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Land of Light and Shadows: 22. Ere the Bough Breaks
To help keep names straight in this chapter (and there is some name-dropping) I’ve compiled yet another who’s who list at the end, this time including ALL the characters who will play an influential role (including canon characters). And I’ve also listed the more important tribes that we’ll run into. I figured if I was going to be thorough, I might as well be REALLY thorough. So if you ever get confused, jump to the end and refresh the memory!
The sun was moments away from making an appearance, and already silence had fallen over the dusty streets of Haradhur. The venders who had wandered about harking their wares were packed and gone. A few souls still lingered in the silence, but their business kept them hidden in alleys and shadows where other eyes might not see. It was perhaps one of the most dangerous times to be out and about in Haradhur, yet at the moment, the leader of the Lotessa tribe was braving the risk of assassination and boldly walking down one of the main streets toward the area where the Gartabo tribe was located.
Budari was not a foolish man, and he knew the risks he was taking. But he was also a trained warrior with a keen mind, able to weigh the consequences of inaction against the dangers of action and then move accordingly. And if the events of the past night dictated that he walk among thieves, spies, and murderers, then so be it. During his lifetime, he had galloped his horse across sand slippery with blood, and he had defied the spies of Sauron, killing them ere they could report back to their master. Risk was not a foreign concept to Budari and his tribe, and if said risk was necessary, then that was enough for him.
What is your game, Asbad? He shook his head as he walked, pondering over what Arabano, his second-in-command, had reported. Budari had met Asbad several times before, and he knew the man to be a cunning strategist and a dangerous enemy. But he could see no reason for the leader of Khurintu to impersonate the Destroyer. If such a thing were to be discovered and made known, then all of Khurintu would be shamed and most likely ostracized by the other tribes. Harad’s religions and traditions were not things taken likely, and imitating the harbinger of doom was not a casual offense. Yet if what Arabano reported was true—and Budari trusted Arabano as much as any man could trust another in Harad—Asbad had not only assumed the guise of a herald of the Iluh but had also confronted the elf from Gondor. By all the water of the hidden lakes, Asbad, what do you hope to gain by this?
Budari liked to feel that things were under control. He had grown up in a tribe of warriors, he had worked his way to the top, eventually becoming the tribal head, and he had quietly opposed the growing strength of the Khurintu tribe for years. This background had taught Budari that, if nothing else, things needed to be controlled. Even if Lotessa was not the tribe doing the controlling, there had to be some type of balance and some form of system. It was partly for this reason that Budari had agreed that the Gartabo tribe should head the Gathering for this year. Though not a tribe of warriors, Gartabo was respected for its prosperity and its control of several key hidden lakes, thus giving it its agricultural basis. Budari had been pressing for a stronger ally to officiate at the Gathering, but at least under Gartabo, there was a feel of order. Or rather, that was what had been anticipated. But at the moment, it felt that the situation was spiraling out of control, and Budari intended to see that it spiraled no further.
Reaching the Gartabo encampment and stopping when the sentries commanded, Budari waited impatiently even as his inner clock ticked off the minutes until the sun rose. Lotessa’s camp was located far outside Haradhur’s western gate, and it would be a very warm walk back if he could not conclude his meeting with Aulit quickly. Unfortunately, that prospect seemed optimistic at best, for Aulit was a very methodical man and liked to discuss things until every facet of every detail had been thoroughly examined. It seemed to be a required trait for leaders of the Gartabo tribe and had served them well in business dealings, but when working against the clock in the face of intrigue and betrayal, it was a weakness they could ill afford.
But at the moment, Budari knew not what else could be done. Lotessa could not directly act against Khurintu, for the rivalry between the two tribes, though it had never come to an open confrontation, was well known by all at the Gathering. Any accusation Lotessa made would be taken as an attempt to discredit Khurintu. Thus, actions by Lotessa would have to be taken by proxy, and since Gartabo presided at the Gathering, they seemed like the place to start.
