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Twilight of the Gods: 28. Assault in the Dark
Chapter 28 Assault in the Dark
When finally the order came to stop for the night – in a wider part of a tunnel that seemed to lead on for leagues – Hilberon watched the king. Amid these paths which led through the mountains instead of over them for some time, only the Dunlendings still seemed able to distinguish day from night. The soldiers were footsore and weary. Still carrying their armour it was hard to trudge along all day, not knowing where to, and with bound hands. The young soldier sat where he stood; there was no need to search for a better place. The whole terrain looked stony and uncomfortable. Upon an unmistakable order by the male Easterling leader the king let himself down a few feet away from his men, and the Easterling woman stood by his side. His chin dropped to his chest when he rested his elbows on his knees; he shivered and looked as worn out as Hilberon felt. But the difference between them was obvious when Aragorn's hair fell forward. The red lines of the mark could be seen on his neck extending down to his shoulder-blade.
Hilberon turned to Halamin, who sat next to him, and whispered urgently,
"I know what he said, but… We have to do something, Halamin. We cannot just watch!"
Halamin raised his bound hands and took a look round at the mass of jagged, grey stones surrounding them before he answered:
"I would like to tell you, my young friend, that there is a way and what we can do, but… see for yourself. We are outnumbered… battered, tired. And we are in the mountains. Even if we overthrew them all we would not know how to get out. There are many sideways. This tunnel might lead… anywhere."
"The king would find a way," the young soldier whispered. "And by all means, we cannot again let anything happen to him. I fear their leader over there knows who he is."
"What do you mean?" Halamin was instantly alarmed and turned his head slightly so he could see the Easterling woman walk to one of the men of her company. By now Halamin knew his name was Asentis, and he had sworn he would never forget the name or the man. There would be a chance to avenge the captain, and when it came Halamin would be ready. Softly the woman caressed the man's temple and cheek before her gaze found the king again. Her expression grew hard and determined. She whispered some words in his ear, and the man beside her nodded grimly before they both left for the northern side of the tunnel.
"Don't you see it?" Hilberon pressed. "She only marked him, not us. And it doesn't look like this would change tonight, right? And now she is keeping him away from us."
Halamin swallowed. He would not share the ugly thought Dumarin had uttered on the way. He looked from the couple back to the king, remembering that he had only briefly resisted when ordered to sit aside from his men.
"That is easily explained. She would not want us to help him again. It almost worked the first time." Halamin released his breath. "I wish we could do something. I'd take his suffering if I could."
"We have to find a way, Halamin," Hilberon insisted. "We have to try! If we wait too long he might not be able to escape anymore." His gaze travelled back to the king. The female Easterling gave Aragorn a water-skin, and for a long moment the king and the woman held eye contact. Hilberon frowned. He was young, but he was not completely stupid. Something was going on, but he could not make out what it was.
"Why did you separate me from my people?" The king asked the woman. Ridasha gave no answer, but only looked at him as if the truth were nothing she would like to reveal. "Let me go back to them, tend the wounded." He held her in his stare for a moment longer, waiting for her to change her mind.
"Did the pain of the scytejé subside?" Ridasha asked, taking back the water-skin. He nodded curtly, exhaling with frustration. His gaze wandered to his men sitting against the walls of the tunnel. At least they were given water and food. He saw Hilberon among them, with an expression of low burning anger. The young man averted his eyes the moment the king made contact, and he asked himself why, hoping at the same time that he would not attempt another folly.
"Why did you do it?" The king looked up at the young women, and as before she hesitated before answering. Glancing around she made sure that Harishdane was no longer close.
"Úshemor… would not want you to be in pain," she admitted quietly, handing him a piece of bread. His expression indicated he did not understand. He ate and she added, "Did you not see the goddess?" Ridasha frowned when he shook his head. For a moment she stared into the fire a few feet away. The Dunlendings had sat down to eat and talk while the others watched the ways out of their scanty campsite. Finally her gaze returned to him. "We honour the goddess, and she… takes care of the slaves. But the tribes have to treat the slaves well and shall not make them suffer."
Aragorn waited a moment and then asked,
"Who is that woman leading you?"
