A/N: We have come to the end of the first book. My thanks to all who have helped and encouraged me, both in the writing and with reviews and by reading. I am sorry that I have not been able to answer all reviews, either because they were anonymous or because you had disabled PMs. I appreciate all the comments, though, and am thrilled by all that have followed me so far. I hope you will follow me to the journey's end.
I will begin posting the next book during June, and will put an update on my profile when it happens. Anyone that wishes to be told in person (but are not interested to put me on author's alert) let me know, but make sure PMs are enabled.
Special thanks to the people on Garden of Ithilien, to JALU for final beta, to SerenLyall for nitpicks on the last chapter, to The Lauderdale for encouragements, and to WiseQueen who, amazingly, have reviewed all chapters to date, and who also have been a great encouragement.
Disclaimer: See first chapter.
Chapter twenty-two: To Hope's End I Rode.
Éomer obeyed. He stiffened, but he did not move. A hand gripped his hair, and he could feel the blade move around his neck until it came to rest against his throat. He swallowed down the urge to fight, to move. The blade pressed closer, too dull to cut him yet, but Éomer knew that it would. If the guard pressed harder.
"You are in violation of the curfew," the guard said. He did not raise his voice, and they were still covered by shadows. "And no innocent man crawls in the shadows as you do. Are you alone, or are you waiting for your rebel friends?"
Éomer did not answer, and the blade pressed closer. "Answer!" the guard demanded, but no answer came. Skin broke. A trickle of blood ran down Éomer's neck. The guard pulled on his hair and Éomer's hands flew up before he could think about it.
"I said: don't move!"
Éomer almost stumbled, but he regained his balance. The guard repeated his demand: "Answer! Are you alone or not?"
Éomer did not answer, but instead of tightening the grip – as he expected – the hands that held him fell away, and he heard another voice answer:
Éomer spun around and saw the guard stumble forward and fall to his knees, calling out for help. Behind him was the shadow of another man. He hesitated, but Éomer did not; he wrested the knife from the guard's hand and silenced him. Then he turned to his rescuer.
The shadow stepped into a lighter patch, and Éomer knew him; it was the young man they had met on the road: Hardang, whom Aduiar had befriended.
"More guards will be here shortly." Éomer paused. They could already hear the sound of running feet. "You should hide." A thousand things to say, to ask, but no time. He knelt by the dead man and took his sword. Hardang did not move away.
"You should hide," Éomer repeated.
Hardang shook his head. "You hide," he said. "I would not have my deed be in vain."
"You serve the mayor Aduiar."
"Not really," Éomer answered. "More the other way around."
Hardang laughed softly. "Then more is the luck. Hide. The guards will see me, and not look further."
"The mayor is a good man, even if he should not be – being a mayor. Being one of them. But he is. When I saw the guard, I found that I could not look away. Not after today."
"I should not accept you offer," Éomer said. "I should have you hide; if you are caught, you will suffer."
"I know," Hardang replied. "I am not so young, nor so sheltered. Hide: the guards are near."
But it was too late. Éomer heard the men coming up behind him. He spun around, sword ready, and the men halted. They were only two, and behind them he could see Ingold drawing close. One of the men stepped closer, and he recognised Aduiar.
"We heard the shouts," Aduiar said. "And I deemed the risk of meeting anyone in the tunnel too high. I hope Borondir reached the end before anyone entered. More soldiers will be here soon. Sire?" He left the question unspoken.
"We will not be able to avoid them," Éomer said. "We are too many to hide, and they will find the body."
"Some of us must," Aduiar said. "You and Bergil are most vital; you hide, and we will draw them off."
"All are needed." But Éomer could think of no other way. Already they could hear the shouts of the guards, real this time, echoing in the tunnel.
"Your errand?" Hardang stepped forward and injected himself in their deliberation. "If you don't mind me asking: is the fighting in the lower levels connected to it?"
"Yes. But this is not the time to discuss it."
"Then scatter and hide while there is time. Something is afoot, I felt it earlier, and I would have a part in it."
"We cannot tell you," Aduiar said. "But if you live, you will know by morning."
"That is enough," the young man said. Aduiar nodded, and grabbed Éomer. He forced him away from the dead guard, into the deeper shadows, down under the bushes. They had no time to see what Bergil and Ingold did, but any sound of movement had died away when the guards arrived.
Húrin was the only one to stay where he was when the trouble began. Bragloth drew back into the alley, into the dark, to take the back-alley that Aduiar and Bergil had followed before. Ingold held still for a while, but when he saw people emerging from the tunnel, he too broke off and ran towards Éomer.
