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In remembrance of Zoe, a pony-sized pup who gave us seven years of love and joy.
This is not a sad story, for Zoe never wanted to see us sad, but when she sensed that all was not well, she would clown and cuddle and snuggle and even lick away tears when it became necessary. No, I've tried to write as light and comical as Zoe herself, with some of her warm snuggliness thrown in here and there for good measure.
Our friends are still talking about how fierce she was, throwing her not-inconsiderable bulk against the door when someone knocked, while barking furiously -- and then once you were admitted to the inner circle by being invited over the threshold, she tried to convince you that she was a lapdog. A nearly-100-pound lapdog, but a lapdog nevertheless.
They also like to laugh about how she'd sit on the couch "just like a person". (Well, she thought she was.) She was large enough that she could just back up to the couch and sit down. Not a few visitors were startled by a large dog sitting herself down on the couch (feet still on the floor!) and looking over companionably as if to ask about the latest gossip.
She was also the sneakiest thief I've ever known. Imagine the meat, gone from the middle of a sandwich, without any disturbance of the bread on top or bottom.
She absolutely adored Larner's dogs. I'm not sure the feeling was mutual... (sort of like an Ent trying to befriend a hobbit, I should think)
First chapter was published some years ago as a stand-alone story, inspired by Zoe's coming into our family, but the story begged a "what came after" and, in reflecting on Zoe's life (and "Zoe" means "life" in Greek), a bit more came to me.
Love you, Jo-Jo. Miss you.
Dreamflower has been posting a delightful series of chapters on Shire etiquette, as penned by Bilbo's very well-informed relative Miss Dora Baggins. A recent chapter on "The Giving of Gifts" sparked this bit of whimsy. Thanks, Dreamflower, for the spark of inspiration and for looking this over before it was posted!
And yet, I may pause here to say a Word on the Receiving of Gifts: a Gift is never to be turned away, whatever the reason. It is a Most Offensive Insult to Refuse a Gift!
Chapter 1. Let Sleeping Dogs Lie
‘What is it?’ Frodo said, eyeing the furry mountain all but dwarfing his young cousin. ‘Some sort of lap robe?’
‘It’s a puppy!’ Pippin said, his tone indignant. ‘Really, Frodo, I should think that you of all people would know a puppy when you see one!’
‘Looks more like a young Oliphaunt to me,’ Merry said aside.
‘A very hairy Oliphaunt,’ Frodo agreed.
Pippin’s face was turning red, but he managed an even tone—one of the signs that he’d matured over the past half-year or so—even though the space between his words gave evidence of his perturbation. ‘It—is—a—puppy!’ he said.
‘A very large puppy,’ Merry said, and couldn’t resist adding, ‘Are you sure it’s not a pony, by chance?’
‘Merry, I should think you of all people should recognise the difference between a pony and a puppy,’ Pippin said severely, but Frodo interrupted, for he’d moved in order to be able to eye the bundle of fur from another angle.
‘From the size of those feet, it’ll be as large as a pony when it’s grown.’
‘Then Pip can ride him home!’ Merry said with a shout, while Sam, fussing over the tea tray, fixing a plate to tempt Mr. Frodo’s appetite, accompanied by the perfect cup of tea, paused in dismay.
‘I do hope we don’t have to wait until he grows up, before we’re on our way home again!’ he muttered. Far be it from him to join in the conversation with his betters, here in the privacy of the guest-house, where people weren’t falling all over themselves to bow down to him and call him “my Lord” and all sort of uncomfortable things.
But Merry heard, and turned around to advance on the tea tray, with a slap of approval for the gardener’s shoulder. ‘Well spoken, Sam!’ he said. ‘Worth saying twice!’
And when Sam blushed and shook his head, Merry repeated the sentiment for him. ‘I hope we don’t have to wait until he grows up! From the look of him, he’s just left his mum, hasn’t he? He’s much too young to be walking the length of Middle-earth, and much too big to carry!’
The pup under discussion raised a sleepy head and yawned, disclosing long, needle-sharp milk teeth. By hobbit standards, these might have made fine daggers or ice picks.
Frodo, though he did not fear dogs as a rule, was reminded of Farmer Maggot’s enormous brutes, and he shuddered.
‘But you’re taking cold, cousin,’ Pippin said, struggling a little against the weight that pinned him to the floor. ‘You ought to cuddle up with Mittens, here.’
‘Mittens!’ Merry said in astonishment. One of his aunts had had a cat by that name, a small, tidy, white-pawed, engaging creature that purred whenever someone glanced in its direction. ‘What sort of name is that? This beast ought to bear a name like “Wolf”, or “Fang”, or...’
‘Oliphaunt!’ Frodo said, accepting the cup of tea Sam brought him with a grateful look. ‘Mmm, just right, Sam, thank you.’
‘Plenty more where that came from,’ Sam said stoutly, going back to the tea tray. ‘The teapots they have here are enormous, as you know, Mr. Frodo! Even cosied, I’m not sure we’ll be able to finish it all before it goes cold.’
‘Well then, we had better get to work,’ Merry said, lifting the heavy pot with a grimace. Sam hurried to help him, and together they managed to pour out three more cups, lightening the pot appreciably. The cups, too, were man-sized, after all.
‘You know how Paladin is,’ Frodo went on. ‘He has no use for pets... every creature on the farm must earn its keep. He doesn’t want any useless animals, eating their heads off...’ he gave the “puppy” a considering look. ‘And this one looks as if he’d eat quite a bit, given half a chance.’
‘He could herd sheep,’ Merry said, and then put his cup down as he was convulsed with laughter at the image that rose in his mind. ‘The poor things would be so petrified at his appearance, they’d bunch together and never scatter nor wander.’
‘They’d probably die of fright at first glimpse,’ Frodo amended. He sat himself down on the other end of the hearthrug to enjoy the cheery blaze on the hearth, set his teacup down on the floor beside him and accepted the plate that Sam laid in his lap. ‘My,’ he said. ‘Look at that! Fresh fruit! Strawberries! Where do you think it all came from?’
‘Sunlands, Mr. Frodo, those melons; and the strawberries are from Lossarnach,’ Sam said. ‘You ought to see all the new things on offer in the market now! Minas Tirith is no longer living off stores. The siege is well and truly over with, and there’s plenty of food now, and no more soldier’s rations.’
‘The siege ought to be over by now,’ Frodo said. ‘We’ve been here a month, already.’
‘Has it been a whole month?’ Merry cried. He went over to the bench by the window. It was a simple matter to climb up on the child’s footstool that Bergil had found for them, and from there up on to the window-seat, where he stood peering out. ‘The window boxes are blooming!’ he said.
Sam nodded. He’d noticed that fact a day or two earlier. Spring, although belated, was in full force in Minas Tirith and surroundings. The Pelennor was green, except for a black patch, and farmers were in the field from before sunrise until dusk, and the stone window boxes were covered in green, with bright colours peeping out as the plants began to blossom. A late blossoming it might have been, but the people of the City rejoiced in the blooms.
‘In any event,’ Frodo said, returning to the subject at hand, ‘you cannot keep this enormous monster, Pippin. It’s just not practical.’
Pippin’s flush grew brighter, and he swallowed hard. In truth, he found the “puppy” rather difficult to manage, it weighing quite as much as he did despite its infant state. When he’d sat himself down on the hearthrug, after coming off duty, the puppy had happily bounced over to him and flopped itself down in his lap... or rather, all over his legs, nearly flattening him, and proceeded to fall asleep after a tail wag or two. He could not imagine what he’d do if the dog grew bigger—as it inevitably would.
‘I don’t really want to keep him,’ he said, though his hand went out to rub at a blanket-sized ear when the pup put its head down again with a sleepy sigh. The tail thumped again, briefly, before the snoring recommenced. ‘He’s not all that practical, I know, but...’
‘But what?’ Merry wanted to know.
‘But he was a gift!’ Pippin said miserably. ‘I have to keep him!’
Merry’s jaw fell open, and he exchanged glances with Frodo. ‘I never thought of that!’ he said. ‘O Pip, why didn’t you say so in the first place?’
‘I thought, perhaps, he followed you home,’ Frodo said. ‘I remember the last dog that followed you home, and you asking your da if you could keep him...’
‘I was only sixteen at the time,’ Pippin said, balancing the plate Sam gave him on the hairy back, where it stood at eye-level. ‘And you have to admit, it was a winsome creature.’
Pippin had a way with dogs, it must be said. One of his firmest friends in his early years had been an old sheepdog that followed him everywhere when the dog wasn’t following the sheep. The dog had been Pippin’s devoted slave, though it towered above him. Frodo had found it difficult not to laugh, to see the tiny hobbit order the dog to sit, and then lie down, and then get up and fetch a thrown stick, and then lie down again, for the enormous creature would obey every command instantly and with great enthusiasm, watching the young tyrant with adoring eyes.
The “winsome creature” had been a large, hairy and ferocious-looking mutt that might have been twin to one of Farmer Maggot’s dogs.
Paladin had persuaded his son to give the stray to a neighbouring widow, to scare away any tramping Men, who were being seen more frequently than before.
‘In any event, you’re saying this Oliphaunt was a gift?’ Merry said. He rolled his eyes and put a dramatic hand to his forehead. ‘What, Frodo, are we ever going to do? You know what Miss Dora Baggins always said...’
And the four hobbits all quoted together in the same breath, ‘...A Gift is never to be turned away, whatever the reason! It is a Most Offensive Insult to Refuse a Gift!’
‘Yes, but she also said that it was unkind to give an inappropriate gift,’ Frodo added. He set his plate aside—only half cleared, Sam saw to his regret—and arose with a brisk air. ‘As head of the family, I’ll handle the matter, Pippin. Don’t worry. All will be well.’
‘How?’ Pippin said, trying ineffectually to rise, but alas, he was firmly pinned to the floor for the duration of the pup’s nap. He’d heard that puppies sleep twenty-three out of twenty-four hours, and so he was wondering, dully, if he’d be found in dereliction of his duty on the morrow, having spent the night trapped under this furry mountain, and possibly most of the morning, even into the afternoon, up until an hour before teatime, anyhow...
‘I’m going to take a page out of Paladin’s book,’ Frodo said, and dusting his hands, he turned to Samwise. ‘Thank you, Sam, for a delicious tea. Put my plate up, will you? I wouldn’t want the babe to finish it off and upset his "little" tummy... besides which, I might feel a bit peckish when I return.’
‘I’ll be happy to, Mr. Frodo,’ Sam said, putting his own plate aside long enough to pick up Mr. Frodo’s plate. Looking around, he thought the table with its sawed-off legs rather an insufficient refuge, for the pup, standing, would tower above its surface. He settled for the window-seat, and then climbing down off the footstool hastened to his own plate, to secure it as well; but Frodo ordered him to “stay and eat and keep an eye on our two young charges,” and Merry elected to go along and keep Frodo out of trouble.
And so Sam found himself sitting down again, to finish his interrupted tea.
Chapter 2. A Fruitless Search
‘But Beregond,’ Frodo said in his most reasonable tone. ‘Surely you can tell me who gave the pup to Pip?’
‘Gave the pup to Pip,’ Merry said. He could see that Frodo was tiring, having talked to nearly a dozen guardsmen without result. ‘That’s got a kind of ring to it, Frodo. P’rhaps you ought to write that one down.’
Frodo gave his younger cousin a pained look. ‘Merry,’ he began.
‘As I said, two guardsmen ago, I think we ought to put our inquiries off until the morrow,’ Merry said. ‘I’ve about walked my toes off, going from place to place in search of all the guardsmen in Pippin’s Company, and…’
‘And half of them are on leave,’ Beregond put in helpfully.
‘We wouldn’t be concerned with those in any event,’ Frodo said, relieved at eliminating so many possible leads at once. ‘Pippin was only given the pup this morning.’
‘And the half that are on leave, took their leave just after nuncheon,’ Beregond said. ‘A number of them would be miles away by now, but I'm sorry on your account to say that they were all here this morning.’
‘Miles away?’ Frodo said faintly, in wonder. ‘Don’t they live in the City?’
Beregond smiled. ‘My own father lives in Lossarnoch,’ he said, ‘and if I were allowed to leave the City, I would take my son there to see his grandfather, and I…’ he hesitated, and swallowed hard before ploughing on bravely, in a wistful tone, ‘I should like to see him again, once more.’
Merry blinked at this reminder that Beregond was a Man marked for death. By tradition, leaving his post during battle carried the penalty of death, as well as his other actions in his desperate fight to save his Captain, Faramir. He waited only to stand before the King, to hear his doom pronounced and to have it carried out. But Elessar was busy with many matters, and so Beregond lived on, at least for a time.
‘I understand,’ Frodo said gently, placing a hand on the guardsman’s arm. Beregond stood a little straighter, as if taking strength from the contact.
‘I thank you,’ he said with a bow. ‘I wish I could be of more aid, but…’
‘It is of no matter,’ Frodo said firmly. ‘We hobbits are in want of a little exercise, as it is…’
Merry refrained from rolling his eyes at this, though he really wanted to. Hadn’t he just said his toes were wearing out? Well, they might not be, but he did worry that Frodo might be overextending himself in this search, just a bit.
‘They keep putting more and more food before us,’ Frodo went on, ‘why, it’s more than even Pippin can eat.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ Merry said under his breath. ‘He can eat quite a lot!’
Beregond heard this, however, and laughed. ‘That he can!’ he said. ‘Enough for any four Men of my acquaintance, or more!’
‘He is a growing tween, after all,’ Frodo said in his young cousin’s defence. ‘And he’s been healing of his injuries since the battle before the Black Gate! Though he seems completely healed – it has been a month – it takes time for a body to replenish its energies after being laid so low as he was.’
You might speak for yourself, cousin, Merry thought, but he knew it would distress Frodo for him to say so aloud, especially in front of another.
‘Don’t I know it?’ Beregond said, gesturing to the sling that still cradled his arm. ‘I wish that my healing could proceed as quickly as a hobbit’s, even should I have to take in extra food for it to work that way.’
Merry was suddenly curious. ‘Have you tried?’ he said frankly, looking the guardsman up and down.
Beregond laughed again. ‘Hah!’ he said. ‘I assure you, Master Hobbit, that if I were to eat as much as your cousin, I should certainly grow – only it wouldn’t be new bone, blood, and muscle to replace what was damaged! No, but I should outgrow my mail, for certain!’
The hobbits laughed with him, but then Frodo was all business once more. ‘Can you suggest others we might talk with?’ he said. ‘I do need to find out where this pup came from.’
Beregond scratched his head. ‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, considering his words carefully, lest he seem to insult the Ringbearer by stating the obvious. ‘But doesn’t Peregrin know where the pup came from? Was the giver a stranger to him?’
Frodo gave a small, diffident cough. ‘Forgive me, Beregond,’ he said. ‘You have my pardon, though I ought not have put you into a position to ask it, in the first place.’ He cocked his head to one side, looking up at the tall Man. ‘You see, it has to do with Shire custom, and what is thought proper and polite amongst our people.’
The hobbits were not surprised to see a sudden eagerness light the Man’s face; he’d been curious about other lands and peoples since their first acquaintance – indeed, since Pippin’s first meeting – with him. ‘I would greatly desire to hear more,’ he said. Glancing at the angle of the sun, he added, ‘I have an hour more, before I must report to the Houses of Healing, where I am expected.’ And he moved his injured arm, as if to illustrate his words.
‘Come,’ Merry said, ‘let us buy you a mug of something – there’s an inn just up the street…’ And he persuaded Beregond and Frodo to follow him, and in due course the hobbits were perched on cushions on a bench, and Beregond on the facing bench, with mugs of beer in front of them. These had appeared quickly, and the innkeeper had insisted that there was no charge for them.
It was quite convenient to be a Halfling in Minas Tirith in those days.
In any event, they sat and talked contentedly for the next half hour or so. The hobbits told Beregond (and several other fascinated listeners, including the innkeeper, who hovered, and poured more into their mugs whenever the level dropped perceptibly) all about Shire customs regarding the giving of gifts.
At last Beregond understood. ‘And so you wish to find out just who it was who gave the pup to Sir Peregrin,’ he said.
‘Yes, and we want to do it quietly, so that he doesn’t suffer the embarrassment of appearing ungrateful,’ Frodo said. ‘Just a few discreet enquiries, you see, and spirit the pup off…’
‘You’d have to allow Pip to say goodbye,’ Merry said. ‘He’d be quite put out if you didn’t.’
‘The whole idea is to avoid hurt,’ Frodo returned. ‘Of course he’d be able to say goodbye. We wouldn’t tell him where the pup was going (such a disgrace! …to give a gift back to the giver!) but only that we’d found a good home for it.’
‘But why not simply do that?’ Beregond asked, sipping at his beer without much affecting the level. He didn’t want to show up at the Houses of Healing in his cups, after all.
‘Simply do what?’ Merry asked. ‘I don’t follow you.’ It is possible that his head was growing slightly muddled, as he was not being as careful as the Man about certain things.
‘Simply find a good home for the beast,’ Beregond said. ‘Didn’t you say that your people have a habit of… what did you call it? Mathoms? You take a gift and keep it for a while and then give it as a gift to someone else?’
‘Beregond, you are brilliant!’ Merry said enthusiastically. ‘Honestly, cousin, why did we not think of that? And we, the Shirefolk! It took a Man of Gondor to present a solution!’
Frodo smiled and shook his head. ‘I see only one problem,’ he said.
‘And that is…?’ Merry wanted to know. The more of this fine brew he took in, the fewer the problems he could see.
‘Who in his right mind would want a pup the size of a pony who likely eats as much as an Oliphaunt?’
‘At least it’s a cute pup,’ Merry said. ‘Very winsome and sweet.’
