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Twilight of the Gods: 24. Display of Power
Hilberon had jumped up with the others at the same time, tearing down the gag as they all had done. He wanted this fight. He needed it in a way he could not describe. He wanted to stand up against his enemy who had shoved him around the whole day. He was willing to stand up and push his fists into their bearded faces and hear them grunt with pain. He saw Tarés tearing down the head of a Dunlending to ram his knee against his nose, and while the man went down bleeding, the soldier had already turned to face the next. Hilberon grimaced when the enemy's backhand hit the wound on his upper arm, but clenched his teeth to avenge the act in a breath. The dark haired man stumbled back, but attacked again, grinning and mocking his opponent. Hilberon tripped over wood behind him and sat on the hard ground with a yell. The man was over him at once, hitting his fist into the young soldier's face, knocking him out.
Fáred cursed under his breath. Already five of his group were down, unable to defend themselves against the force unleashed against them. The slender warriors joined the Dunlendings, and though they looked weak they were more capable of fighting than the stout and broad hillmen. Fáred could see his men lose though they fought bravely. Halamin was forced to the ground where Hilberon already lay motionless. Dumarin yelled at Fáred to seek safety in the distance, but the captain would never leave his men behind. They had reached their goal: The king had been able to escape the fight. He would reach the tunnel again and return with help. Fáred did not flinch at the punch to his face though he fell sideways and hit his shoulder. Dumarin defended him, but the heavy man of the guard was neither fast enough nor had the stamina to stand against two of the strangers attacking him. He went down like the others. The captain was not allowed to get up again; four hands held him, and a hard kick to his stomach left him breathless. Through the haze of pain Fáred gazed around: his fellow Gondorians were losing the fight. He wondered about the exceptional ability of those strangers; they were skilled like he had seen no others, and used their power effectively.
Hearing loose stones fall behind him Aragorn swivelled, but the enemy knocked him down the same instant. They both fell, and the king lost the knife. For the wink of an eye Aragorn saw a silvery glow in the utter darkness like the reflection of light on gems. He grabbed his opponent, feeling something soft like fur between his fingers. He tried to withhold the enemy breathing down on him, pushing him aside. He succeeded – for a moment. The king jumped to his feet again, but could not detect his foe. With his hands still bound he breathed shallowly, straining his senses. Silence. Nothing but his own breathing. He heard a low growl and felt a sudden fear, but he did not give in, instead forced it out of his mind. He had to win this fight to escape and help his men. There was no space for fear. Without a sound his opponent attacked again, tearing the king off his feet, pressing him down on the ground. Aragorn hit the figure in the dark with both hands, gaining some range in a short moment of strength, but he was unable to knock out the enemy before he was out of his reach again. The king was pulled forcefully at the shoulders and struck against the wall. Aragorn shook his head to stay conscious, but he could not rise again. His defence was broken.
The figure grabbed collar and belt with his hands and dragged the king back the way they had come.
Harishdane stepped back to let her glance sweep over the prisoners with grim satisfaction. They had dared to stand up against her! They had dared to resist her command! She was still breathing heavily deriving from the fight and her anger about the unbelievable disobedience these boorish Gondorians had shown. But now they were defeated and sat or lay on the ground at the same place they had been before. And though some were shouting at their captors Harishdane knew that for now their fighting spirit was broken. She knew she would have to take action for it to stay that way. Four Dunlendings – who were responsible for not having subdued the prisoners' assault in the first place – stood on guard, and their hate-filled eyes gave away that they would have preferred killing over watching, but Harishdane had ordered Url to speak with his men and make sure that even now that none of the prisoners were to be killed. Url hat protested – three of his company were badly wounded – but Harishdane had not given in, only offered help in tending those men with some medicine she carried with her. She needed the prisoners alive.
Asentis stood at her side awaiting her commands. He had fought as bravely and determinedly as his leader knew him. He had not even drawn a knife; needing no weapon to triumph over his enemies. She was proud of him. Again he proven his value to her, and when their eyes met, she saw the pride she felt mirrored on his face. He was well aware of his abilities, and besides the second man in her company, Nisenur, who was reliable as well, Asentis was the guarantor for her success.
