Time was growing short; the urgency unsettled him. They had found the perfect place where a stone had fallen from the face of the wall, leaving a sheltered ledge. One strand at a time, they wove together the long wisps of hay. He sang to his lovely Ruby as they worked, and she fed him juicy grubs. Slowly, a soft cup rose in a coil on the ledge. Evenly round, smooth and silvery grey, it was the fairest nest he had ever seen. All was ready for the first speckled egg when a flock of men appeared.
Handcarts squeaked and rumbled, while trowels scraped on the stone and men shouted orders to hurry. His nesting songs were drowned out by the racket. And the noise did not stop at night. By torchlight, the work continued. As the men repaired the wall, they drew nearer and nearer to the nest. He puffed out his breast and called out a warning "tick-tick-tick," but the hurried men did not notice.
His mate ruffled her feathers. "This is no place to raise our young, Willem." Taking the hint, he took wing to search for a new nesting site. First, he flew to the orchards with their rows of cozy trees, but tents had been pitched between the cherries and shirts had been hung from the branches. Next, he went to the barns with their broad eaves and sheltered rafters, but carts of grain were rolling in and out of the open doors. The men were in a hurry. He did not know the cause of their unrest, but he shared it. The air felt heavy, as if before a storm, though the sky was a cloudless blue.
The entire plain was crowded with wagons and men. He flew over the high city wall then over the rows of houses. Not a tree was in sight, only pots of flowers, and the streets were filled with people. As he flew higher, the streets emptied and the houses grew larger. Their crumbling walls offered inviting niches, but there were no nearby fields with grubs for hungry chicks. There's nothing here, he thought sadly then paused in his flight, wings aflutter, at the sight of a lone tree.
The next day, he held his breath as he watched his mate inspect the new nesting site.
After splashing in the fountain, Ruby flew to the top of the tree. "It certainly is quiet here. Are you sure those men are alive?" She cocked her head toward the men standing below. They were dressed in black and silver and wore strange, shining hats.
"They won't bother us," he assured her. "I watched them for hours. They just stand there like rocks."
Ruby flitted from branch to branch. "This tree looks like it's dead," she chirped, and his heart sank until she added, "Dead and hollow. We can build the nest inside." The matter decided, she flew down to look for worms in the grass.
The work went quickly using hay from a nearby stable, and the nest was made bright with castoff bits of thread. The men in the shiny hats stood as still as stone in the sun and driving rain, and sometimes, an old man would pace back and forth alone, but otherwise, the courtyard was deserted. Three hawks lived on a nearby tower, but they paid the robins little heed, spending their time chasing crows. Ill-favored creatures with tattered feathers and reddish eyes, the crows circled warily, darting near the tower then retreating from the talons of the hawks. With so many enemies near, Willem was glad that the nest was well-hidden.
One morning, Ruby awoke feeling strangely ill at ease, and over the next few days, she laid several eggs. He had never seen such fair eggs, pale as the sky in November and finely speckled with scarlet. Such eggs were sure to make fine, strong chicks. Feathers fluffed out, his mate kept them warm, only rarely leaving the nest to eat. Back and forth he flew, bringing tasty worms until Ruby told him to stop before he made himself sick with exhaustion. So he had to be content with singing a nesting song from dawn until late in the night.
"That robin could wake the dead," he heard one of the shiny men mutter.
"Or the entire City. How can something that small be so loud?"
He stayed alert for enemies, but the crows never came near. There was always a hawk perched on the tower, even at night. Whenever the crows flew too close, the watcher darted after them, screeching with rage. At the sound of his shrill cries, the other two hunting birds came to his aid, striking out with talon and beak.
One day after an uncommonly fierce battle, one of the hawks swooped down and landed in the courtyard. The hawk was small for its kind but still many times the robin's size. Its wing feathers were torn, and bare patches of scars marked its shoulders. His heart beating wildly, Willem puffed out his breast and glared at the intruder.
"There is no need to be afraid," the hawk told him as it settled its slate-grey wings. "I am not come to hunt. Besides, you would hardly suffice for my breakfast."