Húrin wanted to run. Wanted to find out what had happened. Wanted know if Éomer king and the others were safe. Wanted to do something, to help. And knew he could do nothing if they were not, and he too was captured. And so he was a good Ranger, and stayed. And waited and watched. And listened.
Ai Chieftain! Will you think it worth this?
It did not matter: Húrin did, the others did, even if the Chieftain might not, and that made him stay.
More running, more shouts. Húrin pressed against the wall of the house and risked a glance up the Road. At first he could not see, only hear a scuffle, then more shouts, and the fighting spilled out into the street where he could. It was dark, too dark, but he could sense several men, locked in struggle. Out from the alley by the tunnel a man broke into the fight, barrelling into the group. It fell apart, and two men broke off and ran down the Road, towards Húrin. The rest pursued.
Húrin snapped his head back and withdrew into the shadow. The two men passed him, running hard, with four guards close behind. One of the men was young, and in the dark Húrin did not know him. But he knew the other.
Húrin stayed. Still a good Ranger. Hiding. Waiting. Watching. Until the guards had passed by. Until they were out of sight. Out of hearing. Waited until he heard shutters open, and close.
Then he moved. Then he moved. Then he slowly moved out of hiding, out of the shadow; out to where he could see that the Road was empty.
Then he moved. Then he ran. Silently and swiftly, he ran towards the tunnel, and the garden beside.
One man dead. The guard, lying abandoned between shadow and pale light, with his throat cut. Húrin bent to see if his weapons had been abandoned as well. They had not.
A rustle of twigs, and Húrin could breathe.
"Here." Éomer held out a knife to him. He had a sword strapped to his side; the guard's, Húrin guessed. Behind him stood Aduiar and Ingold. Bergil. Húrin counted them in his mind. Bragloth gone, that left…
"Borondir?" he asked. He took the proffered knife and stood.
"He must have made it through," Aduiar answered. "Or we would have heard."
"Then we should hasten, before more guards are called for." Húrin had questions, but they could wait.
Éomer hesitated. "Bragloth," he said.
"He will try to reach the lower levels, and get lost in the fighting. We must leave him, or our purpose." Húrin would not turn back.
Éomer nodded. "I do not like it," he said, but he walked past Húrin and they followed him, into the tunnel. Into the darkness. Up the Road, towards their goal. Once decided, he did not look back.
With Échen's help, they had been able to ready the horses quickly. It also made Fastred's task harder. Bádon had offered, but Fastred could not let him do it.
"You have to stay here."
Échen did not cry, and Fastred did not know if that made it easier or harder.
"You can't leave me here. Not now. I helped." He did not say: they will kill me for it. He did not need to. "I want to go with you."
"It is too dangerous."
"You are going," Échen pointed out, with the maddening reasoning of children.
"It is not the same, and while I know that staying here is dangerous too, it is less so. The Enemy will hunt us."
"Why do you try if you don't think you will make it?" That same, childish way of thinking. If only he was not right.
"I spoke against it," Fastred admitted. "I deemed the risk too high. It was not my call, but this is: you must stay. Not only for your own safety, but for ours. It will be difficult enough to avoid capture with your king wounded, and we are one horse short as it is. With you to worry about as well, it will be even harder." He looked at the boy. "Échen…"
Échen looked down. "I'll stay," he muttered. "But…" He looked up at Fastred. "What do I do when the soldiers come? What do I tell them?"
"You don't know."
Fastred shook his head. "I do know," he said. "I just do not like it. And I do not think you will either. But it will be the safest way for you." He paused a moment. "I will tie you. When you are found, you can tell them that we surprised you. The corporal was already dead, and we overpowered you. They will believe you, and it will be the truth. But it will be best if I tie you here, and leave the corporal where he is. Will you…?"
It was Échen's turn to hesitate. "Can you not put him somewhere else? Or me?" He swallowed. "I came out because I could not sleep there, inside. With…"
With the dead boy. Fastred nodded. "Come. I thought it would better for you to be inside, but if you rather stay outside… The night is cold though, are your clothes warm enough?"
"Yes." The answer came a little too quick, but Fastred overlooked it. He led the mare out, and Échen followed him. Echil and Bádon waited for him by the pens.
"Fastred," Bádon began. "You were going to talk to the boy."
"I did. He is staying here. Outside."
Bádon shrugged. He took the reins from Fastred.
Échen sat down by the fence and let Fastred loop rope around his hands and legs.
"They are too loose," he said. "I can just slip free."
