My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 36. Changing of the Guard
Arabano(OC)—Second-in-command of Lotessa
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm(OC)—Captain of Rohan’s guard
Asbad(OC)—Tribal head of Khurintu
Aulit(OC)—Tribal head of Gartabo (Also charged with overseeing this year's Gathering)
Bron(OC)—Member of the Portu tribe (Killed by Dashnir at Lake Supt)
Budari(OC)—Tribal head of Lotessa
Dashnir(OC)—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul(OC)—Legolas’s elven horse
Fastahn(OC)—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (Temporary ruler of Soltari in the wake of Khesva's death)
Garat(OC)—Second-in-command of the Warra tribe (Killed by Legolas in a cave while waiting out a sandstorm)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran(OC)—Captain of Gondor’s guard
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen(OC)—Tribal head of Warra
Khesva(OC)—Tribal head of the Soltari tribe (Killed by Orthanc Fire outside of Haradhur)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart(OC)—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (Inadvertantly poisoned by Imrahil at Dol Amroth, though he survived the encounter)
Radarad(OC)—Tribal head of Portu
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
Gimli awoke to a rather strange situation.
His dazed mind blearily registered this and promptly passed it off as something to be expected.
The dwarf was used to strange situations. It seemed to be the normal state of affairs when one had an elf for a friend, as elves themselves were more or less walking contradictions. Often there were times when Gimli’s common sense would advise one thing, his dwarven instincts would say something else, and his elven companion would offer up an utterly ridiculous third plan that everyone else would seize upon as the best option available. So when Gimli eventually clawed his way back to consciousness with the conflicting senses of urgent haste and contented safety to find himself in surroundings that felt both familiar and foreign, the dwarf was not unduly alarmed.
He was concerned, certainly. It always paid to be concerned when an elf lurked nearby. But Gimli didn’t try to immediately gain his feet, as he might have seven years ago. He knew better than to react that quickly without first learning the particulars of the situation, especially since it seemed that he had been injured in some way. His throat screamed and burned while throbbing pain from both his head and his thigh threatened to send him back to the blissful darkness he’d just left. It was only through sheer dwarven stubbornness that Gimli managed to cling to his newfound consciousness, and as he struggled to stay both awake and alert, memories began to assault him.
Images flashed through his mind in a disorienting blur of color and light. His stomach churned as he struggled to slow the barrage, and his temples began pounding as sound and sensation joined the assault. Once again, Gimli saw the endless stretch of burning sand glistening beneath the merciless desert sun. He heard the shrill scream of a dying horse and the deafening thunder of sudden explosions. He felt Legolas pin him firmly to the ground while the flesh and muscle of his thigh tore beneath the onslaught of a dull blade. His heart pounded and his breath quickened as his mind roared through the recent past, and Gimli discovered that he could now order his memories. He could trace the sequence of events up until the present, an accomplishment that made him inordinately proud. He was in the desert with Legolas, and the elf had found a cave, which explained why his surroundings felt both familiar and strange. Also, the two of them were safe for the moment, but this safety was fleeting. And they were injured. Both of them. Grievously so, in Gimli’s case, and in the case of the elf…
Where was the elf?
About this time, Gimli realized that he had not yet opened his eyes, an oversight that disturbed him but that he would have to worry about later. For the moment, he had to locate Legolas. Elves seemed to be in need of constant supervision, and Gimli could only imagine what trouble Legolas had found since the dwarf had last been awake.
Pooling his waning energy, Gimli concentrated and eventually managed to drag open reluctant eyelids. At first he did not notice a change in his vision, and the horrifying idea came that he might have been rendered blind. Fortunately, he then noticed a faint light reflecting off the stone of the cave’s ceiling above him, and following this light he eventually found the entrance to their haven where even more light spilled in. He was not blind; it was merely dark. Gimli allowed himself a quick sigh of relief before realizing that he had yet to discover Legolas.
There was still no sign of the elf.
Fear began to grow within the dwarf, but he ruthlessly shoved his terror to the back of his mind, calling upon senses other than sight. Until now, his mind had been a little too jumbled to process information garnered from things such as sound and touch, but as he concentrated, Gimli began to make out what seemed to be the whisper of faint breathing off to one side. He tried to look in that direction and quickly discovered that moving his head was not among his wiser choices. Closing his eyes against the pain that erupted in the back of his skull, Gimli ground his teeth together and decided that it would probably be easiest to find Legolas if he simply called out to the elf.
Gimli waited a few moments.
A few more moments passed.
Panic hit Gimli like a charging mûmak, but just as quickly as his adrenaline mounted, it faded again. Legolas was clearly alive, for it was his breathing that had drawn the dwarf’s attention. And judging from its light, steady rhythm, Legolas was not unconscious but rather asleep. But he should have been roused by my voice, Gimli thought as fear edged its way back into his heart. And knowing his protective nature, it is unlike him to have fallen asleep in the first place. But then…how long has it been since Legolas last slept? And what hardships has he been forced to endure on my behalf? I know that he carried me for hours during the night, and he supported me for Valar only know how long prior to that. And he somehow found caves, which meant he carried me after the sun rose. After he rode the horse to her death. After he engineered our escape. Gimli blinked in the darkness as coherency caught up with him, realizing just how much the elf had endured. Has he taken no thought for himself?! He will be the death of me yet. I do not think that he slept at all yesterday, and I am certain that he received no food since…how long have we been away from Haradhur? Two days? It feels more like a lifetime.