"Harishdane. She is the leader of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan. Her tribe comes from the east. From beyond the Sea." It should sound proud, but Ridasha could not convince the king. Instead she smirked as if naming Harishdane's descent was a kind of mockery in itself by now. "All other tribes were conquered by her kin shortly after their arrival."
Ridasha paused, fumbling with her tunic.
"They are strong," she then admitted quietly, and lifted her head to where the leader and her man had left the campsite. "Stronger than others."
"But… she has no rights like a high priestess?" he carefully asked, not wanting her to shy away from the conversation. But he could see the distress his question caused her. It took her time to summon her strength to at least shake her head slightly. "Then tell me why I got this mark. Please!" he added in an urgent tone seeing that she was ready to flee from the answer. "Do not run away." He lowered his hands which he had raised upon her withdrawal. She stayed, but her mouth was set, and he knew he would get no answer. Exhaling, he decided on another approach. "Where are you taking us?"
Ridasha shot him another unwilling look.
"Where you are needed. You will work on the field or be a herder of the sharos."
"But you said your land is no longer fertile. Mordor bereft you of your home."
"There will be a way," she stated, and he could see her reluctance grow, but there was something else in her expression. He could not explain if it was insecurity or even anxiety.
"So sure are you?" he asked and hoped she would not see that he already knew of the gathering of Easterlings near Dagorlad.
Ridasha paused again to make sure she was not watched.
"Yes, and you will be of as much help as the other men." Aragorn kept his face blank of any expression when he asked for the reason. Ridasha looked at him as if talking to an ignorant child. "In the war many of our kinsmen lost their lives. Those who survived are too few to find new land to live on and serve as soldiers. You will relieve our men of their lower duties and help them to rise in standing again."
The realisation took his breath away.
"Be a slave in the field? Is that what your culture is founded upon? Owning people and making them work for you?"
She did not understand. Her brows furrowed and her voice was angry when she replied,
"It is an honourable task to serve. Many of our folks have served for the wellbeing of all of us."
The king leant forward, stressing his argument.
"But they do not do it because they want to. You said the slaves belong to the tribes. This is not…"
"The weaker submits himself to the stronger," she defended heatedly, and her brows furrowed with rising anger. "He has to do the work that is given to him. It has been like this for many generations. Why do you look at me like this would be a wrong solution?"
Aragorn sensed that no argument he would choose could change her mind. Instead of showing his disbelief he asked,
"Is that what will happen to the men from Rohan?" Ridasha breathed deeply, but nodded. "Your kin will… abduct more of them if the raids continue?"
"We will make them work for us," she said as if it was self-evident, and the king's eyes widened when he understood the reason for the Easterlings' alliance with the hillmen.
"But… you cannot do this! Rohan lost dearly in the war! They too need their people to sustain themselves. Or did you think they would walk into the Shire and ask for help?"
"The Shire?" she interrupted him wide-eyed. "You know about the Shire? Tell me!"
"Do you not listen to me? Do you not understand?"
Ridasha's face hardened due to the urgency in the king's words. She stared down on him, and her words were poignant.
"The survival of our kin is the only importance to us. It is the only task worth doing, and you will become a part of that task, as well as your fellows."
Aragorn cast down his eyes. His heart beat fast realising that the Easterlings' conspiracy reached further than Éomer or he had assumed. The hillmen would settle on Rohan's realm while the Rohirrim were abducted to Rhûn. It was an elaborated plan, and until now every part of it had been fulfilled. They all had acted as Harishdane had expected. Aragorn swallowed hard. The kings had been led astray, and now it was too late to change that.
"Rest," Ridasha closed, her voice low and composed again. "There's a long climb ahead of us."
It was a very provisional camp they had pitched with the beginning of the night. After a day of hard riding, the Rohirrim warriors would have nothing more than their bedrolls to protect them from the elements, all for the sake of speed. They would proceed with the dawn's first light to make up for the two days they had lost, and only halt when it got too dark to see. They would not be delayed by having to pack and store the tents. There were no fires, either. Nothing to give their presence away. Provisions were eaten cold, and none of the men sang or barely even spoke, aware that their rocky surroundings would carry all noise for leagues to potentially not well-meaning ears. It was a tense, spooky atmosphere, but one the Rohirrim soldiers – as a battle-hardened people –were accustomed to.
