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Twilight of the Gods: 32. The High Priestess' Decision
Chapter 32 The High Priestess' Decision
It took a moment until the light-headedness vanished and his blurred sight stumbled into, but at last Thor was able to stand on his own. He found himself looking at deeply sceptical frowns and forced himself to a dishonest smile as he grasped Dolórion's halter. Playfully, the black tilted his head and seized a fold of his leathern jerkin to chew on it.
"I will be able to ride alone today, my lord. I am much better already."
"And you look it," Éomer grumbled unconvinced, meaning the scout's waxen complexion which brought out the dark bruises and crusts of dried blood all the more. Thor's left arm and leg were bandaged where the gravel had bitten deeply into his skin, and there was still a large dark swelling in his hair which resulted from the rock Ûngorl had hit him over the head with. Apart from that, Tolgor had assured him, his kinsman was fine and would recover fast. Yet the Rohirrim king did not believe that the Half-Dunlending would be well enough to fight if they confronted their foes tomorrow. Had he not needed each and every man his host consisted of, Éomer would gladly have sent the wounded man back over the Isen.
"My lord, please..." The man seemed to be aware of his thoughts. His gaze became urgent. "It looks worse than it is. I've certainly had much worse in my life. And since we are getting close to the place Woldro indicated on the map, you might need me for tracking. The chances of our foes descending the path at exactly the moment when we arrive are minuscule, but I don't have to tell you that. Please, let me continue what I began."
"Isn't it horrible with us Rohirrim?" Elfhelm commentated dryly from behind. "We're such a collection of headstrong, stubborn mules; all of us, whether we were born east or west of the Isen! I wonder whether I shall live to see the day when all will simply do as they are told by their superiors!" His captain's black eyes met his indignantly.
"Of course I shall do as the king bids me, marshal! I was merely expressing..." Thor stopped himself as he noticed the amused sparkle in the Lord of Westfold's gaze and knew he had again been had by the older man's dry brand of humour. Letting his marshal see what he thought about his remark, the scout's attention turned back to his ruler, only to find a streak of amusement in Éomer's expression, too. "By Béma, is this the time to jest over your kinsman's sense of duty, my lords?" But he could not help breaking into a sour smile himself.
Laughing, Éomer's hand landed heavily on his good shoulder.
"I would never jest over my men's sense of duty, captain! But come on, the sun is out, we are getting close to the place we came here for, and you have just lifted our worries with regards to your own person. Thus I deem this would be the time to leave behind the shadow we have been travelling under for the past days, at least for the moment." He looked around and noticed that the éored was once again ready for departure, no matter how gaunt they were all looking by now. "Do as you wish, Thor, I will not interfere with your 'sense of duty,' even if I wouldn't ask this deed of you myself. But if you fall off your horse, it will be entirely your own fault." He set a foot into its stirrup and pulled himself into the saddle, looking down on his scout. "When we meet with Elessar's captors tomorrow, though, I bid you to stay behind, and I will hear no words of protest then. Do you understand me, captain?"
"Aye, my lord." Thor broke into a relieved grin. "I understand. You want them all for yourself." Making it into the saddle without his usual grace, but easily enough, he turned Dolórion to the north, and a moment later, the host of riders was on their way once again.
Even though he repeated his king's words ever again in his head, Hilberon could no longer pretend that he had hope. His body ached, and his mind shouted at him that they were being led like cattle to their final destiny. No one would be able to escape, and now that he was blindfolded he would not even know if they were led into a dark, deep pit and forgotten soon afterwards. He shivered ceaselessly, and a weakness was in him that had nothing to do with the long and strenuous marches. He wanted to lie down and give up since the fate before him seemed cruel and endless. The hopes he had set in the king had not been fulfilled; King Elessar himself had taken every chance and every challenge, but in the end remained a prisoner. If the king could not win then how should Hilberon, a simple soldier, keep his head high? He followed the constant pull on his arm, noticing the warmth of the sun on his face and the hard grass under his feet. He could hear the cries of birds of prey far up in the distance. And while trudging on without pause, he heard the low and rare conversations among the strange people. Even their language seemed aggressive. Hilberon felt doom weighing on his shoulders.
