The ruins of Osgiliath tumbled across both sides of the Anduin like a child’s blocks, discarded because of boredom or petulance. Over time, some of the blocks had been restacked, to make some rudimentary fortifications and housing for the garrison that had been long stationed at the fords. Now, the encampments of reinforcements sprawled out around it, and it bustled with the comings and goings of scouts and messengers. Though the Lords Boromir and Faramir had once successfully defended western Osgiliath against an expeditionary force from Mordor, the battle had cost them all their men but two. It was not a place that could be held in the face of great numbers, and all that were there knew it. We were not there to win a great victory for Gondor, to turn the Enemy away from Minas Tirith, for such a thing was not possible. We were there, by the Steward’s order, to delay the Enemy as long as possible, to buy with our lives the time needed for Rohan to come and save the City.
“What do you here, Hethlin?” The Captain’s voice reached through the grey fog that had seemed to surround me since we had reached Osgiliath. I looked up at him blearily from my seat on the makeshift rampart, cast a glance down at the courtyard to see if anyone was watching, and only when I could tell that they were not, did I remained seated. In Ithilien no one had stood upon ceremony, but I knew that it would be different here with the army, and despite long acquaintance, I must be careful not to scant respect to the Steward’s Heir. A borrowed long bow leaned against the wall, close to my hand.
“Watching. Waiting. Like everyone else, I guess.” Upon our arrival, there had been a raucous reunion with our fellow Rangers, which had included many jests about our new livery. I had kept my green and brown mottled Ranger cloak, as had Mablung and Lorend, thinking thusly to set ourselves apart from the soldiers of the Tower, but we were subject to much mockery nonetheless. We had given them an account of our ride to the City, which they were much impressed with, and they in turn had told us of the happenings in east Osgiliath. Apparently, there was much skulking about on the opposite side of the river, and our scouts were encountering parties of orcs in greater numbers than had been seen before over there. So far, this side of the River was clear. At least one patrol, consisting of four experienced Rangers, good men all, had gone out last night and had not returned. I had listened to the talk of war and strategy for a while, then had grown weary of company and had come up here to sit and rest, and possibly shoot an unwary orc or two.
“Have you seen anything?” Faramir asked. His day had been much busier, filled with dispatches and war councils from the moment he’d arrived. I had seen him from afar, striding from one part of the makeshift fortifications to the other, seeing to the disposition of his troops. Though it was long past the noon hour, he was apparently only now taking the time to eat, for there were a loaf, a piece of cheese, and a mether of ale in his hands. I slid over quickly to give him room to sit on the large block of stone I was using. It was a good seat, for it was situated against a large merlon, which meant that you had only to peer around a corner to get a shot, and then you could lean back against it and be both supported and safe from someone shooting you in the head.
“I saw something move, once or twice.” I told him. “ Put a couple of arrows over there and it stopped, but I can’t tell in this foul murk if I actually hit something, or if it just took cover. I think I’ll save my arrows from now on.”
“That might be best,” he agreed, sitting down. “There will be no dearth of targets later.” He took a bite of bread and a sip of ale, and I watched him covertly as he chewed. He looked as grey as I felt, and different from the Captain of Rangers I knew so well, sterner somehow. Perhaps it was the helm and the armor, or perhaps it was the continual presence of the Black Riders far above. Every once in a while, one would make a piercing, evil keen. At such times, I would sometimes feel a dimness come over my vision, or a stabbing pain in the wound in my head. Many of the soldiers were affected far more profoundly, crying out in fear, or dropping to the earth where they stood, cowering till the sound had passed.
He felt my gaze upon him, and asked, “Have you eaten, Hethlin?” I picked up and showed to him my own bread and cheese, diminished by only a couple of bites, for food simply had no savor for me now. He gave me a stern look.
“You’re too good a soldier for that. You know the first rule of war-take your food and rest where you find it, for the opportunities are few and far between.” So I gave him a sheepish smile, picked up my mether and forced myself to finish my food. We sipped and chewed in companionable silence for a few minutes. Something about the way he ate made me feel he had no more appetite than I did. Eventually we finished, and he brushed the crumbs off of his lap, stretched and made to lean back against the stone. The wingtips of his helm grated against it as he did so, and he sat up in startlement with a soft oath. In spite of the weariness that lay upon me, I laughed.
