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Land of Light and Shadows: 21. United

Legolas had come to the conclusion that men were among the strangest of Ilúvatar’s creations. And the customs that men follow are stranger still, he added silently, drifting through the shadows of the outer hall and watching the mingling delegates with a scrutiny that might make ordinary men blanch.

The Gathering had already been the scene of several interesting twists, and it was barely midnight. Had this meeting been elven and held within the halls of Mirkwood, there would have been no chance for anything to go awry so quickly. Politics would have stayed far away for the first night and the activities would have primarily consisted of opening formalities, including feasts and songs. To begin political negotiations so early into the meetings seemed foolish. One should first take the time to analyze the situation, and how better to do it than by listening to tales of the younger days while evaluating surrounding lords and nobles?

But that is the way of the elves, and I walk now in the world of men, Legolas sighed. And as such, I am constrained to follow their lead. Still, I could better this Gathering if they would hearken to my counsel. The elf sighed again and then shook his head, clearing his thoughts. His current mental track was far from his purpose now in the outer hall, and he forced himself to focus on the task at hand.

Arabano had been quite shaken after seeing the figure in red. For a long moment, he had stared into the darkness, but Legolas’s keen eyes could not find the man that Arabano claimed was Asbad. Failing to locate him, Arabano had started out into Haradhur’s streets with the intention of imparting to the elf and dwarf all that was currently known of the Khurintu tribe. But before they could reach a destination safe from listening ears, a rustle of desert robes down a dark alley had seized their attention. Gimli had been closest to the sound, and reacting quickly, he’d caught a glimpse of red garments moving back toward the site of the Gathering. Shaken again, Arabano had insisted they return and find Asbad before doing anything else.

Legolas frowned and leaned back against the wall. Arabano had been strangely persistent, and his instructions to them just before they had separated to search had been of a peculiar nature. According to Arabano, if the man in the red robes was spotted, then the hood of his cloak was to be thrown back and his desert scarves torn away, revealing the face behind the mask. Arabano had stressed this as being of the utmost importance, and insisted that it had to be done immediately upon finding Asbad. For his part, Legolas couldn’t see the logic in it. What was so important about immediately revealing that Asbad was the man in red? Surely it was more profitable to observe Asbad discreetly and by so doing perhaps obtain a better knowledge as to his intentions. After all, was not that a priority?

"Strange are the ways of mortals," Legolas murmured quietly to himself. Gimli had seemed to agree with Arabano, trusting in the man’s assessment of the situation, but Legolas had been dealing with plots and counter-plots for centuries. The current plan didn’t make sense. It would bring shame upon Khurintu by revealing that Asbad was in fact present at the Gathering, but that could also be accomplished by waiting and revealing Asbad after watching him. Legolas had attempted to explain this to Arabano, but the man would not listen, babbling something about signs and then moving out into the crowds to begin the search. Gimli had vanished just as quickly, leaving Legolas to wonder how men and dwarves had survived all the long years of Arda with such a weak grasp of political situations.

Lost in contemplation, Legolas almost missed the sudden hush that fell over the crowds. Fortunately, his senses were still attuned to his surroundings, and something deep within his mind sounded an alarm. Jumping back into reality, Legolas pressed himself up against the wall and took stock of the situation. Something in the hall had changed, and it did not take long for sharp elven eyes to spot the instrument of this change.

A man now stood before him, swathed in heavy red robes with head and face both covered. Arabano’s instructions immediately came to mind and Legolas almost heeded them, but something held him back. Why should he listen to a man who had only moments before attempted to kill his best friend? For that matter, why was he trusting the counsel of a mortal? He was Legolas, prince of Mirkwood and son of Thranduil. He could take matters into his own hands and had, in fact, been doing so for centuries. Arabano wanted Asbad revealed as the man in red. That could be arranged, but first, Legolas wanted to know what Asbad was doing.

Silent as a shadow, the elf drifted closer and watched as the crowds hurriedly cleared the area around Asbad. Much to Legolas’s surprise, Asbad did nothing in response. He simply stood there, shrouded as he was, and looked as though he was waiting for something. Legolas didn’t know quite what he had expected the man to do, but it wasn’t this. Something about this situation was wrong, and Legolas began to wonder if he shouldn’t have heeded Arabano’s advice from the first.

