7. The Crossing of Far Harad
Pippin saw a grey gravel road lying beneath overhanging birch boughs under a bright moon three-quarters full. A hobbit walked along it. It was his wife. She wore a white dress and a blue cloak with her hair bound up by a black ribbon. Another black ribbon was tied around her sleeve. She walked slowly, glancing back behind her every now and then.
She stopped and smiled. Her face changed, becoming not just beautiful, but radiant.
“Come on, Farrie!” she said. “Come to mama!”
A little hobbit baby toddled into view, stumbling along with outstretched arms on his big and chubby feet.
“That’s it!” Diamond encouraged, still smiling radiantly. “That’s a lad, Farrie!” She sank down and stretched her arms wide. “You’re almost there!”
The baby chortled. Another hobbit came into view, a young servant-girl with a starched apron and bib, watching Farrie’s progress with careful eyes.
With a triumphant squeal Farrie closed the last foot and fell into Diamond’s arms. Diamond hugged him tight and lifted him up, making Farrie giggle and crow.
“I’m so proud of you, my handsome lad!” Diamond said. “Isn’t he such a great big hobbit, Pansy?”
“Yes ma’am,” said the nurse with a curtsy. “Growing so fast, walking already, or making like to start at it. Such a shame he’s got no dad to see him.”
Diamond glared coldly at the girl. “He has a ‘dad’,” she said. “The Thain’s son will return.” She buried Farrie’s face in her shoulder, which he proceeded to drool on.
“But ma’am,” protested the nurse, “the letter from the King come to Mr. Merry, the one about the boat sinking and all—”
“Peregrin is alive,” Diamond said.
She took Farrie and left the nurse, quickening her pace down the gravel road. It was the road behind the Great Smials, leading around the back of the high hill upon which the mansions of the Tooks was carved and delved, a low, green, comfy imitation of Minas Tirith, though none had remembered that until Peregrin Took returned.
Alone now, she tore the black ribbons from her sleeve and her hair and flung them away. Farrie laughed and grabbed fistfuls of his mother’s pretty, pretty hair.
Diamond brought her son’s face to hers. “You know that, don’t you, baby?” she insisted, gazing into her son’s sea-green eyes. “You do have a dad. He’s just not here right now.” She tweaked the tip of his pointy nose. Farrie giggled again.
“Yes,” Diamond said, rocking the baby gently, “he’ll come back. For you, he will.” She sighed, looking up into the stars peeking through the birch leaves, and it seemed the ice in her eyes had finally melted, their water brimming upon her lashes. “He won’t come back for me. It’s too late to hope that, I know. Silly really.”
Farrie babbled something. Diamond looked at him curiously. “Why? Why are Mama and Dad silly?” Diamond asked. “Oh, because Mama was poor and Dad had lots of things, because Mama was too young and so was Dad, because they didn’t know each other, and lots of other silly things hobbits who fancy themselves all grown up think they know about. But for you, he’ll come back. He loves you. He’ll come back for you. I know he will.”
Farrie wriggled and babbled. Diamond rubbed her cheek to his, quieting him. “Don’t listen to them,” she advised him. “Never listen to what they say. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Uncle Merry thinks differently, and who are you going to believe about your dad, strangers or your Uncle Merry who knows him best?”
She sat down beneath a tree, looking up and down the road. The road bent where she sat, so that she could neither see its beginning nor its end. She smiled, and her smile was a sad one.
“Now, what’s Uncle Merry’s real name?”
Farrie answered happily. He liked big shining Uncle Merry.
“Mer-ry-adoc. Very good. And Grandmum’s?” Diamond put him down, standing him up, holding his ankles. Farrie teetered but did not fall. “Egg-lan-teen. You’re so smart!” she praised. “You must get that from me. Oh, don’t tell your dad that! That’s one of the things we were silly about. And what’s mother’s name? Can you say ‘Diamond’?”
Farrie liked the sparkly pebble thing on his mother’s neck.
“That’s right, laddie. Like the gem.” Diamond laughed as she heard her name through her son’s lips. “Oh, you’re so clever,” she said. “Now then. Can you say dad’s name?”