A sentry now approached Budari and informed him that Aulit would be pleased to see him. Budari seriously doubted that, but he smoothed his face into a placid expression and inclined his head as a show of gratitude. Following the guard past the outer tents, Budari was soon led into the leader’s tent. Aulit looked up upon his entrance and waved several attendants away, quietly telling them that he would summon them one hour before sunset. Budari endured all this with what he hoped was a patient expression, but he couldn’t be certain as he felt anything but patient.
"You honor me with your presence, Budari," Aulit began, gesturing toward a stack of rugs.
"And you honor me by accepting me into your camp," Budari replied, taking a seat and waiting for Aulit to do likewise. "I have things I wish to discuss with you."
"And I have things I would discuss with you," Aulit said. "This Gathering has begun most curiously. I have already spoken with several leaders, all of whom voiced concerns over the appearance of the Destroyer. He has not been seen since the fall of Mordor. Have you any insight into this thing, Budari?"
"Perhaps, yet I would hold my peace in this matter for a while longer. It would be unwise to spread rumors ere I had the facts to back them. But the Destroyer is related to an area that warrants your attention, Aulit, and I would speak of it if I may."
"As you know, this Gathering has been the scene of several odd occurrences, and it is but one night into the negotiations. We have two foreign powers sitting with us within the inner hall, we have a second acting for his leader, we have an elf and a dwarf in our midst, and we have seen the reappearance of the Destroyer. All in all, this past night has been filled with surprises, and due to these surprises, I propose that we reinstate tradition."
"And what tradition would that be?" Aulit asked, his glance casual but his voice hard.
"Evict Dashnir from the council. Given the circumstances we face, we cannot have a second among the leaders. Aside from being a violation of sacred custom, it is dangerous."
Aulit was quiet for a while, his dark eyes studying Budari, and then he shrugged, leaning back and reaching for a water skin. "I fear I do not follow your reasoning. Surely, given the circumstances we face, someone must represent Khurintu. They are perhaps the most powerful tribe in the north. Would it not be foolish to continue in our proceedings without their counsel?"
"Dashnir has not the authority to speak for the entire tribe. He is but a pawn of Asbad, and if Asbad cares not to honor us with his presence, then we are more than justified in moving forward without the input of Khurintu."
"And what if Khurintu object to things we decide during the course of the Gathering? They have the power to make their grievances known and to ensure that they are properly redressed. If we allow Dashnir to speak of Khurintu and policies go ill, Khurintu will have no one to blame save for their second. They cannot accuse us for we included a representative of Khurintu in our counsels."
"But the tribal heads cannot simply overlook the fact that Asbad has blatantly ignored almost every tradition and protocol surrounding the Gathering by refusing to come himself and sending another to take his place. This cannot be forgotten!"
"We shall remind Asbad of it when he assumes his rightful place," Aulit answered.
"You will take no other actions?!" Budari demanded, feeling rage creep over him. "You would allow this insult to go unpunished?!"
"There are repercussions to it," Aulit said, his voice hardening in the face of Budari’s anger. "And I deem these repercussions to be sufficient. Certainly Khurintu has made no friends at this Gathering, for all know of their disregard for tradition. And over time, this shall tell on their ability to function as a tribe. Though we each live alone in the desert, we are, all of us, ultimately dependent upon one another. Khurintu is no exception to this."
"I think you err greatly, Aulit," Budari warned. "Is it not obvious to you that Khurintu plans something from this?"
"Asbad is ambitious, Budari, I will concede that much. But are you certain that you speak for the good of the Gathering? Or do you speak from the fears of the Lotessa tribe regarding a longtime rival?"
"Tribes do not break with tradition on a whim," Budari argued, ignoring the implication that this was a matter of rivalry rather than welfare.
