16. Where Trust is Found
Fastred pushed his way through the streets. There were people everywhere, pressing in from all sides, and he was not used to it. He remembered thinking that Edoras had been too large when he first came there, with too many people all the time.
Edoras was nothing compared to this.
The press of people eased somewhat when he neared the Gate. The pressure also became all one way; he was the only one walking towards the Gate, not from it. There, on his left, he could see the guardhouse where they had delivered their weapons. He wondered if he would be allowed his back for his trip outside. Probably not. He decided not to even try; what use would one dagger be, anyway? And they would, most likely, write it up, or down, and he would have to give it back when he returned. That dagger was lost, more likely than not.
The shift had changed. New soldiers, and new officials, meant new explanations and questions. Fastred had so far avoided speaking. He could speak the Common Tongue well enough, but it was too easy to hear that it was not his language. He knew he did not pronounce all the words as he should, but sometimes he could not even hear what the difference was, and his mouth seemed incapable of forming the right sounds even when he did hear.
"You wish to leave?"
The clerk sounded as if he could not understand why anyone would leave the City, why anyone would want to leave or even think about it, much less doing so.
"For a short time only," Fastred explained. "My master, the Mayor Aduiar of the town of Calembel, wishes me to see to his horse. We had to stable them outside the walls, and the mare is most valuable to him."
"You came only this morning."
Fastred mustered what patience he had. If he regarded the clerk as a particularly difficult horse, a mare in heat perhaps, or one of the slower ones that learned late, perhaps it would be easier to deal with him?
"This mare is the apple of the Mayor's eye," he said. "A most prized mare that he hopes to breed the best of foals from once he finds a stallion worthy of her. She is sleek and fleet of foot, sensitive and brave. Her coat outshines even the sun. He does not like to let her out of his sight, and worries for her in a new place. Were it possible, he would bring her into his house, I have no doubt. The Mayor will likely send one of us out every day, and more than once a day, to tend to her and make sure she is treated right. At least for as long as it is still possible."
The clerk looked at him. Fastred shrugged; there was little more for him to say, and the clerk seemed to give in. He scribbled something in his book, and gave a Fastred a token.
"Show this at the Gate when you return," he said. "It will get you in quickly. If you do not return before nightfall you will be arrested and held until the celebrations are over and the Steward, or his representative, has time to judge your case."
"I understand," Fastred replied. He took the token and left, happy to be outside once more.
The horses had settled somewhat. The geldings clustered in one corner of the enclosure, not daring to move closer to Firefoot. His mare was eating, undisturbed. Fastred shook his head.
"You cannot have taken that quickly," he said. She lifted her head at the sound of his voice and gave a small nicker in greeting. But she did not come to him. "Be that way," he said. "You always were."
"Shall we move the horses, master?" one of the stable-hands asked.
"Has there been any trouble?"
"No, master, not as such, but the stallion will not let the others move out of that corner. They seem afraid of him."
Fastred regarded the stable-hand. His was a young man, hardly more than a boy, and he did not look like he knew even half as much about horses as any child half as young did in the Mark. He looked more afraid of Firefoot than any of the geldings; Húrin's horse even looked as if he considered whether flirting with the stallion would get him closer to the food.
Do not get your hopes up, Bereth, he thought. He does know the difference between you and a mare; whatever we might tease your owners about.
Out loud he asked: "Have you ever handled a breeding stallion before?"
The boy shook his head. Fastred had thought as much.
"Just leave them be. Make another pile of food in the corner so the geldings might get something to eat, but leave them unless they begin to fight. If they do, unless I, or Master Rodhaer, are here, move the geldings out. They will be easier to handle. Leave the stallion and the mare to us." He turned to Firefoot: "And you, good sir, behave. I know her well and she will not abide a bully." Firefoot did not even turn to look at him. Fastred sighed, and went inside the stable to look at Aduiar's mare.
