The sunrise was beautiful. More beautiful than any Éomer had seen. The sun escaped out of the East, full of light and warmth, untouched by night and shadow. Clear, as if her light had never been tainted but still retained the unsullied light of the Trees. She brought the singing of birds, and the promise of a hot day.
The king did not know whether the sunrise boded well or not. The day would be long. Their plans were almost ready, and soon they would have little to do but wait for the evening. But not yet. Still there were tasks that needed be done, and choices to make, some of which Éomer hoped he would never have to make.
All had risen before the sun; there was much to do before the Gates of the City closed at noon.
Éomer had insisted on meeting the two Rangers alone. Their plan would work better that way, and Éomer wished to see to the horses before they were locked in. If nothing else, it would calm his mind.
Echil waited outside the Gates. He pretended to be one of the many onlookers that had gathered there, of them there were many. Curiosity drew them. Or they wanted to gain some influence by showing themselves. Some only wanted to get a glimpse of the King that they had heard of, but never seen. And among the crowd, of course, were the merchants, trying to sell whatever they could. It was easy enough for the ranger to blend in.
We should have thought of having some people in the crowd outside, Éomer thought. A riot outside would help draw the guards away if we need to get over the walls.
That could not be done now, but perhaps Mablung would know how to achieve it. Éomer caught Echil's eye, but walked past him towards the stables with no other sign. Echil found him there a little later, grooming the mayor's mare.
"We found it," he told the king. His voice was low. "No problems, no guards; we followed it to the end."
Echil's words were horns calling to battle. His news like Éomer's first glimpse of the banner of the Stars and the Tree, so many years ago. Like hearing his sister speak, when he had thought her dead.
"Bádon?" Éomer asked.
"He stayed. Gathering torch-wood; it is very dark and you will need light along the way."
"Good." Éomer nodded. "Fastred will join you soon; he can explain our plans further."
Echil slipped out of the stable, and Éomer finished the grooming. The mare took her stabling well enough, but she was more restless than he was used to. Or perhaps – he had to admit to himself – she was only picking up on his own tension. He tried to use long, unhurried stokes with the brush, but he could not find his rhythm.
"It is not as if you need grooming to keep clean," he muttered to her. "You are one of those horses that would never roll in anything but the cleanest straw, aren't you?"
She turned her head to give him a look. One of those mares; he knew the type.
"Your master spoils you, you know," he told her. She nuzzled his hand and he shook his head at her.
"I used to snort whenever someone, usually a silly girl, would go on and on about how soft the muzzle of a horse was," he said. "I never thought they were particularly soft; not when digging for treats like this. Yours though…" This mare's muzzle really was like silk and feather downs. But it did not make him give up any treats. He finished brushing her down and when he left her box she promptly turned her back to him. Éomer laughed.
"You are a beauty," he said. "But you need more than beauty and attitude to win me over, little princess. Though I cannot say the same for my horse," he added in a lower voice. The mare snorted, and Éomer left.
He took the time to look over the other horses, they needed to be fit this night, but he found nothing he needed worry about. Good. That was one worry less; their plans were coming together. One more thing before the Gates closed and then only the wait would be left.
This day, too, there was a throng at the Gates, but the guards did not admit any that could not prove that they had lodging within the City. Éomer was swiftly shown past the line when he showed his mark. He was asked for weapons, and about his errand outside, but the guards were not thorough; they did not search him or in other ways seek to confirm his story. Perhaps it was because he was listed as Aduiar's guard, but whatever the reason, Éomer was annoyed. They could use some weapons, and here he would have been able to bring at least a knife.
Not that the risk was worth taking.
Fastred and Aduiar were waiting for him at the Old Guesthouse. He gave them a short nod. They found it; proceed. The mayor nodded back, and Éomer walked on, up the levels of the City. Fastred gave no protest, he only inched his head, but he did not meet Éomer's eyes.
All misgivings had been spoken the night before.
Fastred would not go so far as to say that it had been his idea, but if he had not told his king of the offer the stable-master had given him, the plan would never have been hatched. Getting the horses from the enclosure would not be too difficult for the two Rangers, but Aduiar's mare would then have to be left behind. And they needed all the horses; at least one would have to carry two, until they met up with those sent from Fangorn. Provided that Cearl had reached Wellinghall in time. If not, then they would have to share horses all the way back to Fangorn. They would need as many horses to share the load as they could, or any pursuers would surely overtake them.
