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Falcon, The: The Adventures of Peregrin Took: 14. The Battle of Three Nations
The victors of the battle camped for a day, recovering their faculties for what lay ahead. Poclis was busy with matters of war, conferring with Obed and his lieutenants, but at meals he went in search of Pippin and sat with him. There for as long as each could spare they sat and told each other of all they had done since they last were together. Pippin told of seeing Naglis and Banlis flee Ngiranemo, and how he followed them into the clutches of the Sakharan soldiers. He skipped lightly over the voyage down the Long River, not wanting to upset his friend over his brush with despair. He spoke of Iset and Mery, and Poclis nodded, having heard of the Queen and her captain as potential allies in the coming war. Obed was in some form of communication with them, he told Pippin.
“Then maybe we’ve got a good hope for the battle to come,” Pippin said. “When will that be?”
“Tomorrow,” Poclis said.
“It’s too short a visit.”
Then their talk turned to other things. That evening, dining around a fire, Brogar joined them, and he and Poclis regaled the others with tales of adventure and buccaneering on the high seas. Some of the stories beggared even Pippin’s imagination—the island of the treasure of the Forty Brigands, that turned out to be a giant Tortoise whose shell was overgrown with jungle, was one particularly suspect tale—but he enjoyed them all. The story of Morelin’s escape from Pelargir and his triumphant return to Umbar, of course, was a favorite, with Brogar enacting all the parts, and Poclis stirred by love, and drink, to raise a loud toast to the Black Sword of the Ocean, may she ever sail! Leah was regarding Brogar with an appraising, inquisitive look, that Pippin noticed, and he drained his cup of water and sour wine and kept it to himself.
Into the night, as he was wont to do, Pippin went for a little walk to sit out beneath the stars, and tonight one by one they joined him: Poclis; Obed; Leah, accompanied by Brogar; Dyomu; and even Maglor, who raised up a soft song. Pippin leaned his head on Poclis’ stomach, listening contentedly to the noises inside, making smoke-rings that Leah and Brogar tried to throw stones through. It was a moment of peace and contentment near the day’s battleground, and for a moment Pippin imagined he was older, and his son was the one resting his head on Pippin’s belly, and they were out with Diamond’s leave on a grand adventure of their own.
Someday, he thought. When I get back.
Pippin woke shortly before dawn after a deep and dreamless sleep. He rose and checked the others: they were already awake. He had breakfast of meat and grain and water and some dried melon slices, and then went to get Tempest ready.
“Today you’ll get to run, my girl,” he told her. “Run as fast as you want.”
He saw Poclis speaking with Dyomu and other hunt-leaders and went to them.
“Poclis,” he said, “if I don’t happen to see you again…”
Poclis wouldn’t hear of it. “You will,” he said.
Pippin nodded. Looking up at the man, with whom he’d been through so much, his companion over thousands of miles, he threw himself at his waist and hugged him again, till he felt Poclis’s hand warmly touch his hair.
Then it was time. Brogar mounted his yellow horse. Maglor sat upon his blue steed, his shining face shadowed by his hood. Leah came forth leading Tempest. Pippin smiled at her. She smiled back, and mounted, and then held out her hand to him.
He refused it and with a nimble jump leapt onto the saddle in front of her. He took the reins she held.
With a glance at Poclis, and at Obed, he took a deep breath. He nodded to them both.
“Godspeed,” Obed said.
Pippin nodded again, and then cracked Tempest’s reins.
The black mare whinnied and wheeled and cantered into a gallop. Brogar’s and Maglor’s horses followed behind. Their horses were fleet, but not like Tempest, and before they vanished into the distance she had left them behind.
“So,” said Poclis to Obed, with their lieutenants around them. “Now we begin.”
Obed nodded. “Now.”
The Plains army was four day’s march from Sakhara. They had to make it in three, reaching the Gates of the Desert, the canyon whose road was in ancient times the only road into Sakhara. There the cliff walls that guarded Sakhara were interrupted by the ravine of a sometime rain-bred river. Being of old a well-known vulnerability of the city’s natural defenses, it was guarded by the First and Second Regiments, housed in two forts on either side of the dry riverbed.
Men protested at having to walk briskly through the hot desert, but Poclis overruled them. “The sun will be darkened in three days, on the rising of the new moon,” he said. “We must attack before then.”
