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Land of Light and Shadows: 14. Forces of Nature
Dashnir wondered if Aragorn ever became frustrated with the actions of those beneath him in authority. The king of Gondor possessed remarkable patience, but surely Eomer’s youth and brashness taxed his temper from time to time. In many ways, the young king of Rohan could be likened to Garat, who now stood defiantly before Dashnir, ready to defend his words and his deeds. How is it that I am cursed with allies who can not see the quicksand until they are floundering about in it? The plan had been going so smoothly! Dashnir had sent his recommendations to Asbad, Asbad had altered his own preparations accordingly and approved the change in strategy, but now this should happen! Thinking rapidly through the situation and attempting to find a remedy for the blundering mistakes of his colleague, Dashnir leveled a stony glare at Garat and folded his arms across his chest.
"Do you realize what you have done?"
Garat scowled and folded his arms in return, moving closer to Dashnir as though to intimidate him. "I believe I have given Eomer cause for thought and taught him that men of Harad are not to be challenged so impudently. At least, I would have taught him that had not you taken away his memory of what happened. Beyond that, I have confirmed that your shadow firmly lies over the elf’s mind. Is that not something about which you have wondered?"
"I will answer my own questions in my own time," Dashnir answered coolly, restraining the urge to physically lash out at Garat for his insolence. It was true that Dashnir had been trying to learn whether or not he had successfully drawn a veil of shadow over the elf’s mind; and it was true that the success of such a veiling held future ramifications; but such information was not so vital that secrets had to be sacrificed in order to obtain it or foreign dignitaries assaulted and knifed in order to defend it. "Plans may have to be altered because of your foolishness," Dashnir continued at length. "We have given King Elessar more cause than ever to suspect us, for none of the men from Gartabo would dare attack an outside warrior. We have wounded King Eomer of Rohan, and the Rohirrim will not take this insult lightly. Only the rumor of Khurintu’s standing and power now holds them at bay, and I wonder if it will be enough to save us when darkness falls again and the men learn of their king’s wounding. If he calls us out and pins us with words, all our planning will be for naught."
Garat bristled and his eyes narrowed. "And what would you have done in my place, Dashnir? Eomer would not be stayed nor would he be turned aside. I have a right to defend myself and I have a right to defend my honor."
"You did not have to provoke him to attack."
"He came upon me ready for a fight," Garat snapped. "He needed little excuse to act."
"The king of Rohan is young and haughty, but he is neither so young nor so haughty as to attack another man without cause," Dashnir answered, his voice going cold. "What words did you speak to him that caused him to act so? And how did he come to be in the desert with you when you launched the hawk?"
"Do not seek to blame me for that," Garat hissed. "I know not what prompted Eomer to ride into the desert, nor do I know how he found me. I have given no information as to the manner or methods of our communication with our tribal heads, and I can only explain his arrival as coincidence. And as for my words to him, I said nothing that we have not said over the past few days. He accused us of inciting Bron’s raiders to attack and he accused us of casting a shadow over the elf’s mind. And I answered him as we have been answering both Eomer and Elessar."
"There is no such thing as coincidence," Dashnir murmured, rubbing his temples. It pained him to show such a display of weakness before Garat, but the clouding of Eomer’s mind was beginning to take its toll on him. He would be weary for the night’s ride, adding to Elessar’s suspicions and further incriminating him. But he could have done nothing else, for Garat had spoken words to Eomer that could easily be sifted by an able mind and reveal much of their purpose and planning. It had been necessary to blank Eomer’s memory. Yet such an act was not without cost, and he would pay the price for it in the evening. He was already paying much of the price in the way of a pounding headache that was beginning to settle in.
"Perhaps we should continue this discussion at a later time," Garat suggested, revealing a sadly underused talent for sensing when a conversation could do no more good. "We cannot anticipate what might come of this in the evening, and we are best served by seeking rest now."
"Retire then, if you wish," Dashnir sighed, waving his hand in dismissal. "I doubt not but what I shall join you shortly."
"And in the interim?"
"There are things I must ponder," Dashnir answered, turning away from Garat and seating himself on the carpets that made his bed. "You claim you spoke no words to Eomer that he has not already heard?"
"I cannot vouch for my exact phrasing, but I gave him no information that has not been given before," Garat answered somewhat indignantly.
Dashnir grunted and shook his head. "Odd. I had not anticipated that Eomer should react so. My observations of him did not indicate that he would sooner resort to violence and confrontation. From what I believed, such actions would first have to be condoned by Elessar."
"I am surprised the dwarf was not with him," Garat grumbled, betraying his distaste for the stocky creature. "Those dark eyes have been upon us often of late, and were he not constrained by the wishes of a higher authority, I would wager that his axe would long ago have sought our blood."
Dashnir frowned. "Yes, that is strange. Strange that the dwarf did not act but the king of Rohan did. I wonder why that should be."
"Is it possible that the elf’s shadow is somehow affecting Eomer?" Garat wondered. "But then, would it not affect the King Elessar if that were the case? For he seems immune and I detect no shift or variance in his personality."
