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Chapter 16. Everything Back Together Again
Pain pulled General Ha’alan’s aide, Ha’asal, from the depths of the darkness that had swallowed him when part of the ceiling had collapsed upon him despite the makeshift prop he had shoved into place bare moments earlier. He thought it had been moments earlier. Truth be told, he had no idea how much time had passed. Pain throbbed dully in his head, only to be eclipsed by bright flaring pain in his shoulder and arm. Not his sword arm, thankfully. He thought he might still be able to swing his bright blade to deadly effect when the time should come. He had laid the sheath safely on the grass outside, where he was sure it waited for him to reclaim it. None of the Haradrim remaining outside would allow a Gondorian hand to touch the weapon of a warrior of Harad.
Feeling hands pulling at him, he voiced a feeble protest, his voice faint in his own ears. Someone spoke reassurance then, the voice vaguely familiar, with the intonation of a fellow warrior of Haragost, a spearman more likely than not. ‘Don’t try and move. We’ll have you out of here soon.’
He forced his eyes open, finding his vision blurred and doubled, but in a few brief glimpses, he saw enough. Dark-clad Gondorians now mingled with the bright Southron robes that had flooded into this space to hold off the collapsing ceiling. They were wedging support beams into place, held up with sturdy timbers, and the Southron warriors were reclaiming their weapons as the growing stability imposed by the newcomers spread across the space.
Hands took hold of him from either side, and he felt himself lifted to his feet, but for some reason, his legs buckled under him, threatening to spill him to the rubble-strewn floor. He was slipping from their grasp, falling... and then, before the ground could rise up to smite him, someone caught him. Lifted him. Carried him, as if he were no more burden than a child.
He opened his eyes for a brief, blurred glance. The Man who bore him was a Gondorian, eyes squinted nearly shut against the dust-filled air, his dark hair peppered with a sprinkling of dust and pieces of plaster. Though dust hung in the air, obscuring vision, Ha’asal thought the light was brightening around them as his unknown rescuer moved towards the entrance. His last glimpse of the inside of this death trap was of another spearman from Haragost pulling free the bundle of spears he’d set in place, no doubt intending to restore the weapons to their owners. As was only right. To march, weaponless, to the Citadel would be humiliation beyond bearing.
He came to full consciousness again as he felt his back contact a hard surface; his rescuer had laid him down again. He opened his eyes to see the black-clad Gondorian, silver mail gleaming even under a covering of dust. The Man was running his hands lightly over Ha’asal’s arm.
‘The arm is broken,’ the Man said. ‘But it is a clean break. Once set, it will heal straight.’
Conflicting thoughts whirled in his head. First, that there would be no time for such healing, marked for death this very day, as he was.
Next, that the Man had spoken the words in flawless Southron, not even the trace of an accent to mar the lilting words.
However, before he could ponder the meaning of such a thing, the Man’s hand moved to rest upon Ha’asal’s aching head, and the aide felt an inexplicable sense of Presence, sinking into his very thoughts. The only other time he’d felt such a sensation had been standing before the Mouth of Sauron as the creature probed the Southron generals and their staff to assess their courage and loyalty to the Dark Lord.
Unlike that other time; that had felt unclean, an invasion of his very being, of sorts, which had spread through his mind, a Power that eventually drove him into battle, filled with hate and fury, only to waver as its will was removed from him in the end. He still remembered the feeling, as if awakening from a dark dream, the chill of looking into his enemies’ eyes and the fear that had consumed him at seeing the deadly light shining therein, seeing his own death and destruction – annihilation and oblivion beyond all remedy – there. Unlike that other time, this felt different, somehow, a sensation of warmth and understanding, wholly deceptive in its invitation to trust, as if the Gondorian – Black Númenorian, he corrected himself – knew the Haradrim would suspect and resist any such control, now that they were free of the Dark Lord.
But his head ached, and a chill assailed him, and it was all he could do to resist.
Feebly, hopelessly, he shied away from the steady grey gaze, fully understanding now why the leaders of the Haradrim had insisted on veiling themselves. He seeks to steal my soul!
‘You have taken a bad blow to your head,’ the Man said, but as if in response to Ha’asal’s despair and horror, he took his hand away again.