And as Legolas mulled over his options, Asbad continued to stand motionless. His stillness was sharply juxtaposed by the commotion filling the halls. Men were literally scrambling over one another to get away from this figure, and a sense of panic seemed to have come over all. This was not conducive to Legolas’s thought process, but there was very little he could do about it save to stay out of the way. This proved easier said than done, for the panic was reaching dangerous levels and Legolas was hard pressed to maintain his position, and in the end, he failed rather disastrously. Dodging several frightened guards, the elf sidestepped away from the wall and suddenly found himself alone in the circle with the man in red.

Apparently, this was what Asbad had been waiting for. Robes rippling slightly, he raised one arm and extended it toward Legolas. This gesture caused a sharp hiss to go through the crowds and a tense silence fell. Caught off guard and completely bewildered, Legolas froze, not knowing what might be the appropriate response to this situation. The confidence that had previously imbued him seemed to have vanished, and he now wished fervently that he had hearkened to Arabano’s counsel and acted when the opportunity was first available. He did not think he could act now, for an inner sense told him that Asbad wanted him to move. And though he did not understand this instinct, Legolas obeyed it for he had naught else to advise him. So for an eternal moment they stood thus, motionless elf and red-robed figure. And while they stood, the world seemed to hold its breath.

A shout from somewhere beyond the crowd broke the spell with an abruptness that was disconcerting, and with but a moment of hesitation, the figure in red suddenly backed away from Legolas and turned away. The crowd parted for him as though he bore a dreadful plague, and then he disappeared from sight, slipping out a doorway and vanishing into the night.

Coming out of his shock, Legolas started to follow but was interrupted when a strong hand caught his arm. His caution heightened by his recent encounter, Legolas spun out of the hold and reached for his knife only to have his arm captured again, but this time there was a voice to go with it.

"Legolas! Cursed elf, it is I!"

"Gimli?" the elf murmured, looking down and meeting the concerned eyes of his friend.

"Who did you think?" the dwarf demanded, releasing Legolas but staying close to the elf. He eyed the surrounding crowds who now watched the pair with open suspicion and then started to move. "Come. Arabano is waiting outside. And according to him, you have just made a bad situation worse."

"Gimli I…I know not what prompted me, but I could not act. Not at first. I needed to know Asbad’s intent. And by the time I realized the folly of my actions, it was too late."

"Save your excuses until we can better discuss them," Gimli said, hurrying toward one of the doors as those gathered continued to stare at them. "I like not this scrutiny."

Legolas glanced about even as he quickened his own pace and had to concur with the dwarf. The surrounding men looked less than pleased. What had happened? What had been the meaning of the figure in red?

Elf and dwarf left the hall almost at a run, and Gimli let out an audible sigh of relief to be away from the distrustful eyes. No one had made any move to hinder them, but the tension had been palpable and it was a great joy to escape. Stopping to glance behind him, Legolas saw that a few men had gathered in the doorway and were still watching them.

"How did you move?" a voice suddenly demanded.

Whipping about even as he identified the owner of the voice, Legolas tried to make sense of the anomalous question and wondered just how confused he would become by the end of the night. He was already grasping at the ragged edges of sanity. "Pardon?"

Stepping away from the side of a building where the shadows had served to cloak him, Arabano started toward the elf and repeated himself, tacking on an explanation of sorts for good measure. "How did you move? When Asbad was confronting you, did you step toward him or away from him?"

Legolas looked at Gimli, but a slight shrug told him that the dwarf was just as lost in this as the elf. Turning his attention back to Arabano, Legolas decided that the tribesman from the Lotessa tribe had enjoyed the upper hand for far too long. "I will answer your questions, Arabano, if you first answer mine. What is the significance of the red clothing, and what is the significance of my response to he who wore it?"

Arabano frowned and hesitated a moment. "I will explain all, but our next action depends upon how you moved when you were confronted. I must have your answer before we can do anything."

With narrowed eyes, Legolas kept his peace for a moment and then decided to play along. "I did nothing."

The man blinked and stared at the elf. "You did nothing? You did not move?"

