“This is a bad idea,” muttered Leah, but went ahead and smiled at the merchant in Sakhara’s old marketplace.
The cutler at his booth grinned broadly at her. “And what may interest your lady this morning, lovely? A lovely set of forks perhaps, set in unrusted brass, with lapis lazuli in the handles.” He held open the case of the utensils. “Note the difference,” he added with a gleam in his eye. “Three tines, not two.” He smiled. “My own innovation.”
“Truly ingenious,” Leah replied. “But my lady is interested in purchasing a simple dagger for her, ah, foundling.”
The cutler looked down at the slim little figure swathed in a white cloak and a well-wound turban that was so big it covered his ears. He blinked, for he hadn’t noticed it standing there before. “Ah,” said the cutler, maintaining his smile. “Indeed. And where did Her Majesty come upon such an ugly—that is, adorable lad?”
“South,” said Leah. “May he choose?”
“Why, certainly,” said the cutler. He gestured at a set of small, blunt knives in copper and brass. “Here are some lovely pieces… aargh!”
He stared as the “lad” hefted a guardsman’s saber with an eight-inch blade gleaming dull yellow. “This!” said the foundling in a high, piping voice. “This one! This one!”
The cutler stuttered. “Surely the Queen would prefer her pet, ah, her guest have a much more appropriate—”
“Surely we would think so,” agreed Leah with a knowing sigh, “but since the King has cloistered himself with the great plans for the Stairway, my lady must have her amusements. How much?”
The cutler kept his eye on the short sunbaked imp who was trying to juggle the knife. “Three bushels of barley at the granary,” he managed to say.
Leah raised her eyebrows past her sheer veil. “Really? Three?”
“The bronze is very high quality,” said the cutler, clutching his throat as the high-quality bronze dagger spun in the sun to the endangerment of passersby before it was caught.
“Razàr,” Leah scolded. “You’ll hurt yourself.” She smiled apologetically at the cutler. “He’s a bit stupid.”
“Two,” said the cutler. “Two bushels, for the honor of Her Majesty,” he said.
“Done,” said Leah. She took out a piece of paper and a coal-stick and inscribed it with two dots, a grain character, and Iset’s name. “Thank you very much!”
“Thank you, O vision of loveliness,” said the cutler, very pale as it appeared the little desert rat was dismembering an invisible opponent. He wondered what sort of amusements the Royal Family was enjoying these days…
Hurrying down the marketplace Leah and Pippin ducked into an alley and removed their masks and veils, bending over in laughter. Pippin was laughing so hard he dropped to both knees and rolled against the wall.
“Pippin!” Leah said, crawling up to his face and pointing at his nose, smothering her glee and failing. “You should not draw attention to yourself!”
Pippin stifled his giggles but couldn’t stop smiling, his cheeks crinkled in hilarity. “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t help it! I wanted to see the look on his face!”
“Rubbish. You took offense when he called you ugly.”
“I most certainly did not. I took pity on a man who obviously has had his eyes weakened by the sun. I happen to be quite a handsome specimen, if a bit on the thin side.”
“I’m sure women throw themselves at you back in your home country.”
“Ah. Yes. They do.”
Leah threw back her head and laughed. The edge of her veil fell back a little, and the sun was caught in her raven tresses.
“Ah, Pippin!” she said, shoving him playfully. “You little fool. I cannot believe I let you talk me into letting you come with me.”
Pippin blinked away the vision of Leah in the sunlight and responded brightly, “I was wasting away in there. Besides, these clothes hide my ears and feet nicely.” He had received a new outfit from Iset, including Sakharan wear, a long, light tunic in Erite style, and new breeches and a vest that could be worn like a sleeveless shirt, both of which he was now wearing. He had also gotten his elven-cloak back, cleaned and like new. The turban was not part of the gifts, but was a disguise he had adopted for this excursion.
“It’s good you’ve hid your hair,” Leah said now, handing him a root-cake. “Red is not the most fortunate color in the Valley.”
Pippin ate the cake and received another. “My hair isn’t red. It’s chestnut.”
“Sure you have chestnut trees around here.”
“Pippin, there are no trees here, only palms. Your hair is red enough for me. Seth’s hair is red.”
“Oh, is it?” asked Pippin, munching happily.
“He has the head of a wild ass and the tusks of a wild boar.”
“So he’s an ass and a bore?”
“And a riverhorse.”
