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Land of Light and Shadows: 29. Falling and Waking
"Gimli?" Legolas’s panic reached fever pitch as he crouched protectively over his fallen friend. "Gimli?!" Around him, the elf could hear the sounds of a halt being called as well as the ring of drawn blades. But Legolas studiously ignored them, instead concentrating all his efforts on the dwarf who moaned feverishly in the sand. "Gimli!"
"You claimed that you could support him," a voice called out, and Legolas looked up with wild eyes as the man he assumed to be Asbad stepped forward. "You were warned about the consequences should you fail. Step aside."
"I will wake him," Legolas said firmly, putting into his words every ounce of royal authority that he could muster. Had Thranduil been there to see him, the king of Mirkwood would have been proud. "Leave us be for a moment. I will rouse him."
"You were already given that chance," Asbad answered, countering royal authority with harsh reality. "You failed." He nodded toward the surrounding men and they closed quickly, knives and swords brandished. "Stand down and things may go easier for you."
But Legolas had no intention of letting these men carry out their orders. Waiting with all the awareness and all the latent energy of a coiled viper, the elf hovered above Gimli’s form, his eyes measuring each guard and promising death should they continue to advance. To his credit, a few of the men paused, uncertain. But some braved the threat lying within the elf’s eyes, and when the foremost man was within striking distance, the lord of Ithilien leaped into action.
Had Aragorn been there to see it, he would have stared to see Legolas so sluggish. Had Gimli been awake, he would have cringed at the elf’s complete lack of fluidity and grace. Had any of Legolas’s mentors and trainers from Mirkwood been present, they would have shaken their heads in dismay at such sloppy fighting techniques. But the soldiers of the Khurintu tribe were the only witnesses of Legolas’s desperate attempt to save Gimli’s life, and they had no experience with elven warriors. As such, they were completely unprepared for what happened next.
Remembering to keep his balance centered as Gimli had taught him during their sparring sessions, Legolas flung his shoulder into the first man’s midsection. Startled and winded, the guard’s grip on his knife loosened, and the elf’s bound hands quickly wrested the blade away even as he lashed out with his foot, catching the man in the chest and forcing him back onto the point of another knife. Then two more guards were lunging, and Legolas dodged while bringing up his newly acquired weapon. He caught one man in the head with the hilt and buried the blade in the other man’s neck.
Springing backwards and resuming his position above Gimli, Legolas wondered if he had time to reverse the knife and cut through the bonds on his wrists. But the answer to that question came quickly when a fourth man seized him from behind and raised him off the ground. Acting almost without thought, Legolas jerked his head to the side and flung the knife over his shoulder, praying that his aim would be true. A sudden gasp informed him that he had succeeded. The restraining arms dropped away, and Legolas threw himself back over Gimli as the man who had seized him dropped to the ground, the knife lodged in his face.
The surrounding men raised an outcry and charged forward, murder now their objective. Knowing his end was near and that he had failed both himself and the dwarf, Legolas gave a weary sigh and prepared to make his final battle one that would cost the Khurintu tribe dearly. But just before the first sword swung down, a shout from outside the circle of men stopped them all cold. The cry was repeated, and the men started to back away, though there was great reluctance in their faces. Other men who had not been initially involved now stepped forward with drawn bows, training their arrows on both Legolas and Gimli.
Watching the archers warily, Legolas shifted until most of Gimli’s body was covered by his own and then turned his eyes toward Asbad, who was stepping back into view. Something in the man’s countenance had changed, but whether this was a change for the better, the elf could not say. He wondered if he should be thankful for the fact that he and Gimli were still alive. Their ultimate fate was less than certain, and if some torment was devised as retribution for his rebellion, the elf would much rather perish now and perish quickly by the bow. He could not speak for the dwarf in this, but he suspected that Gimli would feel the same. It seemed they were fated to die anyway. Why not die quickly in battle?
After a few moments of tense silence, Asbad stepped closer to the elf, his eyes wandering over the forms of the fallen men. "You still refuse to leave his side?" he asked, though it was actually more of a statement than a question. Legolas’s position made it abundantly clear that he was not going to move.
