My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 28. From Dark to Light and Back Again
Budari, tribal head of Lotessa, had seen quite a few Gatherings in his lifetime, and Iluh willing, he would see quite a few more. But he could not remember a Gathering ever being quite this…tense. Or unpredictable. There had been occasions when Lord Sauron had sent advisors and observers to the Gathering, and during these times, a definite air of fear and hatred could be felt. The southern tribes, especially, had no great love for Sauron. They had no great love for Sauron’s enemies, either, but at least Gondor and Lebennin had not made a habit of stealing away young men for the sake of stocking an army. The northern tribes also contributed great numbers of men, but because they were closer to Mordor, they received a greater share of the benefits for their willingness to serve the Dark Lord. The southern tribes rarely saw anything in the way of compensation, and so a great dislike for anything to do with Mordor had been cultivated in the southern portions of the desert. And this dislike came to the forefront when the southern tribes were forced to deal with Sauron’s representatives at the yearling Gathering. Yet even then, the tension at the Gathering had almost always been at a manageable level. And there were no surprises such as a sudden attack, for Mordor prevented such things from happening. But now, that was no longer the case, and the air of uncertainty that pervaded the room had tainted this particular night beyond any reasonable hope of reclamation.
With a sigh, Budari noted that someone on the other side of the table was ranting about tradition and the possibility of yet another tribe withdrawing after this night. So far, five different tribes had come forward and announced their intentions to depart, a complete break with protocol and custom. Three others had hinted that they were considering such action. All the tribes were clearly ill at ease, something Budari could well understand, but what he could not understand was why so many were ready to flee rather than confront the problem.
There were reasons, of course. Budari knew that. The appearance of the Destroyer, the disappearance of an elf and a dwarf who were said to be the cause of the Destroyer’s anger, the withdrawal of one of the most powerful northern tribes, the strange attack in the desert the night before…they were all disconcerting. Put together they were nothing short of terrifying. And yet…Budari shook his head. Perhaps he was aided by the fact that he was not a superstitious man. Perhaps he was aided by the fact that he knew much of what was actually happening. But what good was this knowledge and this grounded practicality if his tribe stood alone? He and his kinsmen were not here at the Gathering in full force. Many members of the Lotessa tribe had stayed in the south so as to maintain holdings on hidden lakes and carry out the odd raiding and pillaging mission. If Khurintu came with the bulk of its force and descended upon the Gathering, there would be no stopping them. Lotessa could not defy them without aid. Gondor and Rohan did not have enough men. But who else was willing to help them?
With a sigh, Budari glanced over at Aragorn and Eomer, neither of whom had said a word during this session. Eomer, in particular, seemed unusually quiet. Budari’s first impression of the king of Rohan had indicated that Eomer would sooner argue a point than listen to the reasoning behind it even though that reasoning might be sound. Yet now he was silent, his eyes fixed on the table and his brow furrowed as though in deep concentration. Perhaps that is why he does not seek to interrupt or contradict, Budari thought. He is not paying attention to the conversation but rather to his own suspicions.
This led Budari to yet another topic, and he frowned as he studied the two kings. Before the start of the Gathering, while everyone was collecting within the inner hall, Aragorn and Eomer had come to him and expressed grave misgivings about this night. They felt that Khurintu would unleash something that could be read as a sign from the Destroyer, and they felt that Lotessa might well bear the brunt of this attack. While Budari could not fault their logic, he had no way of preparing himself or his tribe He did not know what form an attack might take or when it would be carried out. He agreed that his tribe was at risk and he agreed that the Portu tribe would also be a likely target, but he could not fathom what Khurintu might do. By necessity, it would have to be a demonstration of great power and authority, yet what would that entail? And how did one prevent it when one did not know what it was?
I must search for something out of the ordinary, Budari decided. Khurintu is not following their usual methods, and therefore something in this Gathering shall strike me as odd. Budari sighed. This reasoning really didn’t help because quite a few things at this Gathering struck him as odd.
Still, there was one oddity that might be worth pursuing, and that was something that had happened just prior to sunset. According to Lotessa spies, Fastahn of the Soltari tribe had been seen leaving the Khurintu camp an hour before Dashnir and the Khurintu tribe left Haradhur. That was unusual. Soltari kept its dealings in the open so that they might never be accused of favoritism or treachery. It helped maintain their carefully constructed position of neutrality. Yet now the picture seemed to be changing. Fastahn’s meeting with Dashnir had been a rather secret encounter, and this raised the possibility that the Soltari tribe had become an agent for the Khurintu tribe. Perhaps they would be the ones behind the fulfillment of the Destroyer’s prophecies.
But Budari didn’t like that idea. The Soltari tribe had invested too much into their neutrality for them to abandon it now. There was another possibility that Fastahn was acting independently and a rift of sorts had formed within the Soltari tribe. But if that were so, then it came as a complete surprise to Budari. And while it was certainly not impossible to keep factions within a tribe secret, the Lotessa tribe kept a close watch on Soltari, for they were Lotessa’s primary source of agriculture. Budari felt rather confident about his sources on Soltari, and they had said nothing of any kind of a rift or a faction, much less one led by Fastahn.