“He’s a boring horse’s ass?”
Leah’s eyes sparkled like gems, and her teeth were a string of pearls beneath her face covering. “Pippin,” she scolded fondly.
“Leah,” Pippin responded perkily. He brushed the crumbs off his new clothes and cocked his head at her. “Or is it Almas?”
Leah, about to hand him a fig for dessert, paused, fruit in hand, scowling slightly. “Almas is a slave name.”
“Oh, I don’t know … it sounds rather nice to me. What does it mean?”
Before Leah could answer their attention was diverted by a beautiful song coming from somewhere in the marketplace. The singer was a man, but with a voice like a tempered clarion, or a strummed harp, and Pippin and Leah both gathered up their things, obscured their faces, and went to seek the source of the music.
To Pippin the song was entrancing for more than its beauty. He thought he knew its melody, and he could almost comprehend its strange words, in a tongue that was foreign, but familiar, and fairer than any he had ever heard. He pushed between the onlookers like a child, until he emerged from the throng to find the singer seated upon a small bench, strumming a harp.
The singer wore a brown pilgrim’s cloak with a heavy hood that barely revealed his face. His hands were graceful and his fingers long and precise as they picked notes from the harp. The singer was smiling as he sang, and glancing from time to time at his audience, drawing them into his sad and sweet elegy. But when Pippin appeared at the forefront of the audience, the singer looked directly at him. Pippin found himself bathed in gray eyes of immense depth. The look lingered for only a moment longer than any of the others, then passed on, leaving Pippin needing a moment to clear his head.
That was when he felt it: a presence, a thought, in his mind. Another mind was probing him. It was probing them all, actually, he could sense, and Pippin followed the thread of its power like an ant investigating a thicket of vines. For an instant Pippin perceived its desire: the jewel
; and then it realized he was aware of its presence, and sought for him in return. Alarmed, Pippin’s thought retreated, and then, with the strength noted long ago by Faramir, cast the stranger out.
The singer paused suddenly, and the crowd around him groaned aloud as the spell of the song was broken. The singer smiled apologetically, and made to resume, when suddenly a platoon of soldiers were heard coming down the avenue.
The audience broke up into chaos, men, women and children scurrying out of the way of the soldiers, wearing not only blue armor but also the blue paint of the Temple Guard. Pippin looked up at the soldiers as he held his place through the scattering people. He looked for the singer, but he was gone; only his stool remained, knocked over in the dirt. Pippin turned to look for Leah, but he could not see her either.
The soldiers were coming. Pippin crouched down and pocketed some pebbles and rocks from the sandy dirt, and then stole swiftly away, finding a hiding place among some tall earthen jars.
The soldiers stopped. One of them, the officer, wore a bronze circlet over his helmet. “Search for him!” he ordered, and the soldiers dispersed.
They were looking for the singer, Pippin thought. He began to turn away and head back through the city to the barge way and the Queen’s House on the east bank.
Then he heard the wail. Hurrying down the end of the little alley, he peeked around the corner, and saw a young girl and a very little boy with a pair of the soldiers. They had been with him listening at the front of the audience. One of the soldiers had taken the girls arm and was twisting it hard.
“Where did he go?” the soldier demanded.
The girl was weeping. “I don’t know!” she sobbed. The little boy was wailing, and the other soldier advanced on it, arm ready to strike.
“Be quiet, you!”
From her hiding place appeared Leah, her chin jut defiantly.
“Leave them alone!” she said.
Pippin blinked. What was she doing? Pippin’s hand went to his new-bought dagger.
The soldier holding the girl let go and threw her aside. The girl took the boy and fled. Leah stood forth, her hands as fists at her side. The two soldiers glanced at her, then smiled to each other and approached.
Leah kicked loose a post from a nearby booth and took it in both hands as a weapon.
The soldiers grew annoyed, and then angry. They drew their curved swords.
Pippin let go of his knife and dug in his pocket for the pebbles. He slipped them into his right hand and peeked out again.
The soldiers charged. Leah swung her makeshift staff. But both soldiers cried out before they reached her, clutching their empty sword hands, where red welts had already risen from the sting of hard-thrown stones.
Leah seemed almost bewildered when Pippin, dashing past, took her hand.
“Come on!” he cried.