Willem tried to puff himself up even bigger. "I've claimed this place. Be gone." He gave a warning trill.
"Well, you are certainly brave if not very bright." The hawk bobbed his grey head in a bow. "My name is Captain Dart, and I fly in the service of Lord Denethor." He held out his leg so Willem could see the white band around his ankle. "As you no doubt have noticed, my comrades and I patrol the Citadel, including your courtyard. As you may also have noticed, the crows are becoming more numerous by the day. They are servants of the Enemy, sent to spy on our Lord. Yet there are only the three of us to fend off their attacks."
Willem was just a simple country bird, so most of this speech was lost on him. He gave an offhand flutter and said, "I don't think I can help. Those crows won't flee at the sight of a robin."
"You won't have to fight. Just serve as our lookout and bring us warning," the hawk replied.
Crows were notorious egg thieves so Willem couldn't let them trespass in his territory, yet the flock of crows was so big that he couldn't ward them off alone. "I could watch for them," he said slowly. "But how do I know that you won't try to eat me?"
"You have my word of honor as an officer," the grey hawk replied. And he seemed to mean what he said, though what he said made no sense.
"Why do you want to protect this Lord Denethor?" the robin asked. "He is not your mate or one of your nestlings."
Captain Dart half-closed his eyes and sat for a moment in silence. "You have spent your life in the fields, so you cannot be blamed for your ignorance. Yet do you not sense the rising darkness? The sullen heaviness before the storm? If the Enemy prevails, our kind will be destroyed along with the race of Men."
Late in the afternoon, the hawk led him to a windowsill high in the tower. A russet-winged kestrel and a huge black goshawk sat waiting for them. Puffing out his breast, Willem eyed them uneasily.
The grey hawk bowed to the others. "Good day, noble hunters. Our patrol has a new member-Master Willem of the Pelennor."
"Welcome, Willem, to the service of the Steward," the kestrel said, flipping his reddish wings in salute, while the goshawk gave a short cackle. "Small help is better than none."
"Today's mission is most urgent," the grey hawk told them. "Our Lord speaks in secret with his son and Lord Mithrandir. The Enemy must not have news of their plans." Captain Dart scratched some lines in the dust and pointed to them as he spoke. "Lieutenant Rufus will watch to the west, while Sergeant Orb will take the south and I will take the east." The grey hawk turned to Willem. "You will stay here and look to the north. If you see any crows, fetch one of us. They will try to perch on the windowsills, the better to overhear the counsels of Lord Denethor."
Sergeant Orb, the huge goshawk, winked his golden eyes. "You need not worry, lad. Those crows are not very fast. Poor ratio of wingspan to body size, you know." And with that strange comment, the hunting birds unfolded their wings and took flight.
The robin had never before flown to such a great height, and the dead tree looked like a twig far below. When he had left, Ruby's head was tucked under her wing, blue glimpses of the eggs peeking from beneath her feathers. Beside the nest, he had piled fresh worms, ready for her supper.
The stone windowsill was hot and dry, and he longed to splash in the fountain and hop in the grass. There was nothing to eat, not even a beetle. When he spotted a crow, he flew to tell Captain Dart, and the hawk quickly chased away the spy. Then the air fell silent, and as he watched the sky, a murky bank of clouds rose in the east and spread slowly over the plain. As the daylight faded, he felt strangely downcast. He tried to cheer himself by thinking of the nest, but then he started to worry that the chicks might die in the shell or Ruby might abandon them, frightened away by the crows. Stop thinking nonsense, robin, he told himself. He was just feeling uneasy because of the strange gloom.
Through the open window came the sound of men's voices. Willem peered inside. He had seen the old man before in the courtyard, and the younger man who sat by his side looked so alike that they had to be kin. He remembered that the captain had said that Lord Denethor was speaking with his son. A third man, dressed in shining white, had to be Lord Mithrandir. The two older men were listening as Lord Denethor's son told them news about the Enemy.
