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Land of Light and Shadows: 6. Into the Desert

"Gimli? Gimli! Sluggish dwarf, come!"

Pulled away from a fair dream in which Galadriel had been praising the beauty of the Glittering Caves, Gimli rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. As good as friend as Legolas was, he was not Galadriel.

"If you do not wake, Gimli, I shall be forced to shave off your beard so that it will not weary you with its weight."

Significantly more awake now than he had been before this comment, Gimli rolled back over and blinked his eyes. "Touch my beard," he informed the elf with a low growl, "and your immortal life will find itself cut short."

"Then you had best rise and spare us both such unpleasantness," Legolas laughed, standing up and moving away. "We ride in a few hours and Aragorn desires to speak with us."

Someday, Gimli promised himself, I will wake before he does. For the past few nights, it had been Legolas who had roused Gimli from his slumber. This was not so much of a problem as it was an embarrassment. The elf should have been far more exhausted than the dwarf due to his work with the horses in the early hours of the morning, but Legolas had never really had much of a need for sleep. He took it when his body required it, but he rarely required much. Elves! the dwarf thought disparagingly as he lumbered to his feet and followed the elf away from camp.

Aragorn had found a large rock several hundred yards south of camp, and on this rock he sat and looked out into the desert. Gimli wondered if the king had found any rest during the day or if he had instead sequestered himself here on a self-imposed exile. Eomer was standing slightly behind Aragorn and looked as though he’d just arrived. Legolas walked ahead of Aragorn, his keen eyes gazing south with a penetrating stare that traversed miles.

"Do you see anything of interest?" Gimli asked, walking to his friend’s side.

"Sand, if that interests you," the elf said, but Gimli heard a subtle shift in the prince’s tone that said he saw more than simply sand.

Aragorn also caught the change and furrowed his brow. "Beyond the sand, Legolas, is there aught you can see?"

"The reflection of the sun is strong, and at times its glare seems like water upon the ground. It is difficult for me to see much," the elf answered, skillfully dodging the question.

"Then tell us what you can see," Gimli pressed.

Legolas pursed his lips and shaded his eyes. "Hawks," he finally said.

"Hawks?" Eomer frowned and folded his arms. "Is that important?"

"There are many hawks in the desert," Aragorn added, watching Legolas curiously, but a darker note had entered his voice as well.

"Perhaps so, but these hawks fly together in formation as though trained in this way. They hover just beyond the range of mortal sight, but their eyes are almost a match for my own. They see us as clearly as I see them. And they fly to and fro endlessly, never straying out of range. They are watching us, and something about them bespeaks an ill will."

"Hawks," Aragorn murmured to himself. "It is an ill-portent."

"This means something to you?" Eomer questioned.

"I am not yet sure," Aragorn said quietly, staring into the southern desert. "It could be merely the remaining tradition of a vanished people that others have taken to as one might take to a sport. Or it could be something else. Something not quite as innocent or trifling…" He trailed off and frowned, cradling his chin in the palm of his hand and considering this new piece of information.

"Birds," Gimli grumbled. "If they shall hinder our journey, I should like to know how. Come, Aragorn. Legolas said you wished to speak with us."

"I do," Aragorn said slowly, still considering the hawks. "There are things of Harad I would have you know before we enter. And there are suspicions I would share concerning some with whom we travel."

"I, too, have suspicions," Eomer added. "I think they run along similar lines, but I desire to hear yours first. You have been in this land before and so have the advantage of better reasoning."

"We all have suspicions," Legolas said quietly, not taking his eyes from the desert. "But such things we have handled in the past. I would know more about this land, for I see neither trees nor water in the distance. Nor can I see as far as I am accustomed to seeing, for the sun’s glare does much to obscure distant objects. The horizon waves as does the air just above a camp fire."