Harishdane stepped forward to face the prisoners on the ground. They looked miserable, even more so than during the day, and she took her time eyeing them closely, letting them know that that their lives hung by a thread. She could almost smell their fear and relished on it. Some other feelings mingled with it – satisfaction, even glee. Harishdane searched the contact of those who did not avert their eyes at once. She could find only three, and the man with the reddish beard was one of them. She frowned and upon making up her mind what to do with those she heard noise from the gorge.
Nisenur appeared on the plateau, but not alone. Harishdane lifted her eyebrows in acknowledgement when the soldier of her tribe dragged the almost unconscious king to the middle of his men on the ground and released him. His soldiers moaned lowly and grimaced upon seeing their king lying in front of them, battered, breathing heavily, and too weak to rise. The king's face bore signs of the fight; blood oozed from his nose and lips, and his hair was drenched with sweat. When he lifted his blood-shot eyes she could see his rage and how much he hated his defeat. How he hated to have disappointed his men. And how much he wanted to avenge what had been done to his company.
Harishdane turned her head back to the Gondorians.
“Who is your leader?”
Captain Fáred did not even look at his ruler. He neither flinched nor hesitated as he sat upright and spoke loud and clear:
“I am their captain. You are allowed to call me Captain Fáred, snake.” Harishdane narrowed her eyes. Was he truly mocking her? She could not believe it. They were beaten. Their king was beaten. And yet they gained new strength from the captain's foolish words. More of the soldiers lifted their eyes to her in a challenge she could not understand. “And no matter what you do you can never win against a true Gondorian leader.”
For only a brief moment the king looked at his captain with an expression Harishdane could not explain. Was it pride, pity, or even anxiety? She kept her thoughts to herself and exchanged a glance with Asentis. The young man stepped forward. With a quick movement he pulled Fáred at the shoulders close to him, turned him around to have his back before him and held him in a stranglehold.
“No!” the king screamed trying to get on his feet. His men yelled too, raising their voices to shouts of anger. A guard poked his short sword against Aragorn's side to keep him down. “You cannot do this!” He looked at the captain, terror in his eyes, knowing too well what was about to happen. “This is not -”
“This revolt will not happen again,” Harishdane cut him off in a cold voice, not even bothering to look at the struggling king who was pressed down now by two men, and faced the rest of the soldiers, who where staring at her terrified. “This will teach you not to resist us again.”
Fáred was still wrestling Asentis' grip. His face was red; he was fighting for air. Staring at his king with an urgent plea his lips parted and a pressed “Don't let this… be in vain…” was uttered.
“Let go of him!” Aragorn shouted, but Harishdane only turned to her second-in-command. “No! There is no need to…” He fell silent when Asentis – upon a short nod of his commander – broke the captain's neck. It was only a low cracking sound, but it stopped the soldiers' heartbeats. The captain's eyes broke. His body went limp in Asentis' strong arms, and he hung like a puppet, his mouth ajar as if he had not been granted last words. Aragorn closed his eyes and gave up the fight, lowering his head and covering his face with his bound hands. His lips moved, but no words passed them.
There was a shocked silence. Only breathing could be heard. Asentis stepped away from the body to let the prisoners see their captain, his eyes open and bereft of life. Harishdane nodded her approval, but her focus remained on the stunned soldiers. Some had cast down their eyes. Some murmured words in Westron. She knew not if they had prayers, but the time seemed appropriate to use them. The Dunlendings cheered gleefully, and praised Harishdane in their tongue: Their dead comrade had been avenged! The king raised his head in an outbreak of hate, about to jump up and attack his foes, but the two guards pressed him down again forcefully.
“There was no need for this act of cruelty!” he accused Harishdane, his face contorted with fury and grief. Again she narrowed her eyes, annoyed by his still flickering disobedience. His men immediately listened. She nodded at the Dunlending behind the king. “You could have –“ A blow to the back of his head knocked him out, and he fell on his side. The murmurs of the soldiers rose to angry shouts, and some seemed willing to stand up again. To stand up and fight with the same determination – even with the same outcome – to avenge their king.