"It did not seem wise to do so," Legolas answered, watching Arabano carefully. "And now it is your turn. Give us the answers that we were promised."

"Back inside," Arabano ordered, ignoring the elf’s command. "For one hour, walk about, speak, do anything you like, but make certain you are seen by as many of the delegates as is possible."

Legolas frowned, feeling that bewilderment and frustration had just reached new heights. It was some consolation when Gimli moved restlessly at his side, apparently just as baffled as he was. "Arabano, if you would but take a moment and explain how—"

"We are wasting time, honored ones," Arabano answered briskly. "One hour and no longer. Then all your questions will be answered, upon that I swear. I fear that any explanation I offer now would be too long, and we would lose this opportunity to undo some of what has been done."

Legolas did not like to be confused, and he did not like to be ordered about by a man he barely trusted. More than that, his shame at having let Asbad escape was making him defensive, and before he did anything else, he wanted an explanation. It was not in Legolas’s nature to be impatient, but on this occasion, he wanted answers and he wanted them now. Drawing himself up and calling upon all the training of his father in methods of royal intimidation, Legolas took a small step toward Arabano and fixed him with a hard stare that might have made even Aragorn blanch. "And what exactly has been done?" he demanded, his voice ringing with all the indignation of an affronted elven lord. "For I would know more ere I set about undoing it."

Caught somewhat off guard by this sudden display of royal authority, Arabano took a reflexive step backward and lowered his gaze, unable to meet Legolas’s eyes. "The Destroyer is part of an ancient tradition, almost as old as the Gathering itself, and something that Lord Sauron used upon occasion when he wished to make an example of a tribe. How you moved when confronted by the Destroyer was illustrative of your reaction to his promised destruction. However, you didn’t move, honored one, and Asbad fled before he could press you. This can mean several things, but we must take measures to see that it is interpreted in a way that shall benefit us. You must be seen by others so that they will know you have neither joined with the Destroyer nor fled Haradhur in fear of his wrath."

Legolas frowned and decided that Arabano had been right. Any good explanation at this point would, by necessity, be a long one. It seemed that once again he would have play the Haradrim’s game and hope to come out on top in the end. "You are a man of honor?" he finally asked.

Arabano drew himself up with the air of one highly offended. "My honor has never been questioned by any who know the reputation of myself or the reputation of the Lotessa tribe."

"Then humor one who knows not the reputation of either," Legolas responded coolly. "You swear upon your own life that we will receive a full explanation in one hour?"

Anger flashed in Arabano’s eyes, but at the same time, he seemed to realize just how much he was asking of the elf. At length, he nodded, though his eyes took on a hard edge. "I swear it upon the blood of my father," he answered.

Legolas glanced quickly at Gimli in case the dwarf had any qualms with this arrangement or wished to add anything. Gimli’s face had the look of one who was deep in contemplation and liked not the direction of his thoughts, but he shook his head slightly in response to the elf’s questioning gaze. "Then in one hour we shall meet you here," Legolas said.

"Until that time, honored ones," Arabano said. He gave them a quick bow and then turned, moving back toward the Gathering. Left alone in the dark streets, Legolas shot Gimli an expectant look, knowing that the dwarf had something on his mind.

"An interesting conversation," Gimli murmured as he glanced up and met the elf’s gaze. Folding his arms across his chest, his eyes took on a guarded expression and he studied Legolas closely. "Rarely have I heard you use that tone of voice, my friend. Is all well?"

"What think you? Does it seem that all is well?" Legolas asked.

"I did not refer to the Gathering, Legolas."

The elf grimaced and looked away, unsure of how to answer the dwarf. "As I said before, I know not what went through my mind. When I hesitated before Asbad, I felt as though I was looking after the best interests of Gondor and Rohan. Yet thinking back on it, I see that my actions were foolish. I do not know enough about this land to take such an independent stance. But at the time…" The elf trailed off and shook his head.

"It has been a strange night," Gimli murmured, keeping his dark eyes on Legolas. "Can you sense any…tampering with your thoughts?"

Legolas thought about that for a moment and then shook his head. "Nay, I think not. But I do sense darkness. In truth, Gimli, I think I felt this darkness before but passed it off as something that could be ignored."

