22. Point of No Return
The tension and silence broke at nightfall, while the light of Anor still lingered in the West before she left the world. Those who had kept watch, and whose eyes were sharp, later swore that just before the riots began, they had seen the lonely figure of the King raise his head where he still hung at the Keel, high above the City. A sign to those still Faithful.
Others claimed the riots did not begin until after the soldiers dragged the King away.
But all accounts agree that the unrest began at dusk. Fights broke out at the lower Circles of the City, targeting the guardhouses and the watch on the walls. The Faithful attacked the Great Gate and the guardhouse there, but the number of soldiers was too great for the rebels to overpower. Other guardhouses had fewer guards, and at the third Circle, the Faithful overran one of the prisons and took it. The guards fell fighting, or were locked into their own cells. With the weapons taken from the unlucky soldiers, the Faithful were able to hold that prison for more than a day and their valour did much to increase the chaos that followed.
When it became clear that the rebellion could not be contained by the soldiers within each Circle, the gates between the Circles were opened to allow reinforcements to move freely where they were needed. Soon the streets rang with the sound of running feet and the lower Circles were on fire. Orders from the Citadel came swiftly: the rebellion should be quenched with deadly force, but the leaders taken alive. The number of soldiers was doubled on the prisons at the fourth and sixth Circles, though the riots did not reach beyond the fourth gate until the night paled towards dawn. The captured rebels were brought there; the fights never reached the sixth Circle, and the prison on the fourth held against all attacks.
Outside the City, the unrest spread too, and there was fighting along the south wall. Many joined the fight once it started, and the rebels quickly outnumbered the soldiers. Also, the orc-army was slow to react, and the people overran the guards and attacked the walls and Gates themselves. Nearly they succeeded in taking the Gate, but for all their fervour, they could not break it. Most of the guards trapped outside were slain – some ripped apart by the angry mob – by the time the orcs arrived.
Éomer could not have guessed how their distraction would spread; it grew as with a life of its own, fired by the fury of a people driven beyond bearing.
But when Éomer left the house, that fire had not yet grown beyond the plans of the Faithful. Shortly after the first sounds of unrest they gathered in the small courtyard, listening for sounds of movement in the streets. It was quiet still. The riots were to be kept at the first and second Circles, and never reach beyond the third level; that was their plan. Little could they foresee how the riots would develop during the night.
"We should spread out," Húrin said. "Hide in what shadows and doorways there are."
"You know about these things." Éomer's voice was dry. Húrin did not answer.
Éomer turned to the group. "I want Bergil in point," he ordered. "With Aduiar and Borondir. Húrin and Bragloth take the rear, Ingold with me. If the gate is open and unguarded, go through. We will meet on the other side; I want us to gather once on each level to know our progress."
"And if any should fall behind?" Bragloth stood in the shadows, a dark shape hardly seen. He had spoken little since the day before.
"You and Húrin will have to pick us up," Éomer answered.
Éomer shook his head. "Do not fall behind. We cannot turn back, and I am loath to leave any in the City."
"We will see to it," Húrin said. "But should any find himself unable to rejoin the group, then draw the soldiers away. Lead them down the Circles and join the Faithful, if possible. Or hide and wait. Once the enemy finds the King gone, they will give pursuit; the City will for a time be left in disarray, and with few soldiers. Escape might be possible then."
"We cannot know," Éomer replied. "Do not let it happen."
None replied to his last command. Ten years had taught them better. With no more words they slipped off, small groups moving from shadow to shadow while the dusk darkened to night.
The first group of soldiers crossed their path before they had reached the first gate. Éomer could not see the others, but he heard the soldiers and dragged Ingold into the shelter of a dark alley. The company counted twenty men, all Haradrim. They ran four abreast – their feet beating in time as if they were one – but with no great haste; the fights were still few, easily contained. Or so the enemy thought.
Éomer waited until the sound had died down, then tapped Ingold's arm, and they moved on.
No guards stood before the first gate, but four men patrolled the walls. Éomer could see the movement when they turned, and the glimmer of reflected starlight on their armour. Underneath the wall, three men crouched in the shadows. The guards turned and moved away from the gate, and for a moment, their backs were turned.
The command was more breath than voice, but Ingold followed. As Éomer ran for the cover of the shadowed wall, the other three slipped past the gate.
Good. The first group would be able to move on, should the rest fail.
Up on the wall, the guards turned. Éomer pressed against the stone. It was hard and cold against his back. Cold seeped through the fabric of his sleeve. He did not move. He listened to the footsteps above, drawing closer, stopping, moving on. He had to trust his ears; he could not risk to be seen.
