Eildon Rhymer (rhymer23) wrote,
Eildon Rhymer
rhymer23

Lord of the Rings fanfic: The Shadow of War (2/26)

Chapter one, summary and notes are here. (Alternatively, you can read it on AO3 here.)



Chapter two: The Great Gate Opens

From the introduction to The Dawn of the Golden Age: A Social and Cultural History of the Common Folk of Minas Tirith, by Iorlas Fletcher, F.A. 834

They came in their thousands, in their tens of thousands. The people of Minas Tirith had seen many celebrations since the coming of their king, but they fiercely cherished each one. Only fourteen years before, they had been a people at war, assailed by a dread enemy. Only fourteen years ago, it had seemed as if the time for celebrations was gone forever. The children were too young to remember, but all adults knew what it was to gaze into a future that held no hope.

And so they came: families and friends; groups of apprentices granted a day's liberty; couples and people alone; rich and poor alike. They came to see their king and queen in formal raiment. They came to see the king of Rohan and his riders, who in those days still carried the glamour of strange lands. They came to see the two halflings, heroes of the War of the Ring. They came to see Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf. Lord Frodo had departed, and Lord Samwise had stayed behind to rule his realm, but all the other surviving members of the famed Fellowship of the Ring would be there, gathered in one place.

Imagine it, my readers! We live in a world of pale colours. The age of heroes has passed and gone, but these people, our forefathers, could stand in the presence of warriors who had faced Sauron himself. When there is great evil in the world, great heroes are born to fight it. These people, our forefathers, walked the same ground as legends.

Did they laugh, these legends? Did they feel fear and doubt, just like any man? I do not know, for my tale is not a tale of great ones. This is no dry academic treatise, written for elderly scholars to argue over in their high towers. No, my tale is that of the ordinary people: the citizens of Minas Tirith at the dawn of the Fourth Age. It is a tale of the people, written for the people. My song is one of their clothes and their food, their houses and their games; their dance and their music at the very cusp of the modern age.

And so I join them first on this summer afternoon, as they gathered to witness a meeting of kings. The day would end in death and fear, of course, but they did not know it. All they knew was that they had come together in happiness, bound together by joy and pride.

What did they look like, these people of the new age? Just like us, for all that they had lived through marvels. The modern tradition of portraiture was born in the early years of Elessar's reign, and we have portraits not just of kings and princes, but of wealthy artisans and their wives. Some artists painted servants. Some painted street scenes and the bustle of the market place. Look at any such picture, and you will see faces that would not look out of place in a modern market place.

The clothes they wore were very different from the clothes of today. Queen Arwen was a leader of fashion, but not in the manner of today's famous ladies, with their ever-changing passions. Queen Arwen's style was the epitome of unfussy elegance, and the women of Gondor flocked to emulate her, thus avoiding the vanity and decadence that would plague later centuries. As for the men, there was a strong military influence, even amongst men who had never fought. The grey cloaks and the natural colours of the Rangers were favoured, even by those who had never ventured into the wilds.

They were people like us, in different clothes. They were people who had lived through horrors that we can never imagine, but who also lived alongside heroes whose like we will never see again. As they waited for their king, some nibbled snacks, some sang, some gossiped, some played. Traders hawked their wares. Boys and girls flirted and snatched a kiss.

Just like us. Just like us.

******

"Go away," Lainor mumbled, but the knocking at the door did not go away. It was soft, more like scratching than knocking, really. Like fingernails. Chalk on a blackboard. A knife piercing his skull. There was a dull throbbing behind his eyes, like… like... Oh, he didn't know. Hurt, though. He tried to swallow, but there was nothing in his mouth to swallow with. "Go away." His voice cracked. He rolled over onto his side, his hands balled into fists. "Go away!" he shouted.

The person at his door did not go away. The sound grew louder, more like proper knock, now, but still soft.

Like a girl. Like a girl with hair like sparking fire. A girl who turned and walked away, leaving him just a letter and his memories.

"Rosseth?" He pushed himself to his feet, lurching with the bitter aftermath of wine. His hip crashed into a corner of the loom, and he bellowed with pain and hope and fury. He must have fallen asleep on the floor again. Bed was a faint memory. Bed was a vast cold emptiness, tangled sheets that had once been washed and cleaned by her.