Wincing, Ha’asal raised his good arm to fumble at his veil, which had come loose, hanging free, fully exposing him to the threat represented by the soul-stealing Númenorians.
Only to have his rescuer reach out to him, staying his hand and his efforts with an admonition to Rest!. And then the black-clad Man gently tucked the veil back in place, obscuring Ha’asal’s mouth and nose, that his soul might not emerge in a breath and be captured. Despite his peril, he found himself relaxing as if his muscles obeyed some will other than his own. He blinked away tears. Perhaps... perhaps it is already too late.
And then a voice was calling – Strider! – and the Man hovering over Ha’asal rose from his crouch and turned away (to Ha’asal’s relief) with an exclamation of dismay.
Beyond him, Ha’asal saw the Grand Ambassador emerge from the rubble, a small figure in his arms, followed by a dark-clad Gondorian guardsman bearing another.
‘Here,’ the Númenorian ordered, his soft, warm tones turned crisp, and the bearers laid the rescued children down beside the injured aide. The dark-clad Man fell to his knees between the two small bodies, reaching out a hand to each, brushing back the hair from their foreheads while his gaze passed from one to the other.
Ha’asal looked to see the one who had called that curious name. Strider? One who walks swiftly and journeys far? The speaker was another child, about the same size as the ones caught in the ruins. A playfellow, perhaps, now babbling in Westron almost too swiftly for the aide to follow the words.
‘Oh Mr Pippin! Poor Mr Frodo! What ever will he say? And Mr Merry! Oh Mr Pippin...’ a deep breath, a welling of tears in the brown eyes, spilling over to make shining tracks down the round face, and now the words slowed enough to be easily understood. ‘Is... is he... dead, Strider? Is...’ And a gulp, as if the awfulness of the words threatened to rob him of speech. ‘And... and poor Bergil...? Are they...?’
‘They live,’ the Man said. ‘We will bear them as swiftly as may be to the Houses of Healing...’
And then two more children arrived, one of them carried by a guardsman of Gondor, so that Ha’asal could clearly see the bare feet in their covering of thick curling hair. Not children! Halflings!
He barely heard their voices on account of the rushing sound in his ears as this startling realisation emerged from the mists of legend and rumour, taking shape before him. Halflings had been said to walk through a portion of the Host camped on the Pelennor a day or two earlier. Ha’asal himself had not seen the King and the Ring-bearers visiting the camps of the Haradrim on the field outside the City, and so he had discounted the wild tales that emerged around the camp fires that evening after darkness fell and the official party had returned to the City.
But now it became clear to him that Halflings were not simply rumour or the product of fanciful storytelling. Not just rumour, but truth! Perhaps a Halfling did wrestle with the Dark Lord and cast him down!
The realisation broke over him like a wave, overwhelming his thoughts and his aching head. Ha’asal swooned, almost welcoming the darkness that rose to engulf him.
‘Put me down!’ Merry insisted, barely refraining from kicking against the guardsman’s restraining hold on him. ‘Pippin!’
‘Steady, Merry,’ Frodo said, his hand closing again on Merry’s ankle. He had held on as they’d moved down the winding street. The trio had briefly paused – well, Frodo and the helpful guardsman had paused, forcing Merry to pause with them – on seeing the crowd filling the street, a mingling of Gondorians and Haradrim, a sea of bodies surrounding two islands made of horses. The Knights of Gondor and the Rohirrim, Merry realised, though no Men (or Hobbit) sat in the saddles.
Frodo had left off his hold at that point and began pushing through the crowd, calling Pippin’s name. The Gondorians, seeing him and recognising him, had parted before the Ring-bearer’s determined onslaught, and the Haradrim, though perhaps not as clear on the matter, had followed suit.
‘Come along! What are you waiting for?’ Merry demanded, and was rewarded as his bearer shook his head with a soft exclamation and began to press forward in Frodo’s wake. A little part of him kept insisting, Maybe this is not as bad as it looks... even as the better part of his brain was staring in consternation at the jostling crowd, not at all celebratory. Grim, they were. He even saw tears on some faces.
...including Sam’s, when they reached the place where he stood, at the end of a short line of bodies laid out on the grass, mostly Southrons, from their robes, and a white-dusted Gondorian wearing the apron of a greengrocer. But at the end of the line...
