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Twilight of the Gods: 29. Unexpected Help
Chapter 29 Unexpected Help
The noise of falling rocks ripped Éomer from his light sleep, and his fingers closed around the hilt of his sword before he had fully wakened. Before he even realised that he was not dreaming, he was already on his feet. Around him, his soldiers reacted in the same way, blankets sailing to the ground.
"We're under attack!"
The night exploded into violence as swords were crashed against each other, and fighting noises and wild yells of attackers and attacked echoed through the gorge. Indistinct in the darkness, Éomer caught the notion of a moving black wall of assailants charging against them, and he pivoted sharply to grasp a still sitting shape from the blanket it had been lying on, yanking the stunned Dunlending to his feet in a single move.
"Stop them, Woldro, or I swear, every single one of them dies!" He pushed the hillman forward, only briefly hesitating to cast a quick glance in the direction of the slope. He thought he saw a shape lying at the foot of the hill, but the next moment, his full attention was called to the action in front of him, as Woldro raised his hands and shouted at his kinsmen. At first, nothing happened, as his voice was drowned out in the fighting yells. Then suddenly, when his tribe recognised him, everything ground to a crunching halt.
"Wait! Wait! Lay down your weapons! Do not do this!"
Standing close behind the tribal leader with drawn sword, Éomer looked back and raised a hand to halt his men. Waiting for what would happen, as he understood nothing of what Woldro was discussing with his kin. Thor, he needed Thor, and urgently! His gaze darting towards the protrusion they had chosen for their sentinels, the king hardly heard what was being discussed in front of him. He needed his scout down here. Where – a cold chill raced down his spine, as a sudden revelation struck him as to what it had been that had alerted him. Turning away from the yelling Dunlendings, Éomer's gaze cut back to the foot of the hill, where he saw Elfhelm and Tolgor bend over the dark shape he had seen. No! It could not be! Not Thor!
With an unspoken yet clear command for his surrounding men to watch the proceedings, the Rohirrim king hastened back to where he saw his marshal drop to his knees. His mouth went dry. If Thor was dead... what hope would remain for him to still lead a successful parley with the Dunlendings? They could not even understand what Woldro and the leader of the attackers were discussing further back; what if he told them how to set a new and better trap instead of backing off and leaving them alone? Anxious, he quickened his steps.
The shape on the ground moved, and as it rolled to the side, it became clear that there were actually two men at the foot of the slope. Vaguely relieved, Éomer stepped up to his friend. He flinched as he caught the sight of dark wetness on the scout's face, glistening in the pale moonlight.
"Thor? What happened?" His gaze fell on the other man, a squarely built Dunlending dressed in leather and shabby fur. His left leg was bent at an awkward angle, and the slide down the gravelled slope had ripped most of his clothing and skin to shreds. There was a lot of blood, and the man seemed to be in intense pain as he stared in seething rage at the scout, who – with their healer's help – was slowly coming to his feet, apparently unable to stand on his own.
Thor wanted to answer, but found his throat so bruised, he could barely croak. A hand reflexively went up, because the sling – albeit slack – was still around his neck, and he attempted to fill his lungs with enough air for a reply, but grimaced at the pain. With deep concern in his eyes, Éomer lent his swaying captain a hand to steady him, shaking his head as he looked at their healer on the other side.
"Tend to him, Tolgor! Do what is in your power!" He turned to Elfhelm as the scout was helped to the nearest blanket to lie down, and the healer shouted orders to the men around him. The older warrior looked distraught as his gaze returned to the wounded Dunlending at his feet, in his eyes the murderous desire to kill the man where he lay. Éomer grasped his sword hand to hold him back. "Not yet, Elfhelm. Let us await what Woldro accomplishes."
"The scum almost killed my captain! How can you expect me to hold back?" Dark grey eyes met Éomer's, seething with rage. It was rare that the king had seen his old friend in such an emotional state.