"Rosseth?" Hand pressed against his throbbing hip, he shambled to the door. Perhaps it was her. No, no, it couldn't be. She had made that quite clear. Again and again, he had found her, asked her, begged her. It wouldn't be…

But his other hand teased at his hair, raking away tangles, smoothing it down. It scraped across his face. It pulled at his tunic, tugging at the creases. He should go to the window and throw it open; let the… morning? Was it morning? He thought so, yes. Let in the morning air and drive away the stench of spilled wine and a broken life. He should…

A voice spoke his name. It was not her.

He ripped open the door. "Who are you?" he snarled. "I don't want you here. Go away." There was more light outside from the windows on the stairwell, and he winced away from it. Dusty drapes covered his own window. It was weeks since he had opened them and let the light in. He didn't think he ever would again.

The man on the doorstep did not give him a name. He was an unassuming fellow, short and slight, and perhaps a few years younger than Lainor himself. His quick flash of a smile was almost apologetic. He came on the king's business, or so he said. He had papers to prove it, or so he said, and some sort of token, and… Oh, what did it matter? Lainor barely glanced at them.

"You're no soldier," Lainor said. Not a guard. Not Rosseth. His stomach lurched sickeningly, and he gripped the open door. Did Rosseth have a new…? No, no, it couldn't be. He refused to… "I was a soldier." All unbidden, words came out of his arid mouth. Everything was spinning in front of his eyes. "Marched out to the Black Gate with the king."

And turned away before he got there. Accepted the offer to depart, then turned away a second time, running away even from that lesser task that the king had given those with a coward's heart. Nobody knew that. So much confusion and so many dead, and it was easy to slip away and hide between the cracks, then sidle back into the city afterwards, and pretend that you had played your part. Nobody knew.

Rosseth knew. She knew now.

Not a soldier, the man said; Lainor barely heard him. There was a ceremony today: the King of Rohan arriving in the afternoon, and King Elessar coming down to greet him. Routine security, the man said. Lainor's loft had a view of the processional route, now that the mansion opposite was half down. Had Lainor seen anything untoward…?

Lainor shook his head. It hurt. There were voices in the street outside his window: song, laughter, the gossip of fierce, bright girls. The king. The king would be passing nearby and if Lainor climbed to his loft and looked out into the clear fresh air, he would see him. He would see him.

He had not seen the king for fourteen years, since the day he had turned away from him, lowered his head, and accepted the offer of an honourable departure. He had lowered his head for fourteen years. For fourteen years, he had looked away.

"There's nothing," he managed to say. "I'm a weaver." He gestured vaguely at his father's loom. "I've got rolls of cloth awaiting buyers and bales of yarn awaiting weaving."

The man wanted to see, of course. Lainor scraped his hand across his brow. Outside, a dozen voices rose in ragged chorus. Oh, but Lainor just wanted to sleep! "Go on, then." He squeezed the sides of his temples, fingers digging in. "Then go. Leave me alone." Leave me alone! he wanted to scream to the crowds outside. At least I rode out with him! he could have shouted at them. I stayed here for the siege. I volunteered. I went.

It had meant nothing to Rosseth, of course.

The man slithered past him in the doorway, and began to climb the ladder. Lainor waited for a moment, pressed his brow against the wooden door, and followed him. "See?" he said, when he reached the top. He had not been here in… weeks? Months? The bales were dappled with dust and shadows. He could have sold them. He should have sold them. Strands of yarn coiled forgotten from the sacks. "See?" He said it like a challenge. "There's nothing here."

He could not see the stranger's face, but he saw his shoulders rise and fall with his too-rapid breathing. "Yes," the stranger agreed. "There's nothing here."

******

The assassin curled in on himself, barely breathing. Even the light breaths that he allowed himself sounded unnaturally loud. He tried not to move, but occasionally he trembled, his clothes whispering against the bales of cloth.

The voices were gone now. Feet had creaked down the ladder, and he had heard the men exchange a few more words below, and then the door had shut. They were gone. He thought. The weaver shambled around for a while, feet scraping on the floor. Then there was weeping, and then nothing at all.

Another shivering breath, and then another. Another.

He uncurled his leg first, paused for a reaction, then moved the other leg. Expectation was like a dagger along his spine. Had the weaver come back? Had the other man only pretended to leave? More movement: an arm, then his head. He crawled free, then clapped his hand to his mouth and managed a shuddering, silent cough.

