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Land of Light and Shadows: 25. Parts of Pieces
"Dashnir did not hold the floor that long without reason," Eomer growled, his long legs struggling to keep up with the even longer legs of a Ranger. "He was expecting the interruption. It fit with his announcement that Khurintu was withdrawing. He delayed long enough so that the timing fit his agenda."
"I fear you are right, but what they hope to gain from this, I do not know," Aragorn murmured, quickening his pace even more. "There are too many possibilities to even begin analyzing them all."
"Be thankful that Dashnir has not yet managed to turn Harad against you," Arabano said quietly. "If the leaders at the Gathering had been convinced that this catastrophe was the result of your presence, you would not have left the hall alive."
Flanked by Imhran, Eos, and a small contingent of Lotessa guards, Aragorn, Eomer, and Arabano were making for the Gondor and Rohan encampment. Arabano and the soldiers from his tribe were there as insurance that they would actually be able to get to the camp and then get out. Though they had yet to be identified specifically as the cause of this sudden attack, the mood in Haradhur was definitely not one of peace toward Gondor and Rohan.
"I doubt that was his purpose," Aragorn said in response to Arabano. "He was but stalling. His words were not calculated to raise feelings of hatred. Rather, he was sowing seeds for something to come."
"But what is that something?!" Eomer demanded. "Nothing less than the subjugation of Rohan, Gondor, and Harad, clearly. But how shall such a thing be accomplished? He has only succeeded in ostracizing Khurintu from the rest of Harad."
"Exactly," Aragorn said, his mind whirling. This question had been plaguing him ceaselessly, and answers were forming but slowly. For some reason, his foresight seemed to be strangely absent and he could see and sense almost nothing of the future. In some ways, it reminded him very much of Amon Hen. Foresight had failed him then as well, and he had haplessly blundered his way through a series of hasty decisions. Somehow or another, through unexpected twists of fate that could only be ascribed to the benevolent intervention of the Valar, things had worked themselves out. But now…
One of the Lotessa guards suddenly called out in the Haradric language. Too caught up in his own thoughts, Aragorn failed to catch and translate the quick words, but there was no need to for the message soon became obvious soon became obvious. Arabano stopped short, pulling Aragorn and Eomer to a sudden halt, and then started into the dark alleyways to their left.
"You know as much as I," Aragorn told Eomer even as a chill crept up his spine.
"Valar help us, then, if we both know so little," Eomer muttered.
"Honored ones?" Arabano called from the darkness. "This was one of your men, was it not?"
The question—and particularly the use of the past tense—evoked a number of reactions in Aragorn, though he somehow managed to keep them from reaching his outward countenance. Eomer, on the other hand, was not quite as composed and anger flared in his eyes as suspicion and outrage twisted his face. The king of Rohan took a step toward the alleys and then froze as Arabano returned with the Lotessa soldier who had first called out. And cradled in the arms of the soldier was a very bloody and very dead Gondor guard.
"Valar," Eomer breathed.
"This happened several hours ago," Arabano said quietly. "The body is cold."
"He had been left to guard the camp," Aragorn whispered, recognizing the man despite the mutilated face.
"I have no doubt but what we will find all of your guards in a similar condition," Arabano said. "I have seen this before. This work was done by the Khurintu tribe. Very few in Harad know of their talents and abilities in this area, but we of the Lotessa tribe can easily recognize a Khurintu murder. Would that others were so knowledgeable, for then we might share this with them."
"We shall have to consider that later, for now we must look to our own safety," Aragorn said as his eyes glittered in the darkness and his hand moved to Andúril’s hilt. The tents were now only a short distance away, and the night had become far too quiet for his comfort. There was no way to tell if any of the Khurintu tribe still remained in the camp, waiting for an opportunity to pick off more of Gondor’s men, but it was best not to take chances. "Arabano, split your guards into two units. Have half of them journey with Eomer to the far side of the camp," Aragorn whispered. "The rest will stay here with me. Eomer, signal when you are in position."
"Are we using the plan that we employed when we fought just south of Barad-dûr?" Eomer asked.
"Splitting up may be exactly what they wish, honored ones," Arabano warned.
"If any yet remain in camp, I would rather flank them than give them an opportunity to run," Aragorn said grimly.
"Only remember that we are pressed for time," Eomer said. "Our men in the desert are under attack."
"Arhelm is there, and I have confidence in his ability as a commander. If he cannot strike against the raiders, he will keep the men safe from harm and do as much damage as possible," Aragorn answered, deciding that the attack beyond Haradhur was now of secondary importance. "We can do no more than can he. Rather, our presence is needed here. We must discover what has happened to our own camp."