"Breaking into the stables will attract too much attention," Húrin had said. "Unless we know of someone on the outside that could cause a diversion there, my men will not be able to retrieve the mare."
"Or someone on the inside," Éomer had added. "Did you not tell me, Fastred, that the owner had offered you a position?"
"It is true, but…"
"Then you should accept; that would give us the man on the inside that we need, and I would be happier knowing that you will be there to help handle the horses. We might even be able to take most of the tack with us as well that way; that would be most helpful if we at any point would be forced to fight."
"Sire, I will not leave you."
"Even against my orders?" Éomer's voice had been hard.
"If anything should happen to you while I was gone, your sister will not forgive me."
That argument had not swayed the king. And in the end, neither had Fastred's concern that he would be arrested if he did not return for the closing of the Gate.
"I might be able to help with that," Aduiar had offered, shattering the only objection that had carried any weight with the king. "If I declared to the guards and scribes that Fastred intended to leave my service, I think I could get him thrown out of the City, with no further repercussions."
And so it was that Fastred found himself walking behind Aduiar towards the Gate, cursing his fate. He knew Éomer king was right; there were none else to do this, but he could not rid himself of the feeling that something would go wrong. And he would not be there to protect his king.
"The Gate will close in just a few hours, lord mayor." The scribe's voice broke into Fastred's thoughts; he had not noticed that they had reached the Gate.
"I know," Aduiar replied.
"One of your men just came back; surely there will be no need to send someone for him," the scribe continued. "And what errand have you forgotten that could be so pressing as to send a new man on it now?"
"No errand," Aduiar said. "I would have liked to have one of my men guard the horses, I hear horse-thieves are drawn to the large number of horses kept outside the City." He gave a pause, then drew his breath as if he were to continue, but the scribe held up his hand to stop any further speech.
"I am sorry, lord mayor," the scribe said. "But that is quite impossible. But I assure you that your horses are most safe; there have been no horse-thieves since the Great Lord blessed us with his protection."
"Of course," Aduiar replied. "It was not my errand. I came to ask that this man be driven out of the City before the Gate is closed today. He choose this day, of all days, to tell me that he intended to leave my service, and I have no use for men that do not serve me."
The scribe turned to Fastred. "You have left his service now?"
"No, master scribe," Fastred replied. "I merely spoke with the lord mayor asking that I might leave his service after the celebrations. Master Rodhaer intends to stay in the lord mayor's service and not go back to his hunting, but a life as a guard does not suit me, and the owner of the stable offered me a position. I therefore asked the lord mayor that I might be allowed to accept that offer after the celebrations were over."
"I have no use for one I know will leave me soon; prudence commands that I can not trust such a man. I therefore wish him to end his service to me now. Since he is here purely in the capacity of one of my guards, I did not think he should be given leave to stay. Not when so many that are more deserving wait outside the walls."
The scribe surveyed Fastred, who had adopted the same stance that Éomer was so annoyed with when he used it in his presence.
He disappeared into the guardhouse they had been taken into when they arrived.
"What now," Fastred whispered to the mayor.
"We wait," Aduiar replied. He, too, kept his voice low, if not in a whisper. "Hopefully I have given the impression that you should not be trusted to remain in the City, without making him so suspicious that he deems it more prudent to arrest you."
"Arrest me? What…"
"Quiet, he returns."
And he had the main clerk and several guards with him. Fastred stiffened, not sure whether it would be better to fight or not.
"Lord mayor," the main clerk said. Fastred recognized the man they had spoken to when they first entered the City, only two days before. "I hear that there is a problem regarding one of your men?"
"I would not go that far," Aduiar replied, "but this man here has stated his intention to leave my employment early, and I do not like to feed men that plan to leave. I would prefer that he be made to leave the City; let the man whom he wishes to serve take responsibility for him."
The clerk turned to Fastred. "Which man is the lord mayor talking about?"
"The stable-master offered me a job," Fastred replied. "I have already explained this."
"I am good with horses." Fastred shrugged.
"And are you happy to let him leave your service, lord mayor?" the scribe asked.
"It is my opinion that it is better to have loyal servants, and I will not trust a man to guard me that I know wishes to work for someone else," Aduiar replied. "He has served me well enough so far; let him be on his way to his new master."
