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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
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