3. Misgivings and Perceptions
Aragorn drew a tight rein on Arnor, and as his mount slowed and stopped in response, the company behind him halted as well. The long night was coming to an end, and finally within sight of mortal eyes, the glittering towers of Dol Amroth rose against the horizon. Coated with a layer of crushed seashells, the walls of the castle caught the first rays of the morning sun like diamonds on the seashore, and beyond the fortress lay the sea itself, a massive swelling of crystal blue trimmed with whitecaps as the morning breeze stirred the swirling water. A clear horn cry rang out from Dol Amroth, and behind Aragorn, Imhran, the captain of Gondor’s guard, let loose an answering call. Awakened by the sounds, a flock of seagulls took flight, crying out their protests and dipping over Dol Amroth as though they debated whether to roost again or to start the day.
Upon seeing the gulls, Aragorn looked to his left at Legolas and Gimli. Legolas’s eyes were closed and his breathing was fast. Aragorn thought he had never seen the elf look so uncomfortable save once before, and that was nearly eight years ago when they wandered through the dark underground caverns of Moria. Behind the prince, Gimli was glaring balefully at the gulls in the distance as though he would look to take each one personally and put an end to its life.
The sound of a cleared throat on his right side drew Aragorn’s attention away from the suffering elf. Eomer had also been watching the two, but now he glanced back at the host that waited behind him. The riders were restless and tired, and the horses were in need of stables and bed.
Aragorn sighed and nodded to show he understood Eomer’s unspoken message. With reluctance, he spurred his horse forward into a swift trot. He wondered now if he shouldn’t have spoken to Legolas ere they drew this close to the sea. But what could he have said that the elf didn’t already know? And how should the words of a man comfort an immortal possessed of a longing so great that the mere sight of the sea could cause him to stiffen in pain? Perhaps Arwen should have journeyed with them as far as Dol Amroth. She had more of an understanding of Legolas’s sea-longing than Aragorn did, but the sight of those great waters also brought her pain, for they reminded her of her father, Elrond. Aragorn shook his head in frustration. It seemed that every being destined for a measure of greatness was also fated to endure sorrows untold. He had always known that the phrase "happily ever after" had no place in reality, but as he now watched this truth bear itself out among his friends and loved ones, Aragorn fervently wished he could change that fact.
Another horn cry was now sounding from Dol Amroth, and out of the castle came a procession of mounted riders bearing the emblem of a silver swan. At their head rode a man who, from a distance, might have been mistaken for an elf as his countenance and heritage made manifest his distant elven ancestry.
"Hail, King of Gondor!" Prince Imrahil cried as he drew near the approaching hosts. "And hail, King of Rohan. In good time are you come, my friends!"
"Hail to you, Prince Imrahil," Aragorn answered, though he was now secretly troubled. To his trained ear, the prince had sounded harried and anxious, and Aragorn’s Ranger instincts were instantly on alert. "I trust all is well with you."
"It is, my liege," Imrahil answered, pulling his mount to a halt as he drew nigh unto Aragorn, but once again, that tiny note of uncertainty entered his voice. "Quarters have been prepared for you and your men so that you may find such rest as you can," the prince continued. "I also have skins of fresh water, packs of food, and have laden the lead horses with tents and other provisions."
"You have done well and I thank you," Aragorn said, studying the prince intently. Something was amiss, but he had yet to define what. The men with Imrahil showed now sign of trouble and Aragorn discerned that whatever bothered the prince was something he had kept private. "Perhaps you and I may have a talk if time permits," Aragorn said carefully, gauging Imrahil’s reaction. "I have things I would discuss with you."
Something flashed in Imrahil’s eyes, but what it was, Aragorn could not tell. The prince nodded, though, and smiled. "Of course, my liege. Now, if you will allow it, my guards and I shall escort you to Dol Amroth."
"When shall we meet with the Haradrim delegation?" Eomer asked.
"They are camped a few miles away. I believe they feel safer that way. They have promised to come to the castle this evening where we shall dine together. In the meantime, I have prepared quarters for you and your men where you may rest and refresh yourselves."