"Let's wait. He will not go anywhere. But I need you now, and I need you to have a clear head. Elfhelm?" A short nod at Ungorl, who stared back at him with hate-filled eyes. His gaze returned to the marshal. Meeting his glance unflinchingly, Elfhelm seemed to contemplate for an endless moment what would happen to him if he disregarded the king's order. At length, he forcefully sheathed his sword and turned his back on their foe, nodding his consent. Together, the two warriors strode through the rows of waiting Rohirrim to meet with the Dunlending leaders.
"We came to free you, Woldro!" Hûndarg narrowed his eyes, not comprehending what he had done wrong. "We heard them ride by and sent Ungorl to look. He said they had captured you and –"
"I am not their captive, Hûndarg!" Woldro exclaimed, sweating. His tribe was looking at him as if he had lost his mind. Had he not said that the strawheads were still their enemies? Had they not sent their men, too, to prepare the trap as the strangers had bidden them? So why was he stopping them?
"They defeated us, yes! But they spared our lives where they could. They disarmed us only when we ambushed them. It was not what they usually did. And that king, he said one of his men killed Grodes, and that he even tried to kill him, too, a traitor to Rohan. He said he acted alone, and that the Rohirrim still wanted want peace with us, and offer us that land he spoke of. He came all the way from Edoras with this offer! What does that tell you?" His opposite stared at him dumbfounded, not knowing what to say. His gaze travelled back to the two Rohirrim standing behind his leader, who were obviously in charge.
"But what are they doing here? And why are you with them?"
"I agreed to ride with them to clear the way. The strangers captured the other king and his men, like we planned. Now they want to free them."
Hûndarg narrowed his eyes.
"You are helping them now? Our trap was successful, how can you help them? The strangers will be furious when they hear it!"
"Don't you understand?" Woldro wanted to take the man and shake sense into him. "If we have peace with Rohan, if they give us land, we don't need the strangers! We will have what we want, and without the bloodshed! It will be better this way, trust me."
Over his shoulder, the younger Dunlending locked eyes with Éomer.
"You believe him? You believe a strawhead? They have given us nothing yet." He snorted. "The strangers at least gave us weapons, and they taught us to fight."
"He did not kill us when he could have, and several times so. I believe his offer is sincere. And as your leader, Hûndarg, I order you to take our men and go back to our village. Let us pass, and also let them pass when they return. The Rohirrim are not to be attacked. Spread the word." He nodded as his tribe lowered their swords, and then finally sheathed them. The tension falling off was almost painful. "I thank you for your concern and help, son, but go now. Everything is as it should be. I will return soon." He embraced the younger man, and then took a step back, watching them slowly turn and disappear in the night, two of their strongest carrying an obviously badly wounded man whom Woldro recognised as their best scout. Sunk in contemplation for a moment, he twitched at Éomer's voice from behind.
"What did you tell them?"
He turned, confronted by the wariness in the Rohirrim's dark glance.
"You may find this hard to believe after their attack, Éomer-king, but I want that peace. I want that land you promise. I sent them home and told them wait for me. And I told them to let you pass also on the way back."
The two men stared at each other. Behind them, the assaulted éored slowly came to rest as swords were sheathed and horses which had fled from the assault were retrieved from further down the canyon.
"How do I know you're speaking the truth?"
"I know your people pride themselves with being able to read others. So look at me, king, and decide. I know nothing I say will convince you, so my deeds must speak. You convinced me of your sincerity, now let me do the same." The scrutinising glance stayed on him for another long moment, before Éomer finally shrugged.
"It will be light soon. See that you get some more rest before we head out, the day will be taxing." He pivoted and walked back with long strides to where the men were still clustered around his fallen scout. On the eastern horizon, a first brighter stripe of blue told of the approaching morning.
Aragorn sighed with relief when they reached the end of the tunnel. He heard himself breathe heavily as he crawled out into the warm midday sun. A shudder ran through his body – the last one, he hoped, squinting into the bright light. He pushed the dreadful thoughts aside, which had held him tense during the night and had kept him from sleeping most of the time. Inhaling the warm air he straightened to his full height, flinching at the pain in his neck. They were still captured and moved further north with each passing day, but the burden seemed lighter for the moment.