She had been given the largest of the stalls, despite her size. It was more than large enough for her to turn and lie down, with doors to close so that she did not need to stand bound. It was large enough to hold one of the great horses the farmers of Gondor used to pull their ploughs – if only barely. It had probably been made in the hope of stalling the war-horses of Dol Amroth, but the Prince had come by boat, and so the mare had been given the pride of place. Aduiar must have made quite an impression. The mare looked like most horses used to being held indoors; calm enough, if not a little bored.
"Hello, little lady," he greeted her. "Do they treat you well?"
The mare danced around a little in her stable. She did not look as if she had been travelling the last few days, and that far and hard. She seemed quite fresh, and eager to be let out. Well, Aduiar did say to take her out. Perhaps there was more to it than an excuse for him to seek out Bádon and Echil?
"How long since she was fed?" he asked another stable-hand. This youth was older, and he looked as if he at least would know what a child half his age would know in the Mark.
"When the bells struck," was all the answer he received. It took Fastred some time to figure it out, but they would be fine, he guessed. He would have to take it easy first, that was all. A little exercise would do her good if she were dancing around like that.
She was a good ride, he decided after they had come some distance from the stables. Fleet-footed and quick, and with a very smooth gait. A true little palfrey. She did not trot, not willingly, but her running gait was so pleasant that he guessed none had wanted her to do anything else. Her hindquarters were a little stiff, though, and she held her tail too high. He could hardly feel her back moving. Not good. The best way he knew to remedy that was in the trot, so trot she would have to try.
She changed the minute he asked. First she stopped. Then she backed. She stamped her feet and snorted her displeasure. He nudged her on. "Forward, girl," but she would not. She danced around. She kicked. It did not help. Then she tried to rear, but Fastred turned her head and forced her down. She planted all four legs on the ground and refused to budge.
"Look here, little lady," Fastred said. "This is for your own good; I promise it will feel better if only you will try."
A snort of disbelief.
"Well, then," Fastred told her. "Have it your way." He stood up in the stirrups and broke off a twig from the tree above. She saw it, and seemed to know what it meant. She kicked and bucked and turned, fast as lightning. He let her; he was a Rider, he could keep his seat. When she stilled once more, he asked her again to move forward.
She did not budge. Again.
He took the thin stick and tapped carefully at her right hind-leg. She kicked after it, and then she began to run.
"At least you move the right way this time," he said. "But this is not what I asked. Perhaps I need to ask another way."
He stopped her and dismounted.
"See here," he said. "I do not ask for much, only that you lift your leg and move it forward when I do this." He tapped her leg again. She tried to rush past him, but he stopped her. "No," he said. "Try again." Again the same, and then again, until she calmed, and moved her leg forward and underneath her body.
The snort that came was of a different kind that before. It was as if her body let go of some tension and said: "At last! Why could I not do that before?" Her head lowered and she shook her whole neck. Her ears were loose and it sounded like she would explode in snorts and grunts.
"There: that was not so bad."
She did not deign to look at him, as if insulted that he had been proven right. He smiled, he almost laughed; this was what he loved above all else. Too little time to train the last ten years, too many missions and evil things to scout. People to keep safe. Never just a horse and him, finding out what had gone wrong in the training, and figuring out how to fix it.
He was too happy; he did not hear the twigs that broke beneath soft boots behind him.
"Have you done nothing?"
Borondir glared at Mablung. He and Bragloth had been taken all around the City, or so it felt. Damrod wanted to make sure he was not followed, and that he had not led, nor would lead, any of the enemy to the house Aduiar had rented, nor to this house. One of the few houses the Faithful held that they felt certain their enemies did not know. It had taken them more than an hour to get there, and more time still before Mablung had arrived. He was the last to do so. And after waiting so long, all they could say was that they had laid no plans to rescue the King.
"I," Mablung said, "have been imprisoned the last four weeks. I was surprised they let me go; I did not expect to see the sun again this time, and least of all that they would let me out before the celebrations."