The Medzhaim helped. Obed and his horsemen remained with Poclis, guiding them on the swiftest way through the desert. Without their knowledge, the march to Sakhara would have proven more lethal than any battle. Men grew faint in the heat, or sick. The mumakil needed sustenance. Everyone needed water. The Medzhaim scouted hidden wells and oases, on horse, on foot, and with their beloved falcons. When they stopped, in the heat of the noon or at night, the Medzhaim walked amongst the Bani, training them in warfare. Swiftly the hunters and herders formed ranks and became an army in more than name and number.
Three days the army crossed the barren desert above the Valley of the Star. At first they saw nothing; none of the denizens of the Valley would go up to the desert on anything but dire need, and the army felt secure in being unmolested. But on the second day they began to pass small fortifications and make-shift camps, built sometime during the past years of Seti’s rule, left abandoned, from which they gleaned that their approach was expected. Still they pressed on, past hills of red stone that throbbed in the heat, through stretches of gravel that scorched the touch, past stands of dead palms ridden with termites also long perished. They jogged, to a man, or hitched rides on their animals. The mumakil were now inured to the heat, and were almost nonchalant as they flapped their sail-like ears to cool their blood.
Obed rode up to Poclis’s mumak and climbed up from horseback. “They will have passed the rest of the riders by now,” he said without preamble.
Poclis nodded. “How long do you think will it take them to take the north course?”
“Another day, perhaps a little more,” said Obed. “The Easterling’s horse is a good one. The Elf’s is a bit faster. Tempest … ah, I will regret it when she leaves with Pippin! If she could stay long enough to foal with one of my stallions…”
“Ask him afterward,” Poclis advised.
Obed nodded. “Yes, perhaps. Perhaps.”
“You are anxious?”
“Somewhat, my friend. This is my first campaign.”
“You are gifted. We shall do what we came to do, or die trying.”
“Indeed. We are all in Er’s hands.”
The sun set on the second day. That night, they hurried, openly running, and Obed sent runners with Poclis’ best trackers ahead, to scout what awaited them at the Canyon. The night was thick with stars. There was no moon.
Obed sent Serak with a message. The falcon returned, and Obed bid Poclis farewell. “Now is the time for hope,” he said. “By now he has to have informed the rest of my people to begin to ride. I will take my horsemen into the dunes and await for your signal.”
Poclis nodded. They clasped arms, then parted.
Early on the march of the third day the Stairway first became visible, and many of the Bani were afraid. What manner of enemy did they face, who could raise a mountain such as that?
Poclis addressed them. “My people,” he said. “We do not face gods, though we may face monsters, they are monsters in man’s disguise. Do not be afraid of the power that raised that hill. We are that power. The hands of our brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our children, raised that mountain, though they did not wish to; they were taken from our plains and pasture-lands to this waterless and lifeless waste, to labor in fear and suffering. And even then, they were mighty enough to do that! Do not look on the Stairway of Sakhara in fear. It is not a testimony to the might of the Ukehoru, the Blue Demon. It is the work of the People of the Plains!”
In hours they came upon the edge of the Valley and the Canyon. Poclis girded himself with Nibo’s sash. He took up a great spear, and painted his face. Then he called on Dyomu to raise the call.
“We march now,” he thundered. “Let Sakhara know we have come for justice!”
The old hunter, father of Poclis’s wife, smiled, and raised a horn to his lips.
The mumakil responded in trumpeting. Their blasts echoed through the desert and down into the Valley. Pebbles skittered down the canyon-sides. The lowest notes of the oliphaunts surged through the bedrock from their starting-point to the very loam of the valley, and made ripples in still water.
The citizens of Sakhara stayed in their homes, frightened of the invaders, and of their own army. The Temple Guards were tasked with keeping order in the city, and had presumed control over the other regiments as well, being empowered to do whatever necessary to enforce Seti’s rule.
So the army of Poclis came to the entrance to the Gates of the Desert, and Poclis on his oliphaunts led them into the ancient streambed that was the gateway of Sakhara to the outer world. Barely eight hundred men and four mumakil marched into the canyon, clutching their round oxhide shields and their long spears, and the gifts the Erites had left them, before the riders vanished.
Poclis began to sing in a low, powerful voice, and his people followed him. Their chanting accompanied the trumpets of the mumakil as they advanced closer to the outskirts of Sakhara and the two forts of the First and Second Regiments, the City Guards and the Border Guards.
