24. Broken Facets
Arabano decided that he had never met anyone quite as elusive as Fastahn was proving to be. The man was slippery as a serpent when he did not wish to be cornered, and Arabano was beginning to wonder if he came out of not the Soltari tribe but rather one of the tribes on the far eastern border of Harad where the desert gave way to jungles. There the tribesmen were constantly on the lookout for an attack from the east, where men road the fearsome mûmakil into battle and were said to drink the blood of their slain foes. One had to be swift and secretive to survive in that quarter of the land, and Fastahn seemed to be showing a plethora of talents in these areas.
But Arabano was nothing if not determined, and his persistence was something of a legend within his own tribe. If he took it upon himself to complete a task, that task would be finished and not even the Iluh would stand in his way. And so he spent the first two hours of the Gathering attempting to speak to Fastahn, who, in turn, was doing his utmost best to avoid Arabano. It took great patience and great fortitude, but eventually, Arabano managed it. Finding the Soltari tribesman speaking with Sarot of the Indro tribe, who had also been part of the delegation to Gondor, Arabano crept behind him and waited for the conversation to end.
Sarot was no fool and the moment he spied Arabano moving in, he began to back away, sensing that there was more to Arabano’s purpose than idle talk. Fastahn was initially confused, but he eventually turned to see what it was that had caught his companion’s attention. Upon finding Arabano, he paled almost immediately. To his credit, he recovered his composure quickly, but Arabano was shrewd, and Fastahn’s momentary lapse had given Lotessa’s second all the information that he needed. The man was afraid, and Arabano knew exactly how to put that fear to use.
"Would you give us leave for but a moment, Sarot?" Arabano said quietly, his words casual but his voice informing all that this request was in reality nothing short of a command. "There is somewhat I would say to Fastahn."
"Of course," Sarot said, moving away as though even being in Arabano’s presence was dangerous in and of itself.
"This way, if you would," Arabano said to Fastahn, moving skillfully through the crowds and sensing more than seeing the guards from Lotessa close in behind them.
"I have no more to say to you than what I said just ere the Gathering began," Fastahn hissed, eyeing the surrounding soldiers.
"I believe you do, and if you value your life, Fastahn of Soltari, then you will cooperate with me. My sword yearns for blood, and if it cannot have the blood of my enemies, then I shall give it the blood that stands in my way. And at the moment, I consider you to be an impediment to progress."
Fastahn’s eyes were stony and his jaw tightened at this threat, but he had no recourse but to follow Arabano as the man made for one of the exits. In truth, Fastahn was herded more than anything else, but Arabano decided not to parse the matter so finely. It mattered not so long as Fastahn and he were allowed to speak without fear of listening ears.
After heading into the darkened streets and weaving a confusing path into the alleys, Arabano stopped and turned. Fastahn joined him, as did Lotessa’s guards, and Arabano dropped all pretenses of diplomacy. His outer robe was pulled back to reveal the curved sword that hung at his side, and his hand rested upon its hilt, relaxed for the moment but in a position to act immediately should the situation call for it. "And now that we shall not be overheard, I would question you further on your information from this morning," Arabano said quietly, his voice hard as steel. "What did Asbad say to Aulit this evening and how came you by the information?"
"Let me begin by saying that I give this information under duress," Fastahn snapped, his voice seething with anger.
"Noted and ignored," Arabano countered, keeping his voice level and cool. "Continue."
"I was not there, nor do I know if it was truly Asbad. For myself, I do not see how it could have been since Aulit was said to be the first that entered the inner hall."
"Then let us speak in other terms," Arabano said, flexing his hand upon his sword hilt as a warning against foolish word games. "What did the Destroyer say to Aulit, and how did you know of their meeting?"
"The Destroyer told Aulit that the abominations were to be cast out of Haradhur and that the Iluh would see to them," Fastahn answered, his voice rather sullen.
"Nothing of importance."
"He spoke of salvation rising from the desert," Fastahn muttered, glancing at the guards that still surrounded them. "A power of old shall return and all are to join with it or die."
"Mordor," Arabano murmured in a flash of realization, looking away from Fastahn. "They think to imitate Mordor. Ambitious fools. They can never hope to compete with the Lord Sauron." Turning back to Fastahn, his eyes flashed. "How came you by this information?"
"I do not willingly reveal my informants to even my superiors," Fastahn answered, his tone taking on one of stubbornness. "I shall certainly not reveal them to you."
"I asked not who but rather how. Was this information volunteered or extracted?"
"I do not see how that should—"
"Fastahn, if you do not put your tongue to good use then I shall remove it from your mouth," Arabano warned, taking a step toward Fastahn and drawing a small knife from his belt with a speed that could not be tracked by mortal eye.
"It was volunteered," Fastahn hissed, his face paling while the raging light of fury danced in his eyes.
"Then how are we to trust it?" Arabano demanded. "Surely you do not put your faith in an agent of Khurintu."
"It was both a warrior of Khurintu and a guard from Gartabo who informed me, working independently of one another," Fastahn answered. "The guard was outside when the words were spoken. The warrior had heard it from a different Gartabo guard."
Arabano frowned, thinking the matter through. "Let us suppose that your information is accurate," he said at length. "Let us suppose that your spies are not misled. I find it odd that the Destroyer would speak to Aulit. Does that not strike you as strange? For according to the legends as I understand them, the Destroyer rarely speaks at all."
"Many things about this situation strike me as strange," Fastahn said coolly. "Your own alliance with Gondor and Rohan is something of a puzzle in the eyes of the Soltari tribe. The fact that the Destroyer has chosen to vocalize his message seems rather normal when compared with other things that have happened here."