"Nay, they do not, but I think you overestimate the abilities of the Khurintu tribe," Aulit answered. "They are to be feared and watched, of that there can be no doubt. But they lack the power to enforce their will in Harad."
"Then you will not act," Budari said, his tone soft and dark.
"At this time, there is no reason to justify any action."
"If that is your belief, then pray to the Iluh that it is correct. For if not, I will personally see that your blood stains the sand," Budari promised, getting up and bowing slightly. "A good rest to you, Aulit. May it bring you peace, for I fear there will be no peace tonight."
* * * *
"To begin with, Arabano confirmed what we already suspected," Legolas said, his voice soft in the silence of the morning as the light of the rising sun filtered through the heavy canvas of the large tent. "Asbad and Dashnir are both descendents of Black Númenóreans, as are many members of the Khurintu tribe. And they both received training from some of Sauron’s top lieutenants. There are also rumors among Khurintu’s lesser warriors that Asbad is closely related to he who was known as the Mouth of Sauron and learned much from his tutelage."
"That gives us a rather dangerous opponent," Eomer observed heavily. "More so than we originally believed."
"I take it that this is not common knowledge in the desert?" Aragorn questioned.
"Nay, but because of its warrior tradition, Lotessa had several contacts with Mordor, and through these contacts, they learned the heritage of members of the Khurintu tribe," Legolas answered.
"At least we are aware of this threat before it is upon us," Gimli muttered with something that might have been a shudder. He remembered all too well their last encounter with the Mouth of Sauron, and the outcome of that had not been pleasant. There were still times when he caught echoes of that horror in Legolas’s eyes.
"The threat is already upon us," Aragorn pointed out, "and has acted several times. The attack at Lake Supt was no accident. And then there was Dol Amroth. I told you a few days ago that Imrahil attempted to drug Dashnir, but it was Mohart who fell to it. I do not believe that to be accidental, either."
Gimli grimaced and sighed. "Perhaps not. Still, I think we are better prepared this time. And mayhap the enemy is not."
"Mayhap," Aragorn allowed, though to the dwarf’s ears, he did not sound confident. "What else did you learn?"
"The Lotessa tribe has been following the movements of Khurintu for some time, and during the past few years, they have noticed something rather odd," Gimli answered. "They have spread themselves out at the same time that they have begun to consolidate their strength. Khurintu contingents can be found in every corner of the northern desert, but these contingents are small in size. They are only large enough to stave off any threats to themselves. The bulk of the Khurintu tribe has been congregating at a hidden lake to the north east."
"Hajim," Aragorn murmured. "Lake Hajim has been the traditional stronghold of Khurintu."
"Arabano says that he and his tribe have watched these movements closely, and they have apparently become more pronounced over the last two months," Legolas added.
"The Rohirrim have very similar practices when preparing for a confrontation of some type," Eomer mused. "We withdraw into such places as Dunharrow, Edoras, and Helm’s Deep, but we also dispatch teams of riders to cover as much ground as possible. Khurintu is doing the same, or so I deem. They are either preparing to be attacked, or they are preparing to do the attacking."
"Such was Arabano’s conclusion," Gimli said with a heavy sigh, "and such was my conclusion as well. The dwarves have comparable contingency plans in the event of an attack, though we are not as concerned with seeing that scouts are plentiful."
"In the desert, scouts would be more important," Aragorn said. "A stronghold here is not a stronghold according to terminology of the north. There are very few cities, even fewer fortresses, and for the most part, a stronghold is any area where the bulk of your troops are gathered. In order to protect this, spies and scouts are of the utmost importance."
"Are there still spies surrounding our camp?" Eomer asked, directing his attention to Legolas.
"I have not heard them recently, but that does not mean they have disappeared," the elf answered with a shrug.
"And once again, the elves say both yes and no," Gimli mumbled with a scowl for Legolas. "If you cannot hear them, then they are most likely taking refuge within the buildings."