"Lead on, then," Aragorn said with a wave of his arm. "We shall follow." The group moved forward, but as they did so, Eomer turned his horse toward Aragorn so that they rode closely together.
"Is ought wrong?" Eomer asked, his voice hushed.
"Something troubles Imrahil," Aragorn replied quietly. "It may be nothing more than a personal matter, but I feel this is not so. He is concerned about something, and I think it would be wise if you and I had a private conversation with him before meeting with the representatives from Harad’s main tribes."
"It will be as you counsel," Eomer promised. "And if I may aid you in any way, you have but to let me know. My men and I are under your command."
The glistening castle now loomed above them and here Prince Imrahil stopped and turned aside. "We have constructed stables for your horses," he explained. "They were made in haste, but the workmanship is good and they should serve you well for the time you are here."
Eomer looked at the wooden structures with a critical eye and smiled. "They are more than adequate and I thank you." The horse lord turned to his Rohirrim and at his signal, they dismounted. Aragorn signaled for his men to do likewise. Grooms came forth to lead the horses away, but as at Minas Tirith, there was trouble when one came to take Faensul.
Legolas had dismounted on command, though Gimli had wondered if he’d truly known what he was doing, but he now seemed heedless of all that went on around him. His eyes were fixed on the sea that splashed into the rocky shore not more than a league away. Faensul, sensing the elf’s distraction, had appointed himself as his master’s protector and neighed loudly in warning when one of Imrahil’s men approached them.
"Legolas!" Aragorn called sharply, but the elf might as well have been in another world. Faensul whinnied and reared, lashing out with his forelegs.
"Faensul!" Gimli cried, leaping in front of the stallion. With a snort, the horse came back down and tossed his head at the dwarf. "Easy, Faensul," Gimli continued, and the horse seemed to calm a bit, though he bared his teeth and laid his ears back at the gathered men who were now watching the scene intently. Gingerly, Gimli reached up and began stroking the base of the great mount’s neck. Faensul stomped his foot and swished his tail but made no other move.
"Gimli, see if you can waken Legolas," Aragorn instructed, keeping his voice low and calm.
Still stroking the horse’s neck, Gimli reached out and grabbed hold of the elf’s gauntlet-clad forearm. "Legolas? Legolas, you must come back to us. Legolas!" Faensul backed up and snorted at the tension in Gimli’s voice and the dwarf hurriedly calmed himself. "Legolas, we have need of you," he continued in a quieter tone, squeezing the elf’s arm tightly. "Come, my friend, I know you can hear me. Come back to us."
The elf stirred a bit and his eyes blinked. As though waking from a deep sleep, he shook his head slowly and staggered. Had Gimli not still been holding his arm, he might have fallen. As it was, he sagged against the dwarf and Gimli braced himself, holding the elf up as he slowly recovered his senses. Faensul bumped his head against Legolas’s back and nickered gently.
"Legolas?" Aragorn questioned.
"I…yes?" Legolas regained his balance and looked around in confusion as though realizing for the first time where he was.
"Legolas, Faensul is loath to leave your side," Eomer broke in. "Would you see to his needs and lead him to his stable?"
The elf immediately nodded, grasping at the request as though grasping for a hold on reality. Turning to Faensul, he spoke low words in his own tongue and then moved toward the stables. Faensul followed closely.
"Go with him, Gimli," Aragorn instructed quietly. "If ever he has been in need of companionship, he is in need now. Keep his mind occupied. When we meet with the Haradrim, it would not do to repeat a scene like this. And it is better for him if he does not dwell so on the sea. It only makes the longing worse."
"I will see that his mind remains here on the land until he tires of my presence and begs me to leave," Gimli vowed. "The elves may be patient, but the dwarves are stubborn and persistent. Leave him to me."
Comforted by the dwarf’s words, Aragorn smiled slightly and nodded. He watched as Gimli hurried after Legolas who had already disappeared into one of the stables and then turned to Imrahil who had looked on in astonishment. "Now, if you would show us to our quarters, we will take such actions as the day requires."