"You are unobservant," Dashnir replied testily. "Aragorn’s mind is in disarray, though he hides it well. Yet that is another factor that must be considered." The man sighed and rubbed his fingers against his temples. "I think you have it aright, Garat. The effects of the elf’s shadow are spilling into his closest associates by virtue of proximity. They are also becoming separated from Eru’s song. Elessar hides it better as he is more resistant to this than is Eomer, and I would credit his lineage with that advantage. But the dwarf…that is another matter entirely." Dashnir was quiet for a moment, thinking through the problem. "I have heard it said that dwarves are also bound to Eru’s song much like the elves, though in different ways and with different results. If this is true, then his tie with the song will prevent him from falling beneath the shadow unless I attack him directly."
"And because men have no direct link with the song, they may be sundered without your aid," Garat concluded. "What is to be done now?"
"Gondor and Rohan cannot fall apart before the Gathering," Dashnir said, speaking quietly as though to himself. "Our victory over them will be more convincing if they are seen as united, though their weaknesses may ultimately aid us."
"Can you mend what the shadow has marred?"
Dashnir closed his eyes and considered the problem. "I should consult with Asbad before taking any steps."
"Then it can be done."
"I can remove the shadow from the elf," Dashnir said, opening his eyes and shaking his head. "And by reuniting elf with song, the effect will be to disperse the shadow on Elessar and Eomer. Unfortunately, their judgement will sharpen, the elf shall have his senses once more, and I know not when such a thing can be done."
"Removing the shadow requires time, then."
"No more time than placing the shadow, but it shall leave both myself and the elf drained afterwards. And it shall have to be done when the elf and I are alone. We arranged that once. I do not know if we could arrange it again, for we are now watched."
"Then perhaps there is another way," Garat suggested. "Kill the elf."
"Such drastic action must needs be approved by our superiors."
"I see nothing drastic about it," Garat argued. "The elf was not invited to the Gathering and comes only as escort to King Elessar. His death affects neither great plans nor policies."
"Are you blind, Garat?" Dashnir demanded, wondering how the scheming Warra tribe could have promoted a man like this to second-in-command. "That elf is a close friend to both kings, and his death will certainly be felt. King Elessar may even decide to withdraw, and I have no doubt but what the elf’s death will drive the dwarf mad. No, we cannot act so hastily, nor can we act without regard to consequences. At this time, we must press on with our plan, but I will dispatch a hawk ere we leave tonight. Perhaps Asbad will be able to arrange something in Haradhur and we can act then."
"But by then it will be too late. Did you not say that Gondor and Rohan must appear at their best when we enter Haradhur?"
"It would be most profitable for us if they did so, but we cannot accomplish such a thing. I am too weary from misting Eomer’s mind this morning to remove the shadow from the elf tonight, and we know not if Asbad recommends such a policy."
"I never took you for a puppet, Dashnir, but perhaps in this I was wrong," Garat said coldly.
"If by that you mean to insinuate that I have loyalty whereas you have none, then I will take your words as a compliment," Dashnir answered calmly, but his voice sent shivers down Garat’s spine. "You join us only to see the head of your own tribe assassinated with yourself guaranteed to take his place. And Khurintu has agreed to this because your tribe might be of use to us. But know this, Garat. We do not need you. And if you stray too far from our wishes and desires, you shall find yourself dead alongside your leader Joranen."
"Take care whom you threaten, Dashnir."
"Take care where you place your feet, Garat. You tread dangerous ground and we are watching you."
For an endless moment, Dashnir and Garat stared at one another, evaluating strengths and weaknesses. A casual observer might have noticed nothing unusual, but to one who knew the ways of the desert, the confrontation became so tense as to be just short of physical blows. After what seemed like an eternity, Garat finally broke off his gaze and shrugged. "If it is the wish of your tribe to wait, then so be it. I will wait. But I warn you that the perils of delay are not to be underestimated. And if we do not act quickly, our victory over Rohan and Gondor shall be a hollow one that will earn us nothing in the way of respect from the other desert tribes."
"A way shall be found," Dashnir said, turning away and moving to lie down. His headache was now so painful that it was a wonder he could still see, and his face-off with Garat had not helped matters. "My people have waited long for a moment such as this to come. It shall not be squandered."
Garat grunted and turned to seek his own bed, sensing that the conversation had come to an end. Before long, the veteran warrior had cast himself into a world of dreams, and his deep breathing began to lull Dashnir. But sleep was not so quick to find the delegate from the Khurintu tribe, for his mind was struggling with the problems newly arisen. Garat’s defiance was something to be expected, and Dashnir was not terribly concerned about it. After a year or so of leadership in the Warra tribe, Garat would be killed by an assassin from Khurintu and the desert would be rid of him. But the matter of Eomer and Elessar…this was a troubling development. Yet he could not see a way of removing the shadow from the elf ere they reached Haradhur. He would have to stay his distance and play his cards carefully so as to ensure that no further deterioration came to them. Perhaps Garat was right, though. Perhaps the elf should be quietly eliminated. But in order to do this, they would have to confront the dwarf—who now never seemed to leave the elf’s side—and the elf was quite a capable warrior in his own right. He would not go quietly. No, they could not resort to murder so early in the plan. It was not yet time and it would be too easy for things to go awry.