Arabano glared at the man, but he decided that for the moment, Fastahn had served his purpose. Nodding toward the guards, they stepped away and opened up a path behind Fastahn, allowing him to leave. A glare worthy of Sauron’s top advisors became Fastahn’s farewell to Arabano, and he quickly left, weaving through the alleyways and disappearing into the night. Arabano did not follow, though. His mind was now caught in a cloud of confusion. Whatever game Khurintu was playing, it was a strange one.
Despite Fastahn’s opinion to the contrary, Arabano believed that the Destroyer in the evening had once again been Asbad. It was not impossible to slip into the Gathering early. It required a bit of political maneuvering as well as bribe money, but it could be done. Lotessa had done it the year before in order to steal chairs. But if Arabano was right and Asbad had been the one speaking with Aulit, then what had he meant by his words? They were cryptic enough that they could be interpreted a number of different ways. Aulit had apparently chosen to interpret "abominations" as a reference to Legolas and Gimli, but what of the rest? What was this about salvation from the desert?
Arabano had a growing suspicion that Khurintu’s mustering forces around Lake Hajim were about to be put to use. What other meaning could there be for this strange prophecy? But surely Asbad did not think to attack the Gathering itself! Even the Khurintu tribe had not the men or the might for such an adventure. But what, then, were they planning to do?
The Iluh will deal with the elf and dwarf, Arabano repeated silently to himself. Or rather, the Iluh will deal with the abominations. Grimacing slightly at his lack of information, Arabano wished he had a firsthand account of what had happened, but Budari would have to pry that from Aulit himself. Personally, Arabano doubted that the Gartabo leader would willingly comply.
"Back to the Gathering," he eventually said to his guards, his voice so soft that the surrounding men had to strain to hear him. "And stay alert. Treachery abounds this night."
* * * *
Upon entering the inner hall with Aragorn and Eomer in tow, Budari’s eyes first moved to Aulit, and there they stayed as the leader of the Gartabo moved toward them. The manner of his walk spoke of a purpose that he was loath to undertake, and Budari soon had a fairly good guess as to what that purpose was. He has no way of knowing that his guards failed to apprehend the elf and the dwarf, Budari thought, trying now to keep his focus upon Aulit while also watching King Elessar and King Eomer. This should prove interesting.
"My apologies, honored ones," Aulit said when he reached them, apparently deciding that greetings and pleasantries were useless excesses. "If you will hearken for but a moment, I shall endeavor to explain what has happened."
Aragorn adopted a wonderfully innocent expression that greatly impressed Budari. He has done this before, he decided. Both often and successfully, judging by his seeming ease. By contrast, Eomer’s expression, while bland, was not nearly as convincing. But it was still authentic enough to fool Aulit, who seemed more intent upon ordering his next words than upon reading the faces of those to whom he spoke.
"I fear I do not understand," the king of Gondor said, his voice pleasant but somewhat curious. "Has there been a slight to either Gondor or Rohan? For we have been well served thus far."
"The deals that Rohan is brokering are most profitable," Eomer added. "Perhaps you sense that some have been less than honest with us?"
Aulit frowned and blinked, completely nonplussed, and despite the circumstances, Budari felt a small thrill of glee race through him. It was not often that someone managed to ruffle the practical, business mind of Gartabo’s tribal head. "But…your seconds, the elf and the dwarf…are you not—"
"Ah, that. Nay, we are not responding to any given offense," Aragorn said. "Rather, we felt they might better serve us on patrol in the desert. Keen senses might be useful there while others can easily fulfil their roles here at the Gathering."
Budari decided that Aulit had never looked quite so pale. Beneath his deep, desert tan, the man was a ghostly white, and once again, Budari found that he was completely enjoying himself at the other’s expense. Reminding himself that the situation was serious, Budari managed to expel most of the mirth from his mind, but he was not totally successful; the corners of his mouth kept twitching.
"They are in the desert?" Aulit asked, a slight tremble in his voice.
"Arhelm is acting as my second this night," Eomer supplied helpfully. "Imhran acts for Gondor as its second."
"And they shall return to Haradhur come morning?"
"The time of their return is a matter of their own discretion," Eomer answered, and Budari had to hide a smile at the game that Aragorn and Eomer were now playing with Aulit. It was a masterpiece of innovation, and he wondered how they were orchestrating it so smoothly. "They may return come midnight, or they might return after the sun rises," the king of Rohan continued. "Elves and dwarves are not as susceptible to the temperatures here as we are."
"But they will be in Haradhur before the continuation of the Gathering tomorrow? They shall be in your camp?" Aulit pressed, a look of fear growing in his black eyes.
"They shall certainly be in Haradhur, but they might not be specifically in our camp," Aragorn said, looking thoughtful. Budari decided that the king of Gondor was overplaying his role slightly, but it didn’t seem to matter as Aulit was so upset by their words that his powers of observation were failing him. "It is strange to me, but Legolas and Gimli have managed to make many interesting acquaintances in their short time here. There has been talk that they might stay with others for the day."
Budari now had great difficulty controlling his laughter, for Aragorn had just told a classic Harad half-truth and done so with perfection. There was clearly a subtle reference to Gartabo’s intentions of confining elf and dwarf, but Budari seriously doubted that Aulit was going to recognize it. In fact, Aulit didn’t look like he was going to do much of anything in the near future. He seemed only moments away from toppling to the floor.
"Should we not begin?" Budari said when it seemed that Aulit could no longer speak. "I know there are issues of water rights along the Sihal that I would like to discuss here ere the night wanes."
Grasping onto procedural norms as a man sinking in quicksand might grasp a thrown rope, Aulit nodded hastily and backed away a step. "I would speak with you later on the subject of your seconds," he said to Aragorn and Eomer.