"Would honor and friendship compel any less of you?" the elf returned, watching the man’s movements closely through narrowed, stormy eyes. "Or perhaps you know nothing of such things."
There were angry murmurings in response to this, but Asbad raised a hand and his people fell silent. "Bold words for a captive," he said, dark eyes flashing in the night. "You are either very brave or very foolish. Perhaps both. In any case, neither is to your advantage now. Tell me, elf. Do you realize who I am? Do you know who it is that you defy?"
"It matters not who carries the evil so long as I am able to fight it," Legolas said quietly.
"Do you truly believe that?" The leader of Khurintu stepped even closer and Legolas tensed, readying himself to repel an attack. Seeing this preparation, the man stopped and smiled slightly. "You are more naïve than I first thought. A small evil can be easily dealt with. A great evil requires more force than you possess. Do you still say it matters not whom you face? And what is the nature of evil? How can you be certain that I am evil? Why not you? Are you not a stranger in our land sent to intimidate our people into submission?"
Legolas made no response, but his level of alertness increased, sensing that Asbad was coming to a conclusion of sorts.
"Well, then, if you will not answer, I shall speak of what is to be done." Asbad stopped and watched the elf closely as though expecting a reaction. Legolas met his look with elvish inscrutability and his own piercing stare. It was a small satisfaction when the man was forced to drop his gaze, instead focusing his eyes on the dwarf sheltered beneath the elf. "There are four hours before dawn," he said slowly, drawing his sentence out as though relishing the power he had over his prisoners. "If you can carry your friend and match our pace for the next four hours, we will spare his life. If not, we will kill the dwarf and I will allow my men the freedom to visit their anger upon you."
Four hours?! Legolas’s heart fell with despair. He did not think he could carry Gimli for five minutes, much less four hours. The day spent in nearly fatal temperatures had sapped most of the elf’s strength, and ú-glîr as well as fear for Gimli had made recovery slow.
"Do you have a response?" Asbad asked when Legolas hesitated. "Or shall we kill you both now?"
Though I may be shadowed, I am still an elf, Legolas told himself firmly, glancing down at Gimli. I can do this. I must do this. There is no other choice. Releasing the breath he’d been holding, the elf looked up darkly and nodded his agreement.
His face showing something that might have been read as amusement, Asbad signaled one of his men forward. Bowstrings were drawn taut when the bindings upon the elf’s wrists were cut, but Legolas harbored no hopes for escape at the moment. Any attempt would be futile at best and fatal at worst. Bereft of weapons and burdened with an unconscious dwarf, he might manage two steps before the arrows brought him down. So the elf instead knelt by Gimli and slid his arms beneath the dwarf’s sturdy frame. With a stifled grunt, Legolas lifted and closed his eyes against the strain.
When we return to Minas Tirith, Gimli, you and I shall begin a fitness regimen, the elf vowed as he struggled to raise his heavier companion. Slowly and with great effort, Legolas managed to stand with the dwarf in his arms. Gingerly, fearful both of disturbing the injured leg and of dropping Gimli, he began shifting the dwarf’s weight about so that it would be at least somewhat manageable, though he strongly suspected that no matter what he did, his left arm would be numb ere long. But at least they had a chance again, albeit a slim one. Steadying his burden and composing his face, Legolas opened his eyes and turned them toward his captor. "It seems you will not be rid of us so easily," he said quietly, praying that the abrupt increase in his rate of breathing would go unnoticed.
"We shall see if your words are as brave after we begin traveling," Asbad retorted, sounding as though he knew exactly how much of a strain the dwarf was for the weakened elf. "And by your leave, I would make up for my lapse in manners. Prince Legolas of Mirkwood, I am Asbad, ruler of the Khurintu tribe, descendent of the Númenóreans enlightened enough to serve the Dark Lord, and kinsman to he who was known as the Mouth of Sauron. You would do well not to cross me, for as you have already discovered, our talents can overcome even the fading elves."
To his credit, Legolas’s face betrayed nothing, and only a flash in his eyes revealed any emotion. But within his heart, anger and rage flared to life. Fading elves, indeed, he thought darkly. Remove ú-glîr, cease to threaten Gimli, and then we shall see how you deal with this fading elf. But none of these thoughts appeared in his countenance, and he kept his expression placid.