‘I think we’ll keep asking the guardsmen,’ Frodo said. ‘At least, until we run out of guardsmen to ask.’ He took a swallow from his own mug. ‘Pip did say that he was with a guardsman when the pup was presented to him... or that a guardsman helped him to bring the pup home, when the "little" fellow grew sleepy... or something to that effect.’
Merry sighed, and set forth to fortify himself further for the endeavour. ‘And then we can go back to the guest house and finish our tea? Or perhaps I ought to say “eventides” for it will be eventides by the time we return, at this rate!’
Frodo considered. ‘Well if half the Company is on leave,’ he said, ‘we don’t have all that many left to question.’ He saw the look on Merry’s face and relented. ‘Very well, cousin, if we’re not finished by eventides, we’ll call off the remainder of the search until tomorrow.’
‘Fruitless?’ Sam said, overjoyed to hear his beloved Mr. Frodo speaking of food – perhaps his Master’s efforts had improved his appetite. ‘No, of course we’re not fruitless! Why, we’ve strawberries, and melon, or had you forgotten?’
Chapter 3. Driving a Bargain
Sam had been able to entice the pup from Pippin’s lap with a palmful of mince, which he’d taken the precaution of ordering from the royal kitchens, albeit reluctantly. He didn’t like to take advantage of their position in the White City; he’d noticed an alarming tendency on the part of any of the Big People to refuse payment, indeed, to press their wares (or even possessions) upon any of the four hobbits who expressed the slightest degree of admiration. He suspected it was something like this that had trapped Pippin with the oversized puppy, and the lad was simply too polite to refuse the gift. It was too bad that neither of his older cousins, nor Samwise himself, had been with the youth, for they were mastering the art of gentle refusal, though it went against their better nature.
When Shirefolk offered a present, they meant it!
Not like the folk here, especially the Southrons! Sam had never seen anything the like of the brightly-robed Men in the Marketplace. O they bargained with the Men of Gondor in the same way the Men of Gondor bargained with each other, though their attitude was rather condescending, as if they were lowering themselves somehow by doing such a thing. But when bargaining with each other…!
Sam had watched one such bargain, while on a visit to one of the Southrons’ encampments, accompanying Mr. Frodo, who’d been accompanying the King. Apparently the Southrons wanted to honour this – he forgot their word for “hobbit” – who had been responsible for freeing them from the awful lordship they had suffered under, and under which they had been forced into battle. While Elessar and Frodo talked with the leaders, squatting together on the ground, with a circle of robed figures and wary guardsmen surrounding them, Sam had found himself wandering with Galador, a young guardsman – ostensibly assigned for his convenience, and to translate, though Sam himself knew this young Man to be a deadly force with all sorts of weapons and thus a likely, if unannounced, bodyguard – walking with him, gesturing to their surroundings and explaining the way of life of the Haradrim quite as knowledgeably as if he'd lived it himself.
He’d blundered right into a bargaining session, his watchdog at his side, a ring of crouching Southrons surrounding two more. The Southrons were elaborately polite, fetching a soft, knotted rug of intricate design, gesturing to him to be seated on it, quite as if he were Southron royalty, bringing him fragrant tea in an ornate, tall and elegant cup (all this, he was encouraged by his firmly smiling guard in an urgent undertone to accept, "Nod! Smile!").
He sat himself down on the rug, marvelling at its softness, and the guardsman crouched beside him, translating what followed in a low voice.
‘And now t’S’ad is giving S’al’an the saddle and the blanket and all the harness… and now in return S’al’an offers his favourite wife in return for such a handsome gift…’
Samwise was scandalised, but his guard was smiling, as were the two bargainers. ‘But what if he takes the Man’s favourite wife?’ he said in an agitated whisper. ‘Won’t they break out in a battle? Or does he not really love…?’
‘Hush,’ Galador said, though he seemed more amused than alarmed. ‘Drink your tea and watch.’ Sam sipped and watched, and Galador resumed his translation. ‘t’S’ad presents S’al’an with his favourite horse, ah, a white racer, very rare and precious.’ He cleared his throat, and Sam had the feeling he was suppressing laughter. ‘Ah, yes,’ he resumed. ‘S’al’an has just offered his entire household and possessions.’
Sam choked, and was instantly surrounded by solicitous, veiled Haradrim. ‘I’m well,’ he protested, waving them away.
Galador said something; another cup was brought, perhaps more ornate than the last, with much bowing and ceremonial waving of hands.
Sam, guided by Galador’s whispers, took the cup, sipped, smiled as widely as he could, and nodded appreciation. ‘Good!’ he said, with as much enthusiasm as he could muster. ‘Very good!’
The flock of hovering Haradrim dispersed, and the bargainers, who had stopped to watch this byplay as if it were the most important transaction in the world, resumed their discussion.
The Southron buyer casually tossed a silver coin onto a small pile of coins beside the saddle – Sam realised that he’d been toying with the pile of coin for some time now, adding pieces and withdrawing others as the two bargained. Though it was difficult to distinguish behind the robes and veils, the saddle-owner’s expression brightened, and he leaned forward a little.
‘Not to be outdone, ‘t’S’ad offers his entire household and possessions, including his precious infant daughter.’
Benumbed, Sam sipped his tea.
‘S’al’an offers his youngest and most precious son… for the youngest is always the most precious, until the next one comes along…’ Sam nodded absently at the translation, and then shook his head, and then remembering the myriad watching eyes, forced himself to nod again, though he disagreed with Southron ways. Every babe was precious to a hobbit family. It didn’t matter how many came along after.
‘We’re nearly there,’ Galador said. ‘When they start bringing out the youngest children, it’s a sign that the pile of coin is reaching satisfactory levels…’
Sam glanced at him in astonishment, but he was intent on the bargaining, his face as bland and cheerful as those Unveiled who were watching.
‘Inquiry as to the age of the youngest and most precious son…’ Galador narrated. ‘Not yet weaned, apparently, and in their beliefs that means he may not travel. Ah! The baby daughter is also a nursling. Very impractical to trade…’
The Southron bargaining for the saddle tossed another silver coin onto the pile, but withdrew a smaller coin. It seemed enough to tip the balance, for there was a shout from the saddle-owner, and he rose from his crouch and attacked the other Man, taking him in a great wrestling hold and thumping his back most alarmingly.
Sam tensed, spilling his tea, and looked to Galador, who was slowly standing to his feet, but then the Man bent down to offer him a hand. ‘Bargain is concluded,’ he said. ‘t’S’ad will accept the silver coin in lieu of S’al’an’s family and household, as being more convenient to carry about with him, and S’al’an accepts the saddle as being enough to encumber the back of his horse, without having to carry about ‘t’S’ad’s worldly goods as well…’
And Sam saw that the other Man in the bargain was “giving as good as he got” in terms of a Shire wrestling match, and that the two were laughing while thumping and rolling about like bears. Remembering Galador’s earlier advice, before they approached the encampment, to show no surprise, no matter what he might see, he simply smiled faintly and nodded. ‘I see,’ was all he said.
When they had returned to the safety and privacy of the guest house, he had shaken his head for a long, long time. Southrons were a curious folk, and no mistake! He marvelled that Strider and Galador got along so well with them, as if they understood the fellows.
Now, watching the pup devour the minced beef in the oversized mixing bowl brought from the royal kitchens for that very purpose, he shook his head once more, remembering. What in the world would Pippin have done, if a Southron had appeared to give him his entire household and all his possessions, down to that “most precious” newborn babe! And Pip, bound by the constraints of Shire tradition, obliged to accept and keep a gift!
Sam shuddered. It didn’t bear thinking about. He’d have to warn the others not to begin a bargain with any bright-robed Southron. Especially Mr. Pippin. He shuddered again at the thought of the young one returning to the Shire with a tall, brightly robed Southron wife in tow.
An oliphaunt, er, dog, was bad enough!
Chapter 4. Early Morning Excursion
Merry hauled Pippin out of bed extra early. ‘But I was sleeping!’ Pippin protested. ‘I don’t have the duty until just before teatime today… I’m supposed to stand behind Strider at tonight’s banquet with the Haradrim…’
‘So was I,’ Merry said grimly. ‘Sleeping, that is. Until the Babe thought he’d stand on top of me and wash my face for me with a flannel-sized tongue… Now my face smells of dog’s breath!’ Unconsciously, he rubbed at his right shoulder, a little worse for the wear after being stood upon by a large, active puppy, not to mention the tussle of ejecting the pup from his bed. ‘I think he’s wanting to play, and in need of some healthful exercise. Why don’t you take him for a walk!’ It was not a suggestion.
Pippin hauled himself out of bed with a sigh. It was not his place to grumble, as he knew very well the pup was his responsibility more than anyone else’s. He only hoped that he could find someone to watch the pup while he and the others were at tonight’s banquet. Bergil, perhaps? He splashed his face and dressed quickly.
Of course he was hungry, entering the kitchen – what tween wouldn’t be? But one look at Sam’s closed expression and he knew that any inquiry after food would not be a good idea. The pup was happily gnawing away at a meaty knucklebone. Its tail wagged upon Pippin’s entrance, and it jumped up to tender an enthusiastic greeting. Pippin warded off the hairy face with a little difficulty. He could see Merry’s point about puppy breath.
‘Come along, Mittens,’ he said, picking up the rope he’d coiled and left on the bench. The widow had given him the rope to lead the pup homeward, for she hadn’t a leash to spare when she’d presented him to Pippin. It would have to serve. He couldn’t very well tie the pup up anywhere, using the rope – the little fellow would simply gnaw through it, and the thought of the babe loose in the busy streets of Minas Tirith didn’t bear contemplating. He saw the reason for Sam’s unease – one of the legs of the bench bore the marks of dedicated chewing. It must have happened in the night some time, as the pup had been snuggled close to Pippin, sharing his bed, when he’d fallen asleep. ‘We’ll have some breakfast after our morning constitutional, shall we?’
He resisted taking an apple or two from the bowl on the table, though he might rue that decision later. It would only be a short excursion, after all, just enough for the pup to work off some energy, and perhaps take care of some bodily needs. He’d have to find a grassy space. He took some brown paper from a shelf, originally used to wrap a parcel brought home from the marketplace, and folding it, shoved it in his pocket. He’d need to clean up after the pup, and not leave filth in the grass for some unwary person (or heedless child at play) to step in.
It was very early, he saw as they stepped out the door, the pup frolicking happily, absolutely thrilled at the excursion. Thankfully the fellow was small enough that Pippin could control him by main force, pulling on the rope, though it gave his ribs a twinge, and he had to change from his sword arm to his other hand lest the pull prove too strong. ‘This way, Mittens!’ he called, whenever the pup tried to drag him in a different direction.
As the pup was of one of the more intelligent breeds, and eager to please a master, it soon seemed to catch the idea of walking on a rope.
Not many were about in the streets at this hour, though the good smell of baking was in the air, from the various bakeries in the city. Pippin’s nostrils expanded and his stomach gave a rumble. He patted it, looking down. ‘Soon!’ he said. ‘First things first!’
They headed down to the lower levels. Pippin seemed to recall some expanses of grass near inns in the First and Second Circles, where people would be unlikely to be bothered if he let the pup off the rope to run and play for a bit. The First Circle, after all, had been badly damaged in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, by fire and war machine, and part of the Second Circle as well, though not as badly damaged. Walking down to the lowest levels would make for a good, long walk for the pup, and together with the frolic on the grass (the pup already knew how to retrieve a thrown object and delighted in the sport) and the walk back up to the guest house (and Pippin certainly hoped he wouldn’t have to try to carry the pup part of the way!) the little one ought to sleep well and long and allow him some time to himself afterward.
And then, well enough before teatime to allow him to be on time for his duty, they’d walk down to the lower Circles, play, and walk up again, and hopefully the pup would sleep until Pippin returned from the banquet. That was the plan, anyhow. He hoped it would tire the pup as much as it would tire himself!
As they passed through the gate to the Fourth Circle, he was hailed by a cheerful voice. ‘Bergil!’ he said. ‘What are you doing, out and about at this hour?’
The pup greeted the boy with great enthusiasm, and it was only by exerting all his muscles (sword arm included) that Pippin was able to control the effusive welcome. Still, better to teach the pup manners now, than deal with an unmannerly giant some months from now. His right shoulder, arm and wrist ached, however, along with his ribs, when he had the pup sitting nicely so that Bergil could pet him without being knocked down or jumped upon. From recent experience, he knew the ache would last some days. He only hoped none of the others would notice. Most especially, he hoped Strider wouldn't notice, and insist on some dreadful draught or smelly salve to aid in quicker healing.
‘Gilwyn sent me for a loaf from the baker in the Third Circle,’ Bergil said. ‘She says they bake the lightest loaves, and as my father is to come to breakfast with us this morning, instead of eating in the mess, she says we ought to have only the best!’
‘As you ought!’ Pippin said approvingly. ‘Perhaps I’ll breakfast with you as well!’ He thought he might be more welcome in Bergil’s home than at the guest house, the way things had stood this morning; and he could also ask Bergil’s aunt if they’d watch the pup this evening when he was on duty.
‘We’re seeking a grassy place to play,’ Pippin said. ‘Somewhere I can let this lad off his tether and he can really run, without inconveniencing others by greeting them and jumping up on them and that sort of thing. Too many are about in the upper Circles, even this early in the day.’
‘There’s a fine grassy place in the Second Circle, by the sign of the Owl and Barncat,’ Bergil said.
‘Such a hobbity name,’ Pippin said. ‘That’s one of the damaged inns, isn’t that right?’
‘Yes, the inn is empty, except for the workers who are rebuilding the damaged parts, and so there’ll be nobody to disturb by barking or running or jumping-up dog.’
‘There’s a mercy,’ Pippin said. ‘Well then, that’s where we’re bound, young Mittens and I.’
‘And I!’ Bergil said.
Pippin looked at him from under his eyebrows, something he’d learnt from his cousin Reginard Took. ‘And you?’ he said. ‘I thought you were to fetch a loaf or three of fresh-baked bread home! … and ask your aunt if I might come to breakfast?’
‘We’ll ask her together,’ Bergil said. ‘She’ll hardly say “no” if I say that you followed me home.’
‘I, and my little dog, too,’ Pippin said. ‘If he follows you home, should you keep him?’
Bergil seemed to find this a fine joke, chortling heartily, though Pippin was only half-jesting.
‘And what about the bread?’ Pippin said.
‘We’ll fetch it on our way back,’ Bergil said. ‘That way we don’t have to worry about keeping it in one piece while playing with the pup on the green.’
‘Aha,’ Pippin said. ‘I see. This is about you playing with the pup, I think. What about your school? It won’t do to come belated.’ For Elessar had decreed, the previous week, the resumption of education for the young inhabitants of the City, a part of life returning to normal, or what passed for normal – the people still weren’t entirely sure how to live in peace instead of on the verge of war and ruin.
‘School holiday today, or didn’t you know?’ Bergil said. ‘There will be a grand parade of Haradrim, up to the Citadel, and we’ve been released to see the spectacle and cheer for the King. It’ll be grand!’
‘Well then, let’s be about our business,’ Pippin said. ‘I would hate for you to miss your parade, or for your father to miss his bread at breakfast!’
Chapter 5. Best Laid Plans
While passing through the Third Circle, Pippin was hailed once more. ‘But Master Perian!’ came a hearty voice. ‘Stop! Please!’ Pippin realised that he had missed the summons – but there was a Man hailing him – a Man wearing a leather apron, and holding an awl in his hand. ‘Master…’ he answered, wracking his brains for the Man’s name. Had they been introduced?
The pup, however, seemed to know the Man – he pulled the rope right out of Pippin’s hand and ran to greet the fellow, jumping up with enough force to drive him back a step or two. Pippin hurried up to him, apologising profusely, but the Man only laughed, catching the rope and bringing the pup quickly under control. ‘Ah!’ he said. ‘That is exactly why I called to you!’
‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ Pippin said. ‘Your name seems to be evading…’
‘No matter!’ the Man said, his voice slightly muffled as he had bent down to fondle the shaggy ears of the pup, and ended having to fend off the hairy face. ‘I don’t believe we’ve been introduced, but of course I know you! I’m –‘ and his name was muffled once more by the pup, so that it came out as some sort of Er-Mmph!
Pippin was about to politely beg his pardon, and ask the name again, but the Man forestalled him, pulling a coiled lead of finely worked leather from his capacious apron pocket, attached to a collar, which he proceeded to fasten around the neck of the wriggling pup. In the end, Pippin and Bergil had to help to hold the pup, but at last the collar was on, and the Man stood up again, well pleased, holding the loop of the lead. ‘There!’ he said. ‘I saw you walking the beast up the hill just yesterday, and I told myself, “That rope won’t do – he’ll slip out of it, and be jumping up on people at the Market, or worse, stealing meat at the butcher’s stall…” or perhaps something worse,’ and belying these dire predictions, or perhaps because of them (as he was holding the solution, in a manner of speaking), he grinned widely and presented the loop to Pippin. ‘There!’ he said. ‘Now you can take firm hold, and you can buckle the collar larger as the little fellow grows…’
Pippin fumbled at his pocket. ‘What do I owe you, sir?’ he said.
The Man laughed again. ‘Why, naught!’ he said. ‘I’d hate for the little fellow to run under the wheels of a cart, and be crushed, for want of a proper restraint! Just don’t tie him up by it, or he’ll chew it to pieces. It’s good leather!’
‘I see that,’ Pippin said, and tried again. ‘But surely, it must be worth a great deal of…’
The leathercrafter held up a commanding hand. ‘The life of my good friend Beregond is worth a great deal more than a scrap of leather,’ he said, ‘and more than one of the Men of the City, who marched to the Black Gate in his Company, has told me the story of how you saved him, at great danger to yourself! You take it, and use it well!’