Nothing. Nobody shouted. Nobody came.

He let out a long breath. He had crafted this hiding place days ago, subtly moving each bale of cloth in a way that would allow a small man to burrow between them and remain unseen. It had done its job. Suspicious eyes had glanced this way, and then moved on.

Nothing had changed.

******

And there was the city ahead of them, as vast as ever, shining in the sun. Pippin had tried to describe it to the hobbits back home, but he didn't think any of them had truly grasped how awe-inspiring it was. 'Built against the side of a mountain,' he had told them, but how many of them had ever seen a mountain? 'Tier after tier of shining stone,' but hobbits built low, and the most prized homes were dug into the earth and covered with grass and flowers.

I was afraid when I first got there. He could have told them that, but of course he had not. He and Merry had come back heroes, with their new height and their liveries and their gifts from kings. Younger hobbits had flocked to hear their tales and had looked up at them admiringly. 'I came with Gandalf;' he had said that much. Riding on Shadowfax, brought there alone to meet with Denethor and become a knight of Gondor.

Nothing about the fear. Nothing about how huge it was, and how small you felt when you were the only hobbit in an enormous city built for Men.

It was a friendly city now, of course, and he had come here several times, but…

"The weather turned out nicely," Merry said, "just as Aragorn said it would." His smile was too bright.

They had barely two miles to go. On the road, away from settlements, they rode in no particular formation. Éomer's outriders had their assigned positions, of course, but Éomer was as likely to be dawdling alongside the hobbits as to be riding at the head of his entourage. Now, without any visible orders being given, the party was assuming its formal order. Merry and Pippin were near the front, dwarfed by the stern-faced Riders that flanked them. There were few smiles now, just the formal faces of men facing a public ceremony.

"This is why Strider came to meet us," Pippin said. The name slipped out before he could stop it, and he winced. He could say it in private, perhaps - perhaps - but it was probably not the done thing to say it in front of others. I wish…

He stopped that thought. For a while - for a few months, or, if he was honest, for a few years - he had enjoyed the fame that his adventures had brought him. Oh, he hadn't put on airs and graces, or so he hoped - Frodo and Sam were worthy of far more honour, and they never courted it - but he had enjoyed being the object of admiration. Now he just wished for a quiet meeting beneath the apple trees, and to slip into Minas Tirith in the twilight, to spend time with his friends.

Merry was looking at him. Merry was Master of Buckland now, but Pippin was not yet Thain; not yet old enough to be Thain, and he didn't…

I don't…

"There's no shadow," Pippin said. "The thing that Aragorn talked about. The shadow." He swallowed. The city was growing nearer and larger with every step. "Can he really see glimpses of things that haven't happened yet? He was right about Gandalf in Moria. I thought he was just saying it - just a normal sort of warning - but it was more than that, wasn't it? I've heard what the minstrels say. His bloodline has the gift of foresight."

Closer. Ever closer.

"And it's strange, isn't it?" He was babbling now, he thought. "We're just hobbits, and we've stepped into a story." He was friends with a king, no, with two kings. Strider, the disreputable fellow they had met in an inn and not always been entirely polite to, had the power to glimpse the world to come. "What's happening, Merry?" He was over forty years old. He thought he sounded like a child. "Aragorn and the others left so suddenly. Just a few minutes with Éomer, and then they were gone. Aragorn looked…" He shook his head, struggling for words. "I've never seen him like that."

"Whatever this 'shadow' was, they'll have dealt with it," said Merry the Master of Buckland, still reassuring, still exuding confidence, as he had first done over thirty years ago, when his young cousin Pippin had been afraid of foxes yipping in the dark.

******

A lone trumpet called out from the watch tower. Other trumpets took up its call, passing the message along the battlements: from the Citadel to the Great Gate; from the Great Gate back up to the heights again. A bell sounded prematurely, just one note, not joined by the rest of the peal: an over-eager bellringer coming in before his cue.

"He will be buying the drinks tonight," Aragorn murmured with a smile.

"My lord…" It was Haedirn, captain of the Citadel guard, the words almost pleading. Even Faramir looked pained, his face drawn and tense. Arwen's fingertips touched the back of Aragorn's hand, perhaps a gentle warning, perhaps just to remind him that she was here.