"As would we," Aragorn said, his eyes narrowing and his tone cooling with a jarring abruptness. Budari had never experienced snow, but he decided that it was probably about the temperature of Aragorn’s voice. "There were strange rumors abroad tonight, and we have many questions," the king of Gondor continued. His look turned hard and he pinned Aulit with a stare that immediately reminded Budari of the servants of Sauron. "Also, your guards at the doors seemed…disappointed when we arrived. Almost as though they were expecting something. If you guards seek to assuage their disappointment, I suggest they look somewhere other than Rohan and Gondor."
It was not possible for Aulit to get any paler, but he did shiver slightly ere turning away hurriedly. Inclining his head in the direction of both Eomer and Aragorn, Budari silently praised them for their skills a verbal warfare and then moved toward his seat.
Before lowering himself into the chair, the leader of Lotessa paused briefly to run his eyes over the other delegates, attempting to gauge the general mood. There was much tension in the air, of that there could be no doubt, and more than a few suspicious glances were tossed in the direction of Aragorn and Eomer. But Budari sensed that the hostility he felt was not directed at the kings of Gondor and Rohan. At least not yet. It still lingered on the elf and dwarf, which was only natural considering that they were not men. It seems we shall have much to do both tonight and tomorrow if we wish to preserve the lives of Legolas and Gimli, Budari sighed as he took his seat.
By now, Aulit seemed to have composed himself and was calling for silence. After a minute or so, the hushed conversations around the room died away as other delegates sat down. When all had found their chairs, it quickly became apparent that someone was missing. And there could be no doubt as to whom that someone was. Budari cursed silently. This was not entirely unusual for the second night of the Gathering, but in light of all that had happened so far, it was certainly not a comforting development.
"Do any here know the whereabouts of Dashnir?" Aulit asked. "For I would begin as soon as possible."
A few long-suffering sighs could be heard about the table and Budari rubbed his temples. Khurintu had no concept of punctuality after the first night o the Gathering, almost making it their duty to arrive late for every meeting that they attended. It was actually something of a recent occurrence, but neither Budari nor any of his contacts had ever quite figured out why they started doing this. Ten years ago, when Sauron still reigned, the Khurintu tribe was among the first to be seated. But ever since Mordor’s fall, Khurintu had been coming later and later. It was beginning to be something of a joke among the other tribes, but tonight, the development was far from humorous.
"Let us begin without them," Budari finally said as the minutes began to stretch on. "Asbad is not in attendance and I see no need to wait on a second who thinks to take his leader’s place."
"The views of Lotessa concerning Khurintu are known," Aulit said coolly. "You may be impatient, Budari, but the rest of us shall wait."
"With respect, I must disagree," another voice said and Budari frowned as he glanced over at Khesva, the leader of the Soltari tribe. "We have broken tradition already in allowing a second to attend this meeting. I see no reason why that second should now dictate the times of our discussions."
Aulit blinked, clearly not expecting Soltari to stand against Khurintu. Fastahn might have aided Lotessa with bits of information, but now it seemed that Soltari was going one step further. Budari felt a flash of pity for Aulit as his expression changed to something akin to that of a caged animal, but the pity quickly died. Aulit had brought this upon himself by refusing to cast Dashnir from the council. He would have to deal with the consequences of his actions.
Fortunately, though, Aulit was saved from having to respond to Khesva. Half a moment later, the doors at the north end of the room were pushed upon, and Dashnir entered, looking rather upset. Somewhere in Budari’s mind, a warning bell sounded. He did not know the cause of the warning, but he was not one to be caught unprepared even if he did not have all the answers. His senses went on alert, one hand drifted near his sword, and he pushed his chair back slightly in the event that he would have to rise quickly. It was now up to Khurintu to make the first move. As it usually is, Budari thought bitterly. But until we know more, we cannot anticipate them.
"You come late," Aulit noted, his normally placid voice touched with anger.
"I do indeed come late, and there is good reason for my tardiness. I have just been informed of disturbing tidings," Dashnir answered. "They say the Destroyer was seen within these hallowed halls this evening and that he met with you, honored one. What say you to this?"
There was silence for a few seconds and then half of the inner hall erupted into demands for an explanation. Apparently the news of the Destroyer’s second appearance had not made it to all the tribes, and Budari wondered exactly how Aulit would handle this. He had been planning to confront the Gartabo tribesman himself and extract a firsthand account of the conversation, but it appeared that such an interrogation might no longer be necessary.
"Silence!" Aulit was shouting, but it did no good. His suspicions on the rise, Budari swept his keen eyes around the table and watched as the chaos in the room began to grow. And right in the thick of it all was Dashnir. He had joined his voice to those who clamored for information, and Budari was beside himself with frustration as he attempted to decipher Khurintu’s game. The Destroyer’s evening appearance was certainly not news to Dashnir, but he acted as though it confused and dismayed him, which was something rarely seen from a tribesman of Khurintu. In all things they hid their emotions, showing only a veneer of strength and control. Yet now Dashnir played the part of a horrified victim, and Budari did not like the implications. Something had happened or was about to happen, but he had no idea as to what that something was.
"Aulit, we of the tribes of Harad demand to be told what the Destroyer did when he met with you!" Dashnir cried out as he stood behind his chair at the table. "As the officiator of this Gathering, we look to you to hold order and peace. Yet you have failed in this, or so we deem. Have you been marked by the Destroyer? Speak, or Khurintu withdraws now!"
"Enough!" Aulit all but screamed. "I shall tell you." The room quieted slightly at this, and sensing that he now had their attention, Aulit repeated himself. "I shall tell you of what happened this evening. But I beseech you to refrain from drawing conclusions, for as is the case with many things, the Destroyer was cryptic and confusing."
"He spoke to you?!" someone exclaimed.
"If you wish to hear the tale, then be silent!" Aulit snapped, reaching the end of his patience. Budari blinked, wondering just how stressful the situation was becoming for Gartabo. He had never seen Aulit lose his temper like this.