The soldiers chased them through the marketplace. Every time they tried to hide, they lost their pursuers; as soon as they emerged, blue soldiers were once again at their heels. Pippin ran ahead, darting around heavy-wheeled carts, recalcitrant donkeys, and merchants and vendors and passersby. Right behind him, Leah created difficulties for the soldiers, knocking down stools, turning over tables, creating havoc. “Over here!” Pippin called, already halfway up a ladder. Leah nodded and then overturned a table full of fresh dates. The soldiers flew into the trap and fell all over each other as Pippin helped Leah to the roof.
They peered over the edge at their handiwork. Pippin grinned. “I do like how you do things!” he told her.
But Leah was looking down the other road. “Trouble,” she said, and grabbed Pippin by the collar and ran across the roof. “Jump!” she said.
Pippin cried, “Where?” but it was too late.
They landed on a sheaf of hay and tumbled to the ground amid the meat market. Getting to their feet they found themselves in a small surround with only two exits, and both quickly filled with soldiers.
“Hide!” said Leah.
“I won’t leave you!”
“You must! I will be all right.”
“I can explain myself!” she hissed. “Can you?”
Pippin set his chin, and then vanished.
He found a hiding-place and watched as Leah raised her arms in surrender. “I serve queen Iset,” she said as the officer approached, but the officer seemed to recognize her.
,” said the officer. “So it is Her Majesty who bought you, Erite.”
“Khartamun,” Leah replied coolly, seeing the officer who had captured her in the first place. “We must be fated to meet, having met so often.”
She flinched as Khartamun put the inner curve of his sword against her neck. “I should kill you now, just for the enjoyment of it,” he said.
“Do so,” Leah replied, “and you will owe the Queen the price of one of her chamber maids.”
Khartamun was a violent man, and he had no love for Iset, but even he did not wish to so openly flout the Queen’s name. “I do not trust you, girl,” he said, “but I must honor a greater power.”
“How wise of you,” Leah said.
Khartamun glared at her. “As must you!”
She gasped as her hands were bound and her veil used to gag her.
“As must the Queen,” Khartamun added. “All will bow before Seth!” He raised his arm in the direction of the Temple of Seth. “Take her to Seti!”
Pippin followed them at a discreet distance. He trusted in his hobbit ability to be so inconspicuous that no one would notice him, and, for the most part, he succeeded. He followed the party across the river hiding inside a large basket on a public barge, and crept along the corners, alleys, and occasionally roofs until he got to the Temple of Seth.
The Temple was one dedicated to all the gods of Sakhara, but during Iset’s father’s reign he had decreed all the other idols smashed and in its place be lit the great Fire of Er. When Zosir deposed him and restored the gods, the Temple was rededicated to Seth and became the residence and center of power for his priests. It stood upon a shelf of rock in the western cliff, built of mud brick like a long slab, with a row of wooden pillars extending from its entrance to a high altar before it where Seti conducted addresses and, lately, sacrifice of blood as well as water. A low wall bound the entire compound.
Pippin covered his face with the hood of his cloak and crept along the edge of wall where it was shadowed by the afternoon sun. He watched Khartamun march Leah up to the temple doors and through the threshold into the darkness within. Pippin, who had never considered going back to the safety of the Queen’s House and reporting to Iset, was about to attempt to breach the Temple when he heard Mery’s voice over the wall.
He slowly stood. Mery was walking with some of his officers in the grounds before the King’s House, next to the Temple.
“Hey there!” Pippin called out loudly, and dropped to the ground. He counted to five, and then peeked over the edge of the wall again, and waved.
Soon Mery was there, pretending to stand by the wall. “What are you doing here?” Mery hissed.
“Leah’s been captured by the Temple Guard,” Pippin replied.
“It’s a long story I’ll be happy to tell you some other time. I’m going in there to rescue her.”
Mery was disturbed. “You are still mad,” he whispered. “Seti himself will be in there, and a full company of Guards!”
“What do you suggest I do, leave her?” Pippin rejoined. “And what about you and the Queen. Do you want let her stay in there while Alatar finds out all your plans and schemes? We were planning to escape soon anyway.”
“At the new moon,” Mery reminded him. “Four days from now.”
“We can’t wait four days!” Pippin whispered, still managing not to be seen. “Mery, you’ve got to get everything ready the way you planned. For Leah and all.”
Mery nodded. “Very well,” he said. “We will proceed as planned.” Now he did look down. “You did not bring your sword today?”