"Think you that we will find Legolas and Gimli here?" Eomer asked, his tone doubtful.
"My heart wishes to believe there is a chance of that, but my instincts tell me otherwise," Aragorn sighed, drawing Andúril from its scabbard. "In truth, I do not believe anyone to be within the camp, but it is best not to rely solely upon fortune, for she is a fickle mistress."
"As we have learned many times over," Eomer sighed, drawing Guthwinë and moving off into the darkness. Eos followed his king, and the two paused once to wait for Arabano’s guards, who were quickly instructed to obey Eomer for the time being and follow his orders. Then they were gone, and the night grew quiet again.
"I trust you have some idea?" Arabano murmured.
"Naught but a very old plan, yet it has worked before," Aragorn answered, starting to creep forward. "Orcs become very confused when they are attacked from two different sides."
"We are not dealing with Orcs," Arabano pointed out.
"It sometimes has the same effect on men," Aragorn whispered as they neared the tent. Here he stopped and indicated that Arabano should stop as well. "We shall wait until Eomer signals he is in position," the king of Gondor explained. "Then we shall charge the main tent."
"This plan lacks something in the way of subtlety," Arabano hissed with a frown.
"Subtlety can be cumbersome. In situations like this, an outright attack is often the best," Aragorn replied with a ghost of a smile.
Apparently accepting this philosophy for the moment, Arabano sighed and said no more. Silence fell thick among them and the night seemed to grow darker. Time ticked away, and though Aragorn had been raised among the ever-patient elves, it seemed that every passing minute stretched into years. Behind him, the remainder of Lotessa’s guards shifted restlessly but held their peace, disciplined soldiers that they were. Sheltered in one of the other tents, a horse whinnied loudly, momentarily breaking the stillness, but then all was silent again. More time slipped past, and Aragorn was beginning to wonder if Eomer and the others had not met with some accident when the signal came. A shrill whistle echoed through the night, rising quickly and then fading away. Aragorn lifted his hand and he heard the guards behind him move closer. Letting his arm fall, the king started forward. He might have been a ghost for all the noise his movements made. Beside him, Arabano was nearly as silent, and as phantoms they all drifted toward the darkened structure of the main tent.
Taking a deep breath and preparing himself for the worst, Aragorn readjusted his grip upon Andúril and stepped to the tent’s tall flap that served as the main entrance. He could almost see Eomer taking similar actions on the other side at the smaller back door. Filling his lungs with air and feeding off the growing anticipation of the tribesmen behind him, Aragorn let out a yell and plunged inside. From the other side, Eomer echoed his cry and the tent shook as guards leaped forward through both entrances. They were brought up short by the scene before them.
One small lantern burned faintly in a corner, but for all that its light was dim, it revealed far too much. Packs were slashed open. Supplies lay scattered everywhere as though a great wind had come through. Rugs were torn and misplaced, seeming to have been knocked aside by a desperate struggle. But most disconcerting of all, large stains of blood could be seen on the carpets near the center of the tent.
"Khurintu," Eomer spat, moving further in and studying the damage with narrowed eyes. His hands were clenched at his sides, and his countenance was dark.
"Almost certainly," Aragorn said grimly, struggling to hold his own composure. Kneeling next to the bloodstains, he quickly examined the surrounding area in the hopes that he would learn whose blood had been spilt. A gleam against the tent wall caught his eye and he walked over to investigate.
"Imhran, Eos, check the other tents and see if there are any signs of tampering or theft," Eomer ordered, his voice harsh with suppressed rage. Arabano motioned his men to follow the others, ensuring safety through numbers and they quickly departed. "What think you?" Eomer asked after the guards had left, directing his attention to Aragorn.
"I think they have done a thorough job," Aragorn sighed, standing and holding aloft the object he had found. "A dwarven axe. It bears the fresh blood of his foes. Unfortunately, I can find no evidence that the dwarf who owns this axe managed to escape."
"Then Gimli was taken captive," Eomer murmured. "But why here? They had ample opportunity to attack us in the streets. And why now? Wouldn’t waiting have better served Khurintu? They could have sat back and watched as we defied the Gartabo tribe and refused to allow them to take Legolas and Gimli."
"It seems they were seeking to gain a different objective," Aragorn murmured, looking around for other clues.
"There are always multiple objectives involved when working with Khurintu," Arabano said quietly, studying the tent with the wary scrutiny of a desert warrior. "I know not why they have chosen to make off with Legolas and Gimli or why they chose to attack now, but as for doing it here in the tent, I judge that they intended to show you your vulnerability."
"Is there hope that Legolas might have escaped?" Eomer asked, but his voice lacked any conviction.