"Very well," the scribe answered. He turned to Fastred. "A guard will accompany you to the stable to confirm your story. If the stable-master verifies it, you will have to report here at midday every day for one week. If you fail to present yourself on time, you will be arrested. If you seek to flee, you will be hunted down and arrested. Guards will be sent to the stable to check your whereabouts at our leisure. If you are not there, you will be arrested as soon as you are found. Do you understand?"
"Yes," Fastred answered. "I step out of line, I get arrested. I understand."
"Good," the scribe said. "If the lord mayor here wishes, you will be arrested and detained for ten days for leaving his service early." Aduiar shook his head.
"If the stable-master denies your story, you will be taken back here and put under arrest. You will receive ten strokes with the stick and held for a fortnight. If you fail any of the other conditions, you will receive ten strokes with the whip and be held for twenty days. The punishment may be increased with the difficulty with which it will take to apprehend you. Do you understand?"
The scribe nodded to the guards, and they took Fastred through the Gate, one leading the way, the other following to keep an eye on him. Fastred did not look back.
"Thank you for your help," Aduiar told the scribe. He pressed a few coins into his hand. "I am most grateful that this small problem has been solved so amenably. Please let me know if there are any further problems."
"I assure you, lord mayor, that you will not need to trouble yourself with this man again, whatever the outcome," the scribe said. "I will make certain of it."
"I have no doubts," Aduiar replied, "but I would like to know if he lied to me. I do not like men that lie to me, and I make it a point to demonstrate my displeasure; I find that this discourages others from doing the same."
"A wise rule to observe, Lord Mayor." The scribe bowed. His right hand was stretched out a little more than his left, palm up. It was empty.
Aduiar slipped a few more coins into it. "See that I am informed as soon as possible if there are any problems."
If the White City had been a herd of horses, Éomer would have begun to look for the bear. He could taste the tension, see the raised heads, the wide nostrils; the bodies posed to flight. But there was no need to seek for prowlers.
The prowler was already inside the walls.
No bear though. This enemy was too sly to be a bear, too cruel. This enemy was a pack of wolves, ready to tear the herd apart, giving no warning.
"Is there any news on what they have planned for today?"
Ingold shook his head. Even the rumours of the inns and pubs – and Ingold knew how to hear them all – had given few clues. No details to be gleaned, only dark fear that the Master of Isengard could mean no good.
"The few rumours there are, are conflicting, and lack details. The more exaggerating say that all that refuse to attend will be gathered and flayed alive, and that those who do obey their orders will only attain a slightly less painful death. Others say that the King Elessar will bend knee and swear allegiance to the Enemy. Neither, I think, is true."
"I do not know which would be worse," Húrin said. He was sitting at the table with a crude map of the City before him. They had drawn it the night before and now it provided him with a reason not to look at anyone.
"Do you think either is even possible?" Ingold asked.
"I would put nothing past the Enemy," Húrin answered, and Éomer could only agree to that.
"The Enemy, yes," he said, "but… I agree with Ingold; neither is very probable."
"The first rumour I agree on; it is not probable, if only because the Enemy could have slaughtered the whole of Gondor by now if he had wanted. The second… I do not wish to think about."
"Aragorn would not bow down to the Enemy. He would rather die." If it was one thing Éomer knew, it was this. As surely as he knew himself, he knew this.
"So I thought too," Húrin said. "Until yesterday."
Húrin did not answer. He continued to study the map, as if it could hold any answers.
"Continue," Éomer told Ingold. "Have you heard anything that could be more helpful?"
"More helpful, no," the innkeeper answered. "More true? Perhaps.
"In the Old Guesthouse I overheard two guards talking to a third man. They hinted that today would be a day of 'retribution for the sins of Gondor', and that what rebels that did remain would be 'shunned in Gondor hereafter'."
"I do not like the sound of that," Éomer said.
"Nor do I. I guess some kind of demonstration throughout Minas Tirith, since we again have been called to report at different places in the City. Possibly involving the King."
"I would be surprised if it did not. Aragorn was brought here for a reason, and the Master of Isengard revels in the humiliation of his vanquished foes. We saw it all to well in Edoras, and at Erkenbrand's surrender." Éomer turned his eyes from the room, out the window. The image in his mind was muted by the years and the hardship that had followed, but still he wished that he had never seen the corpse.
"What did he do?" Ingold asked.
"He hung Erkenbrand from the walls for the crows of Isengard to feed on." Ingold winced at Éomer's tone. The king turned back to meet his eyes.
"He was still alive."
The room fell quiet after that, and they stayed quiet until Borondir and Bragloth retuned. Aduiar came back right after.