"Are you complaining?" The snow was gone – if any snow had fallen this far south – but the earth was damp. Fastred wanted to find a cloak or a blanket for the boy to sit on, but none would believe that a horse-thief would care. He did not want the ropes to cause discomfort as well. "Just tell them that you have managed to work them loose."
Échen looked at him. Even in the dark Fastred could feel him looking. As if he did not even have half a wit.
"They would not believe it."
"The boy is right," Bádon cut in. "There won't be any marks on him with ropes that loose."
"Right." He tightened the ropes. A little. "Is that better? They are not too tight?"
The boy nodded, but Fastred still let one finger run between ropes and skin, checking just to be sure.
He heard movement behind him, the rustle of clothes and shifting feet, but he ignored it. The Rangers could wait a few moments more. They, it seemed, disagreed.
"Thorongil?" Bádon asked. There was a… note… in his voice which Fastred could not construe, but it put him in mind of Húrin's expression when he heard him give that name. He ignored him, and answered Échen.
Bádon was not that easily ignored.
"Thorongil?" he repeated. "You gave your name as 'Thorongil' and they let it pass?"
"It was the only one I could think of at the time, and why would it not pass? It is the right language, and it is not as if they would mistake me for a man that is long dead. If he is even remembered. Just because my father liked to tell stories of him," and Fastred liked to listen, "does not mean he would be remembered outside the Mark after so many years."
Bádon made a… noise.
"Húrin did not tell you?" Mirth… anger… something – tingled his voice.
"He gave me a look." Fastred sighed. "Much like your silence. I know it might not be the best choice, but no harm came, and a long-dead forgotten man…"
"Not forgotten," Échen said.
"Nor dead," Bádon muttered. "If luck holds."
Fastred could hear the silent question in the boy's thoughts, the same that was on his tongue, but Bádon cut off any further explanations.
"No time for stories, we must ride. One day you might both hear the tale in full, from one that knows it better than any."
They did not then know that only one of them would.
Fastred turned to Échen. "Take this," he said. He put a hoof-pick into the boy's hands. The metal was cold between them, and wet with dew. "Use it to work on the ropes; it should not take too long for you to get free. Just give us time; wait until we have been gone a while."
Fastred clasped his hands. "Thank you." Nothing more to say. He rose and moved away. The other two opened the pen where the loose horses stood. Fastred took Firefoot's reins from Bádon, leaving the ranger to take the mare. Echil mounted Fastred's own mare and they let him lead the way. The geldings followed her, for now.
Fastred and Bádon followed the small herd, keeping them together.
They met no other guards or reinforcements, not even at the last gate. This worried Éomer.
"Should we not praise our luck?" Ingold asked. "Not worry that our task is too easy? The gate is open and unguarded, why hesitate?"
"Why is it unguarded?" Éomer replied. "When no other gate has been, and with rebellion on the lower levels? I fear a trap."
"To what purpose? They cannot know our plans."
"They may have guessed that the fighting aims at freeing the king," Éomer said.
"I do not know, but if there is a trap here, why have the other gates guarded? It makes little sense."
"You are right, and I would think as you had not my heart warned me that something is wrong. I do not know what."
"Shall we turn back, then?"
Éomer took one more look at the gate. It laid abandoned, a dark hole with no movement in the shadows of its doors, and no movement on the walls above. He could not even feel any eyes watching, as he had earlier. He turned to look back down the Road. It was as empty as the road ahead. Aduiar and Bergil were already past the Gate, and they had heard no disturbance.
"No," he answered. "Something feels wrong, but we cannot, will not, turn back now. Let us go."
They encountered no trap behind the gate; saw no sentries by the stables and the prison beside it. The sixth circle could as well have been dead. The air was silent, pressing down on them. It was a feeling Éomer had not felt often, but he had felt it recently.
"The dwimmerlaik," he whispered. "It must be near."
"The horses are too quiet," Ingold replied. And he was right. The stable was quiet, and the horses had been too tense earlier to be that quiet now.
"Let us find Damrod, and shelter from hidden eyes." Just because he could not feel them, did not mean they were not there.
Ingold nodded. "Lead, and I will follow; I have not been this far up in ten years, and only once then." But Éomer had but begun to move when he felt Ingold's hand on his shoulder, holding him back.
"Hide, lord," he whispered. "There is movement up ahead. Your misgiving might come true."
They ducked into the shadow of the House of Healing. Ingold pointed up ahead, but if there had been movement there before, they could see nothing now. They waited, but nothing more could be seen. Hours, it seemed to Éomer, went by while they waited, but it could not have been that long before Húrin and Borondir caught up with them.