Asbad seemed to be disappointed at the lack of reaction, but he quickly shook it off. "Now that we are better acquainted, my lord prince, I think it is time for us to be off. But you have pressed your luck far this night, and I advise you to more humbly submit to captivity in the future. My men have no affection for either you or the dwarf, and they will happily slit your throats at my command."
"I cannot submit to one who holds no sway over me," Legolas said, shifting Gimli’s weight as his predictions about a numb arm began to bear out. "As a prince, I answer only to a king, and you, mortal, are not that king."
"Then learn to pretend that I am that king," Asbad warned, his eyes flashing with hints of anger, "or your friend’s life is forfeit. As for holding sway over you, it is not necessary. The dwarf does that for me." He then turned to his men and spoke orders in their own tongue. When he was done, he gave the prince a mocking bow, gestured with his hand, and began walking.
Legolas felt the point of a spear scratch against his lower back while another brushed against his side. The elf obediently moved forward, but his temper was flaring dangerously. Had he been alone, most of the men would have died right then. Only Gimli’s weight in his arms kept him grounded, and for the sake of the dwarf, he bit his tongue and held his anger in check. Yet it was a hard thing, and Legolas’s elven pride was screaming for action. Trying to adopt a calmer frame of mind, Legolas took a deep breath and concentrated on putting one foot ahead of the other. But he would not be able to endure either the physical strain or the injuries to his pride for much longer.
Grimacing, Legolas shifted Gimli yet again, trying to get the dwarf partially over his shoulder and so relieve his arms. But that only made him stagger to the side, and deprived of a balance that had once been certain, Legolas eventually decided that Gimli would have to stay cradled in his arms. Their future was taking on a rather bleak outlook, and the elf wondered just how long they had left to their lives. Elven stamina was considerable, but so was the dwarf. Gimli’s weight was at least the equal of Aragorn’s for all that he was half the king’s size, and Legolas was already weak. And there was another problem that Gimli’s state of unconsciousness brought. The prince’s plans for escape depended upon an alert and at least partially active companion. He could not escape while lugging his friend about.
And so with a deep sigh and a shake of already tiring muscles, Legolas trudged onward, very conscious of the unsheathed weapons behind him and desperately hoping that the dawn would grant him new strength. But then, that was dependent on whether or not he lived to see the dawn. At the moment, it seemed doubtful.
* * * *
Sensation and consciousness were slow in returning. Struggling upward through hazy layers of thought, Eomer wondered what was going on. His short-term memory seemed to be absent, and his long-term memory was strangely reticent to relinquish specific information about his predicament. He had only vague details from events long past with which to judge his body. Still, something was better than nothing, and thus armed with what little knowledge he had, Rohan’s king attempted to decipher what had happened to him.
The first possibility that came to mind was that of drugging, for drugging might render one bleary and unconscious. It had also been one of Wormtongue’s favorite tricks if he needed someone to arrive late for a particular council meeting. But then again, Eomer couldn’t rule out less sophisticated methods, such as hard blow to the head. But…wasn’t Wormtongue dead? Confused, Eomer started listing other probable causes of his apparent unconscious state. Drowning was a possibility. So was hypothermia. Extreme exhaustion, perhaps, but Eomer doubted that such was the case. In fact, now that he was recovering somewhat, he could detect a shooting pain in his left shoulder as well as a burning sensation up and down the right side of his body.
Which means that drugging is probably not the answer, Eomer reflected even as he fought the urge to moan. If he opened his mouth now, it would probably emerge as a scream. I can also rule out drowning. And even if I was hit on the head, something else has happened to me. Perhaps a fight? A war? Was I in a battle? With a frustrated mental sigh, Eomer attempted to open his eyes and rise to a sitting position. His first try was pitifully unsuccessful, but he did manage to move his right arm. This elicited a fresh burst of piercing agony, but it proved that he was still capable of movement. At the moment, Eomer was very thankful for that.