Pippin stammered his thanks, and then he and Bergil said their farewells and walked on. Bergil begged to hold the end of the lead, and since it meant a more secure hold than the rope had offered, Pippin obliged.
At least he hadn’t had the trial of having to ask the Man’s name again. He said to Bergil. ‘He’s a good friend of your father? What is his name? I didn’t quite hear…’
Bergil said, ‘Surely you’ve heard of Master Eradan! He does the finest leatherwork of any in the City!’
‘No,’ Pippin said. ‘I hadn’t heard of him, but I will be sure to remember his name. Perhaps later I can give you some coins, and you can go and purchase a finely-tooled belt of him, of the right size for a hobbit.’ He lowered his voice and whispered behind his hand, ‘I don’t dare try to purchase it myself! He’ll simply give it to me, and then Frodo will make me try and give it back, and I really do need a new belt!’
Bergil laughed heartily, and Pippin joined in. The people they passed smiled at the merry sound. Many called greetings to the hobbit, and to his companion, and quite a few stopped to greet the puppy and rub the soft head or furry ears.
Eradan was right, Pippin had to admit. The pup was much easier to control with a proper collar and lead, even for a lad of Bergil’s age (or a hobbit of Pippin’s size, for that matter). They made good use of the journey to work on teaching the pup to walk nicely, without pulling or jerking, and because the pup was a fine specimen of an intelligent breed, he quickly seemed to understand what was required of him. By the time they reached the gate to the Second Circle, he was walking quite steadily at Bergil’s side, and only occasionally pulling and whining or sniffing.
There were few people about when they reached the ruined inn, a fair-sized structure, two wings that ran from the street to the City wall, joined by a wide colonnade that ran the length of the street front, deceptively graceful columns supporting a roof, providing a covered passageway between the wings. Beyond, bordered by the wings, the wall, and the porch, a greensward sparkled in the morning sun, still fresh with dew. One wing was heavily damaged, obviously struck by one or more of the missiles cast by the Enemy’s war engines during the Battle of the Pelennor.
‘Wonderful!’ Pippin said. ‘Mittens can run on the grass, and we can even find a piece of wood for him to fetch, in the rubble there – do you see the splintered railing from the balcony?’
‘My father told me to stay away from the damaged buildings,’ Bergil said dubiously. The pup pulled at the leash suddenly, nearly unbalancing the lad, but he braced himself and called the beast back to order. He managed to coax the pup to sit, though it took some patience.
‘Oh, I’m going to stay away from the damage,’ Pippin said. ‘You can see where the wall fell outward – I’m simply going to retrieve a piece of that railing, there on the edge. Just hold Mittens, if you don’t mind, for I wouldn’t want him to follow me there.’
Bergil looked even more dubious at this, but Pippin laughed and held up his hand. ‘Really! he said. ‘There’s no danger! We will stay on the undamaged side of the yard, of course, and not go near the damaged wing…’
‘Except to retrieve the stick,’ Bergil said with a quizzical look.
‘Yes, and as I will be the one to retrieve the stick, everything will be fine.’
‘If you say so,’ Bergil said.
Pippin only laughed. ‘It is the work of a few seconds,’ he said. ‘Step in, and step out again! I learnt my lesson with that hill troll, I did…’ He looked sternly to the sitting puppy. ‘Now you stay,’ he said. ‘Stay there.’
The pup wagged his tail and whined.
‘Stay!’ Pippin insisted, and turned and walked towards the broken piece of wooden railing he’d spotted.
The pup whined and lunged.
‘Be careful!’ Bergil called, calling the animal back to order, putting the loop of the lead around his wrist, and wrapping it a turn or two around his arm for good measure. The hobbit waved in reply.
Pippin stopped short of the ruins and cautiously surveyed the damaged building. It looked stable enough, even with a gaping hole in the roof and part of the wall missing, and part of the building blackened from fire. He scrutinised the broken railing from the balcony – broken, not burnt. It had evidently been built in sections, for the piece he was after was not splintered, but seemed to be whole. He nodded. It would make a fine, sturdy, solid stick for the pup to fetch and chew, a good thing, for he doubted he’d find any fallen tree limbs lying about the City just waiting for him to pick them up.
He took a deep breath, nodded to himself, and stepped into the shadow of the ruin, stooping to seize the prize, and a bare second later, stepping out again. ‘As smooth as a sword drill!’ he laughed. ‘How pleased Boromir would be!’
He waved the stick in triumph, and Bergil cheered while the pup barked excitedly.
Everything seemed so right in that moment. Unfortunately, that was also the moment when everything went quite wrong.
A/N: The incident with the leash (lead) reflects a real-life incident where a very strong, determined puppy pulled an eleven-year-old child into the middle of a street, with a car bearing down on them. Thankfully, tragedy was averted by two very alert neighbours who jumped into the street, waving their arms and shouting, and a driver who was quick to apply the brakes. (Lesson learned: Don't wrap a leash around your wrist!)
Chapter 6. Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down
Pippin heard the pup bark excitedly, and then Bergil yelled behind him, and he turned in surprise, but Bergil and the pup were no longer at the edge of the grass, well away from the ruined part of the building. No, but they were close, and rapidly closing – not for any lack of effort on Bergil’s part. The boy was a hapless victim, being dragged across the grass by the leather lead he’d wound so securely around his wrist.
‘Mittens!’ Pippin shouted, and leaped to intercept the careening pair, but the pup lunged in a sudden change of direction, so that the hobbit missed his grab. ‘Bergil! Stop him!’
‘I can’t!’ Bergil yelled. ‘I’m trying!’ And indeed, the boy’s heels were leaving grooves in the grass as he was dragged along, pulling back with all his might. ‘Mittens! Heel!’
And then he tripped as the pup dragged him through a patch of rubble, and he fell face first, his shouts cut short, and the pup moved faster now, dragging his unresisting weight.
‘Mittens!’ Pip shouted, in hot pursuit. In horror, he saw the pup dive into the shadow of the ruin, pulling the helpless boy after him. ‘No! Come!’ He might as well have saved his breath to cool a bowl of porridge.
With an apprehensive look at the ceiling above (not that there was any question of following the pup and the boy), he ducked to avoid a splintered, hanging beam and was pelted by a shower of falling debris – pebbles, he thought, or pieces of plaster. The pup, yelping and digging in the rubble, was worrying at a wide crack in the crumbling inner wall. Pippin dodged to avoid treading on Bergil’s prone form, lying in the rubble at the end of the lead, and grasped at the lead to pull the pup away.
How he’d get the three of them out of there, he wasn’t certain, considering that Bergil was easily as tall as he was, and nearly as heavy. Though the thought of abandoning the pup to such a dangerous situation wrung his heart within him, he decided that he’d have to get the lad to safety first, detach him from the pup and drag him into the clear, and then, if the building didn’t come down, he’d go back for Mittens.
He grabbed at the lead and gave a last despairing tug. ‘Mittens!’ The pup might as well be an Ent, for all the effect Pippin had. The hobbit sighed and then coughed – the dust being stirred up by the pup’s digging was making it hard to breathe – and bent to pull Bergil loose, but the lead was wound tightly around the boy’s wrist and the pup was pulling it tighter. ‘Mittens!’ he shouted again, though it was more of a gasping choke than a shout, as he worked his way down the lead towards the pup’s collar. He’d have to try to release it there, and then pull Bergil free, and then…
But “then” moved irretrievably beyond his reach, in another instant of time, as the pup’s digging began to have an effect. A hole opened wider in the wall where he scrabbled; there was a subtle shifting, an ominous rumbling. Some instinct prompted Pippin to throw himself down over Bergil, sheltering the boy with his own body, as heavier debris showered down, becoming a deluge, a heavy fall – followed by a rising cloud of dust… and silence.
Beregond did miss his bread at breakfast that day, along with his son, but as he’d heard from another guardsman out and about in the early morning, that his son had been seen in the company of one of the Pheriannath, the Ernil himself, as a matter of fact, he merely shook his head. He’d chide Pippin later, for distracting young Bergil from his duty. He knew the hobbit took his own duties very seriously, but he’d also often heard Pippin encouraging youngsters in the City to play – not just encouraging, but organising, teaching, and leading games for groups, as well as individual amusements.
He’d have to have a talk with the fellow, remind him that while the hobbity adage All work and no play takes the joy from the day was true enough, it was also true that All play, neglecting work, grows a shameful, shabby Shirk! The older hobbits were quick enough to point out if they thought Pippin had sought enough diversion and ought to pursue some sort of productive activity for a change. While he had no fear that Pippin would deliberately lead Bergil astray, he certainly did not want his son spoilt by accident, either.
Just as Bergil was missed at home, though without worry or alarm (for what ill could happen in Minas Tirith in these days of peace?), Pippin’s absence at the guesthouse was remarked by the other hobbits, with some passing curiosity, but little concern. The four Shirefolk and the Wizard had fallen into a pleasant routine in the month since they’d arrived to take up residence, and it was not unusual for them to be found separately, as well as all together.
Frodo, when he was feeling quite well (and often when he wasn’t) found himself fascinated by the hoarded scrolls and books to be perused in the Hall of Records. In Denethor’s later years, this place had worn an air of dust and neglect, but it was a place well beloved of the new Steward, Faramir, and enjoyed new life, new light and air and a fresh infusion of workers to dust and sweep and set the rooms and their contents in order. Scribes were assigned there as well, including any who could write in a fair hand, whether it be a man or a woman, to copy out the older, more fragile records.
Gandalf, too, was often to be found there, reading slowly through some incomprehensible scroll, translating aloud as he went, that the words might be written down for modern minds to ponder. Sam, of course, followed his Master everywhere, and when Frodo went to the Hall of Records, his companion might be found contemplating an ancient drawing of a walled garden, or dozing in a corner; or going back and forth, fetching something for his Master (usually foodstuffs, but perhaps a cloak to ward off the chill of the stone walls as the day drew towards evening, if they had originally walked to the Hall under the warm, bright Sun).
When Frodo was not feeling so well, and it was a fine day (and there were many fine days, that Spring), he spent hours in one of the gardens of the City, enjoying the warm Sun and cool breezes, and watching Sam dig in the dirt, caring for established plants and coaxing new growth. This was partly on Sam’s behalf – Frodo didn’t think it was good for the gardener to spend so many hours shut up indoors while he pored over old books, maps, and scrolls – and partly because Sam thought the sunshine would do Frodo some good as well.
Merry took his turn standing watch over Théoden with other Knights of Rohan, the King’s honour guard, and was often called to attend Éomer, or sometimes Éowyn, whose appreciation of his company had grown as they’d waited for the end of all things whether for ill or for good. He spent most of his free hours with either Frodo or Pippin (or, best of all, the both of his cousins, and Sam, of course).
Pippin was in and out of the house, attending to his duties as a Knight of Gondor (including acting as escort to the Ringbearers, quite a handy arrangement on all accounts), or often visiting with Bergil and the other young inhabitants of the City – for he found them much too serious for his liking. They need livening up, he was fond of saying to his cousins, in soliciting ideas for new games to teach, or pastimes to encourage, or jokes to recount. And now with the puppy, he had a new excuse for being out and about. Thus the others did not worry overmuch at not seeing him – they simply assumed that they were “just missing” each other in passing, coming and going on a day that was more than usually busy, considering that they must complete all their personal business early this day. There would be a banquet this evening in the Citadel, and all of them were to attend.
Pippin, in point of fact, was on the duty roster to attend the King, starting just before teatime, and until the banquet’s close. The pup might pose a problem, being too young to trust alone in the house – but as Pippin and the puppy had been absent since the early morning, the others thought perhaps he’d gone in search of someone to take on the responsibility of keeping watch over the young creature, if not permanently, then at least for the duration of this important banquet, when the ambassadors from Near, Middle, and Far Harad would be feasting with their new King.
In any event, if the hobbits gave their missing companion any thought at all, it was fleeting, and not at all tinged with worry. As a matter of fact, Merry was rather grateful that his young cousin had got the puppy out of the way for the day. He recovered from his rude awakening, waited a while over breakfast for Pippin’s return (which didn’t come), and took himself off for a walk, whistling. On his own return, just in time for second breakfast (for Sam saw to it that the hobbits kept to the custom of six meals a day, now that they could get them), he informed the others that he’d found out that Pippin and the pup had gone off with Bergil, no doubt to introduce the two younglings to the delights of throwing and fetching sticks. He’d likely accompany the boy home again, to enjoy some of Gilwyn’s fine cooking, and as neither of his cousins had assigned him a task yet that day, and he did not have official duty until the afternoon, they were unlikely to see him again until that evening at the banquet.
Merry and Frodo laughed together over their young cousin’s cleverness. ‘Out of the house early enough, to avoid any and all taskmasters,’ Merry said, adding, ‘Why didn’t I ever think of that?’
Frodo chuckled and shook his head. ‘Well, you didn’t,’ he said. ‘And so, dear cousin, you may take his place this morning, and accompany me to the Hall of Lore, and fetch and carry for me when my faithful Sam is away, arranging sustenance.’
‘Your least wish is my greatest desire,’ Merry said with a bow. ‘And besides, I heard a rumour of some very old scrolls there, concerning herb-lore…’
Chapter 7. Alas! for the Gulls. No Peace Shall I Have…
Turambor, greengrocer of the Second Circle market, looked up at a not-too-distant rumble and scowled. ‘Those engineers,’ he said to his wife, Eliniel, tying up herbs in bunches with the fumbling help of their little ones. He counted noses, yes, all of the girls stood circled round his wife, and the boys were with their uncle, safely outside the City walls, inspecting arriving farm wains and intercepting the best of the produce for the Second Circle market. None of his little ones were free, then, and playing about (though they had strict instructions not to) the ruined buildings not yet pulled down, or still under repair. The First Circle, of course, had been nearly a total loss and would have to be rebuilt from the cracked and fire-scorched foundations. Parts of the Second Circle were badly damaged from the missiles thrown by the Enemy’s siege engines, some heavy rock shod with metal, others of burning oil, raining fire on their heads as the fate of the City hung in peril, unnumbered Orcs and Men outside the Gate, under the direction of their terrible Captain.
The greengrocer’s own house had been damaged in the siege, the spring rains now kept off his family’s heads by a temporary roof patched together with tenting material, after the Army of the West returned from the Black Gate and the Steward declared a quantity of the army’s supplies as “surplus”. Turambor wondered how long it would be, before his dwelling was whole once more. Hopefully before the chill of autumn rains set in…
‘Turam,’ Eliniel said gently, with a tug for her husband’s sleeve, and he came to himself with a start.
‘I’m sorry, my love, I lost myself again,’ he said, patting her hand. ‘What was I saying?’
‘I don’t recall,’ Eliniel said, and then directed her attention to the girls. ‘That’s right, Seledrith, pull tight on the string and Ailuin, you put your finger down firm, that’s the girl, until Sellah finishes the knot…’
Turambor smiled sadly at his brother’s youngest daughter, newly adopted into his family after her parents had perished in the siege. Her father had been a soldier, her mother a healer who found her husband’s head, branded with the awful Eye, rolling in the street during a grisly barrage. The little one, who’d been hidden away in the Houses of Healing instead of taken away in the wains to dubious safety, stood nestled under Eliniel’s arm, silent and solemn, though she dutifully held her finger on the knot Seledrith was carefully tying. The greengrocer reflected that there was more damage left from the siege, than the obvious burned and shattered buildings. And not just the siege… Memories of battle arose unbidden, and he suppressed a shudder and firmly pressed them down once more, focusing on the blessings of the here and the now. He forced more brightness into his smile, lest one of the children should notice his mood, and said heartily, ‘That’s the way! Pretty nosegays of herbs for our neighbours – tied up with bows, to brighten their homes until wanted in the pot!’
‘Only these will hang from the beams, rather than stand in a vase,’ Seledrith said, for she was a practical child. ‘In a vase they’d rot, and be wasted!’
‘Quite so, quite so!’ Turambor said, his eye going to the cloud of dust rising just across the way from the marketplace, and a little down the street. The Inn at the Market, it was, near his favourite drinking establishment, the Owl and Barncat. Former favourite, that is... like so many buildings in the Second Circle, the public house, frequented by generations of Guardsmen of the City and tradesmen alike for long years before the Battle of the Pelennor, awaited repairs, though not so hopeless a cause as the inn's damaged wing. They ought to pull down the damaged part completely, rather than leaving that dangerous ruin to fester and blight the neighbourhood. Then the undamaged part might be used to house those left homeless, at least until their homes could be rebuilt or repaired. But then, Second Circle was a long way from the Citadel, and the notice of the nobles and the King’s engineers… ‘Look lively, now! Your Uncle Calendil will be back very soon, and the Market will open soon after!’
‘We have a goodly supply of herbs, ready for the selling,’ Eliniel said comfortably, and bestowed a smile around her circle of daughters, all adopted at various times since her marriage to Turambor, and her two nieces adopted by her sister in law and Turambor's brother since the terrible Siege, but all children of her heart. She stood up from her stool and stretched, then added, ‘Let us lay them out on the herb table, shall we?’ She picked up the large basket and walked out into the Market, a plump and motherly hen followed by an assortment of chicks.
It was not long before Eliniel’s brother returned with nephews and several goat-drawn carts full of spring produce: strawberries and spring onions and peas and salad greens, still damp with dew and glowing with freshness. Strawberries! Though the besieging Orcs had despoiled as much of the countryside as they passed through, they hadn’t been able to ruin all… And with the farmers reclaiming their lands and replanting, next year’s market days would be all the more. There were melons, too, picked green and brought from Southern lands on ships seized from the Corsairs and turned to merchant uses, and other produce not seen in the White City in years.