The trumpet calls died away. Far below, crowds were cheering, but it was only a faint murmur here in the Court of the Fountain. Aragorn looked up at the tallest tower, where the mithril on the royal banner was gleaming in the sun.

It was time. Éomer's party had been sighted, and it was time to journey down to greet them. It was time to face the shadow.

Aragorn began to walk towards the gate. Guards flanked it, their faces hidden by their helmets. Faramir fell into step beside him, leaning towards him in a fiction of speaking in confidence. "My lord, are you sure…?"

"I am sure," Aragorn told him.

The shadow was still there; a constant awareness at the back of his mind. Between the Citadel and the Great Gate, great danger awaited. He thought he was the target, but he could not be sure. Arwen, Faramir, Legolas, Gimli, Éomer, Merry or Pippin… If any of them were killed, it would be a wound to his heart as sharp as any blade. If his guests were publicly struck down within the gates of Minas Tirith, it would be a blow to Gondor, seriously affecting how she was seen by her allies and her enemies alike. A king had to consider things that way. He had to consider the wider implications, not just the personal cost.

"You could stay here." Faramir was saying it because he had to, of course. It was his job to suggest possibilities. To Faramir, as to Captain Haedirn of the Citadel Guard, one concern was paramount. Their king was in danger. Everything else was secondary to that. "Greet Éomer here, in the Courtyard, closed to public view." It was a sign of disquiet that he referred to Éomer without his title. Éomer was his brother-in-law, but in public and in formal ceremonies, even when alone, Faramir was scrupulous about titles.

"And disappoint the people?" The breeze shifted, bringing a sudden surge of distant cheering, like a soft wave breaking on the shore.

"Sire…" Captain Haedirn begged, driven beyond endurance. The people meant nothing. Appearances were nothing. Better to have a king who cowered in his Citadel, a king who lived.

"And expose King Éomer to the danger?" Aragorn kept his voice gentle, but there was steel behind it: a fist clad in a velvet glove. "If the danger I have foreseen should prove true, how will it be spoken abroad? That the King of Gondor threw his guests to the wolves, while he cowered behind a locked door?" He softened the steel. "You are only doing your job, I know."

"Your safety is my concern, my lord," said the captain in anguish. "You are Gondor."

Yet Gondor existed for three thousand years before me, Aragorn could have said, and will continue to exist, I hope, long after I am gone. They were almost at the gate now. There was another flurry of trumpets, perhaps answering some signal from Éomer's party, still too far away to be heard.

None of them doubted him, Aragorn realised suddenly. He had slipped back into Minas Tirith the evening before, and had told them about his premonition. Steps had immediately been taken. Patrols had been dispatched, guards were stationed throughout the city, and the bloodhounds been busy all night, sniffing out clues. Not once had any of them asked him if he was sure. Faramir had the gift of foresight himself at times, of course, as did Arwen, but none of his captains and officials did. Yet none had raised even the faintest shadow of doubt. They instantly accepted that their king had gifts greater than other men. He spoke. They believed.

"Nothing has been found," he reminded them now. "Able men have scoured the city and have found no hint of any threat." I could be wrong, he might have said, but his awareness of the shadow would not let him speak the words. It was still there, almost real enough to touch.

Faramir said nothing. He was uncomfortable with the situation, but Aragorn knew that he understood why Aragorn had to ride out to face whatever danger lurked in the shadow. He would have done the same himself, after all.

"And if it is there, but they have failed to find it?" the captain said. "If they have failed, my lord…?"

There were times when Aragorn had to accept that he could no longer lead from the front. There were tasks that other men should do. There were officials throughout his kingdom who could judge in his name. There were soldiers who died for him, and captains who led missions that one day, long ago, he might have led by himself. Aragorn could not deliberately court danger on a whim, but this… But this…

"This is not the time for the King of Gondor to hide away," he said, as the gate opened before him, and he began the long descent.

******

"The Great Gate is shut." Pippin was whispering; he did not know why. "Merry, the Gate is shut."

"They know we're coming." Merry gestured towards Éomer's trumpeters. They had already unleashed a deafening flurry of sound, and looked as if they were preparing to do another. It had all sounded quite warlike to Pippin, almost like a threat, but he supposed he knew nothing about such things. The distant trumpets from the battlements of Minas Tirith had sounded more friendly, but perhaps that was just because they were further away.