“That helm is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen!” Faramir smiled in turn, and the air seemed to lighten about us for a moment.
“Aye,” he agreed, “but it’s expected. Appearances must be maintained. You see here the culmination of centuries of the traditions of Gondor.”
“Are you saying the wings get bigger every year?”
“No. Just heavier.” The smile left him again, and I cursed myself for a clumsy fool. Far above, a shrill wail shivered the air. A shudder passed through him, and I winced in pain. The cry faded away, and our eyes met. His of a sudden were wide and dark and unfocused, and seemed to look right through me to other times and places.
“What have you dreamed, Captain?” I asked softly, not exactly sure why I did so.
“Nothing I would wish to speak of,” he murmured as if half asleep, “Pain and darkness. Torment and death. Defeat and despair. Gondor whelmed beneath a sea of foes, as Numenor was beneath the waves. The ultimate end of the Men of the West.” He shook himself suddenly, and became aware once more, and spoke in a stronger voice. “Many similar cheerful things. Ignore me, Hethlin, when I speak so. In truth, I should learn to disregard my dreams. Heeding them has brought me naught but sorrow, my father’s scorn and my brother’s death.”
“My lord, there are those among the Company who think your dreams are the work of the Enemy, but I am not one of them. Did you not say that you felt that Boromir had accomplished some great thing? I think your dream caused him to be in the place he needed to be at the time he needed to be there.”
Faramir sighed wearily. “It was my place to go, Hethlin. The dream was my dream, for though he claimed he’d had it once as well, I believe that was simply because I’d told him about it so many times. It was no true dream of his own. The dream was my dream, and the place was my place.” He started to lean back once more, thought better of it, and leaned forward, elbows on knees. Unconsciously, I did the same. An idea occurred to me.
“With all due respect, my lord, you’re wrong.” The helmed head turned slowly to face me, and I distinctly felt that there was a raised eyebrow under all that metal.
“ I’m wrong? How am I wrong?”
“It was not your place to go. My lord, in all those stories and books of yours that you’ve let me read, no one just goes to sleep, has a dream about how to save the world, then wakes up and goes and does it themselves! No, when there’s a big doom at hand, someone makes a prophecy or dreams a dream, and tells everyone about it, then everyone sits around and talks about what should be done, and fights about it, and then someone else, some warrior, some destined one, gets up and agrees to do it. It’s the same thing, over and over and over again. All those books can’t be wrong! You were the Dreamer, and your brother was the Warrior, and that’s all there is to it. It was not your place to go.”
My Captain stared at me for a moment, incredulous, then covered his face with his hands, and after a moment started making some very peculiar noises. His shoulders were shaking. I wondered if perhaps I had upset him, speaking of his brother in such a fashion. Then I wondered if he were perhaps choking on a crumb. Concern turned to irritation when I finally realized he was laughing at me and trying to hide it. The noises continued for some time. Eventually he stopped, and spoke through his steepled fingers.
“So there’s a rule, Hethlin?”
“Mayhaps not a rule, sir, but you must admit-if you do it all yourself, it makes for a very short story.”
“So it does. So it does indeed.” He dropped his hands and looked at me. His face was no longer grey, it was flushed. “By the Valar, I lose one protector only to gain another! And this one would protect me even from myself! A thankless task, Hethlin.” I became somewhat pink myself, and said nothing, uncertain of how to reply. He regarded me for a moment longer, then sat up suddenly, fumbling at the pouch on his belt.
“All this talk of stories reminds me of my original purpose for coming up here. I have something for you, and I apologize for being so laggard about it. But it’s seldom enough I’ve been to the Citadel in the last couple of years, and even when I’ve been there, there have been so many councils and meetings that I keep forgetting.”
“Forgetting what, my lord?”
“This.” And he pulled a small book bound in blue leather out of the pouch and handed it to me. The binding was handsome, of the finest leather, with the swan ship of Dol Amroth picked out in silver on the cover. But it was also somewhat stained and battered around the edges, and there was an inkblot on the back cover.
