My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 34. Coming Together
Within the desert, the sun was the undisputed master. Lesser beings might squabble among themselves, seeking dominion over water or territory, but in the end, the sun always had the final say. Under its blazing heat and blinding light, even the most dauntless of creatures cowered and trembled. Nothing directly opposed the sun. At least, not intentionally. Those who did challenge its authority soon found themselves mercilessly beaten and driven into the ground. No quarter was asked, and certainly no quarter was ever given. Even the elements themselves seemed to submit to the sun’s command.
But exceptions did happen.
Exceptions were rare, it must be said. Almost unheard of. But now and then, the impossible would come to pass. Something would contest the indomitable sun. Something would rise up and defy its burning presence. These exceptions did not happen often and they did not last very long, but they did occur. And this day was witness to one of these singular events as a column of smoke loomed overhead and blocked the first rays of light that crept over the horizon.
Asbad had been born in the desert. He had been raised in the desert. It was his wish to die in the desert, even if their current plans yielded success and the lands of Gondor and Rohan fell into the hands of Khurintu. But for all his many years of desert life, Asbad had never seen anything obscure dawn’s first light. Not like this. A mountain, building, or tent might act as a temporary shield, but the light was never lessened or dimmed by these things. Yet this was exactly what was currently happening. The morning sun was vibrant and hot as it rose over the sands, but its light did not completely reach many of the Khurintu tribe for they were shadowed by a cloud of ash and smoke. Moreover, the smell of burning flesh permeated the air, further clouding the senses and mitigating the sun’s power. That the master of the desert should be so defeated was not a good omen, and the ruler of Khurintu’s tribe was keenly aware of the fact that the sun’s subjection was very much his fault.
A firm believer in both accountability and punishment, Asbad ruthlessly berated himself for the night’s disastrous sequence of events. It should not have happened. It should not have even been possible. But what was done was done, and he was now forced to accept the fact that he had severely underestimated his captives. Under ma’awna’s influence, he had expected the elf to be far more compliant and submissive. He had not believed that the elf would be able to carry the dwarf for the entire night, much less successfully escape with him. The elf should not have even considered the idea, for he knew not where they were, nor did he know the direction of any nearby hidden lakes. One of the Haradrim under similar circumstances would have remained captive until learning his whereabouts. But apparently the elf had thought action could no longer be delayed. Further study into elves and dwarves should have been taken, for it was apparent now that none of them had been adequately prepared.
What had gone wrong?! Every mistake had its roots. Every mishap had a beginning. Where did the origins for this one lie? Asbad cursed furiously, pushing his mind back over the night and analyzing each and every action that had taken place. He was fairly certain that things had been on track before they struck out in the evening. It was only after they’d been journeying for several hours that Asbad had received the sense that he’d somehow lost control of the situation. But when and how had he lost control? What had been the pivotal moment?
The dwarf, he thought to himself. It was the moment I showed leniency toward the dwarf. That was where it began.
Tracing events from the moment that the dwarf had first fallen, he tried to account for the cascade of cause and effect that had ultimately led to the loss of not one but both prisoners. And as he did so, he realized that he probably should have killed the dwarf outright when the creature first collapsed. He had threatened to do so from the beginning. But he had not fulfilled his threat. That was his first mistake.
His second mistake was to listen to the elf.
Somehow, the elf had convinced him that the dwarf would rise and walk again if given sufficient rest. Asbad should not have considered such a thing. The Khurintu tribe could not afford to linger over a prisoner who did not necessarily need to live in order to serve their purposes. But the elf was so insistent, and Asbad had suddenly found himself doubting… Blessed Iluh, he had actually given his consent when the elf demanded that his bonds be released!
This had led to his third mistake, which was trusting the elf. True to his word, the elf had managed to rouse the dwarf, but then he had claimed the right to help his friend. For some reason, Asbad had granted this. He could not say why. Had pity moved him? If so, it would be a first. But then, the night had been full of firsts. Perhaps it was not so impossible to think that compassion and mercy had overwhelmed his heart. Perhaps that would even explain why he had allowed the elf to carry the dwarf after the dwarf collapsed a second time. But the insolence that the elf had shown…that had gone virtually uncontested, and such a thing was unheard of. The elf had taunted Asbad’s men, mocked Asbad himself, killed three tribesmen when they sought to subdue him, and seriously injured two others. So as punishment, they had forced him to carry his friend. But that was no punishment, for it was exactly what the elf wanted!