Clouds were gathering in the west, moving slowly with the wind and piling to huge towers of grey, which would soon cover the sun. Rain was to be expected, but the king would even embrace an unpleasant weather change for the delight of being outdoors again. He glanced over his shoulder. Tarés followed him, vigilant and ready for anything around them, whether it would concern their captors or the king. Aragorn admired the man for his ceaseless dedication to his task. Hilberon came up behind him. Though the wounds were healing he looked miserable, bereft of the forthrightness and confidence he had shown hitherto. His gaze was directed at the ground, and he slurred more than he walked. The days of captivity had demanded much of him, and it grieved Aragorn to see the young man in such a desolate state of mind. While the others like Halamin and Dumarin endured the captivity with stoic calmness, waiting for the command to attack again, the young man's courage was dwindling.
When they passed through a gorge with high walls of lighter grey than the ones before, their trail became almost impassable. Harishdane at the head of the group nimbly jumped across the gap amid the narrow way. Asentis followed shortly after, but paused at her command to watch the others follow. The Dunlendings grudgingly sent forward one man to haul the others over and steady them on the other side of the three foot wide crevasse, which ended ten feet deeper in a pile of loose rocks. The prisoners came next, and two guards seized the men's upper arms forcefully to almost drag them back onto the stony path. Behind the king Ridasha leapt the distance gracefully, but Tarés, pulled forward by the strong arms of the hillmen, fell to his knees and elbows and robbed her of her balance. She slid across the rubble, and suppressed a scream when she was stopped by protruding stones. For a moment she lay breathless, her eyes closed, grimacing at the pain. Before Aragorn had turned, Nisenur was at her side and squeezing her shoulder.
"Get up," he called to her. "We have to get going." Though she nodded she only sat up to stare at her torn trousers, keeping her right leg outstretched. Nisenur followed her gaze to the gash a stone had cut. "Take some mishénian and get up, Ridasha! She told us to hurry."
"The mishénian will not stop the bleeding!" Aragorn shouted before a guard pulled him away.
Ridasha tried to draw her leg up, but the pain immediately intensified and forced her to give up the attempt. The long gash had already drenched the cloth with fresh blood and more was oozing out. She swallowed and kept the whimper inside, knowing all too well how weakness was regarded with despise among her war-hardened kin. She had seen soldiers continue fighting until they had fallen unconscious. Never before had she had to deal with the dreadful feeling of ineptitude in the fulfilment of her duty.
"I can't," she admitted defensively and so lowly that only the two closest men could hear her.
"It is but a small wound! Get on your feet and go!" Prisoners and hillmen passed them by until they were alone. The men were growing impatient.
"We have to go," Nisenur urged again, and the woman tried to stand up in vain, falling back only to bite down a cry.
Asentis' face turned red with anger. They had already lost too much time to this excursion! The men were moving deliberately slowly, and with each passing hour Asentis felt his desire grow to let them taste his full revenge. He longed to reach the open plain again, to run and chase. He yearned to get rid of the ignorant hillmen and their obtrusive leader, whom he would have killed at the first meeting if it had not been for Harishdane and her understanding for necessities. Pivoting he shouted down the path,
"Get that healer over here!"
Ridasha bowed in shame and defeat while Nisenur stared at her disdainfully. She knew he wanted her to obey the way she had before, and she felt a deep helplessness about not being able to fulfil these expectations. It was one more mistake she had made, and she remembered Nisenur's part in the ceremony. He too had uttered no resentments against its violation, and with her resistance to help she had lost his friendship. Nisenur lifted his gaze when the healer was brought forward, held tightly by his torn collar. He was struggling against the grip and trying to break it, facing the Easterlings sternly and without fear. Asentis haughtily indicated to dismiss the guard and pressed the Gondorian to his knees beside Ridasha while the Dunlending left with a hissed curse.
"Help her," he ordered, keeping a firm hand on the man's shoulder to make him understand by the pressure that he would prefer killing him over calling for aid. He loathed having to ask for help at all, but he was unable to give it himself, and following Harishdane's order he had to avoid delays by any means. Setting his jaw the healer pulled the cloth apart to examine the wound above the knee. Ridasha pressed her lips tight to avoid flinching with pain. The Gondorian's eyes rested on her face with a hint of compassion before he looked up to Asentis.