"Heat," Aragorn said, his voice soft and reflective. "The sand of Harad might easily serve as an oven during the day. That is why we must travel at night. And you will find no trees in this land, Legolas. Or if you do, they will surround what few waters there are and they will be short and stunted. It is not a forgiving place in which to live. And because of this," he continued, directing his words to Eomer and Gimli in addition to Legolas, "there are certain traditions we must respect. We will reach a hidden lake in the morning known as Lake Supt. The moment we arrive, do not go for water. And do not allow the horses to drink. We must set up camp. The tents are easy enough, but there are also carpets on the pack horses that must be laid down, for the sand changes from bitter cold during the night to uncomfortably warm during the day."

"But what of water?" Eomer asked. "The horses will need it after the long night of travel."

"They will, but they cannot be allowed to drink their fill. Each horse must be personally escorted to the lake’s edge, and there are small troughs along the side. The horses are allowed as much water as will fit in the trough. Make certain you do not spill a single drop, for such a crime in Harad will bring down the wrath of the tribes and possibly cost you your life. And Legolas," Aragorn said with a sharp glance at the elf, "have an eye on Faensul. He cannot play in the lake or you and he will both be killed."

"He will not wander near it," Legolas promised, still staring into the southern desert.

"What of the horses during the day?" Eomer questioned. "Must they endure the heat of the sun?"

"We have a large tent for their comfort," Aragorn answered. "Though I am afraid they will have to do without the comfort of carpets. But the tent is for more than shelter. Men must stand guard at all times, for there are many small tribes in Harad that are known for their skills in thievery. A horse of Rohan would be a rare prize."

"Could we simply give them the elf horse instead and so appease them?" Gimli wondered.

"It would be better for us to give you away, Gimli, but I fear they would not take you off our hands," Legolas responded.

Eomer laughed at Gimli’s outraged expression, but he quickly sobered and turned back to Aragorn. "Through jest, I think Legolas has mentioned something of import. The Haradrim who escort us do not like us. Dashnir is a competent individual and I would know more of him, but I sense…" The horse lord trailed off, uncertain of his words. "I am drawn to him," he said at length. "Almost I feel fascinated by him, yet I know not from whence this feeling comes. To me, it seems unnatural, and I suspect he is far more than a mere delegate from the Khurintu tribe."

"Indeed, he is far more than a mere delegate," Aragorn said with a slight smile. "He is second-in-command of Khurintu, second only to their tribal leader. And the Khurintu tribe wields great power in the desert. Many know his name, and his commands are met with obedience and fear."

"I know this," Eomer said testily with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I speak of more, though. There is something else about him that I do not like. He is arrogant and aloof, but such traits are common in a man of his station. He is foreign and his ways are different, but such things are to be expected. Yet something about him does not sit right with me. I cannot say what, but I advise that he be watched."

"I feel the same," Legolas said, turning at last from the southern desert and shifting his attention to the conversation. "There is a shadow over his mind and darkness in his gaze. It may be nothing other than small falsehoods and ambitious plots to further his position among the tribes, but such things could affect us and it would be well if we kept him under careful observation."

"And what say you, Gimli?" Aragorn asked. "What does your heart reveal pertaining to this matter?"

"I must reluctantly admit that I am in agreement with Eomer and the elf," Gimli said. "I have not Legolas’s elven instincts nor Eomer’s experience in evaluating men and the nature of their designs, but I feel no good will from this man. Even the other members of his delegation seem to fear him."

"Garat does not fear him, but he greatly respects him," Legolas corrected, naming the delegate from the war-like Warra tribe.

Aragorn nodded thoughtfully, falling into silence and gazing southward into the desert. His companions waited—some more patiently than others—for his evaluation of their remarks. And at length their wait was awarded. "It seems we are all in agreement, though we have always suspected that there is more in this invitation than a first glance would see. But I am not yet convinced that Dashnir is our foe, though he was the intended victim of the potion back in Dol Amroth. There is something of a dark nobility about him. I wondered at first whether…" Aragorn abruptly trailed off and shook his head. "It is no matter. We are all wary and for now that will have to suffice. Stay on your guard and remember what I said concerning the water. The easiest way to offend in this country is to abuse rights to water."