The greengrocer put away dark thoughts of the past and gladly arranged his wares in a fresh, bright rainbow of sorts. ‘You did well, brother,’ he said, slapping Calendil on the shoulder as they stood back to view the result. ‘Very well!’
‘T’would be difficult not to do well, with such a jostling at the Gate,’ Calendil replied. ‘So much to choose from! So many farmers and merchants, bringing their wares to the City! And then of course, Turgon knows me well enough to let me through again without needing to wait in a long line for his inspection…’
And suddenly they were plunged into the business of the day, and Turambor and his family were busy with selling and replenishing the tables and tying up purchases – and the two older boys and their uncle came and went, delivering some of the larger orders to their destinations. There was, of course, the usual Market talk that went on between customers and merchants, or during lulls between the various sellers. The ambassadors of Far, Middle, and Near Harad would be parading through the streets from their encampments outside the Walls to the King’s banquet hall, after the close of Market. Eliniel made plans with the children to stand at the side of the street and wave bright cloths in celebration and welcome.
‘Fancy us welcoming them!’ Luinion, a weaver said in an undertone to Turambor during a quiet moment. ‘I never thought I’d see the day…’
‘I did,’ Turambor said briefly, and if Luinion chose to believe his words as expressing faith in victory over the Dark Lord, or the fatalism that had seized many in the City in those last days under Denethor, well, the greengrocer was keeping his thoughts firmly in the here-and-now at present, and did not care to elaborate.
No more clouds of dust arose from the damaged buildings skirting the marketplace. Turambor and Calendil took turns away from the stand, to go over their own home thoroughly, checking for new cracks in the walls, tapping at the bracing timbers to make certain they were holding firm. It might be better simply to sleep under canvas in the open marketplace… but an engineer of the King had pronounced the walls and foundation of the greengrocer’s dwelling to be “sound” despite the missing parts of the roof. “It can wait,” the Man had said. “There are other needs more pressing.”
The noise began not long after the morning buying and selling died down to a trickle of business. (On the other hand, perhaps some noise had gone on while the market was bustling, but went unheard or unnoticed until the relative quiet of midday.)
‘What is that mournful sound?’ Eliniel said, pausing in the distribution of soup and bread around the family table. They were eating under the open sky this fine spring day. Turambor and Calendil had moved the table and benches outside, “to enjoy the sunshine” as they told the children, and in fact it was a bright day, with a gentle breeze that sometimes carried a sad, sobbing wail to their ears when it blew from a certain direction. Calendil had been bothered enough to go in search of the source as the children were setting the table for the daymeal, but as luck would have it, the sound had ceased as he began his efforts, and the young man had shrugged as he sat himself down once more, a few moments earlier.
‘P’rhaps it’s the wind, blowing through a hole,’ Turambor said, taking up a breadroll and breaking it into pieces, the better to sop up his wife’s excellent cookery.
‘I never heard it before,’ Seledrith said.
‘Might be a new-made hole,’ Calendil said. ‘Some more of the inn fell in, it looked like…’
‘Inn-fell-in!’ young Turamir chortled, subsiding under a look from his father, Not a laughing business, my boy…
Eliniel’s lips set in a thin line, before she shook herself and briskly dealt out soup and bread. Thankfully, the noise subsided once more, and the breeze blew only quiet conversation from other vendors and their families in the greengrocers' direction. Eliniel, however, was evidently not completely reassured. Leaving her own place, she stopped at Turambor’s side and bent to whisper in his ear. ‘You don’t suppose something got caught under? A child?’
He turned to meet her look of concern. ‘Doesn’t sound like a child,’ he said. ‘Or perhaps I ought to say didn’t. What ever it was, it’s stopped for now. I don’t hear anything, do you?’
‘T’wasn’t a child,’ Calendil said dismissively. ‘A pup, perhaps…’
‘A pup!’ young Targil said in dismay, rising from his seat, echoed by one or two of the other young ones.
‘Or a bird, more likely,’ Calendil said. ‘High-pitched as it was, it sounded a little like a bird…’ Somehow he managed to calm the children into eating, emphasizing that the bird had likely flown away again, for the sound had ceased while he was searching for the source.
In any event, the market square was relatively quiet for the rest of the daymeal and the rest period that followed, quiet enough that Turambor himself began to believe the sound had come from a bird, perhaps one of the gulls that flew high above the City at times. They could occasionally hear the cry of a gull above the bustle of the marketplace, moreso now that peace reigned the countryside and fishermen came up the great River once more, to bring their catch to the markets of the City. Yes, a bird. That must have been what they’d heard, and mournful enough to trouble an Elf, but there were customers to see to, and greens to freshen with a sprinkle of water, and a jongleur had stationed himself nearby, with a laughing, shouting crowd loud enough to drown out even the cries of a seagull flying directly overhead.
Turambor looked up at a flash of white above, yes, a gull it was, bright against the blue of the springtide sky. He shook his head at himself, then, having once again given in to the dark imaginings that had haunted him since his return from battle. Just a gull, he said to himself. Stop thinking the worst…
He met Calendil’s eye and lifted one side of his mouth in a grim smile. The younger Man nodded in understanding – he’d been out there, by Turambor’s side, lifting swords heavy with hopeless determination, as the wave of hill trolls broke over them and Beregond, their Captain, had been seized and hoisted high into the air, on his way to an interrupted doom. Calendil, too, was prone to think the worst – which was why he’d gone out looking for a trapped child or animal when he first noticed the sounds.
Turambor looked up at a question about his herbs, and assuming a pleasant, interested expression, he began to pontificate on various recipes that would be improved by the combination of herbs in the indicated bundle. All the while, in the back of his mind, he was listening for the song of the gull above, and scolding himself. You bloody fool! Stop thinking the worst…
A/N: Title taken from Legolas' words in "The Last Debate" in The Return of the King. Turambor and his family first appeared in Just Desserts, a story set in the Northern Kingdom during Pippin's time as Thain.
Chapter 8. Just before Teatime
Ha’alan, highest ranking survivor of the host of Haragost, a minor domain of middle Harad, sighed as he veiled himself. Not for him, to go veiled, it was not a custom of Haragost, whose jackal-King wished to see the faces of those he ruled, that he might see the slightest tightening of the lips or blink of the eyes, and deal accordingly. But he was a minor official amongst the representatives of the Haradrim. Veiling had been decreed by the chief ambassador, representing the largest kingdom in terms of land and wealth amongst those who came to pay homage to the Conqueror. The Unveiled must cover their faces as well as their Veiled brethren, lest the barbarians should look upon their countenances and work magic to steal their souls, to sow mischief in the Haradwaith upon their return.
If the Jackal should see him thus…
His fingers tightened on the bright silk, and his young aide stepped forward, goaded to action. ‘You pull it out of balance,’ the younger Man said, raising his hands to adjust the fine, smooth cloth, difficult to grasp in hands more accustomed to the weight of a weapon. ‘Here, so…’ and he tucked the cloth properly into the headband, so, and warned as he stepped back again, ‘Now stop fidgeting!’
‘How ever have you kept your head, with your interfering ways?’ Ha’alan observed, glad of the veiling, for a moment, relishing in the delight of tightening his lips in irritation.
Young Ha’asal’s tone betrayed his amusement. ‘I nearly didn’t,’ he said. ‘However, the officer who had ordered my head to roll once we had properly settled the City of White Bones, conveniently lost his in the battle before the accursed City…’ He sobered abruptly. The time when they would enter that accursed City drew ever nearer. With nervous fingers, he adjusted his own veil. Would it be enough to ward off the evil there?
‘And so you were passed down to my command, along with all of old Ha’asadaq’s other responsibilities,’ the general said. He started to shake his head, only to provoke another warning from the aide.
‘You must carry yourself with dignity,’ Ha’asal said. He picked up the general’s scimitar and presented it to the older Man with a flourish. ‘Walk with your head high, turn your face slowly from one side to the other…’
Ha’alan did not ask his new aide how he had acquired all of this knowledge of the practices of the Veiled of Far Haran. When the young Man had been presented to him, after the battle, a sort of prize of shame for them both, for surviving when so many had perished, the new-made general had made discreet inquiries. Young Ha’asal had led an… interesting… life in his short years. The marvel was, perhaps, that he now stood before the general. And seemed determined to remain at Ha’alan’s side, no matter what demons or curses threatened.
‘And so we shall walk up the seven levels of that devil City in dignity and strength,’ he said, ‘all the way to their Citadel, whilst the crowds cheer us and wave their bright cloths to welcome us, and then…’
‘And then?’ the aide wanted to know, as he settled Ha-alan’s silken overrobes upon his shoulders, preparatory to tying the sash.
‘And then,’ Ha’alan repeated, waiting for the sash to be properly tied, securing the scabbard.
‘And then?’ the aide prompted once more.
‘Then,’ Ha’alan said, sliding the scimitar into the scabbard, then drawing it a handspan and settling it again, to make sure it would come quickly free at his command. He allowed himself a smile behind the veil. He might just get used to such conveniences. ‘And then, we will be in the right place at the right time. No walls before us to breach, no treacherous Black Captain to command our souls – we may slay and conquer at will.’
‘You’re late,’ Gandalf observed as the hobbits spilled through the door of the guesthouse, bringing life and laughter with them, echoing against the stone walls of the entryway, driving out the dignified silence that had reigned in their absence. The wizard thought to himself once more, how much richer his life had become since he’d first come upon a hobbit, many hobbit lifetimes ago.
‘Frodo here,’ Merry began.
‘I beg to differ!’ that worthy said, throwing up his hands. ‘It was yourself, dear cousin, who lost all track of time when you unearthed that treatise on healing herbs for head ache…’
‘I was only passing the time while you…’ Merry said in his own defence.
Frodo appealed to the third with them. ‘Sam,’ he said. ‘You know I have the right of it!’
But Merry was quicker to reply. ‘Not fair! He always takes your part!’
Sam stood with mouth open, but he likely knew better than to join in an argument of his erstwhile betters. The wizard thought his air of bewilderment was rather well-done, and winked at the gardener. Sam blushed and retreated in confusion – advanced, rather, to the kitchen corner, to poke up the fire and swing the teakettle over the flames. ‘I’ll have tea ready in three shakes,’ he said to the poker. ‘See if I don’t!’
‘Four at most, Samwise my stout-hearted fellow!’ Merry said, cheerily. Turning to the wizard, he added, ‘So, has Pippin…?’
‘I have only just arrived myself,’ Gandalf said, ‘and am on my way directly. I stopped in, in hopes of a cup of tea to fortify myself before we deal with the Haradrim… I have a feeling it might not go so smoothly as Elessar’s councilors are predicting.’
‘Mmm?’ Frodo said, sounding absent-minded as he arranged the close-written pages of notes he’d brought back with him, but the eye he turned up to the wizard was bright and keen, and a little of Gandalf’s concern reflected from his gaze.
‘They are warriors, fierce and proud,’ Gandalf said.
‘Defeated warriors,’ Merry said, ‘whose kings have sued for peace.’
‘All the more dangerous, for all that,’ Gandalf said. ‘They have not trusted their overlords, not since the Black Númenóreans ruled them without pity long years past.’
‘And our Strider, a Númenórean himself,’ Merry said thoughtfully. ‘They don’t know any differently…’
‘Not yet,’ Frodo said, standing straighter.
Sam nodded to himself as he measured out the tea. No doubt, the wizard thought privately, the hobbit was remembering his own suspicion of the Man who had accosted them at the Prancing Pony.
There was a knock at the door. Sam turned from his tea-making, but Merry was quicker. Throwing open the heavy door (yet so skillfully hung on its hinges, that it took almost no effort on the hobbit’s part), he looked up with a grin and delighted greeting. ‘Gilwyn! You are well come! We are just about to sit down to tea…’
‘I came to fetch Bergil,’ the boy’s aunt said, with a quick bob of respect. Having had the hobbits around her table on a number of occasions since the Coronation, she was able to treat them with more friendliness than awe. ‘He had the duty today, or so I was given to understand… he switched with Mosten…’*
‘I’m afraid you must have missed him,’ Frodo said. ‘He went off with Pippin and the pup this morning…’
Gilwyn rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, that pup!’ she said.
‘Exactly,’ Merry said, with feeling, and a sudden need to rub at his shoulder.
‘And Pip has the duty today, to attend the King,’ Frodo went on, ‘and would be there in the Citadel already, this half hour past…’
‘And missed his tea, poor lad!’ Gilwyn said, seeing Sam laying a basket of breadrolls next to the bowls of strawberries and cut melons on the table. ‘You’re just starting, and here he is gone already.’
‘I’m sure that lad has landed on his feet,’ Frodo said, while Merry rolled his eyes, and then the two cousins laughed at the same time. ‘He has a positive genius for cajoling treats out of the royal cooks, and returning to the Hall of Records with servants bearing groaning trays of food.’
‘Sometimes he has two teas, I’ve heard tell,’ Sam said under his breath as he added crocks of soft butter and jam to the table, and turned away to slice the cheese.
‘And so would have released Bergil, I’m certain, since we were not here when he returned to change into his uniform,’ Merry said. ‘Speaking of which,’ he gave Frodo a meaningful look. ‘We need to eat, and quickly, too! …and change into our own fancy togs.’
‘Just ready!’ Sam interjected, and to Gilwyn, of whom he was no longer shy, he said, ‘Are you certain you won’t join us in a bite, my lady? Kettle’s just coming onto the boil…’
Gilwyn refrained from telling Sam not to “my lady” her – it was a hopeless endeavour. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I must find that young rascal, so that we may stand along the side of the way and wave bright banners, and cheer our would-be plunderers, er, new friends.’ For she was not one to mince words. The hobbits appreciated her plain speaking. They always knew where she stood, and the seamstress’ humble yet comfortable dwelling had become a home away from home, of sorts, where they didn’t have to measure their words quite so much as out in broader Gondorian society, where their every utterance was noted and talked over and sifted for meaning.
She bobbed again. ‘I’ll just take my leave,’ she said. ‘But I’ve a new stew simmering in my kettle, this day, that will be fully ripe on the morrow – and I’ll need your fine hand with the herbs, Master Samwise, to perfect the seasoning before I serve it to any honoured guests who might happen along…’ and she swept the three hobbits with a meaningful look, before they all laughed together, even the wizard.
Ah, he thought, but Gilwyn was a good influence on his young friends. She was much like a hobbit matron of his acquaintance, who’d thought nothing of shaking a ladle in his direction and scolding him into sitting down to a meal, on the shady bench before her smial, when she thought he’d not been eating enough on his journeys. He added his respectful bow to the others’ as Bergil’s aunt took her leave.
Pippin swam briefly to the surface, but the waking was as terrible as the dream. Pressed down by heavy weight, he struggled to draw breath, only to have the dust in his lungs strangle him with coughing. Crushed as he was, just breathing was an improbability, and coughing nigh to impossible.
Hearing his young master’s weak moan, the puppy whimpered, scrabbled with a desperate paw, and began to shriek once more, high, heartbroken wails that would set any mother dog frantic, not to mention anyone else with a soft heart for younglings.
*Bergil’s role as page/messenger assigned for the hobbits’ convenience was first presented in Rabidsamfan’s marvellous story, The Errand Lad.
Chapter 9. Orders
Ha’alan turned to his young aide. He could see nothing but the dark eyes – soulful, he’d heard a giggling maid call them, but now they were completely serious, thoughtful, and in a but a little time – a little longer than the time to walk up the seven levels of the City, they would glaze in battle-trance, a state of mind to enable a Man to sing and slay and fear no damage – not even death – to himself. The Dark Lord had used this power to drive the Men of Harad to victory in battle, until even the fierce Easterlings walked softly when He’d gathered his forces together.
It was merely a small part of the Dark Lord’s power, but a counterfeit of a greater, just as Shadow’s creatures were ugly though effective counterfeits. Orcs for Elves, Trolls for the legendary Ents… Ha’lan had wished he might see an Ent, after hearing his great-grandfather’s stories of such wonders. But now, it seemed, he was fated to die without such a sight. He would die a glorious death, however, honoring the Law and the Giver, the Maker of all things in ridding the world of yet another evil. He would sing his death-song, and slay…
(And then, what?) A hidden corner of his mind raised the inconvenient question once more. They had been unable to resist the Dark Lord, following Him in blind thrall until the Power broke and they were left unguided, bewildered, seeing their folly clearly, many of them for the first time in their lives, as if a dark fog had lifted. To have been the servant of such Evil, and thinking that by so doing, they were serving the Law…
The Dark Lord had tolerated the Law amongst his minions, had used it to turn them to His will, twisting it so that He took the place of the Maker in their hearts and minds. Ha’alan still remembered the horror of awakening as the Power that had driven the forces of Mordor to reckless hate and fury wavered, its will removed from them. He’d come to sudden awareness, his own doom-filled laughter breaking off as doubt clutched his heart, and the clouds in his mind and heart rolled away leaving him naked and helpless before the unbearable clarity of unfettered thought. He’d awakened to find himself on the battle field, facing Men of the West, a deadly light in their eyes, aware of the sudden pain of his wounds, the blood running down, a weakness that drove him to his knees…
They would slay this son of Black Númenor, ai and as many of his advisors and staff as might be, before they were cut down, Ha’alan and the Faithful in his service. It was their place, as the representatives of the least kingdom of Harad, and so they might win honour and a higher place for their king, the Jackal.
(And then, what?) The Jackal was hardly an honorable Man, and yet Ha’alan was sworn, from the moment of his birth, to serve him.
I serve not Man, but Maker, he quoted under his breath.
The eyes of his aide, cast down in patient waiting while the general was deep in thought, rose to meet Ha’alan’s gaze once more. ‘Yes, my General?’ Ha’asal said.
