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Falcon, The: The Adventures of Peregrin Took: 13. The Falcon of the Sunrise
The waning moon rose near midnight. Pippin saw it through the bottom edge of his tent cloth. It came over the dunes like a silver bow, bright yet not bright enough to silence the stars. He went over rhymes of lore in his head…
Hungry was Tilion, a hunter
He sought Arien’s bright smile
Their courtship was a chase
A secret kiss they share
He rolled onto his back and stared at the patterns on the roof of his tent, changing in the dim lamplight.
He sat up and told the tent, “I can’t sleep.” The tent did not respond.
He rose and donned his vest. He tucked his dagger into his breeches and his pipe in his vest pocket and went for a walk. As ever the stars shone with a discernible light on the whitened dunes, and even the weak and wandering moon cast shadows in his eyes.
Pippin circled through the camp. He paused at a fire where some men were gathered, smoking and drinking, and gratefully accepted some pipeweed and a sip of coffee. He went to the physician’s tent, but Brogar was sleeping, as were the nurses. Brogar was almost well; he had walked about camp today, and hale enough to offer his services to Obed for the coming war. Pippin wondered why Brogar would do that. Hadn’t he been through enough? He wanted to ask him, but not now.
He left the physician’s tent and walked long until he reached the Medzhaim camp. He nodded back at the guards, and asked if Obed was awake. No, he was told. The Prophet’s son was abed. Was there anything the traveler needed?
“No, thank you, I’m fine,” Pippin replied.
He went further out to the paddock to see Tempest, but the willful mare was either deep in slumber or ignoring him. Pippin suspected the latter, but gave up trying to rouse her.
At the edge of the camp he paused, and then climbed a dune to its crest, and there plunked himself down, finding himself with a view north from horizon to horizon. The desert ergs that lapped up against the massif of Geber bet-Eria stretched north as far as he could see. Somewhere beyond the edge of sand was Umbar. In his imagination he saw himself flying over the great city’s domes and minarets and over the bay of Belfalas, past Tolfalas with its granaries, Dol Amroth and the castle of the Prince upon the shore, past Pelargir on Ethir Anduin up the river and round the bend to the White City shining above the Pelennor. Under the bridge of Osgiliath, up the Falls of Rauros, to Lothlorien … across the Misty Mountains … Rivendell … the Lone-lands … Bree … Buckland. Would Merry be waiting at the Gate?
Across the Brandywine Bridge, and into the Shire. Taste the beer at Stock. Best in the Eastfarthing. Would Fatty be throwing a party at Budge Hall?
Would there be a party this year beneath the mallorn in the party field? Sam threw the best parties; or, rather, Rosie, at Sam’s behest. When was the 22nd of September? Had he missed it? What month was it? How long had he been gone? How much longer would he be away? Was it months, or years?
Through the Green Hill Country, through Tuckborough with its riotous window…to Great Smials, its many windows glittering up the hillside. Would the Great Door open for him?
Would there be a puff of smoke coming from the Thain’s study?
Would a little child be walking when he saw him again, and would he walk to him if he stretched out his hands; would he call him “dad”… would he ever again dance with a girl as hard and precious as a jewel…
Gandalf was right. He was a fool.
He saw Leah walking up the slope of the dune to join him. She was in a loose robe and a long dress she used for sleeping. Her hail was lightly bound by a muslin veil.
“Is something wrong?” he asked first.
“I woke and now do not feel like sleeping,” she replied. “There is lightning in the air—can you feel it?”
Pippin tried, but shook his head. “I guess I can’t. I’d be happy to keep you company, though.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “Are you not cold?”
Pippin shook his head. “Not really.” The air was indeed chill, but he liked it. “I’ve seen real cold,” he said, thinking of the Redhorn Pass. “This is actually quite pleasant.”
“Have you ever seen snow?”
He smiled. “Yes, I have. Many times.”
“I see.” She traced a shape into the sand between them, and erased it with her palm. “What is it like?”