Dashnir sighed and rubbed his brow, wincing as this increased the throbbing of his head. There were no ready answers to this and it seemed that his best policy was the one he had already decided upon. They could do nothing but wait. Anything more than that would jeopardize operations already underway. With a grimace of frustration, Dashnir slowly turned over and pillowed his head on one arm. He was doing himself and his tribe little good by slogging through problems with no solutions. It was best to rest now and struggle later. So with a resigned sigh, Dashnir allowed his mind to shut down, and it was not long before he fell into the silky darkness of a dreamless sleep.
* * * *
On a rare and historic occasion, Gimli was the first one in the tent to wake. This was such a surprising development that for the first few minutes, the dwarf was at a loss as to how to spend his time and whether or not he should rouse the others. His ultimate conclusion was that there was probably an hour left of daylight and that was an hour of heat that his friends could do without. Though it was tempting to spread the misery, Gimli decided that especially in the case of Eomer, it was probably best to let the others receive as much sleep as possible.
Once having decided this, Gimli began looking for other ways to spend his time. He packed his own belongings away, surreptitiously checked on Legolas only to find that the elf was sleeping quite soundly, and debated the idea of searching out Imhran and Arhelm in order to learn more of Eomer’s strange disappearance and reappearance in the early morning. Unfortunately, that would mean venturing into the sun, and in light of Aragorn’s earlier warnings, Gimli wasn’t certain he wanted to do that. But if he didn’t do that, what else could he do? Perhaps this policy of early rising was not all that Legolas made it out to be. What did the elf do with his time when he woke before the others? Probably contemplates the stars and the trees, the dwarf snorted with a sidelong look at his friend. Legolas’s eyes were open as was customary for elven sleep, but they were glazed over in a way Gimli had not seen before. Nor had the elf so much as stirred when Gimli’s cautious hand had reached down to time the pulse in the prince’s neck.
"Those leaves of Aragorn’s certainly knocked you out," the dwarf said, wondering if he shouldn’t start waking Legolas now so that the elf would be coherent for the ride. Still, Aragorn probably knew more about this than Gimli and if Legolas needed to be roused early, the king would have already done so. Right?
Gimli frowned, reconsidering that last thought. Aragorn had not been himself of late, and perhaps things like waking a drugged elf no longer found room in his mind for prioritization. Eomer would certainly know nothing on the subject, which mean the task fell to Gimli, who could only rely on hunches and intuition in this matter. Still, perhaps in this my instincts are better than Aragorn’s facts, for facts must be weighed and interpreted and I fear he has lost that ability. It pained Gimli to make such a judgement of the king of Gondor, even if it was only a silent, mental one, but the dwarf was becoming convinced that it was the truth. He had watched Aragorn ere they all turned in for sleep, and the man had not been thinking clearly. He had been plagued by indecision and doubt, something Gimli had never before seen in Aragorn, and he seemed incapable of sorting what little concrete information and reliable guesses he had. Aragorn simply could not come to a decision he trusted, and that frightened Gimli.
"Perhaps this is to be expected given the desert surroundings, but I am no judge of men," the dwarf murmured, studying Aragorn as the king whispered quietly in his sleep and turned over. "Yet I cannot turn to you for help, for at this point, you are no more of a judge than am I."
Gimli sighed, shook his head, and then glanced toward Eomer, feeling his heart fall even deeper into a black pit of despair. Whatever affected Aragorn was thoroughly consuming Eomer. Something had happened to the horse-lord of Rohan that went deeper than any darkness shadowing Aragorn’s mind. The dwarf stiffened involuntarily as he remembered Eomer’s words to Legolas earlier in the morning. Gimli had been seconds away from teaching the king a lesson in manners, and had it not been for Legolas’s firm words and restraining arm, the dwarf would have hastened after Eomer as he rode away from the company. How dare he throw something like that in the face of Gimli’s best friend! He knew what ailed Legolas and he knew how much it bothered the elf! To mention the prince’s lost senses and to make a mockery of them at the same time…it was fortunate for Eomer that Legolas had managed to keep a level head, or Eomer would no longer have a head at all.
The dwarf grimaced and decided to turn his thoughts away from Eomer and Aragorn. Speculation at this point was useless, for he knew too little to hazard any reliable guesses. Stretching slowly and easing the kinks from taut muscles in his back, Gimli padded over to one of the tent flaps and risked a brief look outside. He instantly regretted it. Though the sun was setting, the desert was rippling with the heat of the day and a blast of that heat caught Gimli full in the face. Quickly letting the flap fall shut, Gimli retreated to the relative cool of the tent—though that relative cool still had the dwarf sweating like a troll despite the fact that he had yet to don his chain-mail—and tried to think of something to do.