"Fastred was not arrested, not at the Gate anyway," Aduiar told them. "I think all will be well, and the scribe was bribed well enough that he will alert me if the stable-master goes back on his word."
"Damrod's passage is ready too," Borondir could tell. "They braved the curfew last night to finish it."
"And Echil confirmed that they have found the tunnel; it is neither guarded nor blocked. Perhaps Faramir indeed has been able to keep it secret all these years." Éomer put aside his worry; it would do no more good now. "All we need is confirmation from Golwen that the Lord Aragorn is kept in the dungeons, and all we have left is to wait for nightfall."
"No," Aduiar said. "First we must get to our places; today's celebration will begin soon enough, and we all have different places to be."
"Then we will go; you all know where to."
Húrin stood and sought Éomer's eyes. He did not need to speak – they had spoken before – but Húrin's whole being asked, one last time, to trade places with the king. Éomer shook his head. No. Húrin bowed and left, the others trailing after him.
"He is right, Éomer king," Aduiar said. "You know that. Among the nobles there is a greater chance that you will be recognised."
"I shaved again this morning," Éomer answered. "And re-dyed both my hair and eyebrows. My sister-son would not recognise me in a crowd, let alone people that have not seen me in ten years. And I know how to keep my head down; I will be safe enough.
"And Fastred need never know," he added under his breath.
Aduiar heard it nevertheless. "I would not have guessed that the king would fear a loyal subject."
Éomer heard the laughter in his voice. "Fastred has worries enough," he said. "I do not fear what he might have to say, but I do not wish to needlessly give him more to worry for."
"And he might tell your sister."
"I will tell my sister," Éomer answered. "Once we all are safely back in Fangorn."
"As you wish, lord. As you wish."
At noon a silence fell over the City.
From the closed Gate a runner was sent up through the circles, up to the Citadel. At each gate the guards raised their spears and hit the ground in time, giving one, wordless shout. The runner stopped, and the captain of that gate would call:
"All have gathered!"
And the runner continued up to the next level.
His run ended at the prison at the sixth level, right outside the entrance to the Citadel. There the runner stopped and called out:
"The City is gathered! All is ready!"
In answer a trumpet sounded. Its call carried in the silences, all the way down to the fields beyond the walls. There the Orc-camp that held the king Elessar's escort rose and moved towards the Gate, at last allowed close to the City. From among the company of orcs, a shadow rose into the air; a great beast, the like of which had not been seen in ten years. Sharp and piercing was the cry that rose with it and all that heard it shuddered. Now the mood that had hung over the City took shape and name; a Nazgûl had come!
Throughout that day, it circled the City, and those that had been there ten years before remembered too well the dread of that first siege.
But as the Winged Beast took to the sky, a new procession began. Out from the tunnel to the Citadel, Haradirm soldiers came. Four rode on black horses, and behind them came the Prince of Dol Amroth astride a great charger; a grey so light that its coat shone white, but its hooves and eyes were dark, and dark were the flared nostrils as it pranced and danced underneath the Prince. Dark, too, were the Prince's eyes, and his face stern. He did not wear the blue of Dol Amroth, but black and white were his clothes and his head was bare. No emblem did he show, but two standard-bearers followed him. One with the Eye and one with the Tree.
Behind the prince came soldiers on foot, a whole company of Corsairs and Easterlings mixed. When they passed between the prison and the stables, the company parted to give room for the great, ox-drawn cart that slowly lumbered into sight.
Two poles, sturdy and strong, were nailed to each side. They stood upright, taller than a man, and on their forked ends rested a beam of hard oak, thick and strong. Heavy ropes bound their prisoner to the beam. The King Elessar stood stretched out beneath it; his feet set wide to keep his footing on the cart.
He wore soft, long boots, finely made and new, as were his clothes. But he wore no jacket, only a white linen-shirt, thin and finely woven. It was long, hanging loosely almost to his knee and the cuffs and neckline fastened snug against him, showing nothing of the skin. Loose was his hair and clean-shaven his face, leaving it naked and bare. His eyes dark shadows under a pale forehead, he squinted against the light of day and said nothing.
In silence the cart moved down the circles of the City, the soldiers pressed thick around it so that none could draw near the King.
None spoke in the crowd. They watched in silence, not knowing what the day would bring, hoping that this was nothing more than another display. A demonstration that the hostage still lived, nothing more; nothing more than showing them their beaten King. Above the Nazgûl screamed, just as the cart passed under the gate between the fourth and fifth circle, and Borondir, standing at that gate, saw the King shudder at the sound, faltering a moment before he found his footing again.