"Not if Gimli was a prisoner. He would have refused to leave his side," Aragorn answered. "Besides that, his bow and quiver lie behind you, as well as his knife." The king of Gondor gripped the haft of Gimli’s axe tightly and firmly suppressed the rising tide of anger that threatened to burst through his calm veneer. "They fought valiantly, that much is certain. But they were overwhelmed by superior numbers, or so I read the signs." Aragorn glanced about the large tent and once again had to choke back his wrath. What was it Gimli said to me just ere they departed? "None shall even know that we are gone." Little did he know how prophetic his words would prove to be. We knew nothing of this until it was too late.
"Think you that they still live?" Eomer asked, voicing the question that was currently burning through Aragorn’s mind.
"Their bodies are not to be seen, so they were probably not killed," Arabano spoke up. "Khurintu has a habit of making an example out of those they kill, as you saw earlier with your slain guard. But since there are no bodies here—or pieces of bodies—I suspect that they have been captured."
"Pieces of bodies?" Eomer echoed, fire flashing in his eyes.
"This links with the Destroyer," Aragorn muttered, pinching the bridge of his nose as he set the axe down. "This links with the fact that the Iluh will see to the abominations, but I cannot grasp the connection."
"Perhaps Khurintu wishes to appear as messengers of the Iluh," Arabano suggested, his eyes dark with thought. "By controlling your friends, they control the abominations of the North."
"But why withdraw from the Gathering?" Aragorn asked, deciding that he would have a headache by morning. "If they had wished to prove their control, they would have stayed. Nay, they have something else in mind, but I cannot fathom what."
"It does not matter what they wish so long as we can put a stop to it," Eomer declared.
"In order to put a stop to it, we must first understand what they are trying to do and how they will go about doing it," Aragorn reasoned, though he felt very much like Eomer at the moment. He wished to charge into the night, seeking out the Khurintu tribe and demanding the return of the prince of Mirkwood and the lord of the Glittering Caves.
Eomer muttered something rather uncomplimentary beneath his breath, but he nodded reluctantly. "Very well, then. For the moment, let us do it your way. Why is Khurintu withdrawing from the Gathering? And what do they hope to gain by taking Legolas and Gimli with them?"
"Your friends were not killed here," Arabano said, speaking slowly as his eyes narrowed. "Therefore, Khurintu needs them alive for something. Somehow, the elf and dwarf will be of use to Asbad and Dashnir. But as for how or what…" He shook his head and trailed off. "One thing only do I know with certainty: When the Khurintu tribe takes prisoners, they do not take partial measures. Legolas and Gimli will not escape on their own."
Eomer swore softly and began to pace. "We know nothing and yet you would have us sit and ponder over our fates! There are several hours before dawn. I say it is time for action. Let us travel into the desert, rally our men, deal with the raiders, and then descend upon the Khurintu tribe."
"Would you confront Dashnir?" Arabano asked. "You would challenge his honor when he has a clear alibi. He was in the Gathering with both of you. And if you were to search the Khurintu camp, you would find no trace of your friends. Khurintu is too clever for that."
"They will have been taken away from Haradhur," Aragorn said. "Hence the attack. It was a distraction."
"Then let us follow them!" Eomer exclaimed.
"That will be easier said than done," Arabano warned. "They would have started several hours ago, giving them a good lead over you. Beyond that, you know not which direction they traveled. They may have gone in any number of directions. And as for the trail itself, you shall never find it if raiders have attacked the area outside of Haradhur. Their horses and paths shall make such a mess of tracks upon the ground that finding anything else will be an impossibility."
"I will not sit idle while my friends are held hostage," Eomer said heatedly.
"Nor will I, but we must not act in haste," Aragorn said, intervening before harsher words could be exchanged. "Arabano, would the men who took Legolas and Gimli be mounted?"
Arabano hesitated for a moment before shaking his head. "I am uncertain, but they will probably travel on foot. At least initially. There are tribes here who keep careful track of the number of horses present at a Gathering in the event that anything like this should happen. Soltari and Portu are two of these tribes. No, the guards could not have taken horses. The camps will be the subject of much scrutiny this day as all attempt to learn the identity of the raiders, and the horses will be subject to inspection. If Khurintu does not have the same number of horses as it did when it first came here, then they are immediately suspect."
"On foot they will be easy to catch," Eomer pointed out.
"But only if we start in the right direction," Aragorn countered. "Still, you are correct, Eomer. We cannot sit idle in the face of this, but as for what we shall do in response, I am at a loss."
"You will be seen as reacting blindly if you do that," Arabano shouted, apparently coming to the end of his temper. "They will say that you are making assumptions based on Khurintu’s dislike of elf and dwarf. And then they will say that the Destroyer has taken your ability to reason and has marked you as either his agents of destruction or his next victims."