Now! Now was the time.
He tapped Ingold's shoulder. Quick as shadows flee before the flame, they moved. Darting past the gate, and further on, seeking shades and shelter, merging with the darkest of the shadows.
No sound. The guards continued with their watch, walking back and forth upon the walls around the gate. Éomer could see them now. Watched them stride, meet, stop, and turn, and start their rounds over.
Borondir was there.
"Further ahead is an abandoned house," he said. "We can gather in the garden there. Bergil will wait outside; you cannot miss it. Go, and I will bring the others."
Dark, empty windows and a crumbled wall. More like the entrance to the Paths of the Dead than a place that had once been a home, the house hovered at the end of the small street. It was built close to the wall separating them from the sixth circle. Éomer looked up. The wall was too high. Even if they climbed the roof, they would not reach the top. They would have to risk the next gate.
It was Bergil this time, beckoning them from the opening of the crumbled wall.
Opening? Éomer though. He struggled up the wall; crumbled though it was, the climb was not easy. This wall never had an opening; the Men of Stoningland are better masons than to make an opening this difficult to pass. Perhaps it had been damaged in the War, and never rebuilt.
The garden inside had withered and died years before. A tree stood by the crumbled wall, the only thing still alive. Its canopy spread across the open space, stretching from the living rock, across the garden, over the top of the wall, and into the street from whence they came. Too early for leaves, the branches still shielded them from any eyes above.
Aduiar waited at the trunk.
No words were spoken while they waited for Húrin and Bragloth. Éomer used the time to watch for guards on the wall above. He could neither see nor hear any; mayhap none were posted there. The gate was on the other side of the spur; short of climbing the wall, none could enter the sixth level on this side of the tunnel. With the wall too high to climb, why waste men to guard?
Heavy breathing and the sound of shifting rock heralded the arrival of Borondir. Bragloth followed him, and Húrin climbed into the garden as the last. All, even Bergil, gathered by the trunk of the tree.
"None," Húrin answered. "Apart from the one patrol, we have met no other soldiers – yet – and the guards at the gate seemed more intent on watching the lower circles. Either they are too confident, or the fights do not go well for us."
"That should change," Aduiar said. "It is early still."
Húrin nodded. "We should wait until the riots spread; I do not wish to be halfway through the tunnel when we meet the next patrol. In the streets we can hide, but the tunnels offer no hiding places."
Éomer agreed. "Take Bergil," he told Húrin, "and keep an eye out. This place is safe for now, but we need to know when it is time to move. We will wait for you here."
"As you wish."
"I should go with them," Bragloth said. "Bergil is still young."
Éomer stopped him. "Two are enough," he said. "And Bergil knows these streets."
"As do I," Bragloth muttered, but he obeyed.
Húrin and Bergil left. In the sky above, the stars' light was too weak to light the streets. The tall buildings and the walls loomed in the darkness. It was difficult to see. Or be seen.
Empty. The streets and alleys on the fifth level were empty, as if its people hid in their homes or had joined whatever feast the Master of Isengard had seen fit to have in celebration. Húrin saw no reason to celebrate, save the empty streets. He had thought it would be more difficult to move undetected through the City.
You have not reached the Chieftain yet, he chided himself. Do not sell the hide until the bear is shot.
A bow would have helped with the shooting. And they had none.
"The road is clear."
Bergil's voice cut into his thoughts. Húrin nodded. He threw a glance up at the walls. Nothing. The soldier patrolling the eastern wall was gone.
A whispered "stay" and Húrin hurried across the Road. He kept his head down, and hoped that none would see him. The problem, he thought, with sneaking through a city at night: it looked suspicious. It is easier to blend into a crowd. Perhaps even the empty streets were no cause for celebration.
Luck held for him, and he gained the cover of another alley undetected.
Fastred did not sleep well.
The soft sound of horses moving in their stalls surrounded him. Usually the fresh smell of hay and the happy silence of horses chewing would ease him. Usually he would find it soothing and it would have helped him sleep.
Not so now.
Now the collar – a collar! As if he were a dog! – the collar rubbed against his neck and stopped him from lying down. Not that he would have if he could, but it still irked him. Pointless, he would have thought, but the gleam in the corporal's eye had told him why. And warned him not to protest. The collar was humiliating and irksome; the corporal would be happy to make it humiliating and painful.
Aduiar's mare shifted and moved in the stall beside him. He looked up. Her head was a dark shadow behind the bars. She saw him move, and nickered softly.
"What is it, pretty one?"