‘Pippin!’ Merry shouted, and then he felt Frodo take hold of his ankle once more, and looking to his older cousin’s face, he saw his own helplessness mirrored there.
‘They’re alive, Mr Frodo, Mr Merry!’ Sam called, though he did not move from the spot where he’d planted himself. ‘Strider said so!’ Though the gardener had been most careful to use the official name, Elessar, since the Coronation, his forgetting now showed the depth of his perturbation, reassuring words or no, as did the tears still coursing down his cheeks.
And the other hobbits followed his lead in this stressful moment. ‘Strider?’ Frodo said, and he was not questioning Sam’s use of the name but the Man himself, and Merry echoed the anxious question, though it came out as a strained whisper, for his throat felt as if it were closing, and he could scarce draw breath, so great was his grief and dread.
Even as he was lifting Pippin in his arms and instructing one of his knights to take up Bergil, Elessar answered. ‘They live, Frodo. We will bear them directly to the Houses of Healing. I think we are in good time.’
‘And I will bear you there, Master Holdwine!’ Éomer spoke at Merry’s elbow, and despite Merry’s protests that he was perfectly fine, he held out his arms to Merry’s guardsman and accepted Merry as his due. As his hold tightened to secure his burden, he turned his head to address two of the Riders, members of the honour guard originally gathered to hail the Haradrim as they marched to the Citadel, hovering behind him. ‘Éothain! Elfhelm! Bear the other Holbytlan on your saddles before you to the Houses of Healing, that they may succour their kin-fellows in their time of need!’
Elfhelm bent to Frodo, murmuring, ‘By your leave, my Lord,’ but his words were overlaid by those of the Healer-King.
‘Tadion!’ Elessar snapped out, shifting the injured hobbit in his arms a little more upright to ease Pippin’s gasping breaths. Another of the Gondorian knights stiffened to attention. ‘Find Beregond and bear him to his son in the Houses of Healing!’
‘Yes, my Lord,’ the knight answered, turning at once to force his way back through the crowd to where the horses waited, a little way back from the small open space where the injured were being deposited. He reclaimed his mount from the Man holding the reins of several horses, including Elessar’s and Faramir’s, and kneed the beast around, shouting, ‘Make way! Make way!’ Gondorians and Haradrim alike moved to the sides to allow the horse and rider free passage.
Elessar issued swift orders to Faramir (Likely Mithrandir has already sent litter-bearers on their way was one of the phrases Merry caught) and then turned to follow.
The crowding bodies fell back before the grim faces of the hobbit-bearing King and the Rohirrim forging along in his wake, though the Riders of Rohan changed course slightly towards their own island of waiting horses. As if Pippin weighed no more than a feather, the King swung into his saddle, holding the young hobbit carefully, and used his knees to guide his horse around and then forward, onto the winding street and up the long hill to the Sixth Circle.
Éomer lifted Merry to his saddle and swung up behind him. ‘Is it well with you, Master Holdwine?’
‘Never better!’ Merry said bravely, belying the handkerchief bound about his brow. He’d forgotten his aching head in his worry for Pippin, but as Éomer’s horse began to move under them, he squeezed his eyes shut for a moment to anchor himself, thankful for Éomer’s steadying arm.
As if the Man saw through his words, Éomer bent to speak low in Merry’s ear. ‘Take heart, Meriadoc! My swift and gallant Firefoot and I will soon have you to the healers.’
‘And my cousins, too,’ Merry insisted, though Frodo likely had no need of a healer’s attentions and wouldn’t thank him for suggesting that he did.
Éomer’s supporting hand gave a gentle squeeze. ‘And your cousins, too,’ he affirmed, and then he raised his voice to shout to the people in the outskirts of the crowd that filled the street, the vanguard of the Haradrim giving way to mostly Gondorians the further they left the crumbling ruins behind. ‘Make way! Make way!’ The crowd as a whole was thinning, as a matter of fact – they were nearly to the bend in the winding road, and Merry heard a sudden clatter as Elessar’s mount, ahead of them, cleared the obstructing onlookers and broke into a gallop. ‘Away! Make way!’
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase borrowed from “Minas Tirith” and “The Field of Cormallen” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien. And one small bit from “About Hobbits” in The Fellowship of the Ring into the bargain.
Next update: Wednesday
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