Gimli might have pursued these thoughts further as it seemed wholly impossible that only two days ago he and Legolas had been safe—or at least relatively so—but the damp rag that had been sitting on his brow chose that moment to shift. Gimli almost jumped, for he had not even known the rag was there until it slid down over his eyes and then fell to the ground. And as faint hints of moisture caressed his cheek, the dwarf realized that the burning in his throat was a sign of intense thirst. As though hungry for attention, his parched body suddenly chorused along with his throat, demanding water. So intense was his sudden craving that Gimli moved to sit up without thinking of the consequences. He instantly cried out and fell back, the blinding throb of his thigh and head stopping his feeble attempts to rise.
Suddenly exhausted, he closed his eyes, panting in agony. This would never work. He needed water. Needed it badly. The dwarven constitution was made to endure hardships, but Gimli’s body had endured far too much already. He could not hold out any longer, yet he was completely incapable of moving himself. He needed Legolas to help him. It was a galling admission for the dwarf, but even worse was the thought that he would have to rouse his friend from desperately needed slumber in order to fulfill his own needs. Legolas would not object. In fact, if he failed to wake the elf and did further harm to his body as a result, the prince would probably have his head. But the notion of bothering Legolas for something so trivial as a drink of water caused a foul taste to rise in the dwarf’s mouth.
Which, of course, only served to make his thirst stronger.
Gimli sighed, cursing his fate. Much as he hated the idea, he knew that his health was too precarious to risk waiting for Legolas to wake on his own. Besides, the dwarf did not know how much longer he would be conscious, and there were things that needed to be discussed. He wished to know their exact location as well as how they were going to return to Haradhur. There was also the matter of dealing with the Khurintu tribe, assessing Legolas’s own condition, hashing out exactly what had happened to them and why, and the list went on from there. No, it was clear that Legolas’s rest, no matter how deserved or how needed, had to come to an end.
"Forgive me, my friend," Gimli murmured, mustering his strength. "Were it in my power to do so, I would see that none disturbed you for weeks on end. You have more than earned a respite. But as that cannot be, I ask your forgiveness." Gathering all the energy that he could, the dwarf raised his arm and reached out toward Legolas. His fingers brushed bare skin on the elf’s upper arm, but he flinched back, shocked at the unnatural heat that he’d found. Fear now pressed him onward, and again he touched the elf, laying his hand on the arm and shaking it gently. Legolas had always seemed unusually sensitive to touch, and Gimli hoped that this would rouse the elf.
He was not disappointed.
Legolas shot upright, moving so quickly that Gimli’s head spun in an effort to keep up with the motion. Elven eyes flashed in the dim light of their shelter, and the dwarf abruptly realized that Legolas’s eyes had previously been closed. "By Mahal," Gimli hissed, staring at his friend. "What have you done to yourself?"
"Gimli?" Legolas’s normally soothing voice was rough, hoarse, and heavy with exhaustion. "Gimli, are you—"
"Do you have no sense of your own health?" Gimli interrupted harshly, his earlier need for water now forgotten. "Much as it pains me to admit it, I cannot look after you right now. I had thought you would look after yourself, but clearly I was mistaken."
The dwarf intended to go on, but his dry throat protested his tirade by initiating a series of sudden and violent coughs. The movement made the ache in his head explode in a burst of white agony and his body began to writhe, causing his right thigh to scream in pain. For a brief moment, he was dimly aware of frantic motion off to the side as well as a deep moaning sound that echoed off the cave walls, and then he plunged into a dark abyss of torture.
The insistent voice seemed to come from a great distant, and Gimli struggled to answer it. The pain was beginning to lessen a bit, but his mind could not seem to right itself. The world tipped to one side, and nausea assailed his stomach. Flashes of light went off within his head, and as he gasped as reality rolled around him. Darkness loomed above, threatening to smother him in its thick folds.
"Gimli! Can you answer?!"
Within his mind, Gimli spun and cried out, seeking the voice and the comfort it would bring. Never before had the dwarf felt so disoriented or so panicked, and his confusion made the situation even more bewildering.
"You are too stubborn for this, dwarf. You do not give in so easily. Elbereth, open your eyes, Gimli. Answer me! Pedo!"
The lapse into the elf’s native tongue galvanized Gimli into greater action. Legolas didn’t do that unless he was very frightened or very serious. His friend’s fear lent the dwarf strength, and he fought harder to break through the barriers that kept him from the outside world. And at long last, after many futile attempts, he managed it.
"Here, Gimli. I am here." The relief in the elf’s voice was a balm for the dwarf’s spirit, and the dwarf was suddenly aware of hands gripping his shoulders tightly. "I am here," Legolas said again, seeming to speak for both of them.
"Legolas…" The second utterance of the elf’s name emerged as a plea for comfort. Under any other circumstances, Gimli would have been appalled at such weakness within himself and would have taken every measure to hide it. But now, Arda had been turned on its head and he needed his friend’s presence as an assurance that there was still a measure of sanity in his world. He needed to know that he had not fallen prey to madness, which was becoming a very real fear for the dwarf.
He felt a touch on his brow, and then the elf’s arm slid beneath him, curling around his head and shoulders with infinite gentleness. He was lifted slowly, but even that motion pushed his pounding headache up a level and he could not hold back a pitiful moan. The elf stopped immediately and waited a moment before raising the dwarf slightly higher. Moist fabric was placed against his lips and Gimli eagerly opened his mouth.
"Gently," Legolas warned. "Do not rush. See how it settles."
Had it not been for the rising nausea in the dwarf’s stomach, he might not have heeded his friend, but the sudden fear that he would lose this precious water enabled Gimli to suck the water from the fabric at a slower pace. After he had drained most of the moisture from the cloth, Legolas eased his head back down and placed a hand on the dwarf’s shoulder as though to reassure him of his presence.
"More?" Legolas asked.
"Not now," the dwarf muttered, closing his eyes as the world spun carelessly around him. His stomach was spinning with it and he feared greatly that he should lose the little that he had managed to drink.
"You need water, my friend. Can you not take a little more?"