Down, down, down the cart rolled slowly through the streets. Above the sun shone, heating the City of stone, blinding in her brightness so that it was as if she cast a shadow of searing heat upon it, darkening the streets with her light, scorching all things dead and living. It grew so hot that sweat began to roll down the backs of even those that did not move. The horses glistened with it, and the King's shirt darkened around the neckline and underneath the armpits.
Down, down the cart rolled. Slowly, torturously. The riders had to hold their horses so that the gap between them and the soldiers with the cart would not be too great. Prince Imrahil's horse grew restless and agitated, stepping sideways and dancing underneath him when the pace became too slow. The Prince sat as if the horse stood still: motionless, neither looking at the people watching, nor turning back to see his King. He stared straight ahead, and his face was grim.
Down the cart rolled. The wheels creaked over the cobblestones, protesting the slow decent. The sound could be heard clearly over the marching feet of the soldiers, and the sound of metal hooves against the stone.
Down the cart rolled. Down the circles of the City, until they reached the Gate.
There, underneath the Gate, the cart stopped and slowly, laboriously, it turned. The Prince dismounted, and one of the soldiers took his reins while he climbed the stairs up to the top of the wall. There, above the Gate, were raised two poles with forked ends, and above them a great construction of wood.
Ropes hung from it, and great hooks at one end of each rope. These were lowered, and two soldiers – two Corsairs – climbed up upon the cart. They fastened the hooks underneath the beam that held the King. Twenty men grasped the other ends, and pulled.
The ropes jerked tight and the King was hoisted up in the air, up onto the wall above the Gate. The beam swung, and more men rushed forward. They steadied it and it was brought to rest upon the poles. The men fell back, leaving the King in full view of the people gathered on both sides of the wall.
Loud jeers rose from the orcs at the sight. The sound drifted over the walls and the people inside shifted and moved, but they did not speak.
Then the jeers died down. The Prince of Dol Amroth stepped out on the Wall beside the King.
Many trumpets sounded around the walls of the City, and heralds cried: "Hear, all gathered here, and witness the power and greatness of the Great Lord; the Ruler of Mordor; Protector of all lands East and West; He who is victorious in battle, glorious in victory and merciful to the conquered, righteous in judgement and wise among the Powers of the world. Hear His words from the mouth of His servant, one who has seen His power and glory and learned the wisdom of His counsel. Hear, all! and witness His justice and mercy on those that would oppose Him."
The cry was echoed along the outer wall so that all the people gathered in the first circle and outside the wall heard it. The trumpets sounded again, and in the silence that followed, Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth drew breath, and stepped forward.
"I, Imrahil of Dol Amroth, have been charged with this duty: to make known the crimes that the people of Gondor have made themselves guilty of against the Great Lord, and to lay before you the negligence that the lord Faramir, Steward of Gondor, has shown towards his duty in the last year." He was reading from a scroll. His voice rang clear through the hot air. The dust from the Pelennor that had been stirred when the multitude of people had found their places, had settled, and the air was clear.
"These are the sins of the people of Gondor: that those that call themselves 'Faithful' have rebelled against the Lord and opposed him, and that the people of Gondor have failed in their duty to show proper gratitude for the Great Lord's protection through willing service and worship of him, and by their failure to eradicate the rebels from their midst.
"The lord Steward has failed in his duty on the following: in his diligence to apprehend the enemies of Gondor and the Great Lord; in his fervour to further the praise of our Protector; by his tardiness in the execution of the Lord's wishes and his lenience toward known rebels, which has without doubt given them the courage to grow in numbers and impudence they would otherwise have lacked.
"Know therefore, people of Gondor, that no wrong-doing goes unpunished." The Prince paused, and if any had been close enough, they would have seen him clench his jaw. For the first time that day he glanced at the King, and then he looked away, back to the scroll.
"The failings of a people are the failings of its leader," Imrahil continued. "Therefore the Great Lord has decided to be merciful, and he will not let the punishment that the people of Gondor so richly deserve fall upon you, but will have the retribution fall on your leader, whose failings your sins reflect.
"The King Elessar, Aragorn son of Arathorn; Chieftain of the Northern Dúnedain; the heir of Isildur, Elendil's son of Gondor, will bear the punishment on behalf of his subjects, and of his Steward, lord Faramir son of Denethor. He will receive thirty strokes of the single-tailed whip, or such number that will not endanger his life – whichever is the lowest."
