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Chapter 13. Into the Thick of the Fray
As the warrior of Haragost approached the front of the crowd, the situation became clearer. Ahead of him, Ha’asal saw a cloud of dust rising, heard shouts of alarm, and he pushed his way more vigorously, ruthlessly shoving people aside. Reaching the front, he saw the badly damaged ruins of what had once been a graceful structure. A man’s legs protruded from the rubble. Some were pulling at his legs, while others surrounding him scraped away stones and crumbling plaster. At last, they managed to pull him free and turn him over.
He was deathly white, like a ghost, and Ha’asal instinctively made the sign to ward off evil before his wit returned and he understood what he was seeing. A smear of blood stood out, vivid against the backdrop of the plaster dust that covered the Gondorian. But it was what he clutched in his hand, even unconscious, that drew the Harad warrior’s eyes.
A half-sized shoe... the footgear of a child...
And now he understood fully. The unearthly shrieks, now dying to whimpers – they came not from the demonic actions of torturing devils but from some youngling buried somewhere deeper in the rubble.
But, from the sound of it, still alive!
He heard mingled noises from the crowding Gondorians – a mixture of soft sobbing, gasps of horror, quiet mutters of despair, overlaid with the urgent entreaties of the rescuers, trying to rouse the man they’d pulled from under the rubble. Ha’asal doubted that any would hazard another try, but from the look of the half-fallen ceiling, there was no time to waste. Thinking quickly, he turned to the following Haradrim. ‘Spears! Quickly!’ he called. As spearmen gathered around him, awaiting orders (a part of his mind, grimly humorous, wondered if they expected him to order them to charge into the pressing crowd), he removed his sash. Holding his scimitar in his other hand, he kissed the sheathed blade and laid the weapon gently to one side. ‘Spears!’ he said again, holding out a demanding hand.
One such shaft was enough to stop a Rider of Rohan, charging at a full gallop. Yet he doubted that one of the ironwood shafts, fashioned from trees with wood so dense that a diamond blade was used to cut and shape them, would be enough to hold up a collapsing roof. Still, the battle spears were made from one of the treasures of Haragost, ironwood, that curious tree that grew tall, straight and sapling slim, yielding wood that was deceptively light yet strong enough to withstand the blow of an enemy’s sword or axe wielded with blade-blunting force. Ha’asan hoped a bundle of them, tied firmly together, would prove strong enough for a different sort of battle onslaught.
Hesitantly, the closest spearman pressed his weapon into Ha’asal’s grip, and then another, and more quickly, two others, and more, as they saw his intent. When he had as many of the light, sturdy weapons as he could manage, he wrapped his sash around them, tying them together securely. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that the Grand Ambassador and his General had caught his idea and were doing the same. Then Ha’alan thrust his bundled spears into Ha’asal’s other hand and turned back to the army of Haragost to demand the short throwing spears that the spearmen carried on their backs. Commanding another warrior’s sash, he began to bundle a handful of them together, and then another.
Moving cautiously into the ruins with his impromptu timbers, Ha’asal understood his General’s purpose. Through the rising dust, he could now see the beam that had partly fallen, lying canted. The long spears, lances intended to fend off cavalry, would be too long to hold it up, but the short throwing spears, used to prop it part-way along its length, would serve to keep the rest of it from coming down. And prevent it from coming down, they must, for under the beam...
There were two children, Ha’asal realised. Under the rubble, he could make out two pairs of feet, with only one shoe between them (for the other shoe was clutched in the hand of their would-be rescuer). Two precious young lives – for the Haradrim treasured their children. Had gone to fight for the Dark Lord for the sake of their children. Had come here to the City of White Bones to offer their lives... in the hope their children’s lives would be spared.
He picked a likely spot and shoved one of the bundles of spears in place beneath the sagging ceiling, holding his breath as he saw the slim weapons take the weight. Would it be enough? The shafts quivered under the strain, but bundled together, working as one, they held! He placed the other bundled spears even as he saw Ha’alan duck into the opening behind him and shove the bundled throwing spears under the beam, to keep it from settling any further and crushing the small bodies.
The Ambassador was right behind the General and his aide – he thrust his prop at Ha’asal and bent to scrape away the stones and debris covering the trapped children. Hearing the whimpering coming from somewhere deeper in the ruin, Ha’asal moved forward, feeling his way. More by instinct than by sight, he placed the last brace as the General moved past him, deeper into the shadows.
He started to follow, but seeing the last bundle quivering and starting to slide under the shifting ceiling, he turned back to add his own strength to the bracing spears. ‘Hurry!’ he panted. ‘It’s all coming down!’
He heard a muffled answer from Ha’alan and thought he saw the General bending, stooping in the shadows near the wall. Ha’alan started to withdraw, but then he stopped and seemed to stretch further inward, reaching. Just how many younglings had been playing around these cursed ruins? And where were their elders? ‘Hurry!’ the aide said again. ‘I don’t know how long...’ An ominous rumbling drowned his warning.
Once Sam was able to persuade the Guardsman to put him down, he thanked the Man, as was only courteous. He brushed the wrinkles from his clothing, seeing as how he was all dressed up in clothing made especially for him, too fine for a plain gardener, really, but suitable for a fine and fancy affair. Which, frankly, did not seem as imminent as it might have, not so long ago, when Sam had been hurrying up the hill with his message.
Then he stood hesitating, looking from the entrance to the Citadel to the winding road leading downhill and back again. What ought he to do now? Merry and Frodo were down in the lower levels of the City, and headed downward, for all he knew. And now Strider was headed in that direction, meaning that he’d see for himself that the Ring-bearer was going to be late for the ceremony.
Or was there even going to be a ceremony, at this rate?
The trumpet call sounded again, closer this time. The helpful Guardsman’s face changed, and while before he had said not to move Merry but to wait until a healer could be fetched to make a proper determination of the Perian’s injuries, he now scooped Merry unceremoniously into his arms and pushed himself to his feet. ‘Make way!’ he gasped, perhaps to Frodo, or maybe to the other people surrounding them.
But others were saying the same, and then shouting the same, and pushing to the sides of the street as the trumpet sounded again, closer. ‘Clear the way! Make way!’
Soon, the reason for the crowd’s haste became all too clear as Frodo heard the clatter of what sounded like a host of horses pounding down the long winding road from the Citadel, their hoofs beating a sharp rhythm on the stones, and rapidly approaching. A mounted body of Men swept by, hoofs striking sparks from the stones of the road, and at their head... ‘Strider!’ he gasped.
He felt Merry, still in the Guardsman’s arms, reach down to pluck at his shoulder. ‘What can it mean?’ Merry said. ‘Are the Haradrim attacking the lower Levels?’
‘Whatever it is,’ Frodo said with complete certainty, staring after the charging force, now out of sight around the corner. ‘I’ll wager Pippin is in the middle of it, somehow.’
Author’s note: Some turns of phrase possibly taken from “Minas Tirith” in The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
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