"Why do you linger?" Húrin asked.
"I fear some trap." Éomer's voice barely carried beyond his own hearing. Húrin stood close, pressed up against the wall with Éomer. "It is too silent, too easy, and it feels like the dwimmerlaik is near. Ingold saw movement ahead, but nothing more has come of it."
"I thought that thing left," Borondir said. "We saw it fly."
"We saw the winged beast leave," Húrin corrected. "It was not possible to see if it had any rider. I thought it left as well, but I too feel something that I can only guess is its presence. For some reason it seems as if it can mute the terror it spreads. I did not know that it could do that.
"No matter. It is too late to turn back – unless you wish to join with Bragloth. It might prove difficult to escape the City, and I have no wish to witness what spectacle they will make of the Chieftain tomorrow. They cannot know our plan, and so if there is a trap it will not be where we will be. The prison on this level seems unguarded; mayhap the trap is there. Or they expect us to brave the entrance to the Citadel and the last tunnel.
"I will go and seek out Damrod, thus the danger will be to me, and we will soon know if it be safe to continue. Let it be quiet and easy; better for us, since we will use an entrance they have no knowledge of."
"I would not be so sure it is unknown," Éomer said. "But you are right. Go. We will watch for your signal."
Nothing much happened on the ride.
Fastred herded the horses with ease, and they neither saw nor heard any pursuit. Fastred did not know whether he should be grateful or concerned by that, but Bádon waved away his questions.
"The guards and soldiers have enough to worry about," he said. "And the stable-master will not get out on his own, should he even be awake. As long as that boy does not free them too early…"
"He will not." Of that Fastred was sure.
"Then I would be more worried that the horses should escape. Herding them has so far been easier than I feared."
"You have herded nothing, Master Ranger," Fastred said. "I have herded horses. And you had no reason to fear; I herded horses before I walked."
Bádon laughed. "Then our only concern is whether the others succeed or not. Both the captain and king Éomer are strong-willed men; I have yet to see them fail when they have decided on a purpose."
"'Stubborn' I will grant," Fastred muttered. "Enough to force their will most times. But all Men fail; the Dúnedain should know that."
Bádon sobered, yet he replied: "We both know it, and do not, Master Rider. Our kingdom failed, but our kings remained. We dwindled, but the blood remained. Our numbers shrank, but each man grew strong. And we find ourselves the only people that now are not under the Shadow's sway."
"Yet your chieftain is the Hostage of Mordor."
Bádon fell silent for a while. Fastred kept his mind on the horses. They followed Echil willingly, but Firefoot was not yet warm and he would rather not have to ask the stallion any swift manoeuvres. Better to head off any problems before they arose. When Bádon spoke again, Fastred had almost forgotten what they had been speaking of.
"We counted him for lost," Bádon said. "It was easier. And we have always been good at keeping secrets; the Enemy have not been able to find enough of us to use him against us, as he has in Gondor. And we know too well that no gain can be had in bowing to the Shadow. The Chieftain would not wish it, and that we know as well.
"And now, now he will be hostage no longer. I can not but believe it. Have faith, Master Rider," he turned to Fastred and even in the darkness Fastred sensed his smile. "Have faith in your king, if you have none in mine."
The closer he came to the Citadel, the stronger the feeling grew. Fear. Stark, bleak fear. Numb, heavy fear curling in the gut, knotting the insides until it became pain. Drenching, draining fear that made the mind beg to live.
Beside him, Bergil shook, and Ingold hesitated at each step. Why did men desire command? Oh, for the relief of turning to another for strength!
Éomer King trusted to the darkness to hide his pallor. "Come," he said. "We are close." And he went towards the fear. His voice did not waver. His steps were firm, his shoulders broad. He showed no fear, and they followed.
They followed. Across the street, into the shadows on the other side. Into the shelter of the narrow alley, and the vines and trees growing close to the wall of rock that surrounded the last circle and the Citadel. To where Húrin and Aduiar waited with Damrod.
They did not speak, not so near the entrance. Húrin led them further into the tunnel while Damrod hid the entrance. Not too far, and not too short, they walked until they stopped. Their tunnel had not yet reached the dungeons, but the fear grew stronger, and the darkness heavier.
They stood still and listened. There were no sound but their breath, and the shuffling of their feet. No sound, until they heard footsteps behind them.
Damrod, Éomer told himself. It is only Damrod. But in the silence and the darkness and the fear around them, he did not believe it. His hand clutched the stolen sword and he wished for his own Gúthwinë. We will draw swords together again, he promised. As if he could make it happen by willing it to be.