"If a man stands perfectly still and quiets his breathing, I am unable to tell where he is," Legolas said. "That is obviously not the case for a dwarf, who wears so much armor he cannot help but make noise in addition to breathing loud enough to wake the Ents."
"Peace," Aragorn broke in before Gimli could come back with a rejoinder to that. "Was there aught else that you learned?"
"Much we knew already," Gimli said, glaring at the elf and vowing to follow up on that scorpion idea he’d had during the Gathering. "Arabano did say that the leadership of the Khurintu tribe was in disarray immediately following Sauron’s fall, but when Asbad came to power, he put down all rivals and elevated Dashnir to the level of second-in-command. There has been very little internal strife within the tribe since that time."
"Dashnir we know to be a powerful man who does not hesitate in using his talent for intimidation," Eomer said. "But what do we know of Asbad? We have yet to meet him, though rumors certainly precede the man."
"I met Asbad once, though he knew not who I was," Aragorn said quietly. "It was long before the War of the Ring, and I walked then under a different name. But during the time of the Gathering, I attended and learned all that I could of the ways of the Haradrim. This was when I encountered Asbad."
"What did you think of him?" Gimli asked.
"He was a leading member of Khurintu’s war council at the time, and I was far beneath his notice so we did not speak much. But this gave me a better chance to observe him, and I can tell you that much of what Dashnir learned, he learned from Asbad. The two are kin, a fact that Arabano has now confirmed for us, and they are tight in their dealings and strategy. Dashnir is completely loyal to Asbad, and in return, Asbad trusts Dashnir implicitly. They shall bear careful watching."
"And they are men of foresight and planning," Legolas said. "No doubt their next move is prepared, and all possible contingencies have been addressed."
"You are probably right, which means that we must create plans of our own to counter theirs," Aragorn said.
"Which shall be what?" Gimli asked.
"To begin with, we must downplay the threat of the Destroyer," Aragorn said, his eyes turning to Legolas. "You were confronted, and I fear that many eyes shall now be upon you. The first sign of weakness may be taken as a herald of greater doom and destruction."
"What do you counsel?" Legolas asked. "For I deem that my role as your second has now ended, yet it is clear that I cannot disappear until the conclusion of the Gathering. Such an action would only strengthen the fears that the Destroyer did foretell calamity."
"I would advise that you make yourself seen tonight," Aragorn said. "Keep company with Gimli and aid him in dealings that are charged him by Eomer, but also keep your distance. Imhran shall take over your duties as second to Gondor, though I still hold you to that title."
"It shall be as you counsel," Legolas said.
"Why was I not consulted in this?" Gimli protested, shooting a sidelong gaze at the elf. "I have no wish to walk about with the harbinger of doom."
Legolas rolled his eyes and murmured something about dank cave air being bad for one’s mind, but his words were too soft for Gimli to make them all out. In retaliation, the dwarf readied himself to say something about muttering elves and heralds of apocalyptic catastrophe, but Aragorn seemed to sense the impending debate and interrupted them both.
"Gimli, you must needs take extra care this night. Eyes shall be upon you as well, for you were the one who interrupted the Destroyer. Together, I have faith that you and Legolas can surmount any threat, but exercise great caution. These are not hapless mountain goblins but men of cunning political artifice."
"Nor are we hapless mountain goblins," Gimli answered. "Or rather, one of us is not, and that one shall make certain that the other avoids trouble."
"And you have my word on that, my liege," Legolas added with a slight smile. "I shall return the short, hapless mountain goblin safely to his caves in Rohan."
In Gimli’s mind, the elf had gotten away with far too much already, and it was high time for a moment of vengeance. But once again, Aragorn interceded before the dwarf could say aught. "One alone cannot prevail," the king said, his voice firm and his eyes grave. "I foresee that both shall be needed, though for what I cannot say."