Farrie sat on his bottom, his brows knitting in thought.
Diamond caressed her son’s curly hair. “Dad’s name is Peregrin. But let me tell you something. He wouldn’t want you to call him that. He’ll say it’s too big and grand for him.”
Her breath catching, Diamond turned her gaze across the endless road, and for an instant lines of regret shadowed her face. “I never agreed with him,” she confessed. “I think Peregrin fits him perfectly.”
She smiled upon her son. “But you should call him Pippin. He’ll like that. Can you say that? Say ‘Pippin’. Dad’s name. ‘Pippin’.”
Farrie giggled and spoke.
The stars, thick despite a moon three-quarters full, filled Pippin’s woken eyes. He started up, seeing Poclis kneeling next to him. They were encamped by a thorn tree. Their fire was still going strong.
“What were you dreaming about?” Poclis asked.
A dream. Pippin’s heart sank.
“I was dreaming of my wife and son,” he told his companion, sitting into a hunched position, his legs wrapped in his arms. “I abandoned them, Poclis. I’m a horrible hobbit, you know.”
Poclis said nothing. Pippin didn’t expect him to. Afraid to sleep and dream more dreams that he’d want to be true, he listened to the sounds of the night around him, to the soft twitters of night-birds in the tree above them, the panting of the young leopard slung over a far branch, the restless rustle of the herd of zebra some distance away, the singing of insects. The warm, rolling wind carried the hints of a lion roaring its territorial claims, while underfoot rumbled the almost imperceptibly low, vast voices of the oliphaunts.
Pippin sat, mumbling the names of the animals in Banilem, Poclis’s native tongue, which he was learning, and did not look up as Poclis sat down next to him.
“‘Falcon’,” Poclis said.
Pippin smiled dryly. “Sihoru.”
“Who is the Rainmaker?” Poclis asked next.
“The Falcon of the Sun Who Brings the Rains,” said Pippin. “O Sihorunebi m’Hobango.”
Poclis chuckled, whether in approval for his grammar or in horror at his accent, Pippin couldn’t tell. “Would a man so heartless as to leave wife and child weep for missing them, Razàr, kisihoru?”
Pippin glared fiercely at his friend. “I am not weeping,” he said, and saying so, he did, tears leaking tightly onto his sunbrowned cheeks.
Poclis put an arm around the hobbit’s shoulders. Pippin finished quickly. He did not like reveling in grief. “Well,” he said, wiping his eyes, “that was unexpected.”
“How long have you been away from them?”
Pippin thought. He had left in spring. It was deep into summer now, or winter where they were, below the Girdle of Arda; not that the seasons were anything less than warm through the plains they traversed.
“Four months,” he finally said. “Turning five.” They were still at least three weeks from their destination. At least Pippin could see them clearly now: the two mountains from which the rivers sprang, the Younger and Elder Mothers.
Poclis nodded. “It must feel like a long time.”
“Not compared to you,” said Pippin. “You’ve been almost twenty years gone from your family.”
“Twenty from one,” said Poclis, “and only a month from the other.”
Pippin nodded. “I hope the ship’s all right, and Morelin.”
“They are,” said Poclis. “I know it.”
He will come back for you. For you if not for me. I know it. Pippin heard Diamond’s soft voice again, and threw himself down upon his sleeping roll, refusing to indulge in the grief of his choices.
Pippin aimed at the tiny gazelle, and then let fly. The arrow missed. Spooked, the gazelle and the rest of its herd bounced away, leaping on their four tiny hooves through the tall grass.
“You must be patient,” Poclis replied.
Pippin ignored him and stomped off to retrieve his arrow. He had told Poclis he wasn’t good with archery. Did the Man think he could teach what Legolas couldn’t? Knives, he knew. He had grown up with a pocketknife. Everyone had knives. Knives were part of life, like bread and pipes. The sword, well, he was good at it. He practiced with Poclis even now, blunt sparring, not with Trollsbane but with the walking stick Poclis had made for him, using it like a sword against Poclis’ own staff. He was passable at throwing knives, and he had learned a little boxing from Brogar and the other pirates. But archery? It was a lost cause. It was. Pippin didn’t know why he let Poclis talk him into it. Poclis brought down enough game for them to feed on.