"I shall inform my riders, but the matter of the water will not please them," Eomer warned. "If the horses are pressed, it will be difficult to keep them from the lake once we reach it."

"As difficult as it might be, it must be done," Aragorn said firmly. "It would not do to enter Harad and promptly begin a war."

"It would save us the problem of seeking out possible plots and intrigues," Gimli remarked, having very little stomach for the endless diplomacy and double speak involved in government.

"It would also unite the tribes of Harad against us," Aragorn said. "And with our current numbers, we could not stand up to them." The king sighed and stood. "Come, then. Let us break camp and speak such words as must be spoken to the men. Tonight we enter Harad. We must all be prepared."

The others nodded quietly and turned to leave, but Aragorn did not follow them immediately. Instead, he cast his eyes back to the desert and frowned. "Legolas? A moment, please."

The elf turned back and walked to the king’s side. "What is it?"

"Are the hawks still there?"

"They are, though some of them seem to have broken away from the main group. They are now flying south."

"Are any within range of your bow?"

Legolas smiled and drew an arrow from his quiver. "I do not think I could hit those that broke away, but of the main group that still watches, you may have your pick of hawks."

"Target one who seems to be in the lead," Aragorn instructed, straining his eyes against the distance and attempting to catch of a glimpse of what Legolas saw clearly. "It will be a larger bird, female most likely, and probably near the center of their flight circles."

"An easy enough task," the elf said, setting the arrow and drawing it back against the bowstring. He paused for a moment, evaluating several possible birds, and then released the bolt. It flew fast and far, swiftly passing from Aragorn’s sight, and then a shriek went up. Other cries were heard, whistles and harsh squawks sounded from afar, and then all fell quiet again.

"I trust you were successful?"

"Did you doubt my aim?" Legolas sounded indignant.

Aragorn smiled. "Never. Shall we fetch our quarry?"

"By your leave, I shall bring it in," Legolas offered, turning and whistling for Faensul. "If my ears do no deceive me, camp is stirring and it would seem odd to the Haradrim if you were known to be away. As an elf, all things I do are deemed odd."

"True enough," the king laughed. He shook his head and glanced back out to the desert, eventually nodding his approval. "Go then, but when you return, show no one if that is possible. This is something I would have kept secret, particularly from certain members of the Harad delegation."

"You suspect they are involved with these hawks?" Legolas asked.

"If they are, I would not have them alerted to our suspicions," Aragorn answered evasively. "And if they are not, we lose nothing in exercising caution."

Legolas smiled, recognizing the dodge for what it was, and held up his hand to signal Faensul who was galloping toward them. "It shall be as you counsel, then," he promised, jumping easily onto the white stallion’s back as the elven horse thundered up. "I shall return discreetly." And with that, he turned Faensul and urged him toward the desert.

How Legolas was going to manage a discreet return was something Aragorn did not know, for Faensul was keenly aware of the impression he made on others and was all too ready to exploit it whenever possible. Still, Legolas was an elf, and if anyone could be discreet, an elf could. With a sigh, Aragorn turned and started back to camp, directing his mind to the more mundane matters of organizing a guard unit for departure and relegating to the back of his mind—for the moment at least—his growing suspicions concerning their journey into Harad.

* * * *

Dashnir was anxious to be off, as were the other delegates. He could sense their growing restlessness and hoped it would not translate poorly in the minds of the men from Gondor and Rohan. He suspected it wouldn’t, for the Rohirrim were restless enough in their own right, and the men of Gondor seemed to expect that anyone who was not from their kingdom would be restless and antsy, something they probably developed after enduring too many campaigns with the Riders of Rohan. An ingrained stereotype like that could not be readily changed no matter how composed the delegation from Harad might seem, so Dashnir did not worry overmuch.

