DISCLAIMER: "The Lord of the Rings" and its characters belong to JRR Tolkien, I only borrowed them for a while, and I promise I will return them unharmed. I do not get money out of this, this is only for entertainment purposes.

"For in the sixth circle, outside the walls of the citadel, there were some fair stables where a few swift horses were kept, hard by the lodging of the errand riders of the Lord, messengers always ready to go at the urging of Denethor or his chief captains. But now all the horses and riders were out and away."(Return of the King, Minas Tirith)


A wet, earthy scent of grass and fallen leaves filled the small valley, even though it was summer, and the hot sun shone without mercy on the forests and plains of Ithilien. A light breeze stirred the roof of branches far above, the warm air was almost visible between the trunks of old and sturdy trees. The waters of Anduin glinted in the west, sparkling like a thousand diamonds under the sun.

Eerie silence hung over the valley like a thick blanket, there was not a single bird singing in the thick undergrowth, no traveller whistling a happy tune, no secret lovers enjoying the peace of the afternoon. For the peace of the valley was a lie, well hidden from the first glance, but obvious for everyone who dared to look closer.

The night brought relief of the heat of the day, the cool wind stirring the moist leaves on the ground, creating strange noises in the darkness. The pale moon and a sky full of stars bathed the forest in a faint light, too dim to make out details of the surroundings; there were only shadows.

An anguished cry disturbed the silence, echoing between the trees, piercing the cooling air like a knife. The cry was uttered by a horse, a cry of death and pain, followed by another, less pain filled cry of a human.

A brown horse stumbled into a small clearing, several arrows protruding from its broad chest and neck. The animal staggered a few last uncertain steps, then it crashed to the ground, throwing its rider against the trunk of a tree.

A wild cry came from between the trees, too loud to be uttered by human voices. The undergrowth moved, but it was not stirred by the wind. Nine large creatures, frightening black shadows, came running into the clearing, howling as they moved, waving swords and spears in front of them, one of them readying a short bow.

The fallen rider was clad in dark green and brown, a hood covered his head and prevented his pale face from being easily spotted in the darkness. The fall from his horse had broken his left wrist, but he did not notice the pain, gripping the hilt of his sword with his right hand as he scrambled to his feet to face his attackers. "Come and get me, if you dare!" he muttered under his breath. "If I am to go, I will not go alone!"

He risked a look at his horse, realizing there was nothing he could do for the animal. Slowly he moved backwards, putting the dying animal's body between himself and the attacking creatures. He was used to fighting Orcs, he had been a Ranger for all his adult life, long ago he had stopped to count how many he had slain. Some of his fellow Rangers had to be near, all he had to do was to hold on until they came for him, for he was sure the cry of his horse had not gone unnoticed.

The Orcs approached him, some of them moving around him to attack from behind. He sheathed his sword for a second, silently cursing his inability to use his left hand, drew his dagger from his belt and threw it at one of his attackers before readying his sword again. The dagger embedded itself in the throat of one of the Orcs, and the creature fell to the ground with an anguished cry.

As if they had waited for a sign, the remaining Orcs attacked from all sides, and the Ranger defended himself one handed, spinning and turning around, blocking blow after blow, striking and drawing back. Black blood covered his hand, a deep cut at his temple started to bleed badly, the red blood obscuring his vision. He could not remember slaying the Orc that had advanced that far, but he must have, otherwise he would be dead by now. He felt an arrow pierce his left calf, but he remained standing, clinging to his sword with his right hand, striking at anything that moved around him, stumbling but never falling over the bodies of slain attackers in his dance with death.

He could rather sense than see the Orcs at his left and right, shadows moving in the darkness, turning around on his uninjured leg. He had lost his sense of time, he was moving too fast to get a clear view on the number of his attackers in the dim starlight. He had started speaking to himself, forcing himself to go on, to remain standing until help arrived.

His sword entered soft flesh, a howl to his right, then silence. He raised his left arm to wipe the blood off his eyes with his sleeve. An arrow hit his sword arm, ripping the muscles of his upper arm to pieces. He lost the grip on the sword hilt, for his muscles did not obey his commands any more. The weapon fell to the ground, the blade missing his foot by a few inches.

There were eight dead or dying Orcs scattered around him. He could make out the shadow of the last attacking Orcs to his right. His horse was dying, he had lost all weapons, he could not run. He was unable to defend his life any further, but as promised, death had taken a great toll among his enemies. The ground of the small clearing was bathed in their blood. His vision cleared, enhanced by the pain that shot through his weary body, and he spotted the last of the Orcs, grinning madly, showing a row of big, yellow teeth, as he slowly, carefully put another arrow into his short bow.

The Ranger struggled to meet death while still standing, but his legs refused to support his weight any more, and he crashed to the ground, his head hitting the metal helmet of one of the dead Orcs. Blackness came, fast and welcome, ridding him of all pain and sorrows.

He could sense movement, feel the cold air, hear the beating of his own heart, and to his surprise, he realized that he was not dead. He felt pain in his left calf, left wrist and right upper arm, and his head hurt badly. He opened his eyes and saw his horse, still alive but dying at his side. He could smell blood and earth and grass and death, and the stench was disgusting. He tried to turn his head, but dizziness overcame him, and he had to close his eyes again to stay conscious.