Gimli frowned, taken aback by the intensity of Aragorn’s gaze. He had seen his mortal friend in many moods, but this was a rare one. Something dark was brewing, and Aragorn had been treated to a bit of what that something was. But apparently he still had no clear picture of the exact nature of the threat they faced, save that it was indeed a grave threat and they would do well to beware.
"Might I suggest we rest for the day?" Eomer said, his voice breaking through a tense silence. "We shall be able to review all before the Gathering as well as the details of potential arrangements regarding trade and commerce. But I feel the need for sleep now, and I fear that if I do not hearken to this warning, I shall collapse where I sit."
"Then let us do as you counsel and rest," Aragorn said. "But we must rise early and set in order the business of the coming night. Radarad of Portu has broached the idea of a trade in stud horses, and I am interested in the sincerity of his proposal."
"We will investigate," Gimli promised, feeling sleep creep over him as well and fighting down a yawn with effort. "But not now, for I feel as Eomer does."
"And a dwarf without sleep is a dwarf to avoid," Legolas added, a wry smile gracing his fair face. He tumbled out of the way of Gimli’s swinging arm and laughed. "Peace, my friend, for I also seek rest."
"Then I bid you a good day and implore you to actually use this time for sleep and not for combat," Aragorn said with a sidelong look at elf and dwarf. "Gimli shall not be the only one that must be avoided if there is not peace and quiet in this tent today."
* * * *
Arabano should have been sleeping. There were two hours yet before sunset and those two hours were accounted priceless, particularly during the Gathering. But Arabano’s mind was in turmoil and he could not lie still. At first, more to distract himself than for any other reason, he had thoroughly gone over some maps made by Lotessa’s scouts. They showed the position of each tribe and encampment both within and without Haradhur as well as the approximate size and strength of each group. He had seen these documents before, of course, but it was always good to cement them in one’s mind a second time.
Unfortunately, that had not lasted long enough, and Arabano eventually went in search of something else to do. Deciding upon a rather bold course of action, he had decided to mingle with the traders and spies who frequented the buildings of Haradhur where deep wells drove away some of the afternoon heat. Wrapping himself firmly in desert scarves as a means of protection from the blinding sun, Arabano set out. One hand he kept near his sword, while the other hovered above the hilt of his knife. It never hurt to be prepared in Haradhur, and the endless mazes of buildings were always a hazard to walk.
But naught befell Arabano, and he soon entered the relative cool of Haradhur’s shadier residencies. Staying in the shadows, he took a moment to gather his bearings and allow his eyes to adjust to the relative darkness. He quickly discovered that the connected buildings were unusually crowded, and his sharp eyes soon caught the colors and symbols of almost every single tribe. Murmurs and whispers filled the rooms, and a strange feeling of dread settled upon Arabano. Something about this was not right. Hugging the wall, Arabano sidled past several groups of Haradrim, trying to surreptitiously listen to the conversations and learn what preoccupied the mind of so many men this day. He had a hunch that most of the talk centered around the Destroyer, but he wasn’t willing to turn that hunch into a base assumption until he learned more.
"If you seek answers, Arabano, then perhaps I can provide them."
Arabano had known someone was behind him. As a prominent warrior in a powerful tribe, he had learned long ago to take careful stock of his surroundings, especially in areas where assassins were known to prowl. But he had not expected his follower to speak. Rather, he had suspected him to be a spy, and a spy was harmless enough for what Arabano intended to do. Thus it was with no small amount of surprise that Arabano turned, frowning when he recognized his stalker.
"And what answers have you, Fastahn, that I do not possess?" he asked. There was no love lost between the Soltari tribe and the Lotessa tribe. While they were not exactly at odds with one another, they were not on cordial terms. Of course, Soltari was really not on good terms with any of the warrior tribes, including Khurintu, and this did make up for their obstinate stubbornness. Somewhat.
"Think not that Soltari takes no note of political developments, even though we shun from the use of the sword. A rather crude way to enforce one’s will, I should think, but unfortunately our view is not shared by many in the desert."