Among dwarves, boredom is usually only experienced around members of a different Race. When a dwarf is with his own people, there are far too many things to discuss and debate for a dwarf to even approach boredom. It is only when dwarves begin associating with man that they will occasionally become bored, for men discuss action and deeds far past the time that a dwarf will actually take that action and do those deeds. To his credit, Gimli had learned to control his impatience for the most part, and it must be said that a great deal of his new-found temperament control came from his association with an elf. Gimli would never admit such a thing, but the facts of the situation were slowly manifesting themselves despite the dwarf’s wishes. And without Legolas around to diffuse the relative mediocrity of his surroundings, Gimli was approaching a stage of boredom that would have most sane individuals ducking for cover. A bored dwarf is an open invitation for trouble, and Gimli was evincing all the signs that he was ready to do something about his boredom.
Fortunately for the others, there was a small glimmer of patience left to the dwarf, and before he could charge out of the tent intending to confront Dashnir and Garat about their role in harming his comrades, Gimli’s faint ribbon of patience convinced him that he needed to talk the idea through with Legolas. Of course, this went against his earlier doubts about waking the elf, but the patient portion of his mind was insistent, taking on a rather peculiar air of impatience itself. I am but one contradiction after another this morning, Gimli sighed, at the same time recognizing that his self-evaluation has a rather elvish quality to it. And I have been associating with you, Legolas, far too long.
With a small smile, the dwarf knelt by his friend and grasped his shoulder gently, giving it a slight shake. "Legolas? Legolas, we must speak. Come, Legolas, it is unlike you to let a dwarf rise first."
The elf murmured something in Sindarin and shrugged, attempting to dislodge Gimli’s hand. Gimli tightened his grip and shook the elf again, this time patting his cheek in the hopes of raising a better response.
"I am not that easily dissuaded, Master Elf. Clear your eyes and look upon me. Come, Legolas, for it is not long before we must ride again, and I would speak with you concerning Dashnir and Garat. Legolas? Legolas, you must wake!"
With a grunt, the elf rolled over and buried his face beneath his arms. "Gimli, if there is not an acceptable reason for this, I shall use your axe to shave your beard."
The dwarf smiled and gave the elf another shake. "All the way now, my friend. You are almost there. Just a bit more and I shall leave you alone."
"I doubt that."
Gimli laughed and stepped back. "I shall leave you alone for at least a short while, then. Come, will you not test my word?"
"What need have I to test it when already I know the answer?" Legolas asked, lifting his arms and glaring at the dwarf with sleepy eyes.
"Those leaves affected you greatly," the dwarf observed, sitting down as the elf struggled into a sitting position. The anger behind Legolas’s answering glower was greatly diminished when it was interrupted by a large yawn, and Gimli chuckled. "Perhaps I should give you a little more time to rouse your weary senses. What think you, my friend?"
"I think Aragorn put more in my drink than simply ôlgalenas."
"Did not you watch him?"
"I did, but I am beginning to suspect that he planned my drugging long in advance and had already coated the interior of the cup with ôlgalenas extract. That would also explain why he gave in so easily when I insisted upon only one leaf."
"Aragorn did mention being surprised that you succumbed so quickly," Gimli said in defense of their sleeping comrade.
"Even three leaves should not have had such an affect on me were conditions normal," Legolas murmured. "But as we both know, conditions are far from normal. I suspect I fell to its influence faster because of what has happened."
"Because of ú-glîr," Gimli summarized. "Does it pain you to even speak its name, Legolas?"
The elf shrugged slightly. "I find that many small things bother me now, and I know not what may be the cause. But you did not wake me to speak of this, Gimli. What was your errand in rousing me from sleep?"
The dwarf took a breath, attempted to put into words his many thoughts and feelings, and ultimately settled on a simple sentence that would tell Legolas everything the elf needed to know. "I was becoming bored."
"Ah." Legolas nodded and seemed to become more alert. "Then I forgive you for waking me. The consequences would prove far more terrible had you endeavored to entertain yourself on your own. I trust you had some activity in mind?"
"I thought to instruct Dashnir in the ways of dwarven diplomacy."
Legolas laughed and a genuine smile crept over his face. "Remember, elvellon, that I wish to see this lesson. You are not allowed to begin the teaching without me." The elf yawned again and stretched, shaking his head as though trying to rid himself of the haze that still lingered in his mind. "So have you decided against such action or do you still wish to pursue your version of diplomacy?"
"You know well the answer to that, but the immediate need to take Dashnir to task is beginning to die away. Yet I am a dwarf, Legolas, and dwarves do not take well to inaction, particularly when something has injured or grieved one of our companions. I think Faramir describes it best when he speaks of men of Gondor. Dwarves do not boast often, and when we do, we perform or die in the attempt. I have vowed that Dashnir shall pay for what he is done, and as a dwarf, I am held to that promise. I grow anxious and restless when I am unable to keep it."
"I must contest one point, Master Dwarf," Legolas said slowly and deliberately. "It seems to me that dwarves are always boasting as opposed to your claim that they do not boast often. Or perhaps that is only true of you and does not apply to other dwarves."