"Don't move!" an unfamiliar, slightly hoarse voice told him. "You have to save your strength. You have lost a lot of blood."

He tried to avoid the voice, to move away, but his movements were slow, and his whole body trembled under the strain of keeping the darkness at bay. A gentle hand touched his left arm, carefully examining his broken wrist. He flinched when the pain hit, but the grip around his arm tightened.

"I know it hurts," the voice said. "Try to ignore it. Try to stay conscious. Don't open your eyes if it brings dizziness, just stay with me. Talk to me. I have to know you are still with me. Are you in the condition to talk?"

"I can talk," he said, and the weakness of his voice surprised him. "Who are you."

His question was left unanswered. The hands did not bother to set his wrist, and he was grateful for that, for he knew the pain would send him into unconsciousness again. His hand was being wrapped into a cold, wet piece of cloth. He concentrated on the rest of his body and felt cold, wet bandages at the locations where arrows had hit him.

"What about the last Orc?" he asked.

"I arrived just in time," the voice answered. "He is with his comrades now. As your horse will be shortly, I am sorry to tell."

The hand touched his forehead, smoothed away his hair and probed at the deep cut. He forced his eyes to flutter open, ignoring the dizziness and sickness. His vision blurred, but his wish to look at the stranger who was tending to his injuries was stronger than his fatigue and discomfort.

He recognized a rough, dirty hand working on his forehead, a second hand was on his shoulder, stilling his wounded and tired body. The arm attached to the hand was clad in black. Slowly, the Ranger raised his gaze to look into the stranger's face. There was nothing to see, for the stranger's head was concealed by a dark hood, his features hidden in darkness and shadows.

The effort of keeping his eyes open drained a lot of strength from his weary body. His shoulders started to tremble as he fought the urge to cough. He closed his eyes again.

Soothing hands touched his arms and shoulders. "Keep your eyes closed," the voice whispered. "I am a friend, I mean no harm."

He realized he was to weak to answer, to weak to think. Fatigue was slowing his mind.

"Talk to me," the voice urged, and he could feel warm breath tickling his hair and face. "Stay awake. You can sleep when this is over. You have to tell me how to find your comrades, for I am a stranger in this country, and travelling at night is dangerous."

The Ranger smiled a little, despite the pain. Dangerous, indeed. "They are close," he whispered.

"I hope so."

The hands finished cleaning the cut on his forehead, and he felt an almost tender caress on his cheek, then he heard quiet footsteps moving around his position. He was tired, and the pain was bad. "I cannot stay awake much longer," he breathed.

"Try!" the voice said. "We have to reach your comrades. And you are too heavy, you have to help getting yourself on the back of my horse."

He heard and smelled an animal approaching. His left arm was raised and slung over what felt like narrow shoulders. A strong arm reached around his back and raised his upper body off the ground. "Help me!" the voice said, and a hand took hold of his left elbow, careful not to touch his broken wrist. "Try to move your right leg."

"Trying!" he hissed, already out of breath. His eyes fluttered open again, and he saw a brown horse lying in the grass in front of him. The horse was bare backed, there was just an old bridle around his head, two pieces of rope served as reins.

The stranger dragged him to the horse, there was not much he could do to help, and his right leg was hoisted over the back of the animal. The pain was almost unbearable, and with every movement a groan escaped his lips.

The voice was talking to him all the time, and even though he did not get the words, the sound was something he could cling to, something to concentrate on, something he could use to keep the blackness at bay.

"Don't let go now!" the voice said. "You have lost a lot of blood, we have to reach help fast."

He did not want to surrender to the blackness and pain, but his strength was almost spent. "Trying!" he breathed.

He felt the stranger mount behind him, slender arms encircled his waist. A quiet command to the horse, and the animal raised itself, shaking both riders violently. He thought he would fall to the ground, but the arms held him tightly. He could feel the warmth of a body at his back and the warmth of the animal between his legs. Another quiet command, and the horse started to move, softly swaying the riders. The stranger kept his body from sliding off the bare horseback.

"Where are your comrades?" the stranger whispered into his ear. "Which direction?"

The Ranger was too weak, too close to fainting, to think of an answer. He saw blackness approaching, and he knew there was nothing he could do to keep it away much longer. He concentrated on an answer, his weary mind spinning in search for the words.

"Don't move! Drop your weapons!" Anborn? "Get off the horse. Now!" Anborn! He would recognize the deep, slightly hoarse voice anywhere. He was safe, his fellow Rangers had found him.

Darkness came, and he embraced it.

The loud wail of a horse pierced the cold midnight's air, and the three Rangers stopped in their tracks, listening. There was another cry, fainter, clearly uttered by a human voice. The men unsheathed their swords, there were no words necessary to coordinate their movements. The first vanished in the undergrowth to the north, the second made his way to the south, while the third continued westbound, moving almost without a sound. They knew the area well, and they were accustomed to disappear in the blink of an eye and reappear whenever it served their purpose. Their strides, careful and measured, were long and fast, covering great distances with a single movement.