"Come to the point, Fastahn," Arabano said, his voice quiet and cold. Since he and Fastahn had both been a part of the delegation escorting Gondor and Rohan to Haradhur, Arabano had learned to tolerate Fastahn. But that did not mean he enjoyed his company.
"You know, of course, that the Destroyer was seen last night."
"One would be stupid to not know of it."
"I mean not offense, Arabano," Fastahn said, his voice silky. "But perhaps you are not aware of how the tribes here at the Gathering have interpreted the Destroyer’s appearance. It is most interesting."
"The elf did not move," Arabano pointed out. "There can be no certain interpretation."
"Surely a man of your political training knows better than that. Such a bold act must be interpreted, even without certainty. Unfortunately, I do not believe the interpretation is going your way."
"Whatever the interpretation, I do not see how it should affect the Lotessa tribe."
"Don’t you? You have allied yourself with Gondor and Rohan. Yes, it is a quiet alliance," Fastahn said, smiling at the ill-concealed surprise on Arabano’s face. "But even so, it is an alliance and you are now bound to honor it. But tell me, is your tribe prepared to accept exile for the sake of foreigners?"
"What do you know, Fastahn? And do not try my patience, for I grow weary of your words."
"I know that Radarad of the Portu tribe held conference in the Khurintu tribe early this morning. And since then, his riders have been seen in almost every area of Haradhur, spreading rumors and news of what the Destroyer meant when he fled before the elf and dwarf. It is a signal to all of Harad, or so they say. The elf and dwarf bring danger; even the Destroyer could not contend with them. Gondor and Rohan are the beginning of the end. The rumors say that both elf and dwarf are an abomination and an affront to the Iluh. Should we allow them into our society and into this Gathering, we bring upon us our own doom."
For a long time, Arabano was speechless. He kept his face composed and his eyes blank, but his mind was racing. Eru take Portu! We should have been faster to act, but any rumor we spread as a counter will be but background noise to this interpretation. The second of Lotessa shook his head, wondering what Portu had to gain. This happened in the desert as well, he remembered. It was Portu’s raiders who attacked us at Lake Supt, and I will empty my water skin onto the sand before I believe that Dashnir and Garat knew nothing of it. But why does Portu do their will? It makes no sense! They are not a tribe to willingly seek out danger, yet time and again, at the bidding of Warra or Khurintu, they have done just that.
"I see that this is news to you," Fastahn said, breaking the silence that had descended.
"Why are you telling me this?" Arabano demanded, still running over the implications.
"Because we see Khurintu’s hand behind these happenings, and we seek to find a balance against their power," Fastahn answered with a slight shrug. "We are unable to oppose them by force, though, and thus, we seek a proxy. Because of your long-standing rivalry with them, the Lotessa tribe seemed a likely candidate. More than that, you are a powerful tribe with the ability to succeed should you stand against Khurintu."
"To stand, we could use more aid and less maneuvering," Arabano said. "By sharing this information, you have only set us in Khurintu’s way. But their treachery runs deeper than you know, and it may be possible that these new developments shall render us helpless."
"The Soltari tribe knows of their treachery," Fastahn said, his voice dropping to a whisper so quiet it was difficult for Arabano to hear him. "We know the true identity of the Destroyer. You were not the only one to see Asbad beneath the red robes. But I fear that our two tribes are very much alone in this knowledge."
Arabano decided that the day could not possibly become more confusing or frustrating. "If you know this, then you must speak of it!" he exclaimed. "My tribe can say nothing because of our rivalry with Khurintu. But if you were to speak and accuse Asbad of impersonating one of Harad’s most prominent religious figures, then—"
"Then we should set ourselves directly in Khurintu’s war path," Fastahn interrupted. "That we cannot do. We have neither the power nor the desire. I fear the secret of the Destroyer shall remain as such—a secret."