I have been manipulated! Asbad roared silently. No one manipulated Khurintu’s tribal head. No one. Not even Budari of the Lotessa tribe had actually managed to maneuver Asbad as thoroughly as the elf had. Yes, it was clear now that he should have killed the dwarf. That would have undoubtedly silenced the elf and sent him into a state of shock, making him easier to handle.
Still, now that he thought on it further, Asbad wondered if killing the dwarf might not have also killed the elf. There was a bond between the two creatures that both intrigued and unnerved Asbad. The elf had been more than willing to die to save his friend. Had the dwarf perished, the elf might have thrown himself onto their swords in a fit of madness and rage.
But even if I could not have killed the stunted creature, I should have kept a closer watch upon him. I see now that he was the key, Asbad berated himself. By the blood of Mordor, this changes everything! I have come so far and waited so many years, and to fall now because of a simple error…a miscalculation…a manipulation, no less!
Asbad considered placing at least part of the blame on Dashnir, for the man had not adequately informed him of the loyalty between elf and dwarf. Nor had he informed him of the elf’s abilities and just how far the elf would go in order to save his friend. But even as he toyed with this idea, Asbad recognized that Dashnir would have had no way of knowing the elf and dwarf that well. He traveled with them from Dol Amroth to Haradhur, but never had the dwarf been in such dire straits and never had the elf’s abilities been tested like this. The oversight was understandable, which made the fault entirely Asbad’s. And Asbad was wise enough to admit it.
With a despairing sigh, Asbad rubbed his hands over his face and look around. The Khurintu tribe was in disarray. Over a quarter of their horses were now dead or seriously wounded thanks to the blast of fire engineered by the fleeing elf. The rest of the mounts were skittish and frightened. It was taking the efforts of all the hale men to hold them down. Fortunately, very few of the warriors had been killed by the exploding fire, but many were injured and Asbad seethed because of their loss. This could have been prevented, and that was what gnawed at him the most. This could have all been prevented! But he had failed to act, and now they were struggling to order themselves, the sun was beginning to break through the cloud of smoke, and they had not even struck their tents or unpacked the water that had been brought!
Asbad looked up as one of his men drew near, firmly holding the halters of two horses. "Report," he commanded harshly.
"We have sighted riders approaching. We believe it to be Dashnir and those we left behind at Haradhur."
Asbad hissed slightly. He had hoped to order the camp before Dashnir arrived, but it seemed that this would not be possible. "Get the horses under control and pitch the larger tents, if you can," he ordered, his eyes turning to the horizon where he made out the small figures of horsemen. "We must get all the animals beneath the shade."
"As you command, honored one," the man said, inclining his head before hurrying away.
As I command, Asbad sighed, his face darkening as he gazed at the ruin around him. Yet my commands were as naught during the night. If only… His thoughts trailed off and his brow furrowed. With a frown, he shook his head sharply, attempting to regain control of his mind. Such self-pity was unlike him. True, he was responsible for the loss of the two prisoners, but to belabor the fact as he was doing… What was happening to him?!
Deciding to lose himself in work until he could decipher what was going on, he moved toward some of the packs that had been taken from the horses and began searching for the water skins. Dashnir’s company would have great need of fluids after traveling beneath the rising sun. In fact, now that he considered it, Asbad realized that they were somewhat late. They should have arrived just before sunrise, yet the sun was nearly an hour into the sky already.
Had they come according to the times we established, they might have prevented the escape, Asbad thought bitterly, his eyes narrowing as he watched the approaching riders. But even as this crossed his mind, he shuddered and turned away. Something was yet affecting him. Something that clouded his judgement and stole his reason. Perhaps that song from the elf… Perhaps that had done something…
Asbad jerked. Only those of equal rank addressed him by his given name, and there were none here that fit that description. Scanning the men around him—all of whom seemed to be equally startled—his eyes finally stopped upon the approaching horsemen, specifically the foremost rider. "You presume much, Dashnir," he said quietly.
But Dashnir did not seem to be listening. He was staring at the blackened bodies of horses and servants as well as the wounded who were now being assisted into the tents that had been struck. Reining his horse to a halt next to his leader, Dashnir shook his head wordlessly, his mouth opening and closing as though he longed to speak but could not find the words.
"Dashnir!" Asbad said sharply, pulling the man’s attention away from the scene of destruction.
"Your pardon, honored one," Dashnir murmured, only now seeming to realize what he’d done. "But when I witnessed from afar what had happened…" He trailed off and shook his head, his eyes returning to the charred carcasses. "How did this come to pass?" he demanded, his face showing disbelief.
