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Chapter 11. Battle Cry
(Content warning: the first section, up to the first set of asterisks, is firmly PG-13.)
Ha’asal marched beside Ha’alan, his General, the two proudly leading their countrymen, the warriors of Haragost, at the head of the parade. They were the vanguard, as it were, following the Grand Ambassador of all Harad – the position of greatest honour and danger. They would be the first to die, after surrendering their weapons. In tribute to the Devil King, to sue for the survival of the families they had left behind, they would suffer themselves, one by one, to be bound and laid upon the stone. There, they would await and then endure the carefully choreographed strokes of the knife, their lifeblood ceremoniously loosed to slake the bloodthirst of Númenor even as the terrible King prolonged the life of the miserable sacrifice so long as humanly possible. The Mouth of Sauron had seemed to take great pleasure in describing every detail of the sacrifice to the representatives of Harad, as he’d urged them to send their armies to support the Dark Lord in destroying the Men of the West. Ha’asal had heard the words from the Mouth himself as he’d stood behind the front rank of generals, one of many anonymous aides.
That was the death that the Men of Harad behind him, as they began their ghastly march upwards through the seven levels of the City of White Bones, anticipated. Ha’asal thought of his General’s plan. In his heart of hearts, he had no faith that the plan, bold as it was, would succeed. The White Sorcerer, for one thing, was all too likely to foretell and forestall any defiance. The Devil King, for another, was a fearsome warrior, the stuff of legend. His mail and helmet were said to be of mithril, which not even the razor-sharp, skilfully forged blades of the Haradrim could penetrate.
His earlier confidence in his General’s plan evaporated in the face of practicalities. Without missing a step, he nodded to himself. He would do his best to die honourably in battle. However, he had no illusions. The White Sorcerer, he suspected, merely had to raise his staff to send forth a flash of lightning and paralyse any Haradrim who drew their scimitars in defiance rather than surrender.
Ha’asal vowed he would die without a sound. The Devil King would wring no cries of agony from his throat, no matter what damage the knife might inflict. He would sing no death song as the knife did its work, make no “music”, as the Devils called it, to add to their pleasure. To steel his nerves, he raised his voice now in defiant song.
Only a few steps further in their death march, he heard the voice of the Grand Ambassador rising in ululation, sounding the high, piercing battle cry that punctuated the traditional song, and then the General of Haragost, Ha’alan, joined in, and more voices, spreading to the ranks of Haradrim from the other kingdoms of Near and Far Harad, following behind the host from Haragost, swelling the battle song as they marched to their doom.
Somewhere beyond the ominous creaking and rattling of the surrounding ruins, Turambor was aware of a sound that still haunted his nightmares – the battle song of the Haradrim, alien music punctuated by the weird ululating sound those fearsome warriors had made as they crashed into the ranks of soldiers of Gondor upon one of the two hills before the Black Gate. He lost himself at that moment, frozen in memory.
The growing crowd behind him, seeing him suddenly motionless, thought the building was about to collapse further upon the would-be rescuer and whomever or whatever might lie there, buried in the rubble. The hush that had already begun at seeing the greengrocer's initial tentative foray into peril now intensified and spread rearward from the front of the crowd, and somehow, the people stood as statues, all holding their collective breath.
Frankly, Merry had forgotten all about standing at the Seventh Gate at Éomer’s side, waiting to greet the Grand Ambassador and escort him to the welcoming ceremony and feast to follow. Instead of hastily assuming his uniform and hurrying to his station so that he would be in place well before the marching host of Harad reached the higher levels, he was instead at Frodo’s side, in the midst of an intense yet frustrating search.
‘Have you seen my cousin Peregrin? Pippin?’ Frodo kept stopping every few lengths to ask, whenever he saw a familiar face, and even when he didn’t. ‘The Ernil i Pheriannath?’ he’d add, for the benefit of the people of the city whose faces were not familiar.
Oddly enough, a few of those he stopped to question had seen their young cousin, being pulled along by the large puppy (‘dragged,’ some called it), along the same winding downward course that the older cousins now followed.
‘Early this morning, it was,’ one of the Guardsmen stationed at intervals along the way now said. ‘He and the pup were headed downward, some hours before I came on duty. Said something about finding a greenspace to throw a stick and let the young dog wear himself out with fetching and playing.’ In answer to Frodo’s next question, he shook his head. ‘No, I cannot say that I saw them returning again later.’