"Then if we cannot confront Khurintu, let us at least search for Legolas and Gimli," Eomer pressed, his voice indicating that Arabano was not the only one running out of patience. "We may take our riders, disperse the raiders, and then scour the desert. A trail might not be found, but then again, it might. We have three hours. Much can be accomplished in that time."
"The desert is vast, Eomer, and if these men are indeed on foot, they will be even harder to find," Aragorn said quietly. "But I see no better option," he said when Eomer began to protest again. "Come, then. We shall leave Imhran and Eos to watch the camp in our absence while we ride to the aid of our men. If three hours are all we have, we had best make use of them."
"Then I shall return to my own camp," Arabano said. "But I will seek information as I go and counsel with Budari when he returns from the desert. Doubtless I will come again during the day, and mayhap we shall make sense of madness."
"Mayhap," Aragorn said heavily, trying to regain control of his whirling mind. "Until then, Arabano. And may the Iluh watch over you."
"And over our enemies," Eomer muttered, his hand tightening about Guthwinë’s hilt. "For I will have no mercy when I confront them, and the Valar only know who will."
* * * *
Mohart was not a man normally given to feelings of trepidation, yet there was great hesitation in his step as he approached Imrahil. One hour ago, their company had arrived at Lake Miyarr and discovered a few of Mohart’s tribesmen also camped around the hidden lake. Mohart had been rather surprised at this since Gartabo rarely ventured so far north, but even more surprising were the furtive looks upon the faces of these men. Their style of dress had revealed them to be members of what passed for a middle class in the Gartabo tribe or else Mohart might have thought they were fleeing some crime. But they were certainly fleeing something, and Mohart had gone to discover what he could. Their answers had been glib, vague, and filled with rumors, but one older man seemed to have a better grasp on the situation than the others, and it was through him that Mohart had gained a rather chilling picture of some very disturbing events.
Armed with news that would not be well received and painfully conscious of the fact that a response to bad news was usually to kill the messenger, Mohart stepped behind Imrahil and cleared his throat slightly. A soft sigh answered the sound and Imrahil turned slightly to fix gray eyes upon the tribesman. "We are too late."
It was neither a question nor a prediction of what Mohart had come to say but rather a simple statement illustrating a simple fact. They were too late and Imrahil knew it. How he knew it was something else entirely and Mohart was rather leery about pursuing that particular topic. Instead, he decided to find out what Imrahil knew and then expand on top of that. Then the news that the tribesman bore might not seem as though it was coming from him. "Why do you say this, honored one? What do you know?"
"Before this night, my dreams spoke of impending peril and my instincts insisted that a great danger was coming that must be avoided. But my instincts have quieted now, and as my mind begins to wander, no dreams have come to haunt me." Imrahil sighed and looked out across the desert. "Whatever we had hoped to prevent has happened."
"You say it has happened as though it is finished, but it is my experience in Harad that nothing ever happens," Mohart said. "If our fears are bearing out, then it is my belief that things are still happening. Nothing is ever completely finished in the desert, honored one. Surely there is time remaining to us!"
"Perhaps," Imrahil murmured. "Indeed, I believe you to be right and that time does remain to us, but something that should have been avoided has happened. A grave threat has descended, and its consequences shall continue to play out until we arrive."
"Yet still there is time," Mohart insisted, wondering at Imrahil’s sudden despondency. "Honored one, are you well?"
Imrahil laughed quietly and shook his head. "Well? Nay, I am not well. I fear for my friends, and I fear that already we are too late to save them from much pain and much sorrow. But more than that, I miss the sea. I miss the waves. I miss the crash of the surf. I am something of a strange creature, Mohart, and this desert is telling upon my spirits. But you did not depart from your kinsmen to seek me out and inquire after my health," Imrahil said, swiftly changing the topic. "Come. What have you to say? What news do you bear?"
"Nothing good, honored one," Mohart said. "But perhaps you would rather here it this evening ere we depart. You are wearied and I—"
"We are one night’s ride away from Lake Nurnein, and after that we are one night’s ride away from Haradhur," Imrahil interrupted. "That is two nights in which I am given time to order an attack and unravel what political tangles I may find. If I am to effectively complete this work, I must know what you know, and I must know it now. And fear not for my health," he added with a slight smile. "A bit of elven blood runs through my veins, and at times it is able to keep me from weariness and other mortal failings that might be brought about by an extended journey. Now come and tell me of this ill news."