The last glimpse Tarés had seen had been the hesitant face of the king and the Easterling woman in front of him. They had both been tense but still talking with each other, and Tarés wondered if that woman would be of any help, or if the fate of them all was already set. The second-in-command had looked mercilessly on his captive, and the soldier feared that this male Easterling would personally guard the king to make sure nothing out of the ordinary could happen. With a shudder Tarés remembered the night of the second escape attempt. He had dearly wished to help his ruler, and the memory was painful enough to make him flinch. But the other thought – that they would not return home – was no better. Though the life as a soldier demanded the ability to leave one's home behind without regret, he longed nevertheless to return to Minas Tirith.
Darkness prevailed. It settled on his ribcage, his shoulders, his core, and he was unable to lift it. No thought brought any ease; no memory in his mind was strong enough to diminish the dread that weighed him down. He felt it hard to breathe and with every minute stretching to hours in which he was unable to see, the pressure increased. Panting, Aragorn stumbled forward, fighting against the fear in him, trying to keep his head up, trying to recall moments of happiness and bliss, but even if he succeeded for a few heartbeats the loss of all that he loved pushed him even further down into hopelessness. He had lost the fight. He had lost more than he had ever imagined. And he had led his men - soldiers who had believed in his leadership and wisdom - to nothing but misery. His audacity had brought them nothing but death and toil.
"You are shivering, Strider. What is it?" Ridasha asked on a smooth incline they had entered. The path was still easy to walk and would not change until they would reach the last part of it.
Aragorn needed a moment until he answered hoarsely,
"You are taking us to our doom. How do you expect me to feel?"
She frowned, but went on without pity,
"You will accommodate to your new life. Others did so before. To serve does not mean to end your life in shame."
"It is not only myself I am thinking about."
"But you are not their leader," she continued unruffled. "Your leader was killed, wasn't he? It is not you who takes the responsibility." There was a pause, and when he did not answer, she asked with a frown of sudden recognition, "Why did they choose you to escape?"
Aragorn was in too bad a state of mind to even smile to himself about her belated realisation.
"I travelled far in the many years of my life. They trusted me to find a way out."
"You almost did. There are not many who have even tried to flee us." Ridasha glanced at the captive walking with his head bowed. "But since you are a healer they could not expect you to be an experienced fighter. Sisune said it was you too to escape in the first night. And that Nisenur brought you back." She got no reaction; only his heavy breathing could be heard. "He too is hard to beat. Though he is not yet as swift as Asentis, he will become his successor." She looked at the face of the healer. His lips were pressed tight as if he was struggling within. Ridasha did not understand his behaviour. "You should not think about your future so distressfully. Your people solve situations like this by killing. They come to kill and vanquish their foes completely. They never think of mercy."
"The Easterlings formed an alliance with Sauron during the Ring War. And still the King of Gondor pardoned those who survived."
Ridasha stared at him, wide-eyed about the insolent lie.
"He did not!"
Aragorn swallowed hard.
"He did. They came to him in the Hall of the King, and he let them go."
"You are lying! Those who returned had escaped the evil Gondorians! They would have been killed if they hadn't turned to flee!" He knew it would be in vain to try to convince her. Ridasha took the healer's silence as an agreement. "If your people would be civilised there would have been no need to kill so many soldiers. If Harishdane had chosen your way, hundreds of my kin would be dead by now, but she preserved the whole people by acting according to our rituals. The scásh might look cruel to you, but it is to the good fortune of all."
"It was not Gondor who started the war."
Ridasha shot him a scornful look. She did not like to hear that her kin had willingly acted upon Sauron's commands.
"But it was Gondor who led the armies to the destruction of all other peoples." The king but shook his head. No argument would change her point of view, evolved through long years of hatred among the peoples of Middle-earth. "We rest," she informed him, and by the pressure of her hand he sat down.
"Where are we?" he asked when she had given him water.
Ridasha drank herself and overlooked the landscape lying beautifully in the lasting summer sun. Noon had passed, and in two or three hours they would reach the western slope and on it the steep climb to the crossing of the last cliff.
"I will not tell," she said in a hushed whisper for Nisenur was closing in with vibrating steps. She had seen him standing with Asentis a moment ago, and his expression had been malevolent. "Go, see about your own prisoner," she greeted him, but he only sneered.
"You talk too much, Ridasha. It is your treason that endangers us all."
She eyed him haughtily, and her voice was poignant when she answered,
"You will never accuse me of treason, Nisenur Nasanian."