At this a murmur began to spread among the people gathered. It rumbled and grew like unto a wave that comes rolling in and breaks against the shore, lifting the water high into the air before it rushes down to shatter in white foam and glittering drops of water against the stones.
The King did not move.
He gave no sign that he had heard the verdict, or that he had noticed the wordless storm brewing beneath the wall, but the Nazgûl screamed once, and the Winged Beast circled down to the Gate. It landed on the wooden construction and perched there, a great shadow towering above the King.
He flinched, jerking in his ropes.
The crowed fell silent. The beast moved its head from side to side, slowly taking in the people. A predator searching its prey. The Nazgûl sat still, unmoving: a black terror even in the light of day. The crowd fell quieter still. Only when the wraith was satisfied that they were cowed did it take to the sky again. Prince Imrahil spoke into the silence.
"Five strokes are to be delivered here, above the Gate, and two more at the entrance to each circle of the City so that the people of Minas Tirith and the representatives from the towns and villages shall witness the justice of the Great Lord, and the consequences of their actions. The King will be taken through the streets of the City so that all, from the smallest to the greatest, shall be witnesses.
"The remaining blows will be delivered at the court of the Fountain, to be witnessed by the nobles and great men of Gondor.
"This is the verdict of the Great Lord, Protector of the East and West."
The Prince fell quiet, rolled the scroll closed, and stepped back. Out stepped a Man to take up his place behind the King. He was dressed in black, with the Red Eye staring down on the people from his breast. He shook out the tail of the whip.
Only one man from Éomer's company stood outside the Gate that day. Echil had been caught in the bustle of the Road, and now he stood as close to the Gate as he had been able to get. He did not come close enough to see the face of his Chieftain, not as clearly as he had the day before, but he was close enough to see him close his eyes when the executioner stepped up behind him. Echil saw him take a breath, and then open his eyes again.
The executioner drew back his arm. A drum struck up, and Echil found himself unable to watch. When Imrahil read the sentence, he had been determined to watch, thinking that it somehow would make a difference, but he could not. Hearing the whip slice through the air was bad enough.
That sound was the only thing to be heard beside the drum. The strokes came slowly, one at the time. The drum would roll, and then, in the silence, the whip would whistle through the air and hit.
Then the drum rolled again.
On the inside of the Gate, at the back of the crowd, Húrin and Bergil stood. The older Ranger did not close his eyes. He watched as the blows fell, ripping the shirt of the King. He could not see any blood.
He was not sure whether it was a good sign.
The fifth stroke fell, swifter and harder than the other four, but Aragorn stayed silent. Húrin, who saw such things more easily than most, even at a distance, saw him relax slowly, but he held to his feet and did not slump. A speck of red appeared on the torn shirt.
Húrin wanted to swear.
"That… that was not too bad," Bergil whispered. "It looked as if he did not even feel it. Until that last one."
"He did." Húrin did not look away. His voice was so quiet that the words were more breath than sound. "It was just the first stokes, and he has borne worse pain than five lashes before." He must have, in ten years, and unless his eyes were deceiving him, the executioner did not strike as hard as he could. "There are twenty and five left to bear." And they mean him to bear them all.
Bergil did not answer, and Húrin was too intent on his Chieftain to speak further.
They lowered Aragorn down from the wall with much less ceremony. He hung in the air above the cart for a moment, inches above the cart floor. The soldiers swirled him round and guided the beam in place. And the procession moved off, north from the Gate, through the streets on the first level.
They took the long way round. Whether it was the Enemy's design or his Lieutenant's idea, they did not know, but it soon became clear that 'all' meant even those that did not fit around the Gates or the road leading up the levels; the King was to be displayed to the whole City, and those at the Gates were just lucky enough, if luck it could be called, to see the King pass more than once.
Many are the accounts of that day, preserved both in the memories of the people, and in the scrolls and writings left behind from that time. But one has been found, which I would here give. The finding of it was a surprise to us and only by luck did it come to me. I here give the surviving excerpt of a letter written by H'ajini, then a captain of the Haradrim soldiers, to his son:
"… you know the sound of our drums, and those of the wild ones that live beyond our cities, deep in the south. I tell you, my son, that the drums of the pale ones are very similar, but they do not strike them with their hands, like the wild ones, nor do they use the hammim that our drummers use. Their sticks have round, padded ends that make the sound of their drums deep and strong and full of a resonance I have not heard anywhere else.