"Later," Gimli promised, wincing at the fear that still colored the elf’s voice. His heart pounded, his head ached, his thigh throbbed, and his stomach rolled, but his thirst was now sated. That helped immensely. Reaching up, he placed his hand over the hand that rested on his shoulder. "Thank you," he whispered.
"You are more than welcome." There was a pause, and then Legolas spoke again. "Do you remember what has happened?"
"For the most part," Gimli said, keeping his eyes closed. It seemed to hurt less if he didn’t strain to see what could not be seen in the dark. "I know where we are and what we face, so you may set aside your fears of delirium."
"I am glad," the elf said. "You have been unconscious for many hours, and I was concerned about your head."
"Well, my mind seems to be whole so long as I do not move suddenly."
"Then we shall see to it that you remain still."
Gimli grunted. "I doubt we will be given the opportunity. My memories are unclear concerning the escape, but based on what I do recall, you have surely dealt the Khurintu tribe a terrible blow. They will doubtless be furious."
"I certainly hope so," Legolas said, a hard edge creeping into his voice.
The dwarf smiled a little. "From what I recall, it was well done, my friend. I only wish I could have aided you in someway, and for my weakness, I apologize. I also apologize for waking you just now."
There was silence in response to this, and after a moment Gimli opened his eyes in time to make out Legolas shaking his head. "I should be the one to apologize. I did not intend to fall asleep."
"It seemed that you needed the sleep," the dwarf pointed out.
"That may be true, but you needed me more."
"Fool," Gimli chided. "I was unconscious. There was not a better time for you to sleep."
"Perhaps." Something akin to reluctant agreement was now in the elf’s tone. "You might be right, but—"
"Of course I am right," Gimli scoffed. "When will you learn that I am always right?" He inwardly smiled at the quick chuckle that followed this remark, satisfied that if Legolas could laugh, the situation couldn’t be too bad. "In any case, what was done is done and there is little use arguing over it now. It is time to move on to other things. How do you feel?"
"That was to be my question for you."
"I inquired first."
"I was not the one who spent most of the previous night unconscious. Your health is more dubious than mine."
Gimli grimaced and wished he could shake off his clinging weariness long enough to debate with Legolas. At the moment, he could not contest the elf’s logic. "I believe my actions have adequately demonstrated my health," he grumbled, hoping to find a compromise of sorts.
"But what of your leg?" Legolas pressed. "Did lancing the wound aid it? Do you think it is still infected?"
Knowing that Legolas would persist in this until he was satisfied, Gimli concentrated on his thigh and tried to analyze the pain he felt. "It is not worse," he said at length. "That is probably a good sign."
"Legolas, I am no more a healer than you are. I do not know how my leg fares. I only know that it aches but that it does not seem to ache more than it did earlier."
"And we believe that this is probably a good sign?"
"Yes, we do. Or rather, I do, at least. Now what of you?" Gimli asked, shifting the conversation abruptly. "What of your own wound? You were shot, were you not?"
"I was," Legolas said, apparently willing to allow the change in subject. "But it was no great matter. I drew the arrow while still in the desert and it has not bothered me since."
Gimli pursed his lips. "But when I touched your arm to wake you, your skin was hot. Mayhap the arrow was poisoned, or maybe the wound is infected. Do you—"
"The wound was shallow and I washed it as best I could," Legolas interrupted. "I feel no trace of infection."
"But the fever—"
"I believe the sun to be responsible for the heat upon my skin," Legolas explained, sounding somewhat defensive. "We went without shelter for too long, and elves were not intended for this environment."
Looking back years later, Gimli could never determine exactly what set it off. Perhaps it was the way Legolas spoke. Perhaps it was the way he phrased his words. Perhaps their presence in a cave had relaxed Gimli’s mind. Perhaps stress and fatigue had finally overcome him. Whatever the reason, though, the fact that Legolas’s fever was nothing more than a sunburn struck Gimli as ridiculously funny, and the dwarf began to laugh.
These were not quiet chuckles or idle snorts of amusement. These were full, convulsive laughs that clawed their way up from Gimli’s stomach and rattled his pounding head until he felt like taking an axe to his neck. Gasping for air as loud guffaws tore through him, the dwarf tried to control his mirth but found that he could not. His laughter rang through the cavern along with his grunts of pain, and when Legolas began to call his name in an attempt to calm him, Gimli only laughed harder. Tears streamed down his face, his chest shook and heaved, and his voice became high and breathy as the laughter continued.
"Gimli!" Legolas shouted, and in the dim light, the dwarf could make out traces of panic in his friend’s eyes. "Gimli, you will tear your wound!"
Gimli was very aware that he was in danger of reopening the wound on his thigh because he could feel it stretching each time he laughed. At one point he managed to wipe the smile from his face and assume a sober expression, but that lasted only briefly and then a mad giggle escaped him that shook his dwarven pride to the very core.
The elf was frantic now, and Gimli felt something cool and moist come to rest on his brow just before a hard slap landed on his cheek. His head screamed, but the pain and shock of the blow managed to do what the dwarf could not. His laughter subsided, and his mirth faded. Seizing the opportunity, Gimli reasserted control and took several deep, calming breaths.
Winded and weary, Gimli reached up and found the elf’s hand. "My apologies," he whispered. The world was spinning again, and he felt nausea lurking in the depths of his stomach. "I do not know what came over me."
"I feared your fever was driving you to madness," Legolas murmured. "You are still dangerously warm." He gave the dwarf’s fingers a squeeze and then released them, his hands moving to the wet cloth on Gimli’s brow and adjusting it.
"A fever could not accomplish what you have failed to do," Gimli answered weakly. "Having now survived many years of your friendship with my sanity intact, I am prepared for almost anything."
"I could say the same for myself, Master Dwarf," the elf responded with a hint of relief in his voice. "Would you like more water now? The laughter seems to have tired you."
