I bring honour to the Blackroot
I bring weeping to my house.
(Excerpt from Duinhir's poem)
White stone sparkled as the first rays of a spring sun swept over the walls. Imperceptibly, four men moved. Twitching toes and stretching fingers, relief only minutes away. A silent sigh of pleasure came from one as the harsh tones of command and the beat of heavy boots cut the sharp morning air. The new guard marched across the square with a swagger and a strut, the arrogance of a full night's sleep in every step.
Those who had stood through the long night hours headed thankfully towards the tunnel, moving stiffly, only pride and training stopping them from dragging feet and dropping shoulders
Inthenin, Captain of the Tower Guard, took a satisfied glance at the four immobile figures and then looked high above to where the new standard hung in the still air. For only two days had the White Tree fluttered over the City of Kings, now, in this breathless dawn, the flag appeared uniformly black. Turning his back to the fountain, he strode over to the wall. Below him the City struggled to wake. Celebrating the coronation of a king had no precedence in anyone's memory and most had chosen to embrace it wholeheartedly.
Movement caught his eye, a grey smudge travelling south along the road. Now who..? Oh yes, he remembered. Hard-nosed his men might call him but that recollection thrust a shaft of compassion through even his tough hide: Duinhir was going home.
Duinhir stopped, breathing raggedly and putting his hand to his side. After two months the wound still ached, breaking his rhythm and robbing him of the easy uphill stride gained from a lifetime in the mountains. Behind him, strung out down the track his men trudged upward. Every now and then one would stop, heave his pack a little higher, check his bow and move on. Duinhir closed his eyes, as ever seeing the men who had answered his call to go to the aid of the White City. The memory of them striding out with pride in their step and a song on their lips causing his chest to tighten ….Gone, all gone. Crushed. Pounded into the fields of the Pelennor by monsters from a land they would never see…
"Thathar is falling behind, lord."
His eyes snapped open, exchanging images of a bloody battleground for the grey stone of the mountain road. At the end of the ragged line toiling upwards, a man limped slowly; every painful footstep leaving him further behind. "Go and fetch him; we'll put him up on the horse."
Duinhir waited, smoothing his hand down the brown velvet neck of his new steed. He could hardly ride whilst his men walked, but he treasured the gift. Battle weary and scarred the horse might be, but he had a kind eye and a gentle nature. Col, he would call him Col. A good name for a horse who would end his days in the Vale. The Rohirric name was unpronounceable anyway. Duinhir caught his breath as the now familiar pain twisted his insides to water: the boys would have loved him.
At the arrival of the small group, one carrying an extra pack and two supporting the grey-clad, grey-faced man, Duinhir set his face into a closed mask.
"Come on, Thathar, we'll give you a ride."
Panting heavily, Thathar nodded. "Thank ..ee, lord. I'm sorry to hold you up. I thought I could manage."
"You mean you were determined to come home and so made light of your injury." Duinhir said it without rancour. He could understand Thathar's wish to see his family. They were all still safe in the grey stone cottage high upon the side of the Blackroot. His children would be feeding the pigs or perhaps chopping wood, even playing hide-and-seek if their chores were done. None of them had been shovelled up and buried under a mound of cold earth on the Pelennor Fields. Duinhir wiped his hand across his brow, sweat stood out in beads, but he shivered – knowing that somehow he had to tell his wife.
With Thathar settled on Col's broad back those that had taken the opportunity to rest shouldered their packs and the upward trek continued.
The first house of the village came into sight, and then the dogs—barking— tails lashing from side to side. The children followed next; their excited shouting drawing old men and the women from their homes.
Thathar went first, engulfed by skinny limbs hugging against his legs and soft arms around his chest as he slid from the horse. A nod for their lord and the heaving family cluster moved inside their dwelling. The scene was repeated along the entire length of the village street. But it was the women who after fruitlessly searching the small group of returning bowmen, gathered their children silently into the shelter of their aprons, that he shied from. His words brought no comfort. A promise of help greeted only by a vacant nod and a sagging of shoulders as they turned and slowly ushered bewildered children inside their dwellings.
Finally, left alone except for a couple of cats and a few old men, he stared up to the head of the valley. From where he stood the house looked no different, its back against an escarpment and with the westering sun casting a pink blush over the solid stone. With a raise of his hand Duinhir took Col's bridle, a deep breath, and started on the last piece of road which would lead him home.
