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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.)
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