‘Greenspace!’ Merry muttered to Frodo. ‘I do hope we don’t have to go all the way to the Pelennor to find them!’
Frodo thanked the Guardsman and pulled at Merry’s arm. ‘Come along, Cousin,’ he said. ‘If we have to go all the way to the Pelennor, we have quite a long way to go before returning up to the Seventh Circle for the feast.’
‘At least we’ll work up a good appetite,’ Merry said in his most cheerful tones, even as his heart sank to his sure to become weary-and-sore toes. ‘I’m right behind you!’ Though, strictly speaking, the cousins were trotting along side by side as they made their way past the cheering, cloth-waving crowds.
Meanwhile, Samwise was trotting ever upwards, having been sent at the best pace he could manage up to the Citadel, to inform the King that his smallest Guardsman was missing.
Certainly, the grand ceremonies would not be interrupted, but perhaps Elessar or Faramir would dispatch a Company of Men to aid the search. At the very least, Sam’s message would explain the absence of the Ring-bearer. Go on with the festivities without him, Sam panted to himself, and shook his head. He could only hope the Haradrim would not take Frodo’s absence as a deadly insult to their honour, spurring them to march against the Shire to exact a terrible retribution. Generous, though they might be, and quick to render honour and hospitality, they were feared and respected by the Men of Gondor for good reason. Touchy folk, they were, tetchier than a Took, as the old saying went, and that would be saying something.
Several levels lower, and proceeding downward, Frodo and Merry found themselves the object of the cheering crowds assembled to either side of the long winding road. Some were, perhaps, puzzled, and one Man, apparently trying to be helpful, shouted, ‘You’re going the wrong way!’
But most seemed to accept anything the Ring-bearer might do as the right and proper thing. They probably think, Merry thought to himself, that Frodo has been sent to meet the Haradrim and lead them to the Citadel, perhaps the greatest honour that the people of Gondor could conceive, though the very idea of it would make any hobbit quite uncomfortable.
He shook his head at the weird ululations piercing the sounds of the cheering crowds, hauntingly familiar though he could not seem to place them in his memory. They appeared to be coming closer. He didn't know what they portended, but they were as discomfiting as any of the thoughts he might be thinking at this moment, missing younger cousin included.
All was blackness and crushing pain. Pippin’s fingers moved as if groping for the hilt of his sword, or scratching away at the prisoning stone. Somehow the sensations he was feeling were all too familiar, lacking only the stench of the fallen troll, and belied only by the knowledge that, far from being dead, Frodo had achieved his Quest and had been brought back to be showered with honour and acclaim. It was some comfort to know, even as he felt his mind falling away into a great darkness, that his beloved cousin was safe, if not completely whole.
But then the past came rushing in, bringing him shockingly to painful wakefulness, making him doubt his own recollection. Perhaps the rescue and recovery, perhaps the reunions, the celebration upon the field of Cormallen, the triumphant return to Minas Tirith, Faramir’s welcome, the crowning of the King... perhaps all of those things were but the dreams of his fading mind.
For, much in the way of the call, The Eagles! The Eagles are coming! – another sound arose, all too real and not nightmare memory. Pippin moaned low as he recognised the battle cry of the Haradrim; his fingers scrabbled for the hilt of his sword a final time, and then he was still.
In the Hall of Kings, high above the bulk of the City, many of the warriors who were waiting in readiness for the invited guests to arrive stiffened as a breath of wind carried the high, eerie ululations of the Haradrim to their ears. A mighty number of them had stood upon one or the other great hills of blasted stone and earth, piled up over years of labour by vile orcs, before the vast iron doors of the Black Gate that had yawned open as if to devour them, as the onslaught of the host of Mordor broke upon them, trolls and orcs, Easterlings and Haradrim.
The unnerving sound rose and fell on the breeze, overlaying the cheers to be heard from the people lining the long winding road, from the Great Gate all the way to the Citadel.
‘That is a battle cry,’ Faramir said urgently to his King. But Elessar stood as if formed of stone, as if he'd been prematurely transformed into one of the statues of former kings of Gondor in that hall. He stared into a far distance and made no answer.
The Steward turned to Mithrandir, only to see the White Wizard equally motionless, standing, straining, listening to something beyond the realm of sound. He closed his eyes, reaching with his whole being to grasp at the feeling of unease that had been haunting him since not long after the dawning.
When the distant ululations stopped, cut off as sharply as they had arisen, it felt to him as piercing as a physical pain.
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase taken from “Minas Tirith” and “The Black Gate Opens” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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