"Dismount and walk with me," Asbad commanded, still somewhat incensed. The lapse in protocol was understandable given the wreckage, but understanding did not imply lenience. Dashnir would have to be taken to task. As the elf and dwarf should have been, Asbad thought with disgust as he began walking away from the men who had come to dispense water and handle the newly arrived horses. "You are late," he said when he felt Dashnir join him. "And you are out of order."
"I freely acknowledge my guilt, honored one," Dashnir sighed, the bewildered tone in his voice fading as he mastered his emotion. "And I accept whatever punishment you see fit to bestow.
Asbad grunted and stopped, glancing over his shoulder at the camp where the smoke was finally lifting, allowing the sun to once again have mastery. "Whatever punishment I bestow, it will have to wait. We have other priorities. But I will not forget this indiscretion."
"Nor will I, and it shall not happen again," Dashnir assured him, bowing his head in a manner that was appropriately repentant. "But honored one…" Dashnir looked back toward the camp, his eyes narrowing. "How did this happen? And what of the prisoners? Are we still able to use them?"
The muscles along his jaw tightened, and Asbad cast his eyes out into the desert, heedless of the sun’s reflection upon the sand that could blind a man if care was not taken. "The prisoners are no longer here. They escaped."
"We were not adequately prepared for their abilities," Asbad said shortly.
Astonished silence met this statement, and then Dashnir shook his head, his eyes betraying his confusion. "How? What happened?"
Asbad hesitated for a moment, attempting to collect his scattered thoughts. "It was strange," he said slowly. "I do not completely understand how it was done myself. But I will share with you all that I know. We rendezvoused with the forces from Lake Hajim and were beginning to unload horses so that we might make camp. And at that point, the elf began to…to hum."
"Hum?" Dashnir echoed.
"Yes," Asbad answered, calling to mind every detail that he could remember in an attempt to explain the next series of events to both himself and Dashnir. "There was something very strange about his voice, and his hum eventually became a song without words. I thought to order the guards to silence him…but I found I could not speak. I could only listen. And then his song changed. Abruptly. I felt as though I was released from something, and then the horses reacted violently. We could not control them and they began to stampede. And at some point in the chaos, the elf leaped upon one of the horses with the dwarf, and they began to flee."
"The dwarf went with him, then?"
"The dwarf had no choice. The elf had been carrying him for the better part of four hours."
Dashnir blinked. "Why?"
"Because the dwarf had swooned and would not wake. He was injured by a thrown knife when we attacked their camp in Haradhur, and his leg was not healing cleanly. Infection set in and he became feverish. The first time he collapsed on our journey, the elf was able to rouse him and he walked on his own for a time. But the second time, he would not stir and the elf would not allow us to kill him."
"The elf would not allow you to kill him?" Dashnir stepped back and then his eyes narrowed with suspicion. "Did you place the elf beneath ma’awnwa?"
A twinge of uneasiness pricked at Asbad’s mind. "It was my understanding that this made him easier to control."
"Yet you allowed the elf to revive the dwarf, and when the creature could not be revived, you allowed him to carry his friend." Dashnir shook his head. "The elf was not the one being controlled, honored one. Did you not mark my words when I told you of Garat’s death? If a man remains in close proximity to the elf for a length of time, the shadow will eventually sunder his own tie to Eru’s song."
Asbad was silent for a moment. He had indeed hearkened to Dashnir’s words about Garat and the journey from Dol Amroth to Haradhur. He was very aware of the dangers presented by an elf beneath the shadow of ma’awnwa. At least, he thought he’d been aware of it. But now that he considered the night’s events with ma’awnwa in mind, he was no longer certain of himself.
"The dwarf is valuable to us alive, but he is not essential. You could have had him killed. The elf would have probably taken no measures to escape had he not been concerned for his friend."
He should have seen that. He should have known that. It was obvious now, in hindsight, but hindsight was almost always clear. Yet even so, such judgements of character were well within his ability to note and distinguish, even though he had not been acquainted with the prisoners for very long.
"And I warned you that the elf had been making adaptations while under ma’awnwa," Dashnir continued. "Honored one, he was not to be underestimated! He should have been bound and under strict guard at all times."
"You have made your point, Dashnir," Asbad said quietly, his eyes hard. "I see now what happened. You have no need for further elaboration."
"If that is your wish," Dashnir said, though he sounded rather dubious. He was silent for a moment, and then he sighed and shook his head. "Would you then indulge me by relating the rest of the escape? You say that the elf and dwarf took a horse, but that does not explain the smoke and the stench of burning."