Then the footsteps arrived, with Damrod, and the fear drew back a little.
"Here we are between," Damrod said. "Halfway through. This is the safest place to confer."
"Is there need for more debate?" Ingold asked. "We know why we are here."
"Plans are always subject to change," Aduiar said. "And already ours must, to some degree, change. Bragloth is, for now, lost to us."
"We had a spot of trouble…"
"I found trouble, Aduiar" Éomer said. "I was seen by a guard; Bragloth helped draw the guards away. We do not know more, but he was alive last we saw him. It is to be hoped that he will evade the guards and hide until he can escape the City."
"He knows what to do," Húrin assured. "And our plans do not depend on numbers."
"True," Damrod said. "The Faithful will do what they can for Bragloth; he is known to us. But for our plans… how can we hope they will bear fruit? Or do you not feel the Enemy's servant?"
"We do," Éomer answered. "It is close, and somehow worse than earlier today. I almost wish my sister was here, or Master Holdwine. The dwimmerlaik might fear them."
"Can we not take the King out by this way, since the Nazgûl is in the Citadel?" Aduiar asked. "Or do you wish to turn back now?"
"No," Húrin said. "If all the Nine had been gathered, I would still go on. He is my Chieftain, and has been so for more years than any of you have lived."
"There are only eight."
Húrin glared at Aduiar. "There is only one above."
"I do not think so." Éomer spoke before the debate worsened. "Either there is more than one, or it is not in the Citadel above. It is below, in the dungeons."
None answered that. None spoke. The fear grew in the silence and the dark, until Éomer could feel it against his skin, taste it in the air. At length Aduiar spoke. His voice was steady, and light in the heavy darkness, as if he did not feel the same fear that hammered against Éomer's brow.
"If the Nazgûl indeed is in the dungeons, then there are good tidings among the bad. The King must be held here; I can think of no other reason for its presence."
"Did not Golwen confirm that the King would be held here?" Damrod asked.
"He did, but he could have been wrong, or the King might have been moved later. The mere suspicion against any of the servants – even the lowest slave – could have caused a change, and Golwen would have no way to warn us." Aduiar stated all the objections Éomer would have liked to hear before they had come this far.
"Why did you not speak earlier?" Éomer was sharp, tense. The fear leaked out, and he could not keep it from turning into anger at Aduiar. Aduiar, who did not seem to mind. Aduiar, who spoke words that only heightened their doubt.
"There would have been of little purpose; try we must, and the chance was worth the risk, I deemed." Aduiar sighed. "Now, I think, it is best to wait. The riots should peak, and draw the Nazgûl away."
"That would need more rebels than the Faithful count," Damrod said. "I do not think it will avail much to wait."
"It is better than to confront the wraith. Let us wait a while; it will do no harm, and if Aduiar is right…" Éomer did not finish. They understood him all the same.
None among them knew how wise that decision would prove to be. None of them had guessed the fire that had been ignited in the lower circles, or the heights at which the riots would rise before it was struck down. They did not know that even as they waited, closer to their goal than ever, the men fought so hard that the Gate was close to be overrun; attacked both from within and without the City.
The guards on the Gate and the outer walls blew their trumpets, calling for help. Again and again they called, until their leaders, sitting in safety high above in the Citadel, saw that more men were needed. More than they could send, and keep the Citadel safe, should their men fail.
Great shouts were heard from the camp of the orcs then, and a shadow rose from the tower. The sound carried across the fields, even far enough to be heard at the foot of the mountain where three men, and a small herd of horses, had stopped.
The two Rangers had used the day well. A pen held their own two horses, and there was room for more. They had even made a smaller pen close by, to separate them as needed.
"You could almost have been Eorlings," Fastred remarked.
"Did you hear, Echil? I believe that was a compliment," Bádon said. "A Ranger would, of course, have no knowledge of either horses nor the building of pens."
Fastred snorted. "Pens, perhaps. Though I will grant that you seem to understand horses better than your southern kin seems to do, if what I have seen here is the rule."
Bádon laughed. It was a soft sound in the darkness, barely perceptible, yet to Fastred it was clearer than the shouts borne from beyond the City. "Our luck," the Ranger said. "They would have not need your skill had their own been greater."
They left the horses there, with their tack, in the pens. Echil tried to argue that Fastred, with his greater understanding of horses, should be the one to stay and guard them. Fastred did not take kindly to that idea. He grumbled about it all the way up the path, all the way up to the cave. It was better than thinking of his fears.
"You brought it on yourself," Bádon said.