They met no resistance until they were but half a mile from the two forts, and the outskirts of the old city were clearly visible. It was now bright morning, and the first quivers of heat began to show from the rocks of the cliffs and the river in the distance. The sight of the mighty river and its green banks moved many of the Plainsmen to thoughts of home, and yearning, but they sang on, knowing why they had come, remembering slain comrades or stolen loved ones. Poclis sang with them, and looked at the height of the sun, and the sky around it, waiting. He also looked north, towards the Stairway, now hidden from view by the canyon wall, wondering.
“Look!” cried his mumak-driver. A lone charioteer came down the canyon floor.
“A parley,” Poclis said, rolling his eyes and stepping onto the edge of the war-platform. The oliphaunt reached its trunk up and Poclis stepped onto its tip, wrapping his hand around the rope kept there for this purpose.
He reached the ground as the charioteer, in blue linen and bronze armor, came to a stop. It was Khartamun, captain of the Temple Guards.
“Are you the man I should speak to?” he asked Poclis in Haradi.
Poclis nodded. “I am. I have come from the south to ask the Sorcerer to free my people whom he has enslaved.”
“Your people are free to go,” said Khartamun. “They stay of their own accord, for they find the Valley superior to the life of the barbarians.”
“Barbarian we may be,” said Poclis, “but at least we do not enslave a man simply because of the color of his skin.”
Khartamun scowled. “I am the captain of the Temple Guard,” he said. “One of five in this city, each larger than your entire force. Even with your behemoths you cannot hope to prevail.”
“You do not know us, captain of the Temple,” Poclis said coolly.
Khartamun sneered. “Neither do you know the power of Seti and the might of the god Seth. Begone, or face their power.”
Poclis stepped forward and struck the ground with his spear. “I do not know this god,” he said, “and I do not fear his power, nor that of your lord Seti. Let him come.” And he spat on the ground.
Khartamun glared. “You waste your water,” he growled. “So be it!” He noisily turned his chariot and rode back to the city.
The sky darkened suddenly. Poclis, his hand on his knife-handle, gazed upward as if knowing it would happen. A wind rose up, and quickly grew stiff.
“The Wizard,” he muttered.
Poclis walked quickly back to the mumak. Back atop the beast he said, “Prepare for battle!”
Two of the oliphaunts advanced forward, carrying bristling spearmen. Other spearmen formed ranks of fifty, two ranks across, behind them. The mass of fighters surrounded the remaining two animals as if they were forts, which indeed they were. A hundred scaled the sloping sides of the canyon to cover the floor with spear-casts and thrown missiles.
Poclis looked across his hunters—no, his warriors, now—to his father-in-law. Dyomu saw him and bowed deeply.
Thunder crashed around them, and the dark cloud that had overwhelmed the sky sprouted trees of lightning, striking the lips of the canyon walls. Rocks tumbled from their anchors down toward the army. Men broke ranks and dodged the boulders. An oliphaunt was struck by a boulder the size of a cow, and gave a snuffle of annoyance, took it into its trunk, and hurled it back where it came. Seeing it made Poclis smile.
More lightning came down, racing from the belly of the cloud of darkness, racking the air with thunder. But they kept falling against the canyon walls, or against rocks or boulders; and Poclis began to laugh.
“They call us barbarians,” he said to those around him, “but see, the lightning cannot find us amidst all this rock!”
Then he remembered his knife, and his smile turned grim. He took it, and held it up, and it seemed the lightning, or the mind behind it, felt the appearance of plain steel.
“Come for it, blue demon!” he shouted, and threw it as far as he could up toward the cloud.
Twenty bolts and more, blue and searing bright, erupted from all corners of the cloud, and struck the two-foot long metal knife in a tremendous explosion of thunder, lighting the whole canyon. Poclis called out for those to watch its fall and flee from it, and his men heeded his orders, their eyes fixed in wonder and fear at the falling weapon, now white-hot, trailing blue lightning behind it. It fell through the air towards the ground of the hot, dry earth, and the earth responded: before it even struck, the ground itself leapt up with fire, white lightning twice as strong as the blue, arcing up from the soil, through the knife, and up the open trails of power into the cloud, causing a thunder-crash to drown out all others. And it seemed to Poclis he heard a growl of rage from the cloud.
It began to rain. Dust. Dust and sand and pebbles. The black cloud was giving forth its next plague: the desert storm.