A stir in the conversation around him drew Budari’s attention back to the Gathering, and he noticed that Eomer also seemed to be focusing on the meeting. Aragorn was impossible to read, and Budari wondered what thoughts had come to the king of Gondor. The ruler of the Lotessa tribe prided himself on his ability to judge thought and intent from faces, but he had met his match in the northern king. Budari had never before seen a man who hid his emotions so well. It was simply uncanny, and Budari wondered if there was a trick or two that Aragorn might be willing to teach him. Such a skill was invaluable during negotiations.
"Since there seems to much turmoil and much doubt, we shall adjourn for this evening," Aulit announced, effectively capturing the attention of everyone within the Gathering. Budari stiffened and managed to keep from protesting only with great effort. "I strongly urge all of you to consider your future actions well during this night. Together we are strong. Divided we become weak."
Nay, Aulit, that is not what we need to hear! Budari mentally groaned. If Aulit’s hope was to inspire others to stay at Haradhur and finish the Gathering, he was more foolish than Budari had ever dreamed. To maintain order and calm, traditions had to be followed. Ending a session of the Gathering early—especially when it had ended early the previous night due to a sudden attack—was an indication that something was wrong. It would do nothing to calm the nerves of already-frazzled leaders. It might even prompt more of them to leave.
But the damage was done now, and many of the leaders were already heading for the doors, no doubt intending to discuss events with their councils. If Budari were a betting man, his wager would be that at least one-fourth of the tribes would make plans to depart the next night.
Still, there was some good that came out of this. Granted with extra time, Budari might be able to decipher what was happening with Fastahn and the Soltari tribe. Quickly glancing around for Soltari’s leader, Budari was disappointed to see that Khesva had already left. But there would be time to search him out later in his own camp. If there was a rift within Soltari, Budari would be able to sense it in the encampment. And perhaps by openly confronting a rift, it might heal in such a way as to guarantee Soltari’s aid for the inevitable battle. It was a shot in the dark, Budari knew, for Soltari rarely involved itself more than necessary. Yet it had been strangely active this particular Gathering, and military aid might not be beyond them. At the very least, they might be willing to solicit other tribes for assistance on Lotessa’s behalf.
But there was another side to all of this that worried Budari. If Soltari had aligned itself with Khurintu—something that was still a remote possibility in Budari’s mind—then he might be walking into a trap by journeying into the Soltari camp. It would probably be best to travel with an armed escort. And it wouldn’t hurt to flex some muscle before Soltari, either. They had played with Lotessa enough. It was time to show them what a tribe of warriors could do.
"Perhaps it would be wise if you moved the bulk of your delegation into the city for this night."
Budari blinked and turned his head to meet Aragorn’s calm but concerned gaze. Hiding was exactly what tribes of warriors did not do. "I do not think I heard you correctly," Budari said, giving Aragorn a chance to redeem himself. Perhaps he had been jesting.
"Yes, you did hear me correctly, and no, I did not jest when I spoke."
Aragorn was either exceptionally good at reading minute facial expressions or he had a talent for reading minds. Considering what he had seen from this man already, Lotessa’s leader was half-willing to believe that the latter of the two might be possible. Frowning, Budari studied the king of Gondor and then shook his head slowly. "You would have us cower in the city as a lizard beneath a rock?"
"I would have you survive the night," Aragorn countered.
"We have survived countless years in the desert while at odds with both other tribes and the will of Lord Sauron. We will survive a bit longer."
"What is it that we discuss?" a new voice questioned, and Eomer stepped up beside Aragorn.
"I was advising Budari of the prudence of taking shelter within the walls of the city," Aragorn answered, studying the tribesman through narrowed eyes.
"Ah," Eomer murmured. "Were I in his saddle, I believe that I would refuse such a request. I suppose that he is doing likewise?"
"Indeed he is," Aragorn answered.
Budari deepened his frown and attempted to send two glares in two different directions. He was not especially appreciative of the fact that Eomer and Aragorn were talking about him without really acknowledging him. It was almost as though they were working together to maneuver him into a trap, which would have been acceptable except that Budari had never faced a trap like this and so did not know how to avoid it.
"You say you would also refuse such a suggestion?" Aragorn was asking as Budari turned his mind to possible escape routes.
"Initially, yes," Eomer said. "The Rohirrim do not take well to hiding and slinking. However, after you had explained to me the plan to muster forces within the city and then to ride forth with those forces and meet Khurintu in the desert, I would reconsider my refusal. I would wish to keep my horses fresh, my men safe, and the morale of my company high."
"Interesting. Perhaps we should try explaining this to Budari," Aragorn said, glancing at the Lotessa leader.
"That would be good counsel. I do not see how he could then refuse our offer to accommodate his tribe within our camp," Eomer agreed.