"Nay, my stomach is fitful," Gimli said. "I do not think it would be a good idea to drink."
"Then perhaps you should sleep again. You may feel better when you wake."
The idea was tempting. Seductively tempting, in fact. Even now, the wispy tendrils of unconsciousness called to him, luring him closer with the promise to release him from his pain. But he could not give in. There were reasons he had roused the elf, and he would not seek his own welfare until certain things had been discussed. "I have rested enough already," the dwarf said, attempting to sound firm. "Now that I am awake, there are things we must speak of, namely our plans for the future. What shall we do next?"
Gimli resisted the urge to roll his eyes, not knowing if Legolas would be able to see the gesture. "In ideal circumstances, I would be more than happy to go along with that suggestion, but we both know that these are not ideal circumstances."
"Which makes it all the more imperative that you rest."
The dwarf frowned. "We cannot stay here, Legolas. Khurintu will surely come looking for us. And even if they do not, we must find Aragorn and Eomer. Somehow, we must make it back to them."
"And how do you propose we do that?" Legolas’s voice was suddenly sharp. "I am weak, Gimli. Between the sun, captivity, and ú-glîr, I have lost what strength I had, and I am slow to regain it. I cannot carry you any further. Will you be able to walk by evening?"
Startled by the outburst, Gimli took a moment to study his companion. "You have already considered this," he observed at length.
"And you have failed to answer my question."
The dwarf scowled at the elf’s persistence. "Nay," he admitted reluctantly. "I do not think I shall be able to walk by evening."
"Nor do I."
"But that does not prevent you from seeking aid. You could go without me."
The unbridled power of a full elven glare descended upon the dwarf, forcing its way through the dark to make its presence known. Even though he could not see Legolas’s face clearly, Gimli found himself squirming slightly as the searing heat of a deadly gaze fastened itself upon him. "I will not leave you behind."
"We cannot both stay," Gimli reasoned as he mentally pleaded with the elf to look somewhere else.
"What if something should happen while I was gone? Earlier you mentioned that I had dealt Khurintu a terrible blow, and in that, you do not err. They shall be searching for us, and they shall seek retribution. You cannot hold them off by yourself. You cannot even sit upright under your own power! What would happen if Khurintu were to find you here alone?"
Gimli wondered if stupidity was a natural elven trait or if it was acquired sometime during childhood. "Pause for a moment and think, Legolas. What would happen if Khurintu were to find you here with me? Your presence would not improve my chances! You said yourself that you are weak. Think you that you would be able to stop them should they find us? They will kill you on sight for what you did to them. Better that one of us escapes rather than both perish."
Legolas said nothing for several long, awkward seconds, and then he turned away, finally freeing the dwarf from his gaze. "I will think on it," he said.
"Mahal save us," Gimli sighed. "The elf is going to think on it. I fear that fortune has truly deserted us."
The elven glare returned and Gimli wisely decided to say no more. He had pressed his luck too far already. Besides, the conversation was draining for him, and he doubted that any good would come of further discussion. It was clear to Gimli that separating was their only real option, and it was clear that Legolas knew this as well, else he would not have been so upset by it. The elf had tried to keep them together, but that was no longer possible. In fact, as Gimli considered recent events, he decided that they should have separated long before now. Legolas should have made his escape alone. He had risked much by taking Gimli with him. If it hadn’t been for that strange song…
"How did you do it?" the dwarf wondered aloud.
"When we escaped," he clarified. "How did you control both the horses and the men? You sang something, but I have never heard its like before."
"Hopefully you will never hear its like again," Legolas muttered.
"But what was it?" Gimli asked, curiosity and a desire to fight his exhaustion now pushing him. "It seemed…I do not know if I could even begin to describe it. I felt pulled away and lost, but I had no desire to return. The song was…everything."
"The song was the sea."
Gimli’s heart lurched into his throat. "The sea?"
"Yes. Or rather, something like unto it." Gimli heard the elf shift uncomfortably beside him. "For the elves, song is more than just words and melody. It is memory. And not just memory in the sense of things distantly recalled, but living memory. Many of our songs are moments of time that convey both lives and feelings. They can be windows to glory or doorways to suffering. When I sang among the Khurintu, I gave voice to the sea-longing that afflicts me. You have seen it take my mind before at Dol Amroth, so you know how powerful it can be. Mortal minds are not able to understand the sea’s call as I do, but I can give them a hint of its strength. And even diminished, that strength can be overwhelming."
Weariness had been swiftly overtaking Gimli, but this revelation pushed it back. His brow furrowing, the dwarf strained to see Legolas’s face in the darkness. "You can do this? Durin’s beard, why did you wait to use such a weapon?" he demanded. "If it is capable of so lulling our opponents, then—"
"I did not use it because I must surrender myself to the sea-longing in order to give voice to it. And when I do that, I risk losing myself to it permanently."
Gimli blinked, stunned. "And you risked this?!"
The elf chuckled. "First you were angry that I hesitated, and now you are angry that I acted?"
"Peace, my friend," Legolas sighed. "It was a risk and one I do not wish to take again, but the situation was desperate. I had hope that I would not become lost because my mind had become wholly occupied with concern for our safety."
"Our safety?" Gimli echoed. "It seems to me that you were not concerned with yourself at all."
"Your safety, then."
"And what if that had not been enough?"
"Our friendship is one of my surest anchors against the sea-longing. I believed that it would pull me back should I go too far, and I was right. Beyond that, we are in the desert. The sea-longing is less here. I would not have attempted such a thing if the sea was close by, but it is not. I was safe enough."
"Even so, you should not have done it," Gimli insisted, now spent from his outburst. "Legolas, you give too much."