"The horse they stole was carrying bags of the blasting powder," Asbad said, grateful for the change in topic. "The elf set fire to the cloth, and tossed it behind him. There were several horses following at that point, apparently drawn by whatever call he had issued, and some of them also carried the blasting powder. When the bags he’d thrown ignited, they were all caught in the blast. After that, the surviving horses became restless and would not be handled. We could not pursue."
"Then they are lost to us," Dashnir whispered.
"I believe that we managed to score several hits with arrows," Asbad murmured. "The horse they took was clearly wounded. Its might have been as well, but we cannot be certain of that."
"How ill was the dwarf, honored one? Is it likely that he could survive the day?"
"The possibility is slim," Asbad said with a shake of his head. "Especially if he is without shelter or water. The elf will be hard-pressed, as well. In all likelihood, they have already perished. Their horse would not be able to carry them for long. If they are not yet dead, it is only a matter of time. We should turn our thoughts to other things. The prisoners are beyond our reach."
"But we have both underestimated them already," Dashnir cautioned. "There is a line of volcanic ridges to the south. They might reach these rocks and find shelter with water. In that event, they are still a danger."
"I suppose that it is a possibility," Asbad conceded reluctantly. "But it is a remote one. The odds are very much against it."
"The odds were also very much against escape," Dashnir countered. "Honored one, we must not let this fall to chance. They could still be alive! And if they are, they will seek to return to Haradhur. We cannot allow this! We will have no control over their actions. We will lose the illusion that we are operating beneath the authority of the Iluh. And should we lose that, we lose the support of the tribes. Everything falls apart."
Asbad studied his second-in-command for a long moment. The argument was valid and the point convincing, but there was something deeper going on behind the words. Something on a more personal level. "This is not about ensuring our success," Asbad said at length. "I sense that you need to recapture these prisoners for your own sake. At the very least, you need to confirm for yourself that they are dead. Why?"
Dashnir’s jaw tightened and his eyes darkened, but to his credit, he met the challenging look in his superior’s eyes and did not back down. "I feel a measure of responsibility for the loss of the captives. It was my suggestion that the original plans be altered. It was my suggestion that we abduct the elf and the dwarf. Had we kept to our previous plans…" He trailed off and looked away as an expression of shame flitted over his face.
"You may have suggested the change in plans, but I approved it," Asbad said firmly. He was not in the habit of consoling his men, deeming that a wavering warrior was little better than a dead warrior, but Dashnir was an exception. He had never before floundered like this. Moreover, Asbad needed Dashnir. He would never admit it to anyone for it was a weakness on his part, but he would not be able to rule the Khurintu tribe without Dashnir’s intuition. Asbad could not allow his subordinate to falter now.
"Even so, I should have realized the risks when I was forced to take ma’awnwa from the elf before we even reached Haradhur," Dashnir hissed. "I should have realized then that holding the elf for any period of time was a risk. Such a thing should have been left to Umbar."
"You were still operating somewhat beneath a shadow," Asbad answered. "You could not have foreseen this. And your suggestions for change held great merit. A gift had been provided to us. It would have been folly not to take it. By capturing an elf and a dwarf, we could demonstrate our control over creatures of legend. We could have also moved up the time of our attack on Gondor by providing Umbar with an elf."
"Had we left the elf alone, we could have taken him during tonight’s battle at the same time that we took Aragorn," Dashnir hissed with a shake of his head. "The dwarf would have been killed along with Gondor’s forces and most of the Rohirrim, and Umbar would have received their elf. Then tidings of what happened would have reached the northern countries, the Rohirrim would have demanded an immediate assault on Harad for the loss of their king, and Gondor would have denied it for fear that we would kill their own hostage king. The ties between the two realms would have disintegrated, and as they bickered one with another, Umbar would have completed its research and destroyed Ithilien, giving us a base from which to launch our attack."
"But would we have obtained the honor of killing the dwarf and subduing the elf had we not abducted them? I think not," Asbad said. "They would have fallen under suspicion as agents of the Destroyer even had we not insinuated such a thing, and they would have been either murdered or confined by the Gartabo tribe. Aulit would then have received great power and respect for his ability to act against the Destroyer’s agents. He would have rallied the tribes against Gondor and Rohan, and we would have only been another force to add to his tally. We would not have been in a position of power. We would not have been able to gain mastery over the other tribes. Nay, Dashnir. When the elf and the dwarf entered the desert, they destroyed part of our plans. We did not foresee such an event. And we compensated as best we could."
"Perhaps," Dashnir muttered. "But are such compensations now moot? We have no dwarf to kill before the other tribes as a symbol of our power. We have no elf to give to Umbar. What now do we do?"