His path should be clear before him – his doubts were merely vestiges of vanishing shadow. The Law had placed the Jackal in authority over him, and his duty was clear… to spend his life, to rid the world of a greater menace, perhaps, than even the Dark Lord had been. For the return of the Black Númenorians, ah, presaged terrible things to come, even more terrible than life under the Dark Lord. Not the least of which was the abomination of human sacrifice.
I am the sacrificial goat, he thought, without amusement. My life, in trade for that devil King that awaits us in the seventh level of this cursed City. I go to the high place, to lay myself upon the altar… Better to die, slaying his enemy, than to be bound with cords, helpless, as his blood was poured out to satisfy some dark thirst.
‘My lord General?’ his aide repeated.
Ha’alan nodded. ‘It is right,’ he said. ‘We will not walk up calmly to their “feast”, like goats to the slaughter, to be bound and laid upon their altar, though they think we have no choice in the matter, sent to our deaths, as tribute to save our lands and peoples…’
‘Will we not?’ Ha’asal said quietly. ‘Slay and conquer at will…’ he quoted, and his gaze intensified. ‘I thought you were merely wishing aloud. Our orders…’
‘My orders come from the Ambassador himself,’ Ha’alan said. ‘He will buy us some time, bowing to the Black King and suffering himself to be bound first of all our “offering”, to gain their trust that we will submit to them as we did to the Dark Lord – though at least He saw fit to sacrifice our lives in battle, rather than bound with cords as beasts – and then we shall strike! Slay the Black King first, even as he plunges the knife into the Ambassador, and then as many of his followers as we may, before we are cut down… and may the Maker smile upon our efforts.’
Ha’asal dipped his head and made the Sign of the Law – though Ha’alan still did not know if the young Man truly believed, or merely humoured his General. ‘And with their people thrown into confusion, the rest of our people may even conquer – but with our deaths we will win glory for Haragost, and our King…’
‘And hope for our families,’ Ha’alan said, and this thought strengthened his resolve. He gestured abruptly, with a fluttering of the colorful robes. ‘Go. Call me when it is time to form ranks for the march.’
When the flap fell over the entrance of the tent, Ha’alan knew he would not be disturbed. He drew his scimitar from its scabbard and kissed the shining blade, then prostrated himself on the soft, carpeted floor to pray.
‘Wonderful!’ Frodo said, though his plate remained half-full. ‘Sam, the strawberries…! That melon!’
‘Eat a little more, then,’ Merry said. ‘It’s a shame to let it go to waste!’ And you’re in little danger of it going to “waist” as things stand, cousin, he did not say, but might have.
Frodo shook his head. ‘I couldn’t eat another bite,’ he said. ‘Remember, there’s a feast to come, and not long in the coming…’
‘But long in the making, Pip would be sure to point out, if he were here.’
‘Well, he’s not, and as he’s already taken up his station, we might as well take a page out of his book and make haste, ourselves, lest we come belated. Why, Gandalf must be at the Citadel already, himself!’ For the wizard had taken his leave as the hobbits started on their second helpings, wishing to consult with the King before the grand parade and feast to follow.
‘My orders are to be standing at the Seventh Gate with my lord, to greet the Grand Ambassador and escort him to the Citadel, for the Rohirrim did great slaughter to his people on the Pelennor, and Éomer wishes to render them honour for their courage.’
‘We’ll hear the horns blowing outside the Gateway,’ practical Samwise said. ‘Even though it’s Levels below, the sound will carry all the way up to here!’ As they’d heard the horns, announcing a parade of Easterlings only the previous week, come to pay homage to Elessar and bring back reassurances to the lords of their countries, as to the benefits of cooperation. A grand parade that had been! And such a feast…
‘I don’t want to wait until I hear the horns blowing to dress in my fancy togs,’ Frodo said. ‘Why, I might come to the feast with all my buttons in the wrong loops!’
‘We cannot have that,’ Merry laughed. ‘And I might have my buckler the wrong way round!’
‘And Pip, with his silver Tree, will outshine us both!’ Frodo said. ‘We certainly cannot have that!’
Laughing, they went to their respective rooms to change – Frodo to the room he shared with Sam, and Merry, to the room he shared with Pippin.
…only to find Pippin’s silver Tree shining from the bed, where he’d laid out his kit that morning, before leaving to exercise the pup.
‘Pip?’ Merry said involuntarily, his laughter gone as quickly as the snuffing of a candle. And a little louder, ‘Pip?’
‘What’s that young rascal of a cousin of mine done now?’ Frodo called from his room, as his fingers worked the first button on the fancy linen shirt Sam had laid out for him earlier.
‘Frodo!’ Merry called sharply; and shaking his head, the eldest cousin told Sam to “go ahead with your dressing” and stepped out, working the next button – he hadn’t quite caught the knack of buttons, with his injured hand, but was slowly improving with practise – into the hallway, and across the way to Merry and Pippin’s room.
‘It’s what he hasn’t done,’ Merry said numbly, standing as still as a sun-struck Troll in the doorway, staring at Pippin’s empty uniform, neatly laid out on the bed.
‘That’s no gull!’ Turambor said, standing bolt upright, turning from the customer whose order he’d been filling. All around the emptying market, conversations had stopped and heads craned, this way and that, to locate the source of the heart-rending cries.
‘Oh!’ Eliniel said, her hand on her heart. ‘Oh! What is it?’
‘Where is it?’ her brother demanded.
‘Hush!’ Turambor demanded, tilting his head to listen. ‘Listen!’
‘A soul in torment…’ Eliniel sobbed.
Her husband hushed her again, taking a few steps towards the street, cocking a hand to his ear, the better to listen.
The sound of trumpets at the City Gate below drowned the desperate sound and distracted him. He shook his head, and frowning fiercely, he stopped and concentrated, for all he was worth, to try and hear the sound, to determine its direction, in the midst of the tumult of the gathering crowd and impending parade.
A/N: Some turns of phrase taken from “The Field of Cormallen” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter 10. Final Preparations
At the sound of the trumpets from the accursed City above them, Ha’asal nodded to the other Men of Haragost, gathered around him to wait for the hour of their doom. ‘It begins,’ he said. ‘Let us do as we must, with good courage and cheer.’
The others nodded, no joy in their eyes, nor pride of anticipated battle. They knew they were no better than goats, driven to slaughter before a great feast. At best they could march in good order, heads high, backs straight, showing no uncertainty in the face of inescapable, inglorious death.
Ha’asal knew their thoughts exactly; he had been feeling much the same bleak despair, until only a short time ago. Ordered to this ignomious death in disgrace, for having fled the battle of the Pelennor to the dubious safety of Mordor, and having survived the battle before the Black Gate when so many others perished. Succored, nursed back to health by their enemies, and sent at last homeward, to face the wrath of the Jackal king… The only way to regain his shattered honour was to march up the seven levels of the devil city, to offer his life in torment and bloodletting upon the altar of the Númenorians.
And what guarantee that his mother, his sister and young brother, should not follow in the same fate? What guarantee that his blood should buy their safety?
But what choice did he have?
He straightened, thinking of the choice he now had, and nodded. ‘Courage,’ he said to his companions. ‘I will fetch the General.’
He nodded to the guards outside the pavilion and pulled back the flap, finding Ha’alan standing quietly, waiting, hand on his scimitar. He saluted and turned back to the entrance, ready to lead Ha’alan forth, only to be halted by the General’s hand.
‘A moment, Ha’asal.’
‘The Men are ready, my General,’ Ha’asal said, suddenly and unaccountably eager. The moment was at hand. He was ready, at last, to get this miserable business over with. ‘The parade is forming.’
‘And it would not do to keep the Ambassador waiting for his escort of honour,’ Ha’alan said. ‘But you should know this, ere you follow him to his doom.’
Ha’asal swung fully around, letting the tent flap drop closed behind him, to stare into his General’s eyes. ‘What is it that I should know?’ His heart was already beating faster; he could feel the pulse in his throat. He’d take deep breaths as they marched, readying himself, even as he steadied his thoughts, focused his mind to bring on the battle-trance at the right time, in the right place.
Ha’alan lowered his voice to the barest breath. ‘I have changed my mind,’ he hissed.
Ha’asal’s eyes widened before he controlled himself and hid his consternation. ‘Changed your mind,’ he said in a toneless voice. And yet every nerve zinged within him.
‘I would not watch our Ambassador suffer such indignities,’ Ha’alan said. ‘He has been nothing but honourable in his dealings with us, with the other Haradrim… He brought us together after the Great Defeat, when we might have descended into chaos, madness, falling upon one another in mindless slaughter.’
Ha’asal nodded; though the Jackal king might have welcomed such chaos as a chance to win more land, more peoples, more power – he had not led his own warriors to battle on the Pelennor or before the Black Gate, had simply sent battalions in tribute, according to the levies demanded by the Dark Lord. While his people marched – as they thought – to victory, he’d remained behind, scheming, strengthening, consolidating his power that he might climb to a higher position, over the bodies of other petty kings, once the War was settled. And now that the War had been settled (albeit in a different direction than any of the Southrons might have foreseen), his schemes continued. Not least of which would be silencing the voice of the Grand Ambassador, who had the skills to unite Men to a common cause, suing for peace from the victors, where the Jackal would have been more focused on the spoils.
Ha’alan broke into the aide’s thoughts by taking his arm in a fierce grip. ‘I will not see him go quietly to his death,’ he said. ‘No! … but we will strike when he puts his hand on the hilt of his weapon, to draw it forth, to present it to that devil King Ha’alessar in formal surrender. That shall be our signal to strike! Let the others know…’ the General’s hand pressed down on Ha’asal’s arm, a staying gesture, ‘…but tell them only to be alert, to be ready to follow your lead. There must be no breath, not even a thought of what is to come, lest their demon Sorcerer should glean our intentions from our minds.’
‘I will tell them,’ Ha’asal said, stepping back as the General released his arm. He raised a hand to touch his forehead in graceful acknowledgement.
‘I will be right behind you,’ Ha’alan said. ‘Inform them, form them up, an honour guard fitting our Ambassador. And you and I shall take our places flanking the Guest of Honour at the devil-King’s banquet, and we shall begin our march… Empty your mind of our intention, as I shall seek to do as well, but hold yourself ready… Their White Sorcerer shall perceive, perhaps, your readiness as steeling yourself for the sacrifice. So we shall hope.’
Ha’asal bowed his head in acknowledgement and pushed his way out of the pavilion.
Preparations were nearly complete in the Hall of Kings, with many of the high and noble gathered, dressed in their finest, to show honour to the Haradrim. Guardsmen, pressed and polished and standing at attention, as still and solemn as the statues of the kings of Gondor, lined the entire perimeter of the Hall, and formed two lines from entrance to Throne. An honour guard, perhaps? Elessar mused, sweeping the hall with keen eyes, before his gaze met that of Faramir. Preparation for things to go as well as might be hoped, or ill?
The Steward nodded, holding his gaze for a moment longer than a cursory acknowledgment, and the King was reminded of Gandalf’s assessment of Denethor, and his younger son after him. He has long sight. He can perceive, if he bends his will thither, much of what is passing in the minds of men, even of those that dwell far off. It is difficult to deceive him, and dangerous to try.* Faramir was expecting trouble, and mantling his preparations in the guise of respect and high esteem.
Elessar himself had felt a sense of unease, growing through the course of the day, that he could not account for, as he dealt with the myriad demands, from the small and niggling (though Faramir was at pains to take the bulk of such upon himself, and spare his King) to the large and concerning.
He had been surprised, not to find young Pippin waiting at attention outside the door to his rooms, when he’d robed himself in the requisite splendour, and was ready to make his way to the Hall of Kings for this latest ceremony. Thinking perhaps the youngster had misunderstood his orders, he’d expected to see him here in the Hall, stationed by the Throne, standing at proud attention and very pleased with himself.
Where was the lad?
Trumpets sounded in a grand, high fanfare, and Elessar stood straighter, though his gaze was still locked with that of his Steward, as if in silent consultation. The feeling of something wrong grew within him, like an itch between his shoulder blades, awkward and annoying.
Faramir had confessed himself uneasy, early in the day. ‘There is a dark mood in the encampment of the Haradrim,’ he had said.
Elessar had nodded. ‘I have felt such,’ he had said. ‘The bitterness of defeat and surrender? But we will raise them up from the dust and ashes, and extend the hand of friendship—and their ambassador, at the head of the myriad kingdoms’ representatives, has given no cause for concern.’
‘He has seemed more resigned than anything else,’ Faramir had agreed. ‘I do not like it.’
‘Would you rather they storm the Citadel with drawn swords?’ Elessar had said, and then had wondered at the shiver of premonition that touched his spine, as if someone’s walked across my grave, as he’d heard one of the hobbits say upon a time.
Meeting Faramir’s steady, urgent gaze, he knew the Steward had shared the sensation, and now likely felt the same unease, the same sense of looming trouble, somewhere in the lower levels of the City, where the Haradrim were all too likely already marching through the First Circle, making their way steadily upward…
The greater part of the Second Circle marketplace, it seemed, had disregarded the admonition to stay out of the street, to stand at the sides or on the walls and wave bright cloths in welcome. No, but as Turambor and Calendil hurried from their stall into the street – Turambor so intent on tracing the sound of torment to its source that he didn’t notice the bundle of herbs still clenched in one hand – a quickly growing crowd came after.
Eliniel and the children followed, and the weaver and the baker and the flower seller came close behind, and a crowd of vendors and customers and yet more children, as if the greengrocer were leading a charge into battle, Captain of a rag-tag army that spilled into the street and promenaded in a meandering, undisciplined rabble from the market to the ruins of the inn. And others, who’d taken up places lining the street, ready to greet the marching Haradrim, joined in, still clutching their festive, colourful cloths.
Heart-rending cries split the air, a high howling and shrieking that made some of the followers cover their ears, and brought tears to the eyes of many. There were murmurs and cries of dismay from those who followed the greengrocers’ lead.
Where is it coming from?
The inn! The ruins – a child!
Someone, run for help! Run, fetch the engineers!
Run to the Houses of Healing!
Turambor trotted across the grass, slowing as he approached the damaged wing, and stopped short for a brief pause in dismay, or to consider, before a fresh wail, clearly coming from the rubble, spurred him into motion once more. He moved much more cautiously now, lifting his head to survey the crumbling walls that still stood, somehow; the hanging railing that had once guarded a balcony; the part of a ceiling not yet completely fallen in – just waiting, perhaps, to grasp him in its jaws. He raised one arm and held it above his head, as if to ward off the menacing stone, as he determinedly advanced into the very mouth of the trap.
Calendil, however, had the presence of mind to turn and hold out his arms to the sides, as if to form a protective wall between the following crowd and danger. ‘Stand back!’ he shouted. ‘It’s not safe!’
‘Turambor!’ Eliniel cried out, trying to push past her brother, though he held firm. ‘Turambor, what are you doing?’
For the greengrocer was still moving cautiously into the ruins, where dust was rising from another shifting of the damaged walls, sifting onto his head and shoulders so that he resembled a baker after tossing flour onto his worktable while vigorously kneading his dough.
‘Turambor!’ Eliniel cried again, but then Luiniel the weaver caught her shoulder with a hiss.
‘Hush!’ he said. ‘What if the noise brings it all down on his head?’ And at his words, those around him hushed their neighbours, and the hushing ran through the crowd, across the green, all the way to the edges that spilled out, half-blocking the street, heedless of the approaching parade.
*Author’s Note: Gandalf actually spoke these words to Pippin, about Denethor, but I have taken the liberty of assuming he might have said something of the sort to Aragorn as well.
Chapter 11. Battle Cry
(Content warning: the first section, up to the first set of asterisks, is firmly PG-13.)
Ha’asal marched beside Ha’alan, his General, the two proudly leading their countrymen, the warriors of Haragost, at the head of the parade. They were the vanguard, as it were, following the Grand Ambassador of all Harad – the position of greatest honour and danger. They would be the first to die, after surrendering their weapons. In tribute to the Devil King, to sue for the survival of the families they had left behind, they would suffer themselves, one by one, to be bound and laid upon the stone. There, they would await and then endure the carefully choreographed strokes of the knife, their lifeblood ceremoniously loosed to slake the bloodthirst of Númenor even as the terrible King prolonged the life of the miserable sacrifice so long as humanly possible. The Mouth of Sauron had seemed to take great pleasure in describing every detail of the sacrifice to the representatives of Harad, as he’d urged them to send their armies to support the Dark Lord in destroying the Men of the West. Ha’asal had heard the words from the Mouth himself as he’d stood behind the front rank of generals, one of many anonymous aides.
That was the death that the Men of Harad behind him, as they began their ghastly march upwards through the seven levels of the City of White Bones, anticipated. Ha’asal thought of his General’s plan. In his heart of hearts, he had no faith that the plan, bold as it was, would succeed. The White Sorcerer, for one thing, was all too likely to foretell and forestall any defiance. The Devil King, for another, was a fearsome warrior, the stuff of legend. His mail and helmet were said to be of mithril, which not even the razor-sharp, skilfully forged blades of the Haradrim could penetrate.
His earlier confidence in his General’s plan evaporated in the face of practicalities. Without missing a step, he nodded to himself. He would do his best to die honourably in battle. However, he had no illusions. The White Sorcerer, he suspected, merely had to raise his staff to send forth a flash of lightning and paralyse any Haradrim who drew their scimitars in defiance rather than surrender.
Ha’asal vowed he would die without a sound. The Devil King would wring no cries of agony from his throat, no matter what damage the knife might inflict. He would sing no death song as the knife did its work, make no “music”, as the Devils called it, to add to their pleasure. To steel his nerves, he raised his voice now in defiant song.