High above the main host, Thor sat silently on an outcropping which granted him a supreme view over their immediate surroundings. Accustomed to scouting at night, his eyes were used to the stars being the only source of light, and tonight, the half moon provided even more illumination. He knew the sound of the nights in the mountains. He knew which noises belonged to which animal, and what noises belonged to man. He knew the sound of stealth and the best ways to sneak up on the place where his kinsmen were spending the night. From up here, he could see it all, like a great, silent bird of prey. Nothing that moved on the ground would escape his attention, and on the other side of the gorge, a bit further down the path, another guard was holding watch, in addition to four more men on the ground.
Thor could not imagine how his primitive kinsmen could be able to sneak up on the host of battle-experienced and wary Rohirrim. He forbade himself to relax nonetheless, knowing that underestimating the enemy was usually the first step toward defeat. Even if they had not seen a single Dunlending for the entire duration of their ride, he took his duty seriously. Resting his back against a big rock at the foot of the outcropping, the scout leant back. It would be a long night.
Aragorn was not granted a peaceful rest. He lay in the darkness, looking up at nothing but black, jagged rocks surrounding him, caging him, getting closer when the fire burnt down. He directed his gaze to the flames, seeking ease from their glow, but the few burning branches could not chase away the dreadful shadows; they could not lift the weight off his ribcage. The fear returned, and he clenched his teeth fighting it, trying to sum up the revelations Ridasha had made and the consequences at hand. Had Éomer lost the fight near the mountains, and would the hillmen raid the settlements supported by even more Easterlings? He did not want to believe this. But at the same time he remembered how fast and relentless the men and women from the east had fought against him and his soldiers. What if they had not shown themselves on the battlefield until he had left the fight with his men? Another distressing thought followed: was it possible that Éomer was their prisoner too? Or ... was it even worse?
Aragorn looked from his bound hands to the guards at the tunnel paths. There were two on either side carrying torches. Other hillmen lay nearby and would be easily woken by any noise. If he made it this far they would all too easily catch him. He looked back to Ridasha. She had unfolded her blanket only a few feet away. Judged by her steady breathing she was asleep; her face had softened, her lips slightly parted. Her head rested on the folded scarf she had taken from under her tunic. It had seemed like a piece she cherished, and for the first time Aragorn had been granted the sight of a small though yearning smile when she had looked at the cloth. Now it was hardly to be seen; the fire was almost gone, and only the torches of the four guards gave some light. Aragorn could hear the snorting of the men on the ground and the slight shuffle when they turned to the other side. He did not need to close his eyes to see the narrow dungeon cell again in which he had been caged. He wanted to jump up and run to lose these memories on the way.
It would be a long and sleepless night.
Hilberon felt hopelessness creep up on him. It seemed they had already been walking for weeks, and their prospects for freedom grew less with every path they crossed, and every cursed day his hands were bound and he was forced to follow the orders of these hillmen and Easterlings. He hated their faces alone. He hated the way they talked with each other and that he did not understand a word. But above all he hated how they treated the king. It had worsened since the night he had been marked, and every time an Easterling shoved him forward and made him stumble Hilberon wanted to run up to their captors and shout at them that they should leave the king alone. That they had no right to treat him like any common soldier – or worse. Even now his status would have to be respected. Hilberon did not understand that King Elessar was still unwilling to reveal himself. Their captors would have to react if they knew who he was! He could see him in front of Tarés, who always tried to stay close to his ruler. The king straightened up after they had reached the end of the tunnel, and though he still looked tired beyond limits he seemed to regain strength. The young soldier had shuddered upon seeing the mark on his neck. The double lines the knife had cut were still raw and dark red, standing out against the pale skin. Again he feared that his comrades and he would face the same procedure. Maybe not within the mountains, but when they reached their destination. Wherever this might be. He shivered with the thought of being abducted to this awesome dry land with its poisonous winds, which the Easterlings called their home. What would happen to the king and all the soldiers? He looked down at his hands. They were trembling. He told himself that he should not be afraid. He was not dead yet, and his father had told him that hope had always kept the heads of the soldiers high while the enemy had been at the gates. Even when the great ram had shattered the main gate they had not fled, but stood their ground as long as possible. Hilberon tried to recall all the stories about the many heroes the war had born, to soothe himself with them. Hiregon had sent him out to make his name known, and Hilberon prayed that he would return to the White City to tell his father the story of his journey to Dunland and how the king saved them all before the Easterlings could drag them to their land.