He smiled and told her, “Like the fall of butterfly wings; that’s the best kind of snow.”
“Are there others?”
Hard snow, freezing snow, wet snow, slurries, sleet … “That’s the only kind I care to think about.”
“I have never seen it,” she said. “My uncle used to say that the Grey Mountains to the west have snow in winter. Perhaps one day I shall journey there.”
“Or you could come visit me.” Pippin’s hand drifted to hers and clasped it. “It doesn’t snow often in my country, but when it does, it is something I think everyone should see.”
Leah looked down at him. Pippin’s breath caught in his throat. Gently she lowered her head to his. They kissed.
“I love you,” he told her as they parted.
“Do not say that and then leave,” she replied.
“Then I won’t leave.”
She laughed at him. “Would you?”
Pippin thought about his father, his wife, and his son. And he also saw Merry, folding his arms.
“…If I could,” he answered.
She smelled of pepper and cinnamon. Her lips tasted like cucumber. With a small tug of her fingers, she let her veil slip down, showing her hair.
It was Pippin who chose to pull away before they went any further.
“Why does this happen to me?” he asked her with a pained laugh. “Why here? Why now? Why not there, and why not then?” He moved away from her, mastering his body and his thoughts.
Leah came up against him, resting her chin upon his head. Pippin leaned into her neck and pressed his cold cheek to her warm throat.
“I first met you in a dream I had,” he whispered to her, “and I thought you were her. I thought you were Diamond.”
A tremor ran through her. He looked up. She was smiling slightly, and shaking her head. “What is it?” he asked.
“Do you still wish to learn what ‘Almas’ means?”
He didn’t know what this was about, but nodded. Of course he did.
“It means diamond,” she said.
He backed away, his fingers digging into the sand, regarding her in confusion and wonder. “What?”
“Oh, Pippin,” she said with a shake of her head, seeming both amused and aggrieved. “Do you not see?” She took his hand and pressed it. “You love me only because I am what you wish your wife could be.”
“That’s not true,” Pippin protested. “You’re nothing alike!”
“No?” And for a moment, in her arch, knowing look and the way she held herself, he did see Diamond.
“No,” he said, rallying. “You’re a woman and she’s a hobbit. You’re dark and she’s pale. You’re …”
Proud, he found himself about to say, and there it was. Proud and cold and hard on the surface, because that was how she had managed. With a sudden clarity Pippin finally comprehended Diamond of Long Cleeve.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.”
He trembled. Leah wrapped her arm around his neck, her veil caressing the skin of his shoulders.
“No matter how you think you love me, you will always see her,” Leah said. “I don’t want that, Pippin, for me, or for you. You must find where you belong.”
“I hope it sends for me soon,” he joked helplessly. “Because I can’t find it on my own.”
“There is,” Leah answered firmly. “You will find it if you let it find you.”
They sat with each other as the moon climbed over snow-white sands.
“What are you thinking?”
“Too many things. I shouldn’t think so hard. I’m not made for it. I think my head is beginning to hurt.”
“Don’t make fun of me because I’m stupid.”
Leah laughed and began to hum, and sway, and sing. To their surprise, a voice answered her, taking up her melody and making of it a deep and special music full of longing and of beauty. Seeking its source Pippin spotted the black-robed figure of Maglor some distance away, his harp in his hand.
“Listen to that,” Pippin said.
“The Elf?” Leah asked, the first time she had used the word.
Pippin smiled. “Yes.”
“It is wonderful,” she admitted, and got to her feet.
She held out her hands to him. “Dance with me, Pippin.”
“What, me? Now?”
“Yes, you. Now.”
He took her hands and let her lift him to his feet. Then he let go and she flashed a grin and skipped ahead, dancing down the dune to the notes of the elven song. Her veil rippled in the breeze with her hair, and Pippin’s heart quickened with delight, and he propelled himself down the slope, crowing as he leapt and tumbled in a sparkling avalanche of sand. Leah took his hand again and they spun around, laughing, jumping, moving, to the melody. And then the wind shifted and somewhere nearby the dunes themselves began to chime.