"Based on what my tribesmen have said, something odd has befallen the Gathering." Mohart grimaced slightly and tried to find words in Westron to explain himself. "My tribe controls lands in this region, and these men as well as others have been receiving messages by hawk since the Gathering began, more to be informed than for any other reason. But the messages they received at the end of last night spoke of a grave threat that had come to the desert, and the messages of this night are no better. They are fleeing north in the hopes that they may escape the storm."
"And of what storm do they speak?" Imrahil asked, his gray eyes narrow.
With a shiver and a sigh, Mohart decided that the best way to approach this was to simply get it out into the open. "Honored one, know you of the Destroyer?"
Imrahil’s face remained impassive, but something flickered briefly in his eyes, though it was gone too quickly to identify. "I have heard some of the legends regarding the Destroyer. He was a tool of Sauron, if I am not mistaken."
"So some say, though we know not if all the appearances were Sauron’s will," Mohart said. "The Destroyer is a creature of legends and a messenger of the Iluh, or the Valar. He heralds death for large groups of people, sometimes for entire tribes."
"What has he to do with the Gathering?" Imrahil pressed, a slight note of impatience creeping into his voice that was very much at odds with his elven heritage.
"He appeared and confronted your elven friend," Mohart answered. "Or so say the messages. There are rumors now that Gondor and Rohan have brought destruction to Harad. And the messages that came this morning tell of a great battle outside Haradhur."
"How certain are these sources?" Imrahil asked, his voice sharp.
"Nothing is ever certain if it has not been witnessed by one’s own eyes," Mohart replied. "But the men report that many messages have come from many unrelated sources. Beyond that, the Destroyer is not a being mentioned lightly or in jest. If word of him has come, we may be assured that he has again appeared, though the manner of his appearance may be a subject of some debate."
Imrahil cursed quietly and turned his eyes away from Mohart, focusing them instead upon the waters of Lake Miyarr. "Two more nights," he murmured. "Two more nights until we can reach them." He turned back to Mohart, his gray eyes darkening with suppressed anger. "Know you of any way to speed the journey? Perhaps we can bypass Lake Nurnein and seek another place of water, shortening the ride to Haradhur in the process."
"There are places of water within the Sihal, but they appear sporadically and if we missed one, it might take us several hours to find another. Only those who are very familiar with the volcanic Sihal dare to trust to its shelter. If we had a guide from the Warra tribe then perhaps we might chance it, but I would not trust to my own direction. It would be folly, especially once the sun rose. Even in the early morning, the heat collected by the Sihal’s black rocks can be deadly if caught in it while above ground."
"And so we must stay to the tried and true trail," Imrahil sighed, once again turning to gaze at Lake Miyarr. "I thank you for your news, Mohart. Have you any more to say?"
"Nay, honored one. The men could tell me no more."
"Then I bid you a good day and wish upon you pleasant dreams. I suspect the men have finished setting up the camp by now."
The words were clearly a dismissal, but Mohart hesitated a moment, his dark eyes studying Imrahil’s silent form. "And what of you, honored one? Shall I wish pleasant dreams for you, or shall you be having dreams this day?"
"Concern yourself not with me, Mohart," Imrahil said quietly. "I shall see to my own health."
"As you wish, but if I may counsel you on the ways of the desert, sleep is man’s greatest weapon against the heat."
"Well do I know that. Good day."
Hearing the finality in Imrahil’s voice, Mohart sighed and inclined his head in lieu of a bow. There was no response to his formality and so the tribesman left. Imrahil might not have been inclined to sleep this day, but Mohart was not about to let ill tidings keep him from his rest. They were two days away from Haradhur, and brooding about matters was not going to change them. There was still time to create plans, particularly if they learned more about what they faced at Lake Nurnein and received proper rest.
As Imrahil had predicted, the men were indeed finished with camp, and some had already entered the tents while others milled about, speaking quietly and eating rations. Mohart went directly to his own tent, having no desire for company at the moment, but he paused ere he entered and glanced back at Imrahil, who was still watching Lake Miyarr. A strange man, he thought to himself as the stars above began to dim. The eastern horizon was beginning to glow and the sun would make her appearance soon. A very strange man, he repeated to himself when Imrahil made no movement to return to camp. I pray he finds some peace this day, for if this continues, he will bring his own destruction to Haradhur.
* * * *
Imhran and Eos were waiting with bared blades when Aragorn rode back from the desert at the head of the Gondorrim early in the morning. The sun was beginning to clear the horizon and already the heat was starting to rise. But a cloud of darkness had settled upon Aragorn’s heart, and he did not feel the heat as he might have. Swinging down from Arnor, Aragorn allowed Imhran to take his mount’s reins as his own eyes swept the camp.
"Report," he ordered quietly.