Gimli sighed in exasperation. "I know not why I share such things with you, for you are clearly incapable of understanding."
"You have said this before," Legolas answered, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth. "And yet still you pursue this folly in coming to me with such things. Is that not a greater reflection upon yourself? But come," the elf continued when Gimli began to protest. "Judging from the shadows upon the tent, the sun is nigh unto setting. Let us rouse Aragorn and Eomer, for I would hear what the horse-lord has to tell us."
"And I would hear his apology for rash words spoken earlier."
The elf sighed and studied his friend. "Have you forgotten so quickly, Gimli? This malady is upon me, not you. If I choose not to remember words spoken in anger and beneath a shadow, then that is my choice and my right."
"And have you forgotten so quickly, Legolas, that I promised to stand by you? I said it once and I say it again—in confronting you, they have confronted me. Your enemy is my enemy, Master Elf, for a dwarf does not leave loyalties by the wayside."
"Then do not abandon your loyalty to Eomer," Legolas said, rising and moving toward Aragorn. "I judge that he will need our support not our censure." Gimli grunted at this but gave no more answer. Realizing that this was probably the best he could hope for from the dwarf, Legolas sighed and directed his attention toward the king of Gondor. "Aragorn? Aragorn, you must rise."
A muffled groan emerged from Aragorn and the man turned over, sighing and mumbling incoherently. "I am surprised our conversation did not wake him," Gimli murmured, drawing near and studying the former Ranger. "You speak truly, Legolas, when you say that the shadow affects them. How is it that I am spared?"
"I know not, Gimli, but I am thankful it is so. So long as you refrain from diplomacy, I can trust that you have your wits about you."
Gimli frowned and drew himself up indignantly as Legolas began to gently shake Aragorn. "And think you that I lose my wits when I engage in diplomacy?"
The elf smiled but did not answer, for Aragorn chose that moment to groan and slowly open his eyes. Taking a moment to collect his bearings, he looked first at Legolas and then at Gimli. "What time is it?" he finally asked.
"High time for you to be up and doing," Gimli answered, stalking over to Eomer. He caught a warning look from Legolas and nodded reluctantly, accepting the message and silently promising to control himself before turning back to Rohan’s king. "Eomer? Eomer, you have much to explain to us." The horse-lord muttered something and batted at Gimli’s hand, which had come to rest on his shoulder. Tightening his grip, the dwarf bent forward and tried again. "Eomer, it is nearing the time when we must depart. Rise and let us do what must be done ere we can set off."
"You are waking Eomer?" Aragorn asked, getting to his feet and moving toward Gimli.
"I am attempting to wake Eomer, yes," the dwarf answered, looking at Legolas and then shifting his eyes to Aragorn. The elf’s mouth tightened, but he quickly nodded, catching Aragorn by the shoulders and steering him away.
"My liege, I have somewhat to say to you concerning a cup of ôlgalenas that you gave me this morning," Legolas told Aragorn.
With the king of Gondor occupied, Gimli bent his concentration once more on Eomer. The last thing the king of Rohan needed right now was evidence of the fact that Aragorn had risen before him. The competition between the two men needed no more fueling. "Eomer?" Gimli whispered, giving the king a firm shake. "Eomer, wake!"
"Seek out Legolas," Eomer murmured irritably. "I am sure he is in need of someone to annoy him."
That sounded more like the horse-lord that Gimli knew and he felt hope rise in him. Perhaps this journey could still work out for their welfare. But there were still questions that needed answers, and Gimli was not one to let another off the hook so easily, even if that other happened to be the king of Rohan. "I have already bothered Legolas this morning and it is now your turn, unless you can rise and give me reason to take my business elsewhere," Gimli answered, shaking Eomer again. "Hurry, unless you wish to delay our departure."
That seemed to trigger something within Eomer and the young king opened his eyes, blinking and wiping his face free of the sweat that had beaded during the heat of the day. Turning his face toward Gimli, he frowned and started to sit up. "You are awake early."
"No, you slept late," the dwarf answered, standing moving back a step. "Legolas and I had to rouse both you and Aragorn," he added, letting Eomer know that he was not alone in his weariness. "Know you why you slept so long? Do you remember lying down to sleep?" Or reminding Legolas of his diminished senses, the dwarf added silently, his hand involuntarily straying to his axe.
Eomer yawned and slowly got to his feet, a frown forming on his face. "No, I do not remember. I recall…I recall arriving at Lake Nurnein, but I remember no more than that. My memory is as a dark cloud, and I cannot penetrate it." He fell quiet and then flexed his left arm, wincing as shiver of pain shot through it. Glancing down, he discovered that it was wrapped and a light bloodstain was forming on the cloth. The king’s eyes darted back to Gimli, concerned and confused. "Were we attacked? What happened?"
