Carry On

(( The title is a nod to the song "Carry On My Wayward Son" by the band Kansas, and that is a good companion to this piece. Character death ahead. ))

    Hawk knew something was wrong when the Hounds came to retrieve him from his prison cell early that fateful morning. Though they offered nothing in the way of spoken word or expression, these hardened knights, there was something grim in the set of their eyes. Even more confusing to Hawk, they took another prisoner from the upper cells—young, and Hawk had no way of knowing his crimes—and chained the man's wrists, slipping a dark cloth hood over his frightened face. Was this other prisoner to be transferred to Minas Tirith as well? 

    Then, when they paused in an antechamber of the Keep and began forcing a helmet and armour on him, Hawk finally understood: they were using this hapless prisoner as a double, and Hawk was to ride with the Hounds, dressed as one of them. He opened his mouth to protest, angered that they would put another life in danger on his behalf, but that only served to make it easier for the knights to gag him as they tied his wrists, hardly taking care of his broken hand.

    Had they told Lif and the others about this duplicity? Hawk turned his head, uneasy, looking for any sign of Xandlif or Yolanda, but the Hounds had taken full advantage of Addie's departure to change and join the others in anticipation of the transfer, and there were now no witnesses. Why the need for a double? The knights were forced to hold him still as they slid a heavy helm onto Hawk's head, limiting his vision and completing his disguise. Thus bound and hampered by the ill-fitting gear, it was easy for the knights to hoist Hawk onto the back of one of their horses outside the Keep, and they lashed his hands to the saddle horn to prevent any escape attempts. With both prisoners readied, the Hounds marched through the city.

    The feeling of unease in his stomach only deepened as they arrived at the wagon. Hawk understood now why they hadn't bothered finding someone of his actual height: the hooded prisoner, hunched in the seat of the transport, could have been anyone, and the poor man was no doubt too frightened to speak for fear of worsening his situation. When Hawk's friends joined the group he watched as they took up their positions, none of them suspecting the ploy, not even Lif as the Champion peered through the barred window into the carriage. 

    Weakened from his long captivity and the torture he'd endured, Hawk nonetheless attempted to struggle, to warn them. I'm here, he wanted to say, to yell, but the cloth gag and the helmet made speaking impossible. Frustration and helplessness settled over him and he could do nothing as the convoy set off through the gates. He was in a group of riders following behind the carriage, with Xandilif and Eduwiges riding with Gareth ahead. Though he couldn't turn his head to look, Hawk knew that Xanderian, Addiela, Nethrida, and Calidis were following in their wake. His friends were so close...and yet to them he was simply a faceless soldier. 

    He dozed as they traveled along the coast. The heat and humidity beat upon the armour he wore, and Hawk had very little strength, but his bonds kept him upright in the saddle. There was no conversation among the Hounds, nor among his friends, either: all were grim and readied for danger, and only Xandilif seemed confident enough to converse with Gareth; though what they said he couldn't hear.

    Then suddenly they were stopping, a frisson of alarm working through the convoy, and the danger was upon them. 

    Hawk watched in horror as enkindled arrows sailed from the hilltop and embedded in the wagon, quickly setting the canvass and wood ablaze. The prisoner! As the transport began to burn in earnest the sounds of the man's screams joined the pandemonium, and Hawk realised then how close it had come to that being him trapped in the flaming wagon, burning to death. 

    What happened next passed so quickly he could hardly register it: Eduwiges was upon the wagon, attempting to save the poor wretch that his friends would have to assume was Hawk. The group of Hounds he'd been riding with closed ranks around him, circling around Hawk's horse, and all was smoke and battle cries and fear.

    Let me help! Hawk turned his head, trying to find the others through the narrow gap in his helmet, a new wave of helplessness washing over him. There was Nethrida charging towards the hill, Calidis calling upon her magic and fury, Eduwiges wresting the charred prisoner from the wagon. He caught a glimpse of Addie's face when it became clear the poor man was dead and Hawk's heart ached for them, no doubt thinking him dead. Then Edu's cry...Where is Hawk? 

    I'm here! No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't call to them or free himself. Smoke filled his eyes and then he felt the impact of an arrow as it struck his shoulder. Worse still, his horse suddenly shrieked in pain and fear as it too was hit, though Hawk couldn't see how badly, and the beast shuddered and lunged beneath him. The Hounds had dispersed, called to charge by Gareth's order, and then there was space for Hawk's horse to rear and buck, blood and foam dripping from its nose and mouth. 

    As his horse turned, Hawk finally managed to find Xanderian. His eyes met hers as she raised her bow, calling out to him as she let the arrow fly. It struck his helm, dazing him and knocking the helmet clear in a shower of sparks, and any who looked could see that he was here, not that burned corpse on the ground. His relief lasted only moments, as the hiss of the arrow and the strike upon his helm set his already raging horse into full mania.     

    They were rushing away from the battle. The wind caught in Hawk's hair, stinging his eyes, and the wild charging and rearing would have surely thrown him were he not anchored fast to the saddle. He could not soothe the horse or steer it, and when he looked up he saw the danger: the cliffs.

    They were rushing towards the cliffs.

    Sheer panic gripped him and Hawk struggled in vain, managing to turn his head in time to see Xan pull back her bow once more. She knew what she needed to do, and a calm settled over him. Xan never missed. He struggled to move his hands, to hold the ropes taut as the arrow flew, knowing she intended to sever them—but with one last lunge, Hawk's horse reared over an outcropping of rock. Xan's arrow struck, severing a braid of the ropes, but not enough, and Hawk screamed in muted agony as the shaft pierced his wrist.

    Time stood still, then. Through the pain and the adrenaline and the fear, Hawk met Xan's eyes for one last moment, and then he lost sight of her, of everyone.     

    Flying. They were flying, falling, plummeting over the side of the cliff, and Hawk heard the wind rush in his ears. His heart slowed as he watched the waves rapidly coming nearer. Did he imagine he could hear the call of the seagulls far above? Closing his eyes, he let the faces of those he loved enter his mind.