"And you now think it should not be ignored?"

The elf sighed. "In truth, I know not what to think. But of this I am certain—my thoughts are my own. I feel whole and perhaps more like myself now than I did even earlier today. Mayhap the return of Ilúvatar’s song rendered me more impulsive than usual, I know not."

"We seem to have no lack of questions, but answers are scarce to be found," Gimli grumbled. "But so long as you seem yourself, I shall be content. Only tell me if something strikes you amiss. The men of this city are not to be trusted, and I fear what thoughts this Destroyer put into their minds."

"You are not alone in your misgivings," Legolas assured the dwarf, beginning to walk back toward the Gathering. Gimli fell into step beside him and the elf found a small measure of comfort in his companionship. "Together we shall overcome, of that I am certain," Legolas murmured.

"Then let us stay together," Gimli said. "I will share with you my thoughts, and you will share with me your thoughts."

"So be it," Legolas agreed, slowing slightly as they neared the doors. "Do you feel yourself ready to reenter the world of men’s politics, Master Dwarf?"

"No, but there seems to be little choice in the matter, Master Elf."

"And therein lies one of our many problems," Legolas sighed, steeling himself and crossing the threshold. "It seems our steps are already marked for us. We have not much choice in anything we do."

* * * *

"King Elessar, we must speak now."

Startled out of his conversation with Radarad of the Portu tribe, Aragorn looked up and blinked, confused by the combination of haste and anxiety that colored Eomer’s face. There was now perhaps an hour left before sunrise, and the Gathering was winding to a close for the night. Many of the other leaders had already departed, and Eomer had left earlier as well, having finished concluded all business that interested the Rohirrim. But now he was back, and it seemed that not all had gone as planned beyond the walls of the inner hall.

"Is aught wrong, King Eomer?" Aragorn asked, keeping his voice level at the same time that his mind began to click furiously.

"We must speak now," Eomer repeated, making no effort to explain himself and no move to leave.

Aragorn studied the horse-lord for a moment and then nodded slowly, alarmed by the gravity of Eomer’s eyes and the slight tension in his voice. "Perhaps we might continue this tomorrow night, Radarad," Aragorn said with an apologetic smile for the leader of Portu’s tribe. "It seems there is other business now that demands my attention."

"It is well past time for me to return to my own camp and order the needs of my own men," Radarad answered. "But I shall be happy to resume this talk at your convenience. Until tomorrow, King Elessar."

Aragorn inclined his head and Radarad bowed before moving away. Once Portu’s leader was a safe distance away, Eomer jerked his head to the side and swiftly moved to a doorway, glancing back once to make certain that Aragorn was with him. His alarm growing, the king of Gondor followed close behind as Eomer left the inner hall and then left the outer hall as well. Surmising that whatever Eomer had to say was something he did not want to say in the company of others, Aragorn kept silent, but his mind was awhirl with questions. Surely Legolas and Gimli managed to stay out of trouble for the first night, he tried to reassure himself even as a sinking feeling of dread caught up with him.

After snaking through several twisting streets, Eomer finally stopped and looked around, making certain that they were not observed. Fighting with a growing impatience, Aragorn folded his arms and waited, hoping an explanation would be forthcoming soon.

"What do you know of religious traditions in Harad," Eomer finally asked, his eyes still darting about as they searched the surrounding streets for listening ears and watching eyes.

The king of Gondor blinked, not prepared for such a question. "Of what importance are religious traditions in Harad?" Aragorn asked.

"Apparently something happened tonight that might greatly affect our standing at this Gathering, at least according to Arabano," Eomer answered. "What can you tell me about a figure robed in red? Know you anything of this? Legolas and Gimli were rather vague on the details and I know not yet if I truly trust Arabano."

"A figure in red?" Aragorn fell silent and sent his mind racing over memories from his last visit to Harad. "The Destroyer," he said at length. "There are several religious traditions in Harad that deal with destruction or calamity, and many of them contain stories of a red robed figure known as the Destroyer. Occasionally one hears stories where he is actually in white robes, but the use of red robes is far more common. According to tradition, the Destroyer is the harbinger of death and destruction. He was believed to have appeared just prior to the fall of Umbar, and it is written that he appears whenever grave danger threatens Harad. Sauron would occasionally send someone dressed as the Destroyer if he wished to discipline a certain tribe." Aragorn’s eyes narrowed and he studied the horse-lord. "What brings you to ask about this?"