The next day Pippin was awoken by a messenger-boy and told that Obed sought his presence as quickly as possible.
When he arrived at the chief’s pavilion, the leaders of the tribes and Medzhaim captains were dispersing with faces grave, troubled, excited, or fierce. Then Obed strode out, looking serious, though he smiled as he saw Pippin.
“Ah, Pippin! I am glad you have come,” said Obed. “You have arrived at the right moment. We have just completed a council. Father has named me commander of the army.” As he spoke, others emerged from the great tent: Zedek himself, followed by Leah, and then, to his surprise, Maglor and Brogar.
“Is the war starting soon?” Pippin asked, looking around.
“Indeed,” said Obed. “Before sunrise we received word from a scout. An army of Plainsmen march north along the course of the Long River, in the desert west of the west bank.”
“Plainsmen? Do you mean the Bani?” Pippin said excitedly. “They’ve come north?”
“Yes,” Obed replied. He took a stick and began to incise a map into the dirt. Pippin made out the course of the Long River, Sakhara, the Mountain, and the Stairway. Obed pulled a pebble into a spot south of Bet Pallan and equally distant from it and from Sakhara. “They have managed to make it to this point without being reported, and with the majority of their force still intact. It is a great accomplishment for those who have no knowledge of the desert.”
“Their leader has some knowledge,” Pippin said. “That would be Poclis. He’s their chief now, and a mighty man and warrior. He’s my friend.”
“The Mate!” cried Brogar. “You told me he had returned to his people and become a ruler, but you say it is he who leads this army?”
“I don’t know it,” Pippin replied, “but it has to be.” He addressed them all. “He was very angry at how the Sakharans had turned slavers and attacked his people, being a former slave himself. He said if he had to cross the desert to bring justice, he’d do it.”
“He has come close,” Obed said. “And he has brought almost a thousand men, and five mumakil with battle-forts. But he is now in danger.”
He made another mark in the sand. “Our spies in Sakhara say the Plains army has now been marked. They are sending one of their regiments to attack it in the desert.”
“Sakhara has ten regiments,” Leah explained. “Five scattered along the Valley from the Seventh Cataract to the Delta, and five within the city itself, including the Queen’s Guards under our friend Mery, and the Temple Guards whom we also met.” She winked and Pippin couldn’t stop a smile. But his smile faded as Leah continued, “Each regiment has from five hundred to seven hundred soldiers and as many as a hundred chariots.”
“They will come upon the Plainsmen,” Obed said, “and seek to destroy them ere they come to the City of the Sky.”
“But we’ve got to help them!” Pippin exclaimed. “I’ll go now. My horse is the fastest in the desert. I can go now and warn them!”
“No, halfling,” said Maglor.
“I am going,” said Obed, sheathing his sword. “And I will not be alone. The Medzhaim will come with me, the seven swiftest companies of riders from our forces here. With haste, skill and the will of Er, we shall find the Plainsmen before Seti’s soldiers do.”
Pippin nodded. “Great! I’m coming with you.”
“No, you are not. The lord Maglor has requested you assist him in his own mission.”
Pippin turned to the son of Feanor. “You told them?” he asked, flabbergasted.
“I think it is a good idea, Pippin,” said Leah.
“Oh, now you’re on his side?”
“The gravest danger comes from the wizard’s machine and the Jewel within it,” said Maglor. “As I told you, you are the best hope we have for preventing that event.”
“I’m your best hope, you mean,” Pippin accused. “You don’t care about grave danger to these people. Or to me, for that matter. Do you?”
Maglor’s eyes flashed. “Be careful, halfling. If you had spoken in such tone to my brothers, you would be dead now.”
“Lucky for me they’re the ones who’re dead.”
“Pippin…” sighed Obed.
“This is just crazy,” Pippin asserted. “Running after some token instead of fighting with our allies—”
“A Silmaril is no mere token!” thundered Maglor.
“It doesn’t mean more than my friends’ lives! Not to me!” Pippin shot back.