"You would not need to confront Khurintu openly," Arabano reasoned, struggling desperately to control his growing rage. "If you could but inform Aulit of this and convince him to evict Dashnir from the council, then perhaps that would be enough."
"We would still be revealing too much," Fastahn said. "And we wish to maintain our neutral position. Nay, Arabano, I fear that you and Lotessa are very much alone in this. We have done what we could to provide you with information, and now we must step aside and allow the warriors to play."
"If Khurintu is successful, you may rue the fact that you did not aid us," Arabano growled. "And if Lotessa is successful, you may rue it as well."
Fastahn smiled. "Perhaps. Fare you well, now, honored one. If Soltari discovers more information that could be of use to you, we shall impart it. But until then, may all your wanderings find water." And with that, Fastahn bowed and turned away, moving through clusters of men and eventually disappearing from sight.
As for Arabano, he tarried for quite some time within the buildings, leaving only when the sun began to near the horizon. All that he heard after Fastahn’s departure only served to validate Soltari’s claims, and Arabano was becoming increasingly concerned. Portu’s rumors that the elf and dwarf represented death to all of Harad were becoming firmly entrenched, and the one time he had stepped forward to counter that argument, he had been ignored as though his words were all foolishness.
This is unlike them, Arabano groaned, feeling the beginnings of a large headache. The Khurintu tribe was moving faster than it had ever moved before, and Arabano doubted not that something fell was planned. But he was still lost as to what they intended, and until he learned more, his hands were tired. With a weary sigh, he started back for his camp. He had much to tell Budari, for the situation had just become far more complex.
* * * *
Imrahil’s elven heritage had gifted the prince with some rather finicky traits. While not obsessed with his appearance, he did go to more effort than was usual in maintaining himself, and cleanliness was of particular importance to him. Unfortunately, the desert cared not for these desires, and laden with sweat, Imrahil cursed his ancestry, wondering why he had inherited the needs and instincts of an elf but not the physical abilities to satisfy these things. He was very much a mortal man, and his ties to elven bloodlines did nothing to ease his discomfort in Harad’s extreme heat.
On top of that, Imrahil’s sleep had been troubled by dark dreams again. Some instinct within him warned that fell acts were almost upon Gondor and Rohan. Dark deeds went forth this night, but Imrahil was still three night rides away from Haradhur. He had no way of warning his king, no way of coming to his assistance, and no way of easing his own conscience, which insisted that he had delayed for far too long.
Thus, it was no surprise that Imrahil woke in a rather foul mood. He ate his supper in silence, and his countenance discouraged any questions. The breaking of camp was an unusually somber affair and one in which Imrahil did not take part, which was rather strange as he was accustomed to assisting his men. But tonight, other things were upon his mind and, he stood silent near the edge of Lake Supt looking south, his gray eyes taking in the vastness of desert sand and growing hard with what he saw.
"Honored one, the men are almost ready to depart."
Mohart’s rather tentative voice broke through the layers of concentration that had shielded Imrahil from unwanted intrusions. None of his men would have dared interrupt the prince during one of his sessions of deep meditation, but Mohart was ignorant and as Imrahil was drawn back to himself, he decided to forgive the man outright. He knew no better. Besides that, Mohart was correct. The men were almost ready to depart, and it was time to start the night’s journey.
"If I may, honored one, you seem troubled."
Now Mohart was beginning to push his luck. Imrahil was not one to volunteer information, particularly when he was uncertain about it. And by now, Mohart should have learned this. "We are all troubled," the prince answered, his voice curt and final.
"But your troubles seem to have grown since this morning when you retired for the day," Mohart pointed out, apparently oblivious of the boundaries he was crossing.
Imrahil’s eyes flashed, and he seemed to take on an air of elven nobility as he turned to face Mohart directly. "Have they?" And without waiting for a response, Imrahil swung around and called for his horse. The animal came on command and he mounted swiftly. "Knights of the Swan, again we shall ride hard. Pace your steeds, but pace them wisely. We can afford to lose no time."