"That is what we would all like to know," Gimli sighed, turning around and searching for Legolas and Aragorn. He quickly spotted the two in one corner of the tent where they seemed to be having a muted argument about what was and was not acceptable when prescribing medicine. The dwarf shook his head and hid a smile. He had only wanted the elf to distract Aragorn, not become distracted himself. Gimli cleared his throat noisily and the two turned toward him. "Eomer is awake, and if we wish to answer questions, I suggest we do it now."
Aragorn and Legolas exchanged brief glares and Gimli wondered exactly what they had said to one another before his interruption, but he doubted not that he could weasel such information from Legolas during the ride. He was becoming quite adept at getting his silent friend to speak and he intended to see how far this ability went and how long he would have it. Sneaking a glance back at Eomer, Gimli felt a shiver run down his spine. The young king was watching Aragorn with barely veiled suspicion. Whatever was affecting Eomer was still at work, and since Aragorn had been so easily dissuaded by Legolas, Gimli suspected that the same could be said for the king of Gondor.
"How do you feel?" Aragorn asked, and Gimli sensed Eomer stiffen at the question.
"I am quite well," the horse-lord said. "And yourself?"
"Eomer does not remember how he came to be here," Gimli said, revealing what the king of Rohan could not. "Aside from his loss in memory, I judge he has recovered."
"Imhran and Arhelm found you by the lake," Legolas said, speaking up before Aragorn could do so. "You had been injured and were unconscious. Do you remember what happened to you?"
"As I already told Gimli and as Gimli has just now told you, no," Eomer said, his eyes narrowing as he considered both the dwarf and Aragorn. For his part, Aragorn looked lost, and Gimli felt another shiver creep down his spine. Aragorn never looked lost. He always knew exactly where he was going and how he was going to get there. Even on the plains of Rohan, he let indecision claim him for only a moment and then it was gone. But now…
"You remember nothing whatsoever?" Aragorn asked, his voice sounding uncertain. Behind him, Legolas winced and looked urgently at Gimli, but the dwarf had no more answers than did the elf.
"I believe that is what I already said," Eomer answered coolly. "My last memory is of arriving at Lake Nurnein. After that, there is a blank."
"Dashnir?" Gimli asked, looking to Legolas.
The elf pressed his lips together and shook his head slightly. "We know too little, but your guess is sound. I suspect it was Dashnir. As for what he did, that is another matter." Legolas became quiet, considering the meager facts that they had.
"If this is Dashnir’s work, then he has demonstrated he is not afraid to strike out against our company," Gimli said. "We must retaliate for this."
"No, we cannot," Aragorn interrupted, his eyes closed and his jaw tight. "I know that I am affected by a strange shadow, as is Eomer, and that you have no reason to trust my judgement, but in this, I am right. We cannot act yet. We have not the basis and neither have we the evidence. And if we act before the game is played out, we act prematurely."
"This talk makes little sense to me," Eomer spat, folding his arms across his chest. "I know not what may affect Aragorn, but I feel hale and—"
"Listen to your words, Eomer!" Gimli said, rounding on the horse-lord. "You are dismissing potential clues and taking brash action. This is unlike you, and you know it. How can you believe you are not affected? Think, Eomer!"
An awkward silence fell and after a moment, Eomer was forced to drop his eyes from the burning gaze of the dwarf. "Perhaps you are right," he murmured. "My apologies, if I have done aught to offend."
"That is well and good," Gimli said gruffly. "For this morning ere you rode away, you—"
"It matters not," Legolas suddenly interrupted, glaring at the dwarf. "The sun is setting and it is time for our company to depart. By your leave, my lieges, if you shall see to your troops then Gimli and I will see to the packing in here."
Recognizing an opportunity to seize command when it was presented, Aragorn nodded curtly. "Pack with haste," he ordered. "We must arrive at Haradhur in good time. And Eomer…" Aragorn paused, his brow knitting itself in frustration and then his expression cleared as though something had clicked in Aragorn’s brain. "Eomer, is this to your approval?"
For his part, Eomer looked startled to be brought into this discussion and he nodded as if by reflex. "I…I trust your judgement, Aragorn. What you counsel I will heed. Let us see to the men while Legolas and Gimli see to our own belongings. I would also speak with Imhran and Arhelm. Perhaps they can tell us more of what happened."
So saying, Eomer left the tent with Aragorn following him closely. Gimli let out a sigh of relief and looked at Legolas. "How did you do that?"
The elf shrugged. "When you endure several centuries of covering for a king’s faults as I have, you learn how to diffuse these situations." He was silent for a moment, lost in though, and then he seemed to shake himself. "Come. Aragorn spoke truly, and there is a need for haste."
"My apologies, Legolas, if I brought to life troubling memories."
"The memories are no fault of yours," Legolas answered, swiftly packing away Aragorn’s belongings and secretly palming some of the larger ôlgalenas leaves. Gimli smiled but said nothing, turning to begin packing Eomer’s supplies. In any case, the elf was right. They had need of haste and Gimli had the length of the night’s ride in which to tease the elf about his fear of being drugged. Despite their lingering problems, the dwarf was beginning to look forward to this.