"Aulit, the Khurintu tribe requests the right to speak when you are finished," Dashnir said, still refusing to take his seat. "For we have counseled among ourselves and have come to a conclusion that must be shared as soon as possible."
Aulit hesitated even as Budari’s heart leaped into his throat, and then to the dismay of the Lotessa tribe’s leader, he nodded. "It shall be so," Aulit sighed. "The time is yours when I have finished. Listen well, then, for I will tell this tale only once."
The silence in the hall became so thick that one could cut it with a knife, and as Aulit began to relate the story of the Destroyer’s appearance and his words, Budari caught a brief look of victory upon Dashnir’s face. It was gone quickly, replaced by an expression of anxiety and fear, but Budari was certain of his eyes. And glancing once at Aragorn and Eomer, he noted that they also had seen the flash of triumph. Their eyes were narrowed and when not looking at Aulit, they were studying Dashnir.
And so the sand runs deep this night, Budari noted as he turned his attention back to Aulit. I pray we do not flounder, for whatever Khurintu has planned, I sense that it is upon us.
* * * *
The moon was pale and the stars dim as they floated over the desert. The world seemed to hold its breath, waiting for a sign that was yet to be given. The men left behind to guard the camps that surrounded Haradhur spoke to one another with hushed voices, suspicious of the eerie silence and fearful of what it might portend. Horses neighed and stomped their feet in restless agitation, and their human masters could only echo their concerns. Something was happening. Something that spoke of shadows and death.
The silence was broken with a shattering abruptness. On the far western side of Haradhur, a single horn rang out in warning, sounding loud and clear as it trumpeted its message to all that would listen. Voices suddenly rose up, and the ring of steel carried far over the sand. From there the chaos spread, washing across the desert and spreading out around Haradhur until it surrounded the city. Well ordered camps became madness as swift horses descended from the desert wilderness, bearing cloaked riders with swords that glowed red in the moonlight. No quarter was asked and no quarter was given. The riders simply attacked everything and anything without care for what it was that bore the brunt of their fury. To every camp around Haradhur the riders came, and the silent desert was soon a bedlam of frenzied defenses and ringing horns.
Caught in the middle of the chaos, the patrolling riders of Rohan and Gondor sought to control their mounts and regroup, not knowing what went forth save that it heralded no good for their cause. In a sea of confusion, they became the eye of the storm, and having pulled together, two were sent back to Haradhur to inform their kings of what went forth in the desert. The rest stayed to make sense of madness and mount some form of counterattack, if such a thing could be contrived in time to meet the threat. But the attacking raiders were swift and tarried not but flitted as shadows beneath the moonlight. It was next to impossible to form any kind of organized resistance against such a sortie.
And while the camps without Haradhur fought for their lives, a small group of men carrying two burdens fled northeast into the night.
* * * *
Imhran, captain of Gondor’s guard and temporary second-in-command, had decided that he did not like politics. He had endured his share of them while moving up the chain of command under Denethor’s stewardship and had never cared for the discreet arm-twisting and quiet backbiting that seemed to be inevitable consequences of political maneuvering. He had once wondered if such policies were somewhat exclusive to Gondor, given the kingdom’s tumultuous history. He knew that Rohan had the treachery of Wormtongue to speak of, but Wormtongue was a product of outside machinations. And while there was certainly competitiveness within the Rohirrim and a drive to rise in the ranks, their promotions seemed to be based more on merit rather than on rich relatives who held the ear of one’s commanding officer.
But Imhran knew better now. In speaking with Arhelm throughout the night, he had come to realize that there was a substantial amount of networking within the Rohirrim as well. And in dealing with the Haradrim, he had come to realize that the politics of Gondor were actually rather tame.
"The Portu tribe is agitated about something," a voice suddenly spoke behind Imhran. He managed to refrain from jumping, but his hand did go to the hilt of his sword as he turned. He relaxed as soon as he saw who it was, but the encounter served as a rather grim reminder that the Portu tribe was not alone in its agitation.
"How do you know this, Arhelm?" Imhran asked.
The captain of Rohan’s guard glanced over his shoulder and grimaced. "I have just finished speaking with a member of Portu’s advisory council. King Eomer asked if I would follow up on a trade deal in studs that he had brokered with Radarad, Portu’s tribal leader. I have done so and things seem to be favorable as far as that is concerned, but it seemed to me that all the members of the Portu tribe were…preoccupied. They kept looking about as though fearful of being seen. I did not understand it, and when I casually mentioned that they appeared anxious, they became even more agitated."
"Strange," Imhran murmured. "I have sensed nothing of that sort. Many of the delegates are anxious, and that seems quite natural given that a nightmare out of their ancient legends has now appeared twice. But no one is unduly upset. What do you suppose is affecting Portu?"
"Perhaps Portu is a more superstitious tribe than others," Arhelm offered, though he seemed rather reluctant to believe his own theory."
"Perhaps," Imhran murmured.
"Good evening, honored ones," a new voice said quietly, and once again, Imhran found himself repressing the urge to jump and draw his sword. He wondered how everyone was managing to sneak up on him so easily this night.
"How go your negotiations, Arabano?" he asked, turning to the second-in-command from the Lotessa tribe.
"Well enough, all things considered, but Arhelm has noticed what I have noticed. The Portu tribe is anxious. They fear something."
"Are they an overly superstitious tribe?" Arhelm asked, following up on his idea.
"In many ways, yes, they are," Arabano answered, his voice soft and thoughtful. "But not to this extent. If the Destroyer had confronted one of them, I might understand this behavior. But he did not. It is strange, and I do not like this."
"Think you that this anxiety has something to do with the plot to take Lord Legolas and Lord Gimli?" Imhran questioned. "For I cannot see a connection myself, but that does not rule out the existence of a link."
"Nay, it does not. I, also, see no connection, but my instincts tell me otherwise," Arabano said. "My instincts say rather that these things are related and that all things go back to Khurintu."