And in addition to proving he could still move, it had apparently attracted attention. As well as telling me that Aragorn is here, he added, attempting to subdue the voice of his pride. Normally, Eomer would shrink at the thought that someone was tending to his fallen form, but given his current condition as well as the sudden feeling that danger was lurking nearby, the king of Rohan decided to submit to Aragorn’s ministrations. He still could not open his eyes and he did not quite trust his voice, but with his ears he followed the sounds of Aragorn’s feet until they stopped next to his side. He heard the king kneel and then he felt a tentative touch at his throat.
He is looking for a pulse, Eomer realized, wondering if the situation was indeed that dire. Does he think me dead?
"Thank the Valar," Aragorn murmured somewhere above him. The hand at his throat moved to hover over his mouth, possibly feeling for breath, and then it came to rest on his left shoulder, gently prodding. Something about the entire process felt very odd to Eomer, but he could not say what was odd until he realized that Aragorn was only using one hand.
Suddenly concerned for his friend, Eomer renewed his efforts to open his eyes. Like previous attempts, he met with failure, but the king of Rohan would not be daunted. Trying again and again, he struggled past the holds of unconsciousness, and by so doing he gained an even greater awareness of his surroundings. There was a crackling sound coming from his right that indicated a fire of some kind. At first, Eomer did not appreciate the significance of this detail, but something about it troubled him. There should not be fire here.
Why? he demanded of himself, his frustration rising to the forefront of his thoughts. Why should I not be hearing fire? What is it that…Harad! Memory started returning, and along with memories came Aragorn’s words about the scarcity of fire in Harad. But then, what is burning? he asked, his brow furrowing as he attempted to understand this puzzle. Gathering what energy was left to him, Eomer once again tried to open his eyes. And at long last, he was rewarded with success. Dark, blue eyes opened on a devastated world, and the king of Rohan could barely keep back a gasp as the last of his memories returned in a disorienting and nauseating rush.
"It is very good to see you awake, Eomer," Aragorn murmured behind him, his voice filled with relief.
Eomer turned his head—he was not yet up to moving his body—and studied the other king, having heard a tremor of pain in Aragorn’s voice. He inhaled sharply at what he saw. One side of Aragorn’s face was red and burned with blisters already rising. Blood welled up from a gash in the king’s brow, and his hair was badly singed. There was no way to discern what hurts might lie beneath the charred and seared clothes, but if Aragorn’s posture was any indication, there were wounds that could not be seen. "You are injured," Eomer observed at length, deciding to stick with the obvious since his own condition was probably no better.
"As are we all," Aragorn answered shortly.
"The blast…" Eomer whispered, closing his eyes. "Orthanc Fire. I had never thought to see such a thing again."
"Then we agree that this attack was similar to the attack in Helm’s Deep after Gimli and Gamling had blocked the culvert?"
"Identical," Eomer answered. "I still remember the gaping hole in the Deeping Wall, and I remember well the blast that caused it. It was my hope that Orthanc Fire had become a weapon of the past." Deciding to test the limits of his body, Eomer attempted to sit up, but he was stopped by Aragorn’s hand on his good shoulder.
"Not yet," the king of Gondor cautioned. "Lie still. You were hit by flying metal which laid open a wound in your left shoulder. I am about to clean it, and I will ask you to brace yourself while I do so. There may be splinters yet within the wound, and I will need to remove them."
Eomer nodded wearily and forced himself to relax. It was difficult, for the warrior within him wished to be up and seeking retribution, but the logical part of his mind told him that such a thing could wait until he was better prepared to dole out his wrath. "What of Budari and Arabano?" Eomer whispered, wincing slightly as Aragorn worked on his shoulder.
"They lie unconscious behind us," Aragorn answered quietly. "They seem to be in better shape than we, but they both hit their heads on something. They have yet to show signs of waking"
"The rest of Lotessa?"
"I do not know. I see guards scattered about, and some are beginning to stir. But I believe the bulk of their force is now gone."
Eomer swore quietly. "How is it that we survived?"
"We were caught between explosions. Others not so fortunate were caught within the blasts themselves."
Trying to comprehend the consequences of this latest development, Eomer suddenly become very aware of the fact that his companion was far from well. "Aragorn, would not this process be faster if you used both hands?" he eventually asked.