"He was seen at the Gathering."

Aragorn held completely still for a moment, not quite certain of what his reaction should be to this news. "When?" he eventually demanded.

"Several times," Eomer answered. "Legolas saw him first about an hour after all the seconds had retired from the official Gathering, but he fled the building ere any others could see him. Then Gimli caught sight of him in an alleyway."

"He didn’t confront anyone?" Aragorn asked.

"If he had confronted someone, what would it have meant?" Eomer responded, returning question for question.

"It would have depended upon the response of the one he confronted. Sauron more or less codified the laws and traditions regarding the Destroyer. Before Sauron’s reign, I think the Destroyer could appear for one person. Under Sauron, the Destroyer came to represent doom for whatever tribes were present when the Destroyer appeared."

"If the Destroyer was a symbol of doom for all, then why was it necessary to confront someone? Wouldn’t his appearance be sufficient?"

"Sauron played an interesting game with the tribes of Harad," Aragorn answered, harking back to the years he had spent among the Haradrim long before the War of the Ring. "If he was displeased with some of them, he would arrange a meeting of sorts and invite to this meeting all those who had roused his ire. At some point during the proceedings, the Destroyer would appear and confront one person. That person then made a decision that would affect the rest of his tribe. If he stepped toward the Destroyer, he was symbolizing his allegiance to Sauron, and that tribe was spared the wrath of Sauron’s armies, which were always waiting in the desert to descend upon the meeting once the warning had been given."

"I did not think Sauron was one to grant mercy," Eomer said, his voice skeptical.

"He was not, and this was not mercy. A tribe that allied with Sauron against the other tribes was seen as having lost its honor by other Haradrim and was usually hunted down and killed to the last man, woman, and child."

"Ah. Then I suppose that if a person stepped away from the Destroyer, their tribe would be killed along with the other tribes."

"Close," Aragorn said. "They would actually be captured and tortured first."

"Why would Sauron give any tribe the choice, though?" Eomer asked. "Why not simply kill all who attended the meeting?"

"To serve as an example to other tribes," Aragorn said. "The tribe to whom the choice was given would always be one of the more troublesome tribes. And to them was given a terrible choice: they could lose their honor and die at the hands of their brethren, or they could be pursued like cattle, caught, butchered, and then killed in unspeakable ways."

Eomer nodded, thinking this over. "An interesting tradition," he said at length. "But since Sauron used it on a practical level, would the Destroyer still have an impact today? Sauron is gone, after all."

"You would think the impact would be lessened, yet just the opposite is true," Aragorn said. "The legend of the Destroyer is one passed down from generation to generation, and forms one of the basic tenets of the Haradrim’s religion. Simply because Sauron used it does not mean the Haradrim no longer believe in it. And Sauron was wise enough that he did not use it excessively."

"Then we are faced with an interesting dilemma," Eomer said. "The Destroyer confronted Legolas."

Aragorn blinked and stared. "Why did you not say so?!"

"Because had I told you outright, I would have gathered no information from you," Eomer answered. "You are filled with secrets, Aragorn, and secrets are something we can ill afford at this time."

"You do not understand!" Aragorn hissed. "Without Sauron, the prophecies of plague, calamity, and war shall be foremost on the minds of the Haradrim. Did Legolas step toward the Destroyer or away from him?"

"Neither. He simply stood there."

Aragorn frowned. "He did nothing? You are certain?"

"Legolas and Gimli both confirm this."

"Have you been to our camp? Does it still stand?"

"Legolas has identified six different spies watching it from various locations, but no one has made any threatening move."

Aragorn sighed and rubbed his temples, wondering how the situation could have spiraled so far out of control without his even being aware that a situation existed. "Spies are normal enough for a Gathering," he finally said. "That is no great concern now. But how is it that Legolas took no steps? The Destroyer always waits until the confronted one moves."

"Apparently, Gimli arrived before aught could happen, and the Destroyer left, possibly fearing that his true identity would be revealed."