The spring-sown crops were well up he noticed as he left the village, but a sigh escaped him when further inspection showed the proliferation of rank weeds that already outstripped the plants. He would have to divide up the labour, share the jobs around between the available men. Give more responsibility to the youngsters. With this deliberation came the bleat of goats. Around the corner came half a dozen nannies and kids, nimble hooves tripping delicately over the stony ground, kept together by a rangy brown dog. The mutt eyed him suspiciously, but probably sensing no threat and catching no anxiety from his human companions, loped past. The two children following behind, sticks in hand, stared wide-eyed for a moment. Their gazes moved from him to Col and back until the older, a boy of about nine summers, blurted out, "Did we win, lord?"
Lost in thought again, Duinhir shook his head. Win? No, they had not won. Some of them survived, but none won, and too many lost. He blinked and met opened-mouthed shock. Hastening to reassure the lad he rearranged his features into some semblance of a smile. "We defeated the enemy, Agarth, but the desolation of war is not a victory." In spite of the intention to placate the words came out harshly.
"My dada?" The little girl's lip trembled and she wiped a grimy hand across moistening eyes as her brother's hand landed on her shoulder.
This time he let a genuine smile crossed his face and Duinhir jerked his thumb in the direction of the village. "He's waiting for you."
He watched the small group disappear around the bend, the excited chatter of the children still lingering on clear mountain air long after they had vanished from view. A welcome for some, but of his own welcome …he wiped clammy hands down his woollen tunic…surely she would understand. He would tell her how brave they'd been, leading the men right up to those monsters before they let loose their arrows. Held them off until the Rohírrim were able to fight through the Southrons… but they'd got too close, been too careless with their own safety. Shaking his head didn't shut out the images… would he never be able to shut out the sight of those stamping, huge, wrinkled feet?
She wouldn't blame him. When the call had come she'd gone quiet but she hadn't protested. Not out loud, anyway. And if they hadn't gone, if no one had answered the summons… well, things might have been different. She'd be proud, proud of her sons, proud of the honours bestowed by the new king. King Elessar had promised aid as well. He'd understood immediately what it meant to a small community to lose the best of its youth. But they'd recover, more children would be born. An uneasy thought entered his mind: perhaps they could have another child, they weren't too old. Later, when she'd got over her initial grief, he'd suggest it.
Around the last bend the wood and stone stockade came into view. Duinhir stopped, putting off the inevitable a little longer. The horse, perhaps sensing a stable and rest, nuzzled into him. He patted Col's neck, whispering softly, "Your new home, lad. We'll look after you here; there will be no more war for you." Col pricked his ears and blew through quivering nostrils, causing Duinhir to pull away and return his gaze to the entrance to his home. The gates were open and in the space between them a large hairy dog stood braced, looking more than ready to defend its territory.
In spite of the leaden weight in his guts Duinhir smiled and called loudly to the animal, "You're still here then, Drummer. I thought you'd be long gone."
Responding instantly to the voice of the Lord of Morthond, the dog let out a series of raucous barks before racing towards horse and man. "Easy boy," Duinhir muttered, but the horse stood still. Not that he expected anything else. A dog, even such a huge, hairy one as Drummer held no fear for a Rohírric trained horse that had endured the terrors of the Pelennor.
He was halfway up the track to the house when the carved entrance door opened and two women stepped out. Neither moved. A jolt of surprise and shock passed over two very similar faces. From this distance his wife and daughter were distinguishable only by the slight variation in their height. The sun glinted on two sets of long chestnut curls, and he would need to get closer to see the differences in their creamy skin.
A few paces further and he saw his wife's desperate gaze sweep past him and the horse to the emptiness behind. She put her hand to her mouth, chewing her knuckles.
Duinhir stopped, and as he halted Devoran clutched her mother's arm. Great honey eyes filled with unshed tears pierced his soul. "Father, where are they? Where are Duilin and Derufin?"
Duinhir shook his head, and at once his wife let out a cry that was half a scream half some word of denial.
Letting go of the horse he ran forward to pull her into his embrace but as he reached her she pushed out with her arms against his chest. Eyes blazing, she shoved him away from her, before turning and running inside.
Duinhir took a step to go after his wife and then stopped; shaken by the rage he had seen in her face. As he stood there rooted with…guilt…anger …. grief… Devoran reached up and pulled his head against her, hugging him to her breast. "Give her time, Father. It's just the shock."
A/N I intended this to be complete in itself although it provides background for a long saga I am working on.