"It probably would," Aragorn answered laconically, winding a torn strip of tunic around Eomer’s shoulder.
The king of Rohan scowled and directed a pointed look toward Aragorn’s left arm, which, insofar as Eomer could determine, had not moved at all in the time he had been awake. "Then why do you insist on making this a slow ordeal? I am not enjoying it, and I daresay you are not enjoying it, either."
"Because some things are beyond my reach."
Rolling his eyes at the pun, Eomer refrained from hitting the other king only because he knew that he would seriously regret moving his shoulder so quickly. "Aragorn, what is wrong with your arm?" he demanded, deciding that the direct approach was called for in this case.
"I cannot say with any amount of accuracy," Aragorn said quietly. "It is difficult to evaluate one’s own health."
"Then what do you suspect is wrong?" Eomer asked, hoping that persistence would eventually award him answers.
With a sigh, Aragorn finished wrapping the shoulder and secured the bandage tightly. "I suspect that both bones of the forearm are broken. The wrist, too, is either broken or badly sprained. More than that, I cannot tell." Aragorn then moved back and studied Eomer for a moment. "Let us see if you can stand. It would be unwise to linger here."
Allowing the conversation change to stand since he had succeeded in eliciting information, Eomer slowly pushed himself into a sitting position and grimaced at the throb in his head. "Think you that our enemy might come into the Lotessa camp?" he asked. "My first suspect would be the Khurintu tribe, and I doubt they shall risk a public appearance."
"I agree, but there are unscrupulous men from many tribes in the desert, and they would not hesitate to take advantage of our misfortune. We must be up and moving quickly." Aragorn’s right hand then found its way beneath Eomer’s unijured arm, and he tugged gently. "Come. All the way up. But slowly! There may be wounds we have yet to find."
Eomer obediently struggled to his knees. The world spun briefly, but it was not enough to give cause for alarm. Wincing and feeling almost every muscle ache as it was asked to move, Eomer gathered his feet beneath himself and rose, swaying slightly. Aragorn steadied him, and ignoring the protests of an already indignant pride, Eomer allowed it. He wasn’t certain that he could stand on his own, and he had no desire to discover what falling down would do to his pounding head.
"How do you feel?" Aragorn asked.
"Better," Eomer answered, pulling his thoughts together and taking a few experimental steps on his own. "Yes, much better."
"Good," Aragorn murmured. "Now, if you would assist me, we will see to—"
"Before we do anything else, we are going to see to your own arm," Eomer interrupted. "If it is indeed broken, as you say, it must be splinted. And the sooner, the better."
"The bones need to be set," Aragorn warned. "And I cannot set them myself."
Eomer nodded. "I can set bones," he said, looking for something with which to form a splint. "I learned much in the way of medicine on the battlefield. This is not new to me. Sit, Aragorn. It is now your turn to brace yourself."
With a quiet laugh that seemed rather devoid of real mirth, Aragorn lowered himself to the ground while Eomer picked up a length of broken metal and tore apart the sleeve of his tunic. "Do not enjoy your role as a healer too much, son of Eomund," Aragorn cautioned with a wry look. "You will need further treatment when we return to camp."
"As will you," Eomer returned, kneeling beside the king of Gondor. Moving slowly, he picked up Aragorn’s left arm and tried to ignore the wince that accompanied the act of unlacing the gauntlet. With a grimace at the odd bend of the forearm, Eomer looked up and caught Aragorn’s gray eyes with his own.
"I am prepared," Aragorn said in answer to the unspoken question.
Eomer nodded, and with a firm grasp on both the upper and the lower forearm, the king of Rohan pulled. A sharp hiss and a sudden pallor were the only indications that Aragorn had felt any pain, and taking this as his cue to proceed, Eomer began to adjust the bones until they slipped back into place. Working quickly now, he pressed the metal against Aragorn’s arm and wound his sleeve around the limb, binding it tightly. "We might find something more suitable in camp, but this will do for now," Eomer said, tying it off.
"It is more than adequate," Aragorn said, his voice trembling slightly. "My thanks."