Only a few steps further in their death march, he heard the voice of the Grand Ambassador rising in ululation, sounding the high, piercing battle cry that punctuated the traditional song, and then the General of Haragost, Ha’alan, joined in, and more voices, spreading to the ranks of Haradrim from the other kingdoms of Near and Far Harad, following behind the host from Haragost, swelling the battle song as they marched to their doom.
Somewhere beyond the ominous creaking and rattling of the surrounding ruins, Turambor was aware of a sound that still haunted his nightmares – the battle song of the Haradrim, alien music punctuated by the weird ululating sound those fearsome warriors had made as they crashed into the ranks of soldiers of Gondor upon one of the two hills before the Black Gate. He lost himself at that moment, frozen in memory.
The growing crowd behind him, seeing him suddenly motionless, thought the building was about to collapse further upon the would-be rescuer and whomever or whatever might lie there, buried in the rubble. The hush that had already begun at seeing the greengrocer's initial tentative foray into peril now intensified and spread rearward from the front of the crowd, and somehow, the people stood as statues, all holding their collective breath.
Frankly, Merry had forgotten all about standing at the Seventh Gate at Éomer’s side, waiting to greet the Grand Ambassador and escort him to the welcoming ceremony and feast to follow. Instead of hastily assuming his uniform and hurrying to his station so that he would be in place well before the marching host of Harad reached the higher levels, he was instead at Frodo’s side, in the midst of an intense yet frustrating search.
‘Have you seen my cousin Peregrin? Pippin?’ Frodo kept stopping every few lengths to ask, whenever he saw a familiar face, and even when he didn’t. ‘The Ernil i Pheriannath?’ he’d add, for the benefit of the people of the city whose faces were not familiar.
Oddly enough, a few of those he stopped to question had seen their young cousin, being pulled along by the large puppy (‘dragged,’ some called it), along the same winding downward course that the older cousins now followed.
‘Early this morning, it was,’ one of the Guardsmen stationed at intervals along the way now said. ‘He and the pup were headed downward, some hours before I came on duty. Said something about finding a greenspace to throw a stick and let the young dog wear himself out with fetching and playing.’ In answer to Frodo’s next question, he shook his head. ‘No, I cannot say that I saw them returning again later.’
‘Greenspace!’ Merry muttered to Frodo. ‘I do hope we don’t have to go all the way to the Pelennor to find them!’
Frodo thanked the Guardsman and pulled at Merry’s arm. ‘Come along, Cousin,’ he said. ‘If we have to go all the way to the Pelennor, we have quite a long way to go before returning up to the Seventh Circle for the feast.’
‘At least we’ll work up a good appetite,’ Merry said in his most cheerful tones, even as his heart sank to his sure to become weary-and-sore toes. ‘I’m right behind you!’ Though, strictly speaking, the cousins were trotting along side by side as they made their way past the cheering, cloth-waving crowds.
Meanwhile, Samwise was trotting ever upwards, having been sent at the best pace he could manage up to the Citadel, to inform the King that his smallest Guardsman was missing.
Certainly, the grand ceremonies would not be interrupted, but perhaps Elessar or Faramir would dispatch a Company of Men to aid the search. At the very least, Sam’s message would explain the absence of the Ring-bearer. Go on with the festivities without him, Sam panted to himself, and shook his head. He could only hope the Haradrim would not take Frodo’s absence as a deadly insult to their honour, spurring them to march against the Shire to exact a terrible retribution. Generous, though they might be, and quick to render honour and hospitality, they were feared and respected by the Men of Gondor for good reason. Touchy folk, they were, tetchier than a Took, as the old saying went, and that would be saying something.
Several levels lower, and proceeding downward, Frodo and Merry found themselves the object of the cheering crowds assembled to either side of the long winding road. Some were, perhaps, puzzled, and one Man, apparently trying to be helpful, shouted, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’
But most seemed to accept anything the Ring-bearer might do as the right and proper thing. They probably think, Merry thought to himself, that Frodo has been sent to meet the Haradrim and lead them to the Citadel, perhaps the greatest honour that the people of Gondor could conceive, though the very idea of it would make any hobbit quite uncomfortable.
He shook his head at the weird ululations piercing the sounds of the cheering crowds, hauntingly familiar though he could not seem to place them in his memory. They appeared to be coming closer. He didn't know what they portended, but they were as discomfiting as any of the thoughts he might be thinking at this moment, missing younger cousin included.
All was blackness and crushing pain. Pippin’s fingers moved as if groping for the hilt of his sword, or scratching away at the prisoning stone. Somehow the sensations he was feeling were all too familiar, lacking only the stench of the fallen troll, and belied only by the knowledge that, far from being dead, Frodo had achieved his Quest and had been brought back to be showered with honour and acclaim. It was some comfort to know, even as he felt his mind falling away into a great darkness, that his beloved cousin was safe, if not completely whole.
But then the past came rushing in, bringing him shockingly to painful wakefulness, making him doubt his own recollection. Perhaps the rescue and recovery, perhaps the reunions, the celebration upon the field of Cormallen, the triumphant return to Minas Tirith, Faramir’s welcome, the crowning of the King... perhaps all of those things were but the dreams of his fading mind.
For, much in the way of the call, The Eagles! The Eagles are coming! – another sound arose, all too real and not nightmare memory. Pippin moaned low as he recognised the battle cry of the Haradrim; his fingers scrabbled for the hilt of his sword a final time, and then he was still.
In the Hall of Kings, high above the bulk of the City, many of the warriors who were waiting in readiness for the invited guests to arrive stiffened as a breath of wind carried the high, eerie ululations of the Haradrim to their ears. A mighty number of them had stood upon one or the other great hills of blasted stone and earth, piled up over years of labour by vile orcs, before the vast iron doors of the Black Gate that had yawned open as if to devour them, as the onslaught of the host of Mordor broke upon them, trolls and orcs, Easterlings and Haradrim.
The unnerving sound rose and fell on the breeze, overlaying the cheers to be heard from the people lining the long winding road, from the Great Gate all the way to the Citadel.
‘That is a battle cry,’ Faramir said urgently to his King. But Elessar stood as if formed of stone, as if he'd been prematurely transformed into one of the statues of former kings of Gondor in that hall. He stared into a far distance and made no answer.
The Steward turned to Mithrandir, only to see the White Wizard equally motionless, standing, straining, listening to something beyond the realm of sound. He closed his eyes, reaching with his whole being to grasp at the feeling of unease that had been haunting him since not long after the dawning.
When the distant ululations stopped, cut off as sharply as they had arisen, it felt to him as piercing as a physical pain.
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase taken from “Minas Tirith” and “The Black Gate Opens” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter 12. Call to Arms
Singing the battle song helped disengage most of Ha’asal’s thoughts from the dread fate that lay at the end of this march, serving to detach his mind from his body altogether, so that he moved as if in a dream. In just this way, in time of war, the Haradrim would move into battle, singing and slaying, feeling no impact of enemy weapon, no weakness of blood loss, no pain of wounds, even when gravely injured, so long as the breath remained to a Man to sing.
So it was, he scarcely took in his surroundings – the people of Minas Tirith standing at either side of the long winding road, waving bright cloths and cheering. Though some part of him perceived the open mouths, the rippling cloths, for all practical purposes he marched in a world devoid of colour, where all around him moved at a creeping pace in an eerie silence, except for the power of the song, issuing from his throat, that carried him onward towards death.
So it was, he stopped barely in time to avoid running over the Grand Ambassador, who had halted for some unknowable reason, in the midst of the battle song that urged the Haradrim ever forward, an irresistible force, until the battle was done or, overcome by their wounds at last, they died and fell to the ground. Momentum had carried General Ha’alan several steps past the Ambassador, but he, too, had ceased all song and movement.
Blinking, some sense of here and now returned to him as he stopped singing and came back to himself from the battle thrall to take in his surroundings. A crowd of Gondorians blocked the way. As if he must summon his consciousness from a far distance, Ha’asal’s mind sifted through the possibilities, rapidly enough even so, for on the battlefield a warrior must be prepared to meet any contingency. Yet he was bewildered at this unforeseen circumstance.
Few of the Gondorians, if any, bore anything that might resemble a weapon. Almost at the edges of his perception, Ha’asal recognised a Guardsman’s uniform in the crowd, but the Man’s sword was in his scabbard, not his hand.
The battle song cut off abruptly behind him as the massed marching Haradrim halted behind the leaders. Ha’asal heard the rattling of spears as the spearmen interspersed amongst the ranks of swordsmen grounded their long, slim weapons and stood, awaiting orders. Before him, the Ambassador and Ha’asal’s General stood silent, unmoving, as if turned to stone by the cursed White Wizard. Bewildered as himself, most likely, as he tried to work out the meaning of the scene they’d blundered into. The crowd seemed completely unaware of the encroaching Haradrim, oddly unnerving to the seasoned warrior. In fact, a woman turned and hushed him, even though he had fallen silent a breath or two before this moment.
No, but the people in the silent crowd were pressing eagerly towards one side of the road. And then –
Ha’asal stiffened as a wail, a high-pitched shriek of agonising fear and distress arose, answered by gasps from some in the crowd immediately before him. A child! he thought disjointedly. The devils are tormenting a child! His hand moved to the hilt of his weapon, and yet he hesitated in drawing it, for there was no dark anticipation on the faces before him, no excitement at the spectacle as he’d seen in public executions in Harad, but only... Fear. Dismay.
That was enough to decide him, and resting his fingers lightly on the hilt of his scimitar, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice, he began to push his way through the crowd towards the awful sound, barely aware of the Ambassador and his General falling in behind him and more of the Men of Haragost following, a wedge that split the crowd, causing them to divide and spread apart before the onslaught of Southron warriors.
Faramir saw Mithrandir’s eyes open, and suddenly the Wizard seemed to crackle with barely suppressed energies, appearing to grow taller as if his presence might expand to fill the grand hall, bursting the walls outward. He raised his arms, staff in his hand, and his voice rang out, shaking the walls. ‘The hour is at hand!’
All turned to him as he continued. ‘The Haradrim have come, prepared to sell their lives at great cost! Now is the hour of battle, when unending, hopeless war may well resume. Or peace...!’
‘My will for peace!’ Elessar cried, Andúril gleaming in his hand, for he had drawn the sword as the Wizard lifted his staff. He sheathed the sword and threw off his kingly robes, leaving him clad all in black, dark as stormclouds, overlaid by lightning of silver mail. ‘My horse!’ he shouted. ‘A Company of knights!’
Several swiftly running Men, faces grim and determined, breathing hard, pounded uphill towards them, rapidly approaching and as suddenly flashing past the point where the hobbits now stood. These messengers who obviously bore urgent news from somewhere in the Lower Circles proceeded upward without slowing or pausing.
In the middle of asking the bystanders on this stretch of road if they had seen his young cousin, Frodo broke off, almost mid-word. His eyes met Merry’s in sudden mutual apprehension. Something was all too obviously dreadfully wrong, somewhere downhill from their position. Yet the runners were not official Messengers, nor were they Guardsmen of the City. One wore the leather apron of a craftsman, whilst the other two were dressed plainly, yet all wore the same set expression, a determination to let nothing stop them from running until they were able to deliver their urgent – and obviously desperate – news.
‘Pippin!’ both hobbits gasped at each other in the same breath, and they turned away from their inquiries as one and began to run – not trailing after the messengers, but rather downhill, following the path they had been walking before. Now they ran as fast as their feet would carry them, seeking the source of the disaster, suddenly certain that Pippin was in the middle of it all.
But a chance misstep sent Merry sprawling in the roadway, face-first upon the stones, hard enough to send stars wheeling before his eyes.
Momentum carried Frodo a few steps further before he was able to stop and turn around. By the time he reached his cousin, he had to push past Big People who had moved from where they’d stationed themselves to watch the ceremonial parade of Haradrim and were now gathering to surround the limp form, their cheers turned to murmurs of distress and dismay.
‘Merry!’ Frodo gasped, falling to his knees beside a Guardsman, not a Man he had yet become acquainted with, who had bent down upon reaching the fallen hobbit. The Man now went to his knees on the stones of the roadway, bending closer over Merry, hovering, but not yet touching him.
‘Air!’ the Guardsman shouted to everyone and no one in particular. ‘Stand back! Give him air!’ ...and he waved his arms as if to push back the crowding onlookers. Seeming to feel the lessening of the press of bodies, he bent even nearer, eased his arms under Merry with painstaking caution and carefully turned the limp figure face-upwards.
Merry’s eyes were closed, and blood issued from his nose and mouth, to Frodo’s distress. ‘Merry!’
‘Bit his tongue,’ the Guardsman said, making a quick examination. ‘No teeth broken, nor his jaw or crown, I think. I hope.’
Frodo hoped the same. And then his heart leapt within him as he saw Merry’s eyelids flutter. ‘Merry!’ he cried again, more softly, and he took his cousin’s hand between his own, not even minding the twinge that his missing finger gave him at his sudden, unthinking motion.
‘Where...? What...?’ Merry murmured, raising his free hand to rub at his head. He grimaced at the taste of blood in his mouth and tried to sit up.
‘Steady, cousin,’ Frodo said, easing him from one side as the soldier of Gondor supported Merry from the other side. ‘You’ve taken a tumble.’
‘Is that what I did?’ Merry said wryly, and the words and tone, taken together, were somehow reassuring to his worried older cousin. ‘But what about Pip?’
What of Pippin indeed?
Yet Merry seemed the most pressing problem at the moment. Perhaps he should ask this Guardsman to carry his cousin to the Houses of Healing, to ensure no serious harm had been done, whilst he continued downhill in search of their younger cousin.
A part of his mind registered that the only sounds surrounding him now were the concerned noises of the crowd that encircled them. The song that he’d thought – without really thinking about it consciously at all – that he’d thought might have come from the Haradrim in a lower level of the City, though not all that far from where he now crouched and Merry lay, had ceased, for whatever reason. He shook his head to dismiss the thought, all his attention on Merry for the moment, as the most immediate concern, even as a distant trumpet call sounded from higher above him in the City.
The sound of a silver trumpet rang out somewhere ahead of him, signalling something or other, although Sam, now approaching the gateway to the Citadel, did not know the call. As suddenly, a Guardsman darted out from the crowd of people he was passing. To Sam’s astonishment and dismay, the Man seized him, lifted the panting hobbit into the air in his haste, threw Sam over his shoulder and kept running, across the road, as if seeking the shortest path to safety.
...which he was, apparently. The hobbit’s spluttering, breathless protest cut off abruptly as a body of horsemen issued from the Citadel and thundered down the road.
Seeing the King and Steward at their head, Sam blinked and muttered to himself, ‘Well I guess Strider doesn’t need my message after all.’
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase taken from “Minas Tirith” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter 13. Into the Thick of the Fray
As the warrior of Haragost approached the front of the crowd, the situation became clearer. Ahead of him, Ha’asal saw a cloud of dust rising, heard shouts of alarm, and he pushed his way more vigorously, ruthlessly shoving people aside. Reaching the front, he saw the badly damaged ruins of what had once been a graceful structure. A man’s legs protruded from the rubble. Some were pulling at his legs, while others surrounding him scraped away stones and crumbling plaster. At last, they managed to pull him free and turn him over.
He was deathly white, like a ghost, and Ha’asal instinctively made the sign to ward off evil before his wit returned and he understood what he was seeing. A smear of blood stood out, vivid against the backdrop of the plaster dust that covered the Gondorian. But it was what he clutched in his hand, even unconscious, that drew the Harad warrior’s eyes.
A half-sized shoe... the footgear of a child...
And now he understood fully. The unearthly shrieks, now dying to whimpers – they came not from the demonic actions of torturing devils but from some youngling buried somewhere deeper in the rubble.
But, from the sound of it, still alive!
He heard mingled noises from the crowding Gondorians – a mixture of soft sobbing, gasps of horror, quiet mutters of despair, overlaid with the urgent entreaties of the rescuers, trying to rouse the man they’d pulled from under the rubble. Ha’asal doubted that any would hazard another try, but from the look of the half-fallen ceiling, there was no time to waste. Thinking quickly, he turned to the following Haradrim. ‘Spears! Quickly!’ he called. As spearmen gathered around him, awaiting orders (a part of his mind, grimly humorous, wondered if they expected him to order them to charge into the pressing crowd), he removed his sash. Holding his scimitar in his other hand, he kissed the sheathed blade and laid the weapon gently to one side. ‘Spears!’ he said again, holding out a demanding hand.
One such shaft was enough to stop a Rider of Rohan, charging at a full gallop. Yet he doubted that one of the ironwood shafts, fashioned from trees with wood so dense that a diamond blade was used to cut and shape them, would be enough to hold up a collapsing roof. Still, the battle spears were made from one of the treasures of Haragost, ironwood, that curious tree that grew tall, straight and sapling slim, yielding wood that was deceptively light yet strong enough to withstand the blow of an enemy’s sword or axe wielded with blade-blunting force. Ha’asan hoped a bundle of them, tied firmly together, would prove strong enough for a different sort of battle onslaught.
Hesitantly, the closest spearman pressed his weapon into Ha’asal’s grip, and then another, and more quickly, two others, and more, as they saw his intent. When he had as many of the light, sturdy weapons as he could manage, he wrapped his sash around them, tying them together securely. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the Grand Ambassador and his General had caught his idea and were doing the same. Then Ha’alan thrust his bundled spears into Ha’asal’s other hand and turned back to the army of Haragost to demand the short throwing spears that the spearmen carried on their backs. Commanding another warrior’s sash, he began to bundle a handful of them together, and then another.
Moving cautiously into the ruins with his impromptu timbers, Ha’asal understood his General’s purpose. Through the rising dust, he could now see the beam that had partly fallen, lying canted. The long spears, lances intended to fend off cavalry, would be too long to hold it up, but the short throwing spears, used to prop it part-way along its length, would serve to keep the rest of it from coming down. And prevent it from coming down, they must, for under the beam...