"We compensate yet again," Asbad answered. "We combine elements from both plans and we capitalize on what has already been done." He looked out across the desert and frowned. The temperatures were beginning to rise and they should probably retire to the tents, but he could not quite bring himself to move. It seemed that he had badly underestimated many things, and until he set the situation to rights, he did not want to leave. Besides, the heat was clearing his thoughts, burning away distractions and irrelevant details. "I need to know if you were followed on your journey away from Haradhur," he said. "And I need to know how many followed you."
"Yes, I was followed," Dashnir confirmed, seeming to shake himself and focus again on the situation. "But the numbers are something of a mystery. Only Rohirrim followed us, of that I am certain. But initially, we believe there were ten riders. However, toward the latter part of the night, there seemed to be only five. And before the end of the night, they turned back. Given the speed of their mounts, it is probable that they will reach Haradhur before the sun rises high enough to prevent travel. They will not be camping in the desert this day."
"You are certain?"
"As certain as one can be without witnessing it directly."
Asbad cursed quietly. "Then they will be wearied but not unduly so. If I am not mistaken, you predicted that the entire Rohirrim contingent would follow you, leaving Gondor alone in the city. Was your estimation of Eomer’s loyalty to his friends in error?"
"Nay, I think not. Rather, I believe I did not account for Eomer’s loyalty to both his kingdom and to Gondor," Dashnir said, his voice somewhat bitter. "And perhaps Aragorn was able to deduce that our next strike would be against Haradhur. He is a man of great perception. If so, he would have kept as many Rohirrim in the city as he could."
"So they will be at nearly full strength, and because of this, they will undoubtedly have endured the day well despite the hostility from the other tribes." Asbad sighed and rubbed his brow, noting the moisture that had begun to bead. It was high time to retreat to the tents.
"Tonight, just ere sunset, you will take a small number of men and trail the elf and the dwarf," Asbad said quietly, closing his eyes as the beginnings of a plan began to coalesce in his mind. "Find them at all costs. If they are still alive, kill the elf and recapture the dwarf. Following that, make all speed to Haradhur."
"But what of Umbar and their desire for a living elf?" Dashnir questioned.
"They will have to obtain such a creature on their own. Our elf is too dangerous to leave alive. He must be dispatched. And if the dwarf is not alive when you find him, take his head and bring it with you when you ride to join us at Haradhur. We will use it as a symbol in lieu of a demonstration. And keep the elf’s body," Asbad added, almost as an afterthought. "We will send it to the Corsairs. Perhaps they will be able to find some use for corpse."
"And what of you, honored one? What plans shall you make for the battle?"
"What plans I make for the battle must needs be determined by the decisions of Gondor and Rohan. They may meet us as warriors upon the desert, or they may hide in the city, using Haradhur as a shield. In either case, though, it becomes clear that we must fall upon the original strategy with perhaps a few changes. Aragorn will be taken prisoner, but we will leave no guards from either country alive."
"I thought we were to use the Rohirrim survivors as messengers of our deeds."
"Such was our intent until the realms of the elves and dwarves became involved. With their pressure, Gondor may not be able to hold Rohan at bay long enough for our forces to become ready. And because we are not giving them a live elf, we will need to buy more time for Umbar to complete their preparations. Therefore, we will send no messengers but rather allow search parties to come to us. At that point, we will give them the head of Rohan’s king and send them back with the tidings that Gondor’s king yet lives. Hopefully, we will then be able to stall their actions long enough for Umbar’s ships to join us at Pelargir."
"Our victory is not as sure as it once was," Dashnir murmured.
"Nay, but we knew our risks when we planned this. We knew there was a chance that events could turn against us. Victory may not be certain, but neither is it beyond our grasp. Come," he said with a glance toward the sun. "We must retire now and set the watch, for we shall have need of our strength this night."
"I will find the elf and the dwarf," Dashnir said quietly as the two began walking back to the tents. "I promise you that. They will not defy us again."
"Remember that I shall need you in Haradhur by morning," Asbad cautioned. "If you seek to punish them, do not be long about it."
"I will do no more than is necessary."
Asbad nodded, knowing he would have to be content with this answer. Dashnir’s tone indicated that he still felt a measure of personal responsibility insofar as the elf and dwarf were concerned, and he would not be stopped until he felt satisfied. But Dashnir knew where the priorities lay, and he would not allow himself to indulge for too long. It would be well.
Reaching the tents, Dashnir left to speak with the guards and also to select men to accompany him on their search for the prisoners. As he did so, Asbad drifted to his own tent, flicking a glance skyward as the sun beat down upon them. The shadow of smoke that had previously loomed over the camp was gone now, burned away by the consuming heat of the morning. Things were again as they should be, and the sun once more held sway. It was a good sign. Darkness and trouble might reign for a time, but in the end, the strongest was victorious.
