Many Guises and Many Names
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Where the Stars are Strange: 1. Fugitive
Heat unrelenting beat down upon the southern plains, and mirages caused the ground and air to shimmer with a liquid translucence. He could feel it through his gloves, as Aragorn pulled himself painfully through a break in the rock wall and up onto a narrow shelf, gasping for air. Leaning against a looming granite monolith, he closed his eyes and pressed his left hand hard over his breastbone, feeling fresh blood leak from the wound to soak the layering of bandages. Once the hunter, now hunted in earnest, he had hoped that the journey through the desert lands of Harad would defeat his pursuers, and thus far it seemed to have worked. Only two had come for him, and the carrion hawks had doubtless stripped their bones clean after two days of lying on the sun-bleached plains. But even if I elude them, I doubt my strength will last 'til the next town, assuming I can find it! Aragorn thought, clenching his teeth as a convulsive shudder rippled through him. Wounded even ere he had fled, he had done what he could to stop the bleeding and guard against illness, but a hard journey prevented the slash from closing. And in spite of his precautions, he knew he was feverish. Exhaustion and short supplies did not help his predicament, and he sought now only shelter, a place where he could rest and recover… if that were his fate.
Opening his eyes, he gazed wearily down from his perch which overlooked a vast and ancient floodplain. Here and there, the ground shimmered white: there lay salt basins, evidence of Harad's lost seas. The sea! A sudden yearning to hear the roar of the waves as they crashed against the shores of Gondor flared in his heart. Two years and more it has been since last I set eyes upon it… since I crossed Anduin and came to this place. Nearly three years, in fact, since Thorongil had disappeared from Ecthelion's realm, shedding name and rank and all other signs of the West to take up the habit and speech of Harad. In that time, he had learned to hide in plain sight, even here where men were suspicious of strangers, and the Dark Lord's power held sway. After nearly thirty years of wandering, Harad was simply another place, another country, and its people were Men, no more and no less, and Aragorn was an adept mimic, well-versed in his art. But I am so weary of this, Aragorn thought, wincing as he dragged himself once more to his feet and stood, swaying slightly, in the shadow of the boulder. Drawn ever onward, to another name and another mask to hide behind, another role upon the stage that hosts this tragedy that Men call "life"… or is it a comedy? It matters little when one is alone. Arwen's face flashed through his mind, and he bit his lip hard enough to taste blood as a wave of heartsick longing swept over him. What I would not give to hear her voice, just once… in case.… He shook his dark head violently, rejecting the idea. Not to think of that now! While I have the strength, I must go on.
Slowly, taking great care not to make a misstep and plummet headlong to the rocks below, he made his way along the ledge. Rock like this was riddled through with caves, and where there was shade, one could find moisture enough to survive even the heat of the desert. On the ragged edge of feverish exhaustion, Aragorn did not notice the smear of blood he left behind on the rock face.
The Dog Days of summer had arrived with a vengeance, and all the land lay sweltering in the brassy afternoon sunlight. The streets of Dargalt were silent and empty, yet in the desert, a solitary figure moved. Indirkan squinted into the distance, and despite the scarf that shielded his mouth and nose from the dust, he felt a sneeze coming on as a hot breeze stirred. His dark hair hung in fine braids about his face, and the beads that traditionally ended them were a stark jet black, out of respect for those older and more seasoned than he. For Indirkan was yet a young man with little battle experience, and his father stood not high in the ranks of the Haradrim. A fallen family, his, or so they said: born of a line of the Unrepentant out of the dark days of the Kin Strife of Gondor, the family had fled south with the restoration of Anárion's line. But a traitor earns trust slowly–perhaps never–and the Haradrim were a people who placed much value on etiquette, on the infinitely refined and brutally ironclad codes that had evolved during the long years of war and struggle. Disloyalty was a sin that was never forgotten, and only power could cover it over. But as the long centuries passed, his family's wealth had dwindled, ending any hope of rising from the ashes of that centuries-old defeat.
Such a hopeless fate was hard for a young man to endure, and Indirkan was restless. On the one hand, he longed to prove himself, and thereby gain in standing and respect; but on the other, he felt himself riddled through with doubts. Dargalt, where dwelt his family, was a town little deserving the title of 'city' and it was far removed from tidings of war. Yet of late and at last, messengers had come riding: messengers out of Mordor bringing demands for more men in the service of Barad-dûr. Like all within the city's walls, he had been born to a regime that had not changed since the ending of the Second Age, and he knew well what he owed Sauron, Overlord of Harad. With his fellow citizens, he had gone to hear the commands that issued from the Great Tower, and to gaze upon the splendor of red and sable banners. The Messenger, proud and haughty, had been swathed head to foot in midnight black, upon which were embroidered in scarlet and gold the sigils of Mordor in Haradrim style, and Indirkan thought he had picked out the clan markings entwined in the design. Indirkan had stared as the brassy trumpets rang out, but the Messenger had not dismounted, disdaining to abandon his lofty perch and come among them. Indeed, he had held the crowd in silence for so long a time that even the Haradrim, accustomed to harsh discipline, had begun to shift uncertainly where they stood. Such arrogance was not uncommon among the high-born, and it might have troubled Indirkan little, accustomed as he was to the contempt of his neighbors, but that the Messenger's coal-black eyes had fallen upon him for a brief moment. And Indirkan, staring back, had felt a dread seize him.