Budari stifled a laugh and shook his head. They were strange, these men from the north, and their methods of persuasion were even stranger. It was quite humorous, actually. Aragorn and Eomer sounded very much like children looking to obtain some favor or gift from intractable parents. But then again, perhaps he should not take their efforts so lightly, for despite his pride, they were beginning to convince him. "What is this of mustering forces?" Budari asked, attempting to sound as though he was only reluctantly considering their ideas.
"Having discussed this matter at length before the Gathering commenced this evening, King Eomer and I have reached several conclusions," Aragorn answered. "First of all, Khurintu shall act tonight and attempt to capitalize on the disappearance of Legolas and Gimli. We know not what form their actions shall take, but whatever the result, it will be powerful and devastating."
"And you believe Lotessa to be one of the targeted tribes," Budari finished for the king, feeling a slight bite of impatience. "You spoke of this earlier."
"It has occurred to us that Khurintu will then ride back tomorrow night," Eomer said, picking up where Aragorn left off. "They shall wish to show their invulnerability to the prophecies of the Destroyer. And having an elf and a dwarf within their grasp, they shall undoubtedly wish to show their power over the so-called abominations."
"Which is why Legolas and Gimli were captured alive," Aragorn concluded. "When Khurintu returns, they will kill Legolas and Gimli before all the other tribes and in some grand fashion, leaving no doubt as to who has been granted power within the desert."
"So they will fulfill their own prophecy that the Iluh will deal with your elf and dwarf," Budari sighed. "And who would dare to challenge them after that? They shall be seen as agents of the Iluh and the saviors of the Haradrim. If they choose to claim power and make all other tribes vassals to them, none will stand against them. The Lotessa tribe and all other potential threats shall have been destroyed by whatever calamity comes this night. The kings of Gondor and Rohan will be dispatched as your small forces attempt to fight Khurintu without allies. The superstitious populace of Harad shall look upon Asbad and Dashnir as men nearly equal to the stature of Lord Sauron. The Gartabo tribe will have lost its standing by its failure to capture those it was commanded to take. Khurintu will rally the desert to unification and ultimately expand their empire northward." Budari gave a mirthless laugh. "Tell me, my friends. Have we forgotten anything of this grand plan? Or does the confusion caused by whatever they did to your elf still linger?"
"It lingers still," Aragorn murmured, his eyes clouding momentarily. "And because of this, we are unable to discover the final pieces of their puzzle. I cannot see beyond what we have discussed here, but there is more to their plans than this. Harad is not prepared to face a prolonged war in the north. Khurintu knows this. Even bereft of its kings, Gondor and Rohan will stand strong. Imrahil leads from Dol Amroth, Faramir and Arwen command the forces of Minas Tirith, Lothíriel can muster Rohan, the elves of Ithilien and the dwarves of Aglarond will to our aid by force of alliance…" Aragorn trailed off and shook his head. "They are planning something more, but as for what that something is, I cannot say."
"Beyond that, we still have not solved the mystery of the Warra tribe and the Portu tribe," Eomer added. "We do not yet understand their role in all this."
"Still, even with the mystery unsolved, I see that Asbad and Dashnir are well on their way to making Khurintu a successor to Mordor’s might and power," Budari sighed, rubbing his temples. "Iluh take their Númenórean tricks! Had your minds and Arabano’s mind been able to function on the ride to Haradhur, you might have seen some of this in Dashnir."
"All of that is in the past," Eomer broke in, his voice indicating that he was eager to move on to other matters. "Brooding over it accomplishes nothing. Let us instead focus our talents and thoughts on what can be done now. We can gather within Haradhur, protected by the city from the forces set against us, and we can rally other Haradrim. You have told us that the Soltari tribe knows the identity of the Destroyer. Let us force them into sharing that knowledge with others. Khurintu can stand before a single tribe, but it cannot stand before the desert. We must all unite against them."
"Your suggestion is good, but it remains to be seen if we can convince Khesva and the Soltari tribe to share their knowledge," Budari cautioned. "There are recent developments that cast doubt upon Soltari’s willingness to assist."
"So Arabano warned us," Aragorn said. "Yet he did not tell us the origins of his suspicions."
"He had no origins at the time he spoke to you," Budari said. "We have had more information since then. But in one thing at least you have convinced me, honored ones. I shall move my tribe into the city for this night and the following day. I also know of other tribes that are beholden to Lotessa. I may be able to convince them of the need to ride to war with us. We shall seek them out and bid them join us. And as we walk to my camp, we shall discuss what preparations are needed to accommodate us within the city."
"And then you shall tell us what you know of Soltari," Eomer added, his eyes flashing. "We have been kept in the dark far too long, and at this point, secrets do not assist anyone."
"Nay, they do not," Budari agreed quietly. "Come, then. We shall find Arabano and depart for the camp of my tribe. And when we reach them, all shall be explained."
* * * *
Gimli could never clearly recall the forced march through the desert during the first part of that night. His headache quickly escalated into extreme regions of pain, and his mind seemed to be cloaked in a perpetual haze. His injured leg buckled continuously, and he wondered how much damage was being done as he forced it to hold his weight. In truth, only the strong grips of his guards kept the dwarf upright, and only their constant shoves kept him moving forward. But as the night began to wear on, his faltering feet grew slower, his wounded leg throbbed harder, his guards became more impatient, and his mind grew ever darker.