He bent down to pick up the arrow.
Something burst from the tall grass: slope-backed, muddy-furred, with a long snout and an ugly gait. It ran for him and made to attack.
In a single motion he drew his sword and swung it in a sparkling arc through the creature’s path.
The wounded creature yelped and ran away, shrieking.
By the time Poclis came to him, Pippin had already finished cleaning his sword.
“A blaga,” he said to Poclis. “Stank.” He frowned at Poclis. “What?”
Cloak cast to one side, the remains of his shirt fallen back, Pippin’s arms and chest and belly were nothing but hard ropy muscle packed beneath tight brown skin. The lines on Pippin’s face were deeper even as his cheeks were slimmer. Old battle scars mingled with the new scabs of thorn and grass-blade and a month of hard travel.
“Did you know many Rangers?” Poclis asked him later. They had gone to a small, fresh stream to wash and drink among the birds and gazelles.
“Just three,” said Pippin, “and they were a little more than ordinary Rangers.”
“Were any halflings ever of their company?”
Pippin stared at Poclis and then broke into giggles. “Oh, oh, that’s funny,” he exclaimed between laughs. “Hobbit rangers! Now what a sight that would be!” He went on washing, not noticing Poclis’s amusement.
They journeyed through grasslands and rocklands and crossed upwelling creeks through the fresh winter growth. Rain was plentiful and occasionally strong, and they took shelter beneath umbrella thorns or among rock outcroppings that rose with regularity along the floodplain of the distant but ever-present river. They moved through the herds of animals for which Pippin had no names: wildebeest, and eland, waterbucks and nyalas, kudus with their spiraling horns, and the little ones that sniffed the air like squirrels and barked like dogs and hopped away like rabbits when he approached. They strode past trooping monkeys, avoided baboons, kept an eye on leopards in the trees and listened for the warnings of lions.
They passed towering termite mounds like the fortresses of minute lords, and the ruins of trees devoured by a single family of oliphaunts, all the while keeping to the rising Sun and the distant, rising volcanoes, their summits crowned in immortal ice. Pippin almost forgot how to blink. His speech was growing peppered with Banilem and Haradi, words for places, creatures and things that had no names in memory in the tongues of the West.
At night, before he slept, he would watch the stars with Poclis, and swap stories of the constellations. He could see Menelvagor’s belt, and that made him think of Gildor and the Elves, and Boromir, and he told Poclis about his friend and fellow Walker.
“So it is true,” said Poclis. “You are one of the halflings who accompanied the Ring-bearer.”
Pippin nodded. “That’s right,” he said, and he smiled at how proud he was of it.
They divided the night into two watches. Pippin would sleep first, and take up the watch past midnight until the dawn, listening to the nightjars. This was more out of necessity than planning: his dreams usually woke him well before morning. They were growing stronger.
“What is that called?” he asked, pointing to a constellation he had noticed from the beginning: four stars at the corners of a diamond. But Poclis could not see it; to him, each star was part of other things. Pippin tried to follow his companion’s patterns, but for him, the stars of the diamond persisted.
It was a long journey, hundreds of miles; but it was winter, and the air was cool and wet, and the grass and herbs were green; the trees were flowering with sweet golden flowers, resounding with thrushes and larks and swallows and bee-eaters; there was plentiful game for the hunting, and they walked upon a flat and easy plain. With fire at night and their keen senses during the day—Pippin’s no less than those of Poclis—distance was their only obstacle. And distance meant little to a long-legged man on his way home. It meant even less to a small hobbit lost to wanderlust.
“I had thought,” said Poclis one evening as they dined on roasted hare and edible herbs, “that halflings were soft and retiring creatures who enjoyed their comforts.”
Pippin laughed. “We are! And I am, or at least I used to be. I think I’ve been ill-influenced by all the Men I’ve met.” He picked up the pipe he had been fashioning. It would be finished soon; would he ever find anything worth smoking? “And besides, I’m a Took, and we have a particularly Fallohidish strain.”