"I give only what we have ever given each other," Legolas answered, his hand falling upon the dwarf’s shoulder. "I give you my friendship and trust. I ask that you do the same. Hush now, and rest. We will speak again when you are stronger."
"We should speak of this now," Gimli said, though he could feel his eyes growing heavy.
"Nay, we should not. We can do nothing while the sun is overhead save to rest, and that is what you shall do. Peace, Gimli. I will watch over us."
This time, Legolas’s command was accompanied by the elf’s hand passing over Gimli’s face, and the dwarf’s eyes automatically fluttered shut. And once closed, Gimli found that he had no desire to open his eyes. The weariness he’d pushed away had returned, and though he struggled against it, he could not prevail.
"Sleep," Legolas ordered quietly, and as he spoke, he removed the damp cloth from the dwarf’s brow and began wiping it over Gimli’s temples, his movements rhythmic and soothing. Gimli felt his fever diminish a bit, and his body began to seem distant and remote. He could not win this round, and Gimli was wise enough to recognize defeat when he met it.
"Wake me before sunset," he managed to say as Legolas’s presence slipped further away from him.
"Sleep," the elf whispered once more, moving the cloth down so that its cool moisture brushed over Gimli’s neck and shoulders. Finally surrendering to the darkness, the dwarf fell into a dreamless night, leaving Legolas to assume a lonely vigil.
Aragorn knew that the shock from his injuries was beginning to overcome him. He was too good a healer, too good a Ranger, and too good a king to ignore this fact. During his younger years, he had learned over and over again that survival meant acknowledging his weaknesses, whether they were in his plans, his men, or himself. Aragorn had also learned that once weaknesses were acknowledged, they had to be overcome. In the case of injuries, the wounded party either had to step up or step down, and Aragorn was well aware that he could not back away from this in order to rest. Rohan and Gondor needed leadership, and though he trusted Eomer with many things, the king of the Mark did not know nearly enough about Haradrim culture to cope with what was happening on his own. So Aragorn steeled his will and did his best to push away all the instincts of his body that demanded sleep and healing. There was simply no time for it.
Eomer, however, seemed to hold a different opinion. He pressed uncomfortably close to Aragorn as they followed Arabano through Haradhur’s winding streets, almost as though preparing to catch him should he stumble or fall. And while part of Aragorn was grateful for the concern, another part was becoming increasingly annoyed. Aside from embarrassment at being subtly coddled before the flanking Lotessa guards, the king of Gondor felt as though some kind of trust had been broken. Did Eomer really expect him to topple over? Did he have so little confidence in Aragorn that he thought him incapable of assessing his own health? Yes, he was pushing himself and yes, he should stop to rest, but given the situation, these things could not happen. And Aragorn still had strength enough to rise to the occasion. Did Eomer truly doubt his judgement so much?
Probably, Aragorn thought to himself with a mental sigh. And were I in his place, I would act no differently. Wearily, the king shook his head. He knew that part of his own irritation came from concern over his injuries, and he knew that Eomer was an easy target for his anger. He would have to assume better control of his emotions. Arabano had promised them allies, but in the desert, both promises and allies came with conditions. Aragorn needed to be alert and calm in order to see what compromise they would be forced into making. He could not allow anger to cloud his mind.
"We are here, honored ones," Arabano suddenly said.
They stood before a low building that seemed to be unconnected to any of the buildings around it. Looking at the empty carts outside and the wide doorway, Aragorn guessed that this was a market building of some kind. It was difficult to see within the structure, but it was apparent that no one stood near any of the windows or doors. That meant no one had been stationed as a guard, which did not make sense. There were guards everywhere in Haradhur, especially after the events of the previous two nights. Frowning, Aragorn turned to Arabano, wiping the sweat from his brow as he did so. "You are certain that this is no trap?"
"As certain as one can be in uncertain times, honored one."
That wasn’t exactly reassuring. Judging from the way Eomer’s hand rested firmly upon the hilt of his sword, his opinion was shared. "You said that Fastahn, Radarad, and Joranen await us," the king of Rohan said. "And you said there were guards. Have they all chosen to stand well inside? And if so, why?"
"I would not lead you here unnecessarily, honored one." Arabano’s voice had become hard, and his dark eyes flashed. "And I would not risk your safety if I did not think the venture to be worth your time. I do not know why there is no evidence of guards or watchers. Possibly they did not wish to draw attention to themselves. Have we not done likewise in our own camp?"
True enough, Aragorn conceded, thinking back to the precautions they’d taken when setting up camp within the buildings. Guards had been stationed throughout, but they had been positioned in such a way that the casual observer would not see them from the outside. Although, our guards hide because our forces are weakened and we fear to draw the attack of a greater opponent. Joranen and Radarad, insofar as we know, have no claim to such fears.
"I have come this far," Budari spoke. "I will go further. I have spoken already of my trust in Arabano. If this were indeed a trap, he would not have brought us."
"Assuming he knew it was a trap," Eomer muttered quietly. His words were soft, and Aragorn had to concentrate in order to understand what he’d said. He did not miss the fact that those around him seemed to have no problem hearing Eomer.
"Trap or no, let us go in," Aragorn said, taking a few steps forward. He would worry about his faulty hearing later. "Whatever awaits us, I would meet it in the cool of the shade rather than in the heat of the sun."
All seemed able to agree upon that, though Eomer’s hand remained tight upon his sword hilt, and they moved forward together, the guards continuing to follow them closely. Two moved up so that they walked before them, and Aragorn caught a flash of metal in their hands. If someone within the building—assuming that there was someone in the building—made any movement that might be construed as a threat, there would be bloodshed. Mayhap that will make Eomer happy, Aragorn mused, attempting to find a positive aspect. He has been anxious to draw his sword for many days.