He was dimly aware that Legolas kept throwing him concerned looks. The elf had spoken up once for the dwarf, and for his troubles he had earned a violent blow to the side and a stern warning from one of his guards. He had not called out since then, but his eyes were constantly locking onto Gimli’s as though he could ground the dwarf to reality with his gaze alone. And for a while, it seemed to work. Looking into eyes that had been trained to command an elven army with a single glance, Gimli was steadied and his world ceased to spin so quickly. But when the elf was forced to look away, the shadows returned, and the dwarf found himself swimming against swirling currents of darkness and pain that threatened to swallow his consciousness.
Legolas was also surreptitiously attempting to slow the march on the dwarf’s behalf, something for which Gimli was intensely grateful in spite of the outcries of his stubborn pride. The dwarf was all too aware of his own diminishing strength, and he knew that a faster pace might require more than he had to give. And yet, after a time, Legolas’s small efforts were no longer enough. The all-anvil orchestra in Gimli’s head refused to die down and even intensified as time ticked away. His vision began to fade in and out, and all clarity was lost in a foggy dream. Equilibrium failed, and sometime during the night, despite all attempts to keep his balance, his wounded leg refused to take any more. He stumbled and fell, bringing down the guards who had kept a firm grip on his arms. A halt was called, he heard Legolas’s voice rise up in sudden protest, and then darkness overcame him. For a time, he knew no more.
He was next aware of a gentle touch on his brow and hushed, urgent words pleading with him to wake. Deciding that waking was the last thing he wanted to do, Gimli initially ignored the commands that filtered through hazy layers of consciousness. But the voice that called to him was nothing if not persistent, and eventually the dwarf gave in just to be rid of the constant encouragement. Struggling for a minute or so, Gimli eventually managed to open his eyes, something that he considered a rather noteworthy event. The next step was getting his eyes to focus.
What had happened to his sight? He couldn’t see a thing! His vision had tunneled, and all peripheral objects were lost. Even those things straight ahead of him were vague and blurred.
"Gimli?" the voice asked again, and there was a note of fear in the deceptively smooth tones.
The dwarf could make out that someone was bending over him now, and despite the fuzziness of his vision, he could dimly see two glittering gray eyes peering into his own. A flicker of relief passed through those expressive orbs, and then they closed momentarily before opening again, this time with more composure.
"It seems that the legendary hard-headedness of the dwarves is falling short of its renown," Legolas whispered. "You have been unresponsive for some time."
"My apologies," Gimli grunted, the memory of their current predicament swiftly coming back to him. How long had he been unconscious? Why hadn’t he been killed after falling and stopping the march? More than a little baffled, Gimli started to sit up, but Legolas held him down before he could even begin to rise. At this point, Gimli belatedly realized that neither his hands nor Legolas’s were bound. Now thoroughly bewildered, he shot the elf a look of complete and utter confusion. What was going on?
"They released me to care for you, and in turn, I released you," Legolas explained quietly.
Gimli frowned. "They do not fear that you will escape?"
"They know our hearts well," the elf answered with a sad smile, "and my own heart has bound me as surely as any chains. I have not the strength to carry you. The heat and ú-glîr have seen to that. And they know that I will not leave without you."
"Foolish elf," Gimli muttered.
"You would do the same for me, elvellon."
"That is different," the dwarf grunted. "But why am I still alive? I would have expected them to kill me."
"It seems the original claim that we are still useful if dead was somewhat exaggerated," Legolas answered. He glanced quickly over his shoulder and then turned his attention back to Gimli. "They did threaten to kill you because you slowed our journey, but I was able to convince them that I could wake you. Asbad agreed to the attempt. He needs us, Gimli. He did not lie when he said that our lives were not completely necessary; I am certain of that. But we are far more valuable to him in the land of the living than we would be in the realm of the dead. If he can keep us alive, he will. For now, at any rate."
"You are fortunate, then," Gimli breathed, a twinge of fear and guilt squeezing his heart. "If it were not so, speaking out might have cost you your own life."
"I judged the risk to be worth it," Legolas said with a slight shrug as if to dismiss the matter. "But I had almost lost hope of rousing you until now. Will you be well enough to travel soon?"
"I will manage," Gimli said, hoping he sounded more confident than he felt. The world still had a precarious tilt to it, and he wasn’t certain he could remain vertical were he to stand.
"I will stall for more time, but I can not stall for much longer," the elf warned. "I do not understand their speech, but I believe there is some rendezvous for which they are making. They are growing anxious to travel, and they will not wait indefinitely."