His possessions already prepared and his horse saddled and waiting, the representative from the Khurintu tribe settled back and watched the breaking of camp. He was forced to admit that it was a neat and efficient process. Every man seemed to have an assigned task, each task was carried out quickly and easily, and for all that Dashnir could see, there were no shirkers. Everyone was involved, even Aragorn and Eomer who were filling water skins with the dwarf.

Dashnir’s eyes narrowed and he scrutinized the camp once more. Now that was odd. Where you saw one, the other was usually not far away, yet Gimli was quite alone. Where was the elf? He cursed himself quietly, for he had vowed to keep a sharp eye on both of them in addition to his continuing evaluations of Eomer and Aragorn. Somehow, Legolas had slipped his attention. And now that he looked, he realized the elf’s horse was also missing. How had that happened? Both were highly conspicuous, yet their absence seemed not so.

But maybe this was for the best. He could observe Gimli as a separate individual rather than an eternal extension of the elf. Or perhaps Legolas was an extension of the dwarf. Dashnir hadn’t decided which was the appropriate categorization, for it seemed one would be in charge, then the other, then they would simply be arguing, then one would give commands while the other obeyed, then the situation would reverse itself, and then the horse would somehow become involved at which point the situation quickly dissolved into chaos. Dashnir was still attempting to figure out which of the two set the terms of their friendship and which commanded the greater respect. To think that they might consider themselves equals was not a possibility, for in Dashnir’s mind, every being had a rank. Even among friends, it was evident as to who was the better. If that fact were contested, they were friends no longer but enemies. Obviously, Legolas and Gimli had worked out who was the better in their relationship, but for some reason, it was difficult for Dashnir to discern the result of that decision.

With a shake of his head, Dashnir left his horse and moved to the small stream where the multiple water skins were being filled. "If I am not intruding, perhaps I could be of some assistance," he offered, bowing low to both Aragorn and Eomer.

"By all means," Aragorn said, moving aside so that Dashnir could have access to the stream. "This will probably be our last area of preparation before setting out."

Dashnir nodded, accepting the information as an offer of casual conversation and cataloguing it as such. "Your men work well," he said. "Rarely have I seen such discipline and training."

"They are soldiers of Gondor," Aragorn replied as though that were answer enough.

"And of the Mark," Eomer added, not to be outdone.

Dashnir smiled at the other’s youth and then turned to the dwarf, the true motivating factor behind his offer to assist them. "And what of yourself, Gimli?" he asked. "Whence stems your allegiance?"

"A dwarf is loyal to friends and kin first and foremost," Gimli answered, sending Dashnir a rather intense look out of the corner of his eye. "Those who claim me as brother or friend also claim my loyalty."

That was not exactly the answer Dashnir was looking for, but it was a rather interesting one in any case. "So you have no kingdom or tribe?"

"My father is renowned among the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain and that was my first home, but I am currently Lord of the Glittering Caves, a dwarf colony within Rohan."

"And a great asset to Rohan, I might add," Eomer said. "Our armory has never been so full nor have our helms and shields ever been so expertly crafted."

"And what of Legolas?" Dashnir questioned, processing each bit of information that was being offered. "To whom does he owe allegiance?"

"Legolas?" Gimli snorted. "As an elf, his allegiance is to the trees."

"His father is king of Greenwood the Great, firmly known as Mirkwood," Aragorn supplied with a smile. "As a prince there, he is technically bound to defend it should the need arise. But like Gimli, he does not live in his original home. He is Lord of Ithilien, and with other elves he rules the southern forests on the east side of Anduin."

"So you rule different kingdoms?" Dashnir asked. The mystery behind these two was growing deeper.

"Say not kingdoms but colonies," Gimli corrected.

"And are there many treaties between your two colonies?"

Gimli paused to think about that one. "Not as such, no. It is known to all that Legolas and I can tolerate one another’s presence. I suppose there has never been a need for any formal agreements. If his elves have a desire for crafted metal, we provide. If we have a need for wine or fine sculptures, they can provide that."