"And in that time, you made no plans? You did not think about what could have been done, had you been free?"
"Would you have?" Bragloth asked. "I must confess that what plans I might have laid, in that position, would be for my own escape, rather than another's."
If he were to be honest with himself, Borondir had to admit that nothing more could be expected, not from Mablung. But he did not want to be.
"I did," Mablung answered before Borondir could speak. "I did think of it, though I tried to banish it from my mind. It was both consolation, and the one thing that was hardest to endure. I knew, or thought I knew, that I would not even be given a chance to see the King. I would never be able to make use of any plan; I would rot in the dark before they ever let me out. And yet I could not keep my mind off it."
"Nothing. I could not think of any way; all my plans stranded before I could begin. Unless we can find a way inside, we will not succeed."
"Inside is not the problem," Damrod denied. "Getting him out of the City is."
"We have those things in hand," said Bragloth.
"Trust me," Bragloth said. "We will find a way; right now Bergil, Beregond's son, and Húrin of the North accompany Aduiar of the South to the Citadel. Bergil knows the place well, and he told us of a passage he once found, playing as a child. It was well hidden and out of use then, and there is hope it was forgotten, and still is now. It led outside the City walls. Bergil will attempt to find it, and to see if it is secret still."
"One problem will be solved, if Bergil is right," Mablung agreed. "But how to reach the King?"
"What prison were you held at?" Damrod asked.
Mablung waved away the unspoken question in Damrod's eye. "The usual," he said. "Just outside the walls of the seventh circle." Mablung rubbed his chin; his mouth was half covered by his hand. It looked as if he did not even know what his hand did after he had waved off Damrod's concern. His left hand lay upon the table. Two of the fingers were crooked and it shook slightly.
"You know that place well." Damrod said nothing more about the manner Mablung had gained that knowledge.
The former ranger shifted in his chair. He drew his arms around himself, hiding his left hand underneath the elbow of his right.
"You know I do."
"How could we reach a prisoner there?"
"You can't!" Mablung's right hand continued to move across his mouth, rubbing his jaw, his neck. Moving down to rub his arm. His teeth clenched, and his body too.
"Look," he said. "I know better than any of you what being in that prison means. I know the smell, the damp, the cold. I know the darkness and the walls and the clammy stones. The …" he stopped himself. Took a breath, then continued on. "If I could, I would free every slave within those walls. Every prisoner, and him most of all. More, even, than the King."
Borondir did not understand whom he meant, but it was clear that both Damrod and Bragloth did.
"Lord Faramir will not leave as long as the King is held against him." Damrod looked at Mablung until he caught his gaze and Mablung nodded.
"I know. But even so, I see no way. There will be twice, or even thrice the guards when the King is held there. Of that I have no doubt. And to get past them, we will need more than luck and wishes."
He unclenched his arms enough to take some paper and a quill. He spread it out on the table and began to sketch the layout of the prison, as well as he could remember it. "Here," he pointed, "lay the cells. One row above the ground, and one below. What windows there are, all have bars, and all the bars new. Or at least they are checked."
"How often?" Borondir would know.
"Every day, as long as there are prisoners in the cell. I do not know if empty cells are checked."
"Then they will not help us."
"No, and the windows underground would be too small, even without the bars. And some of those cells don't have windows at all. Those are the most secure, and I would be surprised if the King was not kept in one of them."
"What other ways could there be?"
"The doors." Mablung looked at Borondir as if he had no sense, or lacked even common knowledge. "It is a prison. There are no hidden doors or tunnels; unlike the Citadel there would be no need for any means of escape for those within."
"So if the King is held there, we will have to fight our way in, past the guards and locked doors, and the same to get outside, unless they manage to shut the doors behind us, and trap us within."
"How many are you here?"
"I realise, Master Borondir, that you are used to the way things work in Calembel. But we have no mayor here to turn a blind eye. We are few, and most of us must stay in hiding."