“Do you remember when I first started teaching you Elvish in the evenings, when you were ill, and I said that I had a book of children’s’ stories that would aid you, and that I would get it for you when I had the chance? Well, late though it is, I’ve finally redeemed my word.”
He watched as I carefully turned the pages, which were of the thinnest vellum, scribed in delicate Elvish script, and cunningly illuminated. It was a most pleasurable experience-until I saw the name inscribed on the frontispiece, and froze.
“My lord, this was your mother’s book.”
“Yes. It was given to her as a child, and she gave it to me in turn.”
I was shocked to think he would gift me with such a precious thing. “I can’t take something from you that was your mother’s, my lord.” I tried to hand the book back to him, but he refused it with a gentle shake of the head.
“I have many more mementoes of my mother. Many more than you have of yours. And she would have liked for you to have it, I think. She loved music and poetry and the Elvish language-and people who loved them like you. Besides,” and he smiled, ”there’s a story with a magic horse in there, so it was obviously meant to be yours.”
It seemed that there was going to be no graceful way to refuse. “I will treasure it always, my lord.”
“Good. It can be the first volume in your library. And I give your fair warning-when this trouble is over, I will expect to hear some tales from it-just so I’ll know you’ve been working hard.”
“I promise, my lord.” There was a hubbub of a sudden down in the courtyard, and voices calling my lord’s name. He got up, bent down and scooped up his mether, and went down the stairs. After a moment, I carefully placed the book in my own belt pouch, picked up the bow, and followed.
The lost patrol had returned, or at least one of them had. Murthen, one of our cleverest scouts lay in the dirt of the courtyard, grievously wounded. Mablung and such others of us that were good at leech-craft were desperately attending him, but I could tell by the look of him that his wounds were mortal and that it was too late. What heroic force of will had held him to life I could only imagine, but when Faramir knelt beside him it was obvious that he was waiting only to make one last report to his captain.
“My lord, they are coming!” he gasped within the circle of Faramir’s arms. “We found them yestereve, and spied upon them a while trying to get a number, but they are numberless, a vast host beyond counting! The road from Minas Morgul throngs with them! Orcs all in black, and Southrons! We strayed too close, and tarried too long, and we were discovered by a patrol. I alone survived to carry the word. They will be here by midnight.” A bloody hand reached up and clutched the throat of Faramir’s tabard, dragging his face down close.
“Flee, my lord, flee now! He is with them! The Black Captain himself! You cannot stand against him! Fly, all of you, fly for your lives!” He began to shudder, and a trickle of blood came from the corner of his mouth. “I have seen him, “ he murmured, his eyes wide with remembered horror, and died.
Disturbed muttering rose around the dead man. Lord Faramir gently laid his hands upon his breast and closed his staring eyes. Laying him down carefully, he got to his feet, his tabard stained with the man’s blood, and looked around at us.
“This changes nothing,” he said firmly. “No matter how many come against us, or who commands them, the Steward’s orders still stand. We will hold for as long as we can, and withdraw in good order when we can no longer do so. Soldiers, to your posts. Captains, with me.” Mablung gave me a friendly clap on the shoulder as he headed towards the captain’s council. I went in search of arrows. Lots of arrows.
I misremember battles as other women misremember childbirth. Lack of clear recollection makes it possible to endure it more than once. Skirmishes and sniper actions, one-on-one combats, conflicts with fewer opponents, where there is time to make choices--those I can usually recollect with some clarity. But the battles remain with me only in confused fragments, and they’re no clearer while I’m fighting them. I have no idea how many orcs or men I’ve wounded or killed over time, nor do I remember any incredible feats of valor. It would seem that this would make learning from one’s mistakes difficult, but I’m still here so I must not be doing too badly.
Many men also suffer from this problem, I’m told. I have sometimes wondered if perhaps all of them do, and those who glory in their prowess, and flaunt the tallies of their dead, are simply lying. Maybe if we did not possess this failing, if we all remembered what war was truly like, there would be less of it. Then again, maybe not. For it does seem that there are more than a few who truly love it, who crave the battle madness as others crave drink.