"We found all the guards assigned to the camp last night, sire. None were alive. We have set aside a tent for them where they may lie until they can be taken back to Gondor. We felt the heat and dry air would keep them well," Imhran concluded with a sigh.
"I thank you for your troubles," Aragorn murmured. He was silent for a moment and then shook himself slightly. "Did aught else happen?"
"Nay, my liege," Imhran answered. "All was silent."
Aragorn nodded. He had expected as much. Those who had taken Legolas and Gimli would not have lingered once their deed was accomplished. There had certainly been no trace of them in the desert. He and Eomer had ridden out and found their company of men as the last of the raiders were being driven away. Sensing that the danger was fading and hoping to find some clue that might lead them to Legolas and Gimli, the Rohirrim and Gondorrim had parted company, with Aragorn going west and Eomer going east. Aragorn hoped that the king of Rohan had discovered something in his half of the desert, for Aragorn had found only chaotic camps and a few dead raiders who yielded nothing in the way of clues. None of the Haradrim with whom he spoke could identify the bodies, and there were no markings to indicate their tribe.
"Imhran, I shall be going to my tent. See to Arnor and inform King Eomer of my whereabouts when he arrives. Also, I will be assigning double watches this day. Inform and prepare the men for that."
"It shall be so, my liege," Imhran promised with a slight bow.
"Good. I will find you after a bit and discuss further the watch schedule. Dismissed."
Imhran bowed again and then began leading Arnor to the tent where the horses were kept, calling to the other men to follow him. Alone for the moment, Aragorn took advantage of the opportunity and quickly entered the privacy of his tent. He immediately noticed that the bloodstained carpets had been taken away and replaced with new ones. Gimli’s axe and Legolas’s knife had been cleaned, and both lay neatly next to a pile of baggage in one corner of the tent. Aragorn appreciated the gesture and mentally thanked Imhran and Eos for their troubles, but the shadow of what had happened still lay heavy over the tent. Small touches such as this could not erase it.
But why has this happened? Aragorn asked himself, dropping down upon his sleeping pallet and rubbing at his temples. His head ached as he tried to fathom the reason for this sudden attack, but the politics made no sense. Rarely had Aragorn ever felt so lost or so confused. Trying to decipher the madness that seemed to have fallen upon Haradhur, Aragorn rested his head in his hands and went over the recent events, hoping that his memory might bring something to light.
The Destroyer had branded Legolas and Gimli as abominations. The Gartabo tribe had then attempted to seize them. Somehow, the Lotessa tribe had received word of this and warned them before Gartabo could achieve its goal. Legolas and Gimli had returned to the tent where they had apparently been captured by the Khurintu tribe. Meanwhile, Dashnir had confronted Aulit at the Gathering and then gone on for several hours about the dangers of associating with Gondor and Rohan, breaking off when news came of an attack in the desert by raiders who did not seem to belong to any tribe, though Arhelm and Eos both insisted they rode their horses like those in the Portu tribe. After that, Khurintu had announced its intentions to withdraw, the Gathering had broken up, and the raiders had also retreated, having been the cause of much chaos but little destruction.
"None of it makes sense," Aragorn whispered aloud, deciding to try voicing his thoughts aloud. Elrond had occasionally done that when things troubled him. "Dashnir’s actions at the Gathering I can understand," the king of Gondor murmured. "He was waiting for dramatic emphasis, which means that he knew of the attack beforehand. This is plausible since we believe Portu was behind the attack and have noted that Khurintu seems to hold sway over Portu. Why that is, I cannot fathom, but it worked at Lake Supt." Aragorn sighed and rubbed his brow. "But though I understand Dashnir’s long speech, I do not understand why Legolas and Gimli were taken or why the Khurintu tribe is withdrawing. This all connects to the Destroyer, I can sense that much. But how?!" Aragorn slammed his fist onto his pallet, knowing he was missing some vital detail that lay before him but unable to grasp it.
Movement and noises outside the tent caught Aragorn’s attention, and he straightened slightly upon hearing Eomer’s voice. Orders were being issued and the general tone seemed to be calm, but Aragorn detected an underlying air of despondency and anger. The king of Gondor grimaced and shook his head. It seemed Eomer had also found nothing in the desert.
Then the voices died away and silence fell upon the camp for several long minutes, during which time Aragorn assumed that Eomer was seeing to Shade, for no king of the Mark would ever give his horse into the charge of another. Knowing he had yet a bit of time to himself, Aragorn turned again to the problem of deciphering what was happening in Haradhur. He doubted he would be able to learn anything else without more information, but it never hurt to try. Besides, at the moment, Aragorn had naught else to do.