Poclis listened with interest that quickly became horror as Pippin plotted forth his theories and investigations about his people’s past, which hobbits tended to conveniently forget. They had not always been fat and happy—that was the result of having a fat and happy land. They used to be three separate nations of hungry little creatures, offshoots of Men that had grown small and secretive, hiding from the Big People and the immensity of Middle-earth. Harfoots were most civilized, and most numerous, with farms and herds. Stoors fished the rivers and traded, and were most like Men. The Fallohides were the least numerous, and the hungriest. They lived in the cold forests at the headwaters of the Anduin and hunted for their meat.
Some sixteen hundred years ago, Pippin concluded, events in the East drove the three kinds of hobbits into Eriador. The Harfoots crossed via the Redhorn pass, the Stoors took the Gap of Calenardhon—and took a very long time to get there—while the Fallohides dared the northern passes, fighting goblins and trolls and dragons.
“My cousin Merry thinks they must have passed near Rivendell,” he added some hours later, still thinking about it. “There they learned much story and song.”
Poclis grunted and kept walking.
Pippin expounded at length for an hour or more over several days, interrupted by hunting, dangerous beasts, sudden rain storms, and sleep, which for him didn’t last long at all.
“The Harfoots lived in Bree at this time. They didn’t like the Fallohides. They thought they were savages, you see, and who could blame them? But the Fallohides were bold, and tall, and they dealt with the Big People and the Elves much better than did the Harfoots. So they decided to live together, and, as things go, got together, and eventually we all became just hobbits. But my family, and my cousin’s family the Brandybucks, still has a pretty obvious Fallohide background. My mother, who is of course of the stolid and enterprising Banks line, blames that bloodline for all the trouble I get into. But I used to be quite a typical hobbit, until… well, until the War and everything.”
When he realized that the lessons were finally over, Poclis turned around and stared at Pippin.
“How much of what you have spent the past five days telling me is true?”
Pippin considered. “Well, I made up most of it. But out of very reliable facts out of very old books. My point is, under even the fattest, slowest hobbit of the Shire flows the blood of a hardy hunter.”
He ended this with a nod of certainty and walked past Poclis, his stride long for a hobbit, his lean brown shape strong against the wind.
Poclis shook his head yet again.
“The Plains River,” Poclis announced, pointing to the river that now threw a vast curve into their path. “We shall follow it from here on.”
“We’re almost there?” Pippin asked.
“Beyond that riverbend begins the herd-lands of my people. You shall know it when we enter it; we keep markers of our own, like lions.”
“Sounds good,” said Pippin. “As for me, I’ve had enough walking for today. Shall we camp by the river or on the plain?”
Poclis surveyed the choices. “There,” he said, pointing to a dry copse. “Good?”
“Good,” Pippin approved.
It was near midnight when Pippin began to toss and turn upon his bedroll, his eyes beneath their lids jerking left and right. Poclis sighed. How much sleep could a Halfling do without, before becoming brittle at the edges in the waking world?
Yet the only way to stop the dreams, was to wake him; and waking, the halfling would not sleep again.
Poclis began to fear there was more to these dreams than Pippin was telling him.
He minded the banked fire and turned worriedly as he heard a word escape Pippin’s lips.
“Merry,” Pippin was saying. “Merry …”
Merry was riding, riding through the Shire. His cloak lay dark on him in the light of the moon as he road. He rode a long-limbed white pony, and his face was grim.
The Green Hills rolled by. He rode through Tuckborough, and there were lights in the windows, even though it was near midnight. Hobbits ventured out of their homes to watch the Traveler pass by. Merry may not have stopped, if any crossed his path.
The road bent past Tuckborough, through well-tended woods rich with pheasant and quail, to the painted gate of the Tooks and the terraced, windowed hillside of the Great Smials. The hobbits warding the gate swung it open just in time. Merry’s horse charged through, up the gravel path to the many-leveled flight of stairs leading up to the Great Door.
Pippin saw his cousin stride through the Door past intimidated hobbits, through a number of Tooks of all classes gathered in the hall, up the staircase and through corridors well-lit from the steady, glass-globed candles, to the heavy door of the room whose windows faced north midway up the hillside.