"I know," Fastred said. He fell silent. There was little for them to do but to wait. Wait, and keep watch. The cave was chilly, but Bádon had prepared for that as well. At the far back of the cave, where the light would not reach the opening, the Rangers had prepared a fire. It was enough wood there to keep it burning all night, and they had prepared torches as well.
Bádon lit the fire. The warmth was welcome. Fastred leaned back against the wall and rested. The flicker from the fire danced on the walls, on their faces. Bádon looked up and caught the glimmer of metal around Farsted's throat.
"I had forgotten," Bádon said.
"We forgot; you still have that collar." Bádon began to move. Fastred did not; he did not even open his eyes. But Bádon found what he was looking for; a strange piece of metal he drew from the pack they had left there. He crouched down beside Fastred.
Fastred opened one eye.
"No need to move," Bádon said. "There should be enough light."
"I thought you did not have the skill?"
"Not with bad tools," Bádon replied. "These are good. Now lean back and think of Rohan."
"The shadow is leaving."
They could all feel it. Before Húrin spoke they had felt the first stirring of the heart that heralded hope: the fear reseeded. Slowly it withdrew, and now it lifted and their hearts soared with it. They rose from where they had been sitting, hunched together on the ground, and followed where their hearts led. The tunnels were no longer dark, their feet did not stumble and the silence between them was light. The shadow was leaving; hope still remained.
"I thought Rangers were silent and stern," Fastred complained. Bádon did not answer, for at that moment his hand slipped. Fastred grunted at the tug of the collar. "I think I would rather wait," he said, "and have Húrin, or whoever taught him, pick the lock. Your skill is worse than your jests."
"Ah, but since my jests are very good, my skill must be too."
Bádon sighed and pushed him back against the wall. "I do have some skill," he said, all mirth gone. "And dwelling on our fears serves us not now. But I see that you cannot let it go, so come! Tell me what is weighing on your heart, shared the burden might scatter and disperse."
Fastred did not answer. Not at once. He had already told of his dream to both his king, and others. They had not been able to help, why would Bádon be different? Bádon did not pressure him, but despite the lack of prompting – or perhaps because of it – Fastred found himself retelling his dream again.
Bádon offered no comments. He worked in silence while Fastred spoke, and said nothing when he was done. The lock opened at last, and the collar fell away. Fastred threw it across the floor of the cave and it clattered loudly where it bounced across the stone. Silence ruled again when it had come to rest.
"Well?" Fastred asked at length. "Have you nothing to say?"
"Halbarad," Bádon said.
"Húrin could have told you of him. He led the company that rode at the Chieftain's summon. His kinsman and standard-bearer. He fell at the battle of the Pelennor, some say to protect the Chieftain; I do not know the truth of it, but any of us would. The man in your dream made me think of him."
Fastred did not know what to say to that. Knowing whom the man speaking in his dream was seemed less helpful than he had hoped, and he said as much.
"Then what will ease your fears?"
"I am not afraid." But even in the flickering half-light of the fire, Bádon gave him a look that called him on his lie. "Not really, not as such…" but he had to concede defeat. He feared for Éomer king. The dark cave and darker tunnel did not help; Fastred knew not how long the walk would be, or what maze might lie beyond the firelight. What creatures owned the world beyond the circle of light? Would the shades of Men linger here, as once near Dunharrow, and would they yield as the shadows there had done?
"You need not fear the darkness here," Bádon said, as if he guessed his thoughts. "I followed the paths here to their end, and the way is easily found; just one tunnel, carved along the caves and passages that nature provided. I followed it until I found the entrance to the City. The door was open, and hidden well; none walks the Hallows these days."
"This is the entrance to the dungeon," Damrod said.
He had stopped, and the others behind him. Húrin pressed to the front, feeling his way along the tunnel-walls. They had risked no light. He felt the stone give way to wood. Rough-hewn planks, with gaps filled with mortar between. Or so he guessed – it felt too soft for stone. He found no hinges or any way to open the door.
"Where…?" but Damrod silenced him. Húrin felt him lean against the wall, and followed his example. Ears pressed against wood, they listened for signs of movement, or sounds, beyond.
"I hear nothing," Damrod said. "There might still be guards about that I cannot hear, but if we are to enter, we must risk it. I have shovels to remove the wall, it should go quick; we made it thin."
It was. Thin planks and mortar were all that kept the wall together. Húrin even thought that they could have broken through without any tools. They must have planned for that possibility, he realised. They thought to break out, not in.