"I am not yet finished," Eomer warned. "Save your thanks for later." He then examined Aragorn’s wrist, probing gently and watching Aragorn grimace in response. "It is very swollen," he said at length. "I cannot tell if it is broken or not. To be safe, we should splint it now and check it again later."
The king of Gondor nodded his acceptance of this proposal and Eomer stood to search for something short but stiff that might be used as a second splint. "You said you believed this to be Khurintu’s work," Aragorn called after him. "Have you any other suspects?
"Have you?" Eomer challenged, returning with a tent stake.
"Not many," Aragorn conceded. "But Khurintu would have needed archers to stay behind in order to ignite the Orthanc Fire. Such a move is rather dangerous, as they might have been discovered. I wonder if another tribe was persuaded to take upon themselves this task."
"The Portu tribe?" Eomer questioned. "They have now attacked us twice."
"Perhaps, but I do not think it was them," Aragorn said, his voice quiet as though he were still organizing his thoughts. "The Portu tribe does not know the true identity of the Destroyer, yet in carrying out this particular attack, they would be doing things that only the Iluh and their messengers should be capable of doing. As I said before, fire is very rare in the desert. Orthanc Fire would be seen as an unmistakable sign from the Iluh. No, the Khurintu tribe would not entrust this task to a tribe who did not already know that the Destroyer was actually Asbad."
"Then you believe Soltari is to blame," Eomer guessed, trying to ignore Aragorn’s hiss of pain as he firmly bound the swollen wrist.
"Fastahn told Arabano that he knew the Destroyer’s true identity. What if he did so to stall us? What if Soltari has been working for Khurintu all along? Thinking we had other allies, we refrained from acting until it was almost too late. The whole of the Lotessa contingent could have died here, Eomer. It is only by the good graces of fortune that some are still alive."
"But you were suspicious of this idea earlier," Eomer reminded Aragorn, moving back and helping the other king to his feet. "You did not believe that Soltari would abandon its position of neutrality."
"And I still have my doubts concerning that," Aragorn answered. "But at the moment, given the fact that Fastahn visited Dashnir ere Khurintu left, the idea of an alliance between Soltari and Khurintu seems far more credible."
Eomer shook his head with a rumble of frustration. "Always we are one step behind the enemy! And things that should be clear to us are hidden. What shall be our next step, Aragorn? For Lotessa’s survivors will be in no condition to fight, and if our guesses prove accurate, we shall face a war with Khurintu very soon. Our own men will not be enough! We were counting on Soltari’s information to aid us. What now?"
"As for that, we must counsel with Budari when he wakes," Aragorn sighed, "and hope that he has other allies we might use. Until then, we can only hope that the attack does not come soon, for you are right. Most of Lotessa is lost, and we cannot stand alone."
Eomer shook his head wearily and looked out across the dark desert, turning his eyes away from the flames in the Lotessa encampment and allowing them to adjust to the black night. Looking to the stars, he wondered how it was that elves found comfort in the darkness when the land lay veiled in shadow. The tiny points of light could not overcome the void of black that Eomer saw.
Turning away from the heavens, Eomer’s gaze wandered to the horizon in the hopes that he might find something close at hand from which to draw comfort. But instead, he found something that froze him. Gasping softly, he squinted and then issued a muttered curse "Aragorn, is not Soltari’s camp almost directly south of us?"
Aragorn frowned and nodded, turning his eyes in that direction. "Valar," he swore quietly.
Eomer could only echo the sentiment. Far down in the south, in the area what Soltari’s camp should have been, fires of destruction were burning brightly. They were identical to the fires currently burning in the ruins of Lotessa’s camp where Eomer and Aragorn stood. "They were also attacked," Eomer hissed. "Soltari was also attacked."
"But what does this mean?" Aragorn asked. "Why? Khesva would not be foolish enough to make Soltari a target of Khurintu’s ire. More than that, Khurintu would need them as an agricultural vassal. Why would they be attacked?"
"We are still one step behind our enemy," Eomer muttered darkly. "Our future grows ever more uncertain, Aragorn."