“Stay on the ground!” Harishdane ordered harshly, and her kinsmen moved in closer, threatening the men with their presence, their hands on their weapons. “If only one of you gets up this man too will fall!” She looked from one to the other, silently conveying her sincerity to them. The soldiers were piercing her with their stare, but she stood firm. Finally, after a time neither of the men could count, she turned and left the plateau with a nod to her kinsmen to leave the guard to the hillmen.
Hilberon sat in shocked silence. He was too old to cry openly, but the sight of his dead captain made him swallow hard. Fáred would never again accuse him for his follies, or make him run for errands. He had been killed for his bravery, but not within the fight. He had been killed by the brutal force of that Easterling, and amid the sorrow about the loss a hatred grew in Hilberon he had never expected to feel. He had clenched his teeth, but had been the first to shout at their enemies when the king had been knocked out. Now, after the threat of that Easterling woman the young soldier dared not to utter another word. Like the others he watched the unconscious king, stunned by the brutality their captors had demonstrated. Their ruler had done what had been in his power at that time - he had thrown himself in and had been willing to fight, but Hilberon knew that no act would have stopped the woman from ordering Fáred to be killed. Hilberon shivered with weariness, pain, and, he had to admit, hopelessness. He was tired and yet would be unable to find rest. Again his gaze fell upon the king. The soldier next to him had turned him on his back, but his eyes were closed and he gave no sign of wakening. His face looked terribly bruised and bloodied, and Hilberon shot a hate-filled glance at the Dunlending guard. The man growled a curse in response. Glee shone in his eyes, and it was good that the young soldier did not understand the words; he might not have been able to restrain himself.
Tarés felt sorrow and a shrewd kind of pride at the same time, and he could see in the eyes of his comrades that they thought the same. Their captain had lost his life the way he had lived: In defence of his king. He had kept his honour, had not retreated when there had been the possibility. He had waged everything… and lost. Tarés bowed his head thinking of the captain's wife at home in Minas Tirith. At least Tarés would be able to comfort her with the tale of her husband's bravery.
If they would not share the same destiny.
The dreadful night had not yet waned when Aragorn woke to see his men bereft of confidence. His head hurt, but pain was secondary compared to the desolate look of his dozen soldiers waiting for him to speak to them, and encourage them to go on. Dumarin handed him a water-skin their captors had provided. He drank and while the Dunlendings yelled at them to get up, he addressed his soldiers, lowly, but with an urgent undertone.
“I know what you think. I know about your fear. But this will not be the end. The captain will not have given his life needlessly. Right now we have to gather our strength, we have to wait until we are ready. There will be a way to freedom, so do not give up hope.” They wanted to believe him for there was nothing else they could lean on. They were soldiers, but they were men from Gondor as well. Men who had lived through two years without war; without the anxious thoughts about losing a comrade in a fight. To them it was like a new outburst of evil when they had hoped the evil to be eradicated from earth. Behind the king a Dunlending guard bellowed to rise at once. Aragorn finished nevertheless, “Keep the faith. Do not let sorrow or despair take a hold of you.” He could see their faith dwindle; the wound of having lost their captain was still fresh, but Aragorn knew not how to encourage them any further. He had to be the symbol of their strength; of their belief and hope.
“Move! Quick!“ Url commanded in Westron and growled something in his tongue. His men poked the captives with their daggers to bring them to their feet immediately, but the soldiers were unwilling and weary. Their thoughts still lingered on the incidents of the night. The captain had been carried away, and the complaints they had dared to utter about the cruelty of the enemy had been rewarded with more threats to their lives. Their goal had not been reached: their king was still a prisoner among them, and their future uncertain.
Aragorn got up. A hillman tore the water-skin from his hands, and upon turning he saw Hilberon's face contorted with pain. Another Dunlending pulled him roughly at the shoulder, and he suppressed a cry.
“Wait!” the king yelled at the guard shoving him. “Hilberon, let me see this.” He stepped forward, and the young soldier clenched his teeth, swaying where he stood.
“It’s just…,” but he got no further. Url grabbed Aragorn's arm, tearing him away from his man with brutal force.