"What I mean, Mablung," Borondir explained, "is that if we have to fight our way in, we need more people. King Éomer and his men are good fighters, and I suspect that Mayor Aduiar knows more of combat than I thought just a week ago; we might be able to force a way inside with just the twelve of us – should you two choose to aid – but we will then be trapped too easily. We need enough men to hold the doors so the soldiers cannot trap us inside."
"That much I gathered."
Damrod sighed. Before Mablung could reply, he said: "I do not know if anyone else would be persuaded to risk such a fight." He looked at the two young boys that had been sitting with them, quietly listening the whole time. "Habadwain and Nathron here are young, but many of the others have families, or they are old or crippled. Those that would fight have all been taken over the years, all but a few. Mablung and I are all that is left of those that have fought before."
"Then let us hope the King is not held in that prison," Bragloth said. "And not give in before we know that all is lost. If even then."
"Well said." Damrod smiled. "There is another chance. If the new dungeon in the Citadel is used, we might have a better chance. Habadwain and myself were among those conscripted to work on their construction. We know most of it well, and we worked on a passage that will take us there unseen."
"Worked on?" Mablung asked.
"Yes. It is not completely finished."
"You did not say that before," Borondir said. "It seemed to us that it was ready to be used."
"Almost ready." Damrod took the crude map that Mablung had made and turned it around to make a new on the back. "Here are the gardens. Behind this shed the stone is soft, and covered both by the building and the clinging plants that grow like weeds. Out there is where the passage leads; we have but to cut through the last part of the stone. We should be able to break through in less than a day, if four of us work hard. It will take us to the dungeons."
"And if the king be not there?"
"Then we will worry about that when we know. Did you loose all nerve this past month?" Damrod asked. "You were ever the one to speak of fighting, and of deeds. Mablung: if we can free the King, we will have done more to thwart the Enemy and his plans than we could ever hope. And Lord Faramir would be freed from the one burden that weighs him down and traps him."
Mablung looked away. He closed his eyes, a wince contorted his face and for a moment he looked as if he was in pain. Lost in the dark.
"Do not ask."
They did not. They sat in the dark room while outside the sun shone, like she had done for many days. The buds sprang out in the trees and the new green spread on the ground of the Pelennor fields. The birches and the oaks and the roans on the hills of Mindolluin sprouted spring-green ears of leaves, singing spring has come for all that had ears, or eyes to see.
Across the field lay the Grey Wood where, in a clearing, a horse and rider moved with ease. Back swinging and head low the mare sighed as the tension she had not known eased with each step. Her rider smiled, steering her in circles, round and round. And then he stopped, and dismounted. He patted her neck.
"Good girl," he said. "You see: the trot is not all bad."
A shadow moved among the trees, and on the other side of the clearing, a twig bent but did not break. The rider did not notice. He took the reins and led the horse towards the trees.
"Do not move."
Fastred froze in his track. An arm curled around his neck, trapping him.
"Too careless, Rohir. Too careless by far."
He knew the voice. "Do not the Dúnedain have better things to do than sneak up on their friends?" The mare danced at the end of the reins. "I though such games were played by Elves, or children. Sometimes it is hard to know which are what."
Bádon released him. "There are much wisdom to be learned from Elves," he said, and laughed. No more than a soft chuckle, but still a laugh. "Children as well, can teach us much. These games keep us sharp. Yours, it seems, do not."
"If you had been an enemy, the mare would have attacked."
"Are you so sure?" Bádon's eyes doubted him, and the mocking laugh was in his voice.
"Aduiar told me the people of the South use mares for war. And I have seen them defend their foals. Their hooves are as hard and sharp as any the stallions have."
"Well, you should know horses. But tell me why you wasted time playing with her. Since you are here, my guess is that your lord has some message for us." He cupped his hands and made a sound like to some bird. Fastred knew not which: the songs of birds had not been his study.
Echil stepped out from underneath the trees and crossed the clearing. He said nothing, letting his elders do the speaking.