"It was Portu that attacked us while in the desert," Arhelm reminded them. "And according to both King Elessar and King Eomer, Khurintu and Warra were behind that attack."
"And Portu was the tribe spreading the rumors about what the Destroyer intended when he confronted the elf," Arabano sighed. "Yet all of these things are well in the past as far as the others Haradrim are concerned. Why does Portu possess this sudden fear now? It is almost as if…" Arabano trailed off and frowned, his attention being drawn to a growing commotion near one of the doors. "Know you what goes forth there?"
Imhran shook his head and stepped forward, sensing Arhelm move in behind him should cover be needed. "Can you see what is happening?"
"Men are entering the hall," Arabano murmured. He watched for a moment and then his eyes narrowed slightly. "Nay, not just men. Guards. Guards who would have been left to watch the camps during the night. There are guards from Soltari, Warra, Gartabo, Indro…" He suddenly moved forward and raised his hand, calling aloud in the language of Harad.
"I do not like this, Imhran," Arhelm stated, his voice tight with impatience.
"Steady for but a moment," Imhran counseled his Rohirrim companion, watching the growing chaos closely. "I doubt not but what we shall have our answers presently."
"If we do not, then I—"
Arhelm blinked and frowned as two of Rohan’s riders pushed their way through the crowd. Stunned for only a moment, he quickly went to meet them, leaving Imhran to follow hastily in his wake. "What news?" he demanded.
"Captain, the camps in the desert are under attack," one of the riders reported. "Horsemen came from the west, armed with sword and spear. Their numbers are not many, or so we think, but they seem skilled at causing great confusion. They rampage all over the desert surrounding Haradhur."
"A siege," Imhran hissed, remembering well the siege of Minas Tirith.
"Nay, I think not, sir," the second rider said with a shake of his head. "They appeared to have no interest in the city. To me, it seemed as though their only objective was to create havoc, and they are achieving their objective well."
"Who are they?" Arhelm asked. "Have you any guesses?"
"We saw no badges or emblems that might signify their tribe. However, they did ride their—"
"Honored ones, I trust you have heard the news from your riders?" Arabano interrupted, appearing at Arhelm’s side.
"We did," Imhran said. "Do your guards know who these attackers might be?"
"They do not," Arabano said, glancing back at the men who flanked him and now waited for commands. "They say were veiled by scarves that carried no symbols, and the colors belonged to none of the tribes in the desert."
"Sir, I believe I might know who they are," Arhelm’s rider spoke up. "Remember you the peculiar way in which the Portu raiders sat their horses when they attacked our camp in the desert? These riders were mounted similarly. If they are not of the same tribe, then they were almost certainly trained by the same tribe."
"Portu?" Arhelm questioned.
"It would explain their unease here at the Gathering," Imhran murmured.
"Portu would not dare attack the other tribes," Arabano said flatly. "Such a move is beyond them. Their way is the coward’s way. They wait until an opening presents itself, they attack, and then they slink back into their hovels and hidden lakes. There are too many powers here in Haradhur for them to even think about staging a raid. Such an attack would be suicide if it were discovered."
"But since they carry no markings, such an attack will not be discovered," Arhelm argued. "It must be Portu."
"But they would have nothing to gain from this," Arabano shot back, frustration growing in his weathered face.
"That we know of," Imhran said. "But this conversation can wait until such time as we have the leisure to debate this. We must instead focus upon what should be done now. How fare our men in the desert?" he asked, directing his question to the two riders of Rohan.
"We have grouped together, sir, and the attackers seem to sweep around us since we are an organized threat, but they are doing much damage in the other camps," one answered.
"King Elessar and King Eomer must be told of this," Arhelm said.
"That may be easier said than done," Arabano cautioned. "The inner Gathering is sacrosanct. None interrupt it until the leaders throw open the doors."
"Surely exceptions have been made!" Arhelm protested in disbelief.
"Very rarely, and only in extreme circumstances," Arabano said.
"But if Portu is behind this raid and is working under the direction of Khurintu, then they have spread their war beyond Gondor and Rohan to all of Harad," Imhran pointed out. "Surely that warrants an extreme circumstance."
"It is a circumstances of which only our three powers are aware," Arabano answered. "The other tribes would not understand the ramifications if our guesses prove true, for they have not the necessary information. But you are right," he continued quickly before Imhran and Arhelm could interrupt. "We must try to inform the leaders, and I suspect that if we act, other tribes will join us in attempting to interrupt the inner Gathering. For an attack is rather unprecedented, especially at the Gathering. But I would counsel that we focus our efforts on the desert rather than on the inner hall at the moment. I judge we shall be more successful outside Haradhur."
Imhran nodded and turned his attention back to the riders of Rohan. "One of us shall remain and seek to inform our kings while the other returns with you to give aid to Lord Legolas and Lord Gimli. What manner of counterstrike were they organizing when last you left them?"
The two riders looked at one another, obviously confused. "We thought that Lord Legolas and Lord Gimli were here," one said. "They were not among our company when we left."
Imhran felt his stomach drop, and Arhelm stiffened. "They never arrived?" Imhran asked as a shiver went up his spine. "They were sent to join you in the desert several hours ago."
"They never came."
Silence reigned supreme within their small group while loud voices clamored around them. "I will ride out to our men," Arhelm said at length. "They will need more guidance than what their current leaders can give. Eos, stay with Captain Imhran and report to King Eomer when he emerges. Vintred, you are with me."
"If it will hasten things, my horse is outside this hall, sir," Eos said. "You may take him, for his legs are still fresh and his endurance is good."
"Then I shall do so," Arhelm said. "Valar be with you, Imhran, and I pray you can bring King Eomer and King Elessar to us quickly. I feel we shall be in need of their guidance."