Fastred made to rise, but slumped down again. The chain was too short to stand as well.
"I am sorry," he told the mare. "Whatever it is you want, it will have to wait. I cannot reach to free myself."
She snorted, and tried to stick her head between the bars. There was no room; she could only fit part of her muzzle between them. Despite his annoyance, Fastred smiled.
"They would not risk giving you room to injure each other, pretty one. It would lose them money." And in some cases their lives.
He let his head drop back to rest against the wall and closed his eyes. Since he could do nothing but wait, he should try to sleep. But sleep was slow in coming. The walls of the stall were cold against his back, and the floor, despite the straw, was hard. Too hard. It made his legs go numb, and moving them did not help. He needed to stand and get the blood flowing again. And he could not.
It took time, but in the end he managed a light slumber. And dreamed.
And in his dream he saw familiar snow-clad fields. Saw swirling darkness and maggot-eaten men. Saw green stones and white horses, and he woke with the words of a dead man rigging in his ears.
"Help him! You are alive."
The words were hissed, urgent but low. Bádon crouched down before him.
Fastred blinked at him. He found no words to speak. For a moment he thought he saw maggots worming through his face. No. No, it was not the same man. Bádon looked no more like him, the dead man of his dreams, than he did Húrin. Or Echil.
"Are you hurt?" Bádon asked.
He shook his head.
"Are you sure? You were hard to wake, harder than you should have been, even lying in your bed."
"How did you get in?"
"Back door," Bádon answered. "Or should I have said wall? But you did not answer my question."
"Get me out of this collar, and I will be well." Fastred had mucked out the stall earlier, but horses and men have different needs, and Fastred needed softer and dryer straw. "The only hurt I have suffered is to my pride, but I cannot say that it will continue that way if I have to stay here longer."
"Be still, I am trying to …"
Fastred moved not while Bádon tried to get a look at the collar. He sighed: Ranger or no, Bádon would not see much in the dark.
"I do not have the tools to pick the lock," Bádon said at length. "Nor the skill. You need Echil, or better yet: the captain. Húrin learned the art from a master."
"I do not care whom any of them learned from," Fastred snapped. "None of them are here: you are. Get me free!"
"Shh," Bádon said. "Not too loud. Just hold on." Bádon rose. "I might be able to unhook the chain. The collar would have to wait, though."
Fastred sighed. Much as he hated the thing, being free was more important than losing the collar.
"What is going on outside?" he asked. "How late is it?"
"Later than I like," Bádon answered. "Those soldiers were slow to move. But the riots at the Gate have grown far greater than we hoped for. Lucky for us. If not for the riots, the soldiers would have stayed, or so I deem. They left not long ago, except for that corporal. He is still outside, guarding the stable door. What did you do to merit such dedicated guards?"
"I kept my seat when they did not."
He could feel Bádon's laughter through the chain.
"Only one of the Rohirrim…" Bádon did not finish the thought. He had found the bolt that held the chain. A few moments, and Fastred was free.
"Finally! Now, what is going on out there?"
Fastred tried to rise, but he was too numb. Bádon offered him a hand, and Fastred took it without a word. He climbed to his feet, and had to hold on to the wall and bars of the stall until the blood returned to his feet and they could hold him. Bádon said nothing, he just helped Fastred untangle the chain and free it from the collar. Feeling and strength returned too slowly for Fastred's liking, but by the time they had the chain free, he could stand on his own again.
"As I said; the guards left, except for that corporal. He is guarding the door. We must take him out without waking anyone. Echil is outside, keeping an eye on things. The stable-master and the boys are inside, sleeping."
"They left the horses unguarded?"
"It would seem that way," Bádon answered. "Perhaps they thought your guards were enough."
"I had not thought the stable-master would be so careless."
"It does not matter." Bádon looped the chain and handed it to Fastred. "I left Echil hiding near the house; if we can take out the guard without noise, he can bar the doors with little trouble. If luck holds, none should even wake."
"If luck holds." Fastred snatched his hand away from the bars. "Stop that!" he told the mare. She had been nuzzling at his hand, trying to get him to notice her. "We do not have time, pretty one." She snorted and scraped the floor with her hoof. Fastred tried to appease her before she made more noise.
"Shh, girl. We need quiet."
"Perhaps not," Bádon said. "We need to take out the guard, but the door is barred from the outside and it will be difficult to take him by surprise. If we can make him come in…"
Fastred shook his head. He let the mare nip at his fingers. Her muzzle was rough and strong against his skin, but it kept her somewhat calm. "I don't think he would come for a horse. He would call for one of the boys, I think, and wake the rest."