"Then why…?" No, no, he had to stop asking questions. He was a knight of Gondor, and he was something of a hero to the hobbits back home. He looked up at the flying banners, horses galloping on a field of green. The nearest flagbearer was barely more than a boy, but his chin was high and he sat proud and erect in the saddle. But as Pippin watched him, he caught a flicker of anxiety in the bearer's eyes. He, too, was nervous, afraid that he would let his king down. Was he scared of dropping the banner? Of tripping? Of committing some breach of arcane Gondorian etiquette?

Pippin straightened his spine, and reached behind him with his left hand, making sure that his cloak hung well. Éomer turned in his saddle, smiling back at them. "Ride alongside me, my friends." He slowed a little, allowing them to catch up. Merry rode at his right hand, as befitted one with closer ties to the Mark, and Pippin moved into place at his left.

He remembered the first time he had seen Éomer, travel-worn and battered in the retinue of Théoden, a fading bruise on one cheek and a rent in his cloak. Éomer was a year younger than Pippin himself, but at that time, Pippin had been inclined to see all Men as older than him. Éomer had become king at the age of twenty-eight, never having expected the title or prepared for it. At twenty-eight, Pippin had never left the Shire, never held a sword, never been in danger of his life, seldom gone anywhere or done anything without an older friend or cousin at his side.

And now Éomer was king. And Pippin was a knight of Gondor, returning to the city in which he had vowed to serve.

Behind him, the trumpets blared out once more. A horse neighed. A bird soared above them on lazy wings. Pippin kept his head high, and let his pony take him towards whatever lay ahead.

******

Even here, he was watched. There were so few times now when Aragorn was not watched by strangers, his gestures and expressions noted, his words marked, reported or written down. Women and children stood on high balconies, some of them casting down flowers. A petal came to rest on Aragorn's hair. He plucked it off and nodded a thank you, making his lips smile. It was his duty, after all.

He walked alone, although guards flanked him. This concession at least he had made to the danger. Arwen was behind him, with Legolas and Gimli beside her as honoured guests, and Faramir had his own place in the procession, and his own guard. If a killer was indeed waiting to strike, his targets were separated. By rights, Faramir should have stayed behind, to ensure that the Steward survived even if the king did not, but Aragorn could not ask this of Faramir, not today. Éowyn and her children were safe, though, and Eldarion was well-guarded in the citadel. Whatever happened today, their lines would survive.

They reached the gate to the fifth level. The guards on duty saluted him, bowing their heads as he walked past. Unwise, he thought. He would have to change that. With their heads bowed, they were inattentive. There was too much deference in Gondor, he thought. It was getting worse, not better.

It was dark in the shadow on the gate, almost as dark as evening to eyes that had grown accustomed to fierce sunlight on white stone.

When Aragorn emerged from the gateway, the gate captain stepped forward, then went down on one knee. His eyes, though, remained alert, continuing to scan the area around his post. "My lord," he said. "Sire. It is... unconventional, but I was given a letter, a letter for you."

******

If she leant out of the window, Éowyn thought, she would see the banners of her own people, far below her on the plain. She would see her brother riding at the head of his warriors, as she had watched him from her window so many years ago. If Minas Tirith fell silent, she would hear the familiar horns of home. Her father had sounded horns like that, when he had come riding home. Théodred and Éomer, returning to Meduseld in the dark days of Gríma Wormtongue, had announced their arrival with horns, and she had run from the shadows to greet them, and then again, to watch them ride away.

But there were no horns here, and there were no windows to grant her a view of the plain. She was deep inside the Citadel, behind locked doors. Her children were with her, along with their nurse. Eldarion sat quietly in a corner and leafed through a book that was surely too difficult for him to read. "Can we go outside?" Elboron asked, and his nurse told him no, "no, you can't, dearie, not for a little while yet."

"But why not?" Elboron asked, and the nurse looked at Éowyn over his head, wanting her to be the one to answer.

Éowyn opened her mouth, and closed it again. Because the king has the gift of foresight, and he foresees some danger facing us all this day. Because your father and your uncle and the king are out there, facing that danger, while you… While I…

"Because the king has commanded it," Eldarion said, who was all of five years old, and yet was answering when she could not. "But it will be over soon, and then we can run."