Why the elf and dwarf, and why the decision to withdraw? Aragorn demanded silently. His mind began to twist and fold the problem, attempting to see it from several different angles in the hopes that he could uncover that one missing detail that eluded him, but it was to no avail. After another fifteen minutes had passed, the king of Gondor was no closer to answers than he had been when he first returned to camp.
The folds of material that made up the main entrance to the large tent suddenly parted and a harried-looking Eomer entered, brushing sand from his tunic as he did so. Deciding to let the problem alone for the moment and return to it later, Aragorn sat back and looked up at Eomer expectantly.
"Nothing," the horse lord said without preamble. "Legolas and Gimli are not in the encampment or the city. We searched everywhere. We found no trails leading away from Haradhur save for the trails of the raiders. None in the desert confessed to having seen either Legolas or Gimli. We even paused at the Khurintu camp and found it to be in just as much disarray as other camps in the area, though I believe that such a thing could have been a ruse."
"Did you learn anything of the raiders?" Aragorn asked.
Eomer shook his head and muttered something rather foul in the tongue of the Mark. "We found none that could identify the raiders as coming from any tribe. But I do not believe this to be necessary anymore, for having seen the last of them riding off myself, I must concur with my guards. They were from the Portu tribe. I have never seen any other people who ride so high upon the horse’s shoulders."
"Then I shall take you at your word, for we are in desperate need of information," Aragorn sighed. "We have little enough as is."
"What of you?" Eomer asked. "Did you find anything?"
"Nay, nothing save for a few slain raiders. And like you, I found none who could say from what tribe these attackers had come," Aragorn answered.
"Then we must work with what information we have," Eomer sighed. "And as you have already observed, that is little enough." The king of Rohan pulled Guthwinë from its scabbard and ran his hand down its sharp blade as he took a seat on his own pallet. "Why the raid, Aragorn? Why did Portu attack again? And why did Khurintu withdraw from the Gathering?"
"I have no answer for your last question," Aragorn said. "Not yet. As for the attack, there are two purposes that I can see. I doubt not that there are more, yet at least we have something of a place to start. For one, I suspect the raid was something of a warning. The Destroyer’s prophecies are beginning to come to pass. For another, it was a discreet way to slip away from Haradhur with Legolas and Gimli. In that confusion, no tribe would have noticed a group of warriors carrying two unconscious forms. With all that went on, there were probably many unconscious forms in the desert last night. And our men would certainly have noticed nothing, being too occupied themselves in keeping out of the way."
"Perhaps a delegation should be sent to the Khurintu tribe," Eomer said grimly. "I stopped briefly with my men, but they were in no condition to tell me anything. I suspect that will have changed by now."
"And what shall a delegation accomplish?" Aragorn asked. "What would be our purpose?"
"We could ask them to more clearly define their reasons for leaving the Gathering," Eomer said. "Or better yet, we could confront them with our slain guards and demand an accounting of their actions last night."
"We would go to them with no evidence and challenge their honor," Aragorn answered with a shake of his head. "Dashnir would be well within his rights if he were to force us from their camp at such an accusation. And as for stating their purpose in leaving Haradhur, they gave it to us as the Gathering broke apart last night."
"But that is certainly not their true purpose."
"No, and I doubt that Dashnir will tell us the true purpose if we were to ask."
"I said not so, but mayhap he will let slide some hint or suggestion if we were to pressure him," Eomer reasoned.
"I doubt that very much," Aragorn said heavily. "We journeyed here with Dashnir, and not once did I see his composure falter. He will have drafted an answer to every inquiry. Even should we turn instead to the men serving beneath him, I doubt that they could tell us much either. They probably know no more than we do."
Eomer sighed and sheathed his sword. "Khurintu stated that they were leaving Haradhur and the Gathering because they wished not to be caught in the path of the Destroyer. They took with them Legolas and Gimli. Does this not defeat their purpose?"
"What do you mean?"
"Clearly something is planned. Perhaps another attack, or mayhap something else, I know not. But the Khurintu tribe would not have left the Gathering claiming they did not wish to be part of the Destroyer’s wrath if some form of that wrath were not planned. Yet they have taken with them the agents of the wrath. Legolas and Gimli are not here to be blamed, but they are supposed to be the heralds of doom. Does this not work against their plans?"
Aragorn frowned, wondering why this had not occurred to him before now. He had looked at every other aspect, but he had failed to actually take Khurintu at its word. I am looking for too many hidden motives that go untouched by speech or action. Eomer, on the other hand, is sifting their words and finding truth. Running a hand through disheveled hair, Aragorn decided to follow in Eomer’s footsteps and look at other words that had been spoken. "No," he said quietly at length. "No, it does not."