There were two children, Ha’asal realised. Under the rubble, he could make out two pairs of feet, with only one shoe between them (for the other shoe was clutched in the hand of their would-be rescuer). Two precious young lives – for the Haradrim treasured their children. Had gone to fight for the Dark Lord for the sake of their children. Had come here to the City of White Bones to offer their lives... in the hope their children’s lives would be spared.
He picked a likely spot and shoved one of the bundles of spears in place beneath the sagging ceiling, holding his breath as he saw the slim weapons take the weight. Would it be enough? The shafts quivered under the strain, but bundled together, working as one, they held! He placed the other bundled spears even as he saw Ha’alan duck into the opening behind him and shove the bundled throwing spears under the beam, to keep it from settling any further and crushing the small bodies.
The Ambassador was right behind the General and his aide – he thrust his prop at Ha’asal and bent to scrape away the stones and debris covering the trapped children. Hearing the whimpering coming from somewhere deeper in the ruin, Ha’asal moved forward, feeling his way. More by instinct than by sight, he placed the last brace as the General moved past him, deeper into the shadows.
He started to follow, but seeing the last bundle quivering and starting to slide under the shifting ceiling, he turned back to add his own strength to the bracing spears. ‘Hurry!’ he panted. ‘It’s all coming down!’
He heard a muffled answer from Ha’alan and thought he saw the General bending, stooping in the shadows near the wall. Ha’alan started to withdraw, but then he stopped and seemed to stretch further inward, reaching. Just how many younglings had been playing around these cursed ruins? And where were their elders? ‘Hurry!’ the aide said again. ‘I don’t know how long...’ An ominous rumbling drowned his warning.
Once Sam was able to persuade the Guardsman to put him down, he thanked the Man, as was only courteous. He brushed the wrinkles from his clothing, seeing as how he was all dressed up in clothing made especially for him, too fine for a plain gardener, really, but suitable for a fine and fancy affair. Which, frankly, did not seem as imminent as it might have, not so long ago, when Sam had been hurrying up the hill with his message.
Then he stood hesitating, looking from the entrance to the Citadel to the winding road leading downhill and back again. What ought he to do now? Merry and Frodo were down in the lower levels of the City, and headed downward, for all he knew. And now Strider was headed in that direction, meaning that he’d see for himself that the Ring-bearer was going to be late for the ceremony.
Or was there even going to be a ceremony, at this rate?
The trumpet call sounded again, closer this time. The helpful Guardsman’s face changed, and while before he had said not to move Merry but to wait until a healer could be fetched to make a proper determination of the Perian’s injuries, he now scooped Merry unceremoniously into his arms and pushed himself to his feet. ‘Make way!’ he gasped, perhaps to Frodo, or maybe to the other people surrounding them.
But others were saying the same, and then shouting the same, and pushing to the sides of the street as the trumpet sounded again, closer. ‘Clear the way! Make way!’
Soon, the reason for the crowd’s haste became all too clear as Frodo heard the clatter of what sounded like a host of horses pounding down the long winding road from the Citadel, their hoofs beating a sharp rhythm on the stones, and rapidly approaching. A mounted body of Men swept by, hoofs striking sparks from the stones of the road, and at their head... ‘Strider!’ he gasped.
He felt Merry, still in the Guardsman’s arms, reach down to pluck at his shoulder. ‘What can it mean?’ Merry said. ‘Are the Haradrim attacking the lower Levels?’
‘Whatever it is,’ Frodo said with complete certainty, staring after the charging force, now out of sight around the corner. ‘I’ll wager Pippin is in the middle of it, somehow.’
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase possibly taken from “Minas Tirith” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Chapter 14. All Paths Converge
Ha’alan, the commanding General of Haragost in Middle Harad, mused on the ironies of the situation, even as he braced the half-fallen beam with his handful of throwing spears and then rose to follow the pitiful cries that came from deeper in the crumbling ruins. If he happened to give up his life in rescuing these Gondorian younglings, he would not be able to die upon the altar of the Black Númenóreans, and the lives of his own children would be forfeit. Yet what was a Man to do?
It did no good to remind himself that he had not planned to die under the Devil King’s knife in any event, but his ambition had been to shield his mind from the Devil King and his demon Sorcerer with the battle-trance until he could approach close enough to strike a killing blow. No, for he anticipated that the cursed Sorcerer would pluck his intention from his mind, or the Ambassador's, or that of his aide, in spite of all their best efforts. It was why the Men had been informed only so far as to follow their General's lead, and no more than that.
Best case, they would save the children without sacrificing themselves prematurely, thus saving all the children: these, and those of the army that marched to their doom this day. If one could call dying in torment “best case”.
No time for that now. He focused on the cries that came from a gap in the inner wall of this collapsing room, and after crossing the space, he crouched a little, reaching forward towards the shadowy form. Not a child, he thought – a dog? A young dog, from the sound of the whimpering that had replaced the agonised shrieks that had galvanised the warrior Haradrim, but from the shape and size, much larger than an average puppy. It might well be a scion of the giant breed, as large as a pony or small horse when fully grown, used on the plains of Far Harad to herd the mighty mûmakil.
‘Here now, little-little,’ he crooned, reaching cautiously and connecting with a large and furry ear. The pup – for it was a pup – lunged towards him, to be stopped short with a yelp.
Ha'alan wiped the dust from his eyes. ‘What seems to be the problem, little one?’ he asked in the same tone he might use to soothe his youngest child when fretful. ‘Let us see...’ He ran his hand from the ear to... a collar, it was, pulled tight around the young dog's neck, half strangling the creature when it fought its restraint – a leather lead, leading from its fastening on the collar to dive beneath a large piece of the ceiling that had come down, pinning the young dog in place.
‘Here now,’ he said again, fumbling for the buckle. It would be difficult to undo with the young dog straining against it, so he took the massive head between his hands and shifted the dog towards the heavy debris that anchored it. There. He had enough slack now to free the buckle of the collar.
And then he heard Ha’asal’s shout of warning. Hurry! I don't know how long... A terrifying rumbling shook the remains of the building and drowned the aide’s voice, and Ha’alan saw to his horror the younger man crumple under a deluge of falling debris.
At the edge of desperation, he summoned his command voice, the voice he used on the battlefield to rise above the sounds and screams and clashing weapons, calling well-accustomed orders to his army in the face of the charging Rohirrim. ‘Spears! Advance! Advance! Hold back the onslaught!’
A deep, resonant voice, suited to calling battle orders over the tumult of galloping horses, though now it merely spoke in a conversational tone, startled Sam from his reverie. ‘My Lord Ring-Bearer.’ It was Éomer at his most formal, perhaps because of the auspiciousness of the occasion, with an army of Haradrim marching to the Citadel this day to sue for peace.
Sam hesitated, for when he'd called the Man ‘King Éomer’ on an earlier occasion, he’d been gently but firmly corrected. Éomer would not formally assume the title until King Théoden had been properly laid to rest, with all the honour due him.
He turned and looked up – far up – to meet the gaze of the Horse-lord standing before him. ‘Sir?’ he hazarded cautiously. ‘My Lord?’ And then, for good measure, because it had been good enough for Mr Bilbo and Mr Frodo, ‘Mister Éomer?’
The last form of address must have been the correct one, for the Man smiled and reached down, offering his hand. ‘I was standing at the gate to the Seventh Level, awaiting the coming of Master Holdwine. But he is late in coming, and now I have seen a mighty force of horsemen issue from the Citadel, led by the King and Steward themselves, and I can only think that his delay must be related somehow, for he has ever been faithful.’
‘He... he went with Mr Frodo to look for their younger cousin,’ Sam stammered. ‘I know he said he was supposed to stand with you, but...’
Éomer waved the words away as if they were of no import, confirming Sam’s impression with a quick, ‘You have need to apologise to no Man, Ring-Bearer! No, I am not in search of an errant Knight, but when I saw you in the street just now, held aloft by a Guardsman of the City, I thought to myself that you might wish to ride with me, down to the Lower Levels, to see what we might see.’
‘Why yes!’ Sam said at once, his face lighting with eagerness. ‘I mean, thank you, Mr Éomer! I would be...’
But the Man was in as much haste as Samwise, it seemed, for he seized Sam’s hand in his and walked rapidly to the gate, where other Rohirrim stood holding their horses, and the hobbit had to trot to keep up with his long strides. ‘Take horse!’ the Horse-lord cried. ‘We ride!’
Elessar and Faramir pulled up their horses sharply on rounding the last bend, trusting the knights of Gondor who followed not to plough into them as they narrowly avoided trampling those on the edge of the large crowd blocking the street there.
From horseback, the King was tall enough to see over the heads of the crowd, a sight that eerily reminded him of gouts of lava pouring from the Fiery Mountain, the wedge of bright Southron robes shining amid the darker-clad citizens of Minas Tirith. He followed the narrowing of the wedge, true as an arrow, pointing to...
Realisation set in quickly, and he gave the charger his head without dropping the reins completely, maintaining a light contact with the horse’s mouth while steering mainly with his legs and seat as he shouted, ‘Make way!’ The well-trained battle horse recognised the nature of the rider’s signals, lowering his head to shove the onlookers from his path rather than trampling them underfoot. The King aimed for the point of the wedge, just outside the ruins of a crumbling inn where fresh clouds of dust were ominously rising. He sensed rather than saw Faramir and the other knights following; his eyes were glued to the unfolding disaster.
The impression of the Fiery Mountain intensified as he reached the head of the crowd and saw a mass of Haradrim inside the ruin, as if they were determined to hold off the collapse with their own bodies, robes glowing in the darkened interior of the collapsing wing. He swung down from his horse, arrested by the sight of the injured tradesman supported in the arms of his fellow merchants, his features white with plaster dust and marred by a streak of blood. ‘Faramir!’ he snapped.
The Steward moved past him, competently assuming command of the emergency as the healer-King fell to one knee before the injured Man, performing a rapid assessment with eyes and hands.
His blood ran cold at seeing the small shoe still clutched in the merchant’s hand. ‘Faramir!’ he raised his head to call. ‘There’s a child trapped!’ He looked down again, but overlaying the reply he expected from his Steward came the injured man’s mutter. ‘...know the look of a hobbit’s foot when I see one.’
‘Don’t move him,’ he said urgently to those holding the injured man. ‘Wait for a healer, or for my return.’ He jumped to his feet and reached the Steward, standing at the edge of the ruin to make his assessment, in a few quick strides.
‘At least one of the hobbits is inside,’ he said grimly, ‘along with a child.’
‘They’re holding off the roof with their spears,’ Faramir said, his eyes moving over the mass of Haradrim within. ‘I don’t quite know how they’re managing... but they are.’
Elessar turned to Belegorn, an officer of the mounted Gondorian knights who had followed him at a gallop from the Citadel, now standing at his elbow. ‘Send for supports!’ he snapped. ‘Whatever you can find to hold up the structure, long enough to get all these people safely free.’ And then, to the consternation of his Steward and the knights following them, he ducked under the forest of Southron spears, trusting the ironwood and the doughty hands that supported it to stand the strain. At least a little longer. Hopefully, long enough.
Merry thought he was making progress in getting the too-helpful Guardsman to put him down, back on his feet, so he could see what his younger cousin had got himself into this time (for he’d no doubt that Pippin was in the midst of it all, whatever ‘it all’ might turn out to be). At least, he’d managed to stop Frodo in the middle of asking the Guardsman to carry him to the Houses of Healing, high above them in the City.
‘We’re so close,’ he said now to clinch his argument. ‘That charging body of knights stopped just around the bend there, did you hear it? No more trumpet calls, no more ringing hoofs on the stones... Put me down now, pray, do.’
‘No!’ Frodo countermanded.
In exasperation, Merry snapped, ‘Well then, carry me if you must! But carry me in the right direction – downhill! – for I’ll have no rest until I see what is around the bend there...’
‘But Merry,’ Frodo began.
‘Frodo, I swear, if you have me carried to the Houses of Healing, why, as soon as my feet touch the floor, I’ll be behind you again, following like a dog! You know that I will!’ And he locked eyes with his older cousin, sharing a meaningful look. As I have already proved.
The Guardsman in the midst of all of this wisely kept silent, though he also kept a firm hold of Merry.
...and a good thing, too, for the clatter of hoofs against the stones of the street sounded again, sharply, and approaching rapidly.
From an uphill direction, Merry realised. Meaning the crowd that had begun relaxing into the middle of the broad street again had to scramble out of the way of an impending body of horsemen in a hurry. Merry quashed the absurd thought that half the body of Gondorian knights had stopped off along the way and were hurrying to catch up with their fellows.
With one arm securely holding Merry, their helpful Guardsman took Frodo’s shoulder in a firm hand and ushered him out of danger’s path, where the three of them stood with the rest of the crowd, waiting for developments that were, from the sound of it (as already mentioned), rapidly approaching.
‘Right,’ Merry said, once they were safely out of the street. Seeing Éomer galloping by, leading this fresh charge, Sam of all people on the saddle before him, he raised his voice and added, ‘Well, the more the merrier, I suppose...’
Author’s notes: Some turns of phrase possibly taken from “Minas Tirith” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
‘Belegorn’ came from an online name generator because I do fairly well at coming up with names for Hobbits, but that’s about the limits of my expertise. (https://realelvish.net/name/belegorn/)
mûmakil, of course, are what hobbits would call in their own tongue, oliphaunts.
Next update: Wednesday, April 14 (sorry, Covid shot hit me a little hard.)
Well, I suppose half a chapter is better than none. The Covid shot laid me a bit low, but of course it's much better than the Covid itself, I'm sure. More to come next week, if all goes well. Think good thoughts.
Chapter 15. All the King’s Horses and All the Other Kings’ Men
I feel as if I have fallen into a story, General Ha’alan thought to himself as he surveyed the massed spear-carriers, crammed into the collapsing ruins until no more would fit, holding aloft the crumbling ceiling with slim lengths of ironwood. He had never been prouder of his Men, for they had rushed in without benefit of battle-trance, fully cognisant of the danger, and now stood, trapped all together, for none could not leave for fear of endangering the rest. We are like the Man who took hold of the sleeping tiger by the tail, and then the beast awakened and began to run in circles, trying to catch the tail – and the Man clinging to it for dear life.
He watched, scarcely breathing (which was all well and good, he told himself, considering the amount of dust in the air), the rescue operations going on in this crowded space – two of them. The Grand Ambassador of all Harad had pulled the back hem of his robe through his legs and tucked the fabric up into his sash, much as a common worker would in the mines or marshes to free his movements for hard labour, heedless of his dignity and station, and now he bent, painstakingly removing large pieces of debris to unbury the children who’d had the poor judgement to enter this place.
It was rather like the children’s game of blocks of wood, where each player sought to remove a piece without bringing the whole of the tower crashing down in ruin.
On second thought, Ha’alan said to himself, perhaps it was not poor judgement on the part of the children, so much as poor luck... on seeing the leather lead that stretched from the young dog’s collar to where it was pinned down by a fallen beam... and emerging on the other side of the beam, leading to the pile of shattered remains of the ceiling and ruin of the floor above this one. As the Grand Ambassador removed another piece of the puzzle, Ha’alan saw a small hand, stretched towards him, the other end of the leather lead clearly wrapped around the small wrist.
On second thought, Ha’alan repeated under his breath, most likely the want of judgement was on the pup’s part, and the unfortunate child was dragged into this desperate situation. The young dog, though still sporting milk teeth, already weighed half so much as a sturdy warrior and thus, much more than any child. And perhaps the second child sought to rescue them both, and was caught under... He was more right than he knew in that moment.
Nearly in the middle of the collapsing room, two of the spearmen braced their ironwood weapons in place on either side of the bundled shafts Ha’asal had carried and anchored between floor and sagging ceiling – before it had fallen in on him. Once certain the makeshift “timbers” would hold, they had bent to pull away the rubble from the crumpled form. ‘Is he alive?’ he called to them, and was somewhat reassured by a distracted wave from one of the rescuers. Of course, the aide might still succumb to his injuries. They had to get him out of here... they had to get the children to safety... and yet, all of them were trapped here. Anyone trying to leave would endanger all the rest.
And then something even more astonishing happened. A shadow clad in darkness, sheathed in silvery spiderwebs, slipped in among the forest of spears, though it seemed impossible for anyone to fit between the densely packed bodies.
The wriggling pup distracted him then, and he looked down again without thinking, which broke the seeming spell. When he looked up again, the shadowy figure, as dark and graceful as Ha’alan’s memory of one of the great Cats that haunted the jungles of Far Harad, resolved into the shape of a dark-headed Man of Gondor clothed in black, and the silvery cobwebs shone with the dull gleam of mithril mail. He mentally shook himself. No ordinary Man would have mail made of mithril. A king, perhaps. But then again, what king would risk himself in the rubble? The mail was ordinary metal, of course, and the subtle shine was a trick of the light in the dust-filled air. He chided himself for his fanciful thoughts and turned back to the pup. He saw little to fear from this single brave but foolhardy Gondorian who had come to share their uncertain fate.
Taking hold of the broad, sturdy collar, he said, ‘Easy now, little one. I’ve got you.’ By main force of strength, he pulled the young dog in the direction of the anchoring lead, gaining enough slack to unfasten the lead from the collar, though he kept firm hold of the thick leather encircling the shaggy neck. All they needed was for the young dog to turn and seek to escape, bowling over the spear-carriers in its path and threatening the stability of the human timbers holding off the ceiling.