For a moment he succeeded, just kept his feet moving, and let the outlines of the persons before him blur. He would tell his father that the king himself had taught him a lesson in sword fighting, and that he had been allowed to ride out with him to Dunland. This even though the captain had announced that it would be a dangerous journey, much more dangerous than the excursion to Northern Ithilien. And at that time Hilberon had felt faith in his doings. Now he tried to cling to this faith, to suck strength from the fact of being alive and still being able to move on. Even his arm did not hurt that much anymore. He vowed to himself that he would not be conquered by despair, though it seemed a task difficult to achieve. But at least he would do what was expected of him: help his ruler survive.
The moon had wandered a good distance over the nightly sky, high above the rugged mountain peaks and the thin white veil of rising fog on which it was shedding its ghostly light. In the gorge below, everything was quiet, the men who weren't detailed as guards resting after the gruelling ride, laying their very lives in the hands of their comrades. It was a great responsibility, this lone watch in the middle of enemy territory, and Thor felt honoured that Éomer had chosen him for this specific errand. His gaze once again sweeping his surroundings, he opened his water-skin to take a swig and also sprinkled a few drops of the cool liquid into his face to chase away the first signs of weariness. It had to almost be time for his relief to arrive. Taking another swig, his eyes found their way back to the owl he had sporadically been watching over the course of his watch. The grey bird of prey had its nest only a short distance away from him and was watching its surroundings with the same keenness as he, its speckled feathers almost making it invisible. An animal guard. Smiling to himself, the scout settled back against the rock, feeling a slight chill in the drizzle that had begun only a few minutes ago. His fingers clenched the woollen blanket he had draped over himself, pulling it tighter.
Behind him, a shadowy part of the granite wall began to move. Silently, with immeasurable caution, hands from within removed artfully crafted rockplates, worked so well that they blended together seamlessly. Moonlight reflected in dark eyes as the rock gave way to the darkness of a secret tunnel, swarming with hillmen.
Narrowing his eyes, Thor tried to see whether his relief was already on the way up to his position, but just as he thought he had seen movement on the southern end of their improvised camp, a cloud moved over the moon and plunged his surroundings in thorough darkness. A sudden jolt of tension, inexplicable and without apparent reason, set his nerve-ends tingling, and he straightened, holding his breath as he reached out with his senses.
The opportunity was perfect. He could not have planned it better, Ungorl thought as the shadows around him thickened. The forgoils didn't stand a chance. Up here in the mountains, it was his people's territory, their home where they knew each path and each rock. How stupid of the strawheads to come here where everything was against them. How stupid… and arrogant! Well, they would pay for their haughtiness – not one of them would live to see the day, and the first one would be the accursed traitor on the outcropping before him. For years, Ungorl had taught the youth all his considerable knowledge about scouting, hoping his apprentice would tip the scales in their favour in the days to come, for he had seldom seen a lad as perceptive and quick on the uptake as Thor. He had been so proud of the boy… and suddenly, without warning, the youth had turned into his greatest failure when he switched sides, using all that knowledge he had been taught against them. Ungorl had been devastated then, not wanting to believe what the few men who had returned from the raid had told him.
Today was the day Thor would finally pay for his betrayal. With any other guard, Ungorl would not have wasted time but immediately cut his throat, quickly and effectively silencing him. But he wanted his apprentice's death to be slow. A moment for each of the dark glances he had received for giving his knowledge to an enemy. He would strangle him, slowly and mercilessly, revelling in the feeling of life slipping away underneath his hands, even if that meant a heightened risk for their undertaking. He had already surveyed the outcropping his former apprentice was seated on. It was bare rock, no gravel or smaller stones on it that could eventually fall down the slope and alert the others down below. A good place for a fight. Ungorl was confident. He knew his skill, and he knew his strength. He was far heavier than the youth, who had always been peculiarly light-boned for a true Dunlending; Ungorl himself was all rock-hard muscle from the hard, unforgiving life in the wild. In a one-on-one fight, the traitor would stand no chance.