"I do not follow your reasoning," Eomer said.
"I am not certain that I follow it myself," Aragorn confessed. "But think back with me. What were the Destroyer’s exact words to Aulit?"
"He was told to ‘cast them out,’ referring to the abominations," Eomer answered. "Or, as the interpretation now runs, Legolas and Gimli."
"But they have not been cast out," Aragorn said. "For all Aulit knows, they could be lingering upon the edges of Haradhur. He has failed in his obligations to the tribes, and they know it. If he had actually succeeded in casting out Legolas and Gimli, he would have had it announced so that all would see that he was maintaining safety at the Gathering."
"So whatever happens, it shall be blamed upon Legolas and Gimli," Eomer said. "But…why should Khurintu take them alive? If it is discovered that they are in Khurintu custody—"
"But it won’t be discovered," Aragorn said as things began to fall together. "They made certain of that with the raid. And when larger things—things more deadly than the raid—begin to happen, then Legolas and Gimli shall be blamed. And this explains yet another thing I have pondered. Khurintu’s sudden move for power must come with backing, for otherwise they would not have acted and severed all ties with the other tribes as they have done. They are too cautious for that. They have something or they know of something. But what?" Aragorn groaned and his hands became fists. He was so close now, yet he was still missing vital details.
"Then perhaps Legolas and Gimli are not alive," Eomer said quietly. "Perhaps they were killed in the attack and then removed so that Aulit and the Gartabo tribe would think them to be the cause of whatever is to come. They would certainly be easier to transport if dead."
"No," Aragorn said flatly. "I will not believe that. Something tells me otherwise. They are alive and there is a use for them yet. But I cannot see it, and I cannot see how this shall all resolve itself. Nor can I see what Khurintu might use now as an agent of destruction. But it shall have to be something significant if they wish to cow all of Harad and bring them under their heel."
"How shall we prevent this if we know not what it is?" Eomer asked, his voice soft. "Perhaps we should also withdraw from Haradhur and encourage others to do likewise."
Aragorn frowned and glanced at the king of Rohan. "You would retreat?"
"I would regroup until I better know my enemy. And I would also give us more time and more freedom to find Legolas and Gimli."
"No," Aragorn said, shaking his head. "Your idea is wise and were we anywhere else I would follow your counsel, but in Harad, I think it might be taken as a sign of weakness. We cannot afford to appear weak. Not now. That is one thing Khurintu did not do. They did not turn the other tribes against us."
"And here is yet another puzzle," Eomer exclaimed. "Why should this be? Why should they spare us this?"
"Because they do not want the other tribes to drive us out," Aragorn murmured, hoping he was on the right track but wishing he could be more certain of himself. "Whatever happens, they want us here for it."
"Should this not be cause for us to move?"
"As I said before, it would be seen by others as a sign of weakness. Khurintu would have won."
Eomer sighed and shook his head. "Then we sit here and calmly await the stroke of doom?"
"As we waited upon Mordor," Aragorn confirmed. "Until we know more, we can do nothing else."
"And in the meantime?" Eomer questioned.
"We wait and we rest. I am going now to assign double watches after which I shall be going to sleep. I suspect all others will be doing the same, for the night was a long one and rest will be required on all fronts. Khurintu is not leaving until this evening. Thus we have until then at least before anything happens. I intend to use that time for sleep."
"If you so counsel," Eomer said heavily with reluctance in his voice. "I will follow your lead, Aragorn, but I think we should force Khurintu’s hand. Rohan waited under Saruman, and it nearly cost us our kingdom."
"But you knew not from whence the evil came," Aragorn said. "You did not fully understand just how involved Saruman had become in the day-to-day affairs of your government. But we know now who the enemy is. We know that something is coming. In this, we have an advantage."
"A very small one," Eomer muttered. "Pleasant dreams, then, Aragorn, if there be any pleasant dreams left for you. And may your gift for foresight return with clarity, for I would not wait upon the stroke of a sword only to find that the sword has already fallen."
Regarding the lack of camels in this story…Tolkien said nothing about camels but he did say quite a bit about oliphaunts and horses, so I’ve gone with them as resident pack animals (though we never do get to see an oliphaunt in this story). You will also notice that I’ve positioned the lakes about a day’s ride apart, so it’s not too stressful on the horses. Hopefully that’s made it a little more plausible. And then there’s personal choice, too. I know that I would choose a camel over a horse if circumstances permitted. I’ve worked with both, and camels can be REALLY ornery. Beyond that, a Harad full of horses fits better with the role of the Rohirrim. If you’d like, though, you’re more than welcome to think that the southernmost tribes utilized camels.
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)
Khesva—Tribal head of Soltari (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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