More darkness greeted them on the other side, but the dark was tinted with grey. A corridor lay before them, with closed doors on each side. Each had a hatch with a small, barred window behind that would have let them look in on small cells – if there had been light. But all the cells in the corridor were empty and dark.
Six small cells on their right, four bigger ones on their left, and the corridor met another. From that opening they could sense light; a greyness less dark, rather, than any true light.
"The stairs are that way," Damrod whispered. "Straight ahead are more cells, but the main part of the dungeon lies beyond the stairs. My guess is that he is there; this part has not been finished."
Éomer did not try to keep his voice down, if there were guards to hear them, they would have heard when the wall was broken down. "The cells on this side were empty, but I would rather not have to go back if we search the others, and he is not there. It will be quicker to finish here before we move on. How much further down this passage?"
"A little shorter than we have walked, some ten paces further down." Damrod still kept his voice down.
"That was far longer than ten steps."
"Yards," Húrin translated. He led the way, anxious to find his Chieftain, and ignored Éomer's muttering about obsolete ganghere measurements.
The cells at the end of the corridor did not have doors, and though they did not expect to find anyone, Éomer stepped into them. The cell on the right side was small; a man could, if he was not too tall, lie down along the walls, but nothing more. Éomer would not have had much room to stretch out himself. The walls were roughly hewn and there was nothing in the room.
The cell on the other side was larger, and better made.
"The larger cells are meant for two," Damrod said. "These are the last; I worked on them myself when the work was shut down."
"How many does this prison hold?"
"More than a hundred," Damrod said. "Unless they put more in each cell than they are meant for."
"Then let us linger no more."
"The corridors are wide," Húrin remarked as they walked back.
Damrod gave a snort. "Yes," he said. "The corsair guards complained that the prison passages were too narrow; it was too little room for them to comfortably drag their prisoners around."
Silence and darkness pressed in on them, echoing down the corridor. This prison was new, but the image of one prisoner, dragged because he could not walk, lingered in their minds. Éomer pushed it back, but he could not dislodge it.
They reached the other corridor. "This connects to all the other passages," Damrod explained. "And to the stairs. They lead to the guardhouse south of the Tower; if we are to gain the hidden tunnel we must pass through it."
"You said nothing of a guardhouse," Borondir said. "How are we to pass that unseen?"
"They do not sleep there; it is where they take their meals, or amuse themselves when not on post. There might be a guard there now, but Golwen should be able to dispatch him. Or silence him.
"Lethril might be free to help him; my guess is that any feast would have ended when the fighting grew too hot." Damrod stopped. They had reached the stairs. Dark and narrow it twisted its way up through the rock. Burning torches had been left at the bottom, and the light was blinding to their eyes. Damrod took one, and passed the other to Bergil.
"Who might help?" Éomer asked.
"Lethril is a widower, her husband served in the Guard. She has often helped us, and Mablung knows her well. She was the woman I spoke of, one of the servants for the feasts."
Éomer nodded. He turned to Bergil: "You know the sign. Keep watch; if any comes but Golwen, give us warning." Bergil nodded, and began the climb. He turned the corner of the winding stairs and soon even the light disappeared from their sight.
"Now for our search."
Fastred straightened and tensed. Bádon looked at him. "Yes," he said. "The Hallows. Where else?"
"Éomer king did not say the entrance was in the Hallows; it is in the Tower."
"You are mistaken. I looked through the door myself and saw the Hallows. I told the king as much."
Fastred breathed at the news, but still he was uneasy. "Why did not the King say as much?" he wondered. "He did not speak of any change in plans." He paused, then asked: "What did you tell the King? Do you remember your words?"
"Echil bore the news," Bádon answered. "I told him to say that the passage was open, that I had followed it to the end, and that there were no guards."
Fastred grabbed his arm. "Did you bid him say more? Did you tell him of the Hallows? Did Echil see the entrance too?"
He had not known fear before. This, this was fear, hot and cold. Washing over him and draining the blood from his limbs, stealing his strength.
They do not know!
Fastred rose. His strength was back, his purpose clear; his fears had become real and now he could act. If only there was time. He seized a torch and lit it in the fire.
"Where are you going?"
Fastred did not answer, he turned and ran.
But Fastred ran and did not look back. His feet beat against the rock, crying No time. No time.
Bergil reached the top of the stairs. It was tall and narrow; the guards could not drag a prisoner up or down there with any ease. Why, when the tunnels below were made wide, Bergil did not know, and could not guess at. He only knew that it would be hard to help the King up the stairs if he could not walk himself.
The top of the stairs widened somewhat, and the last step was more of a wide ledge with room for three people to stand. It made the purpose of the narrow stairs clear; here the guards could easily stop any who tried to escape and fight their way up. He was lucky that there were no guards waiting for him.