"This way, King Elessar," Imrahil said, recovering his composure quickly. "I trust you will find your accommodations comfortable. Your journey tonight will be hard and the desert is not a forgiving land. It will be best if you are well rested."
"I have endured the desert before," Aragorn reminded Imrahil. "But your words are true enough. Let us see to the men. After that, Eomer and I wish to speak to you for a few moments."
"It will be as you say," Imrahil said, once more with a flash of something unreadable in his eyes. "Come. This way, then, and we shall attend your needs."
* * * *
Gimli had not expected his task to be so difficult. It was only midmorning, and already the dwarf despaired of anchoring Legolas to reality for any appreciable length of time. After seeing that Faensul’s wants were met, the elf had left the stables without a word to anyone and had started walking toward the sea. Gimli, through persistent, wearying protests, had finally managed to stop him and convince him to return to the castle, saying that Aragorn might have need of them. But Legolas refused to go inside, electing to stand just outside the castle walls where he could easily watch the sea. When Gimli protested again, Legolas had briskly informed the dwarf that he desired to feel the breeze on his face and had afterward fallen quiet, saying nothing since then.
Gimli, on the other hand, could not be silenced. Struggling vainly to elicit some response from the elf, he had talked about anything and everything, with topics ranging from dwarven women to the fine art of crafting a pipe to the history of written law in Gondor. He now launched into detailed description of how to construct a long-range catapult for use in mountainous terrain, but he stopped when he noticed a glazed look entering Legolas’s eyes.
"Not again," he grumbled, seizing the elf’s arm and shaking him. "Legolas! Legolas, Ithilien is burning!"
The elf blinked and started forward only to be stopped by the dwarf’s tight grip on his arm. Turning to the dwarf, he frowned and looked about. Realizing where he was, he relaxed and resumed his previous position, looking mournfully out at the sea.
Watching him with bleak despair, something deep inside Gimli finally broke. He was fed up with his friend. Speech and physical contact had not worked. It was time for something a little more drastic. Leaving the elf for a moment, he hurried into the castle where sounds of a scuffle were soon heard and then he returned, bringing with him a large shield.
"Guard!" he ordered, practically throwing the heavy metal shield at the elf. By reflexes alone, Legolas was able to catch it and it seemed to shake him further out of his reverie.
"Guard!" Gimli commanded again, hefting his axe and swinging it toward the elf.
Instinctively, Legolas flung the shield up and the axe clanged harmlessly to the side. Legolas lowered it and tried once more to speak, but Gimli allowed him no time for that as he attacked with the axe again, this time in a low sweep. Jumping backwards, Legolas swung the shield low and caught the end of the axe on it, thrusting it off and then kicking forward with the bottom half of the shield and knocking it into Gimli’s feet. The dwarf stumbled slightly from the hit but immediately retaliated with a high, arcing swing. Legolas parried and spun, flinging the axe wide and moving closer to the dwarf as he did so, but Gimli had anticipated such a move and reversing the rotation of the axe, he slammed the thick haft into the elf’s side.
With a cry of surprise, Legolas staggered and dropped to one knee, keeping the shield high as he sensed more than saw the axe’s blade coming toward him. Tilting the shield slightly, Legolas got the axe to hit at an awkward angle and an overbalanced Gimli lost his hold on his weapon. Legolas pressed the momentary advantage by lunging forward and slamming the shield into the dwarf’s chest, but Gimli moved to the side quickly enough to only catch part of the blow. Leaping away, he rolled and caught his axe up again.
Jumping back into range, Gimli swung the axe around and up in a parody of an upper-cut. Legolas moved back and the blade whistled harmlessly in front of his raised shield. Then the elf was in again, hoping to advance quickly enough that Gimli would be unable to recover from his missed hit. But Gimli had grown up with the axe and had been trained in its use since birth. As the axe swung upward and Legolas moved forward, he turned the momentum of his weapon, using his own body as a counter-balance, and brought the axe smashing down on the top of the elf’s shield. Unprepared for such a blow, Legolas felt the shield wrenched from his grasp and then the haft of the axe rammed itself across his chest, knocking him to the ground.