"I need needle and thread for this - and my pouch with herbs. And take your hands off me!" he added and pushed Asentis' hand away. The second-in-command was close to punching the healer and could only barely restrain himself to just nod to Nisenur, as he uncoiled a rope from the pack he carried over his right shoulder. Nisenur replied a few words in shék, but obediently left when Asentis stared at him menacingly while his hands worked on the rope. Ridasha looked up to the healer, not daring to speak to him, but she knew what he had in mind when he gazed at his hands. Turning he lifted them to Asentis. "Untie me."
The same moment Asentis slipped a sling over the healer's neck and pulled tight, choking him.
"Do you think… I would try to escape?" the captive coughed, trying to loosen the rope with his fingers, but Asentis held the end tight in his hands, unwilling to let go. Stooping to the healer's contorted face, he snarled menacingly through clenched teeth:
"You would not get far. This is just to remind you of your place." In the shadow Asentis' eyes seemed luminous, as if a secret fire was burning within them. Then he cut the bonds and loosened the rope a mere fraction.
The moment he was free, Aragorn pulled at the rope in an attempt to tear it from Asentis' hands. The Easterling was caught off-guard, and the rope slipped through a few inches before he was able to regain his grip on it.
"I cannot help her if you choke me!" the king hissed into his adversary's face, and though he was kneeling the Easterling felt the power the King of Gondor possessed. He hated the situation, and all the more because Ridasha – the insubordinate woman he would have sent back to Dunland at once – was witnessing it.
"You will follow my order!" Asentis pulled the sling tight again, furious about being shouted at, and not allowed to retaliate the way he wanted. He needed the healer's help, and at that moment he did not know who he hated more – the healer, who was his enemy, or Ridasha, who had caused the situation. His expression filled with undisguised hatred, and Aragorn stared back at him with clenched teeth, his hands on the rope, suppressing the coughing fit. Coldness crept into his body and made him shiver. The pressure tightened around his ribcage, and he cast his eyes down, closing them when breathing grew even more difficult, which had nothing to do with the rope around his neck. His heart racing, he fought against the fear which was welling up from the depths where he had locked it. He swallowed dryly, and when Nisenur finally returned with the demanded items, the pressure subsided and Asentis let the sling loose again. They exchanged a few words in their tongue, and Nisenur sneered when he looked down at the red weals on the healer's neck. Ridasha fumbled at her belt to unfasten the pouch she had saved two nights ago.
"Take some mishénian," Aragorn advised her quietly, catching his breath before he widened the tear in the trousers. She bit her lip and nodded, knowing that neither Asentis nor Nisenur accepted her weakness. Both men watched the procedure, their eyes narrowed like those of predators on a hunt, and Ridasha's chin dropped to her chest when she could no longer hold back the tears. She leant back against the cold stone and breathed shallowly while she watched the wound being stitched up. The healer's hands were quick and precise, and she was sure he worked with caution, but until the herbs were fixed with a wet cloth she was unable to regain her composure. The healer gave back the bloodied needle and thread and wiped his hands on his trousers.
"Get up," Nisenur told her and reached out his arm to help her to her feet. "She can walk, right?"
"The bleeding…," the healer started with a stress in his voice that was directed at Asentis, who gave the rope a quick jerk to pull him away from Ridasha. Putting one end underneath his foot, he used the other one to rebind the man's wrists, watching him struggle in vain. Done, he loosened the second rope and took it off. The prisoner doubled over in a coughing fit, and Nisenur smirked at the show of Asentis' domination. He admired the older soldier as well as envying his position and the closeness to their leader. The healer struggled to get up, unwilling to grant Asentis his victory. "She should not..."
"That's enough," Asentis cut in with a meaningful glance at Ridasha, who stood feebly on her legs. Despite her tanned complexion, she looked pale enough to faint at any moment, and the second-in-command hesitated with the decision which had to be made. He pulled the healer to his feet and, looking back over his shoulder, ordered Nisenur to carry Ridasha to the next campsite.