* * * *
Shade was nervous. Eomer could feel it, and the knowledge hurt him greatly. The horse had shied when Eomer came to mount him, and he now galloped as though skittish and frightened. The horse-lord wondered what he could have done to earn such fear from the chief of the Mearas, and not for the first time this night, he cursed whatever darkness had fallen over him. Gimli had been right. He was not himself, but at the moment, he did not know what was wrong nor did he know how to correct it.
The horse-lord carefully went over all the conversations he had endured this evening, but he could find no new information in any of them. Imhran and Arhelm had revealed nothing he did not already know save for information concerning Shade. Apparently when Eomer was found, the stallion had been standing guard over his unconscious form and favoring his right foreleg. Judging from the horse’s gait as he ran, the limb was still stiff but Shade was too proud to let that trouble him. Still, Eomer wondered how Shade had come to be injured, for he certainly had no memory of it happening. But then, I have no memory of how I came to have this, he thought, studying his left forearm. What had happened to him? What was happening to all of them?
He was loath to question Aragorn, for Aragorn had already made it clear that he had no ready answers. Had Eomer’s mind not been so clouded by his own self-doubts and indignation, though he was beginning to bring these things under control, he would have recognized how unusual it was that Aragorn could not unravel this puzzle. But the shadow still hung heavy over the king of Rohan despite his efforts to throw it off, and he could not see the ramifications behind the fact that Aragorn had no solution. He could only see that it was useless to press the issue. In addition to this, Eomer could not bring himself to show a lack of knowledge before the other king. It was a weakness, and though he was now aware that this weakness was amplified by the darkness that had fallen over them, he still could not ask Aragorn for help or advice.
Now considering the strange mental shadow as well as his lost memory, Eomer shot a suspicious glance at Dashnir. The man had been unusually quiet when they were gathering to leave Nurnein. Not that Dashnir was ever particularly talkative, but he typically said something about the pace they would need to set or the tribes they might encounter on the way. But this time, all such discussion had taken place between Aragorn, Fastahn, and Garat. It could be that the presence of so many from the Gartabo tribe had silenced Dashnir’s voice. Eomer had received the distinct impression at Dol Amroth that there was no love lost between Dashnir and Mohart. But why would commoners from Gartabo have such an affect on a tribal ruler from Khurintu? No, it made no sense. There had to be another explanation, and after surreptitiously watching him for the last two hours, Eomer was more convinced than ever that something was wrong with Dashnir. He seemed weary and ill. He sat his mount poorly this night, and he seemed to have difficulty matching the pace of the company.
Eomer’s thoughts were abruptly interrupted when, to his left, Faensul suddenly snorted and half-reared, nearly throwing Gimli from his back. The dwarf cried out and grabbed Legolas’s quiver, almost pulling the elf off as he pulled himself back on. For Legolas’s part, the elf was now whispering softly to the horse but it seemed to do not good. Beneath Eomer, Shade suddenly neighed and shook his head, biting at the bit and fighting the reins. Nor were Shade and Faensul the only horses to begin acting up. Most of the Rohirrim were now having problems with their mounts and the company was falling into disarray as some of the horses stopped altogether, causing those in the rear to stop also or attempt to skid around them.
"Eomer!" Aragorn cried sharply, reining Arnor around as Shade reared and whinnied. "Eomer, what is this?!"
"I know not!" Eomer shouted back, surprising himself with his honesty. But it felt good to be frank with his friend and ally, and a sense of confidence stole back into his being. Unfortunately, it was interrupted when Shade reared again, pawing at the air with his forelegs and shaking his head violently.
"They fear something," Legolas called out, finally getting Faensul to calm down though the horse now had his ears back and his eyes trained on the eastern horizon. Gimli’s arms were wrapped around the elf’s waist in a death grip and Legolas himself was clutching the horse’s mane hard.
"Do you know what they—" Aragorn was forced to stop because at that point, the even-tempered Arnor abruptly gave a snort and spun around, almost throwing the king of Gondor from the saddle.
"Storm!" Fastahn shouted, pointing east. Eomer backed Shade up, fighting the horse every step of the way, and turned to look to the east. What he saw shocked him. His eyes widened and his breath caught in his throat as he tried to process the reality now engulfing the horizon. Looming large before all and gathering strength as it went was a rising cloud of sand, billowing toward them with a speed unmatched by even the eagles. The Haradrim were calling out to one another in terror and Eomer felt a shiver of fear crawl up his own back. Lightning began to flash as granules of sand and dust rubbed together, creating an electric charge.
"To the west! We shall take shelter in the Sihal!"
It was Garat who gave the order and Eomer immediately suspected a trap, but Aragorn managed to regain control of Arnor at that moment and started veering the horse westward. "Ride! Follow Garat and Fastahn!"
The wind was now picking up around them and as Eomer spurred Shade after Aragorn in a mad dash away from the coming storm, he was forced to shield his eyes from the blowing sand and dust. Somewhere to his left, he heard Gimli start coughing while Legolas murmured something in Sindarin, urging Faensul onward.
"Draw together!" Aragorn shouted, his form barely visible through the swirling sand. "We must not be separated."