Merry walked in and told the hobbits within, “Did no one invite me to this little party?”
Pippin recognized the startled faces, some of them purpling or paling in anger. He recognized his father-in-law, Sigismond Took of Long Cleeve, wearing his customer brown tweeds and bonnet-cap. He saw the sons of Adelard, his cousins: Reginard, Frodo’s old friend, and Everard, who used to bully Pippin when they were children. Old Ferdinand was there as well, and Ferdibrand his son. Pippin saw his sister Pearl, recognizing her by her curls, reddest of them all.
She sat next to the desk behind which sat a tall, grey-curled hobbit in a dark blue jacket and somber waistcoat, his face browned by years in the sun and lined with a million cares too many. He raised his eyes to Merry, and they were keen and sharp and sea-green.
“Hello, nephew,” said Paladin, Thain of the Shire. “Good of you to visit.”
“What is this Brandybuck to do with business of the Tooks, Paladin?” Sigismond protested.
“I’m more than half a Took by blood, Sigismond,” said Merry, “and I’m here on my mother’s behalf. And on Pip’s.”
“Oh, yes!” said Everard with a snort. “We never expected you to take his side.”
“Be quiet, Ev,” Reginard said. He rose. “I’m sorry, Merry. I should have invited you myself. As Pippin’s cousin and friend, you should have been part of these discussions. As Master’s Heir, you should at least have been advised.”
“I was advised,” said Merry, “by a sweet scarlet Pimpernel. She wrote me two days ago and sent a pony instead of the regular post. So I’m here now.”
He glared at them all. “Pippin is not dead,” he said.
“You received the King’s letter yourself,” Ferdibrand said.
“Yes, I did,” Merry shot back, “and I read it myself, and if I say it said nothing about Pippin being dead, then mine would be the better authority in this matter, would it not?”
Reginard sighed. “Dead or not,” he said, “he’s left us, Mer, again. From what I gather, perhaps for good…”
Pippin’s sight dimmed, and he could no longer hear Reginard’s words, or Merry’s reply. They were disinheriting him? Was that what was going on?
He could still see his father’s face, and he tried yet again to read its expressions. It was useless. He had never been able to understand his dad, and now it seemed he never would. Even if he did return, it would be too late to fix what had been broken for years.
Disinherited. It served him right. After all, a hobbit who abandons wife and child and responsibility to go off on a fool’s errand, was exactly that: a fool. And worse.
Reginard spoke again. “I’ll take care of things until Faramir comes of age.”
So Reg was going to be take over? Good for him! Pippin thought well of his older cousin. He was level-headed, reasonable, calm, studious, and uncurious, possessed of good, firm hobbit-sense; everything Pippin wasn’t.
“You, Reg?” said Merry, betrayed.
Reginard was sorrowful, but firm. “Someone has got to do his duty to family and country. You know that as I do, Merry. You’ve done well.”
Pippin waited for Merry’s answer, and when nothing came, he looked to see Merry’s face, and then he knew that he’d disappointed Merry too.
Pippin ran from his father’s study into the churning winds of the palantir. When they cleared, he saw the inside of a palm-leaf hut, dark but for a guttering lamp. Its flame was reflected in the glass bottle, half-empty, clutched in the long, fine fingers of the man slumped over the table.
Morelin. Pippin thought his friend and captain looked haggard. His meticulously groomed mustache and goatee were unkempt and surrounded by a few days’ growth of unshaven beard. His eyes were open, and stared at the papers before him: maps of Arda, of Belegaer, fanciful sketchings of half-mad maroons and lost travelers about the dark depths of Far Harad and a valley where a star shone on earth. That star caught Pippin’s gaze for a moment before slipping away beyond his sight. The map had monsters in the corners. That sort of map.
A knock on the door.
“It’s open,” said Morelin. “It’s always open.” He was drunk.
Davy slipped through the opening and gazed in sadly and uncertainly. “Captain, sir?”
“What is it, Davy?”
“The natives, sir. They are complaining about the smell from the pitch barrels.”
“Their land oozes the stuff,” said Morelin. “That was why we docked here, to mine their damned pitch and waterproof our new planks. You would think they have gotten accustomed to it.”