The group stepped inside, and Aragorn’s watchfulness immediately increased. He sensed no one lurking beside the doors or along the perimeter, but his eyes were taking a moment to adjust to the change in light and he could determine nothing about the rest of the building. But he was very aware of the growing tension, and this tension seemed to exist both within and without his group.
"You have returned."
A deep voice shattered the stillness, and Aragorn felt himself stiffen at the noise. He was now able to see in the dim light, and a quick search of the shelter revealed that they were alone save for one man who had been waiting for them: Fastahn.
"As I promised I would. I thought that Joranen and Radarad would be here as well," Arabano answered, making no attempt to hide his sudden suspicion.
"Honored ones." The Soltari tribesman moved forward and bowed, ignoring Arabano for the moment. "I am grateful you have come."
"Where are Joranen and Radarad," Budari demanded. Aragorn saw Eomer’s hand tightening on his sword hilt.
"They did not wish to meet with you until you had listened to my words, honored one," Fastahn said meekly. "I did not agree with their decision, but I understand it. Some of their actions or the actions of their tribe members could be misinterpreted if one were to make hasty conclusions."
"Honored one, this was not the agreement, but though I am loathe to admit it, I can understand their caution," Arabano said with a weary sigh.
"Both Joranen and Radarad are nearby, and both wish me to say that they extend offers of alliance to the Lotessa tribe as well as to Gondor and Rohan," Fastahn added hurriedly. "We shall meet with them when we are done, but they wished you to hear everything first before further discussion."
Budari folded his arms across his chest and looked to Arabano, who seemed torn between anger and resignation. Aragorn decided that he had endured enough posturing for one day. "We would welcome an alliance," he said, stepping forward and catching Fastahn within his gaze. "And I am willing to listen to you should that be a requirement for this arrangement. However," he added, stepping closer and adopting a gaze that Gimli had once claimed was eerily elven, "know that I will tolerate no betrayal. If you are stalling us or if I hear any hint of deceit, I will not hesitate to rid this city of your presence."
Aragorn sensed a rather incredulous stare at his back on the part of Eomer, but they were playing by the desert’s rules now and Aragorn needed to make himself clear. He was not a weak king of a distant foreign realm but the ruler of Gondor and heir to Isildur. He had been manipulated this way and that throughout their sojourn in the desert, and he was not about to be manipulated again.
And to Aragorn’s relief, Fastahn seemed to get the message. Backing up a bit, he dipped his head slightly as a show of respect. "I assure you, honored one, that this is a wise use of your time. These alliances will be invaluable if you wish to defeat Khurintu."
"And why should the Portu and the Warra tribes wish to ally with us?" Budari asked, placing himself firmly back in the conversation. Eomer moved up beside him to strengthen his own inclusion.
"Because both have been shamed by Khurintu," Fastahn said. "And both will be destroyed should Khurintu triumph over you."
"Explain," Aragorn commanded.
"Where would you like me to begin, honored ones?"
"The beginning," Arabano answered. "Tell them what you told me earlier, starting with the hawks."
"As you command," Fastahn said, bowing once more. "About two years ago, the Soltari tribe noticed a dramatic increase in the number of hawks within the northern and western areas of the desert. We came upon this discovery by chance when we attempted to establish a new colony near the Sihal but could find no meat in the area. It had all vanished. We traced this back to an increased sighting of hawks from other tribes, in particular the tribes of Warra and Khurintu."
"We noticed an unusual number of hawks on the borders of the desert when we entered," Eomer mused, glancing at Aragorn. "At the time, we believed them to be spies and messengers."
"A good assumption, honored ones," Fastahn said. "We were intrigued and began an intense study of the situation, using what resources we could. The disappearance of small game in the Sihal indicated that there had been many hawks in the sky for some time, but as there had been no hostile movements on the part of either Khurintu or Warra, we assumed they had come to an agreement of sorts. But we could not determine the goal of this agreement. Our spies among Warra knew nothing of an alliance, and our spies among Khurintu had heard only vague rumors. The details were not being discussed outside of council circles."
"I do not suppose you would care to tell me how many spies your tribe has within my tribe," Budari said idly, but his voice was laced with steel.
"Only if you agree to reveal the number of spies that you have within my tribe," Fastahn answered. "I extended this same offer to Joranen and Radarad when they asked as well."
Budari allowed a quiet chuckle and nodded. "Continue. And come to the point quickly, if you can."
"As you command, honored one," Fastahn said. "We continued to look for details of the suspected alliance, but it was not until six months ago that we received any answers. My tribe lost contact with some of our agents in the Portu tribe. Our other spies within Portu knew nothing of their fate, which is understandable as Portu is a widespread tribe. Even so, we were suspicious and sent men of our own to investigate. We discovered that Warra had killed a contingent of Portu raiders and taken their women and children hostage."
Aragorn blinked. He did not know much of Joranen, but he knew enough to know that the Warra tribe held strict beliefs about honor. Holding women and children hostage would not sit well with them. "Joranen ordered such action?" he asked.
"We were equally surprised," Fastahn said. "And we began investigating this new development in earnest. After much searching, we discovered something rather interesting: the Warra men guarding the Portu hostages did not communicate with Joranen. They sent a few of their messages to the Khurintu tribe, but the bulk they sent to Garat, Warra’s second-in-command."
"Garat," Eomer said flatly, his eyes flashing with anger. Aragorn put a steadying hand on his arm, but his own anger was rising swiftly.
"We speak of the same Garat who attempted to murder a member of Gondor’s delegation?" Aragorn asked.
"Yes. We speak of the same Garat that your elf killed within the Sihal before your arrival in Haradhur."