"Valar be with us all," Imhran whispered as Arhelm and Vintred hastened away. He then turned to Arabano, who had just finished giving orders to his own men, and inclined his head. "Shall we see about rousing those above us in authority?"
"It will be a difficult task, yet we shall manage it," Arabano said, moving toward one of the doors to the inner halls, which was guarded by a soldier from Gartabo. "The Khurintu tribe is not the only power in this desert."
* * * *
Eomer had never been a great fan of meetings. He endured them well enough when necessary, but they almost always left him feeling frustrated and drained. His strength lay upon the battlefield, and though Eomer had a great talent for reading the thoughts behind men’s faces, he did not have the talent to put this knowledge to use. Words came easily in the form of jests and taunts intended to rattle one’s sparring partner, but the delicate dance of diplomacy was something he’d always left to Eowyn.
Nevertheless, Eomer had learned over the years to hold his own in a debate. He had become a passable orator, he’d discovered that his intuitive knowledge of what a man was really thinking could actually be quite useful, and he’d improved his logical analysis to the point where he could follow practically any political tangle, though not necessarily unravel it. But this did not make meetings any more enjoyable than before, and it was times like this when Eomer remembered exactly why he loathed them so much.
After Aulit had related what the Destroyer had said to him, there had been many questions and much discussion. Various interpretations were quickly debated, and Eomer watched from the sidelines as insult after insult was heaped upon elves and dwarves. He’d longed to rush in and defend his friends, but a warning look from Aragorn had held him back. Now was the time to listen and learn. It was something Eomer understood, but he didn’t like it. And he liked it even less now.
Eventually, Aulit had refused to answer any more questions, and the final conclusion was that the Destroyer’s words were too vague to be interpreted specifically. But they probably referred to Legolas and Gimli. Then Dashnir had reminded them all that he had been promised the opportunity to speak. That had been at least two hours ago, if not more. And Dashnir was still going at it.
He’d begun by lauding the accomplishments of the Khurintu tribe and their honorable reputation throughout Harad. Then he had begun speaking of the years during Sauron’s reign when an endless stream of supplies had come down from Mordor and young men had be taken away and trained by the best tutors that Middle Earth had to offer. Eomer had found it difficult to restrain himself during this part, but once again, Aragorn’s look held him back. Not that Eomer would have been able to do anything anyway. Once a delegate had obtained the floor, another could speak only if that delegate yielded. And Dashnir did not seem inclined to yield in the near future.
After speaking of Sauron’s rule, Dashnir had spoken of the fall of Harad, its gradual decline into obscurity, and then the shadow of Gondor and Rohan looming over all. He had then accused Aragorn and Eomer of bringing destruction and ruin upon Harad, mincing no words and directly confronting them but still denying them the time to refute his attacks. It was not long before Eomer’s blood was boiling through his veins, and his hand clasped the hilt of his sword firmly. He did not know how long he could restrain himself in the face of such slander. Judging from his hard eyes and tight jaw, Eomer judged that Aragorn was having similar problems.
"Enough of this!" Budari suddenly broke in when there was a slight lull in the speech. Eomer relaxed slightly with Lotessa’s interruption. He did not relax very much, but he did calm enough to note just how tense the inner hall had become. "Dashnir, you have wearied our ears for hours now," Budari continued. "You have insulted guests that we have invited here. Yet nowhere have you indicated a purpose to this absurdity. Come to the point, if you indeed have one. Or is Khurintu unable to save its honor by traditional means and must now resort to wordplay instead?"
"I do not recognize your comments, honored one," Dashnir answered with a slight hiss, "for I have yet to give up my place on the floor. You have spoken out of turn. The time is still mine and I shall do with it that which I see fit to do."
"Budari is right," Aulit said. "You have no purpose in this talk that I can see and this Gathering has other things to discuss."
"While we are debating the duration of Dashnir’s speech, may I request a bit of time for a rebuttal when he does yield?" Aragorn suddenly said. "And a bit of time for Rohan, as well."
"Honored ones, I say to you again that I have yet to give up my time here," Dashnir broke in. "I still hold the floor. As for my purpose, it is to convince you all of the evil that sits before you."
"And what about this evil?" Eomer demanded, unable to keep silent any longer. "I cannot vouch for the others, but I know that I have listened to the evil speak for far too long. I respectfully request that it sit down and allow its superiors to have a word or two."
Something about the way that Aragorn shifted in his chair informed Eomer that he had probably made the situation worse, but the twitch of Aragorn’s lips indicated that the king of Gondor heartily applauded the outburst. Whatever the case, it had certainly made Eomer feel better and was thus well worth it in his eyes.
"You were not recognized," Dashnir said, glaring daggers at the king of Rohan. "Not only that, but you have dared insult he who holds the floor."
"As you have insulted him?" Budari interrupted. "Dashnir, yield your place. I grow weary of this. You are not Asbad. You are not a leader. Allowing you to even participate here is a breach of tradition. I will not allow you to make a mockery of this Gathering."
"You, honored Budari, are the mockery and I will—"
"Quiet, both of you," Aulit broke in. "Budari, I will thank you to keep a civil tongue in your head. And Dashnir, you have spoken for several hours but have managed to say very little. Are you finished?"
Dashnir drew himself up, his eyes flashing, but before he could even open his mouth, one of the doors opened and a Gartabo guard entered, shutting the door behind him quickly but not before the sounds of a great commotion without could be heard.
"Speak," Aulit commanded as murmurs began to rise within the room.
"Arabano of Lotessa wishes to speak to the honored Budari," the guard said quietly. "Also, Imhran of Gondor wishes to speak with the honored King Elessar and Eos of Rohan wishes to speak with the honored King Eomer."
"Noted," Aulit said, turning his attention to Dashnir. "Do you yield so that we may decide whether or not to adjourn?"