"I only do as Asentis bids," he replied, and though his voice was firm she could see retreat in his eyes. She was older and more experienced than he, and until she would be sentenced she still held some power in her status. "And he orders you to keep quiet." And while he still stared at her he pulled a piece of cloth out of his pack. "I will take care that he will stay quiet from now on." Ridasha could see Asentis out of the corner of her eye, and did not dare to move or contradict while Nisenur gagged the healer. He fought against the fabric in his mouth, but Nisenur broke the resistance immediately. With a last look of victory he turned to leave. Ridasha exhaled, still eyed by Asentis.
Whenever Úshemor delivered her punishment to Ridasha's kin, it would be devastating, and no prayer she knew would change that.
Asentis was loath to wait any longer. The captives slowed them down too much! And they did it on purpose, he was sure of that. The long and steep climb would last the whole afternoon if his comrades allowed the Gondorians to tarry. He ordered them to push harder, and the thirteen captives stumbled on the next ledge and from thereon further uphill, panting, and cursing their captors when they hit their shins and knees. Asentis pretended not to hear them, too eager he was to move on. The first men reached the top of the plateau. The chimney on the western side of the massif was narrow and deep, but long ago a Dunlending had found it and used it henceforth to enter the Misty Mountains. Asentis doubted that anything had been built by the primitives and assumed another, older people to have created the secret entrance. Now he let down a long, thick rope into the chimney. The upper end was wound around a pillar, and he looked down into the near darkness until the rope touched the ground. Sisune climbed down nimbly, and Asentis fastened the second rope to the pillar. Nisenur brought forward the first captive to be let down. The fat man sweated heavily, and with the rope bound around his waist he almost screamed the moment he was lowered slowly through the chimney. Asentis grimaced and cursed about his own negligence and ordered the rest of the soldiers to be gagged immediately to avoid any further noise. With necessary care the next captive was brought down, and another female Easterling followed quickly to guard the men.
Ridasha escorted the healer to the wind-swept peak. Asentis glared at her, and she cast down her gaze, afraid of what his eyes told her. He bound the rope tightly around the prisoner's waist and lowered him through the opening in the cliff. The healer gave a grunt of surprise, but did not struggle like others, who had consequently hit themselves against the rough walls. Ridasha followed immediately, adapting to the darkness in the chimney while she climbed down hand-over-hand. On the ground she escorted the captive to the assembly point while Sisune and her comrade remained at the rope to wait for the other men.
"We've reached the western plain," she whispered, and hoped he had heard her; she did not dare to speak louder. She already felt watched and hoped she would not add more mistakes to those done. It was dishonouring enough that some assumed her to have been a part of the misused ritual. "It's another hour's walk to the campsite." Then she fell silent, only saw him nod in the dim light of the small tunnel which led out to the open plain.
If only they could have seen it, the soldiers from Gondor would have been delighted to be in the plains again. Though Dunland was not as fertile as Ithilien, the view now granted contained grass and bushes, flowers in their bloom, and further to the west tall trees, bending in the fresh wind. The sun would set in two hours, and the shadows were already long. Scattered white clouds announced that the day would remain dry, and the view was excellent. But still the captives trudged on in their own darkness, resisting their captors who led them north.
Asentis felt free at last. He outran the group, scouting for Harishdane whether their approach was undetected by the primitives. The Dunlendings should not know of the gathering of the Easterlings at one campsite, and as Harishdane had planned they would march with all of their kin to the east. He was living in pure delight, running as fast as he could, enjoying the wind tangling with his hair. After the long and depressing march, his spirits always rose the moment his feet touched grass again and the view was no longer restricted to grey walls. Upon turning he saw the men and women far behind him, small dots among the green, and he almost laughed. Still there was a league to cross, and maybe there would be another journey to Dunland in the near future, if the Dunlendings stuck to their promise of delivering more captives as the raids into Rohan continued. Asentis was sure they would try to please their allies, now that they had returned from Edoras empty-handed.
Aragorn felt the warmth of the sun on his face, but it brought no comfort. Blind and dumb he staggered on, and he had lost all hope. Soon he and his men would be surrounded by more Easterlings, and even if the blindfolds and gags would be taken away, he could not count on any chance to change their misfortune. In the long years before the Ring War, he had had to live through exertion, more often than not fighting for his life, but he had been free at least. The prospect of living as a slave within the Easterling tribes was the worst he had to face.