Letting the axe fall, Gimli folded his arms and glared at the elf. "You might have warned me that you had perfected Aragorn’s trick of angling the shield."
"I might have warned you?!" Legolas surged back to his feet with an angry glare of his own. "If I am not mistaken, that was an unprovoked attack."
"Attack? I was pulling my blows, Legolas, and if you had been more alert, you would have noticed that," Gimli retorted. "If anything, it was a bit of practice for me and a lesson for you."
"When did I become your bludgeoning target?" the elf demanded.
"When you ceased to remember that I was here," Gimli snapped. "And if you do not keep your mind focused, it will happen again. I suggest you carry that shield around with you in the event that I cannot find one on short notice. Otherwise, things might get painful."
"It would be a lie if I said I understood what you were talking about," Legolas said angrily.
"Are you so far gone already?" Gimli cried. "Do you not realize what you have been doing for the bulk of the morning? All you do is stare at the sea. The rest of the world ceases to exist and you are lost to us. Do you not understand how dangerous that is?"
Legolas stared at Gimli in utter confusion. "I…I have been staring at the sea?"
Gimli sighed and nodded, feeling some of his anger at the elf drain away. "You have done little else, my friend."
With a frown, the elf looked at the sky. "When did we arrive here?"
"Just after sunrise."
"But that cannot be," Legolas said quietly. "It is now nearly midday."
"If nothing else, it has been a long morning," Gimli grumbled.
Legolas looked at the shield, then at the dwarf, and then back at the shield. "Where did you get this?"
"A guard inside loaned it to me," the dwarf answered rather evasively. "He will be indisposed for the next few hours, so you may keep it until then."
"He was reluctant to part with the shield and I was forced to convince him otherwise."
Legolas shook his head in wonder at this strange, emotional, impulsive being he thought of as a friend. "Were you to have acted so in Minas Tirith, I would not have spoken out had Aragorn decided to throw you in chains."
"Were we in Minas Tirith, I would not have needed the shield in the first place," Gimli returned. "And even if I had, the guards there are respectful enough that they would have given it to me."
The elf sighed and gave the dwarf a small, sad smile. "No, you would not have needed the shield in Minas Tirith. My apologies, Gimli, and my thanks. You have taken great pains on my behalf."
"No more than you would take on mine," Gimli answered. "But will you come inside now, Legolas? I think it would aid you if you could not see that for which you long."
"Aid me? Nay, I fear I am beyond aid, Master Dwarf. But if it will ease your heart, I will go inside. And mayhap we can find other things that will occupy our time. I would not see you severely wounded in another practice with axe and shield."
"Your fear is groundless, my friend, but I do fear for your sake," Gimli said. "Almost I took your head, and I now wonder how I would explained that to Aragorn and Eomer. Although," he continued with a sly glance at the elf, "such an action might have been an improvement."
Legolas laughed, and in that laugh Gimli could hear real mirth. The pain was still there, but now there was an opposing note of joy that Gimli hoped to encourage. "It would be an improvement only in your eyes," Legolas said, still laughing. "You would rid yourself of your superior, and perhaps others would be able to see you without seeing the greater being who walks beside you."
"Where is this greater being you speak of?" Gimli asked, making a show of looking around. "I would meet with him."
The elf laughed again, though now his laugh was quieter, and he looked back out to the sea. "Perhaps he does not really exist," Legolas said at length. "Perhaps he is merely a shell, and his essence has already fled this broken world."
The elf shook his head and turned to the dwarf. "Let us go inside. I fear I am poor company out here."
Gimli let out a small sigh of relief. "You will get no argument from me on that point. This way, then. There are quarters prepared for us if you wish to rest. And I do not think you slept yesterday."
"No, I didn’t," Legolas murmured, glancing toward the sea once more.