Dashnir frowned. "What of war?"

"My dwarves are perfectly capable of caring for themselves," Gimli said proudly. "Beyond that, we are in Rohan."

"And Legolas and the elves feel likewise in addition to having the protection of Gondor," Aragorn added. "If there were a threat, I have no doubt that the dwarves of the Glittering Caves would march to the aid of the elves in Ithilien, and the elves would do likewise. But neither one has felt the need for a formal treaty."

The conversation was not yielding the information that Dashnir desired, as he could have inferred—and for the most, already had inferred—most of it on his own. What he needed to know was the ranking of certain individuals. It was clear that Aragorn ruled over them all, and Dashnir believed that Eomer held some sway over Gimli while Legolas was more or less independent of Eomer but still beneath Aragorn. But what he did not know was how Legolas and Gimli ranked one another in terms of this hierarchy. Thinking that perhaps a new approach was called for in this conversation, he decided to become more direct. "Would you permit me to ask a hypothetical question?"

"Ask," Gimli responded, tying off the last water bottle that needed filling.

"If the dwarves and elves were forced to unite in the event of a war, by whom would they be led."

Gimli thought about that for a moment. "Aragorn, if he consented to do so," he finally answered.

"But what if Aragorn was unable to do so?"

"And how would that come about?" Aragorn asked, a hint of warning entering his voice.

Dashnir cursed silently. "Not through any mishap, I assure you," Dashnir said quickly. "But if Gimli and Legolas were away from Gondor and Rohan with some of their kind and were forced to organize in battle, who would take command?"

"I suspect it would be a joint command," Gimli said, puzzled by the direction of the questions. "May I ask the reason for your inquiries?"

"I have heard little of elves and dwarves," Dashnir answered honestly, acutely aware that Aragorn, Gimli, and Eomer were all eyeing him suspiciously. "I wished to know their manners and policies."

"Manners and policies as relating to war?" Gimli pressed.

"I did not intend offense," Dashnir responded. "I feel we misunderstand one another. My own tribe is composed of warriors, and as such we evaluate others. I know nothing of how your kind conducts battle, and so I feel I know nothing of you."

"All is in readiness, Aragorn!"

Dashnir felt some consolation in the fact that he was not the only startled by Legolas’s sudden arrival. Eomer jumped slightly, and Gimli glared, but Aragorn seemed as though he had been expecting the elf to appear abruptly.

"Have you used the morning productively?" the king of Gondor asked.

"Indeed, I have. I have seen that your saddlebags are stocked and Faensul has confirmed that Arnor is ready for the long road ahead, though there was some uncertainty for a moment."

Aragorn nodded, his face thoughtful. "I thank you for your troubles, Legolas. You were truly quick and thorough as you promised."

Dashnir was not a fool. No fool could survive life in the Khurintu tribe, much less achieve a position of power. And since Dashnir was not a fool, he was immediately aware that some hidden message had just passed between elf and king, but he was at loss as to what that message might have been. Eomer and Gimli looked as though they had missed the significance of the conversation. There would be no help there. Glancing toward the elf, Dashnir was disconcerted to see that Legolas was watching him closely, his bright gray eyes seeming to bore holes in Dashnir’s very soul and read secrets hidden in the darkness of his mind.

Quickly looking away and ignoring the nagging voice that told him he had just lost a challenge, Dashnir turned his attention to Aragorn. "If we are ready, honored one, we should be on our way. As you know, Lake Supt is a hard night’s ride."

"That it is," Aragorn said. "Let us depart. The sun is setting and the desert will be cooling. Eomer, summon your riders to formation. Come, Legolas and Gimli. Call Faensul and mount. We are ready to ride."