Harishdane breathed deeply and enjoyed the welcome from her kin, more than thirty men and women, who had waited for her arrival. Upon spotting her they all sank to their knees, bowed their heads and remained in that position until she ordered them to rise again. Some she touched on their heads and the rewarding smiles in their painted faces were filled with bliss. Only when she had passed them by cheers were heard by those who finally met with friends and relatives again, and many of the tribal members embraced each other, filled with joy to see their fellows unharmed. But they were not yet granted time to exchange news. Asentis quickly ordered the captives to be gathered in one place, where they had to sit down and would be guarded, but led the healer aside roughly. He forced him down with his back to the rock and in sight of the fire, so he could be watched all the time. Murmurs rose among those already at the camp, but at Asentis' fierce look the chatter fell silent.
Harishdane smiled warmly when Gishvané, the old and wise high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan, greeted her respectfully. Her long hair, black but with strands of grey, fell forward over her dark red tunic down to her slender waist. Like the other women she wore wooden combs in her hair, and a few personal tokens on cords around her neck. As a sign of her status and power, a bronze pendant with a serpent on a specially wrought cord hung around her neck. Harishdane touched it curtly with her fingers – a sign of accepting the will of the gods -- before Gishvané spoke.
"You brought captives for Úshemor." Her voice was soft and warm as summer rain. "The goddess will be delighted to take them up into her service."
Harishdane bowed, accepting the compliment.
"I would be delighted to watch you lead them through the ritual."
"It will be done at the ceremony back home, where the gods all will be present. Did everything work out the way you had foreseen it?"
The leader lifted her gaze again, and her expression was urgent and determined.
"I do prefer to not wait until we will have reached Rhûn." Gishvané smiled leniently over the haste. The gods had sent the Easterlings quite a restless young woman as a leader. Briefly she looked past Harishdane where the arriving members of the tribes made the captives sit down. She frowned upon seeing how they were treated and that some of them were wounded and their faces full of bruises. "Úshemor has already waited long to…"
"Why are these men still blindfolded and gagged?" Her voice was even, and only those who knew her well would have seen the flicker of annoyance in her dark brown eyes.
Harishdane kept her anger to herself and answered politely,
"They showed some resistance we had to take care of."
"I am sure they will not show any resistance now. Grant them to see and talk again." When Harishdane hesitated, Gishvané added without lifting her voice, "Release them from these bonds." The leader looked back over her shoulder, and on her short command Nisenur reacted to her bidding. Gishvané nodded in approval, then turned and strode with the leader through the campsite. It was well chosen, as Harishdane noticed: two sides – to the east and north – were protected by the mountain slope, and the one facing south bore some safety by a rock formation protruding from the east, about seventy yards away. "Shall we wait here longer, my leader? Are more of us to be expected?"
"We will leave tomorrow morning," Harishdane replied, resentful about the high priestess' attempt to change the subject. "Again, Gishvané, I prefer to have these prisoners marked before we start the journey over the mountain."
Gishvané lifted her gaze to the tall woman, searching with keen eyes for the reason of the uncalled-for rashness.
"As you know the agreement was to share the prisoners with the tribes – back at home. There are many already waiting."
Harishdane breathed deeply and viewed the campsite. Small tents had been erected where the wind did not touch them; a fire was maintained in the centre, and the pleasant smell spread, of leaves filled with dry fruits from their home. On the slope north of the camp a guard lay, watching in all directions. She saw her kinsmen talk with each other, relieved after their long time of separation, and she saw Sisune and Ridasha leave to fetch water-skins for the captives. Her eyes narrowed.
"I want it to be done," she said turning to Gishvané again. "This group will not as easily follow as the others. They are ready to start unrest at any time."
Gishvané held Harishdane in her stare, unwilling to give in.
"I do understand your concern, but I am sure that all your kindred assembled here will support your men and women to guard those soldiers to our home. To the blessing of all of us."
Though the high priestess spoke quietly and with utmost politeness, Harishdane clenched her teeth, regretting that Gishvané did not belong to her own tribe and could not be convinced of the urgency at hand. The leader nodded without agreeing and asked what had happened during the week they had been parted.