The others were shaken by the sudden fury of the ancient Elf, and were just as speechless at the hobbit’s fearless defiance. With a withering look at Maglor, Pippin turned to Obed. “Let me come with you.”
Obed frowned. “No, I do not think so.”
Pippin glared at him. Then he spun around and ran away.
Both Brogar and Leah started to follow, but Zedek broke his silence and raised his staff.
“Let him be,” said the Prophet. “He struggles with the choice he has yet to make. Our fates, though he knows it not, are now in his hands. He must decide himself. This have I seen.”
“Let us hope the One gives you true visions, holy man,” said Maglor.
Zedek nodded. “Let us hope.”
Pippin thought first to go get Tempest and go find Poclis, wherever he may be. But in his anger and frustration he paid no attention to what path he chose, and he ran on and on, past tent and camp and booth and boulder, until finally, out of breath and shaking, he found himself in the hallow of Er. With the Feast long over, there were no more pilgrims, nor any other Man there; all that was left of the great blaze was a patch of burning scrub, no smaller than a campfire, small and merry.
Before he realized what he was doing Pippin stepped past the bounds of taboo and set foot on the ground of the hallow. His bare feet pressed into the ashy sand as he paced in nervous anger, turning this way and that like an agitated bird.
He stopped before the little flame and dropped to his knees, folding his arms and muttering. He demanded, “What am I supposed to do?”
He got up and resumed pacing. “I’ve got to warn Poclis,” he decided. “I’ve got to go to him! I don’t care where he is or how far. It’s partly my fault he ever came back here. That he went home and found it in peril. He’s doing this because he’s a good man and because I led him to it. He’s my friend. I’ve got to save him.”
Then he turned again. “But Maglor’s right! Alatar has power. I think it’s over wind and things of the air, the way Gandalf had fire and Saruman had metal. He may not be able to reach as far as here, or where Poclis is now, but when the war comes, they’ll be riding right into a sandstorm or a fence of lightning bolts. The object of the war is overthrowing him and freeing the slaves, and the people of Sakhara itself. I’ve got to remember that.”
He sighed and stopped and knelt again. The wee fire still sang to itself. “And I can’t say it isn’t the grandest thing to try,” he said wistfully. “To see a Silmaril, a real, shining Silmaril—and to steal it, like Beren One-hand and Luthien Tinuviel. Oh!” he shuddered with temptation, “now that’s something no hobbit has ever done!”
At length he shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. Maybe I should just forget all this and ride for Umbar right now. I don’t need another battle. The edge of this one’s just as sharp as that other.” He sat on his ankles and folded his hands in his lap, and said:
“I wish Gandalf were here.”
“Will I do?”
Pippin looked up, startled. Somehow the brightness of the morning had turned to twilight. The Mountain and the hallow still looked the same—but wait, was it Geber bet-Eria, or Meneltarma? Where was he? And who—?
Someone was warming their hands by the little fire. It was a hobbit, with dark hair and wise and brilliant eyes.
“Don’t be scared, Pippin,” said Frodo Baggins. “You’re only dreaming.”
Faintly Pippin protested: “But I’m not sleeping.”
“But you’re dreaming nonetheless,” Frodo assured.
“Are you dead?” That was Pippin’s first question to his cousin, or what looked like his cousin, a slender dark-haired hobbit with a perky expression and a bright eye and a cleft in his chin, taller than some, fairer than most, standing in the light of the fire. “Is that it? You’re dead, and you’ve come to haunt me as a punishment for my wrongs.”
“I assure you I am very much alive,” said Frodo. “But I’m not really here. Neither are you, actually. I’m in Elvenhome, and you’re somewhere in Far Harad, I think. How on earth did you manage to get yourself there, Pippin?”
“I haven’t a clue,” Pippin replied. “Things … happened.”
“I’m sure they did,” Frodo said fondly. “Still Pippin after all these years.”
“Yes and no,” said Pippin. “Sometimes I barely recognize myself as who I was. Sometimes I don’t know who I was.”
