant Darin accompanied him through the rows of tents of the eastern garrison to the stables. Some of the boys were working there, and Anakil was glad that he didn’t have to join them, even though he was sure he would miss being with the horses from time to time.
The boy could hear the whinnying of a horse from the inside of the big stone house, its broken walls mended with sturdy wooden planks to withstand furious and frightened horses that tried to get out. He remembered his first night in the company. He had been too homesick to sleep and had crept out of the boy’s quarters to the stables. His father had sold a lot of horses to the army over the years, and he had hoped to find one of them and curl up beside it, to feel the illusion of being at home, being safe, and therefore be able to sleep.
One of the junior officers had mistaken him for the boy on duty and had ordered him to ready two horses, one for the Captain and one for one of the messengers. Too frightened to object, Anakil had done what he had been ordered to do. He had not known the Captain’s horse back then, so he had readied the best steed in the stable and a fast mare for the messenger.
He clearly remembered standing in front of the stables, the reins of one horse in each hand, waiting for the Captain and the messenger to arrive. The steed had danced nervously, while the mare had constantly moved to avoid his flying hooves, and the boy had been caught in the middle of them. To avoid the heavy hooves and angry teeth, he had finally mounted the steed and galloped him around the stable to calm him down, leading the mare on long reins behind him. He remembered feeling like a soldier in this moment, a soldier ready to enter battle on his loyal mount, ready to slay the enemies of Gondor and bring glory to himself and his family, even though he had only been a boy of just fifteen in his nightshirt and old breeches on the Captain’s horse.
He had not seen the Captain that night, for the messenger had arrived alone and had taken both horses with him. Maybe, just maybe, one of the boys would do the same for him soon, when he was a real messenger. Maybe even tall Irion would be called out in the middle of the night to ready a horse, for a messenger had to be sent to the city with urgent news. Maybe that messenger would be him.
A heavy hand fell on his right shoulder, and he winced as hot pain shot trough his body. He snapped out of his memories. “Yes, my lord?” he croaked.
Many horses were now whinnying inside the stables. Anakil felt the urge to go inside and calm them, but that was not his job any more. He contemplated whistling to calm those horses that had grown up on his father’s farm, but his face was distorted with pain. He was not sure he was able to whistle properly.
“I have to go in there to know what is going on,” Lieutenant Darin said. “Report to the messengers’ tent. You are expected. When the messengers are done with you for today, report to the healers. You are released from my command.”
The heavy hand was still on his shoulder, pressing firmly, but the pain had become bearable. “Yes, my lord,” Anakil said.
“There is one thing I want you to know,” Darin said and put his other hand on Anakil’s left shoulder. “You have had enough luck for a lifetime this last week. Without the Captain’s intervention, you would be in there…” He pointed to the stables. “…alone, for at least a month. And you would have more to worry about than your ear, your arm and your shoulder. If you disappear or disobey again, I will thrash you within an inch of your life, even if I am no longer your commander. Is that clear?” His eyes were aflame, his red nose shining even redder in the midday sun.
“Yes, my lord.”
“Now go!” The Lieutenant took his hands off the boy’s shoulders. “And even though you don’t deserve it, I wish you luck.”
“Thank you, my lord.” Anakil carefully rubbed his right shoulder as he trotted away. His whole right arm was numb with pain, and he realized he would not been able to wield a sword or a bow for a few days.
He heard the Lieutenant walk away, cursing under his breath. He was sure he would never talk to Lieutenant Darin again. Suddenly there was a question in his mind. It didn’t make sense at all. He was sure he would have never dreamt of asking the Lieutenant such a personal question while under his command, but he really wanted to know. He longed for something to remember Lieutenant Darin by, his first commander in the army; something that wasn’t connected to war and pain. He wasn’t Darin’s boy any more, and if he didn’t ask now, he would never get a second chance.
He followed the Lieutenant with quick strides. “Lieutenant Darin!” he called.
The Lieutenant stopped and turned around. “What is it, Troublemaker?”
Anakil rubbed one hand over his face to get some time and summon the courage to speak. “What would you do if you could just go home?” the boy asked. “I mean, if the war was over and we had won. If we did not need so many soldiers any more. What would you do?”
Lieutenant Darin’s eyes widened. He had been prepared for a lot, but obviously not for this. “I would return to the mountains, where I was born,” he said briskly. “My wife and my two small sons are waiting for me there.” Then he continued on his way to the stables.
Anakil tried to picture the Lieutenant as father of two children and smiled to himself. It was a good picture, a good memory. He wished he had realized earlier that the Lieutenant was a human being like anybody else.
The messengers’ tent was close to the stables. Anakil took a deep breath before lifting the tent flap and stepping inside.
He had been to the messengers’ tent when he had stolen the shirt to disappear with Mablung’s message, but he had not taken the time to take a look around. There was a big table in the middle of the tent, cluttered with books and papers and everything needed to write and seal a letter. Six chairs surrounded the table; most of them looked rather old and unreliable. One chair’s leg was placed upon a thick book to steady it. On the left side there were shelves of different heights and strengths, filled with shirts, breeches, saddlebags and other useful things. Eight cots stood close to each other at the back of the tent. Four of them seemed to have been in use last night. The sheets were rumpled, but there was nobody sleeping in there just now.
Anakil tightened his grip on the small bag with his personal belongings he had slung over his good shoulder. “Hello?” he asked.
“Who hails?” a voice boomed in response.
Anakil had not noticed anyone in the tent and was startled by the loud and immediate response.
“Greetings, my famous young friend.” A grey head peered around one of the shelves. “Welcome to the humble chamber of the written word!”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.