Ridasha had been welcomed cordially by her kinsmen, and it had lifted her mood for a few moments. Then Asentis had pulled the healer away from her grasp, and immediately afterwards Harishdane had ordered the captives to be relieved of some of their bonds. But only when Asentis had been needed by Nisenur had she quickly walked to the healer and taken off gag and blindfold, ignoring the astonished stares by some of her kin and the whispers spread by those who had accompanied Harishdane.
"I think Gishvané ordered this done," she said lowly when he thanked her. His face was bathed in sweat, and he squinted into the bright light, still panting as if he had run. He avoided her stare. "She is a very wise woman," Ridasha added, troubled by his quick and yet anxious glance over the campsite. She considered him to be impressed by the force the Easterlings had sent to Dunland, and when his gaze found the old woman, she explained, "This is the high priestess of my tribe… Gishvané." Still she got no answer. Two women passed them by, and she could hear their hushed whispers about the broken ceremony. Ridasha let the healer drink from her water-skin and pointed with her chin to the old woman. "I learned much from her – back at home. She is very learned and knows more about the rituals than any other. – What is the matter with you? You are still shivering. You were not harmed when he let you down, were you?"
"I am not," he uttered, but still she could see that the hours of the march had done something to him she did not understand. As if the strength she had felt in him before had been taken from him. The healer made eye-contact with Tarés, but broke it at once. "Take care of the other soldiers."
"I get you some food," she closed, rising. Upon turning she saw Harishdane look at her sternly. It was the demand to join the two women. Breathing deeply she bridged the short distance, envying those of her comrades who retreated to eat and talk.
Aragorn would have needed time to regain his composure, to lose the expression of fear, but he was granted none. His men were watching him, and the stoic confidence he had radiated so far could not be restored. Dumarin hid his face behind his hands, exhausted and down-hearted. Halamin doubted what he saw, still hoping against hope that some incident would change their fate into their fortune, while Hilberon had already turned his gaze to the activity in the camp, trying to think of something else. Only Tarés, who had long before looked behind the mask, still rested his eyes on him. There was no doubt any more. They would not be killed, but their future would be bright no more.
"I welcome you, Rilon Avas Damelon Rhûneshan," Gishvané praised her in shék and let the pendant be touched by the young woman she had known for a long time. But Ridasha could hardly return a feeble smile, and when her fingers rested on the cold bronze she prayed silently. Her heart beat fast, and she was full of fear. The time to be sentenced had arrived. "You travelled far and to the fortune of your kin. I am glad to meet you again."
"I am glad to be here," Ridasha replied still bowing to the high priestess, who lifted the woman's chin with her fingers.
"There is no need to be afraid," Gishvané assured her, and the wrinkles around her eyes deepened with yet another benevolent smile. But Ridasha's glance met with Harishdane's and the expression of her leader made her shudder. "The gods watch over you, my child."
"I have to report Ridasha's failure to you," Harishdane cut in, "And to ask for a proper punishment."
The high priestess lowered her hand and looked up to the leader.
Harishdane held Ridasha in her stare while she recalled the night of the healer's attempt to escape. Her voice was fierce and uncompromising, her words harsh but precise, and she only spoke highly of Asentis for his intervention and ability to bring the captive back. When she ended the high priestess pursed her lips, causing more wrinkles around her mouth and on her sun-burnt cheeks. She cocked her head and asked Ridasha,
"What have you to say? Did you knowingly neglect your task? Was it you who let the captive escape?"
"It… it was not me. It was…" She hesitated and inhaled to face Harishdane when she added almost inaudibly, "It was Úshemor."
Harishdane's eyes sparked with rage, but the high priestess only raised her brows. Her voice and face did not show any sign of annoyance or surprise.
"As you know Úshemor only takes those under her guidance who bear the mark of a tribe."
Ridasha's heart beat in her throat, but she forced the words through.
"The leader… she has marked the healer… Strider."
Unperturbed Gishvané looked at the young woman's face to find a sign of dishonesty. In her long years of serving the Mushéni-Rhûneshan as a high priestess, she had heard many apologies and lies to elude punishment, but Ridasha seemed too afraid and at the same time too honest to try and betray her. Confident she had heard the truth, she deliberately turned her attention to Harishdane.
"Does she tell the truth?" she asked, flat-voiced.
"It was my decision."
Gishvané's nostrils flared at the finality in the leader's voice, but she had her feelings and her voice under control when she turned to Ridasha.