What then to say of Osgiliath? At midnight, when we looked across the River and saw the mass of the enemy, seething like a swarm of bees deprived of their hive, we knew that we would not be able to cause them loss enough to make a difference. We did hope that we would be able to hurt them somewhat as they crossed the River, when they were few in number and vulnerable. But that hope ended when we discovered that they had prepared in secret many hundreds of rafts. Just before dawn, or what passed for dawn under the Darkness, a great weight of foes crossed the River at once, and when they shocked up against us upon the shore, the first step we took was backwards. And so it continued.
Step by step, we retreated through the ghost-ridden streets of Osgiliath, using such ruins and fortifications as came to hand, careful of our flanks lest we be surrounded and overwhelmed. The Rangers and other archers were behind the ranks of spear and swordsmen, the cavalry to the rear, but ready to sally forth upon either side as needed. The Captain was in the center of the front line, and I could hear his calm voice giving both orders and encouragement. Mablung, Lorend and I were afoot with the Rangers, choosing our targets, drawing and loosing, over and over and over, till arms and shoulders ached. No random shooting into the dark host for the Rangers-arrows were precious, and we made every one count. A few soldiers who were walking wounded stayed with us as arrow gleaners, bringing to us mostly orc arrows. We took them carefully, for they were often poisoned, and returned them to their makers.
Much has been made of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in song and story, but little has been said of the Retreat from Osgiliath. More should be. Even in retreat, the valor of Gondor was not diminished, and the enemy watered with blood every foot of ground they took. We made them pay three and four and five for every one of us, and it was not enough. The Black Captain of Minas Morgul bludgeoned us with the fear-driven masses of his army and dread of himself and Captain Faramir of Minas Tirith held us together with the force of his will and the strength of his heart. It took the whole day to reach the Causeway Forts, and it seemed an eternity, for the Darkness made it difficult to discern the passage of time. We were caught in a nightmarish hell where our arms grew wearier and wearier, and we slew and slew and slew, but were faced with an eternal procession of fresh foes.
Mithrandir arrived mid-afternoon, and things were somewhat better after that. The light that came from him lessened the gloom, and the knowledge that one had come who could actually battle the Black Captain heartened us immeasurably. He moved about wherever he was needed most, but he was also often with the Captain, and I was glad to see it. For I had some idea of what this day had cost Faramir of Gondor. Glimpses I had caught of him from time to time, and ever he was princely and calm, soothing men on the verge of panic, showing no sign that he himself was battling fear and fatigue. But I knew, none better, that he had come to this fight weary almost to collapsing, and that, like me, he was feeling the presence of the Black Riders most keenly. Whence came the strength he was drawing upon, I did not know, but there must have been a deep well of it within him. Never had I admired or loved him more, and I wanted the shake the shoulders of the haughty Lord Denethor and tell him, “Your second son is not the least!”
Dusk found us with our backs to the wall of the Pelennor and the Causeway Forts. The gate opened behind us, and troops began to pass within. The Enemy pressed us hard at that point, hoping to break through us, and into the fort itself. I was out of arrows, so I drew sword and long knife and stepped into the shield wall. The fighting grew furious, and my memory of it is dim. I cracked a rib there, courtesy of an orcish spear, but suffered no other injury. It was then that Lorend took the leg wound that lamed him for the rest of his life. He was down the line a bit, but I could see Damrod standing over him until the other Rangers could drag him back.
The host of Gondor was almost completely within the walls now. Archers had run to the ramparts, and finding boxes of fresh arrows, were already raining death down upon the enemy. Faramir shouted an order, there was a clatter of hooves, and we parted our formation to let the cavalry through. They formed, and charged, pushing the enemy back, and we took the opportunity to retreat inside ourselves. The horsemen were too few to do significant damage, and their captain was a canny one. He took them just far enough out to win them their own passage back inside, then wheeled and raced back in. As soon as the last horse’s tail had passed within the arch, the great gates groaned shut. A host of willing hands dropped the huge crossbar. It settled into its supports with a boom.
There was a pause, an utter silence for a moment, as we all looked around and realized that we’d managed to make it this far. Then commanders started barking orders to their squads. Some men went to take station upon the walls, while others moved into the courtyard to rest and receive food and water from the staff of the Fort. The Darkness deepened, and true night covered us.