With a piercing scream, a hawk plummeted toward the windowsill. Captain Dart dropped heavily to the narrow ledge, then turned to strike as a crow swooped after him. His talons ripped its face, and the creature fell down the side of the tower. "Get help!" he snapped at the robin. "Move!" Blood flecked his grey shoulders, and he held a mangled wing close against his body.
Willem spread his wings and flung himself into the air. Crows circled the window, moving closer with every pass. He tried to evade their attacks, only to be harried back to the ledge. We're trapped. They will kill us both, he thought, and the fear made him light-headed.
A crow settled on the windowsill, followed by another. When the grey hawk swung his talons, they danced just out of reach, and they laughed when the robin tried to warn them away. "The little blighter wants to fight." They were ugly, even for crows, with a strange ungainliness to their movements. Cocking their heads, they shuffled closer to the open window.
"They crawled along the side of the tower, so I did not see them coming. There may be more on the way," Captain Dart said. Even as he spoke, his eyes never left the foe.
Willem thought of his lovely Ruby and the five warm, speckled eggs. He thought of cherry orchards and newly-ploughed fields full of worms, of sunlight on his wings as he flew. If the Enemy won, nothing would remain except this murky darkness. "There must be something we can do."
The grey hawk winced as he tried to move his injured wing. "I am hors de combat, and though your heart is brave, you are far outmatched by these birds. We have failed in our mission. They will carry every word to their master."
"Not if I can help it," Willem replied. There must be some way besides fighting. Some other way to prevent the crows from hearing what Lord Denethor said. Taking a deep breath, the robin broke into song. At the top of his voice, he warbled and trilled, drowning out the men's voices.
"Shut your mouth, or we'll stop it for you," the crows hissed, but they were cowardly birds, reluctant to face the hawk's talons in such close quarters. Willem sang his loudest song over and over again until he thought his lungs would burst.
"That hawk won't last much longer. Once he's too weak to fight, we'll eat you and spit out the feathers," the crows jeered. "That'll put an end to your song."
Lord Denethor shouted above the screeching and singing. "Faramir, see what is causing that racket!"
The crows turned and fled as the young man peered out the window. He spotted Willem and Captain Dart sitting on the ledge. "This is more than passing strange. A hawk was bested by a robin. Or so it would seem." He wrapped his hands in heavy cloth then gently lifted the hawk which made no struggle to escape.
Lord Denethor stared at the wounded bird. "That is one of my sparrowhawks. He wears my band on his leg. But I also heard the noise of crows."
At the mention of the crows, Willem flitted from the windowsill, calling a warning "tick-tick-tick." The three men stared at him. How could he tell them of the danger? He hopped in circles, dragging his wing as if it were injured, then he tried to dance and caw like a crow. Giving a long trill of alarm, he cocked his head toward the window.
"I've never seen a robin behave in so strange a manner, and what is he doing so high in the tower? They live in the hedgerows and orchards," Lord Mithrandir murmured. To Willem's surprise, the old man leaned down and spoke to him in the language of birds. Willem told him about the crows, that these crows were different from the ones that lived in the fields. Instead of robbing nests, they listened at the windows so they could steal Lord Denethor's words.
The old man looked up and said to the Steward, "Crebain have been sent to spy on the Lord of the City. This robin and your hunting birds drove them away. You despair of allies, my lord, but oft help is found where least expected."
Smiling bitterly, Lord Denethor shook his head. "If only all our foes were so easily defeated."
Orders were given for the shutters to be closed, and men were sent to hunt down the winged spies. Captain Dart was given into the care of the falconer. As they bore him away on a cushion, he called to the robin, "That was well done, Master Willem. Tell the lieutenant that I'll make my escape from the mews as soon as the wing is healed." The robin promised to pass along the message.
Lord Mithrandir asked Willem where he made his home and chuckled quietly when he heard the answer. He carried the robin back to the courtyard and set him carefully in the grass. "A small but most valiant soldier. Long may you nest in the White Tree of Gondor."