As Elrohir plunged into the barn, a wave of heat hit him. The air was already so thick with smoke he could barely see, and his eyes immediately began to sting and burn. Part of the side wall of the stable, nearest the burning bales, was ablaze, but so far the flames had not spread further. However, the horses – well able to smell the acrid smoke, and see the flickering flames – were already restless, moving uneasily and snorting nervously. They shuffled in their stalls, shaking their heads and softly whickering.
Aradan was already at the stall where Hithil and her foal stood huddled together. Elrohir joined him, sharing his silent determination that no matter what, these two should be the first saved. He could already tell that it would not be easy. Hithil stood protectively before the colt, resolutely blocking all Aradan’s attempts to reach him.
“Can you get Hithil out?” Elrohir shouted.
Aradan shook his head grimly. “She will not leave without him. If I can manage to reach the foal, she will follow – but she will not let me get past her!”
“Let me try. Hold her head.”
As Aradan restrained Hithil, successfully distracting her, Elrohir edged past and seized the foal’s stubby mane. Pulling as hard as he dared, he dragged the foal past his mother, out of the stall and into the centre aisle of the stable. Hithil turned with a snort as she saw her foal being taken from her, and instinctively followed, her maternal urge to protect him even stronger than her fear of the fire.
The wall and one of the partitions near the entrance were already burning fiercely, so Elrohir shielded the foal’s view of the flames with his body. The foal, trusting and curious, walked meekly with him – through the thick smoke, past the flames, and towards the exit, and safety. Hithil paced close by his side.
At the stable door Elrohir released the foal, standing by warily as Hithil pushed past him in case they suddenly turned back. He had heard tales of horses who would run back into a burning stable, clinging to a known sanctuary in the face of chaos and confusion. Scenting clean air, Hithil burst out into the yard, her foal by her side. He heaved a sigh of relief. “Thank the Valar for that,” he muttered. He could not have borne it if anything had happened to them.
He blinked to ease his stinging eyes and drew a deep breath of fresh air before turning back into the blazing barn at a shout from Aradan. “Elrohir! Come on!”
Working from the front of the stable now – the area closest to the fire – Elrohir lifted the bar across the nearest stall. “Come on – out you go,” he urged gently. The stallion needed no further prompting, and shot forward, nearly knocking Elrohir over, and out into the yard. Elated, he turned to the next stall. If all the horses were that eager to escape, he and Aradan could save them all before disaster struck.
It proved a vain hope. The next stall housed an elderly mare who was noted for her stubborn temperament. She stood stolidly, resisting both Elrohir’s gentle persuasion and his increasing irritation. “Come on, old lady – you do not want to stay here, do you? Come outside, and you can have all the oats you want. Come now,” he coaxed her. She took not the slightest notice, but backed further into a corner of her stall. “Move, you awkward, obstinate creature! Get out!” She still refused to move, and finally, reluctantly, he left her. There was no time, and while Feinloth was refusing to leave, there were other horses that he could help.
Even so, it was slow work. The horses, for the most part, were usually amenable, willing beasts, and trusted both him and Aradan completely – but not now. It took all Elrohir’s skill – and patience – to get close enough to each mare or stallion to whisper soothingly to them, to calm them enough to venture out of the stalls. Then they had to be coaxed past the flames now licking at the door frame itself. It all took time – time they did not have. The fire was spreading with a frightening rapidity, and the horses were growing increasingly panicked. It gave him no satisfaction at all to note that Aradan was experiencing just as much difficulty.
Outside, he could hear shouts, orders being given, running feet and the sound of the horses he and Aradan had managed to release running wildly around the yard. He could hear Elladan’s voice too, and wondered fleetingly how in all of Arda anyone had been able to make his twin see sense, and prevent him from entering the stable. Elrohir’s earlier order to the groom had been instinctive, but he had never dared hope that it would be successful.
Glorfindel was there too – it was probably he who had stopped Elladan – and Elrohir knew that between them, he and Elladan would take control of the situation, bring order to the confusion outside, and set about tackling the fire before it spread through the woodland. It was some relief to know that Imladris itself would be safe.
As they worked, Aradan looked sharply at Elrohir. “You knew this would happen – or something like it,” he commented, as he sent another panicked horse on its way out into the open. “How?”
Elrohir shrugged as he opened the last stall. “Elladan knew somehow. He does, sometimes. He warned me. I came down to tell you.” From the long look of disbelief Aradan gave him, Elrohir judged that this was neither the time nor the place to explain the uncertain nature of Elladan’s visions. “He said …” Elrohir broke off his commentary to Aradan as the horse in the stall backed away nervously, her ears flattened. Murmuring soothingly, he calmed the jittery mare and coaxed her out gently. As she fled outside, Elrohir glanced back at Aradan. “Elladan told me something else, as well. The roof – he saw it collapse. Aradan, we have to hurry. This is taking too long!”