"And that is something we shall have to discover," Aragorn said. "Sauron is no more and the Destroyer of legend is said to be a messenger of the Valar, or the Iluh, as the Haradrim call them."

"Arabano claims that this Destroyer is Asbad," Eomer said quietly.

Aragorn’s frustration was increasing exponentially, and he turned a rather dark glare on the king of Rohan. "Is there anything else concerning this night that you would care to tell me?"

Eomer cocked his head and narrowed his eyes, but there was almost a hint of amusement lurking within their depths. "The game is not so enjoyable when the tables are turned, is it?"

Feeling as though he was going to burst, Aragorn took a deep, calming breath and tried to take a mental step backwards. "It seems the two of us have many things to discussed that are not quite related to the Gathering," he said quietly when he trusted himself enough to speak.

"Indeed," Eomer murmured. "But now all the information is laid upon the table. Or rather, all the information that I could gather concerning the Destroyer that appeared this night. And I would ask to have your interpretation. What shall be the consequences? Legolas did not move. How shall the other tribes see this?"

"It could be seen in several different ways," Aragorn sighed. "But I judge that the most likely outcome will be uncertainty. Since Legolas did not react to the presence of the Destroyer, he neither joins him nor opposes him. Sauron refined the traditions and superstitions surrounding the Destroyer, but he did not provide for such an instance. As such, the Haradrim will be forced to hearken back to the tales they were told as children, and such tales are vague at best."

"But surely many will see that this Destroyer is but a man cloaked in red," Eomer pointed out.

"The ways of the Haradrim are not our ways," Aragorn sighed. "No sane Haradrim would risk impersonating the Destroyer. The dishonor of such an act might well splinter an entire tribe, even a tribe as powerful as Khurintu. And for this reason, Arabano will be unable to accuse Asbad. Such an accusation would seem ludicrous, for there is no apparent reason for Asbad to take such a risk. However, based on the information we have now, it seems that Asbad did, in fact, choose to impersonate the Destroyer. We must now unravel the reasoning behind this move, for the Khurintu is a tribe that weighs risk and gains. For a risk this large, they must plan to gain a great deal, and I do not think their gain shall also be a gain for us."

"Which is something that we have assumed from the beginning of this trip," Eomer sighed. "But what of Legolas? Prudence shies away from uncertainty. Will it be safe for Legolas to continue to participate in the Gathering?"

"So long as he does not relax his guard, I believe he shall be safe," Aragorn said slowly, his mind racing as he spoke. "And so long as Gimli is with him, together they should be able to thwart any threat. But as for participating in the Gathering…I think it will be necessary for him to be seen around the hall. It will show the Haradrim that Gondor does not fear the repercussions of their superstition. But we must also be mindful, for many might believe that our presence now symbolizes the beginning of the end for Harad. Legolas must be visible, but he must not be conspicuous. And I would hesitate to ask him to negotiate anything. I fear that task now falls upon the shoulders of Imhran and Gimli. The other delegates shall be wary of him, for they know not if calamity shall fall upon them for their association with one singled out by the Destroyer." Aragorn grimaced and shook his head. "I suppose that hopes for a smooth night were overly optimistic."

"This trip into Harad has been everything but what we expected," Eomer agreed quietly. "Though I fear I cannot say exactly what we expected."

"As is the case with most journeys, or so I have learned," Aragorn murmured. "But come. Since you have spoken with Legolas and Gimli, tell me if aught else happened this night that concerns Gondor and Rohan."

"As for other things of note, my riders have managed to construct a map of the layouts of the tribes both within and without the city’s walls," Eomer answered, a slight touch of pride entering his voice. "They paid special attention to Khurintu, but they found no sign of Asbad. If Arabano is correct, it is because Asbad was within the city playing the part of the Destroyer. The offer of an alliance from the Lotessa tribe is now an official one, but I gather there was something in the way of a misunderstanding ere Legolas, Gimli, and Arabano could agree upon that. But none of them are willing to speak of it, so I can give you nothing more concerning that. Whatever happened, Legolas and Gimli have assured me that they have taken care of it, and I suppose we shall have to trust them in this. They do not seem inclined to be forthcoming in the foreseeable future. And finally we have now a wealth of information concerning Khurintu’s latest activities, thanks to Arabano."