And then the dark figure raised his voice and spoke to all and sundry in the common tongue of Harad. ‘Hold fast!’ he said, his accent as flawless as if he’d been born in one of the hundred kingdoms, or at the very least had lived there for an extended period. The murmuring of the startled Haradrim fell silent, and so his next words rang softly but clearly in the dust-filled air. ‘Supports are coming! Hold but a little longer, and you will find relief.’
He slipped deeper into danger between the packed bodies, as subtle and supple as a shadow, and bent beside the Grand Ambassador. ‘Are they alive?’ he said, still in the tongue of Harad.
The Ambassador, recognising him as a Númenórean, replied in careful Westron. ‘They are both alive,’ he said. ‘I do not know how... the one on the top threw himself over the other one as if to shield him from the falling debris. Perhaps he is the older of the two.’
‘He is,’ the black-clad Man replied, with such confidence in his tone, Ha’alan suddenly understood why he had joined them in this death trap. The children were his, the General of Haragost realised. It was the only explanation that made any sense.
His thoughts seemed confirmed as the Man bent closer, laid a hand on the small shoulder, slid his palm carefully along the neck and head until his hand cradled the child’s forehead, and then he spoke in a low, urgent tone. ‘Pippin,’ he said. ‘Hold on. We’ll have you out of here soon.’ With his free hand, he pulled away one of the prisoning stones, and then another.
The Númenórean and the Grand Ambassador were working together now, in a cautious, coordinated dance where one wrong move could have deadly consequences.
The young dog distracted the General again, whining and pulling against his restraining grasp. ‘Steady, pup-pup,’ he said, bending closer. ‘We must wait for them to come and brace the ceiling, and then we will have you out of here as well.’
But the dog was not listening. Nor was he straining towards the dusty light streaming in at the opening, where bright Haradrim robes overflowed the space, now mingling with the crowd of Gondorians in their more subdued colours, all of them speaking words of encouragement in their various languages, yet all so obviously and completely in agreement.
No, but he was straining towards a deeper crack in this far wall, as far from the entrance and safety as might be, black and filled with shadow, though he seemed more eager than fearful.
Hurry up and wait, Sam had heard Beregond describe the life of a common soldier of Gondor, and now he had a new appreciation for the phrase. It might have been frightening, had it not been so exhilarating, to ride at the forefront of the charge of the Rohirrim, clattering down the stony streets of Minas Tirith, passing through one level after another at a gallop. Indeed, something about their passage stirred the crowds lining either side of their way to wave their cloths and cheer!
When they rounded the last corner, pulling up sharply to avoid running into the crowd that awaited them there, he didn’t even mind the bouncing that the dancing of Éomer’s excited, snorting horse gave him, before the tall Man leapt from the saddle, carrying Sam with him as if the hobbit weighed no more than a feather. ‘My Lord Ring-Bearer,’ the Man said now, setting him on his feet with a flourish.
‘Mr Éomer,’ Sam acknowledged. He wanted to ask what they should do now, but it was likely the Man had no more idea than he himself had, seeing as how they had arrived at the same time.
He suffered a shock of recognition on seeing the Haradrim interspersed amongst the people of Minas Tirith, robed and veiled, like those who had watched the bargaining session in the midst of the Southron camp.
The Man of Rohan seemed to feel something of the same, for he shook his head and ruefully muttered that he was glad to see those spears pointing to the skies instead of at the horses, this time.
This time, Sam thought with a sudden shock, for of course! – Mr Merry had been supposed to stand with Éomer to escort the Grand Ambassador and the Generals the last part of the march into the Citadel, to honour them for their courage. They had fought fiercely, Mr Merry had told the rest of the hobbits, standing firm against the charge of the Rohirrim, and their spearmen had done woeful damage to Men and horses before they were overwhelmed on the fields of the Pelennor.
Merry thought he had hit on the right argument, for he saw Frodo’s resolve wavering when he said, ‘...and Strider’s just around the corner, much much closer than those old Houses of Healing... Why, he could have me put to rights in half the time it would take us to trudge all the way from here to the Sixth Circle!’
‘Strider is around the corner,’ Frodo agreed in a wry tone. ‘With who-knows-what going on, what with all those Rohirrim – not to mention, our Sam leading the way – riding down the street as if the very Wraiths were at their heels.’
And of course Merry forgave him this careless reference, for Frodo’d had quite as bad, if not worse, an experience with those creatures that had once been Men, than Merry and Éowyn. But he shuddered all the same, and Frodo, seeing that shudder, was all apologies.
Which was all to the good, actually, for Merry could use this moment to press his advantage. ‘And so, dear cousin,’ he said. ‘I think the best course would be to go and seek out the Healer-King, who is not all that far away, from the sound of it.’
There wasn’t much sound at all in actuality, curiously enough, for the clatter of the charging horses of Rohan had stopped, and quite suddenly, too, just around the corner, and Merry said so, adding, ‘And it stands to reason that the Knights of Gondor stopped for the same reason, what ever it might be.’
He knew he’d won when his older cousin said slowly, ‘I suppose you didn’t hit your head all that hard, if you’re still able to make so much sense.’
Frodo looked from Merry to their helpful Guardsman and said, ‘If you wouldn’t mind...’
‘Well, it’s not as far to go around the bend as it is to go all the way to the Sixth Circle...’ Merry said again. But Frodo hushed him and turned away and – glory and trumpets! – began to walk downhill. Of course their helpful Guardsman followed him, and that meant Merry went too, since the Man was carrying him.
He bit his sore tongue but managed not to say anything to spoil the moment. They were moving in the right direction, at last!
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase possibly taken from “Minas Tirith” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Next update: Wednesday
Chapter 16. Everything Back Together Again
Pain pulled General Ha’alan’s aide, Ha’asal, from the depths of the darkness that had swallowed him when part of the ceiling had collapsed upon him despite the makeshift prop he had shoved into place bare moments earlier. He thought it had been moments earlier. Truth be told, he had no idea how much time had passed. Pain throbbed dully in his head, only to be eclipsed by bright flaring pain in his shoulder and arm. Not his sword arm, thankfully. He thought he might still be able to swing his bright blade to deadly effect when the time should come. He had laid the sheath safely on the grass outside, where he was sure it waited for him to reclaim it. None of the Haradrim remaining outside would allow a Gondorian hand to touch the weapon of a warrior of Harad.
Feeling hands pulling at him, he voiced a feeble protest, his voice faint in his own ears. Someone spoke reassurance then, the voice vaguely familiar, with the intonation of a fellow warrior of Haragost, a spearman more likely than not. ‘Don’t try and move. We’ll have you out of here soon.’
He forced his eyes open, finding his vision blurred and doubled, but in a few brief glimpses, he saw enough. Dark-clad Gondorians now mingled with the bright Southron robes that had flooded into this space to hold off the collapsing ceiling. They were wedging support beams into place, held up with sturdy timbers, and the Southron warriors were reclaiming their weapons as the growing stability imposed by the newcomers spread across the space.
Hands took hold of him from either side, and he felt himself lifted to his feet, but for some reason, his legs buckled under him, threatening to spill him to the rubble-strewn floor. He was slipping from their grasp, falling... and then, before the ground could rise up to smite him, someone caught him. Lifted him. Carried him, as if he were no more burden than a child.
He opened his eyes for a brief, blurred glance. The Man who bore him was a Gondorian, eyes squinted nearly shut against the dust-filled air, his dark hair peppered with a sprinkling of dust and pieces of plaster. Though dust hung in the air, obscuring vision, Ha’asal thought the light was brightening around them as his unknown rescuer moved towards the entrance. His last glimpse of the inside of this death trap was of another spearman from Haragost pulling free the bundle of spears he’d set in place, no doubt intending to restore the weapons to their owners. As was only right. To march, weaponless, to the Citadel would be humiliation beyond bearing.
He came to full consciousness again as he felt his back contact a hard surface; his rescuer had laid him down again. He opened his eyes to see the black-clad Gondorian, silver mail gleaming even under a covering of dust. The Man was running his hands lightly over Ha’asal’s arm.
‘The arm is broken,’ the Man said. ‘But it is a clean break. Once set, it will heal straight.’
Conflicting thoughts whirled in his head. First, that there would be no time for such healing, marked for death this very day, as he was.
Next, that the Man had spoken the words in flawless Southron, not even the trace of an accent to mar the lilting words.
However, before he could ponder the meaning of such a thing, the Man’s hand moved to rest upon Ha’asal’s aching head, and the aide felt an inexplicable sense of Presence, sinking into his very thoughts. The only other time he’d felt such a sensation had been standing before the Mouth of Sauron as the creature probed the Southron generals and their staff to assess their courage and loyalty to the Dark Lord.
Unlike that other time; that had felt unclean, an invasion of his very being, of sorts, which had spread through his mind, a Power that eventually drove him into battle, filled with hate and fury, only to waver as its will was removed from him in the end. He still remembered the feeling, as if awakening from a dark dream, the chill of looking into his enemies’ eyes and the fear that had consumed him at seeing the deadly light shining therein, seeing his own death and destruction – annihilation and oblivion beyond all remedy – there. Unlike that other time, this felt different, somehow, a sensation of warmth and understanding, wholly deceptive in its invitation to trust, as if the Gondorian – Black Númenorian, he corrected himself – knew the Haradrim would suspect and resist any such control, now that they were free of the Dark Lord.
But his head ached, and a chill assailed him, and it was all he could do to resist.
Feebly, hopelessly, he shied away from the steady grey gaze, fully understanding now why the leaders of the Haradrim had insisted on veiling themselves. He seeks to steal my soul!
‘You have taken a bad blow to your head,’ the Man said, but as if in response to Ha’asal’s despair and horror, he took his hand away again.
Wincing, Ha’asal raised his good arm to fumble at his veil, which had come loose, hanging free, fully exposing him to the threat represented by the soul-stealing Númenorians.
Only to have his rescuer reach out to him, staying his hand and his efforts with an admonition to Rest!. And then the black-clad Man gently tucked the veil back in place, obscuring Ha’asal’s mouth and nose, that his soul might not emerge in a breath and be captured. Despite his peril, he found himself relaxing as if his muscles obeyed some will other than his own. He blinked away tears. Perhaps... perhaps it is already too late.
And then a voice was calling – Strider! – and the Man hovering over Ha’asal rose from his crouch and turned away (to Ha’asal’s relief) with an exclamation of dismay.
Beyond him, Ha’asal saw the Grand Ambassador emerge from the rubble, a small figure in his arms, followed by a dark-clad Gondorian guardsman bearing another.
‘Here,’ the Númenorian ordered, his soft, warm tones turned crisp, and the bearers laid the rescued children down beside the injured aide. The dark-clad Man fell to his knees between the two small bodies, reaching out a hand to each, brushing back the hair from their foreheads while his gaze passed from one to the other.
Ha’asal looked to see the one who had called that curious name. Strider? One who walks swiftly and journeys far? The speaker was another child, about the same size as the ones caught in the ruins. A playfellow, perhaps, now babbling in Westron almost too swiftly for the aide to follow the words.
‘Oh Mr Pippin! Poor Mr Frodo! What ever will he say? And Mr Merry! Oh Mr Pippin...’ a deep breath, a welling of tears in the brown eyes, spilling over to make shining tracks down the round face, and now the words slowed enough to be easily understood. ‘Is... is he... dead, Strider? Is...’ And a gulp, as if the awfulness of the words threatened to rob him of speech. ‘And... and poor Bergil...? Are they...?’
‘They live,’ the Man said. ‘We will bear them as swiftly as may be to the Houses of Healing...’
And then two more children arrived, one of them carried by a guardsman of Gondor, so that Ha’asal could clearly see the bare feet in their covering of thick curling hair. Not children! Halflings!
He barely heard their voices on account of the rushing sound in his ears as this startling realisation emerged from the mists of legend and rumour, taking shape before him. Halflings had been said to walk through a portion of the Host camped on the Pelennor a day or two earlier. Ha’asal himself had not seen the King and the Ring-bearers visiting the camps of the Haradrim on the field outside the City, and so he had discounted the wild tales that emerged around the camp fires that evening after darkness fell and the official party had returned to the City.
But now it became clear to him that Halflings were not simply rumour or the product of fanciful storytelling. Not just rumour, but truth! Perhaps a Halfling did wrestle with the Dark Lord and cast him down!
The realisation broke over him like a wave, overwhelming his thoughts and his aching head. Ha’asal swooned, almost welcoming the darkness that rose to engulf him.
‘Put me down!’ Merry insisted, barely refraining from kicking against the guardsman’s restraining hold on him. ‘Pippin!’
‘Steady, Merry,’ Frodo said, his hand closing again on Merry’s ankle. He had held on as they’d moved down the winding street. The trio had briefly paused – well, Frodo and the helpful guardsman had paused, forcing Merry to pause with them – on seeing the crowd filling the street, a mingling of Gondorians and Haradrim, a sea of bodies surrounding two islands made of horses. The Knights of Gondor and the Rohirrim, Merry realised, though no Men (or Hobbit) sat in the saddles.
Frodo had left off his hold at that point and began pushing through the crowd, calling Pippin’s name. The Gondorians, seeing him and recognising him, had parted before the Ring-bearer’s determined onslaught, and the Haradrim, though perhaps not as clear on the matter, had followed suit.
‘Come along! What are you waiting for?’ Merry demanded, and was rewarded as his bearer shook his head with a soft exclamation and began to press forward in Frodo’s wake. A little part of him kept insisting, Maybe this is not as bad as it looks... even as the better part of his brain was staring in consternation at the jostling crowd, not at all celebratory. Grim, they were. He even saw tears on some faces.
...including Sam’s, when they reached the place where he stood, at the end of a short line of bodies laid out on the grass, mostly Southrons, from their robes, and a white-dusted Gondorian wearing the apron of a greengrocer. But at the end of the line...
‘Pippin!’ Merry shouted, and then he felt Frodo take hold of his ankle once more, and looking to his older cousin’s face, he saw his own helplessness mirrored there.
‘They’re alive, Mr Frodo, Mr Merry!’ Sam called, though he did not move from the spot where he’d planted himself. ‘Strider said so!’ Though the gardener had been most careful to use the official name, Elessar, since the Coronation, his forgetting now showed the depth of his perturbation, reassuring words or no, as did the tears still coursing down his cheeks.
And the other hobbits followed his lead in this stressful moment. ‘Strider?’ Frodo said, and he was not questioning Sam’s use of the name but the Man himself, and Merry echoed the anxious question, though it came out as a strained whisper, for his throat felt as if it were closing, and he could scarce draw breath, so great was his grief and dread.
Even as he was lifting Pippin in his arms and instructing one of his knights to take up Bergil, Elessar answered. ‘They live, Frodo. We will bear them directly to the Houses of Healing. I think we are in good time.’
‘And I will bear you there, Master Holdwine!’ Éomer spoke at Merry’s elbow, and despite Merry’s protests that he was perfectly fine, he held out his arms to Merry’s guardsman and accepted Merry as his due. As his hold tightened to secure his burden, he turned his head to address two of the Riders, members of the honour guard originally gathered to hail the Haradrim as they marched to the Citadel, hovering behind him. ‘Éothain! Elfhelm! Bear the other Holbytlan on your saddles before you to the Houses of Healing, that they may succour their kin-fellows in their time of need!’
Elfhelm bent to Frodo, murmuring, ‘By your leave, my Lord,’ but his words were overlaid by those of the Healer-King.
‘Tadion!’ Elessar snapped out, shifting the injured hobbit in his arms a little more upright to ease Pippin’s gasping breaths. Another of the Gondorian knights stiffened to attention. ‘Find Beregond and bear him to his son in the Houses of Healing!’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ the knight answered, turning at once to force his way back through the crowd to where the horses waited, a little way back from the small open space where the injured were being deposited. He reclaimed his mount from the Man holding the reins of several horses, including Elessar’s and Faramir’s, and kneed the beast around, shouting, ‘Make way! Make way!’ Gondorians and Haradrim alike moved to the sides to allow the horse and rider free passage.
Elessar issued swift orders to Faramir (Likely Mithrandir has already sent litter-bearers on their way was one of the phrases Merry caught) and then turned to follow.
The crowding bodies fell back before the grim faces of the hobbit-bearing King and the Rohirrim forging along in his wake, though the Riders of Rohan changed course slightly towards their own island of waiting horses. As if Pippin weighed no more than a feather, the King swung into his saddle, holding the young hobbit carefully, and used his knees to guide his horse around and then forward, onto the winding street and up the long hill to the Sixth Circle.
Éomer lifted Merry to his saddle and swung up behind him. ‘Is it well with you, Master Holdwine?’
‘Never better!’ Merry said bravely, belying the handkerchief bound about his brow. He’d forgotten his aching head in his worry for Pippin, but as Éomer’s horse began to move under them, he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to anchor himself, thankful for Éomer’s steadying arm.
As if the Man saw through his words, Éomer bent to speak low in Merry’s ear. ‘Take heart, Meriadoc! My swift and gallant Firefoot and I will soon have you to the healers.’
‘And my cousins, too,’ Merry insisted, though Frodo likely had no need of a healer’s attentions and wouldn’t thank him for suggesting that he did.
Éomer’s supporting hand gave a gentle squeeze. ‘And your cousins, too,’ he affirmed, and then he raised his voice to shout to the people in the outskirts of the crowd that filled the street, the vanguard of the Haradrim giving way to mostly Gondorians the further they left the crumbling ruins behind. ‘Make way! Make way!’ The crowd as a whole was thinning, as a matter of fact – they were nearly to the bend in the winding road, and Merry heard a sudden clatter as Elessar’s mount, ahead of them, cleared the obstructing onlookers and broke into a gallop. ‘Away! Make way!’
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase borrowed from “Minas Tirith” and “The Field of Cormallen” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. And one small bit from “About Hobbits” in The Fellowship of the Ring into the bargain.
Next update: Wednesday
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