“I say move!” he yelled at the king, pointing to the northern rim of the plateau.
Aragorn freed his arm in a fluent motion, and with the same speed and vigour he thrust his elbow at Url's chest, hissing,
“Let me take care of this man! He is wounded!”
The hillman involuntarily stepped back, trembling with anger.
“You go, or I make you!” Url shouted heatedly, and three of his men stressed the threat by pushing the king away from his soldiers. He stumbled. Another one took over, shoving him forward. “And you,” the leader barked at the Gondorians, “you walk or you get hurt!” With a nod to the guards Url seized Tarés brutally and pulled him on the pathway. The others followed, resisting their captors as much as they could, but they stood no chance. In front of them waited the Easterlings, overlooking the quarrel with faces devoid of any expression. Harishdane could be seen two steps above them, watching intently. Then she led the way, and among the prisoners the Dunlendings ensured that no one tarried.
The captives had to walk faster though the terrain beyond the plateau was rugged, winding through a small canyon that led eastward after half a mile. Northward the path had given way; large rocks blocked the view, and it was impossible to climb over them. The sun rose, but could not penetrate the mist, and a clammy cold lingered within. The soldiers’ gaze was constricted to the grey walls on each side, and they had to watch out to not slip on the rubble when the slope bent downward again.
“Stay alert,” Aragorn uttered lowly to Tarés when they were walking side by side for a short while. “We will have to work for our chance.“ The soldier nodded grimly though he too was saddened more than he found words to describe. Captain Fáred had not been his friend, but a respected soldier apt to lead his men nevertheless. But there was no time for mourning, and Tarés hoped there would be when they would have returned to the White City.
“Just let us know when,” he whispered.
Turning his head Aragorn saw how deplorable most of his people looked, but still they kept their heads high, meeting his stare determined to go on. They were willing to undertake another attempt to escape whenever their leader would command it. The night had shown that his people would have been able to overpower the Dunlendings, but the Easterlings were quick and agile, and the king still pondered how that male Easterling had been able to attack him in the utter darkness. And what he had seen. A reflection of light on the tokens? Two glimmering crystals? He had searched for proof, but the young man had only worn a black cord wrapped round with thick brown fur around his neck, framed by some small, bone-coloured stones. And his clothing was as plain as it could be. Only the scabbard, which he carried on the left side of his lean frame, was richly decorated with golden patterns, though the chape at the tip was missing. The hilt of the sword was engraved, the pommel of a round shape and embedded with the same patterns. It was a very valuable weapon, and Aragorn assumed that it had been crafted for one of their enemies. Taking the weapons and belongings of their foes seemed to be a part of showing their victory.
The king gazed at the tall and slender men and women from the east. They walked with natural grace, and always found the right step to climb up the rocks sure-footedly. There they stood, surveying the group treading below them, passing them by. The Dunlendings dreaded to be commanded by the Easterling woman who walked in front or even above them most of the time. Aragorn had seen that she had stolen his chain, ring, and his sword and proudly carried these tokens. He longed for the moment when he would claim them back. As if she knew that he looked at her she returned his glance and - with a gesture of ascendancy - lifted her chin, only to outrun the group again at the next corner.
Harishdane breathed deeply. Standing high up over the ground, watching the men proceed she relished on the gratitude and honour she would earn upon reaching their destination. It had been easier than she had thought, and now that the second day had begun without another revolt she was confident to reach the open plains beyond the mountain faster than expected. The group had covered about two miles when a shout from the top of the mountain slope echoed through the gorge, and Url commanded them to stop, hurrying uphill to meet Harishdane and Asentis at her side.
“What happened? Tell me!“ he called to her, his hand on the hilt of his sword. They were out of sight of the group, and for a moment Url realised that he was the only Dunlending around. Asentis stared him down, and Url shrank lowering his eyes. Fear crept into him, made his heart beat faster and stole his breath. He fought against it, and the moment passed by.
Harishdane smiled without joy at the boorish man. Url had only been chosen to head the group because the Easterling leader had needed an older man as an interpreter, but she would grant him no further rights than translating her orders. Like most of the Dunlendings Url was overestimating his position.