"I do not yield for I have yet to finish," Dashnir answered angrily. "And now if you will allow me to…" The delegate from Khurintu paused and glared at a door across from him as yet another Gartabo guard entered, once again exposing the gathered leaders to the sounds of chaos and rising voices. "One might think this was contrived to prevent me from warning you of the imminent destruction," Dashnir muttered.
"Speak," Aulit said, ignoring Dashnir.
"Fastahn of Soltari wishes to speak with the honored Khesva and Sarot of Indro wishes to speak with the honored Varilya."
"My pardon then, honored ones, but I shall be leaving you," Budari said, rising to his feet.
"As shall I," Eomer seconded. Aragorn also rose, clearly indicating his intention to depart.
"Leaders cannot leave until all decide to adjourn the session!" Dashnir cried out. "Already you defile us with your foreign ways."
"I was the first to rise," Budari answered, his voice quiet but laced with steel. "You need not blame Gondor and Rohan. And Arabano would not summon me except under dire circumstances. Therefore I shall take my leave of you and depart. It is my hope, given the noise we have just heard beyond these walls, that others shall follow in my footsteps."
"And by your interpretation, Dashnir, you would also be able to leave if you so desired it, for you said that leaders must stay. You do not fall into that category," Eomer added with a slight smile even as he felt Aragorn’s hand come down on his shoulder in warning.
"Forgive us for this break in protocol, but as Dashnir has already noted, we are not of this land," Aragorn said, pulling Eomer away from the table with a slight tug. "And I like not the words that have been said this night. Therefore we shall depart to see what goes forth beyond this inner hall."
"As shall I," Khesva of Soltari announced, rising from his seat. "My apologies to those I leave behind as well as my condolences. May the remainder of Dashnir’s speech prove more entertaining than the first part."
"I warn you for your own good!" Dashnir cried. "You do not see the danger. This is but another ruse! This—"
But Dashnir was interrupted again by yet another opening door. But this time, instead of a Gartabo guard, Arabano, Imhran, and Eos stepped in, breaking one of the most sacred and respected customs of the Gathering by doing so.
"Honored ones, forgive the intrusion as I know it goes against tradition, but the news I bring is grave. And in good faith, I could not allow you to remain ignorant of it," Arabano said, his voice hard and filled with something akin to accusation as his eyes flickered once over Dashnir. Eomer’s instincts, already jumping, began setting up a deafening clamor in his mind and he felt both Budari and Aragorn stiffen next to him.
"Speak," Aulit said after a deathly silence, glaring slightly at Dashnir out of the corner of his eye while sending a similar look in the general direction of Budari, Aragorn, and Eomer. "We will hear what you have to say."
"Honored ones, I request that this session of the Gathering adjourn immediately and that we outside be allowed to speak with our leaders."
A low murmur rose up inside the hall, and Eomer heard Aragorn’s breath catch slightly. "What is happening?" the king of Rohan hissed. "What does this mean?"
"I know not, but have your sword ready," Aragorn answered. "I fear that it might be needed quickly."
"It has been ready since we first set food in Harad," Eomer assured him.
"For what reason do you make this request?" Aulit demanded of Arabano, his tone of voice indicating that Arabano had better come to the point and do so quickly.
"Because leadership is needed elsewhere rather than here," Arabano answered. "A traitor among us has brought war to this Gathering. The camps in the desert are under attack."
"The Destroyer!" Dashnir cried. "Do you see now? You must! Only the blind could not see it! Gondor and Rohan have brought death upon us all!"
"I have heard enough of this!" Eomer exploded, ignoring Aragorn’s warning look. "There is no evidence that indicates we have—"
"Then you are truly ignorant," Dashnir interrupted coldly. "And since it seems I will no longer be allowed to finish saying what I came to say, I shall conclude with this: The Khurintu tribe withdraws from the Gathering as of this night. We shall not be caught in the path of the Destroyer. We shall not be party to Harad’s own destruction. Since you have failed to listen to reason, you give us no choice. Whatever counsels you take must needs be taken without us, for our entire tribe shall leave tomorrow as soon as the sun touches the horizon."
* * * *
Legolas was first aware of voices—harsh voices—calling out in a strange tongue. Confused for a moment, the elf wondered if perhaps he’d been severely injured and could no longer interpret speech, but after a few more minutes of listening to the talk of those around him, he recognized it as the common language of Harad. This realization was a source of great relief at the same time that it raised fears, concerns, and the blurred memory of his last moments of consciousness.
A sudden surge of nausea from his stomach alerted his senses and informed him that the waking process was now firmly underway. Along with this nausea came other sensations. His entire body ached as though he had been beaten severely by a family of orcs, and the elf decided that this was probably not far from the truth. His hands and feet also felt rather numb, a strange sensation that immediately caught his curiosity. A slight attempt to move them resulted in throbbing pain, and the elf quickly realized that strong bonds held his wrists firmly behind his back and secured his ankles tightly together. The prince would have further analyzed these restraints, but he suddenly found himself lifted into the air by rough hands, maneuvered about, and taken into a darker world. Then he was falling. Slamming into the ground, Legolas choked back a grunt of surprise and tried to maintain the illusion that he was still unconscious. About this time, he also realized—rather belatedly and with some amazement—that his eyes were closed. He must have been hit hard during the attack; otherwise his eyes would have remained open. That theory would also explain the incessant pounding in the back of his head, where it felt like Gimli’s entire troop of dwarves from Aglarond had taken up residence and were beating away with hammer and chisel.
The nausea intensified as blind grief overwhelmed Legolas, and he struggled to hold back the sobs that suddenly tore at his throat. A cold, numbing sensation crept over him, and elven strength ebbed away as his mind was consumed by sorrow. Gimli was gone, and the elf saw no reason why he should continue to struggle. Death would be far preferable to this crippling anguish that ripped through his immortal heart.