Ridasha demanded to be put on her feet again, ashamed enough over having been carried by Nisenur, who had made it clear with his look that he was simply following orders and not acting out of compassion, for that feeling was rare among their kin. Limping carefully for the first steps, she was relieved that the pain had subsided. However at the same moment the thought – which had been clouded by pain and distress before – surfaced again. She recalled the wink of compassion the healer had granted her to see. It had appeared uncalled for and had taken her by surprise. The fact that he had treated her well though she was his enemy bothered her even more – knowing that Asentis would not have done the same with a foe if the positions had been reversed. Ridasha looked up to the greyish sky. The clouds had reached the Misty Mountains, ready to unleash their loads, and the air was filled with the smell of rain while the wind grew stronger, whistling between the pillars of stone. The day was getting darker, as was her mood. Úshemor had not come over them to avenge and kill, but had sent the marked slave to heal his enemy. Ridasha was puzzled more than she could find words to describe her feelings. What did the goddess mean with that sign? Was she acting out of mercy for the one who had prayed to her for forgiveness? Ridasha wanted to believe this. She wanted to believe that the goddess was not vengeful, but friendly and understanding. She had always thought the gods to be their guides through life and even through death. If this proved true Úshemor had granted her a glimpse of the greatness of her existence in directing a Gondorian healer to Ridasha's aid at a time of need. It had to be a sign. Ridasha was still afraid underneath that the goddess might not be that merciful with the others of the company.
The group had come to a slurring halt when the king had been dragged away. Tarés had fought the guard to stay at his side, but had been held back, while his leader's expression had ordered him to give up and wait. He had seen Aragorn exchange a quick and reassuring glance with Hilberon before he had followed back the path they had come. The young soldier seemed still willing to keep his head high - at least when the king was watching him.
When Aragorn returned and Asentis let go of his arm, Tarés stood up restlessly and though he looked like he would shout across the distance he restricted himself to a whispered,
"My... Strider, what happened? You are bleeding!"
"It is not my blood," Aragorn replied flat-voiced and wiped his hands again in vain; the blood had already dried. On Tarés' questioning look he shortly explained the reason for his absence, but Tarés had already spotted the red lines around his ruler's neck, and he spat on the ground, disgusted.
"Why do you help when they reward you with strangulation?"
Aragorn's face was unreadable.
"I could help, and this was worth doing it."
Tarés nodded curtly without agreeing, and quietly added while the group still waited for Ridasha and the second man,
"There will be no chance to escape when we will have reached the open plain again, my lord. Therefore..."
"If a chance occurs we will take it, but I cannot risk your lives," the king interrupted him, and Tarés averted his eyes from his uncompromising look, but still would not give in.
"You need to get away. It is not us you should consider."
"But I do."
The soldier looked up to him pleadingly.
"We took an oath to protect your life and do not believe me to be less loyal to you and Gondor than Captain Fáred." Aragorn did not reply, and Tarés pressed, "Take your chance - the sooner the better. Gondor must not lose its ruler! This is not your war, and if it wasn't for your friendship with the King of Rohan you would not have come into this situation!"
"There is a treaty between Rohan and Gondor, Tarés, that King Éomer and I renewed after the battle at the Black Gate. And who would I be to leave my brother alone in a time of need?" Tarés did not avert his gaze quickly enough to hide his thoughts. By now the threat of the Easterlings in Northern Ithilien might have forced Prince Faramir to call the men under arms, and if he was in dire need of help who was the King of Gondor to desert his own people? Aragorn sighed. "The decision was made and cannot be reversed. I will not willingly send you and your men to death to free myself."
"But you must be saved," Tarés insisted passionately. "I will not..." He broke off, exhaling. "Forgive me, my lord," he whispered and bowed, "I shall not question your judgement."
Aragorn flinched with compassion and touched the man's arm for a moment.
"You should know that I highly honour your loyalty, but though I know that time is pressing we have to be patient. We will get free, Tarés." But the soldier did not look up again, and the king knew that the hopes of all of his people were diminishing.