Pippin grimaced. “No. It’s too big on me to hide. I’ve got this,” and he produced the new dagger. “That and a few pebbles I can throw. It will have to do. All right? I’m going.” And with that he scrambled along the wall in the shadow towards the Temple itself.
Mery shook his head. The hobbit was brave, but reckless and impetuous. He walked away and proceeded to the barracks and armories of the army’s fort to the south, proceeding according to plan.
Pippin tried hard not to stare at the images of the gods of Sakhara. He was surrounded by new-made images of jackals and ibis and herons and lions and cats and baboons and heavens knew what else, all crowned, most with the bodies of men or women, seated on thrones, all carved out of desert stone floated from the southern highlands on mighty barges. They frightened him. He couldn’t help but feel there was something ominous about the stone faces, half-animal, colorless and unpainted.
One idol remained defaced, but not so that he couldn’t make out what it had been: a falcon, crowned with the sun, with the Dawnstar in its talons.
Pippin made his way from the long hall of the gods into a second chamber surrounded with painted wooden pillars. At the end of the chamber was an altar with a low basin around its base. There sat the statue of Seth. It was twice as tall as the idols in the outer hall, carved of black rock, seated upon a black throne, holding a mace or hammer in one hand and in a lance in the other. The head was of a wild ass, its lips drawn back, its jaws hung wide, its teeth bared, with a mane draped in red fabric, and eyes painted with red stain. A tall figure stood before the altar, offering a water sacrifice, clad in blue. Alatar.
Tall he was, taller than Saruman had been, and he wore a short, thick cape of blue fabric, trimmed with bronze studs along its edge. Embroidered upon it was the symbol of the desert storm. His arms were bare from the hem of his short sleeves to the engraved bronze vambraces around his forearms. He was deeply tanned. His head was shaved, and as brown as his face, and his beard was cropped close to his square jaw, of iron grey. As he turned from the profile he showed a mighty face, lined and weathered, and cold blue eyes. He wore a breastplate of Sakharan make, the disk of the Sun, the crescent of the Moon, and the star in the middle, but instead of the falcon the star was caught in the hands of Seth. A long kilt of blue linen fell to his feet, where he wore sandals lined with gold thread. His staff was a single length of bronze that came to a point like a double-headed spear. It looked more like a weapon than a symbol of office.
The wizard Alatar turned from the idol of Seth and gazed across the empty chamber. For a moment, his face showed weariness. Then the tiredness passed, and it became grim and commanding once again.
“Captain,” summoned the wizard.
Khartamun appeared from a rear passage behind the statue wall. Pippin noted it and made his way there. As he tiptoed through the dimness, he listened to what passed between the wizard and the captain of the Temple Guard.
“What has she said?” Alatar was asking.
“Nothing, yet, eminence,” Khartamun replied. “They are a stubborn people. She more than most.”
“All men break,” said Alatar. “It is only a matter of time. And the minstrel in the marketplace?”
Pippin noticed Khartamun hesitate. So did Alatar.
“Well?” snapped the wizard.
“Nothing yet, eminence.”
“Nothing,” repeated Alatar with some heat. He strode forth, the blunt end of his staff tapping the sandy floor. “Captain, find him and ensure he is brought to me. He wants the Star. Find him—alive if you can; but otherwise if necessary.”
“Yes, your eminence.”
Alatar paused for a moment, holding his staff as if in thought. Khartamun remained, unsure if he was dismissed.
“Go!” commanded the wizard, and Khartamun quickly bowed and left.
Pippin allowed himself to let out a breath, and then made his way towards the doorway Khartamun had used.
He had almost reached it when he froze and then hid again, as Alatar said, “Zosir. Come to me.”
The Pharu! Pippin stopped and peered from behind a pillar, eager to see Iset’s husband for the first time. But his excitement speedily turned to horror.
The figure that emerged from the shadows was almost deathly emaciated. The bones of its back stuck out almost like spines. Its chest was hollow, and it staggered under the weight of the crown on its head. It wore the kilt with a gilded belt and shoulder-armor of fine make, but much of its flesh was wrapped in wound strips of pale fabric. Pippin had no idea how it managed to approach Alatar without falling over. He had no idea how it could still live.
But live it did, and though it had no voice, for its mouth lolled almost uselessly from its skull-like face, it clearly knew Alatar, and attempted to speak. Only air, like the rustling of a dry cavern, came out.