A muffled thud next to the elf somehow alerted his grief-stricken thoughts, and Legolas cracked his eyes open a bit. He no longer cared what went on in the world around him, but if he was given an opportunity to kill one of the dwarf’s murderers, he wanted to take it. But what he saw froze him to the very core of his being.
How he kept from crying out, he did not know. Somehow he managed to keep silent and maintain the charade of unconsciousness, but his mind and thoughts were now filled with the blinding light of hope. Gimli had been thrown to the ground next to him. From what little the elf could see, the dwarf was very still, his face was far too pale, the crude bandage wrapped around his injured right leg was soaked through with blood, and he was bound as Legolas was. But aside from all this, there was one small detail above all else that captured the elf’s rapt attention to the point of reducing all complaints and all complications to trivial irritants—Gimli was breathing.
The dwarf was still alive.
The voices were speaking again, and Legolas quickly closed his eyes, his mental faculties struggling to recover from the shock of first grief and now hope. He felt someone move above him and then came a sharp tugging at his arms. The elf guessed they were checking his bindings for strength, and his guess was confirmed when the procedure was repeated with his legs. More words were spoken in the strange language of the Harad people, and then the voices drifted away, fading quickly and causing the elf to frown. Unless these men were possessed of an inhuman ability for speed—something Legolas was almost ready to believe given what he now knew of the Khurintu tribe—he should still be able to hear them. It was almost as if…
The elf groaned as realization struck him. Ú-glîr. They had placed him beneath ú-glîr. No wonder the surrounding world had seemed so foreign and distant. And no wonder he had not heard Gimli’s labored breathing before now. Fortunately, he could still remember most of the adjustments that ú-glîr required of him and he put those into play now. The first step was to keep his mind occupied, and he did this by immediately turning his full attention to the dwarf and the situation. He needed to discover where he was and he needed to examine Gimli, but he wished to do so without interference. Forcing himself to be patient, Legolas lay quiet for a few minutes more and made certain that he was alone, using his diminished senses to search for any sign that a guard had been left. When he could find nothing to indicate another’s presence, he deemed it to be safe—a rather relative term—and with great caution, he eased his eyes open again.
Once more exercising great restraint, Legolas ignored his first impulse to immediately inspect Gimli and instead tried to determine their situation. He found that they had been placed in a small, white tent. It was still night and there was almost no illumination save for the light of the moon that glimmered dimly upon one tent wall. But the lack of light was not too great a hindrance, for even beneath ú-glîr, Legolas’s eyes could make out more in the darkness than could the eyes of a man. Unfortunately, what he could see did not comfort him. There were no rugs to cover the floor of this meager shelter, and elf and dwarf lay on sand made cold by the desert night. Beyond that, if the moonlight was any indication, then the tent had been pitched so that its broadest sides would catch the full glare of the sun. It was going to be a hot day.
Legolas shivered slightly, fighting the chill that rose up from the cold ground and managed to soak through the layers of his tunic to attack his chest. Things did not look good. Wherever they’d stopped, it was doubtless far from the Haradhur encampment. And if their attackers had traveled quickly enough, the city was probably beyond the range of mortal sight. This meant that should he and Gimli escape, they would be lost. Legolas sighed, feeling himself succumb to the hopelessness of it all, and then firmly turned his mind to other matters. There was still Gimli to see to.
Worm-like, ignoring the protests of his battered body, Legolas maneuvered himself closer to the comatose dwarf and studied his friend. Last night’s blow to Gimli’s head worried him most. The strike had been strong enough to stun an oliphaunt, and Gimli had gone down immediately without a cry. After that, Legolas’s memory of events turned into an impossible fog. He’d known great fury and had fought desperately to reach his friend, but how he’d been subdued and taken was something he could not remember, try as he might.
Legolas shook his head, instantly regretted doing so, and brought himself firmly back to the present. He had to check Gimli. The dwarf’s health was his first priority. A head wound like that could still be fatal, and there was the injured leg to consider as well.
The ensuing examination was severely hampered by the fact that both of them were securely trussed, and Legolas was eventually forced to give up after having learned little. He rolled onto his side with a frustrated groan and continued to scrutinize his best friend. Gimli’s breathing was steady but rapid, and it was far too shallow for the elf’s liking. In addition to that, the dwarf showed no signs of stirring and no signs of awareness. His pallor was a sickly gray and his flesh was clammy to the touch. Legolas did not think the wound on the dwarf’s leg was still bleeding, but it was impossible to tell how severe the injury was or how it might affect the dwarf in the future. And if infection set in…
The elf’s soft voice received no response. In truth, Legolas hadn’t really expected anything, but it had done no harm to try. Rolling off his side and back onto his stomach, the elf pushed himself against Gimli’s motionless form, hoping to transfer some of his own body heat to the dwarf. He didn’t know what he would do once the day warmed and Gimli began suffering from the soaring temperatures, but for now, Legolas could at least do something to treat the chill that crept up from the sand.
"Dartho ah nin, elvellon," Legolas whispered fiercely to the dwarf who lay still as death against his side. "Ú-bronion cuil aredh."
If Gimli heard these words, spoken with ardent fervor from the elf’s anxious heart, he gave no sign. A brooding silence fell over the small tent, and having no other choice, Legolas reluctantly settled in for what promised to be a very long wait.
Dartho ah nin, elvellon. Ú-bronion cuil aredh—Stay with me, elf-friend. I cannot endure life without you.*******
Arabano—Second-in-command of Lotessa (OC)
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard (OC)
Arnor—Aragorn’s horse (OC)
Asbad—Tribal head of Khurintu (OC)
Aulit—Tribal head of Gartabo (OC)
Budari—Tribal head of Lotessa (OC)
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (OC)
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul—Legolas’s horse (OC)
Fastahn—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (OC)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard (OC)
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen—Tribal head of Warra (OC)
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
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.