"They found nothing." Éomer's lips formed a thin line as he watched the scouts return from their brief survey. Since dawn, they had again pressed on hard, had made haste to reach the end of the path Woldro had indicated to them two nights ago on the map. However, the leagues were many and stretched, and still there was no sign of their foes, not even so much as the smallest track.
"If they are still underneath the mountains, then it is no wonder," Elfhelm declared by his side, determined to not let his king lose his hope. Together they awaited the three soldiers and nodded as they issued their reports, which sounded as Éomer had expected. Then his glance briefly swept the improvised camp they had chosen to give their horses a much needed break after the hard chase of the morning. His eyes came to rest on the still form of his captain, who was wrapped in blankets further back, again being tended to by their healer. Even though Tolgor had assured him that none of Thor's wounds were serious and that he would be back to his strength in a matter of days, the older warrior could not help feeling worried. The nightly assault had cost them the life of the other guard, and it had been pure luck that the half-Dunlending had survived both the fight and the fall. Meanwhile they were proceeding further and further into hostile territory, and the strain among the men grew. Éomer was risking everything to save their ally, with little or no regard to the consequences for themselves. Elfhelm could not help wondering what he would do once they reached the end of the mountain path without the enemy being there. He had not even finished the thought when his friend of old stood up, too restless to remain seated.
"We must proceed. Tell the men to get ready."
Beyond the peak of a flat-shaped mountain, washed away and smoothed by aeons of wind and rain, the path wound down, almost dropping into a gorge which opened eastwards after half a mile, granting a view over Fangorn Forest under low-hanging clouds. It had started to rain, and soon the view was dimmed by drizzle and the vapour rising off the warm earth below. The treetops vanished in the mist like giants kneeling down to rest under a blanket. In the distance black birds, croaking noisily, circled over the forest taking advantage of the fresh winds carrying them to their hunting grounds. Aragorn could not avert his weary eyes from the sight, yearning to reach the foot of the mountains again, and with it their freedom. He could see in the eyes of his people that they too had spotted hope lurking nearby, though none of them had been in the forest, and the stories told about it would not encourage them to enter this strange part of the land if it were not for their utmost need to escape the hands of their captors.
Aragorn wiped the rain off his face, enjoying the smell and its freshness after the long drought. He had avoided thinking of his beloved wife since the moment he had walked the first tunnel, and yet it was painful to look back. Their short time of closeness and happiness during the ride to Edoras seemed to get lost under the memory of the crucial meeting with the Dunlendings and the terrible incidents in its wake. But his longing for love had to wait, and with a last look beyond the barren rocks he locked away the very thought of his wife.
Gloomily Dumarin trod far behind Halamin, pondering over their ruler's stranger behaviour from day to day. Walking as one of the last soldiers, he had heard the orders of that Easterling to make the king help the woman who stayed at the ruler's side most of the time now. Snorting with disgust he had asked himself why King Elessar should do this, and had hoped that resistance would awaken. He had been ready to throw the Dunlending next to him down the path, but no clamour had been heard, no commands in the clear voice of the king were given, and on the way back Dumarin had only seen that the king was still bound and his hands bloody. Suddenly he knew that the king he had come to know was no longer among them, and fear gripped his heart. What would become of them all if King Elessar turned against his own people? He looked out for Halamin, but his comrade was not to be seen among the men trudging in front of him.
Drenched to their skins Harishdane and her followers reached their hideout, and with delight the leader took hold of her polearm again. It was a valuable and much used weapon of the Easterlings, and they invested long training hours to master it and be able to use it even in complete darkness. No sword or dagger would be as precise and as deadly as a polearm in the hands of a skilled eastern soldier. Harishdane swung the double-bladed weapon in one hand, then in two and stopped with an expression of pure bliss. Asentis, Sisune, and the other Easterlings joined her in the cave where only their kin used to store their weapons before they went on the long and strenuous walk through the mountains. If any Dunlending set foot in it he would be thrown out. It had happened before, and Harishdane had sent Asentis to deliver the severely wounded man to his kin. Woldro had accused the Easterlings' leader of misusing the treaty, but the reply had been simple and had finally been understood without others of Woldro's kin being punished to make them follow her orders. Her power and leadership were hence accepted and regarded as untouchable. With their weapons in their hands, they reappeared and continued to march down the path.