Things began to click within Aragorn’s mind, and it felt as though a cloud that had been looming over his mind for days lifted suddenly. "Garat was operating independently," he said, his brow furrowing. "He created his own alliance with Khurintu and recruited men who would back him in this venture. But he did not have enough to operate on his own and Khurintu was consolidating power elsewhere, so he targeted a scattered tribe and forced them into his employ." Aragorn looked at Eomer. "We were right. It was the Portu tribe that attacked us that first night in the desert."
"And the second night of the Gathering," Eomer concluded.
"This also explains why Radarad is absent from this meeting," Budari said, his voice grim. "His tribe has much to answer for. And Joranen as well, if his tribe did indeed order Portu in its attacks."
"Joranen did not know what was happening. Garat was planting the seeds of a rebellion, but word of it had yet to reach Joranen’s ears, honored ones," Fastahn said quietly. "As for Radarad, he was forced in his actions. To an extent, he is still forced. Warra tribesmen still prevent his people from accessing some of their hidden lakes. And up until this morning, he did not know that Warra was not the enemy. He did not know that Joranen was ignorant of Garat’s orders."
"I find that part difficult to believe," Budari said, his voice low and dangerous. "Joranen’s own second turned against him, and he knew nothing of his movements?"
"According to Joranen, he knew that Garat was in contact with Khurintu," Fastahn answered. "But his tribe has agents among Khurintu’s warriors, and Joranen assumed that Garat was communicating with these spies."
"And you believe this?" Aragorn challenged. That information fit with things he was adding mentally in his head, but he wanted to make certain. They had worked on naught but speculation for too long.
"Yes, honored ones. I believe this," Fastahn said. "Joranen is not one to use women and children when his own warriors would suffice, but Garat was a man who would take extreme measures if need pressed. There is other evidence I could share to absolve Joranen of guilt, but time is short. Suffice it to say that I am certain of his innocence in this matter. And having learned of Garat’s treachery and alliance with Khurintu, Joranen wishes to strike back."
"That is well and good," Aragorn said slowly, "but it seems that not all of Joranen’s men are loyal to him. How can we trust any of the Warra tribe members?"
Fastahn’s lips curved in the hint of a smile. "This brings us to the last bit of my story. The majority of the Warra tribesmen present are the men who are most loyal to Joranen. We believe that when Khurintu comes, they intend to destroy all of the Warra tribesmen here much as they destroyed Portu, Lotessa, and my own tribe. They could not do so earlier, though, because Portu needed to believe that Warra and Khurintu were working together. Otherwise, they would have revolted."
"And Portu now knows that Khurintu and Garat’s faction are the true enemy," Eomer surmised.
"Yes," Fastahn said. "And Joranen now knows of Garat’s treachery. Additionally, they know all that the Soltari tribe knows. They know that Asbad was the Destroyer. They know that the Khurintu tribe has your elf and dwarf and will probably use them in a demonstration to secure their image as the tribe chosen by the Iluh. They know that Khurintu will most likely attack us tonight while many of the tribes are still here to see the results of the victory. They know that joining with your forces is the only chance they have of saving their own tribes from destruction."
Hope was beginning to dawn in the eyes of Budari and Eomer, but Aragorn was still cautious. However well the pieces fit, there were yet a few unanswered questions that needed to be resolved. "I do not think you are placing enough importance on Garat’s death," he said, his voice slow and deliberate. "Surely the rebellion within Warra would have fallen apart when they learned of his demise. Those seeking to defy leadership usually do not follow their current leader into death. How is it that some of the Portu tribe is still hostage? How is it that Portu has not rebelled before now or known of Garat’s faction within the Warra tribe?"
"That is a question that the Soltari tribe asked as well," Fastahn answered. "And through contacts within the Khurintu tribe, we learned that Dashnir was keeping up the pretense that Garat was still alive. The Warra tribesmen guarding Portu still do not know that their leader is dead."
Aragorn nodded, having anticipated that answer. It agreed with something that he was beginning to suspect. Something that Fastahn was trying to keep hidden. Hidden things could be exploited. "Do you know how Khurintu managed this?" Aragorn asked. "I should think that a sudden change in the messages and the hawks would be suspect."
"Yes, honored one, I do know how it was managed," Fastahn said, and Aragorn felt a slight thrill of triumph. "The Soltari tribe noticed that no one in the Warra tribe was sending hawks in the direction of Portu’s hidden lakes. At least, not from their encampment. But hawks were leaving from Khurintu’s camp. And so I paid a visit to Dashnir just ere he left Haradhur in the hopes of uncovering this little mystery. And within Dashnir’s tent, I caught a smell: fortsano."
Budari blinked. "The drug?"
Eomer looked blank. "I fear I am unfamiliar with that term."
"Fortsano is a powder made from crushed herbs found in the southern regions of the desert," Arabano answered. "It is poisonous to man, but in small doses it can be given to hawks. It shortens their lives, but it enhances their abilities, granting them added strength and stamina."
"Also, once they are given the drug, the hawks must continue to receive it or they die," Fastahn added. "Very few tribes have the need or desire to give their hawks fortsano. Warra is one of these tribes. Khurintu is not."
"Khurintu was caring for some of Warra’s hawks, then," Budari guessed.
"Specifically, Khurintu was caring for some of Garat’s hawks," Fastahn confirmed. "With these hawks, they had maintained the illusion that Garat still lived, allowing them to keep control of the faction beneath his command."
"And if Khurintu was doing this alone, then it is further evidence that none of the Warra tribe here belong to Garat’s forces," Eomer said. "Otherwise, one of them would have stepped in to replace Garat."
"So Khurintu and Garat’s faction of the Warra tribe forced Portu into attacking our camp and Haradhur," Aragorn said, ticking the facts off within his mind. "Garat died, and his death revealed that Warra’s leadership is ignorant of the plots, but Khurintu was able to retain control of Portu using Warra’s hawks. Do I have this aright?"
Fastahn nodded. "Yes, honored one."