There was no second cry, only the sound of battle far away, but one loud cry was enough to lead these men into the right direction. They were moving fast, knowing that a single cry in the silent forest could be heard across a great distance. The clanging of sword against sword ceased long before they were able to reach the place where the first cry had come from.

They met again at a small clearing and were greeted by a sight of death. There was a brown horse, slain by many arrows, and eight Orcs were piled about each other, the earth dark with their blood. A ninth Orc lay alone, his big ugly head severed from his body, his cruel, dead eyes staring in disbelief, a short bow still in his cold hand.

"Anborn?" one of the Rangers asked his leader.

"Must be one of us. He cannot be far, the bodies are warm," Anborn answered.

"I wonder why he left this place," the third Ranger mused, his voice no louder than a whisper. "I don't believe he came out of this fight unharmed."

Anborn gestured to his left and his right, and the Rangers split up again, carefully moving about the clearing, searching for tracks on the ground. Anborn found fresh hoof prints and waved his comrades to follow him.

The Rangers did not have to pursue the tracks for long. Soon they heard the slow hoof beat of a single horse, and they hurried to surprise the animal from behind.

It was an ugly, big, brown steed, his long mane dishevelled, his tail adorned with leaves and dirt. It bore no saddle, and an old bridle with ropes as reins was knotted around his heavy head. On his back was a hooded figure, cradling the limp form of Beldil, one of their messengers, before him.

Anborn knew the messenger well, Beldil had been with the Ithilien company for years and had set out to Minas Tirith with an urgent message less than a week ago. They had fought side by side in many battles and had shared wine and bread and more than one tale during the cold winter nights.

Anborn sheathed his sword and readied his bow. "Don't move! Drop your weapons!" he shouted. "Get off the horse. Now!"

The horse stopped in his slow walk. The rider did not move, neither to look around in surprise, nor to reach for a weapon.

Anborn and his men slowly walked around to face him.

The hooded figure was small, smaller than any of them, his slender arms were locked around Beldil's lifeless form, keeping him from sliding off the horse. There was a short sword at his side, and he had a bow and a quiver with arrows on his back. His hands and clothes were stained with the black blood of Orcs, and there were patches of red blood as well.

"Drop your weapons and get off the horse!" Anborn commanded again, taking aim at the hooded figure. His companion mirrored his action.

"I would obey, my lord," a slightly hoarse voice answered from under the hood, "but to drop my weapons I have to take my hands off this wounded man, and I do not want him to fall to the ground again. He lost consciousness a minute ago. "

Anborn nodded to Galdor, and the Ranger dropped his bow and moved forward to help his wounded comrade.

"Hand him over," Anborn said. "Slowly."

The hooded figure did as he was told, reluctantly he loosened his grip about the wounded messenger, and Beldil slid down into the waiting arms of his fellow Ranger. The hooded rider dismounted his ugly steed and stretched out his bloody hands, palms turned upwards, to show he meant no harm. He was small and slender, the big horse loomed like a giant over its master, its long tail fluttering in the cool breeze.

"Take off your hood and show your face," Anborn commanded, his arrow still ready on the bowstring.

"As you wish, my lord." One of the dirty hands moved upwards and cast back the hood.

Anborn lowered his bow and grunted in surprise.

Big, dark eyes mirrored the pale light of the moon and gazed at him from under a mop of unruly black hair. The hooded rider was no more than a boy, his beardless, boyish face trying to appear calm, but the fear in his eyes belying the defiant set of his jaw. At the neck of his shirt, the white tree of Gondor became visible in the darkness. "My name is Anakil, son of Anabar of the Anduin," he introduced himself. His voice was slightly hoarse, it had not yet broken to be that of a man.

The boy lowered his gaze to stare at his blood covered hands, and suddenly his defiant face crumbled. His shoulders started to shake, his hands shoot to hold his stomach, and he doubled over, retching and vomiting.

Anborn shouldered his bow, and a flicker of understanding crossed his eyes. He ordered Darung with a silent nod to help Galdor with Beldil and moved forwards to put a soothing hand on the retching boy's back. "You killed that ninth Orc?" he asked quietly. "Your first bloody fight?"

The boy raised his head and nodded, then he bent forward again to empty the remaining content of his stomach onto the forest floor. As his moment of sickness was over, the boy tried to regain his composure, but his hand continued to tremble. He spit on the ground, then wiped his mouth and stared at his feet to hide an embarrassed flush, clearly visible despite the darkness of the night.

Anborn scrutinized the small, slender youth with a piercing gaze and folded his arms across his chest. "Don't be ashamed," he said. "Things happen when the tension is over."

The boy raised his head, his dark eyes glistening wet in the moonlight. He moved one hand over his face, leaving a trail of blood and dirt. "Things should not happen to me, my lord."

"Don't call me lord, Anakil, son of Anabar. But tell me, what are you doing on the eastern shore of Anduin, in the middle of the night."

The boy squared his narrow shoulders, and his hands stopped trembling. A hand shot up to touch Gondor's sign at his shirt. "I crossed the Anduin at Osgiliath, for I have a message for the Captain of the Ithilien Rangers."