"Nay, you need not stall. I am able to travel now," Gimli assured him, attempting to sit up again, but once more, the deceptive strength of the elf held him firmly to the ground. The dwarf blinked and glared at his friend "What are you—"
"You are not able to travel now," Legolas said sternly. "Your leg wound reopened when you fell and the bleeding did not stop easily. More than that, you are starting to run a fever, and your thigh has become infected. I told you that I can obtain more time, and I wish for you to use that time wisely. Continue to recover. If you collapse again, I do not think I can prevent them from killing you. Asbad will have tolerated too much. And to kill you, elvellon, they will first have to kill me."
Gimli blinked at this. "Legolas, I—"
Legolas clapped a hand over his friend’s mouth and gave him a look that would silence a wizard. "Rest, dwarf!"
At times like these, Gimli was sharply reminded that Legolas was a prince among his people and accustomed to getting his own way when he set his mind on something. Though normally content to step back and let others take the lead, Legolas had inherited a strong stubborn streak from his father, and he would not hesitate to employ his authority if push came to shove. And when faced with an angry, resolute elven prince, even Gimli would back down. It was usually safer that way, and now was no exception.
Relaxing back into the sand with some reluctance, Gimli couldn’t help but allow his eyes to slide shut when he felt a gentle elven touch on his temples, and he sighed softly. Much of the shooting pain in his head slipped away under Legolas’s ministrations, and the dwarf drifted into a blissful realm somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness. The earth ceased to roll and buck beneath him, and he felt his equilibrium begin to right itself. Then a soft song in the Sindarin tongue filtered through to his hazy dream world, further quieting him. Despite the fog within his mind, Gimli heard and translated enough of the words to know that Legolas was singing of the sea. It was a sobering reminder that his friend was never truly content, nor had he ever been since hearing the gulls in the fair fields of Lebannin while they rode behind Aragorn and before the hosts of the dead.
His thoughts were interrupted when other voices—voices far less fair than the voice of Legolas—entered his dream. Then he heard the elf again, but the soothing tone from the song had been replaced by the tone of an affronted prince. There was much satisfaction in hearing the elf make use of his royal upbringing against others. The other voices answered his friend now, harsh and demanding, but once more, Legolas countered with all the authority of an incensed elven lord. Even Gimli, lost in vague dreams, trembled at the sound of the elf’s anger and was thankful he had made friends of Legolas rather than staying his enemy. He would not wish that voice to turn upon him.
More fleeting dreams swept the dwarf away from reality, and then the world shifted again. Gimli wondered what was happening and then recognized that Legolas was speaking to him. This time the elf was neither comforter nor prince but an anxious friend who struggled to hold back worry and panic. Full awareness was slow in returning, but the dwarf tried to hurry. Legolas sounded urgent, and this spurred Gimli on to greater efforts at coherency. Eventually he could make out the words of the elf’s speech, and he shivered at the hidden fear in the elf’s voice.
"Gimli? Gimli, open your eyes. You must open your eyes. Gimli? Gimli, hear me. You must wake. My friend, you must do this for your own safety. Open your eyes. If you value your life or mine, son of Glóin, open your eyes!"
With great effort, Gimli worked to comply with the request. It would mean leaving behind his peaceful sanctuary of semi-consciousness, but it would also mean that Legolas would stop calling him. Eventually, after a few failed attempts, he lifted heavy lids and met Legolas’s concerned gaze.
"It is time," the elf said quietly, fear and uncertainty lurking in the gray depths of his eyes. "The men will wait no longer. I have done what I can for you, but I fear it is not enough. Do you feel ready to travel?"
"Ready or not, I have little choice," Gimli grumbled, but in truth, he did feel somewhat better. His head did not ache so much, and for now, at least, the world had decided to stand still. He did not have much hope that this would last long, but it was still a welcome respite from the previous chaos that had made the ground rock beneath him.
"They have agreed to let me support you as we travel, and this means they will bind my hands in front rather than in back," Legolas said with a quick glance at the captors that were surrounding them. "But they will not do you the same courtesy. I tried to convince them otherwise, but I have already pushed our fortune too far. I am sorry."
"I am amazed you talked them into allowing even that much," the dwarf said quietly, ignoring his pride that insisted he needed no help whatsoever. "It is more than I would have been able to accomplish." He closed his eyes and sighed, wondering if he would be able to accomplish anything in the near future other than burdening his elven friend.
"Gimli? Gimli, listen closely to me," Legolas pressed. The dwarf opened his eyes again and looked obediently at the elf. "Do not struggle when they bind your hands," Legolas instructed, his voice so soft that it was almost inaudible. "Act as though you do not know what is happening around you. The more delirious you seem, the better."
"That will not prove to be a difficult task," Gimli assured him, wondering what the elf was planning. It was obvious that he had something in mind and the dwarf could see a curious gleam in the prince’s eyes, but he knew that the plan’s details would not be forthcoming until Legolas worked them out more fully.
"Move him away!" someone behind Legolas ordered. Hands seized the elf and he was pulled away from the dwarf, having only time to send one apologetic and yet strangely confident look. Then Gimli was being hauled to his feet and his arms were wrenched behind his back. It did not require much effort of will to refrain from struggling, for Gimli was too concerned with remaining upright. All his efforts were focused on the need to stay vertical, and it proved to be a great challenge.