As it had done so many times before, Éowyn's hand slid down to her belly. It was still flat, but that was the reason why she was trapped inside. So here she was in a locked room with no windows, while all the men she cared about were outside in the sunlight, moving away.

******

Daerion stood alone outside the Great Gate. It was closed behind him, as it had not been closed in daylight hours since the dark days of the siege. He had been Captain of the Great Gate then, too, but he had let it be breached by the enemy, and he had failed to withstand the Nazgûl and had fallen into the dark. All that was forgiven now. His king had forgiven him from the start, and over the years, Daerion had learnt to forgive himself. The Great Gate was still his.

But not for much longer, he thought. He was sixty-nine years old, and although it pleased him to believe that he was still hale, he was captain in little more than name now. He gave the commands, but younger men carried them out. Years ago, as a boy, he had given his heart to Captain Thorongil and longed to follow him. Too young, they had told him then. Too old. Was that what they were saying now? If so, he did not hear them, but his mirror told its tale. Sometimes, when he took his armour off at the end of the day, his body ached so much that he could barely stand.

Perhaps today would be a good day to hang up his sword. When the ceremony was over, he could request an audience with his king, and return the dagger that the king himself had given him so many years ago, when he was a captain and Daerion just a foolish child. The king would understand. He would allow Daerion to keep the dagger, but he would not let sentiment blind him to the city's needs. The Great Gate needed a younger man.

But he would perform his one last duty. The King of Rohan was close now, barely two furlongs away. A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd outside the Gate. They were at least two hundred strong: travellers who had arrived too late to enter the city before the Gate was shut, and those who had chosen to come outside and watch the visitors approach. "No, dear," he heard a young woman explain to her daughter, "he's not our king, but you're right, he is shiny."

Daerion smiled to himself, then decided to let the smile show openly, regardless of the fact that he was on duty, regardless of the fact that some amongst the crowd were watching him. Most of them were watching the approaching horsemen. Daerion watched and waited. Soon… Soon…

It was time. The Great Gate had been closed as soon as the party had been sighted, so it could be flung open as they neared it, as a symbol of the king's welcome: the gates thrown open to them without them needing to ask. Daerion did not know if it was a very old ritual revived, or a new ritual for a new age. All he knew was that the Gate was his charge, and it was time to perform his duty.

His last duty?

Perhaps.

******

Late, Mínir thought. He was too late.

It had taken too long. His role in the defence of the city was by necessity shrouded in deliberate mystery. He slipped into places where no guards could go. He spoke the vernacular of the people, and could mingle with crowds in low taverns, and sniff out secrets. It was nearly ten years since he had encountered a stranger in the fog: a stranger who had turned out to be the king. Mínir had been a nobody then, just a broken man who found straying husbands and missing purses for a small fee, but the king had looked into his eyes and said that he saw potential there. In him. In Mínir. Him.

Who'd have thought it? He said it laughingly, sometimes, drinking with his lads. 'Bloodhounds,' they were calling themselves now. 'Captain Mínir's bloodhounds.' The 'Captain' was mocking, surely, for he was just a nobody from the streets, not a man to hold a title. He was somewhere between a watch captain and a spy, but some days, most days, he liked to think that Minas Tirith was a little safer because of him and his lads.

But it had never been like this before. Please, please, he thought. Let me be right. Let me be on time.

Too long. The drunken weaver had led Mínir upstairs, and Mínir had known at once that something wasn't right. The signs were subtle, as they often were. Mínir had spoken once to a huntsman who had listed and described all those tiny clues that let him know that his quarry was near. It wasn't like that for Mínir, or not completely. He saw things and heard things. Sometimes he considered what he was seeing, and came up with a reasoned conclusion. Other times, he just felt.

This was one of those times. Perhaps it was a disturbance in the dust. Perhaps it was a sound too quiet for conscious hearing. Perhaps it was a smell: a neglected loft that didn't smell quite right. He is here! Mínir had thought it quite strongly. Someone is here!