"Bring forward the captive. Now."
"There is no need to…" the leader tried to stop her, but Gishvané only raised her left hand to quiet her. Ridasha ran back, almost stumbling over a woman carrying fresh rolled leaves to the fire.
"Get up!" she ordered the healer breathlessly, ignoring his puzzled look. "Now, hurry!" She grabbed his arm to make him stand up immediately.
"Why? Where are you taking me?" But he got no answer. Judged by Ridasha's anxiety and flushed cheeks, the high priestess was about to sentence her, and he asked himself if he would be a part of it.
Setting his eyes upon Harishdane, Aragorn felt pierced by a force stronger than the sharpest sword in a trained hand. He breathed heavily and his mouth was dry. He hardly noticed the old woman standing beside the leader.
"You kneel in front of the high priestess," Harishdane commanded with restrained anger, reluctant to stay beside the high priestess and learn what she would say. Ridasha forced down the captive by his shoulder, hurrying to follow the precept. Though Gishvané had not yet uttered a word about the young woman's failure, Ridasha was still anxious, and felt like she was pressed in a cleft which grew narrower with each fathom she fell. "Bow your head!"
Gishvané stepped beside the captive, pushing the dark hair from his neck, feeling him quiver. The red mark, healed but standing out due to the liquid which had filled the knife wounds, was clearly visible. It was the sign of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan, cut by a ceremonial dagger. Like other markings the high priestess had done herself, the sign would tell others who the man belonged to, and it would be respected. Up to that moment Gishvané had expected to find something else; that it had been a misunderstanding and that Harishdane – her beloved leader, sent by the gods – would never do such insolence. Now she saw it with her own eyes on the neck of that soldier, who did not know what happened to him. Gishvané took a moment of recollection, closed her eyes and breathed several times, trying to find sense in her leader's action. Then she turned to Ridasha.
"Tell him that he has nothing to fear. And take him back to his resting place." When the woman touched the healer's shoulder as a signal to get up, Gishvané added, "And for your failure…" Ridasha stopped in mid-motion. Her eyes went wide, turning to the high priestess. "You will prepare your shrine to pray to Úshemor for forgiveness."
"Yes, high priestess," the woman bowed lowly.
Gishvané's glance fell upon the red scarf around the healer's hands when he stood in front of her. She was puzzled, but took no time to ask for the reason of this measure.
"This is yours?" Ridasha nodded and willingly avoided Harishdane's angered stare. "Take it back and do your duty."
"I will, high priestess." She bowed again quickly and led the healer back beyond the fire.
Gishvané took her time. She knew that not even Harishdane would turn her back on her if she waited a moment longer, following Ridasha and the healer with her gaze, frowning about the captive's outer appearance.
"You insulted our holy ritual," the high priestess said, meeting eyes with the leader. Her voice became strong and rigorous, and everyone around listened up. "You prayed to Úshemor to take up that man as a slave. You arrogated to yourself the ritual that is only to be executed by a high priestess, learned in the ways of the gods." Gishvané paused. Harishdane stood firm, setting her jaw, ignoring the hushed whispers of those near by. "How could you dare to desecrate such a ceremony, which was delivered from one generation to the next over centuries? If there is any explanation you can give, you should do it now, and then hear my verdict."
"I am the leader of all tribes of Easterlings west of the Sea of Rhûn," Harishdane answered haughtily. "I do not need your permission to take what is rightfully mine. I grant you the task to consecrate these soldiers you see here to Úshemor, but this man will serve the Jásheni."
Gishvané rose to her full height, and though she was smaller and more slender than Harishdane, she was impressive enough in stature and radiance to let the leader know that her words had to be respected.
"Your behaviour disgraces your tribe, Harishdane of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan, and your insolence and serious failure will have to be punished in the most severe way the gods bid." She paused and exhaled, wondering why Harishdane, who had been so valuable to the tribes, could have strayed so far from the right path. "Never before has the goddess been addressed by a being lower than the high priestess. Her wrath shall come upon you."
"With all the deeds I have done for the tribes to ensure the survival of all of your kin, Gishvané -- kindred who would be dead by now without the arrival of my tribe – you should weigh your words with respect and devotion to the gods you honour."
The high priestess narrowed her eyes, unflinching at the implied threat.