“Sir, they’re asking us to leave within three days.”
Three days. The captain laughed. “Very well. She can hold together a while longer.” He smiled at the boy. “And a little more rowing should put even more meat on that skinny frame of yours, eh, Davy?”
Davy smiled. “Aye, sir. We can have your cabin fixed by then sure. So you won’t have to bother with places like these.”
“My gratitude is boundless,” Morelin said wryly. “Very well. Have Brogar tell them we shall depart from their fair bay within three days.” He paused, considering. “Two days, if they don’t mind parting with a few … trinkets, hey?”
Davy grinned wickedly. “Aye, sir.”
Alone again, Morelin leaned back in his chair, staring up through the holes in the woven roof at the muddy stars of this jungle cove. It was near midnight. Above him, a star fell. Pippin followed it, and he was swept back into the palantir’s mists.
It was broad daylight, strong and fierce, sometime in the past or the future, not the present. The swaying of the palms provided good relief from the heat. Pippin watched Diamond walk through the bazaar, pretending to inquire about the dates, the barley, the price of figs, the slaves; but she was not here to haggle, and in any case the merchants knew her to be a desertine, and mistrusted her. Beneath her veil, which shrouded her hair and most of her body, she kept her sword at ready.
Diamond? No, that wasn’t Diamond. She didn’t even look like her. Diamond was pale. This woman, a woman of Men, she was dark, even to her eyes. How had he mistaken her for his wife?
A procession of armed men blocked her path. They wore blue linen kilts and blue copper breastplates, all their armor in this dry heat. Their helmets were golden, and each one bore the symbol of the desert storm tattooed in blue upon their brow, the token of their lord.
The veiled woman’s eyes narrowed at them. She said a word in a tongue Pippin didn’t know, but which Pippin somehow understood: Idolaters.
Behind the men came a chariot drawn by a pair of noble horses. Upon the chariot, obscured by gauzy curtains, rode a woman in white and gold. She was beautiful, not young, and though queenly seemed more a prisoner than a ruler. Her eyes were full of grief as they alighted briefly on the much younger woman in the traveler’s veil.
But the veiled woman’s concern was one of the horses. She recognized the black mare. She had come for it; it had been stolen from her people, who had traded for it in Umbar. The mare, little more than a filly really, had seemed wild and unbroken, but the she had managed to tame her, and they had become fast friends before the heathens took her. They would pay.
Pippin also recognized the black mare. It was Tempest.
A young man came to the woman, dressed similarly to her, with the same cast of face and manner. Her brother, perhaps. “Leah,” he said. “Another sortie is planned downriver for slave-taking. Near the great lake by the old volcanoes.”
“Seth’s evil spreads so far south,” she replied. “Obed, this cannot last. Why does Sakhara not rise up against him?”
“They believe him a god,” was the man’s reply. “We can do nothing for them.”
Almas looked at the slaves in the market-place with pity, and then beyond the old cliff-side city and the ancient house of the king, to the desert ridge where once the Star these people worshipped shone above their valley. But the Star was now obscured, enshrouded in steep slopes of carved stone like a ladder to the sky.
Leah, Pippin thought, slipping back into the stream within the palantir. That’s a nice name.
Then suddenly the clouds turned into fire, and he recoiled and tried to flee. He hated this part. He tried to wake up.
But the palantir engulfed Pippin, sending its mists spiraling around his body, clutching at him. He tried to break free, but couldn’t. Unease was wrenching his guts into twisted knots. He smelled his own fear.
All of a sudden the mists were gone and He was there. His Eye was upon him. Pippin quailed and tried to run, but He was too strong. He seized Pippin. Pippin tried to struggle, but it only amused Him. Claws of pain raked beneath Pippin’s skin. Pippin shut his eyes and tried to will himself away, but He held him body and soul.
His Eye was upon him. It tore past his clothes, his skin, his flesh, his bones, until he was a naked soul clutched by the manacles of an evil smith. And the Eye probed him.
What dainty is this, hmm?
And He laughed, and each laugh stabbed Pippin like a red-hot knife.
