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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.
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