They both glanced up instinctively. Flames licked across the underside of the roof, and the dry thatch and supporting roof-beams were already burning. Aradan shrugged. “The roof will collapse? It takes no great wit to work that out,” he stated dismissively. “The stable cannot be saved. All I care about is that we get the horses out.”
Elrohir looked around the stable despairingly. Aradan’s single-minded devotion to the horses was blinding him to the steadily increasing danger they all faced. The fire was spreading, and there were still a few horses remaining stubbornly in their stalls. How much longer did they have? He wished there was something more he could do, some way of holding off the impending disaster.
Then, in the work area at the far end of the stable, he saw it. The end wall backed onto the perimeter of the stable yard, and was built of stone. A long ladder and a rack of tools hung against it. Elrohir ran to the ladder, pulling it off the iron staples that held it in place. “Help me with this!” he shouted to Aradan. Aradan ignored him. Hauling the ladder upright, Elrohir wedged it under one of the Y-shaped roof beams. If – when – the roof caved in, the ladder might hold it up for a few vital moments.
Even in the short time it had taken to push the ladder into place, the smoke had thickened even more. It was impossible to see more than a few inches even if his eyes had not been streaming, and in the end Elrohir shut his eyes as much as possible and worked by instinct. He knew the stable like the back of his hand, and did not have to be able to see to know his way around. There were four horses left, then three, then two. Dúath, the second to last, emerged from his stall warily, ears flat and his nostrils flaring. Suddenly he stopped and shied as more flames leapt up beside him. Before he could think of retreating back into his stall, Elrohir gave him a sharp slap on the rump, and the stallion surged forward through the flames and smoke to freedom.
Only one horse remained, but time was running out. Even through the wet cloth it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe, and his damp clothes were steaming in the heat. Elrohir looked up at the roof again. He estimated that they had a few minutes left, no longer. From outside, he heard Elladan’s voice again, raised in a shout of warning. “El! Hurry up – there is not much time!”
“I know!” he called back. Elladan would have to be content with that, but he knew how worried his brother would be. He was worried himself. Only Feinloth was left now, and Elrohir returned to her in a last ditch attempt to force her out. If it came to it, could he bring himself to leave her behind? He knew the answer had to be ‘yes’ eventually, but he wanted to make one last effort.
Aradan joined him, and together, by brute force, they hauled Feinloth out of her stall, her head towards the stable door. Standing one on each side of her, they guided her past the flames, and were only moments from success and safety when disaster struck. Elrohir had all but forgotten the storm that had caused this, but there was a loud clap of thunder which proved the final straw for Feinloth. She broke free, and dashed to the back of the stable. From outside there was a shrill whinny and a cry of alarm – and then, like a bad dream, Dúath appeared through the smoke, heading back into the stable.
“Balrog’s balls! What are they doing out there?” Elrohir demanded. He plunged after the horses, dodging to one side as a piece of burning thatch fell from the roof. He could dimly hear Elladan shouting his name, but it was too late. They had run out of time. Flames shot up across the doorway, a wall of fire that drove them back from the fierce heat to retreat against the far wall.
He glanced at Aradan, seeing his own fear reflected there. They were trapped. This was no way to die, but their only chance of survival lay ahead. He gazed at the wall of flame in dread. It would require all his courage, strength and determination to do this.
“Aradan! We have to go! We must try – we can run through the flames there. There will be water on the other side – it is our only hope!”
Aradan stared at him, then at the flames. “You mean to leave Feinloth and Dúath?” he asked incredulously.
Elrohir gave the horses one last look. “If they will not follow – we will have to,” he said despairingly. “But there is no other way out that I can see or think of.” He hated himself for suggesting it, but he had learned both as a warrior, and as his father’s son, that harsh decisions had to be made at times.
The decision, though, was made for them. There was a roar of flame, and the fire leapt still higher. The whole roof was blazing, and pieces of burning thatch dropped down, setting light to the few areas where the fire had not yet reached. The smoke was choking now, and Elrohir coughed harshly, realising that somewhere – probably in the struggle with Feinloth – he had lost the strip of rag that had protected him from the worst of the smoke.
Above, the roof beams were burning fiercely and ominous cracking sounds made them both look up. Blazing shards rained down on all four, and Elrohir brushed them off as they fell on him and the horses.
Then, with a final creaking groan, the wooden beams gave way
and fell, and the whole roof collapsed in a shower of sparks and
Author Note: This chapter is dedicated to the staff of Paignton Zoo.
Since I started this story in January, real life locally has echoed events in the tale – with a far more tragic outcome. The zoo staff and firefighters risked their lives to rescue animals from a fire last week, but sadly two giraffes, a mother and her still-unnamed, week-old calf died. Although rescued from the fire, a third giraffe, the father, subsequently died this weekend.
The real-life heroism shown far eclipses that of fictional characters.First > Previous > Next