In the end, the desert always won.
The eastern gate of Haradhur was unusually quiet. Given the fact that the sun was now rising swiftly into the sky, this should not have come as a surprise. However, the events of the past night as well as the presence of several Rohirrim guards made the stillness a bit eerie. The very air spoke of tension and growing unrest. Passing men murmured darkly to one another as they regarded the Rohirrim. Others hissed and shook their heads when they gazed out the gates toward the smoking remains of the Portu encampment. Had it not been for the Lotessa soldiers that surrounded the Rohirrim, they would have probably been attacked and seized. But since there was a guard set and the guard was comprised of one of the more powerful warrior tribes, no one had taken any action against the Rohirrim. But it was really only a matter of time before someone did.
Arabano pursed his lips and loosed a quiet sigh even as he moved into the shade of a nearby building. Budari had tasked him with waiting for the returning Rohirrim and also with gathering information regarding Fastahn. Apparently, Aragorn and Eomer suspected Fastahn of betraying the Soltari tribe. And as Arabano considered the idea, he could see and understand where such a theory might originate. The Soltari tribe held no standing grievance with the Khurintu tribe. At least, none that the Lotessa tribe knew of. Yet for some reason, they had become a target of this…Orthanc Fire, as the northerners termed it. One explanation for this would be that Fastahn—who seemed to have spent a suspicious amount of time around the Khurintu tribe—betrayed their confidence. The Soltari tribe had been privy to the information that the Destroyer had been Asbad. It was possible that Fastahn revealed this to Dashnir and that Dashnir then ordered that the Soltari tribe be eliminated. It was a logical conclusion and made a certain amount of sense.
But Arabano did not believe it.
He felt that he knew Fastahn fairly well. The man was resourceful and tenacious, if somewhat slow on the uptake at times. He was a faithful member of Soltari’s advisory council, and as far as Arabano knew, he had never betrayed his tribe’s trust. In all things, he had sought that which would be best for his people. Arabano could not see him betraying the Soltari tribe. He had no motive to do so. Khurintu tolerated spies and traitors as long as it served their needs, and then such assets were eliminated for reasons of security. Fastahn knew this, and because he knew this, he would not have participated in an act of treachery for reasons of gain or power. He would earn none of these with Khurintu. And other reasons he might have—disputes with fellow tribesmen or other leaders—could have been solved internally. There would have been no need to turn to Khurintu for aid. No, Arabano thought with a shake of his head. Betrayal does not fit with Fastahn’s desires or personality. He is many things and takes on many roles, but a traitor is not among these.
Unfortunately, Arabano did not have an alternative theory to counter the assumption that Fastahn was the traitor, so he had said little in the way of protest when Budari sent him off to conduct the investigation. Until he could offer another explanation, he would not hinder the work to prove the current theory. But he would direct this search with his own objectives in mind. That latitude was certainly afforded him as second-in-command. And so he found himself staring out the eastern gate while half of his men waited quietly around him and the other half scoured the city for Fastahn. In this way, he was able to fulfill his leader’s wishes while distancing himself so that he could think. At no point had Budari said that Arabano himself needed to be involved in the hunt for Fastahn.
Although, I suppose that was implied in the command and thus did not need to be spoken, Arabano admitted silently. Perhaps I have spent too much time around these Rohirrim. They seem to view rules as loose boundaries that can be pushed and stretched as needed.
With a sigh, Arabano firmly pushed thoughts on the Rohirrim aside and returned to his musings on Fastahn. He felt that his superiors were correct on several counts. The Soltari tribe was probably not on the list of original targets for this Orthanc Fire that Khurintu had used. There would have been nothing to gain from attacking them. They were not a military threat by any stretch of the imagination. Moreover, it would be foolish to strike against them because they controlled much of Harad’s agriculture. Offending the Soltari tribe was something that was simply not done. Yet Khurintu had attacked them, and here again, Arabano was forced to agree with his superiors’ reasoning. The leaders of the Soltari tribe had known that Asbad masqueraded as the Destroyer. Khurintu probably learned of this, and to eliminate the threat this posed, they attacked. It was the only explanation that made any sense. All that was left to be determined was how Khurintu had learned of Soltari’s knowledge. Arabano was convinced that it had not been through Fastahn, but what other way could it have been done?