To this, Aragorn made no response, and Eomer watched with sinking heart as the fires roared skyward and the smoke of their burning moved to blot out the twinkling stars.
* * * *
The night was cold and dark, which suited Asbad perfectly. There was a complete absence of wind, and all the world seemed to hang in a silence that begged to be broken. Unease rippled through the sand, and the very air of the desert reminded the tribal leader of a bowstring pulled too tight. Another man might have been nervous and uncomfortable in this environment of tense waiting, but Asbad relished it. He was at his best when pressured, and now more than ever, he needed the use of every talent he possessed.
Something was happening that he could not quite explain, and Asbad did not appreciate unexplained things. Out of the corner of his eye, Khurintu’s ruler sneaked a glance at the staggering elf, who walked only at the insistence of two spears against his back. Precious drops of moisture beaded upon the creature’s brow, and it seemed that the latent power of the Eldar had been compromised. The elf was diminished, of that there could be no question. Yet despite his situation and despite the shadow of ma’awnwa, Legolas still had an aura of dignity that was strong enough to make a mortal man pause for thought. It was this dignity and the authority in the elf’s eyes that had earned the other prisoner a second chance. Nay, not a second chance. A third chance. By all rights, the dwarf should have been killed when he first collapsed several hours ago. He was a hindrance, and at this point, keeping him alive was probably not worth the effort. It was doubtful that Gimli could last the day in his condition. But the stunted being still lived, and now the elf was being forced to carry him.
Asbad shook his head, wondering at himself. He was risking the lives of both captives by allowing this. Khurintu could do without the dwarf. He was meant for a demonstration, and while a live subject would be extremely effective, a corpse would also serve. The elf, on the other hand, was destined for something else, and his fate called for a living body. Asbad once again sneaked a glance at Legolas, and he grimaced slightly at what he saw. Things did not look good. The elf had fallen to his knees, and though he was struggling back to his feet, it was plain that he could not endure this for long.
Do I really need him alive? Asbad suddenly wondered. In truth, I did not agree to deliver a living elf. It was understood within the arrangement, but the actual words were never spoken. Perhaps Garat had it right all along. Perhaps his actions just ere he died run parallel to the course we should now take. Perhaps the elf must be killed.
With a shake of his head, Asbad signaled to his guards that the march was to be slowed slightly. He received some very odd looks at the change in pace, but he studiously ignored them. Things were becoming…complicated. Asbad didn’t know how else to put it. He felt that he should be more confident at this point in time. The plan had gone forward almost without incident so far, and yet…why this indecision? Why this questioning? It was strange, and strange things did not sit well with Asbad. And until he knew more about the source of his unease, he would keep the prisoners alive. Both of them, if possible. It gave him more options in the future. If he should act in haste and kill one or both of them now, then he might regret the decision later.
By all the sacred powers of the Iluh, what is happening to me? Asbad demanded. Even this decision to delay irreversible actions was unlike him. He had cut many a throat in the past without any hesitation whatsoever. Why this sudden reticence? Why should he balk at the thought of committing himself to killing these captives ere the appointed time of their deaths? For they were now his to do with as he pleased. He owned them, body and soul, and they bowed to his wishes. He was the master, not the other way around! His word dictated their destiny, and his hand decided their fate.
A snarl twisting his face, Asbad turned angrily toward the elf. He noted that Legolas seemed to be doing much better at a slower pace, but his feet were still faltering and sweat was beginning to trickle down his neck. The elf was losing too much moisture, and the chill in the night air would not be good for him.
There! It is happening again! Barely refraining from throwing his hands into the air as a gesture of frustration, Asbad swore softly to himself and turned away from his captives. He could not keep his thoughts focused long enough to form any kind of coherent strategy for dealing with this situation. He couldn’t even concentrate on the situation itself for an extended period of time.
He wondered if this might not be a strange case of nervousness such as young, inexperienced men might have ere their first raid or battle. But Asbad was neither young nor inexperienced. The future of Khurintu hung in the balance this night, that was true, but he had known of this night’s coming for quite some time. He had prepared for it. He had laid his plans and had made the necessary contacts. He had adjusted and adapted accordingly as circumstances changed. All was going as was intended. He should not be doubting himself. Not now. There was no room for misgivings this late in the game.