“I said more of my kin would be coming. Here they are.“ And with a warmer smile she greeted two men and six women who offered her their heads to be touched, whispering words in shék to show their obedience and gratitude. Like the others already in Harishdane's company they wore plain clothes and hid their swords under dark cloaks. Only the cords with personal tokens and jewels as well as the wooden combs the women wore bore glyphs of their race. Only one of them was of Harishdane's tribe, but they all were loyal, and she had chosen them long ago to guard the way between Dunland and the northern rim of Fangorn Forest because unlike others of her kin they were able to ride. The stealing of horses during the past two years had proven useful in exchanging tidings with her homeland. Now she would allow some of them to go with her north while others would be sent back with two Dunlendings to lead the way.
Harishdane greeted her kin in shék, and they looked at her and Asentis, waiting for orders. Though they had walked fast and with little rest to meet their leader they were not tired. Ridasha, a woman of twenty-eight winters, whom Harishdane remembered to be as curious as she was apt in wielding her polearm, spoke lowly when asked.
“The high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan sends you her greetings of respect, Harishdane, my leader,” the woman recited in a polite and dark voice. “She and her people are six days north of us. Shall I go back to announce your coming?”
“No, that won’t be necessary.” The leader allowed Ridasha to straighten, and for a moment her gaze rested on the artfully drawn symbols on her forehead. “You will stay with me now. I have a task for you. Send Sisune.”
“It will happen as you wish.” Ridasha obediently moved backwards before turning while the others of her company stared at Url with disgust. Harishdane continued talking in her tongue, so Url was excluded again.
“Talk so I understand!” the dishevelled looking man demanded. His thick black beard trembled with restrained anger. “You say naught to me! But you want guard till plains in sight! So, tell me!”
Harishdane turned to him, and her voice was as sharp as the surrounding rocks. The mist that had not yet risen seemed to thicken around her slender body, and Url felt his inferiority like a dull punch to his stomach.
“We proceed. You obey, or I leave you behind. Do you understand me now?”
“You need us,” Url objected and lifted his eyes again, trying to gather his strength. “You work with us. We cannot be left behind.”
“Beware of me,” Harishdane closed, letting her voice drop to a threatening whisper, “and never forget who I am.”
Ridasha met her friend at the vantage point where she had crouched to survey the row of waiting prisoners. The Dunlendings among them growled and bared their sharp teeth. Sisune still looked downhill when Ridasha closed in and knelt beside her.
“They will be good workers,” Sisune said lowly and nodded to herself. “Look, most of them are young and strong.” She faced her friend. “The Gods are with us, and Úshemor will be delighted. We made good prey and lost only one.”
“You lost one? Whom?” Ridasha wanted to know immediately and smoothed her dark grey tunic. She did not like to wear plain clothes, but since their presence in Dunland had to remain a secret, she had had no other choice than leaving her armour and polearm behind. The only remainder of her usual clothing was a dark red scarf she hid under the tunic.
“One of the soldiers. He led a revolt last night, but to no avail.” Briefly Sisune reported about the incidents when her gaze fell upon a jewel around Ridasha's neck. “Where did you get that from?”
“We made prey too,” the woman answered and stroke back her long black hair over her shoulder. Sisune stared at her neck with wide-open eyes. “Would you wish to have it?”
Sisune was surprised.
“You would barter?”
“Have you got something?” Sisune's face gleamed with delight when she uncovered the hunting knife from under her brown tunic. Ridasha took the weapon out of its sheath with a smile. “This is a very nice token. Where did you get it from?”
“One of those down there,” Sisune said with a nod. “I wanted the chain he wore, but Harishdane wanted it for herself.”
“I saw it. It is a beautiful token. But I accept this one.” She nodded, gave back the hunting knife and opened the chain to hand it Sisune. Both women smiled at each other, when, with sudden realisation Ridasha said, “I was sent to fetch you. Harishdane wants to see you. Hurry!”