The dwarf mumbled something less than flattering under his breath and took the elf firmly by the arm. "You are tempting fate, Master Elf, and if you continue, you will have to take up your shield again. Take your eyes from the waters and look toward the castle." Gimli started forward, pulling Legolas along with him. "You will not find your mortal friends out there," he continued when he felt the elf resist a bit. "If you truly value our presence and wish for us to value yours, then you will rest in the fair halls of Prince Imrahil and rise refreshed, ready to journey again tonight."
"Does Aragorn intend to continue the journey at sunset?" Legolas asked, tearing his eyes away from the seashore and the flapping gulls as they passed through the main gate and into the castle.
"I do not know, but it would be prudent to prepare for such an event," Gimli answered.
"You surprise me," Legolas said with a smile. "Your words hold wisdom and I feel I must hearken to them."
"You surprise me for recognizing wisdom when it is given," the dwarf retorted. "Now come. Our quarters lie this way and you must sleep."
"As must you."
"I will take my rest only when I see that you are taking yours," Gimli said gruffly. "And I will listen to no more talk," he added when Legolas moved to protest. "Either you sleep or we will hone our skills with weapons. And I do not think Aragorn would be well pleased to learn that you have stolen shields from Imrahil’s guards."
For the second time that day, a burst of real mirth could be heard in Legolas’s laughter. "It will be as you counsel, Gimli. Lead me to my room and I will sleep. But promise me that you will also sleep."
"That promise I give gladly," Gimli said. "For my heart warns me that we will need all our strength and energy for the days ahead."
"I also feel that warning," Legolas said quietly. "For our sakes, I hope we are wrong. But something dark is stirring. We must be prepared."
* * * *
Aragorn shook his head in frustration and wondered just how much elven blood ran in Imrahil’s veins. After showing them to their quarters, the prince had vanished and neither Aragorn nor Eomer had been able to find him since. None of his knights seemed to know where he was, and members of his household were equally ignorant. It reminded Aragorn very much of hunting Legolas in Southern Ithilien with Gimli when the prince did not wish to be found. The ability to simply disappear was an innate talent of the elves, one they usually took for granted, and it seemed that Imrahil had inherited this gift.
"As near as I can tell, he is not outside the castle walls," Eomer reported, meeting Aragorn in the main hall. "Nor is he in the courtyard."
"The parapets and turrets are also empty save for a few guards," Aragorn sighed in return. "Even his own quarters seem vacated."
"Think you that we ought to leave off this search and seek our own rest?" Eomer questioned. "He did promise to introduce us to the delegation from Harad this evening and dine with us here in this hall. There would be time enough for talk then, and at least we would have taken some sleep."
"I do not believe this talk cannot wait until the evening," Aragorn answered, walking out of the hall and into the fair courtyard beyond. "Something about his manner alerted me. I fear what may happen if we do not inquire of him now."
"Yet we cannot inquire anything of him if we do not know where he is," Eomer reasoned. "And we are not aiding ourselves for we are not taking this allotted time to rest. The stain of travel hangs weary on me and we have yet a week of riding before we can reach Haradhur, or so you have said. Should we not take such opportunities as are presented us? We do not have the opportunity to speak to Imrahil, but we do have the opportunity for sleep."
"Opportunities are made or lost by men, and if we continue to seek Imrahil, we will find him," Aragorn said. "Rest if you wish, but I will continue the search. And I do not think it will be a fruitless search for much longer."
"Where, then, shall we look for him?"
Aragorn stood for a moment in silence, pondering over what he could suggest to Eomer, and then smiled as the answer came to him. His thoughts had led him down this path readily enough as they spoke of elves and of Legolas, but he had not seen the implications of their direction. Turning away from Eomer, he started for the main entrance to Dol Amroth’s castle. "I think we shall find him where many of the elven race or those of elven blood go to pause for thought. We shall find him by the sea."