Once again, Asbad glanced at the elf. To his surprise, he discovered the elf returning the look, and the tribesman found himself shivering at the gray eyes that hardened into flint. Determined to meet this harsh gaze and feeling as though the elf was reading every thought that passed through his mind, Asbad held up a hand signaling for a stop.
The halt was unexpected, but Asbad’s guards had learned long ago to never question his orders. And so they stopped, watching their leader and wondering what was happening. For his part, Asbad ignored their stares and concentrated on his quarry. This prey should have been wounded and whimpering. It should have been docile and submissive. It should have been exhausted and pleading for relief. But instead, it was staring at him with unblinking eyes that had a power great enough to rival the sandstorms.
Eventually, unable to tolerate the growing sense that defeat was only seconds away, Asbad advanced on the elf and backhanded him hard across the jaw. The blow drove Legolas to his knees, and he clutched the dwarf to his chest as he struggled to keep from falling over.
"You will show me more respect," Asbad hissed, stepping back slightly.
There was a pause and then the elf looked up, his eyes filled with a defiant fire that seared Asbad’s heart and mind. "My respect must be earned," Legolas answered, his voice low and dangerous. "You have not proven yourself worthy of it."
Filled with rage, Asbad raised his hand to strike again, but the elf’s next words stopped him.
"So easy, it is, to clout a fallen captive who is burdened with the body of a companion." Legolas’s voice was as cold as the bitterest nights in the northern desert and filled with a sneering disdain that sent shivers down Asbad’s spine. "Use me as a target for your anger, then. I cannot retaliate. I cannot offer you a challenge. I can only endure your frustration. Strange is it not?" the elf continued, his gray eyes taking on a sly look. "Strange that a mere prisoner should incite so much rage. Do you truly have as much control as you think? Earlier, you asked if I knew what I faced. I believe I do now. Can you say the same? Do you know what you face?"
Against his will, Asbad stepped back. He was shaken by this speech, which seemed to hit the very center of all his uncertainties and fears. He was losing control over his actions and allowing emotions to govern his thoughts. Glaring daggers at his rebellious prisoner and promising to make the dwarf’s death a gruesome enterprise of which the elf would receive full details, Asbad lowered his hand and gestured to the guards that watched the elf. "We move on. Any delays are to be met with punishment."
The surrounding men blinked, confused as to why Legolas’s words had not been met with a cruel execution at the very least. "Honored one, are you—"
"We continue," Asbad snapped, taking no note of who had questioned him and resuming the journey.
In silence, the men obediently hauled the elf to his feet and pushed him onward, prodding with spears when it seemed his pace was too slow. And ahead of his prisoners, Asbad marched in stoic silence, attempting to identify what was happening to him. I am hearkening to the voice of prudence, he decided at length. Nothing more. I wish to have room to maneuver should the situation become difficult. And as this is not my usual course, I am not behaving in my usual manner.
Asbad was only partially convinced that this was indeed the case, but it was the best idea he could offer. Thus the company moved forward, slowly but surely making their way across the sands while the moon traveled its starry path and eventually began drawing toward the horizon.
Prudence, Asbad told himself firmly. These doubts are only the warnings of prudence.
Ma’awnwa—Haradric term for ú-glîr, which is explained at length in Chapter 10 and 12.
Arabano—Second-in-command of Lotessa (OC)
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard (OC)
Arnor—Aragorn’s horse (OC)
Asbad—Tribal head of Khurintu (OC)
Aulit—Tribal head of Gartabo (OC)
Budari—Tribal head of Lotessa (OC)
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (OC)
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul—Legolas’s horse (OC)
Fastahn—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (OC)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard (OC)
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen—Tribal head of Warra (OC)
Khesva—Tribal head of Soltari (OC)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (OC)
Radarad—Tribal head of Portu (OC)
Shade—Eomer’s horse (OC)
Gartabo—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Khurintu—Northern based warrior tribe
Lotessa—Southern based warrior tribe
Portu—Widespread raiding tribe
Soltari—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Warra—Northern based warrior tribe
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