Who among the Soltari tribe would have known the identity of the Destroyer? Fastahn knew, for he told me of it. But who else? Khesva. Khesva would have known, and Khesva would have told his second as well as those of the ruling council who are here in Harad. But surely they would not have allowed it to spread further than that. Such knowledge is dangerous. Therefore…either Khurintu has agents on Soltari’s ruling council and they reported the knowledge to Dashnir, or one of Soltari’s leaders dealt treacherously. And if the latter is the case…
Arabano’s thoughts trailed away and his brow furrowed. The latter option made no sense. If there were indeed agents of Khurintu that high within Soltari’s hierarchy, they would have no need to destroy the tribe using Orthanc Fire. There were other, far more subtle ways to accomplish such a thing. And these other ways could ensure that Soltari maintained reasonably good relations with Khurintu, thus ensuring a steady supply of food. No, it was clear that someone from the Soltari tribe itself had done the betraying. But if this had been an act of treachery on the part of the Soltari tribe, the evidence clearly fingered Fastahn. He was the only one to have survived the blast. He had been in the city at the time, well away from the danger. He was the suspect with the greatest opportunity for such betrayal. Almost everything about the situation pointed to Fastahn. But motive was still missing, and as Fastahn did nothing without reason, motive was essential.
A sudden stir among the men around him drew Arabano from his contemplations, and he moved away from the wall that provided shade, hoping that the missing Rohirrim were the cause for this disturbance. The sun was well above the horizon, and the temperature was rising steadily. If the Rohirrim did not arrive soon, they would not arrive at all.
Shading his eyes against the sun’s light, he stared into the desert and eventually made out the figures of approaching riders. Their speed was that of a swift gallop, but it was clear to see, even from this distance, that the pace was anything but smooth. The horses were beginning to stumble, and the men atop them seemed weary and desperate, as though they had ridden for the duration of the night and had failed to find that for which they searched. It could be no one but the Rohirrim.
Arabano barked a sharp word of command to the surrounding Lotessa guards, and they obediently fell in behind him as he strode out of the gates. The other Rohirrim who had waited near the gate were quick to join them, and together they hastened toward the faltering riders. At a signal from Arabano, the men of Lotessa spread out in a flanking pattern, guarding against any assault from the city. It was unlikely that any would choose to attack now as it was growing too warm for any strenuous physical activity, but the area around the eastern gate had been unusually quiet. Arabano would take no chances. And the riders yet had to pass several camps in the desert before actually reaching the city. This could still become interesting.
By now, Arabano could see the riders clearly enough to distinguish the colors, and he confirmed that this was indeed the missing group of Rohirrim. But…there were only five of them. Budari had said that there would be ten. What had happened to the other five riders?
His lips pressing together in a firm line, Arabano narrowed his dark eyes and quickened his pace. Ominous thoughts crowded his head, and a rather cynical part of his mind sighed in weary resignation. He should have expected this. After all, it would have been too much to ask that all the missing riders return. Their current run of misfortune was simply too good a streak to break.
The quiet murmur behind him pulled Arabano out of his despairing thoughts, and he directed his eyes to the man who had addressed him. The guard nodded to the side, and Arabano turned, quickly seeing what had caught the other man’s attention. The camps without Haradhur were beginning to stir, having also seen the approaching riders. Men gathered outside small tents, their eyes trained upon both the riders and the group that went to meet them.
"Draw your swords," Arabano murmured quietly to his warriors, pulling his own curved blade from its sheath. "Let them see our strength."
The crisp ring of metal sounded loud in Arabano’s ears, and to his relief, he saw some of the men in the camps turn away and retreat into their tents. They would not contest Lotessa. Not yet, though as Arabano had previously observed, it was really only a matter of time. But at least for now, it seemed that they would be able to escort the Rohirrim back to the city without challenge.
The riders were now very close, and they would have easily closed the distance between the two groups had they maintained their gallop. But their eyes turned south and they checked their mounts, slowing them to a walk. With a silent curse, Arabano signaled his men to hurry, and he broke into a run. The returning Rohirrim were staring at the smoldering wreckage of the Portu tribe’s encampment! Arabano was close enough that he could see the surprise and horror in the faces of the Rohirrim, but from afar, others might interpret the behavior to be triumphant and mocking. And not all of the Haradrim had retreated back into their tents.
Apparently, the Rohirrim that raced alongside Arabano came to the same conclusion, for one of them began shouting to their kinsmen. "Eos! Eos, kûlm! Fesanig!"
Arabano did not understand these words as he was unfamiliar with Rohan’s native tongue, but whatever was said achieved the desired results. The riders reluctantly turned their eyes away from Portu’s camp and urged their horses into a trot. When they were close enough to the other group that they could speak without raising their voices, the Rohirrim dismounted and questions began to fly.