Ridasha yearned for nothing else than to lay down and rest, but until they reached the night's campsite she kept herself in balance, chewed on another leaf of mishénian, and hoped to escape the keen eyes of Harishdane. She would not want to be seen in that desolate state of hers, and every time Asentis turned to see if she followed quickly enough she straightened, grabbed her polearm tighter, and smoothed her face of any expression of pain. Her gaze was now directed to the back of the healer again. He looked dishevelled like the rest of the men; his beard had grown, his hair was filthy, and his face was dirty and partly covered with clotted blood. He had recovered from the marking ritual, and by the way he moved she thought him to be an experienced wanderer. Though weariness clouded his features he did not seem to dwell on hopelessness but to still follow the goal to gain freedom, and he radiated that confidence to the people in his company. They too had not yet given up. Ridasha did not understand. The slaves she had come to know at home had grudgingly accepted their fate to work and live among the tribe owning them and had never dared to act against it, knowing Úshemor would watch and punish them if necessary. With the weeks passing they had accepted their status and learned to obey. Her father had had several slaves to guide and train for work, and he had never complained about them. It had been a simple fact that the marking had been followed by a life of dedication to the goddess. The healer still fought against the effects - his insurrection against Asentis had been a clear enough sign that he was not willing to submit himself to the Jásheni. Asentis could force him, but as long as he did not follow orders willingly Ridasha would not believe in the success of the marking.
Downward the path followed an old, clefted gully, and the steps, which were once hewn into the stone, were either broken or cracked under the weight of the people crossing them. At nightfall the rain ceased to a light drizzle, and still the captives could see the dark schemes of trees of Fangorn in the distance, inviting them, calling to them, and Hilberon sighed deeply. It was a relief to his weary eyes to see something other than rocks, stones, and rubble - and the faces of the captors, always vigilant and ready to push him if he lagged behind again. He but followed the behaviour they all had evolved to slow down their march, knowing that any attempt to escape would have to start while they still trudged the mountains. Hilberon had caught a hard blow against his side. It still ached, but he endured the pain with grim satisfaction since Halamin had rewarded the Dunlending with a double-handed punch to his nose. It had bled for quite a while. The retaliation had followed swiftly, and without the interception of a woman from the east the leader of the Dunlendings would have beaten Halamin to the ground. Still it seemed odd that their captors were split into two factions. Hilberon hoped that it would prove useful later.
Though the path was hardly visible once the darkness had covered the ground and no moon shone in yonder clouds, the Easterlings moved on. Delayed by the prisoners' resistance and Ridasha's injury, Asentis pushed the soldiers relentlessly, using both his polearm and his hands to threaten them. But Harishdane had ordered him to not only hurry them, but to make sure none dared to stray from the path, which was easier to walk now. The most difficult parts lay behind them, the crawling and climbing ended soon, and in the next days he would push the captives harder. Asentis could not wait to walk on grass again, to breathe its smell and enjoy its softness. At the same time he knew that this relief would be short-lived. The path they had to follow led through another part of the mountains further north, to finally leave it at the northern rim of Fangorn Forest. Until then three more days of barren land had to be covered. He looked up to the sky, inhaling the clear air, and watching the stars shine through where the clouds dissolved. Harishdane was in front of him, and the look she gave him was a caress in itself, making him feel better in spite of the hard and long day. He returned a small smile and moved on.