"I did not waste time," Fastred said. "I was keeping my cover, which, if any were around, you two have blown. I was sent by the Mayor Aduiar to see to his horse. To make sure that she was well tended for and to take her out for a walk."
"A walk? That looked like trot to me."
"Her hindquarters were not engaged, and her back was stiff. I merely loosened her up: it is good training for her, and part of her care." The two rangers glanced at each other, and Fastred decided to change the subject.
"As for you two. Éomer king wishes that you seek out the entrance, or end depending on which way you see it, of the passage Bergil has spoken of. It will be to the north of the City, near the Mindolluin. If you find it, you should meet us there when we attempt to break the king Elessar out. If not wait at the camp you have set. Bring the horses – we will find some way to take them here before the Gate is closed for good."
"We do not yet know, but our best guess is that we will attempt the rescue at night. Probably before the last day of celebration. The City will be closed for all, in or out, at midday on the second day. We will try to get word to you before then, but after that none can pass the gates."
"One of us will keep an eye on this place, while the other seeks the entrance; you can meet us here. We have not been able to scout far ahead into the Drúadan forest, but we know where we can enter. From there, we will have to rely on king Éomer's memories, and our woodcraft."
There was not much else to say. If they had enough time, they would send one more messenger before nightfall, but they could not risk that any of them should be caught outside after dark. And it was already well after midday. Fastred walked the mare back, and made sure she did not lack any comfort he could provide.
The owner of the stables saw Fastred as he returned, and watched him while he worked. Before he left, the man approached him.
"You are skilled," he said.
"I am skilled at many things," Fastred replied. "Which skills do you speak of?"
"Not deceptions," the man answered. "Nor accents. You are not from Gondor, my friend. Your speech betrays you, and your skill with horses."
"My father worked with horses. He cared for the breeding mares. From a young age I learned from him. It is a valuable skill, though not my profession."
"And your speech?"
Fastred hid the wince that threatened to overcome his face.
"My mother hailed from Rohan. However much my fellows teased, I was not able to shed her influence on my tongue. It did not help that I was sent to foster in Rohan for some years when I was young."
"Why were you sent to Rohan?" The man narrowed his eyes. He crossed his arms over his chest, or rather under it, and over his stomach, which was on the fat side. He leaned against a fence "And why, I wonder, if you trained there, do you not work with horses as a trade?"
"I said my mother hailed from there; my parents wanted me to know the land she came from, and the trade. But I have had not luck in securing any work with horses, and a man must eat." He shrugged, as if it were of little consequence.
"I find that hard to believe."
"Believe what you want. Few have the luxury of horses these days."
"That is true enough." The man regarded him for a while. "Work for me."
"You heard me. I need good horsemen, and the ones I have are woefully lacking in skill. I could use one like you, even if it was only for a short while to train the boys I have."
Fastred looked at him in disbelief. First the man questions him as if he were a spy – which admittedly he was – and then he offers him a job? Was this a trap?
"Look," the man said. He stood up from where he slouched against the fence. "I understand that you work for a Mayor, and it will seem like a step down to come here, but I have plans, big plans, and I will need someone like you. One that knows horses well. Politics are not for the likes of us, but great men like fine horses. Always have and always will. It can make us set for life." He moved as he spoke, too close for Fastred's liking, and before he knew how it had happened, the man had put one arm around his back. As if they were the best of friends.
"Friend," Fastred said. "I would dearly like to work with horses, but I dare not leave my current employer right now. After the celebrations perhaps he will let me leave. We can speak then, if the offer still stands."
The man winked at him. "Of course. Say no more: I understand. But do not linger too long; you would not want another to take the place I offer before you have the chance."
"Of course," Fastred replied. He managed to slip out of the man's embrace. "Now, if you will excuse me; should I be late to return through the Gates neither you nor my current lord will be able to make further use of me; I will end up in a dudgeon, and I much prefer the open air."
And with that he made his escape.