"Tell me this is not the work of Orthanc fire!" a rider exclaimed, his voice laced with both weariness and astonishment. He seemed to be the one in command, for at a signal from him, the rest of the group quieted. "Tell me that Saruman’s foul weapons have not worked their way into the desert!"
One of the Rohirrim stepped forward to answer him, but Arabano pushed him aside. These riders were entitled to explanations, but not here and not now. Arabano had questions of his own—such as why there were only five returning riders and not ten—but he could wait until the safety of camp was reached to ask after these things. "I fear that any discussion must be delayed," he said quickly as his men moved to surround the group. "We are in danger here. Come! We will provide you escort to your encampment."
There were some angry murmurs among the Rohirrim at these commands, and for a moment, Arabano feared that his assumption of authority might cost them all their lives. If it seemed to others that they were having a dispute, then the weakness would surely be exploited. But fortune was with them for a change, and the rider in charge took note of their surroundings with an experienced eye. "Lead on," he ordered, taking a firm hold of his horse’s halter as he swayed suddenly. The morning’s hurried ride beneath the sun seemed to be taking its toll. "We will follow and we will be quick."
Arabano nodded sharply, sparing one grateful look at this rider, and then he turned, snapping commands at his men. With that, they began to walk, their pace swift but not so swift as to seem like they were fleeing. Appearance counted for much in the deserts, and though haste was needed, Arabano was not so foolish as to rush them all into an early grave.
By the grace of the Iluh, they reached the walls of Haradhur without incident, though certainly not without many dark and foreboding glares. Once within the city, their pace increased dramatically, for it was easy to weave in and out of the streets, passing all who might have glanced their way so quickly that they were not recognized. Arabano was even beginning to relax slightly as they neared the camp, something that immediately put him on his guard once he recognized that it was happening. Things had a tendency to spiral out of control when feelings of relief crept in, and Arabano quickly scanned the surrounding streets, half expecting to discover a horde of men waiting to attack.
Fortunately, he didn’t find his attacking horde. But he did see something that stopped him cold in his tracks.
One of the weary riders bumped into his back and stumbled away, cursing quietly. The horses snorted and some of them reared as they were also forced to stop. This caused the entire group to come to a halt, and as one, they turned to watch Arabano, who had more or less forgotten about the rest of them. His eyes were staring down a side alley, but when the others turned to look, they could see nothing.
"Honored one?" one of the Lotessa warriors prompted hesitantly.
"Take the Rohirrim and make for the camp," Arabano said quietly. "I shall join you there shortly. Also, send word to all of our men who are now searching the city for Fastahn. Have them also meet in the camp."
"What did you see?" a man from the Rohirrim asked.
"Something that needs investigating," Arabano answered, moving away from the group. "Go now. If any ask after my whereabouts, assure them that I will return soon."
"Go!" Arabano commanded, turning and pinning the questioning tribesman with an intense gaze. "I will see you again shortly." And with that he hastened away, quickly turning a corner and vanishing into the winding maze of Haradhur’s twisting streets.
Ma’awnwa—Haradric term for ú-glîr
Eos! Eos, kûlm! Fesanig!—Eos! Eos, come! Hasten! (Rohirric)
Author’s Notes: Just a few quick notes. First of all, the list of tribes and people can be found at the end of this chapter. I have a feeling that some of you might be wanting it.
Next, for any who were wondering (which is probably none of you, but I have to put this in anyway) here is the origin for my version of Rohirric. Tolkien wanted to give Rohirric a rather archaic feel, so he derived much of it from Old English. However, Rohirric was not the predecessor of Westron, so I couldn’t just take words straight out of Old English because I’m using an English "translation" of Westron. It would feel wrong. Additionally, the development of Rohirric seems to have been strongly influenced by the Sindarin language. So I went back to the Old English, looked at the words and structure, and then made a fairly wild stab at what I thought the Rohirric language might have evolved into if Sindarin had had been a factor in its development. And I tried to keep an archaic and foreign feel to the thing while attempting to mirror the impression that Legolas had when he heard Rohirric. In the Two Towers, he describes the language like this: "It is like to this land itself; rich and rolling in part, and else hard and stern as the mountains. But I cannot guess what it means, save that it is laden with the sadness of Mortal Men."
So there you have it. That’s where my version of Rohirric comes from. Perhaps an excessive amount of work and explanation for something that resulted in two little words, but I can be a little obsessive at times. And I wanted to cover my bases. Thanks for your indulgence!
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)
Garat—Second-in-command of the Warra tribe (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 the Soltari tribe (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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