As the group broke apart, Dashnir replayed his conversation with the dwarf and the subsequent conversation between Legolas and Aragorn. But he found nothing that he did not already know or could not have easily guessed. Eomer was proud of his kingdom and its military prowess, Aragorn held sway over all, Legolas was trusted in special assignments, Gimli was confident in his abilities and had proved to be a source of aid for Rohan, and the hierarchy of the friendship between Legolas and Gimli was still uncertain. His tribal leader would not be pleased with the report he would send him when they reached Lake Supt. There were still too many variable in the equations. Swinging up onto his mount, Dashnir ground his teeth in frustration and rode toward the gathering forces. Tonight, he would have to gather more information. The future of his tribe depended on it.

* * * *

"A strange country," Gimli murmured. "What can your eyes see, Legolas? Is there any break to this…this sand?"

Before him on Faensul, Legolas straightened slightly and turned his eyes to the dark horizon as they rode, searching for anything other than the endless stretch of desert sand. There was a glimmer that he thought might be Lake Supt, but it seemed to be in a low basin and he could discern no more. There were rocky structures in the far distance, but they were vague and difficult to see. "I fear I cannot help you in that, for I see little," he told the dwarf, stroking Faensul’s neck and willing the horse to gauge his gallop and stay behind Aragorn. "I may see the hidden lake to which we ride, but I am uncertain."

They had ridden for a good four hours with one brief stop to allow the horses time to catch their breaths and then they had been off again. Faensul and Shade were holding up remarkably well, but that was to be expected from an elven horse and the chief of the Mearas. The horses of the Rohirrim were in fairly good shape as well, though Legolas could hear them occasionally complaining of thirst. The mounts beneath Aragorn and his men, though, were a different story altogether. As the night began to wear on, they began to wear out. They were thirsty and tired, and they could not smell water, which disturbed them greatly.

They were not the only ones disturbed, though. An hour after they set out, all hint of vegetation had vanished and they rode hard over nothing but shifting sand. For Legolas, who was used to the background speech of plants and trees, the total silence was unnerving. Even the rocks were quiet, too weary from endless wind and sand to speak. Legolas wondered how mortals managed to live in a world so quiet. Perhaps that was why they made so much noise when they went about their business. They were compensating for the voices they could not hear.

But in this place, even the ears of an elf could find nothing of music or song. It was a wasteland of death, scorched dry by the sun and bereft of life. Never had Legolas felt so utterly alone. Gimli sat behind him, Faensul ran effortlessly beneath him, and Aragorn rode swiftly on his right, but despite this company, the elf was alone. He felt sundered from the stream of nature and its timeless song that harmonized with the grand music of all the ages. He was disconnected from any sense of history or past. He was alone in time and space, forced to span an endless moment and fill the gaps of yesterday with his own memories while sparing enough for the horrors of tomorrow.

"Is there a resemblance that I cannot see?"

Legolas shook his head, aware that Gimli was speaking to him. "Pardon?"

The dwarf sighed. "I asked if you found a resemblance between the sea and this desert."

Legolas frowned in confusion, attempting to interpret the dwarf’s cryptic words. "Nothing could be more different," he eventually answered. "Where the sea holds life and promise, this land holds death and doom. I feel it in the tortured earth."

"Then why does it affect you so?" Gimli wondered. "Almost I resorted to shaking you so that you did not fall from this demon’s back." Hearing this remark, Faensul snorted and snapped his tail high, catching part of Gimli’s arm.

"I was listening," Legolas answered, knowing this would not satisfy the dwarf but having no other ready answer. "There is no life here. I…I cannot hear any life. All is silent for miles and miles. A land should not be forced to endure this, and yet…in truth, Gimli, I cannot say. I know only that I am troubled by this land. I mistrust its silence and I fear it may be under a dark sway."

"Do you think your feelings are warnings of things to come or merely the reactions of an elf unaccustomed to such desolation?"

"I do not doubt that some of my feelings are indeed reactions of distaste, but there is something more. There is some power that almost I can sense, but I find myself at a loss when I attempt to identify it. It is elusive and slips away when I try touch it." The elf fell quiet for a minute and then seemed to start slightly, swiveling his head to the side.