“Patience, my king,” said Alatar. “All in good time.” He smiled, and placed a large, long-fingered hand upon the Pharu’s skeletal shoulder. “Soon the Stairway shall be ready, and you, my good friend, shall see the fruit of your hardship.
“The gray rain-curtain of this world will vanish into smoke, and all shall turn to broken glass; and then you will see it: white shores, and beyond, a far green country that has been kept from me for far too long.”
Zosir, if Zosir it still was, slowly shook his head.
“I regret you feel that way,” Alatar said. “You, I fear, will not see it. Now let us continue.”
He raised his staff, and Zosir, silently, screamed.
Pippin fled, sickened to his bones.
The doorway led to a dark hall lit by guttering torches. The footprints on the sandy floor told Pippin where to go. Here there were far fewer places to hide, so he moved as swiftly and as silently as he could. A few soldiers passed him by, but none noticed him, and he thanked his stars once more for hobbit stealth.
The hallway diverged into two corridors after some hundred feet. Pippin now guessed they were within a cavern excavated out of the cliff wall. Many footprints led down the right-hand path, and Pippin heard the faint murmur of conversation. Only two pairs of recent footprints went to the left, and there was only silence. Pippin chose left.
He saw a guard standing before a heavy wooden door, barred by a brass-banded beam. Guessing this was where Leah was being kept, Pippin withdrew two pebbles, each the size of a Big Person’s thumb, from his pocket, stepped around the corner, and threw.
The guard uttered a hoarse grunt as the first pebble struck his throat, and then fell as the second one struck his brow. Pippin took out his knife and ran over to the guard, but the man was already unconscious.
The beam was heavy. He bent by the crack of the doorjamb and called, as loud as he dared, “Leah?”
He heard a clear reply. “Pippin!”
That settled it. Throwing back his cloak and tossing aside the turban, he grasped the beam and pushed up with all his might. Finally the heavy block of wood budged. Pippin strained and lifted one end up and managed to slide the whole bar to the ground.
He yanked the door open with his weight. Leah appeared, disheveled.
“Are you all right?”
Leah nodded. “How did you find me?”
“I’ll tell you later.” Pippin stepped over the guard. He put a finger to his lips. “He’s just asleep.”
Leah knelt over the guard and relieved him of his sword. “Help me,” she said, and they took the guard’s belt and tied his feet with it. Pippin took his turban, unwound it, and used it to gag the guard as well.
Leah rearranged her veil carefully. Pippin noticed but decided it wasn’t the time to ask.
Armed with sword and dagger they slipped back down the long corridor that led to the temple chamber.
“Alatar’s there,” Pippin said.
Leah nodded. “I know.”
Her tone alarmed Pippin. “Did he—?”
She shook her head dismissively. “He has not questioned nor harmed me. Perhaps he was waiting for an appropriate time.”
“I’ll kill anyone who hurts you,” Pippin blurted.
Leah glanced at him in surprise. Then she smiled and took his hand as they ran.
The chamber was darker now than before. The lights were extinguished, and only the flame of the single lamp behind the statue of Seth lit the sanctum. Pippin almost crushed Leah’s hand as they made their way by stealth through the pillars. He guessed Zosir lurked in the darkness, and he was terrified of seeing the apparition again.
Suddenly shouts came from the hallway they had just left. Leah and Pippin shared a glance and started to hurry. Pippin looked over his shoulder. Their escape had been discovered. The shapes and shadows of armed men were coming from the depths of the temple.
Then Pippin’s eyes widened, and his heart skipped a beat. Was it only the light playing tricks on him? Or had the image of Seth … had the idol moved? The vicious head, teeth bared, tongue lolling, red eyes gleaming, seemed to have shifted. It was almost as if Seth were looking right at him.
Fear overcame Pippin and he bolted after Leah, stumbling through the dimness of the temple chambers. He followed her out of the inner sanctuary into the hall of the gods, hearing now the pounding of footsteps behind, and footsteps ahead, with the clatter of weaponry. Leah waited at the threshold. “Come!” she hurried him, and reached out her hand.
He took it.
But as if they had been caught by hooks they were pulled back from the exit. A skeletal hand clapped over Leah’s mouth, and Pippin was smothered against a bony arm that held them both tightly. Zosir!
Soldiers ran across the doorway of the temple, right where they had been heading. If they had emerged at that moment, they would have been discovered.
“Careful.” The word was voiceless, like dry leaves, but it came from the withered king.