"Easy, my friend." Legolas was back now and Gimli felt the elf catch and steady his swaying body. "Stay awake if you can. Lean back against me and take the weight off of your wounded leg. Good. Now rest for a moment. We will start the journey again soon."
Gimli sighed wearily as he relaxed, using the elf’s slender frame for support. He knew that dwarven honor should have been forcing him to stand on his own, but he had neither the energy nor the will to make even a slight protest. After a moment of subduing his inner voice of pride, he gradually became aware that Legolas was whispering hushed words in the elven tongue. Gimli had no understanding of them, but it seemed his pain and nausea diminished as Legolas continued. Then nimble elven fingers were attacking the ropes binding his wrists. There was a slight awkwardness in the movements and he decided that Legolas’s wrists were probably tied together by now, but this didn’t seem to be too much of an impediment to the elf. A short time later, Gimli felt his own bindings loosen slightly, and then Legolas stopped, apparently satisfied.
"Stay with me, Gimli. Stay with me for now," Legolas whispered, his voice pitched so low that it was nearly impossible to hear. "We must bide our time, but I promise you that you will not have to endure this much longer. I believe I might have discovered something that could be of use to us when we choose to make our escape."
"Don’t risk yourself," the dwarf managed to hiss in response. "One of us must survive this ordeal."
"I risk what I must," the prince said in a tone that flatly forbade any further discussion on the subject.
Gimli fell silent and let the argument slide, knowing that in his present mood, Legolas was beyond common sense and reason. Instead, the dwarf tried to make the world hold still long enough for him to get his balance. He couldn’t tell if he was leaning too far forward, too far backward, or if he was floundering to the side. He only knew that were it not for the elf’s support, he would be flat on his back in the sand. Or perhaps on his stomach. Or would he fall on his side? And if so, which side? And just how many sides did he have, anyway?
Then the voices of the Haradrim surrounded them, creating a clamoring din that was anything but intelligible to the fading dwarf. Fortunately, these voices were comprehensible to Legolas, and gently but firmly, he pushed Gimli forward, all the while keeping a tight hold on the dwarf’s right shoulder and trying to take some of the weight off his friend’s injured leg.
And so the forced journey continued. Gimli felt as though he walked in a dark dream with the elf’s firm grip upon his shoulder as his only anchor to the outside world. At times it seemed that voices intruded upon his darkened reality, always angry and always demanding. Then Legolas would answer these voices, his tone sharp, argumentative, and filled with all the authority of an indignant elven prince. Gimli would shiver at that sound, but pressure from the elf’s hands assured him that Legolas’s anger was not directed at the dwarf. And then Gimli would fade back into his dreams of shadows, conscious only of the strange need to keep moving forward and the constant, crippling pain that throbbed in his leg and enveloped his head in a suffocating grasp. Sometimes the pain was so near and so great that it became almost unbearable. But at other times, it was a distant curiosity, present but feeling as thought it belonged to someone else entirely.
Gimli was vaguely aware of a time when he stumbled hard and fell to his knees. Legolas was hauling him upward again before he truly realized what was going on, all the while whispering quiet words of encouragement. He then heard the harsh voices of the men who herded them as sheep. For a small moment, Gimli felt a flash of rebellious anger, but it was immediately swallowed up by concern when he heard what sounded like the impact of a club followed by an elf grunting in surprise and pain.
"Legolas?" His voice was weak and strained and the formation of simple words had become a daunting ordeal, but Gimli’s fear for the elf would not allow him to stay silent. How many other blows hat Legolas taken when the dwarf’s feet faltered?
"Keep moving," Legolas whispered in response to Gimli’s query, almost lifting the dwarf into the air as he forced them both forward. "Think of nothing else. Only move."
And so Gimli moved, obedient to the elven presence that kept him grounded in Middle Earth. And thus his dream continued, a mass of shadows and darkness with a single light behind him to hold it all at bay. But as the darkness grew darker and the shadows grew greater, the light slowly dwindled and faded until the dwarf could barely see at all. Then the world tipped, spun, and ultimately collapsed. The single light now flared brightly above him, demanding attention, but Gimli no longer had the ability to focus. Everything continued to fade until all that remained was darkness. And then he knew no more.
* * * *
Eomer stopped cold on the outskirts of the Lotessa encampment and turned to stare at Budari. "Fastahn went to see Dashnir?!"
Equally startled but hiding it for the moment, Aragorn quickly went through the plans he and Eomer had made while waiting for the Gathering to begin. It seemed that a few of them would have to be altered, particularly the methods of "persuasion" they had chosen to use in order to elicit Khesva’s support.
"Our spies saw him enter Dashnir’s tent and then leave after some time had passed."
"Were there any others in the tent at the time?" Aragorn asked.
"Nay, our spies say that the two of them were alone," Budari said. "Radarad of Portu had been in earlier, no doubt discussing his tribe’s involvement in the surprise attack, but he left before Fastahn arrived."