For those eyes, darker than any he had ever seen, were as the depths behind the stars, empty and opaque. Not as the eyes of other men were those obsidian orbs, and insight had stabbed through him, sharp as a blade and as painful. Stained they are, those dark eyes! he thought as he began the ascent into the line of rocks that piled high above the plain. Stained with how much blood and suffering? What has he wrought, this one, to earn those robes? And intuition, certain as sunrise, replied instantly: murder. There had been a morbid quality to the other, as if the Man-form were but a shell inhabited by something inhuman, cruel…. And evil, he thought, shivering in spite of the heat. Since that day, he had lived in fear for his life, for he thought that surely he must have given himself away somehow, that such horror as he felt at the thought of serving such a one as the Messenger–and beyond him, the Overlord Sauron–could not possibly be concealed. Yet none had accosted him: his name had not been posted in the square upon the scaffold plate, nor had he been seized in the streets; his wanderings in the dry lands beyond the city had not been curtailed. For the first time, Indirkan began to think that his ill-fortune served him well, for people were accustomed to dismiss him, to ignore and overlook him so long as he guarded his silence. But how long will that be?demanded the nagging whisper in his head, despite his efforts to shut out such doubts as it voiced. How long, before some word or action of mine declares my unwillingness… my disloyalty? Or is it disloyalty? Ah, I know not, and I wish I could be free of this deadly game of silence!
That was why he spent his days in the desert, for though it tested a man harshly, it was at least clean. Here there are no others to judge, no others to scorn me–no others from whom I must hide my thoughts! Here there is space enough to reflect, he thought with vast relief, as he scrambled up among the rocky outcroppings that thrust at intervals from the earth. Shade was a precious commodity in such an arid land, and where others might see nothing but barren waste, Indirkan saw among these rocks a tiny oasis. Here might be found water, for the stones showed layering and were porous even at the base; and where there was water, there was life. Wending his way through the crevices, Indirkan's ascent was steady, and he marked well his trail, noting the hints of green clinging to the sheltered sides of rocks. Absorbed in his thoughts as he climbed up through a narrow chimney of rock, he almost missed it, but in the midst of his reflections, he stopped abruptly. A heartbeat passed, during which he knew not what precisely had caught his attention, but after a moment he perceived what his eyes had noted already: a darker mark upon the shaded-side of a high sandstone slab. Frowning, he approached carefully, and stretched out a hand to touch it. Damp… yet this is not water! For when he drew back his hand, his fingers were stained scarlet. Blood! This is blood! And not from an animal!
Feeling his hackles rise, Indirkan looked up sharply, searching the area for sign of danger. Away to his right, on the narrow ledge that led round the sheer rise of the rock formation, he noted another smear of blood, and rose slowly to his feet. As quietly as he could, he drew his dagger from its sheath, and followed the ominous trail. Already he suspected where it must lead, for as he rounded a bend, the ledge widened and plunged between two stony spires, ending in a deep patch of darkness: the entrance to a cave. A perfect hiding place for a bandit, Indirkan thought grimly. If bandit it be! There is little of worth in these parts, no trade wains that cross into Dargalt from this direction… who indeed would come here, other than I? The answer–someone similarly disaffected–did not inspire much hope, for Haradrim society made a virtue of fierce loyalty and equally fierce resistance in the face of the enemy. If I find him, he will fight, though the wound be mortal. I must be cautious!
So Indirkan advanced slowly, silent as a desert hawk gliding high over the sands. By the cave's mouth he paused to let his eyes adjust to the low light. And then, drawing a deep breath, he stepped within….
At first, he saw no one, only the vague shapes of rocks, yet a voice within him insisted that he was not alone. Indirkan scrutinized the cave's interior, wondering if he ought to retreat and return with help….
At that moment, he caught a hint of sudden movement out of the corner of his eye, and swift though he was, he turned too late. The dagger was knocked from his hand and skittered away out of sight. His assailant jabbed him hard in the solar plexus, and Indirkan felt all the air go out of his lungs in one shocked gasp as he collapsed to his knees. Sheer instinct, guided by training, let him lash out, directing his attack to the width of the other's body, seeking only to force him back. Thus he was quite surprised by the anguished grunt that came back as his opponent recoiled unexpectedly. Surprised as he was, Indirkan was not one to let an advantage slip away, and he lunged at the other, bearing him down beneath him. He felt the shock of impact jolt through them both, but either he had misjudged the other's condition or his enemy was better trained than he had guessed, for the blade of the other's hand slammed into the juncture of Indirkan's neck and shoulder, and the young Haradrim felt his arm go numb. Ere he could move to recover, he was thrust away expertly and with such force that he hit the rock wall of the cave, cracking his head, and he slid gracelessly to the ground, stunned. His ears rang and his vision blurred from the blow, and he felt his enemy's hands hard upon him as he slid into the darkness. His last sight, ere oblivion claimed him, was of brilliant silver-grey eyes in a fierce face, and then he knew no more.
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