The hand loosened from Leah’s face. The grip around Pippin weakened. They turned around and beheld what was left of the Pharu of the Valley.
Zosir’s eyes were sunken in their sockets, but in the dim light Pippin could see they were brown and pained, and yet strong in their pain. He heard the words clearly now, as if in his mind.
Whatever you will do, do it quickly
Pippin nodded. Now taking Leah’s hand again, he paused at the threshold, and gazed out carefully. Night had fallen, and a sickly Moon cast little light beneath the stars. The altar round was clear, but soldiers were running to and fro along the columns. They would have to make a run for it.
And then—how? Cross the river, the slave quarter, past the Stairway, and only then into the desert? Or south, down the old city and the marketplace, into the dry riverbed that led also into the sea of sand?
Mery. He would have to trust in Mery. Pippin’s mouth was sour at that proposition, but trust it would have to be, even if he refused to ever forgive the man.
He looked up at Leah. “I told Mery to make ready for our escape,” he informed her.
Leah understood. She took in the barge dock and the distance between. “Then we will have to run.”
Pippin nodded. He glanced back at Zosir, but he had vanished back into the darkness.
He felt a squeeze on his hand. He looked up at Leah. She nodded at him. He nodded back. Hand in hand, sword and dagger drawn, they ran out into the night.
Not since the goblins came after them in the Mines of Moria had Pippin known that kind of flight through danger. The temple guards were sparse but grew quickly in numbers, and spears flew across their path. They wove and dodged the weapons. Once Leah had to strike one away with the stolen sword. Pippin ducked another one that flew over his head and struck the dirt with a shiver.
He threw stones as they ran, relishing the cries of pain as they found their mark as only a hobbit-thrown pebble could do. They paused for a moment at the high altar, to catch their breath, and then Pippin made to bolt for the barge dock.
Arrows whistled around him and he hit the dirt and scrambled back to Leah and the cover of the altar stones. “Where is he?” he complained to Leah, and scrambled through the dirt for more pebbles.
From the temple behind them they saw guards rush out, and then, to their dismay, Alatar himself strode forth. The wizard towered head and shoulders above the Sakharim, and his spear-staff seemed to glow with sulphurous light as he lifted it as a scepter of command.
“Kill them!” shouted the wizard.
Then in the stillness there came a breeze from the south, and in that wind, Pippin heard a horse’s silvery neigh.
He looked toward the south. Like a shadow dusted in sterling, black coat shimmering with starlight, came the horse Mery had promised, the young mare Leah had come to Sakhara to retrieve, the horse her uncle had traded for in Umbar.
” cried Pippin, overjoyed.
Tempest it was, and she whinnied and kicked her forelegs, and Pippin watched as she came out of the south from the direction of the Queen’s stables, saddled and bridled but riding free on her own. Tempest leapt the wall of the Temple courtyard, broke through the lines of guards, and scattered them with her hooves and the swiftness of her gallop.
Pippin knew what to do. “Come on!” he cried, and took Leah’s hand.
“What are we doing?”
“Climb up!” Pippin said with a glint in his eye, and he scrambled up onto the altar, Leah close behind.
Leah saw the horse now. “My horse!” she cried, elated.
Pippin cocked an eye at her. “My
horse,” he corrected.
“Pippin!” Leah protested.
Pippin pulled her down from the path of an arrow. “We’ll fight later,” he suggested. He eyed Tempest’s approach. “Now!”
Hand-in-hand, they jumped.
Tempest complained as they landed on her back.
“Sorry, girl!” Pippin said, rubbing his hand along her neck. Tempest nickered in greeting, making Pippin smile briefly. “It’s good to see you again, too,” he said.
He took the reins. “Leah,” he started to say.
“I have the stirrups,” Leah interrupted, her feet already in the loops.
Pippin grinned. “Right, then,” he said. “Let’s fly!”
Tempest did not need to be told. She wheeled around the courtyard, daring and daunting every soldier, sword, arrow, and spear. She even wheeled past the temple, kicking up a cloud of dirt in the very face of their adversary.
Pippin looked over his shoulder at the wizard. Alatar saw him and glared at him. The hobbit and the wizard stared at each other for the eternity of a moment, and then Pippin pulled on Tempest’s reins and urged her forward.
By the river, the company of Temple Guard had massed in their path, almost sixty soldiers.
Leah nudged Pippin. “What?” he asked. He felt her reach around his waist, and he swallowed, growing flustered.