"Have you heard all that Gimli and Legolas have to tell on the subject of Khurintu?" Aragorn asked.

"Only in brief, for I was anxious to speak to you regarding the Destroyer."

"Then let us return to camp and here what Legolas and Gimli have to tell. I would learn what news they can tell us regarding Khurintu as well as their version of the events surrounding the encounter with Harad’s legendary figure of doom." The king of Gondor paused then, glancing at Eomer before continuing. "And I would also put this game of words behind us. We are equals here, Eomer. My apologies if my actions have not reflected that. I fear that for part of the trip I was not entirely myself, yet for this problem to emerge, there must be roots."

Eomer smiled mirthlessly and shook his head. "Nay, it is I who must apologize to you, Aragorn. A bitter mood has been upon me of late, and I sought only to assuage my pride. Think not that I hold aught against you, for I would not have played a game of words with you had the situation required swift action. I have said unto you before, Aragorn, that in all things, you are my liege lord. Yet even so, Rohan is its own kingdom, and I would see it respected for that."

"As would I," Aragorn agreed. "And I see there is much to discuss still, but let us agree upon this now: we are brothers-in-arms, you and I, and as such, we shall not play these petty games. My knowledge is yours, and yours is mine. And nothing shall sunder the alliance between our two kingdoms, for ours is a bond forged in blood and hardened by the fires of war. We cannot be divided."

"It shall be as you say," Eomer promised, his eyes flashing. "As one we drew swords at Helm’s Deep, and I vow this night that Rohan shall ever be one with Gondor."

"And I echo this vow," Aragorn said, his voice carrying a quiet but firm conviction. "And may the wrath of the Valar fall swiftly upon any who seek to sunder us again."

* * * *

A mistake had been made.

Dashnir couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but the feel of the Gathering was not what it should have been. There should have been far more suspicion and far more fear in the air. As he left the building, he noted clusters of men talking and their glances were furtive, but there was not really a sense of panic or coming calamity. And had all gone according to plan, there would have been.

Drawing his desert scarves up around his face to protect against the early morning breezes that could swirl sand up into small dust storms, Dashnir made his way toward the eastern gates of Haradhur, intent on seeking out his camp and demanding answers of his leader. He had played his own part well. He had been allowed to speak in the official Gathering where only tribal heads were allowed. He had challenged the will of the powerful tribes and won. Khurintu had been given the edge, and with this edge, it would obtain salvation for the Haradrim and vengeance for the Black Númenóreans. But even though all had gone well within the inner circle, something had apparently gone awry in the outer halls. And Dashnir intended to discover what that something was.

It was a rather significant walk from Haradhur’s eastern gate to the Khurintu camp, which was no accident but was still rather inconvenient at the moment. The moment for which they had waited and planned was almost upon them, and Dashnir’s impatience was difficult to contain. Nevertheless, he had been instructed by the best that Sauron had to offer, and he was not about to let his temper escape his control. Thus, he kept his expression casual, nodding slightly to some of the Haradrim he passed on his way to his own camp and making certain that his walk was slow and deliberate. Appearances still had to be maintained for at least one more day.

A small eternity later, Dashnir entered his own camp. He allowed his pace to quicken since he was now in the company of brethren who were just as anxious as he was. Returning the sentries’ salutes as he passed, he made his way unerringly toward the tent where Asbad spent the day. Not waiting for the guard on duty to pull aside the tent flap and announce him, Dashnir did it himself and quickly entered.

"You are wondering what happened."

Dashnir was brought up short, not quite expecting Asbad to take the lead in this conversation. "It is rather quiet in Haradhur," he confessed at length, speaking to Asbad’s back as the tribal leader poured over a map of Haradhur and the positions of the various camps. "I had expected more of an uproar. Has there been a change of plans?"

"Nay, but the next move shall require more subtlety than originally planned. I have sent for Radarad. His role shall have to be expanded."

"Though we control Portu, we cannot press them much further," Dashnir warned. "Radarad already chafes under our commands, and should he grow bold enough, I do not think he would hesitated to ask the Lotessa tribe for aid in freeing his people."