“Oh, you’ll figure it out. Like you will your problem. It’s not really a problem, you know.”
Pippin blinked. “Ten years across the Sea makes you start talking like Gandalf?”
Frodo smiled wryly. “Òlorin visits so often he practically lives with me. I’m thinking of excavating him his own Maiar-sized room.”
“Maiar—oh, nevermind. So, what have you decided to do?”
“Decided?” Pippin said. “My dear Frodo, have you lost your memory across the Sea? I’m Pippin. I seldom make decisions, and the ones I do make turn out to be wrong nine times out of ten. And the one time I choose right was nothing but blind luck.”
“Don’t be tiresome, Peregrin,” Frodo scolded, immediately reducing Pippin to six years old. “You are among the great of the Age that has past, and in this Age that’s just come. You are wiser than anyone ever gave you credit for, especially yourself. Shame on you. Make your choice.”
“What to do today. Ride to your friend? Go with the Elf? Go home?”
“I don’t know! You tell me!” Pippin got an idea. “That’s it!” he exclaimed, snapping his fingers. “That’s why I’m dreaming this. You’ve come to tell me what to do, haven’t you? The Valar have sent you as a messenger, to tell me what to do! Oh, Frodo, Frodo, my dear old Frodo!”
“What leaf have you been stuffing your pipe with, Pippin?” said Frodo crossly. “I am not here to choose for you. I am not even here. And even if I could, I wouldn’t; beyond the Veil we only watch, we do not act. Acting is for you. Choices are for you.”
“But I’ll choose wrong!” Pippin cried. “Look at where I am, Frodo. I have a wife. I have a son. My father was teaching me how to be Thain and head of the family. And what did I choose to do? Run. To the ends of the earth. Ten years hasn’t helped! It’s only expanded the magnitude of my foolishness!” He moaned and covered his face. “Frodo,” he said, thinking of the Fellowship, “I was the least of us.”
“You were the youngest,” Frodo corrected firmly. “Not the least.”
Pippin felt a warm, dry hand touch his face, lifting up his eyes by a tug of his chin. It had four fingers. Writer’s calluses marked its middle finger and thumb.
“My little cousin,” said Frodo. “I love you in a special way, did you know that? You remind me of Bilbo, as I imagined him when he went on his adventure. Gandalf saw it too. You know how much he loved you, despite how much you irritated him. Maybe even because of it. He was always on the lookout for the Took in all of us, that spark he could kindle into greatness—but with you he found a firecracker dreaming to be lit. I’m not excusing what you’ve done ill. But I want you to remember what you’ve done well: asking questions, following your heart. Being bold, and daring, and yes, even a little bit reckless. You are a good hobbit and true, Peregrin Took, with a kind heart. You care and you try, and that’s all that can be asked of anyone, though it’s done by all too few.” Frodo smiled. “Now, now. What’s these tears, then?”
Pippin realized he was crying, but how? He was smiling. He reached for the hand near him, the hand with four fingers, and oh, it felt real. Right. Warm and alive. Flowing with health, with light, with no trace of Shadow or pain, except for the mark of the freely and foolishly given pity that had somehow saved the world.
He asked softly, “Gandalf…”
“What about him, my dear?”
“Does he miss me too?”
Frodo gazed in sympathy upon him. “Of course he does. He loves you.”
“Have I made him angry at me?”
“What do you think?”
“I want to make him happy with me.”
“Then decide what to do with what’s been given to you,” said Frodo. “And decide well, little cousin!”
And then Pippin blinked in the hard sunshine of the desert, in the hallow of Er.
He looked around, but he knew the vision, or dream, or whatever it was, had ended. His cousin was no longer here. Just himself, in the dirt, before the merry flame.
Pippin thought once more about the paths before him. Then an outrageous idea flew into his head, and he wiped his face on his arm and smiled.
Obed and Leah were saddling their horses. Maglor and Zedek were speaking intensely with each other. Brogar sat calmly on the ground, sharpening his jagged-toothed fighting blades. They all turned to look at him as Pippin returned.