* * * *
Wave upon wave in an endless cycle crashed against the rocky shore. Sprays of water shot upward, propelled by the force with which they hit the beach, and then disappeared only to be replaced by new advances of waves. In many ways, it could be likened to an army. Advancing ranks fell and new battalions surged forward in a never-ending battle for supremacy. Ever the shore repelled the sea as defenders of a fortress might repel invaders, but as time wore on and as wave after wave swirled against the rocks, the fortress would eventually fall, and then would come a new kingdom and a new dynasty.
Watching this interplay of nature, Prince Imrahil sighed and folded his arms across his chest, bowing his head as he surrendered himself to his feelings of misgiving. He had always prided himself on his ability to perceive the heart of friend or foe with an accuracy rivaling that of any elf, but now his senses were troubled and he had only a vague sense of foreboding. Yet that feeling was enough to trouble him, for it was a foreboding unlike any he had ever had before. Something…something was desperately wrong. But he could not with clearly explain what. One thing only he knew with certainty: danger lay in Harad. If King Aragorn and King Eomer left for that country, they and all that went with them would be in dire peril.
But how did one broach this subject to a descendent of Elendil and Isildur? Surely Aragorn was quite capable of defending himself and taking his own counsel in need. Would the vague misgivings of a prince be heeded? Imrahil suspected they would be, for he knew that Aragorn was a man to take into account all details. But how he could he impress upon his king the fact that he had never before been wrong. His feelings had always been accurate. And how could he explain just what he felt when he had confronted some of the tribal leaders from Harad? There was power in them, power that lurked beneath the surface and fled whenever he came close to discovering its source. It was a dangerous power and an evil one, or so he felt, but he could not even begin to define what he thought it was.
"I need more information," Imrahil sighed, looking back out at the white caps that continued to roll in. "With that I may prove my word. But where shall I find this and what form shall it take?"
"Perhaps we may aid you with that, Prince Imrahil. In any event, it would be wise to share with us the object of your search."
Usually so keen of hearing that no one took him by surprise, Imrahil leaped and turned. His quick, gray eyes widened at the sigh of a rather amused Aragorn and an impatient Eomer. "My liege," he stammered, unsure of how much Aragorn had overheard or how much he guessed.
"You promised to speak with us ere we rested, but when the time came, you were not to be found," Aragorn continued, watching Imrahil closely. "You should have told us of your intention to speak here."
"It was not my intention to speak here," the prince responded before he realized what he was saying. He quietly cursed himself and wondered what Aragorn’s response to this confession would be.
"I see," Gondor’s king said slowly. "Where, then, would you like to speak? The day grows long, and I would rest ere this evening. Eomer, too, is anxious to seek a soft bed before we resume our journey tonight."
Aragorn was clearly not going to give up, and Imrahil was beginning to realize that the king of Gondor had read him like a book. All his attempts at hiding his feelings of trouble had apparently been for naught. "I did not intend to speak here," Imrahil eventually said, "but since we are here, we may as well make use of the privacy. What would you speak about, my liege? If it lies within my power to provide answers, you shall have them."
"I wish to know you opinions concerning this invitation from the Haradrim," Aragorn said, wasting no time in striking at the heart of the subject. "If I am not mistaken, you are not at ease. Do you have some misgiving or foreboding that should be told?"
Imrahil was silent for a moment, considering the question and how to answer it. "Yes," he said at length. "Something is wrong. I have felt so since the delegates first arrived, yet I cannot pin down what troubles me. But there is a…a darkness. I do not know how else to describe it. Darkness shadows them, and I cannot see beyond its veil."
"Can you explain that more clearly?" Eomer asked. "Are there any in particular who give you this dark feeling?"
The prince began to pace, trying to put vague thoughts and impressions into concrete words and ideas. "It is as a breath of cold air on my neck. I think…I think perhaps some of the Haradrim are more dangerous than others, but I do not know which those might be. I know only that I shiver at their approach ere I even know they are near. They cloud my thoughts, and easy things become hard and obscure when they are around. And even with all this, I feel there is something more…" Imrahil trailed off and looked to the sea, eventually shaking his head. "I truly know nothing more than what I have told you save this: my feelings have never been wrong. Every misgiving I have ever had and every foreboding I have ever experienced has always been fulfilled in one way or another. My lieges, if you journey into Harad, you journey into danger."