"Valar," Eomer murmured, rubbing his temples.
"Know you what Fastahn wanted there?" Aragorn asked, clinging to the hope that Soltari’s intentions had been honest.
"Our spies were not close enough to hear anything in the way of a conversation, honored ones," Arabano answered. "However, judging from his questions to me earlier in the day, it is possible that the Soltari tribe is reconsidering its position of neutrality."
"Or Fastahn could be acting independently," Budari added with a sigh. "His actions might not be sanctioned by Khesva. There is a possibility—albeit a remote one—that there is something of a rift within Soltari. Perhaps the tribe is splitting apart."
"Is it possible that we are jumping to conclusions?" Aragorn asked. "Your spies did not overhear the conversation."
"Even if we are wrong, it is best to act with prudence in this case," Arabano advised. "Alliances are tenuous at best, even the strongest ones. Soltari should be treated with great caution."
"Let us say that you are right, then," Aragorn said, deciding to play the game. "There is still the possibility that a part of the Soltari tribe would be willing to help us." Having finally gotten his mind working again and having hit upon a plan that seemed to promise success, he was not about to let it fall to the wayside. They had delayed too long, and they needed to act now. And given his present state of his mind and his limited foresight that was returning only reluctantly, Aragorn did not trust himself to engineer a second workable plan within the next few hours.
"But how shall we tell?" Eomer challenged, his frustration apparently getting the better of him. "Much of our plan lay in the coaxing of Khesva to join us and share with others his information. But can that still be done if Soltari has elected to move to Khurintu’s side?"
For some reason, Budari found this notion rather humorous, and Arabano could not quite keep back a chuckle. "Northerners. You are all alike," Budari said, a smile tugging at the corners of his lips. "You think the world can be divided into sides. Perhaps that is true in your lands, but in the desert, there are multiple aspects to every problem. Even we are not altogether on the same side, as you put it, for we each have our own agenda and our own desires. For the moment, they happen to coincide. However, were we on opposite ends of an issue that led to bloodshed, I would not hesitate to slit your throat."
There was a rather awkward silence for a moment or two until Eomer finally spoke. "I see," he murmured, his tone one of uncertainty.
"If it eases your mind, I would regret the action," Budari added, almost as an afterthought.
"My thanks for your concern," Aragorn sighed with a shake of his head. Budari’s statement might be unexpected for Eomer, but it did not surprise Aragorn. It was a logical extension of basic desert philosophy. There was a saying in Harad that alliances were like hidden lakes. They were few and far between, they were coveted and guarded jealously, and they could be stolen away by other tribes. Nothing in the desert was ever permanent. But this mindset did not help solve the current problem. Aragorn still thought they were drawing hasty conclusions, but if Budari and Arabano were right and if Soltari’s "side" was closer to Khurintu than to Gondor, then much of their planning would have been for naught. To use a dwarven phrase, they would be back at the drawing slate.
I fear that we must become certain on the point of Soltari’s alignment before proceeding to anything else, Aragorn decided at length. Too much rides upon it. Perhaps it would be best if we confronted them openly… It would certainly make Eomer happy. He has endured enough of secrecy.
"I would not regret slitting the throat of all my allies. You may count yourselves singular in that," Budari was saying when Aragorn turned his attention back to the conversation. It seemed that they were still discussing desert philosophy, and apparently Budari had sensed that his comments had stirred feelings of unease in Eomer. For his part, Arabano looked confused as to why such comments might elicit an unsavory reaction.
Deciding to redirect the conversation toward more pertinent matters, Aragorn cleared his throat and all eyes turned to him. "My apologies," he said, "but I feel there are other areas that better deserve our scrutiny. Budari, is it possible to relocate your tribe to Haradhur in such a way that leaves you free for a short trip."
Budari raised one black eyebrow. "And where would I be going?"
"By your leave, I would take you with me to see Khesva. The Soltari tribe is not far from here and I would hear what they have to say in response to the reports of your spies. I would also have Eomer come with us, if he feels so inclined," Aragorn added with a nod toward the king of Rohan.
"I am grateful for the invitation," Eomer said, nodding back. "It would be my pleasure to accompany you."
A small smile crept over Budari’s face and he shook his head. "Ere you convinced me to join you in Haradhur, it had been my intention to travel with armed escort to the Soltari tribe myself and learn the truth of the matter. By all means, let us depart. Arabano, you shall be charged with the affairs of this camp. We shall take the southern perimeter guards with us to Soltari, so you need not be concerned with recalling them."
"As you wish, honored one," Arabano answered with a slight bow. "Though I will confess that I had wished to confront Fastahn myself."
"And doubtless you will have opportunity for it," Budari replied. "But for the time being, the welfare of our own tribe must come first."
"Then if we are finished here, let us depart," Aragorn said, feeling a touch of his old confidence returned. This action felt right. His instincts had returned and he was beginning to trust himself again. Translating word to deed, he began walking away, looking expectantly at Budari.