"Perhaps, but if he does not act by the end of the night, he will be unable to act at all." A silence fell and Asbad went back to studying his map, apparently feeling that the discussion had ended.

Dashnir did not share that view. He wanted answers. "Honored one, if it is not my place to know, I shall abide by your wisdom, yet I feel that in my position as acting head of this tribe at the Gathering, I ought to be informed as to what—"

"As to why Haradhur is not yet in a state of extreme panic," Asbad finished with a sigh. He shook his head and turned away from the map. "Nay, your question is a good one, but I fear that I do not quite understand the answer myself."

"Then perhaps you might share with me what happened this night, and perhaps in the sharing we shall find better answers."

"Perhaps," Asbad murmured, sounding less than confident. If Dashnir had not known better, he would have said that his leader was puzzled. "I was moving to confront the elf and the dwarf as we had planned," he began. "But the elf saw me ere I could slip into the hall. He did not recognize me, but I did have one scarf down so as to better see and the elf directed Arabano’s attention toward me."

Only a sharp intake of breath indicated Dashnir’s alarm, but his entire mind was shaking at the possible implications of this. The element of the Destroyer was among the more dangerous parts of the plan, and was one of the points at which the entire scheme could unravel. "Did he recognize you, do you think?"

"I believe so, but I think he was the only one to do so. And alone, without reliable witnesses, I do not think Arabano will be foolish enough to bring this matter before the Gathering. He has no authority to speak among the tribal heads, and it is well known that no love is lost between our tribe and the Lotessa tribe. Budari proved that well enough this night, or so my sources tell me."

"Nay, Budari was not pleased when Aulit allowed me to stay among the leaders," Dashnir remembered with a grim smile. "But we stray from the topic, honored one. What happened after Arabano saw you?"

"I left, of course, for I could not chance that any others recognize me. And then I returned when I deemed it safe. This time, I was able to actually confront the elf."

"And how did he move?" Dashnir asked.

"The elf did not move."

Dashnir blinked. "He did not move?"

"Nay, and herein lies our problem. How shall such a thing be interpreted by the other tribes? For until we know this, we cannot proceed."

"But we must act tonight!" Dashnir protested. "The plans are set and those meeting us at the rendezvous will already be traveling."

"I have not forgotten," Asbad said with a warning gleam in his eye. "And for this reason we shall now call upon the services of Radarad. Through his riders, who are renowned for gossip and rumors, we shall dictate exactly how the elf’s inaction should be interpreted."

"If he should come to know that we were behind the Destroyer—"

"He will not know. He will know only that the Khurintu tribe has archived a great store of knowledge regarding the Destroyer, and using the legends passed down among us, we shall interpret the role of the Destroyer at this Gathering."

"I pray Eru that you are correct," Dashnir said with a worried shake of his head. "We have gone too far and accomplished too much to falter now."

"Vengeance shall be ours, of that have no doubt," Asbad promised, his voice quiet and firm. "In the meantime, we must alter our strategy somewhat. Think you that the tribal heads are prepared to deal with another breach in protocol?"

"They will already be wary, but if such a breach is required, I shall see that it works," Dashnir vowed.

"Good. And how long do you think you can hold the floor if your speech happens to be little more than a series of rants and accusations?"

"It would depend upon the nature of such rants and accusations."

Asbad nodded and sighed slightly. "Then I wish you to stay and observe Radarad as I inform him of his new obligations. And afterward, we shall plan your speech to the delegates. Eru willing, all things shall be prepared for tonight. Fear not, Dashnir," he said with a smile that would have impressed Sauron. "Our long years of planning shall now bear the fruits of our labors. Tonight will mark the beginning of the end for Gondor and the heirs of Elendil."

"Never have you failed this tribe or our people," Dashnir said, feeling hope begin to rise again within his soul. "And in you I place my trust, honored one. Forgive me for doubting."

"I, too, harbor doubts," Asbad answered. "But they are groundless and are but the whisperings of prudence. Together we shall triumph, my friend. Together, all things are possible."

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Author: Thundera Tiger

Status: Reviewed

Completion: Work in Progress

Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

Genre: Action

Rating: General

Last Updated: 04/04/05

Original Post: 06/22/02

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