The door was heavy and thick. It had no lock on the inside, only a simple handle, and it was far too thick for Bergil to hear through. He grabbed the handle and pulled.
At first the door did not budge. He did not know if it was because the door was locked, or just too heavy for him, so he tried again. He gripped the handle with both hands and put all his weight into the pull. While still young in the eyes of his people, Bergil was full-grown, and slowly, slowly the door began to slide open.
The room on the other side was lit with torches along the walls and on the two rows of columns that divided it in three. The pillars stood closer to the walls, making the middle space the larger, with tables and benches for the guards to sit and eat and talk. In the passages between the columns nothing stood, but Bergil caught the gleam of metal between the torches.
"That was foolhardy done, young one." Golwen stood by the nearest pillar. The light flickered on his face. "You did not know what awaited on the other side."
"Would you have opened the door on this side?" Bergil asked. He stepped into the room, closer to the scribe. "Would you have known when I would be here?"
"No." Golwen gave a smile. "I have debated the wisdom of doing so for some time."
"And when would you have decided on its wisdom, had I not risked the door?"
"Likely not," Golwen admitted. "Not until too late. Still, it was foolhardy." His eyes flickered, and Bergil sensed the movement behind him too late. Before he could call a warning, he was silenced.
The torch burned with a clear, steady flame; no draft disturbed it here, deep underneath the Citadel. It lit the passages of the dungeon, casting soft, warm light on walls that would never know other warmth. That never would soften, even if the years turned the City to dust.
They had looked into every cell they had passed, all empty. Beside the stairs there had been one room larger than the rest. For questioning. Damrod had not said so, but they had all known as soon as they saw it.
It, too, was empty.
They started down the fourth – or was it the fifth? – row of cells. Empty. Once more all were empty.
"Could Golwen have been mistaken?" Borondir asked.
"He has not been before," Damrod answered.
"Never?" Húrin asked.
"Not in the last ten years," Damrod confirmed.
Aduiar gave a sound of unbelief at that. "I do not trust a man that is never wrong," he said.
"What then?" Damrod asked. "Do you wish to turn back now? Give up your plan, because of empty cells and a man that has given no reason for us to mistrust him in ten years?"
"I gave the Enemy no reason for mistrust the last ten years," Aduiar answered, but his words drowned in the answer of Húrin and Éomer, given as in one voice:
"There is one more passage to search," Éomer added. "It will do no harm to search it and find nothing, and much to leave it, and the lord Aragorn, by losing faith now. I am certain that the dwimmerlaik was here; it felt too close to have been in the Citadel above, and I do not think it would be here, unless he was too."
They walked back to the main corridor, and found the last row. It mirrored the first, with smaller cells on one side, and bigger ones on the other. They turned left, and tried each door. They found them locked, but even through the small barred window the torch gave enough light for them to see.
Golwen hesitated. "I…"
"You have done well. Return to your quarters; leave the Kings to us."
With a bow, he left.
Deep under the Citadel, the torch flickered. Dancing figures of light and shadow surrounded them, distorting their faces. Éomer reached the second door in the last part of the dungeon, one of the bigger cells. He tugged at the door. Locked, as the others had been. It did not signify much. He opened the hatch in the door and brought the torch close. Close enough that the heat from it flickered across his face.
In the mountain tunnel, another torch spluttered. Smoke trailed behind it where it flew through the dark.
No time, no time, no time!
Fastred ran. Stumbling over the uneven floor, scrambling along tunnel walls; two times already he had been forced to turn back by dead ends, for in his haste he would turn at the wrong corner, and only when he came back did he see the marker Bádon had left. But the markers were but of little help; they showed the way out, away from the City, not the way in. He could taste blood, running harder than he ever could remember.
No time. No time left.
The cell was dark, but there, slumped against the wall, was the figure of a man.
Here ends book one of "Where the Grass Grows Green."
The story will be continued in book two: "Where the Grass Grows Green II: On Bended Knee."
Notes on language.
The Númenórean measurement ragna (= pace or step) was based on the average stride of a Man, but since the Númenóreans were taller than other Men, their ragna was about one yard. I have used pace as an English translation since Damrod is not speaking a language everyone understands. But though their height has dwindled since the fall of Númenór, their measurements, I imagine, would not have changed. But though Éomer know the language, it does not follow that he knows the measurements.
First chapters of book two is now posted. To be found from my profile
(or remove the spaces from the link: www. fanfiction. s/8211012/1/)