The wind rose to a bloodthirsty howl. Poclis shouted, “The cloths!” And from his sash he drew forth the gift left by the Medzhaim for every member of the Plains army: the black fabric of the Erites that resisted flying sand.
The men reached for their scarves and flung them around their heads and bodes and over their faces as the sand began to fly. Men tied fabric around the trunks of the oliphaunts and over their eyes. From the war-towers, Erite tent fabric was unfurled like the sails of the Mormegil, down to the toes of the beasts, and those who needed to ran into the giant tents thus created, holding them down by the very boulders flung down by the lightning. The storm raged, and grew louder, hurling all the fury magic could muster against them; but though they suffered, shaking with terror and apprehension, with sand in their mouths and their nostrils and beneath their eyelids, none gave out, none were slain by the wind, and the oliphaunt Poclis rode even trumpeted.
The wind slackened, as if baffled by an unseen hand. Poclis shook the sand from his head-covering and gazed out into the shadowy landscape beneath the black cloud. He knew why the storm was quieting: the chariots were coming.
“Chariots!” he shouted, and raised his horn. Dyomu raised his as well, as did the other commanders; the men streamed out from beneath their giant “tents”; and then Dyomu’s mount and the other oliphaunt in the lead charged forth.
The First Regiment had one hundred twenty chariots, and all these were sent down the narrow canyon floor toward the small invading force. The oldest and once the best-trained of Sakhara’s forces, they considered themselves hardened soldiers dedicated to battle. But none of them, nor their horses, had ever faced two mumakil of Far Harad galloping at them.
Obed, in sharing his plan to Poclis, had known that the floor of the canyon was narrow. Two oliphaunts could easily cover the breadth of the floor with shakes of their heads. Chariots would have to come in a column right at them.
“And break,” Poclis had agreed with a smile, which the young commander shared.
They broke now. Swiping left, swiping right, rearing back and stomping, the oliphaunts decimated the chariots of the City Guards. Spears from the war-platforms struck horse and charioteer, and those on foot who followed the animals engaged the rest.
“Back!” Dyomu ordered, and the mumakil retreated with surprising speed, going back over the crushed and broken first wave to their old positions. So Obed had shown Poclis a new way to use the oliphaunts, as the Haradrim used them: as walking fortresses. With the four of them blocking the Canyon, they controlled the field of battle.
The First and Second Regiments did not seem to understand that; or if they did, they were too wedded to their long-cherished tactics in warfare, relying on Sakhara’s great weapon, her mighty chariots, to overwhelm any enemy with speed and strength. They sent the Second Regiment’s chariots out now, two hundred and thirty, in a glittering river of blue and gold.
Again the lead oliphaunts charged, meeting the arrows of the charioteers; but none seemed to understand how to take down a mumak by shooting at its eyes and its driver. Again chariots fell into ruin, crashed, cracked, broken, torn, flung, crumpled, devastated. But there were more than twice as many now, and some got through. Now the spear-casters on the cliffs did their part, sending shafts down upon the chariots that had broken through, and evading if they could the answering bows. Poclis saw it was time for him to move.
“To war!” he cried, and blew a horn call, and his oliphaunt charged the Sakharan forces that had broken through the first line of defense. His forces on foot followed. As he did so, the defenders of Sakhara came forth in force, fifteen hundred soldiers on foot, with their curved swords and their stiff reed shields.
As the chariots passed and were finally overwhelmed, the two armies came together in a thousand instances of single combat. Knives and clubs fought against swords and daggers, but now the Bani could fight back, armed with the knowledge given to them by the Medzhaim. Still, the Sakharans had more than numbers on their sides. They fought with kicks and leaps, their scythelike swords swinging in the air like whirlwinds; their arts of combat were like a dance and an assault at once. Above them the four oliphaunts moved, their eyes again blanketed with the Erite cloth that arrows embedded themselves in away from soft flesh; acting now more as the fortresses they were than as living weapons.
The wind rose again, and thunder and lightning returned; and now the field, littered with the bronze and gold of Sakharan forces, were more tempting targets. “He strikes his own people!” Dyomu shouted, as lightning bolts razed indiscriminately Plainsman and Sakharan alike.
Poclis saw it. It was time. He took from among his necklaces a small whistle made from the bone of a desert fox. He shook his head, wondering how it could be heard through this din, but lifted it to his lips and blew anyway.