"And if you called?"
Éomer kept watch when Bergil returned. Húrin might be able to sneak up on him, but few others would be. Bergil would never try.
"We should go now, sire," Bergil said. "Two companies have passed, and at the moment it is quiet again; the Road is clear."
It was the word they had waited for. They left the garden with its withered plants. Bergil led them, and Éomer made sure they all followed. As they left, Bragloth turned at the wall. He stood a moment and looked up on the naked branches of the tree, then he shook his head and turned.
Éomer saw him turn, saw him startle at the realisation that he had been seen. If there had been enough light, he would have seen Bragloth's face. Would have seen it open and unguarded, and perhaps that would have made a difference. But it was dark, and Éomer did not see.
"Move! We have little time."
"I know," Bragloth answered. He moved past Éomer. The king heard the soft words uttered beneath his breath:
"Once I called it home."
Éomer knew not what to answer, and so he did not acknowledge the words. He followed his men. Bragloth did not turn to look back.
The fifth circle is a mixture of smaller and larger houses. The Road lies towards the wall on the eastern side, and on that side the houses are large, with their backs against the wall. Short, narrow alleys separate them at times, for some have side entrances that do not open into the Road, but can only be entered through hidden gardens or back-doors. These are the doors for the servants and deliveries.
Next to the keel, that great outcrop that separates the City, there is still an open garden with shrubs and trees and green plants, and there one can climb a narrow stair up to the eastern wall. The stairs were made long ago, when first the wall was built, so that soldiers could, in time of war, quickly man the wall.
On the western side, smaller houses lie, two rows thick. There the back-alleys often run side by side with the Road, but from time to time a larger house will block the alleyways, filling all the room between the Road and the tall wall. It was a house such as this that blocked their way.
The house, and their need to split up, made their plans for them.
Éomer waited for his turn to risk the Road. He could barely see the figure hiding in the alley on the other side of the Road; Húrin hid himself as well in the City as he did in the forest. Éomer would not have been able to make him out had he not known that he was there.
The rest of them had already split up and spread out on both sides of the Road. He looked around the corner of the house the blocked their way. It was empty, and the houses were dark.
Who is watching from within? he wondered. Or do they all hide away, fearing that the soldiers will come for them if they draw their attention? Do they simply not wish to know, because knowing will be too hard? Knowing, and not being able to act… it was easier to close eyes and ears. Put it out of mind and never think of it. Húrin had told him as much, a fortnight – was it no longer? – ago.
A movement in the shadow across the Road brought him out of his thoughts. Húrin stepped out in the lighter darkness of the Road and signalled. All was clear.
"Ingold," Éomer whispered. "Go, I will follow."
They scuttled across, into the shadows Húrin had disappeared back into.
"Two companies passed before Bergil returned for you," Húrin said. "The first came from the sixth circle, I think, but the second came from the Citadel."
"They have sent all the guards they can spare from the other circles."
It was not a question, but Húrin confirmed it nevertheless. "Yes. There was a burst of trumpets from somewhere below some time before each company passed. More time passed between the second than the first, but even the shortest time should be enough for us to get through the tunnel. If we are in place."
Éomer nodded. "There should be time then, as long as we do not hear any signal. Unless guards have been placed within the tunnel itself."
"Any guards would be on the other side; there are none on this, and to have guards within the tunnel is impractical. They would block the Road for reinforcements." A movement on the edge of their vision interrupted Húrin, and when they turned to see, Bragloth slipped into view on the other side of the Road.
"Hurry," he said. "Before the guard turns at the gate. Borondir is waiting."
They hurried. Past dark houses to the next alley where Borondir lurked in new shadows. Another wait, and Éomer moved on alone for the last stretch before the tunnel. He found shelter beneath the shrubs in the garden between the eastern wall and the Road. He heard no shouts from the wall, but he still lay unmoving for a long time, or so it seemed to him, heart beating, the cold dampness from the earth seeping into his cloak.
He had felt eyes on him, that short moment when he crossed the open space between the shadow of the house and the shadows of the garden.
Again nothing. Fastred shot a glance at Bádon, but he only shook his head. Either the corporal wanted to torment him by not answering any calls, or he no longer wanted an excuse to make his life more painful.
Fastred did not think he had misread him earlier. The first, then.
Bádon signed to him to call again. Well, third time lucky, was that not the saying?
The mare kicked the wall this time, as if she wanted to help. And it did help:
A rustle of keys, angry words muffled by the door, and it swung open.