She buckled his swordbelt around him. Oh, that
, thought Pippin embarrassedly. He switched the reins to his left hand and drew Trollsbane. He heard the slither of steel behind him, and knew Mery had stowed Leah’s sword as well.
So they hurtled straight into the guards in their path.
The soldiers’ ranks broke like leaves piled before the wind. Pippin swung Trollsbane and swatted away every grasp and spear and sword; cries from his left told him Leah had less compunction with her own weapon. Tempest’s hooves cut the dirt in their path as they saw the river and the barge being loosed.
Leah spotted boats. “Pippin!”
Pippin saw them too. Rowboats would outpace any barge.
He looked ahead. There were several craft in the process of crossing the river; two long ones near both banks, and many boats and barges plying the current. Almost enough to get to the other side…
He dug his heels into Tempest’s flanks.
“Pippin!” cried Leah as the pier’s edge neared. “What are you doing—?
They landed on the deck of the barge, but Pippin didn’t instruct Tempest to stop. The mare galloped down the length of the barge, causing people to cry out and jump overboard, and then, at its end, they leapt again.
They landed on a ferry going upstream. They crossed the deck and leapt again, onto a raft that nearly foundered, and quickly jumped again onto cargo barge headed downstream, and on and on until they found no other craft available, and behind them a trail of irate boaters and rivermen.
“Pippin …” Leah warned, growing pale.
“She can swim,” Pippin answered.
“But I cannot!”
“Then hold on!”
Leah wrapped her arms around him and they jumped into the river.
They broke the surface, Leah clutching Pippin for dear life. Tempest didn’t seem to mind, and swam for the far shore, making it after a few moments in which Leah seemed convinced she was about to go to her fathers. Sopping wet they came upon the far bank by the slave quarters, where the few guards stared at them dumbfounded.
Pippin felt Leah trembling. He looked up over his shoulder, and kissed on the cheek. “You didn’t have to worry,” he told her.
Leah stared at him for a moment, and then smote him on the back of his head.
“Ow!” said Pippin.
They sped through the slave quarter, but their pursuers were far behind. Pippin noted the huts and shacks where Poclis’ people, and others, were kept, and he almost made Tempest run by them to strike the locks free with his sword. But Leah guessed his mind.
“They will only be harmed for helping us,” she told him, and Pippin knew she was right.
They reached now the east cliff and galloped up the steep rocky path that led up to the Stairway and the desert. Tempest’s hooves found purchase as if she were descended from hill-ponies, and soon they broke out over the lip of the wall of stone and found the Stairway before them.
Pippin stared at the steep-sided structure partially covered in scaffolds. He wondered what secrets lurked inside it. Alatar’s words haunted him. A far green country … Aman. But how could he harm the Blessed Realm? What was his plan? How in heaven’s name could he be stopped? What could anyone do about it?
Tempest suddenly whinnied in fear. Leah grasped Pippin’s shoulder, and Pippin looked back, towards the royal quarter.
From above the Temple of Seth grew a cloud that blotted out the stars. Lightning crossed the space between it and the Temple, lightning going upward, from the ground to the cloud. Lightning, Pippin guessed, from the staff of Alatar. He could hear the wizard’s voice in the air.
“The storm of Seth,” Leah said. The cloud grew, and advanced towards them. It marched across the river and up the cliffside, whipping grains of sand even at a distance, stinging them.
Pippin shared a glance with Leah, and then touched Tempest’s mane. She would have to outrun the desert storm.
Before them stretched the Great Desert, silver and white beneath the stars.
Pippin gave a cry, and Leah kicked the stirrups, and Tempest broke into a gallop faster than any either rider had known from her before. The valley and the Stairway and the light of the Silmaril dwindled at astonishing speed as they fled from the coming storm. For Pippin it seemed his steed was galloping only a shade less fleetly than the memory of Shadowfax.
The storm chased their heels, glowering with lightning, buzzing with the noise of countless grains of sand, caught up in its winds, grinding against each other, a million tiny teeth in the jaws of the wind. No matter how fast Tempest galloped, the storm continued to make up ground.
“It is upon us!” Leah cried, and flung Pippin’s hood over his face. Pippin looked ahead of them, into the desert, and the image, brief and hanging in the air, of a sheer-faced mountain like a throne, covered in bright cloud. Then Tempest uttered a great neighing call, and the storm swept over them.
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.