"I will follow your own proposal, Harishdane, leader of the tribes, and will allow that one man, Strider, as he is called, to be a slave of the Jásheni, but…" Gishvané could read Harishdane's thoughts clearly and made sure that all kinsmen present now listened to her words. "There will be no other slave marked with the sign of the Jásheni. All the men already led back to our home and those waiting here will be separated and consecrated to the other tribes. This is my verdict, Harishdane, and in the name of the gods you will accept it."
Harishdane pondered contradicting, to elude the punishment, which was as severe as returning from a war empty-handed. As a consequence her tribe would not be able to let their men rise in standing, and though she was the leader of all tribes, this unification was only meant to rule the soldiers in war; not to bring all kinsmen under her leadership once their joint goal would be reached.
"I will not accept your verdict, Gishvané, high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan, and you'd better listen to me. Your time to state your cause will come at home."
Gishvané pressed her lips tight, aware of her kindred gaping at them both, expecting the high priestess to answer, but the old woman had never been rash. In the silence she searched the leader's face for signs of regret, but found none.
"You are not in the position to reject my verdict, Harishdane," she finally said. "Your behaviour will not be judged differently by the other high priestesses. Not even Arishana of your own tribe will dare to object. And if you risk stating the arguments for the desecration again, the verdict might be more severe than mine."
"The others will see and understand," Harishdane insisted.
It was quiet as the leader gripped her polearm tighter and turned to signal the end of the conversation, not even bothering to bow to the high priestess one last time.
Having anticipated Gishvané's judgement with so much fear over sleepless nights, Ridasha could hardly believe her luck upon hearing the verdict for her wrong-doing. She hardly listened to the quarrel going on behind her, so relieved she was by the goddess' generosity, and she silently prayed her gratitude that Úshemor had accepted her pleas and forgiven her. The mercy unleashed a sudden laughter as she stooped to the healer, who had sat down, to unbind the scarf from his hands.
She gleamed at him.
"The gods spoke in my favour!" she exclaimed in shék.
"Ridasha, tell me…"
She kissed the scarf and carefully stroked it, exhaling pure bliss. She had not felt that light-hearted since the end of the war. And with shining eyes she answered a question from one of her friends, and they quickly spoke with each other before she faced Strider again.
"It is unbelievable!" She looked back to Gishvané, who spoke her verdict over Harishdane, and for the seconds that passed they all listened, though Aragorn could only guess that the leader was being sentenced for the wrongly-executed ritual. Then Harishdane left the high priestess, and within the ease following the unexpected tension, the female soldier kissed the scarf again. "I never knew about the mercy of the gods so much that I know now!"
"Ridasha, I do not understand you!" he repeated, and in the spur of the moment she gently touched his bearded cheek.
"The high priestess only sentenced me to pray to Úshemor," she explained in Westron, quickly taking back her hand. The healer looked still puzzled, and she laughed again merrily. "I was afraid to lose everything, but now…" Gratefully she met eyes with Gishvané again. "She is as gentle as she is wise."
"So your trust in her was justified," the healer answered, and though his fate was so severe that no prayer for forgiveness would lift it, for a brief moment he shared her relief.
"I never doubted her." Ridasha nodded and turned to bow to the high priestess when she came along the way from the fire. "Gishvané…"
"Did you pray, my child?" she asked in shék with a benign smile that made one forget how strong her voice could be.
"I already prayed the night Harishdane misused the ritual," the woman replied, looking up.
"Did you object to her doing so?"
"I did. But she ordered me to help her."
"I see. I am proud of you. You acted according to the rules of our gods. I am glad you serve your tribe so well." She looked at the healer on the ground. His dishevelled appearance -- including the wounds she had seen on his back -- made her ask, "Why is he bound like this? He can hardly move. And he is in pain too."
"He tried to escape twice." Ridasha lifted her gaze to the high priestess' face, expecting to hear more of the old woman's wisdom.
"Úshemor did not take him in her service." And upon Ridasha's nod she frowned. "He does not look like he would dare to escape again. His ties could be loosened."
"They would not allow it."
Gishvané followed Ridasha's gaze to find Harishdane and Asentis standing side by side, talking lowly with each other. Still the leader's face was contorted with anger, and not even the gentle touch of her friend could change that.
"I see. Who is he?"
"Their healer. His name is Strider."