Knowing their tasks, his men – upon his curt nod – swarmed out silently to the left and right of the secret tunnel. Armed with swords and moving like shadows down the slope, the men encircled the sleeping Rohirrim. For a moment, Ungorl watched them with pride and satisfaction. The strangers had taught them strategy and organised, effective fighting, and tonight, they would put it to great use by eradicating an entire Rohirrim host… including their king! Shifting his focus back to the silhouette he could more sense than see now, he began his final approach. A master hunter stalking his prey...
Something was wrong. He could not lay a finger on it, but all his instincts were crying out. The atmosphere had changed, but what it was that had alarmed him, Thor could not tell. Crouching in the shadow of the rock he had been sitting against, his gaze swept the gorge to his feet, briefly pausing at the other guard's position, even if it was too dark to see the warrior on the opposite wall.
From the corner of his eyes, he saw the owl he had been watching suddenly burst into flight, and swivelled. He had barely begun to turn when he knew he was already too slow. Something slipped over his head, and he became briefly aware of a broad, dark shape behind him. He opened his mouth for the yell that would alert the men below – when something dug into his neck, effectively cutting off sound and breath. Fighting the instinct to pry his fingers between the sling and his skin, Thor went for his dagger instead, but suddenly his vision exploded as something was smashed against his head. He went down, the blade slipping from his grasp, and a great weight fell on him, pressing him against the ground, the sling tightening another notch. Fiery explosions blossomed in front of his eyes when he heard a deep growl through the thunder of his heartbeat. It was a voice he recognised instantly, even if it had been years since he had last heard it.
"So we meet again, bastard! I knew that one day, you would come back, and I swore I would find you and make you bleed for what you did to us!"
Gasping, Thor struggled to turn, but his attacker's greater weight pressed him against the rock as if he wanted to squash him like a worm. With his lungs starting to burn, his efforts at freeing himself became even more frantic, his feet kicking and searching in vain for an aim. Warm and sticky, blood trickled down into his neck from the throbbing head wound, but all paled against the rising need for air… and the discovery that a swarm of attackers were already closing in on the sleeping men below!
"I should let you live, bastard! I should let you live and let you see us slaughter your new friends, and then I should tie you to the pole, like your mother, and let our people have their way with you. But it would not end after three days. It would last longer, much longer, and we would not chase you away afterwards. No, we would leave you tied to the pole until you are dead! Yes, I think I will do that, traitor!"
The attackers had almost reached the camp, and still there was no alert. Why was there no alert? Had they killed all the guards? Was he the last one alive? Renewing his efforts, Thor wriggled to the side, writhing under the weight on his back, and when the moonlight spilled over the scene again, he saw his dagger lying in front of him, and his fingers closed around the hilt.
"You will not-" came the growl from behind, his attacker thrusting him viciously to the side. Changing strategy, Thor used the sudden jolt to turn, and his hand with the knife lashed out, finding its aim. A surprised grunt, and for a moment, the sling slackened, allowing the scout a brief, painful gasp before the blade was knocked from his fingers – and over the edge! Putting the one breath he had been able to draw to good use, Thor doubled his efforts. His groping hands hoped to find a rock, anything he could use for a weapon, but the ground they were fighting on was bare. He lashed out, striking where he thought he had wounded his foe, and earned another grunt. The sling slackened again, and he pushed himself away with his heels, closer to the edge, almost falling. The Dunlending charged after him, crushing him underneath, seriously enraged now. The thought of taking his one-time apprentice alive had drowned in red-hot fury; now he wanted to kill him. Sinking his knee into the younger man's stomach, his free hand landed knuckles-first in the scout's face while the other turned the leather band around his neck even tighter.
He was losing. No matter what he did, Ungorl was stronger, and the last blow had almost knocked him out. Who would warn Éomer? Who was left to warn him? With a last desperate attempt, Thor's arms shot up, and his fingers dug into his attacker's rags as he threw himself with all the force he could muster sideways over the rim…
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