"Now we add our own pieces of the puzzle. Asbad appeared as the Destroyer on the first night and challenged Legolas, who did not respond to the challenge one way or another. But rumors and suspicions began. Asbad next appeared before Aulit and ordered to remove the abominations, which Aulit took to mean Legolas and Gimli," Aragorn continued. "He was unable to do so, though, because Khurintu took them that same night even as Portu staged an attack upon Haradhur. The attackers were unidentified and more rumors spread as news of Asbad’s conversation with the Destroyer was learned. Khurintu then left Haradhur, and the night they departed, Orthanc Fire struck Soltari, Portu, and Lotessa."
"And here is where things become murky again," Eomer sighed. "Fastahn, did your contacts and spies hear anything of a relationship between Khurintu and Umbar?"
"Umbar?" Fastahn looked puzzled for a moment before he nodded slightly. "I know that Khurintu was trading with Umbar, but more than that, I cannot say."
"That is it," Eomer said, his hand slapping heavily against his sword hilt. "That is the link. We were right. That is where they received their lumber."
Fastahn’s eyes narrowed. "And why would they need lumber?"
"For reasons that we will discuss at another time," Aragorn said, determined to maintain control of the conversation. "I am currently more interested in strategy. Asbad and Dashnir will be coming here to take advantage of the confusion they have generated, but with the addition of Portu and Warra, we have enough numbers to stand before them just outside of Haradhur."
"We also have enough numbers to ride forth and meet them in the open desert," Eomer pointed out. "My men fight better under such conditions."
"Perhaps, but Khurintu will be expecting something like that," Aragorn said. "This has been orchestrated to deprive us of allies and weaken our own forces. Asbad and Dashnir will look for us to make an end where none can see or to hide within the city itself. The former option would result in our deaths, and Khurintu would then ride to Haradhur with our heads as well as Legolas and Gimli, demonstrating that they had the blessings of the Iluh. The latter option would result in a chance for them to liberate Haradhur from our hold and destroy those that had brought the abominations. But we will not play their game any longer. They will not expect a stand before the city, and they will begin to doubt themselves. Moreover, the forces of Portu and Warra can remain hidden within the walls so that Khurintu does not know of our allies until it is too late. In the end, we will defeat them where all of Harad can see. Their entire plan rests upon the appearance that they have been chosen to lead the desert against abominations from the north. We can take that away from them."
"But Asbad may come wielding this Orthanc Fire in addition to controlling your elf and dwarf," Arabano cautioned. "And if that is the case, all of Haradhur shall watch as signs of the Iluh are used against you."
Aragorn smiled, grateful that someone other than himself had brought up that point. "That is a possibility, but that is why we shall add yet another ally to our group." He turned to look at Fastahn.
Fastahn blinked and then frowned. "Honored one, Soltari is a neutral tribe. I revealed this information to you so that Khurintu would not tip the balance of power in the desert. I did not think to involve my tribe in a war."
Aragorn raised one eyebrow. "Then may I ask what purpose you had in going to Dashnir the day before Orthanc Fire appeared?"
Fastahn shifted slightly. "As I already said, it was to determine how Khurintu maintained control over Portu."
"And I found that portion of the tale interesting," Aragorn said, pitching his voice to be a bit too casual. "When you recounted your tale, you used the term we for most of it, but when it came to your visit with Dashnir, the term changed to I. Fastahn, did Khesva authorize your visit with Dashnir?"
Something akin to grief flashed across Fastahn’s face. For a long moment he did not answer, and then he dropped his eyes, his fists clenching at his sides. "Nay. Nay, my leader did not know I went to Dashnir."
"I did not think so," Aragorn said quietly. "And am I correct in guessing that discovering the fortsano was not your only objective in visiting Khurintu?"
Once again there was silence, and then Fastahn began to speak, his voice low and trembling. "I did not know how powerful Khurintu’s attack would be. I did not know the strength of this Orthanc Fire." He looked up, guilt burning sharply within his eyes. "I had thought to force my tribe’s hand. Khesva wished to wait it out and deal with what came afterwards. I did not think we could do that, and so I made us a target. But it was so close to the time of the attack that I did not think we would receive much in the way of damage or injuries. I could not fathom what would come. I did not know the danger!"
"And yet you still managed to destroy over half your tribe’s delegation to the Gathering," Aragorn observed with deadly calm.
"I did not know!"
"I suspect that your superiors would be very interested to learn that you are responsible for Khesva’s death," Aragorn continued with a cold smile.
Fastahn stared at him.
"It is your choice," Aragorn concluded. "Aid us in restoring balance to the desert, or watch from the distance while swift hawks wing their way to the remainder of your tribal leaders with messages of what has happened."
Fastahn shook his head. "Honored one, you ask too much."
"I am not the one who made your tribe a target of Orthanc Fire."
"I did not know! I did not know what would happen!"
"But now you do, for King Elessar has informed you of what will happen," Eomer said, adding himself to the game.
Fastahn had the look of man caught between an angry Balrog and a charging Glorfindel. "My men are not trained as warriors," he protested weakly.
"You should have considered that ere you put your tribe on such a destructive path," Aragorn said.
Silence descended once more, staying for several minutes before Fastahn eventually dropped his eyes. "You give me little choice," he murmured. "But I will have you know that you send us to our deaths. We are not equipped for battle."
"You have already sent many of your kinsmen to their deaths," Aragorn responded sternly. "Do not seek to blame me. But as for this coming battle, I would not worry overmuch. I have something different in mind for you. Come," he said, turning to Budari and Arabano, both of whom looked mildly impressed. "Let us seek out Radarad and Joranen. It is time to prepare for war."
"I take it that you have a plan," Budari ventured.
"Not entirely," the king admitted. "But I have something resembling a plan. And for now—unless someone has something better to offer—that will have to do."
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