"What is it?"

"Hawks," Legolas whispered. "They keep pace with us. I wonder why I did not see them until now."

"The same hawks you saw earlier today?" Gimli wondered curiously.

"In the darkness, I cannot tell from this distance," Legolas admitted reluctantly. "But…" He turned Faensul closer to Aragorn.

Sensing the elf’s approach, Aragorn reigned Arnor back slightly and turned a questioning gaze on the prince. "Do you sense something?"

"The hawks are back," Legolas answered quietly. "They follow us just beyond range of mortal sight. There do not seem to be as many now as there were, but they fly in formation and I think I can catch similar markings on the wing."

The king nodded slightly, turning his eyes in the direction that Legolas indicated, but he could see nothing for himself. "We shall have to endure them," he said quietly. "Keep an eye on them, though, Legolas. If they change their course or purpose, I wish to know of it."

"They shall not escape my eyes," the elf promised, easing Faensul away from the galloping Arnor. The horse snorted, disgusted with what he deemed a snail’s pace, and Legolas rubbed his neck soothingly. "Can you see the Haradrim, Gimli?" Legolas asked, his voice a mere whisper.

Puzzled, Gimli tried to turn his upper body without falling off Faensul. "Some of them," he eventually answered.

"Do any of them look east?"

Gimli was quick to note that the elf’s hawks were also in the east and wondered what the elf suspected. Turning again to look over the Haradrim, he examined as many as he could without appearing unduly conspicuous. "Three of them look to the east," he finally answered. "Dashnir of the Khurintu tribe, his friend Garat of the Warra tribe, and Bron of the Portu tribe."

"What do you know of Bron?" the elf asked. "He does not associate with many of his comrades.

"No, he does not. But I have seen him speaking to both Garat and Dashnir at times. I do not think he enjoys their company, but they both seem to hold some sway over him," the dwarf said. "I remember Aragorn tell us that the Portu tribe was a northern tribe specializing in horses. He seemed to think they were sent as a member of the delegation because they would be interested in trade with Rohan. I do not remember them as being a very powerful tribe."

"Nor do I," Legolas murmured. "Horses…I wonder. Bron’s mount looks no better than do the other mounts of the Haradrim."

"I fear I am no judge of these four-legged demons," Gimli said. "That includes the white one below me," he added for Faensul’s benefit. The horse snorted and bucked slightly in response, causing Gimli to grab wildly at the elf in front of him.

"Peace," Legolas said absently, directing his words to both dwarf and stallion. His eyes narrowed as he watched the hawks circle and dip. He cast a glance at one of Aragorn’s saddlebags where he’d stored the hawk from the afternoon. He still couldn’t be certain, but he was of the impression that the birds in the desert and the bird he’d shot were from the same group and had received the same training.

"They are still there?" Gimli asked after a significant pause.

"They do not stray from their course. They keep abreast of us," Legolas answered.

"Well, Dashnir, Garat, and Bron still gaze to the east as though looking for something. It cannot be a coincidence."

"I do not think it is, but what it might mean is something that escapes me." The elf frowned and sighed, continuing to watch the distant birds. "Let us speak with Aragorn once camp is set. There are other things I would say to him."

"And hopefully there are things he will say to us," Gimli added. "But what those things might be I cannot guess."

"Nor I, but something is happening in this land. I feel a great evil and a shadow. Each stride our horses take carries us deeper into darkness."

"And there are those who would seek elves for comfort," Gimli grumped, but Legolas let that remark slide, ignoring the dwarf and concentrating instead on the growing sense of malice and watchfulness. Fell deeds and fell thoughts were about this night. Legolas could only hope that the coming misfortune could be successfully weathered. This barren desert would be an ill place to die.

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Era: 3rd Age - Post-Ring War

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Last Updated: 04/04/05

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