The battle raged on, and the greater numbers and skill of the Sakharans were driving the Bani back to their oliphaunts. The spearmen on the cliffs had run out of spears and were now casting rocks and causing avalanches; they were being slain by skilled archers of the Second Regiment, the Border Guards who had long fought with the wild men of the badlands to the east.
“Poclis!” cried a man, pointing up.
Poclis looked up into the storm-wracked and lightning-strewn sky. Serak it was, calling in the darkness, and as before, the Medzhaim rode behind him.
But more than the three hundred who had ridden with them. Obed had rallied the force hidden in the desert, a full third of his army. A thousand horsemen rushed into the Canyon, galloping into the stunned Sakharans and coursing past the Bani and their mumakil, like a gale from the deep sands; but that was only one part of Obed’s plan.
He had sketched it out as they ate together the afternoon of the first battle. Poclis, Leah, Pippin, Maglor and Brogar, with Dyomu and other lieutenants.
“I have left behind the bulk of my forces in a staging ground a day’s ride from Sakhara,” Obed explained. “I also have seven hundred other riders with which I shall join soon before you come to the Gates of the Desert.”
He gave Poclis the whistle. “When you have drawn out the strength of the City and Border Guards into the canyon, blow on this. Serak will hear it, and the thousand riders of whom these three hundred have come, will go to your aid, and engage your foes within the canyon walls. If all goes well, we shall neutralize the two outer regiments of the City of the Sky.”
He turned to Pippin. “When you ride north, you shall find the rest of the forces. As soon as you come upon them, give them my orders to proceed with all haste to Sakhara, and complete the mission. You should do this not later than two days from now, to ensure they are near when Poclis blows the whistle.”
“They will not hear this whistle,” Poclis protested.
“Serak will,” Obed said. “And he will find them and let them know it is time.”
Serak cried out and flew north, over the canyon and through the clouds, dodging lightning strikes. The people of Sakhara, huddled in their houses, heard the falcon’s cry, and in wonder they murmured the name that had been forbidden since the ascendancy of Seth.
“Horus,” they said among themselves: Horus, the prince of heaven, and his right eye is the sun and his left eye the moon; Horus, the Falcon, has come.
Out of the west Serak called out, striking fear into the hearts of the Temple Guards, who had sworn their allegiance to Seth, and who had been most responsible for defacing every image of the Falcon from the walls and monuments of the Valley of the Star. “Horus,” they whispered among themselves, even though their commanders castigated them. Khartamun heard the cry of the falcon, and himself whispered “Horus,” and quaked.
In the temple of Seth, Alatar looked up, perceiving the cry. And for a moment, he too trembled, thinking for a moment he had heard an Eagle instead… Then his eyes darkened, and fury mastered him, and he smote the ground with his staff. At his side, Zosir laughed voicelessly, and said, The Falcon has come to deliver us.
“You are coming with me!” Alatar growled, and with his staff, summoned his Servants within the Stairway to life. A faint line of blue light struck the Stairway and entered through its East Door.
It was time. The cry of the falcon was their signal. They had ridden for a day from their forward position, alerted by the halfling and his companions. They had paused behind the greatest of the dunes next to the Valley cliffs, seated, resting, but ready, waiting for their time. They knew their task. Erites, wanderers of the desert, they loved their horses like family, and rode them through sandstorms, through valleys, up hills and down mountainsides. They had been summoned by the Prophet and called to holy war. They saw the black cloud spread from the fallen city and cursed the sorcery. When they heard the falcon’s cry, they knew it was time.
So they rode.
Two thousand riders, on two thousand horses, with two thousand curved swords of gleaming steel, flooded out of the desert into the clouded world. They were shouting as they rode: Eria ekkad, Eria ekkad, ayalon Eraimi ekkanach nahash; Er is Lord, Er is Lord, proclaim O Eraim the Lord the Secret Fire.
They rode out of the west to Sakhara, their mission clear, given to them by order of their commander, given by Pippin acting as herald. The battle was in the canyon to the south. They rode east, straight for the cliffs that Sakhara had always trusted to keep invaders out.
But a road had been carved in the cliff, where the cliff was not so steep; to bring slaves up from the Valley to build the Stairway; a road that had not been there before, built by order of Seti; a road that breached the natural defenses of the City of the Sky. Leah and Pippin had used that road.