But he had been alone, and the agreement was clear. He was no fighter. He was the bloodhound. He found the quarry, and others wielded the sword. And so he had turned and left, hoping desperately that the hiding man, if there was indeed a hiding man, was fooled into thinking himself safe. But it had taken too long, and the crowds were too thick. He could hear them now, laughing, singing, shouting. It had taken too long to find one of the friendly Guard captains, and longer still to return with the patrol. Just time to dash off a note in his clumsy, ill-tutored hand. Just time to tell the king that he had found something; that he thought, that he hoped…

"Please," he begged under his breath, but the weaver's door remained shut. Two of the patrol had axes - Good, he thought. Good! - but it was taking too long, the wood splintering far too slowly, and the king, the king was near.

******

The Great Gate swung open without a sound when they were still a hundred yards away. The guards drew to the side. The crowds were even further apart: two ragged lines of people on either side of the approach. No-one came forward. There was no herald, no official, no captain… no friends.

"It is how he wants it, Master Peregrin," Éomer said quietly. "The city is ours as it is his, to enter and leave as we will."

The ceremony was going to be within the walls, of course; Pippin remembered that. Aragorn had been crowned outside the city, to symbolise that he was no invader. He had only entered the city when its people had given him their acclamation, when they had invited him to rule them. They placed such store in gates and walls in this stone city in the south. There was nothing like this at home. But bounds, boundaries… They were important everywhere, Pippin supposed. Even when you opened your door and smiled and said, 'Come in! Come in!' you were saying that the house inside was yours, and the hobbit outside only entered because you had invited them.

But the gates of Minas Tirith had been thrown open to them on sight, and there was no-one on the threshold to invite them in. They would ride freely into the city just like a hobbit returning to his own home.

Home, Pippin thought. Welcome. Although nervousness still fluttered in his stomach, he looked straight ahead, into the city beyond the Gate, and he smiled.

******

From With My Own Eyes: Eyewitness Accounts of Great Events, edited by Hallas the Scribe, F.A. 520

Letter from Remiel daughter of Remion, written to her sister, F.A. 12

I was on the front row. Just fancy that! I thought they'd keep those places for great lords and ladies, but there I was, just little old me, a netmaker's daughter from the shores of the Anduin. The king would pass almost close enough to touch. That's what the lady next to me said, anyway, a motherly sort who'd clearly decided to take me under her wing. She had a posy of flowers, really lovely, for all that they were city grown. For the queen, she said, but she made me take them, said she wanted me to have the thrill of handing them over. I'm sending you one of them with this letter, pressed.

So there we were. I'd been standing there since before dawn, and city stone is harder on the feet than a soft riverbank. There were so many people! And all the towering stone! My ears were ringing. My head ached. So different from the meadows of home, where sometimes you hear nothing at all but the distant humming of the bees and the gentle rippling of the river.

Suddenly there was a blast of horns, like the ones we heard that day when the king's messengers came past, do you remember? "That's the Great Gate open again," my neighbour explained. "No, don't look like that. Of course you didn't hear it opening. It's dwarven workmanship, as quiet as pushing back a curtain. But the horns announce it, see."

So the King of Rohan was in the city, and the halflings, the ones they sing songs about. You always liked the tales of the halflings best, didn't you? I couldn't see them, though, but someone on the other side of the road was shouting something about banners, banners with horses on. People were cheering from somewhere not too far away. "The king," my neighbour told me. "The king is at the second gate. He'll be here soon."

The king! Walking right past me! And maybe the queen would accept the posy and smile at me. I wanted to laugh, but then, suddenly, I was almost weeping. My neighbour smiled at me as if she understood. I longed to be somewhere safe and far away. But at the same time, I knew that I couldn't bear to be anywhere but here.

"Very soon," my neighbour told me. "Very very soon. I see him. Yes, I see him!"

You'll have heard what happened, of course. Bad news spreads fast, and travellers will already have brought the tidings. I might even arrive home before my letter gets there, but I want to send it, paying a messenger to carry it for me, as if I'm some grand lady. You've never had a letter of your very own, and I've never sent one.

I just want to write it down, I think.

The crowd around me grew quieter as the king approached - saving their voices, or so my neighbour whispered, for the cheering that was to come. And that was how I heard it so clearly. There was a bell, a single, harsh, urgent bell, and then a shout. "He's going to kill the king!" it said, although I couldn't make it out at first, but that's what they told me afterwards. And then came the sound of breaking glass, and I saw someone falling. Someone screamed; I think it might have been me. And then everyone was screaming. It was all I heard, the screaming.

On to chapter three
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