Still smiling Sisune got up, left the hunting knife and put on the chain while Ridasha remained on the outlook after fastening the new weapon to her belt. She counted thirteen men, all bound and guarded by both Dunlendings and Easterlings. She spotted Nisenur among them and was glad to meet him again. She knew he was loath of always having to stay behind the second-in-command to Harishdane, but Ridasha hoped he would find his strength in the time to come. It had been hard to see strong men from the tribes lose against Asentis, but Harishdane's tribe had proven superior from the beginning. Their men and women were stronger than any other tribesmen, and their skills exceeded all Ridasha had known in her entire life. And though they were superior in a way that was frightening from time to time, they were all satisfied with the outcome of the fights. Now the Jásheni-Rhûvenan ruled them with Harishdane as their leader, and it had been to the fortune of them all. The better times had begun, and the prisoners down on the path were only one more proof for this. Harishdane's qualities were undoubted now, and she instructed her people well. Ridasha was confident that her people would be led to victory.
Standing under a protruding stone shaped like a gigantic table, the king had not been able to see why the group had come to a halt, but his men gratefully accepted the chance to sit down and recover from the strenuous march. The Dunlendings were restless, and kept the prisoners separated to hinder them from talking with each other. Url had left his orders, and every Dunlending seemed to be eager to fulfil his duty since the soldiers were considered dangerous, and some whispered that there was a wizard among them, who could bewitch them with the sound of his voice alone. The Easterlings on the other side seemed to be eagerly expecting someone. Their usually inscrutable faces had betrayed signs of happiness. Url had descended the steep path from the top of the rock, cursing in Dunlendish, but looking disturbed at the same time. With a curt gesture he had then ordered five of his men to leave the group westward, back to their land and their tribes. Url's mood worsened upon the sight of more Easterlings at the prisoners' sides where they took the position his men had had before. The Dunlending leader bared his yellow teeth and grudgingly passed them by. The king turned as he became aware of a woman with the same smooth, tanned features and the long black hair all of her kin shared. He had not heard her approach, and could not imagine how she had gotten there so quickly. Dark brown eyes stared at him as she compared him to the rest of the soldiers. Frowning she let her gaze travel up and down, unable to make up her mind what to think of his outer appearance. He returned the inspection, and saw a silver shimmer from under her tunic. Finishing the scrutiny she unsheathed the knife and held it between her hands, frowning. She cocked her head and, taking the knife into her right hand, let her fingers pass over the shining, well kept blade. A small smile appeared at the corners of her mouth.
“These are Elvish runes,” Aragorn explained when she turned the knife around as if to find the translation on the other side. She looked up, cautiously and distrustfully. “They say Gud Daedheloth.”
The Dunlending guard stepped closer with a club in his hands, a threat to remain silent, but the woman said two words in Dunlendish and made him retreat.
“Elvish runes?” she then replied to the king, and her frown deepened. “How do you know that?”
“It was my knife.” Aragorn as well as Tarés behind him had noticed the obedience the guard had displayed. Though reluctant the Dunlending now stood like a soldier without a duty watching both the king and the Easterling woman while his hand still clutched the haft of his club. “The Elves made it long ago.”
Her eyes narrowed to a mocking stare.
“And where did you steal it, man from Gondor?”
The king held her stare unflinchingly.
“It was a gift.”
“The Elves do not make gifts,” she retorted. “They are a treacherous people.” When Aragorn did not reply she turned the blade so he could see the inscription. “Tell me what it means.”
Now it was he who returned a mocking glance.
“You accuse me of stealing, and expect at the same time that I am able to read Sindarin?” She challenged him without words, and he gave in. A few steps away the guard growled deep in his throat, but she ignored him. “It says ‘Foe of Morgoth's realm’.”
Her gaze travelled proudly over the weapon again, then she sheathed it with a delighted sigh, but let her hand rest on the hilt, not willing to leave it like that.
“It is a skilful weapon you possessed, but… I do not believe you.” She turned before Aragorn found time to answer. Harishdane had appeared at the top of the rock and commanded the group to proceed.
“Why’d you speak with her?” Tarés said lowly in Aragorn's back while they trudged on. “She's only a thief.”
“But a thief who talks.”
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