Hearing his name, Aragorn turned to Ridasha, asking her silently to explain, but the woman had only eyes for Gishvané, who appraised his stature and appearance.
"She chose a strong man, yes, but there are others among them. They all look strong and healthy, and some are even younger. Why he?"
"I cannot tell."
Gishvané pursed her lips. She was too old to be fooled, and there had to be some explanation for Harishdane's doings.
"What are you talking about?" Aragorn asked lowly, discontent with being excluded from a conversation that seemed important to understand.
Ridasha's head snapped around, and her eyes widened in shock.
"You must not speak to her! You are not allowed to until she speaks to you!"
Gishvané suppressed a smile, seeing the healer's frown, and continued in shék,
"Do not expect a Gondorian to know. They are narrow-minded." A tall man came up from behind, bowing lowly to the high priestess and waited until she turned to him. "Munteseri, what is your bidding?"
"The meal is served, and we all would cherish your attendance and prayer."
"Very well." She touched the black hair the man had wound into a braid. "I will accompany you in a moment." When her servant left, Gishvané faced Ridasha again. "Tonight will be special. Not in a long time have so many of our tribes shared each other's company. Make sure the captives get enough to eat too and then join me at the fire."
"It will be done," Ridasha agreed, and still relief and joy lingered on her features.
Sisune and Ridasha brought the warm leaves and flat-baked bread to the captives, and when she unbound the rope around Aragorn's arms, Nisenur – stern-faced and with grim determination – rose at once to stay close by, obviously ordered to do so by Asentis. Grudgingly she swallowed her command to make him leave, when his stance indicated that he would not walk away until the captive was bound again.
Seeing the healer move his arms and shoulders, grimacing with pain, she felt regret about his treatment. All the more she tried an encouraging smile when she handed him the leaf.
"It is called ajéshano," she explained and unwrapped it for him. "It is a traditional meal in the evening. Try it." She saw his hesitation. "Gishvané was very generous to share this meal with you all." Lifting his gaze Aragorn saw Ridasha's expectant brown eyes, and behind her at the fire the high priestess turned to watch him; he might have been mistaken, but even in the waning daylight he saw a light smile on her features. Giving into the fate for the moment he took the first bite. It was a strange, sweet, and slightly bitter taste, but compared to the scanty food they had been given during the week it was indeed a feast. He nodded his approval and rewarded Ridasha's eagerness with a small smile. She gleamed, content with having cheered him up, and rose to join the high priestess.
Gishvané ordered her to sit down close by, and her gaze fell upon the silver sticking out from under Ridasha's tunic. Obligingly the woman handed the high priestess the hunting knife, and she examined it with interest.
"You got that from him?" the old woman asked, carefully stroking the letters on the blade.
"Yes, it says 'Foe of Morgoth's Realm'."
"It does?" Again her keen and knowing eyes found those of the healer. "That is an interesting knife." She sheathed it and gave it back. "Tell me about that man." And while they ate, Ridasha recalled the days in the mountains and Strider's behaviour, finally showing the healed wound above her knee. Gishvané cocked her head and raised her brows, but kept her astonishment to herself. "He is an apt healer I dare say."
"He is. What will happen to him?" she added lowly, covering her knee again.
"He will serve the Jásheni, my child, as Harishdane has decided." And when Ridasha remained silent she added evenly, "Sometimes the gods work in strange ways, but in the end we will realise their wisdom."
Ridasha nodded, but with all that she had seen, she was not sure if the gods were deciding fairly. She felt the warm hand of the high priestess on her shoulder, granting her reassurance when her mind was troubled. Out of the corner of her eyes Ridasha could see the healer, and when he lifted his gaze, she knew by his expression that Harishdane had returned to the camp. Her voice commanded Nisenur to bind the captive again for the night, and he willingly obeyed. Ridasha turned her head to watch the towering figure of her leader, holding herself upright and her chin high, letting all present know that her power was unbroken. And though the Easterlings had learned about Harishdane's failure, her reputation was still high enough to keep silent those who doubted her leadership. No one would dare to demand her withdrawal; not even Gishvané had indicated that possibility, though Ridasha wondered what kind of verdict the other high priestesses at home would deliver.
The moment the shout echoed from the guard it was almost too late to react. A group of innumerable men on horses thundered around the protruding rock formation in the south, armours shining in the setting sun, a banner with a white horse on green ground floating in the wind.
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