And now down that carved and gentled cliffside came the cavalry of the Erites, to the slave quarters and the city itself.
Horus, Horus, called out the people of Sakhara. Heedless of cries of the people of the Valley, Serak circled over the Stairway now, and swept down low, hearing the whistle. There were three horses galloping over the sand, coming from the north, towards the Stairway complex. The horse in the lead suddenly stopped, rearing and kicking, whinnying mightily; the falcon gave an answering cry, swooping low, talons outstretched…
… and alighted on Pippin’s upraised arm.
“You’ve learned well,” Leah complimented.
Pippin shrugged jauntily. “I try.” He looked south, towards the cloud of dust raised by the galloping cavalry. “There they go?”
Leah nodded as Maglor and Brogar came up behind them. “There they go,” she agreed.
“Right,” Pippin said. He turned deliberately to the Stairway, its five steep levels rearing up before them, only a mile away. “Now for our part. Come on!”
He spurred Tempest, and Maglor and Brogar followed, and they rode to the Stairway.
Poclis stood amidst the scourge of battle and saw Obed riding to him.
“How do you fare?” Obed asked.
“We survive!” Poclis answered. “Your strategems have worked!”
“So far,” said Obed. “Now let us hope that our allies within the City choose to join us now!”
War came to the streets of Sakhara. In the slave quarter the Erites flung open barred doors and hacked open chains, and hundreds of slaves rushed out of their captivity. At first frightened, they were given weapons, and steeds, and many of the men chose to ride with the Erites or run into the streets, while the rest led the women and children up the hillside and into the desert.
The Third and Fourth Regiments, the King’s Guard and the Temple Guard, were faced now with a situation they had never contemplated: a battle within the City itself. Their chariots were all but useless in the narrow, winding streets.
The King’s Guard went to meet the enemy nevertheless, and fought with them through the Merchants’ Quarter and the Craftsmen’s Quarter. At the same time, the Bani and Obed’s thousand riders advanced over the vanquished outer defenses and were coming into the Old City from the south. The Kings’ Guard urged the Temple Guard to join the fight, but the Temple Guard instead burned the barges and huddled in the Temple of Seth, choosing to make stand there. Frustrated, the commander of the Kings’ Guard demanded to know where the Fifth Regiment, the Queen’s Guard, was.
“With the Queen,” was the reply.
“And where is she?”
Khartamun ran through the Temple courtyard, shouting orders on the border of panic. “Set up the barricades! Set fire to the wood! Take women and children and use them as hostages! Set fire to the animals and send them burning in the streets! Fill the river with poison!”
He heard commotion, the sound of chariot wheels—and then an arrow pierced him in the side. He screamed.
Down the lane from the Royal Houses came the chariots of the Queen’s Guards. Mery was holding a bow and glaring at Khartamun; but it was Iset herself who led them, driving a chariot of her own, wearing the high-crowned war-helmet of a Pharu.
“Throw down your weapons!” she shouted to the Temple Guardsmen. “Throw down your weapons! Do not destroy the city of our forefathers!”
Many who heard her, remembering the splendor of the Pharu and his Queen in days past, remembering the ruin of the civil war and the rise of Zosir and Iset as uniters and peacemakers, did as Iset bid, and went to her side, or refused to fight. But a great many, given to Seth body and soul, stood against her, and the Queen’s Guards battled them. Blood ran red on the Temple grounds, not for the first time, but never again in such quantity.
The wounded Khartamun struggled into the Temple and scrambled to the holy sanctuary. He cried out, “My lord! My lord! Save me!”
But Alatar was not there, and neither was the idol of Seth.
Khartamun wailed in black despair, as the doors were thrown open and Mery entered.
“You,” said Mery.
Khartamun pleaded, “Mercy! Mercy, I beg you! I beg you!” He crawled to Mery’s feet and kissed them.
Mery’s lip curled with disgust. He tore off Khartamun’s helmet and headdress, baring his head and neck, and slew Khartamun in mid-grovel.
“Find the rest,” Mery ordered. “Slay all who refuse to acknowledge the Queen. Then burn this place till its mud crumbles to dust.”
Mery emerged from the burning Temple to find Iset staring at the fighting in the west bank.
“I must go there,” she said.
Mery nodded, taking her hand. “Then I shall find a way.”
Iset gazed at her captain for a moment. “Do so, and also accompany me,” she said.