Harishdane inspected the campsite and found it untouched since her last stay. The ground was almost even beside some loose stones, and surrounded by rocks looming like pillars into the air. Some were huge like giants, others at their feet no more than a man's height. Between some of them inclines led down to unseen paths in the dark, and in the many moulds where turf had been saved patches of moss and dour lichens grew. Under a great arch on the southern half, firewood had been stored. Asentis used it to kindle a fire close to the rim, while the prisoners were gathered where the pillars stood too close together to slip through. Upon a nod Nisenur separated the king from his men, but had to drag him away against his resistance and shouted protest. The young man threw him to the ground and towered over him willing to strike. Asentis bared his teeth to a hideous grin to let Nisenur know his doing was acknowledged, but ordered him with a shake of his head to not go any further. His gaze fell on the marked Gondorian. The captive's eyes strayed from his enemy to the soldiers sitting or lying on the rocks fifteen feet away. They were given food and water by the Dunlending guards, and the sight seemed to ease the dread of not being among them. Asentis turned his head. The soldiers exchanged glances with the healer, but he could not find out what they meant. Particularly one of the older men with a long brown beard held the healer in his stare. Then the moment was over, and Ridasha approached the captive to hand him a water-skin, shying away from the harsh words Nisenur uttered before he left. Asentis commanded Url to watch the fire and left to search for Harishdane.
"Tell me why I am not allowed to sit with my men," Aragorn demanded after he had drunk.
Ridasha took back the water-skin, casting her eyes down, and clutching at the leather in her hands.
"It is your status," she finally uttered and turned away before he could open his mouth for another question. She knew that she was not allowed to leave the captive she was assigned to watch, but she needed to be alone. She felt miserable to look into his eyes and admit that from the moment of the marking on he was regarded as a slave, though the goddess herself seemed to be against it. Aside but still able to see him, she sat down, outstretched her wounded leg and took off the bandage, which still smelled pleasant. In the fire's glow she examined the stitched-up wound and frowned. Though still partly covered with dried blood the gash seemed neither infected nor swollen but had visibly contracted. Carefully she touched the outline and smiled feebly. A shudder of sudden joy ran through her that made her swallow and frown at the sight of the healing wound. She could hardly hide her puzzlement, and she quickly looked around if Asentis or Harishdane were near by; not even her kinsmen and the Dunlendings, who had sat down to eat and rest, spared her a glance. Ridasha was more troubled than ever before in her life. She could not understand what powers were at work here. How could a wound – only a few hours old – heal so fast? The bleeding had stopped though she had walked for long hours, and she had not felt dizzy after Nisenur had set her down. Could the herbs the healer had used do magic? She took a deep breath and glanced at the Gondorian out of the corner of her eyes, not wanting to let him know her surprise, but curious at the same time. Was he the wizard the Dunlendings had talked about? What she saw made her furrow her brows. He had turned away from the light, withdrawn into the shadows of his remote resting place, and worked his hands on a dark piece of rock, glancing from time to time back to the fire and Nisenur, who was distracted by a conversation with Sisune of his own tribe. With only the slightest movements of his arms the healer was about to get rid of the bonds. Ridasha's heart beat in her throat suddenly. She had to get up. She had to rush over to him and stop his doings. She had to take away the stone and punish him for his attempt to free himself. She had to call for Harishdane and… let her know about her new slave's behaviour? Was that what Úshemor wanted? Who was the goddess about to test? Whom did Ridasha owe her obedience? Breathing shallowly she knew she had to make a decision, and it had to be made fast.
"Hey, you fat bastard!" one of the soldiers exclaimed, and Ridasha immediately turned her attention to the soldiers. A Dunlending guard grunted a harsh reply and slurred over to him. "Aye, get over here! You haven't served me yet! I need more water!"
"I serve you!" The hillman growled and swung his club, aiming at the soldier, but never reaching him since his comrade placed a foot in the Dunlending's way. When the fat man fell others rose quickly. Within seconds the soldiers were punched and kicked in order to strangle their renewed resistance, and Nisenur moved in to keep the primitives from hitting the captives too hard. Url appeared, immediately entangling the Easterling in a quarrel of how to avenge the insults, protesting loudly enough to wake those already asleep. When he pushed Nisenur the young man backhanded him in the face and only his position saved him from being slaughtered by the outraged hillmen.
Ridasha turned her head to look out for her leader, but could see neither her nor Asentis. Wetting her lips she let her gaze travel over the Dunlendings and the soldiers, who lay beaten or still defended themselves with their bound hands. When her eyes returned to the healer's resting place, the man was gone.
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