Pippin tried to scream, but he couldn’t. He begged for mercy, to be let go, and then finally for death. But it only amused the Eye.
Not yet, pretty lad, said Sauron. Not until I’ve ruined you. Tell me, do you have my little ring?
It was the easiest thing to say. No one would blame him. It hurt too much; and besides, he wouldn’t care, he’d be dead.
That’s a good boy. Give in to me. Why fight?
For Frodo. That’s why.
Do your worst, you villain, said the voice, Pippin’s. Ravage me to pieces for a thousand years. You won’t have as long!
Pippin didn’t speak about his dreams to Poclis, but they weighed heavily on him even as they approached the herd-lands of the Bani.
Pippin noticed two changes in Poclis’s demeanor. Sometimes he strode forward so confidently he seemed ready to take flight. Yet other times, a shadow of doubt lay on his face, so that it seemed he was running not to home but to some sentence of punishment. Thinking back of Poclis’s story, Pippin guessed it was trepidation over the welcome they would receive from Poclis’s father and brothers. Poclis’s brothers were Sauron-worshippers. Pippin didn’t feel too excited about that himself.
They followed the river for three days along its curve, watching it quickly gather strength as they neared its headwaters. The placid brown waterway here was strong and clearly rushing, swollen with rains, turbulent and foul with debris. They walked along it, but not near its flood shore; every now and then when he saw it Pippin espied the floating carcass of some creature caught in the torrent. Ahead of them soared the smooth dark cone of the Younger Mother, steam faintly rising from its summit. Beyond, the ice-crested crags of the Elder Mother remained many leagues away.
On the third day the grasses abruptly grew shorter, and cairns of stone painted yellow and red rose every mile for some distance. Poclis halted. He raised his hand, and Pippin stopped too, looking around for whatever Poclis had sensed.
“What is it?” he asked.
Poclis too searched the horizon. “I do not know. I am full of misgiving.”
“Maybe you’re just surprised to be home,” Pippin suggested.
Poclis shook his head. “I am, but it is not that. Something is wrong.”
Pippin’s right hand went reflexively to Trollsbane’s hilt, but he did not draw it. “Trouble?”
Poclis’s hand tightened around his staff. “Perhaps,” he said. He looked up as a shadow of a vulture passed over them. Pippin looked up too.
Vultures flew northeast, gliding in spiraling circle, and then dipping downwards. Pippin had been in the grassland long enough to know what that meant, clearer than crows back home.
They glanced at each other, and then began to jog in the direction.
The stench of death hit them well before they could see anything other than the feasting vultures. They drew their weapons and approached warily. As they came closer, Pippin saw the carcasses of slain cattle, their curved horns and heavy humps marking them an alien breed than any his father had raised. The vultures were not the only scavengers there; hyenas, jackals, and painted dogs all scurried about, looting meat from the bones.
“What happened here?” Pippin asked, then came upon the answer to his own question. Bodies of Men. Several were Bani, and had died shot by arrows. One though had died from sword wounds. He was holding a spear, and its tip was embedded in another Man, who was not Bani.
Pippin stared at the corpse. This man was golden-skinned, with thick lips and dark eyes, and his armor and cloth were blue.
Poclis looked too. “Sakhara,” he muttered.
Pippin looked up at Poclis. “I’ve heard that name before,” he said. “Is that a place? Where he was from?”
Poclis frowned. “That is his race, and his nation,” he said, kneeling next to the body and probing it for clues. He held up the man’s sword, curved like a scythe with a straight square tip, made of bronze. “But I do not know why his armor is blue, or know why a soldier of Sakhara would be waging war against my people so far south. What is this?” he added, spotting the blue spiral tattooed upon the dead man’s brow.
Pippin saw it too. He remembered it from his dream.
A sortie goes down the river for slave-taking. Seth’s evil spreads so far south.
He should tell Poclis, he knew. But instead he kept silent, staring at the field of death with the terrible knowledge he had stood in many such fields already in his life.
Poclis stood. “This was a herding party,” he said. “There should be a village close by…” he added, worried.
Pippin followed his friend’s gaze east. “Well then,” he said with a nod. He sheathed Trollsbane. “That’s where we’re going.”
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.