"I would think a stable-hand would know better than to upset the horses." The corporal did not smirk, or leer, or sound anything other than annoyed to be disturbed. "And you are in enough trouble as it is."
He stepped through the door, his eyes on Fastred, and Bádon moved. Before the corporal could act, before he could see anything but a movement out of the corner of his eye, Bádon caught him with an arm across his throat. He struggled. Choked sounds slipped past his lips, but before Fastred reached them, it was over. Bádon loosed his grip and the corporal slid to the ground.
Bádon turned to see the boy standing frozen right outside the stable-door.
"Échen," Fastred repeated. He made to say more, but found that he did not know what to say. Bádon was quick, though. He was out the door and dragged the boy inside before he could run.
"Échen," Fastred said. "Why are you here?"
"You lied," Échen replied. "Why did you lie?"
"I…" Fastred looked to Bádon but the ranger offered him no help. At least the boy was brave.
"Was this why you came?" Échen asked. "To steal?"
"We are not here to steal, we are only taking our own horses. We need them. We…" Fastred did not know what to do; they were running out of time. He looked to Bádon again, but again the ranger offered little help.
"How much do you trust him?" Bádon asked. "We need to go, and soon. Echil should have taken the opportunity to lock the others up by now, but…"
They could not risk the boy raising the alarm, or letting the rest out the moment they left. Fastred did not need for him to say it. Échen had grown quiet, his eyes locked on the body of the corporal. He too, it seemed, understood.
"Leave him to me," Fastred said. "Go help Echil instead. You can bring out the tack and begin to saddle the horses."
Bádon handed – there was no other word for it, he handed Échen over to Fastred and went to help Echil secure the doors. Or horses. Or whatever Echil might need help with. And left Fastred holding Échen's arm, and the boy staring at the dead corporal. Silent. Unmoving.
Fastred loosened his grip. "Come," he said. His voice, soft and full of sorrow, tugged on the boy. Coaxed him out and away. Away from the dead man lying on the ground.
"You killed him."
Fastred did not answer. "I need your help," he said instead.
"Or you will kill me?"
"No." He steered Échen away from the body, over to the stall where he had been chained. The collar was still around his neck and the boy's eyes were drawn to it instead. "This is important," he said. "We need the horses, and we need to be far away when the soldiers find out."
"Because you are thieves," Échen said. "I thought you wanted to help. You sounded like you wanted to help."
"I do," Fastred said. "And I am. Just not…" How to explain to a boy? "Listen, have you heard of the Faithful?"
Échen nodded. "Everyone has." He shrugged. "The soldiers are always searching for them, even though the magistrates always say they don't exist. And that they are rebels and spies that want to overthrow the King. I always thought it dumb to search for someone that did not exist."
Fastred smiled. The boy was not half stupid. "You are right. We do exist, and we do not want to overthrow your king."
"Our King." Échen picked up on that.
"Your. I am not a man of Gondor, I am of the Eorlingas."
"All of you? Then why are you here?"
He did not have time for all these questions. He looked at the boy, and found himself answering even so. "Some of us. Some are from Gondor, and some from the North. We are here to help. Do you remember what they said about your king today?"
Échen nodded. "They whipped him. Until he bled." His voice was small, lost.
"Yes," Fastred said. Bleeding, crawling, rotting away. He shook his head, as if it could dislodge the images of his dreams. "They did. And we will stop them from doing it, ever again." Or die trying. "That is why we need the horses; to rescue him."
Échen looked at him before he answered.
Raw, damp earth. It smells of mud and clay: cold and clean and mineral. Naked twigs weaving around each other, drawing unknown patterns on the sky. The night is dark over the White City. The sound of fighting is distant, clear but far-off, and the night-air is chilly with the frost of early spring.
Éomer let out his breath. Borondir was safely across the Road; they were almost ready. He rolled from under the bushes and pushed himself up into the shadow of the rock. No sound or alarm had been sounded, and he slipped within sight of Borondir and signed to him:
He slipped back into the shadow. A hand touched the wall, it steadied him; the ground was uneven. Smooth, polished stone, cold as glass against the tips of his fingers. The twigs around him pricked the skin on his neck, his hands, his face. Borondir was inside the tunnel now; Éomer saw the shadows of Aduiar and Bergil near the mouth, waiting to follow. A soft breeze rustled the bare branches, a twig snapped under his foot.
They followed. Éomer saw them enter the tunnel; two shadows swallowed into the stone. The braches rustled in the wind again. Another twig snapped.
There was no wind. And he had not moved.
Before he could turn, Éomer felt the pricking of a blade against his skin and the guard said:
"Do not move."
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.