The King’s Guards rallied and fell together, forging a counterrattack upon the Erites and the rebelling slaves. With valor and desperation they forced themselves against their enemies at great cost. They had begun to break through the line when they heard the coming of a multitude.
Upon a swiftly-rowed barge came Iset, Queen of the Valley, and her captain Mery, upon her chariot, to the west bank. The Queen’s Guard followed, and as she rode, the people of Sakhara left their homes and followed her.
“People of Sakhara!” Iset cried as Mery drove through the streets. “Fight not for Seti! You have lived in fear and shame for too long under his tyranny! Rise up! Heed me, your Queen! Remember our ways in the time before Seth, and rise up to freedom!”
Many heard her, and many heeded her. But many did not, or could not think to do so. Sakhara’s streets rang with strife.
Riding up from the Canyon in the city, Poclis looked into the sky.
“The storm is strengthening again,” he said.
Obed swore in what Poclis recognized as Orcish. Poclis looked at him in amused surprise.
Obed shrugged. “Pippin,” he said, as if in explanation.
Poclis nodded, understanding.
“The Wizard still has power,” Obed said. He looked north, where now the beacon of the hidden Dawnstar was visible, springing from the top of the Stairway until it was lost in the cloud.
There were twenty guards outside the Stairway, and none inside—they were not allowed, and none wanted to enter in any case. They saw the cloud of the ride of the Erite forces, and saw the great black storm and the lightning of their lord, and were terrified. Temple Guardsmen, they wondered if they should go to the aid of their comrades, but they chose instead to stay at their posts, far from the fighting. So when they saw the intruders coming at them, they were nervous, and assembled all together before the West Door.
It was the wrong choice. The horses did not stop; instead their riders produced blades. Eleven guards fell in the first pass.
From their steeds leapt Pippin, and Leah, Maglor and Brogar, and they turned together to face the guards. Brogar had drawn his twin blades. Maglor’s sword slid out of its sheath with the cold gleam of Valinorean steel, ancient by far and gleaming with its own light. Leah’s sword glittered in her hand. Pippin held Trollsbane.
“You should go,” Pippin said in Sakharim to the remaining nine guards.
The guards chose to attack.
Pippin slew one. Leah took the head of another. Brogar dispatched two, one with each knife. Maglor ran one through and at the same time reached out with his hand, caught another by the face, and crushed his skull.
“Ugh,” said Pippin.
“Pippin,” Maglor warned.
Pippin ducked and rolled and kicked the man who came at him, and spun around and stabbed him with Trollsbane. Another struck out at him, but Brogar with a flying leap struck the man in the jaw with his heel and then stabbed him with a blade hidden in his sleeve.
One last went to run away, screaming. He fell shot by Maglor’s bow.
“That’s that then,” said Pippin, turning to face the Door. It was engraved with the picture-writing of the Sakharans, and had no visible means of entry.
“I have the feeling we’ve got us a magic door here,” he said. “Leah, can you…”
Leah stepped up. “’This Door the gate to the Darkness that comes in the fall of the Sun. May Seth rule all’” she read. “I cannot see any other message.”
“All right, then,” said Pippin. “Then if it’s not magic, it’s machinery.” He stepped up to the engraving and began to run his fingers over the pictures. He paused. “Leah! Is this one ‘door’?”
“Yes,” said Leah.
“Got it,” Pippin said, and pushed.
With a rumble the door rose. Inside was darkness.
“I’ll get the torches,” Brogar said.
“Hurry,” said Maglor. “We do not have much time.” He looked into the cloud, which seemed to be dissipating.
“The eclipse?” Pippin asked.
Maglor nodded. “In this very hour.”
Brogar returned with lit torches. He took one, and Leah took one. Maglor drew his sword, which glowed.
Pippin held nothing. He took a deep breath, puffing up his chest, and said, “Follow me.” They crossed the threshold and entered the dark.
The wind died. The lightning dimmed, and the thunder failed. In the city, Obed looked up into the sky, which was beginning to clear—and yet was dim, as if it was late in the afternoon, and growing later.
“They have entered the Made Mountain,” Poclis said.
Obed agreed. “The hour has arrived,” he said.
In the heavens above, the limb of the Moon touched the edge of the Sun. Tilion had caught Arien and was pulling her into an embrace.
From the Stairway, the beam of the Dawnstar grew brighter.
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