The sound of those drums is what I most clearly recall from my service today. The drums rolling, and the silence of the people.
The pale ones are a strange people, my son. They shout where we would be silent, and fall silent where we would shout. I thought them without honour, with no pride that they could see their leaders beaten, and still hold to them. This is alien to us; we would have killed those that betrayed us, and died rather than let ourselves be captured. We would not have let those that had proven themselves weak rule.
Never forget, my son, the teachings of the Great Lord, the giver of gifts:
The weak should never be pitied, for they would lead our people to their end.
This I have always held to, my son. But hear what I saw this day, and keep this in your mind. Perhaps, when you have grown wise with age, you can judge what strength is.
Drums. Drums beat slow and heavy when we took the stone-house king from his prison through the streets of his city. His people were silent, only the beating of the drums could be heard. The beating of the drums and the creaking of wheels. The horses were restless, but the slow oxen walked as if they neither saw nor heard. Only the Winged Servant did they fear, and it was far above.
Drums heralded our descent, down to the Gate. Drums called for silence when the orders of our Lord were read. The sea-prince it was that declared it. His daughter is most lovely; the commander of our company is waiting for the day that he will be allowed to take her to his home, but her father is against it and he has, for now, the Great Lord's favour, as long as he bows to our Lord in proper worship. The sea-prince knows this, and the commander has not been able to find any fault in him since his return.
Neither was there any to be found this day.
This did not surprise me, for the sea-prince was tamed long ago. But their king was unknown to me, and though I did not know what to expect, I know that it was not what I saw.
The drums rolled, a quick pattern unlike the slow beat of our descent. In the quiet that followed, all that could be heard was the sound of the whip falling on flesh. From where I stood, I could not see, but the drums rolled, and the whip struck and the king said no word. I did not see him until he was lowered again and we made him ready to be taken through the streets, back up from where we had come. Sweat stood on his brow and he had closed his eyes against the brightness of the sun, but I saw no other signs of pain. I had been charged with the task of giving him a drink of water at each gate, and so I did. One drink, no more, before the drums took up their slow beat and we moved on.
He spoke to me then. The words were garbled, as if his tongue could not shape the proper sounds, but his voice, though hoarse, was steady when he whispered in my own tongue:
The drums beat, and the cart began to move. I had no time to reply, had I wanted, had I known what to say. How he learned our tongue, I know not.
The drums beat, and I had no words for him.
Drums beat out our progress. All the way to the north-western point of the first circle and back, past the gate to the other side, and then back again, to the second gate where we hoisted him up on the wall, and the drums rolled and the whip licked the air, and all within the City was silent.
It took us an hour or more to walk through the first circle, and the second took no less.
My son, this day has been one of the longest days in my life. I walked beside the cart and I saw the faces of the pale people. And their king. The drums beat their slow pulse and the people were silent and the king did not try to speak to them. The wheels creaked and rumbled over the stones that paved the streets. Warmed by the sun, the City was still not as hot as our summer-heat, but the pale-skinned people are not used to the warmth of our sun. They grew hot, and worst it seemed to be for their king.
Sweat poured from him, and I was close enough to hear his laboured breath. After the fourth gate, his posture began to sag, and he found it difficult, it seemed, to keep his footing whenever the cart rocked. But still he did not speak, nor cry out, and all that could be heard was the drums. The drums' slow, relentless beat, the rumble of the wheels, the creaking of the ropes, the sea-prince's voice – dryer for each time – declaring crimes and punishments to be borne. The crack and thud of the whip.
My son, when you have grown wiser than I am now, tell me if I still live: is it weakness or strength to bear such humiliation, such shame, and speak no other words than a garbled 'thanks' in your enemy's tongue?"
Note on pronunciation of H'ajini: H' is used to signify a Semitic glottis-stop (the Ayin) for which we have no letter. It is similar to a swallowing sound, or the sound 'ng' said without any vowels. The name is loosely based on the Old Hebrew word for "eye"
Hammin: Noise-makers, a type of curved drumsticks. I have made up the name loosely based on the Semitic root HMM which in Hebrew can mean 'to disturb' or 'bring into motion and confusion'. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon (HALOT) also states that in the Tigrinia language it (or a similar word) means "to make a noise, to roar", which is the meaning I have adopted.
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.