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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.
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