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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.
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