“All right,” said Pippin. “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to go south and help my friend Poclis. It’s partly my doing he’s in this trouble, and even if it weren’t, he’s my friend. I’m through with breaking vows. I won’t turn my back on a friend or anyone else I’ve given my love to. Nothing is more important to me than that.”
“Pippin,” said Maglor dangerously.
“Wait,” Pippin said. “I wasn’t finished. Then you and I will go north, ahead of the army. We’ll save Obed the trouble of sending messengers to call up the rest of the army, circle around Sakhara’s defenses, use the war as a diversion, go to the Stairway and steal the Silmaril. I know it won’t be that simple but basically that’s what I’m going to do.”
“Riding south and then north will take too long,” Maglor protested.
“You haven’t seen Tempest,” Pippin answered.
“We will waste time!”
“Maglor,” Pippin said seriously, “I must do this, for my friend. Sometimes we go on adventures, and they become quests; and quests come with their own rules. This is one of them, at least for me. I will help you. I want to do this too, but this way, and not any other.”
He looked at each of them in turn. “Are you with me?”
He wondered why they were staring at him. Had he grown wings?
“As you wish,” said Obed with a bow, seeing his father nod.
“Very well,” said Maglor in resignation.
“I’m going with you,” said Brogar. “You’ll need someone to watch your back.”
“I shall come too,” said Leah, and Pippin beamed.
“Great,” said Pippin. “Well then, what are we waiting for?”
As they went to prepare, Obed stopped Pippin and asked, “How did you come to this decision?”
“Why, I went to your hallow of course,” said Pippin. “I sat by the fire and, well, something came to me.” He beamed at them and scurried off.
Obed looked at his father. “We left no fire burning in the hallow…”
“No,” Zedek nodded, “we did not.”
Obed had marshaled an army three thousand strong, resplendent in black and indigo. For the sortie south he summoned he had chosen three hundred of the best Medzhaim. Obed himself led them. With him at the vanguard was Brogar on horseback; Maglor, armed with bow and sword, upon his own steed; and, riding together on Tempest, Leah and Pippin. He caught Pippin’s eye, and Pippin grinned.
Obed took his falcon Serak from his shoulder onto his arm. “Go,” he commanded, and the falcon took off, giving a keen cry.
“Eria ekkad!” Obed shouted and spurred his horse forward. Tempest followed, and the others, and then the hundreds of riders, heading south; but Tempest soon outstripped them all.
The hunters had been two months traveling from the Plains to the Great Desert, and though they had brought food and water and were used to hardship, it was still a hard and suffering journey. The young men relied on their elders; the elders leaned on the young. They walked swiftly, in the morning and the evening and well into the night, even if they only had starlight to see by; they were Bani, lion-men who knew the night as well as the day. They numbered over a thousand, bearing spears in their hands and spears on their backs, twenty spears to a man, each tipped with leaflike heads of knapped flint as large as a man’s foot; and clubs, and slings, and shields made of oxhide drawn wet over wet wood, bound with wet sinew, and all of it left to dry hard as drums and tough as bone. They marched in loose ranks, for they were not a warlike race, except those who came from the western jungle who had fought for the Eye in years past. But even these marched with their brothers of the east, summoned by the new headman of all their people, the chief of Ngiranemo.
Poclis now looked out from where he stood at a great height at the sea of sand and the sudden cliffs, near and yet insuperable, of the Valley of the Star. He wore long breeches of Umbar, and his powerful shoulders were bare, but for the necklaces of gold and silver and teeth, and the single lion’s tooth that named him a man; but around his waist he had wound a great crimson cloth, woven by his new-wed wife and her women, as a gift for the battle. For he had told her of the custom of the women of the far north-west of making banners for their husbands and loves ere they went to war. So beautiful Nibo wove a crimson sash for Poclis; and Poclis now wore it around his waist, its heavy weft lulling in the soft breeze, as he gazed upon the Valley of his enemies.