"We assumed as much already," Aragorn said. "Is there more you can tell us by which to validate our fears?"
"Something dark is at work, more dangerous than the intrigues that one leader may have for another. I fear some sorcery or craft is to blame, and I do not know what to make of that." Imrahil sighed and shook his head. "Long have I known that evil hides in the desert, but never have I felt it so clearly."
"Sauron recruited heavily out of Harad," Aragorn mused quietly. "He had there many agents and many spies. But I would have thought that with his fall, they too would have fallen or at least dwindled into obscurity."
"That was my belief as well," Imrahil agreed. "And for the last seven years, such were my observations. Evil fell and vanished. But now…now it seems it has arisen again and in greater strength. Or if not greater strength, at least greater purpose."
"What do you believe that purpose to be?" Eomer questioned.
"I do not know, and I feel so uncertain that I dare not hazard a guess lest we follow my counsel to disaster," Imrahil admitted.
"Yet these men have been living under your roof for almost a week now," Aragorn said. "It required that long to send word to Eomer, Faramir, Gimli, and Legolas. Surely you know or guess something of their intentions."
"Perhaps," the prince said reluctantly. "Some I feel are honest enough. They are diplomats and politicians, and so there is always some secret agenda, but for some, I feel their secrets are much darker."
"Know you of any we can trust?" Aragorn asked. "For in such a journey as this, even though I have traveled the country, it would be a great help if we had an ally from within."
"I feel…" Imrahil trailed off, thinking long and hard. "The leader of the delegation is a man called Mohart," he eventually said. "He is from the Gartabo tribe and belongs to their five member governing council. I have dealt with him before and he has been reliable in his dealings. He feared the Nameless Land during its years of power, but I do not believe he or his tribe ever served it. They are largely agrarian based and grow such food as the desert allows. They may have paid tribute to the Enemy, but they did so out of terror, not loyalty."
"That is at least a start," Aragorn mused. "Come then, Imrahil. Tell us of the other members of the delegation? What is their number and strength?"
"All are men of renown and standing in their tribes, and most are from influential and powerful tribes," Imrahil said, grateful that he now had a question to which he could give informed answers. "Those that are not are at least from tribes that might interest Gondor and Rohan. One is from a tribe with great mineral wealth and another is from a tribe gifted in the making of fine silks. All told, there are nine delegates."
Aragorn stiffened slightly at this and Eomer regarded him curiously. "Is there significance to the number nine?"
"There were nine Ringwraiths," Aragorn said. "That in and of itself should be an omen to you, Eomer. But in this case, there is more to it. According to some traditions in Harad, the number ten represents perfection. The number nine is one short of perfection and seen as flawed and marred. By sending nine delegates instead of ten, they dishonor us. I do not know who arranged for that number, but I suspect they did not think we would know its significance. Yet when we ride into Haradhur behind nine delegates, it will be a mark against us that may be difficult to overcome."
"They would seek to dishonor us from the outset?" Eomer sounded outraged, and Aragorn hurried to intervene.
"I said some traditions, not all. It is quite possible that some of the tribes have no knowledge of the significance of this number, but I do know that other tribes are very aware of it. This slight is probably a result of only a few tribes who thought to gain some advantage over us." Aragorn thought for a moment and then turned to Imrahil. "Is there a way in which one of these tribal members can be detained here, and so we would journey to Haradhur with only eight?"
Prince Imrahil smiled, and a mischievous gleam flickered in his eyes. "I am sure such a thing can be easily arranged," he promised. "We will hold a short meal to honor your departure and after the dinner, I think one of them will not wish to travel."
"Then we had best make certain that your unfortunate victim is one you suspect strongly of ill intentions," Eomer advised with a sly grin of his own. "I would not lose our ally to your slight of hand."
"Trust in the prince of Dol Amroth," Imrahil said with a bow. "I shall not fail you, my liege lords, and when you set out tonight, eight shall guide your way."
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