Following Aragorn’s lead, Budari nodded a farewell to Arabano and started moving. "We shall certainly give the poor Soltari guards a shock. I doubt Soltari sees much in the way of visits from kings and tribal leaders."
"Shock may be exactly what we need at this point," Aragorn said quietly. "We have been far too predictable in our actions, and such a thing can only play into Khurintu’s hand. We need to make bolder moves." The king of Gondor flicked a glance over his shoulder to see if Eomer was smirking—for such a statement would seem far more natural coming from him than from Aragorn—but he stopped when he noted that Eomer was not following them. He was still standing next to Arabano—who looked rather confused—and staring at two soldiers near Lotessa’s main tent. "Eomer?" Aragorn called, questioning.
Eomer turned slightly, and at the look on his face, Aragorn felt his blood chill. "Budari, what is it that your guards hold over yonder?" the king of the Mark asked, his voice carefully neutral but his eyes flashing with sudden fear.
A rather puzzled Budari looked in the indicated direction and frowned. "I know not. Do you wish me to investigate?"
"If you would," Eomer answered in a tone that would not be countermanded. Had he not been so alarmed, Aragorn would have been impressed. Such a tone might make even Thranduil sit up and take notice.
Budari nodded—though he looked as though he desired an explanation—and obligingly walked toward the guards that had earned Eomer’s undivided attention. Noticing his approach, the men turned quickly and bowed, awaiting instruction. "That bag you carry," Budari said. "What is it?"
"We know not, honored one," one of the guards answered. "It was found near your tent and we were debating as to whether or not it should be brought to your attention." Having said this, the guard presented Budari with a rather lumpy sack.
Standing slightly behind the tribal leader, Aragorn studied the sack closely, but he could see nothing about it that would attract Eomer’s interest. It was a fairly ordinary bag made from what appeared to be mûmakil hide. There were no unusual markings on it, and nothing about it indicated it could be a threat in any way. It was certainly not out of place within a desert camp. Shooting Eomer a questioning look, Aragorn was startled to realize that Eomer was not watching the bag but rather the guard’s hands. They were coated with a fine layer of black powder, which was strangely familiar for some reason, but Aragorn could not remember where he had seen such a thing before.
"There are more of these bags, honored ones," the guard was saying. "A few lie further out while others are near some of the tents on the northern side of camp. We cannot remember their having been here before tonight."
"Strange," Budari murmured, opening the bag and allowing some of its contents to spill out onto his hand. "I have seen nothing like this before."
And that’s when recognition hit Aragorn like a charging Balrog. He felt his stomach drop into his knees, his throat went dry, and his eyes immediately went to the desert beyond the camp, searching the darkness for—
"Aragorn!" Eomer cried, pointing toward the north. And quickly turning this direction, Aragorn gasped. Almost beyond the range of sight, he could see a tiny flicker of red. A glimmer of flame.
"Fly!" Aragorn cried, seizing both Arabano and Budari and propelling them forward. "Tell all to leave the camp. We must—"
But Aragorn was not allowed to finish his sentence, for a sudden blast of pressure, heat, and sound slammed into him. All air was forced from his lungs, and when he gasped for more, it seared its way down his throat. The world tumbled head over heels around him, and time seemed to slow into eternity as a wave of fire exploded outward from a point on the camp’s outer edge.
His ears ringing and his skin blistering, Aragorn abruptly realized that he was airborne and flying forward. Behind him, a blinding light roared up from the ground and the world was filled with a deafening sound that was like and yet unlike the clap of nearby thunder. Sand and fire rained down, a plume of flame shot skyward, and all of Arda shook and clamored as though being overrun by a battalion of trolls. Then the ground rushed up to meet Aragorn’s falling form, but there was no time to even raise his aching head off the sand ere a second explosion did it for him. Flung sideways into the air, Aragorn did the only thing he could do; he pulled into a protective ball and sent up pleas to the Valar for help. But his cries were in vain, and he had not even hit the ground again when he saw a third wave of light and fire erupting next to one of the guard tents while a fourth explosion went off behind him. Caught between two colliding waves of pressure and flame, Aragorn’s consciousness fled, plunging his world into blackness. His last sensation was one of fire, and then everything went silent.
Author’s Notes—In my defense, may I say that the last two paragraphs of the chapter were NOT inspired by the Two Towers movie (though I have now seen it twice). The plot has been outlined almost completely for quite some time and this particular section has actually been written for quite a while. It’s just been waiting for the other sections to be finished. Anyway, I came up with this on my own.
To Ithilien, I once thought about having revenge as part of the motivation, but like you, I couldn’t see anyone going to this much trouble to accomplish it. Apparently we think alike. I pity you, if that’s the case. ;) Anyway, the primary motivation—as you’ve probably deduced by now—is power. Khurintu is making a power play in a vacuum that was created by Mordor’s fall. A power play seven years in the making, I’ll grant you, but since communication is slow in the desert and tends to be jumbled, I figured it was plausible. It always felt odd to me that no one tried to assume Mordor’s position when Sauron was defeated, so I fixed that with this story. Satisfied me, anyway.
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