For many hundreds of leagues he had marched his hunters along the course of the Long River, keeping it in sight, yet not daring set foot in the well-guarded vale for fear of alerting their enemies. But now the time for secrecy was drawing to a close.
It was the hour of the death of the cold night. In the far east, the Sun was speeding over unknown lands, and the line of her approach was racing to the horn of Far Harad upon the Bay of Ormal. The army had slept and taken breakfast of preserved melon, parched grain, and a sip of water from their waterskins. They had done so for many weeks now, rising before the morning, walking before the heat drove them to shelter under their shields and light cloaks and lion-skins. But those were not their only shelter. The hunters who came from the western jungles, those who had gone with the Haradrim of the coasts to the wars of the Eye, had brought more than spears and clubs with them.
Poclis stood upon the prow of a war-tower borne on the back of an oliphaunt. From its height he looked out over all but the highest of the dunes. Its rolling gait reminded him of a ship at sea. Behind him were fifty hunters, and those who needed to rest from marching; the beasts lifted up those who were weary with their trunks into the arms of his comrades, and returned the rested to the march. Unlike the war-beasts of the Haradrim, these had not been painted with symbols, other than the marks they would place on their own beloved cattle; and no unneeded spike or chain hindered their mighty feet, or bound their four spiraling tusks. Ten oliphaunts had gone north; five were left in condition for battle, but five mumakil in battle, it was hoped, would be enough.
From his height Poclis now saw his scouts returning at a run from their patrols. They shouted warning, and Poclis raised his horn from his side and sounded it for all the army. They had finally been seen. Sakhara was coming.
The eastern sky was paling. The stars were being quenched by the first fingers of the still-unseen Sun. As he looked into the east, Poclis saw a cloud rising from the Valley cliffs, a cloud of dust being raised by horses’ hooves. He seized his battle-staff and observed from the cloud emerge the shapes of the enemy: chariots, dozens, scores of chariots, and men behind them running, and the arrogant gleam of bronzework and gilding over cold cruel blue. The Sixth Regiment of Sakhara was coming out of the shadowed valley apace with the searing dawn.
Poclis took up his horn and blew a new note. The army stopped its journey. Hunters formed ranks, took up spears, sped up the sides of dunes from where they could cast their weapons long and deadly into their foes. The oliphaunts were marshalled into a line for a charge.
They were frightened. They were hunters, and herders, and could face down lions; each one of them had faced a lion, if not killing one, wounding one, or surviving another’s attack; it was the mark of a man. They were all men, all the thousand of them. But they were men with flint-tipped spears, and clubs of animal bone, and hide shields, and slingshots, against the arced bronze swords of the Sakharim and their unstoppable chariots. The mumakil, and boldness, would have to do.
On the next oliphaunt to Poclis was Dyomu. The wise hunter looked to his chief and nodded. Poclis did too, and ran his free hand absently over the sash on his waist. Then he raised his voice in a long, wild, wailing call, like and unlike the roar of a lion. The men of his army responded with cries of their own, and leaping, and banging spears against shields. The mumakil-drivers responded by ordering their beasts to walk forth.
The oliphaunts did so, crossing over the dune toward the coming chariots. One stumbled in the shifting sand, trumpeting its annoyance; men were shaken from its tower and fell. But the beast mastered its footing and joined its kindred. Now they were strolling, their strides crossing many yards of desert; the chariots were coming. The oliphaunts began to hasten. The charioteers left the foot-soldiers far behind. Dyomu raised his spear and bellowed. The mumakil began to run, as the chariots rose over the last dune onto a flat gravel-plain. Now the oliphaunts were trumpeting, and a number of proven army-horses balked in terror at the coming behemoths. But only a number. The rest sped on, driven by loyalty or whips or fear, into the teeth of ivory.