The prince’s men were swift to respond, and soon every knight was in the saddle and waiting for the command to move out. The sun was inexorably closing upon the horizon, and the temperatures were already beginning to drop. And as the shadows began to grow upon the desert, Imrahil raised his hand high and called aloud. A terrible yell chorused from the throats of his men in response, and together they once again took up the journey. The silver swan flashed bold in the desert that night, and a warlike singing could be heard across the vast plains.
But for all the loyal demonstrations of his men, Imrahil remained gravely troubled. Tonight was the night when all things would come to a head. He was as certain of this as he was of his own sword. There could be no mistaking the tidings that had come to him while he wrestled with fell dreams, and for perhaps the first time, Imrahil understood the despair that had almost made Theoden turn away from the Pelennor Fields. When Eomer had confessed that the Rohirrim had hesitated before entering the fray, he had been horrified. But now, he knew why it had been so. Sometimes, it was better to arrive not at all than to arrive too late. Better to witness defeat from afar than to have it compounded by the stark images of one’s failure.
But Imrahil had been raised as a prince and a noble under Gondor’s exacting standards. And much as he might wish to, he could not turn aside from his duty. Even if that duty took him to the brink of despair and the fall of Gondor, he would follow it. And if he arrived only to discover that all hope had perished, then he would perish alongside his king.
"Honored one?" Mohart called as his horse kept pace with Imrahil’s.
"I would have peace for a moment longer," Imrahil answered quietly. "Let me alone with my thoughts."
"Solitude in the desert is dangerous," Mohart warned. "It drives minds to madness and creates monsters of men."
"Perhaps," Imrahil murmured. "But even so, I would have silence."
With obvious reluctance and curiosity glimmering in his eyes, Mohart nodded and moved his horse to the side as they galloped across the sand. And Imrahil once again gave himself over to the musings of his mind, trusting his mount to follow his men and trusting his men to continue south as per Mohart’s guidance. It was not long before the prince had recalled the disturbing dreams that had plagued him throughout the day, but as before, he could learn nothing from them save that this night was the night. This night, all things would change.
And with this ominous thought, the sun plunged below the horizon, leaving the desert in darkness.
Iluh—Haradric term for the Valar
Author’s Notes: First off, I wanted to answer a question that has popped up in several of the reviews. The Destroyer of Harad and all the legends surrounding him have absolutely no basis in canon. They are my own invention, so apologies to Tolkien. I have no idea what he would think of all this. Likewise, the Gathering, the arrangements of the tribes, the anarchic political system they’ve chosen to employ, and just about everything else in Harad is also original and has no link to any of Tolkien’s books.
The discussion in this chapter between Aragorn, Eomer, Legolas, and Gimli has a small blip regarding an earlier encounter with the Mouth of Sauron. Sorry for the shameless plug, but this refers to my story "Fear No Darkness," which is currently a work in progress. But don’t worry. I haven’t given anything vital away in this chapter that might spoil the events in "Fear." :)
And finally, your character list awaits you below. So to conclude, MANY thanks for all the wonderful reviews and I’ll see you next chapter!
Arabano—Second-in-command of Lotessa (OC)
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard (OC)
Arnor—Aragorn’s horse (OC)
Asbad—Tribal head of Khurintu (OC)
Aulit—Tribal head of Gartabo (OC)
Budari—Tribal head of Lotessa (OC)
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (OC)
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul—Legolas’s horse (OC)
Fastahn—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (OC)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard (OC)
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen—Tribal head of Warra (OC)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (OC)
Radarad—Tribal head of Portu (OC)
Shade—Eomer’s horse (OC)
Gartabo—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Khurintu—Northern based warrior tribe
Lotessa—Southern based warrior tribe
Portu—Widespread raiding tribe
Soltari—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Warra—Northern based warrior tribe
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