A rank of chariots broke upon the tusks of the oliphaunts like sea-wreck upon the hardened bow of a Corsair ship. Others fell to the animals’ feet, like forest-trees come to live and marching, crushing and stomping and grinding and swiping gore upon the sand. Horses and men were entwined in sapient trunks and hurled like chaff into the wind. Arrows and lances were cast knowing not how to wound the beasts; no oliphaunt had ever been seen alive in the Valley, certainly none at war.
But so big were the oliphaunts, and so few, that the greater number of the chariots passed through them like a watercourse streaming past boulders on its way to its proper destination. And Poclis ran to the rear of the war-tower and saw his hunters face the coming of the chariots.
Spears flew and found marks, or bounced off bronze and wood. Arrows answered in reply, swifter and more accurate. Men died. Poclis told his driver to turn their steed around and go to the aid of the men, but then he saw the coming of the foot-soldiers of Sakhara, and rallied those with him to this new assault. For while slower and more vulnerable, the foot-soldiers were more numerous, and perhaps could lame or madden a mumak with their cleverer attack.
Men and beasts fought in the quickening heat of dawn. The Sun was coming. She was upon the horizon. The stars were guttering, dying, blinking out, as the sky turned blue over the desert. Hunters with wood and stone fought against wheels and sickles of bronze. Poclis leapt down from the war-tower to fight in the midst of it all, his battle-staff laying down enemies in a ring all around him. But all was going ill. An oliphaunt stumbled, its ankles cut by hundreds of slashes; its tower fell to the ground with a crash.
The scarlet sash was stained with blood. Poclis had his great knife out, and heads and arms fell at his blows. His staff matched it for deadliness, but while he survived and dominated, his men, his army of hunters and herders, whom he had led from their green and thriving plains into the desert, would they survive? Make sail, and run; that was how the Corsairs would do it, if an engagement went ill, or took too long. But he had not that choice. It was fight or die upon the dunes. Or, rather, it was fight, and die anyway.
So be it. Poclis was no coward. A pirate would have chosen the more profitable course. He was pirate no longer.
The blue day passed the height of the sky. For no reason at all Poclis paused for a breath, and looked into the west. Thence came a breeze, and upon that breeze was the sound of galloping hooves.
Suddenly over the crest of a dune shot a falcon, wild and reckless and impetuous and free, and its cry pierced the empty sky. Poclis wondered at it, before beholding, behind the falcon, what followed it over the sand.
The Medzhaim of the Erites rode out of the west, sheathed in robes of black and indigo, twice as many as Sakhara had sent chariots, and descended like a storm upon the waterless plain. Before them all were a pair of horses, one dapple-grey, one silver-black. The black horse bore two riders, both smaller than the others, one very small indeed, and that one, Poclis realized, was Pippin, a red-gold head bright in the beam of the dawn.
Poclis threw up his arms in crazed joy. “O Sihorunebi m’Hobengo!” he shouted as the horsemen fell into the battle. The tide turned, the Erites and the Bani fought back and overwhelmed the Sakharim, as the Sun left the horizon and with her fingers smote the sands.
The Medzhaim pursued the surviving Sakharim into the sands, hoping to leave no tale of this battle until they were prepared to strike. Poclis stood among the slain, many Sakharim, some Erites, but far too many of his own people, and he stood still as stone with his eyes filling with grief.
Obed came now to Poclis.
“I regret we failed to arrive earlier,” he said in Haradi.
“Your arrival was something I had not thought to hope for,” Poclis replied, gazing upon hunters old and young who had followed him north. “This was a foolish action from the beginning, and I rue it now.”
“Nay,” said Obed. “Regret not the courage of a heart that’s true, fool though it be.” He looked past Poclis and smiled. “Behold, now comes such a heart.”
Later the injured would be succored, and the slain buried. Obed would outline his plans to Poclis, and they would swear allegiance to each other. A meager meal would be shared, and Maglor sing a song, as Brogar and Poclis were reunited, with tales told and friendships renewed. But none of what took place in that lull between the first battle and the great one still to come could have been as joyous as that moment, as Pippin crashed into Poclis’s arms and was lifted up by the laughing man into the morning sky.
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