Onward they surged, their horses stumbling as sight failed them and the storm crept closer. Eomer dropped to the back of the ranks, watching every rider closely to ensure that none became lost in this storm. He knew not where they were going, but his mind seemed to be clearing and his trust in Aragorn had been renewed. If there was a way to escape this, Aragorn would find it.
But the edge of the storm was almost upon them, and Eomer knew not what shelter they might find in the desert. The sand was flying faster, pelting his face so hard that he was forced to shut his eyes and trust in Shade’s senses. The voices of his men were faint sounds, scarce to be heard above the roaring wind that now threatened to bury them with its load of sand. Opening his eyes a crack, Eomer stiffened when all he could see was a cloud of blowing dust encircling them.
And then Shade stumbled as his hooves encountered a different surface. Jagged rocks were underfoot now and the sound of other horses galloping across this terrain could dimly be heard. Shifting his weight forward, Eomer coaxed Shade on and the horse obeyed, shaking grit and dust from his eyes and racing across the uneven surface with the agility of a cat. A wall of rock suddenly loomed before the king of Rohan and as the wind parted to circumvent this obstacle, visibility suddenly improved. He could see riders before him and Legolas riding abreast of him, the elf having also dropped back to ride as rearguard. Faensul whinnied, catching sight of Shade, and Shade returned the answer, hurrying forward as a sudden blast of wind swept up behind them. The storm’s intensity was steadily increasing, but now there was at least a destination.
Toward the towering, black rock they rode, letting their horses pick the way as the jagged ground made running difficult. But even as hope bloomed in Eomer’s heart, it died away. These cliffs offered little shelter and would only delay the inevitable. They needed to find a place where the storm could not touch them or they risked being buried alive if they were not pelted to death first!
Eomer looked over at Gimli, for Faensul had galloped close to Shade and Legolas and Gimli were only a few feet away. "What?" Eomer shouted.
"Volcanic," the dwarf yelled back. "The rock is volcanic. There will be caves along this cliff. And if we are fortunate, some of these caves may even hold water. The rock could easily provide the necessary cavities for an underground aquifer."
"There!" Legolas cried, urging Faensul forward and pointing. True to Gimli’s predictions, they now beheld a small hole in the base of the rock. Garat, who had been in the lead, was already passing inside with Aragorn and most of the Rohirrim right behind him. Sensing that a reprieve from the blowing sand had at last become a reality, Eomer coaxed more speed from Shade and it was not long before the last two horses in the company reached the safety of the cavern.
Eomer inhaled deeply, gasping at air free from dust and sand. Shade danced and shook beneath him, struggling to free his eyes and nostrils of grit. Beside him, Gimli was already complaining about sand in his beard and Legolas was dusting himself off while eyeing the walls of the cave suspiciously. Outside, the wind howled and shrieked as though disappointed at being deprived of its prey, and Eomer shivered at the sounds. Stroking Shade’s neck, he dismounted and took the horse by the halter.
"I had begun to fear for your safety," Aragorn said, stepping out of the shadows and leading Arnor behind him. "It was my guess that you stayed near the back, but I knew not if you kept close enough to see the Sihal."
"That is what they call this place?" Eomer guessed, looking about the dark caverns.
Aragorn nodded and ran a hand through his dark hair, wincing as this caused a small avalanche of sand. "These cliffs run for miles north and south. A few of the smaller tribes in the far south use them as bases, but for the most part they are abandoned.
"Why should that be?" Gimli demanded, running his hand along the wall. "With but a little work, this cave could be made into a stronghold."
"Light, for one reason," Aragorn answered. "Tinder and fuel are difficult to find in the desert and these caves are darker than the blackest night if one travels much further in. Fortunately for us, this particular cave is used frequently as a stopping point for caravans who have not the speed to journey from Nurnein to Haradhur in one night and as such, there are torches along the main tunnel. The Haradrim are already lighting them. According to Fastahn, there is also an underground spring where we may fill our water skins."
"How long shall we be forced to linger here?" Legolas asked, and Eomer could detect a strange uneasiness in the elf’s voice.
Aragorn sighed and moved closer to the elf, looking to the entrance where sand swirled and fell in a violent dance. "Harad’s storms are difficult to judge. They come suddenly and can depart just as quickly. But a storm of this magnitude will probably last the entire night. I fear we may have to spend the day here. Even if the storm runs but another few hours, we will not be able to make Haradhur ere sunrise." The king sent Legolas an apologetic look, but the elf’s eyes were fixed on the entrance. Aragorn grimaced and then placed his hand on the elf’s shoulder, squeezing it slightly. "Come. Let us follow the others. I have instructed the men to replenish the water skins and wait for us by the spring."
"By your leave, I would stay here and keep watch," Legolas said, his hands unconsciously clenching and unclenching at his sides. "Perhaps fortune shall favor us and this storm will pass quickly."
"If that is your wish, you are more than welcome to stand watch," Aragorn sighed.
"I shall post a guard halfway between the spring and the entrance should you need to call us," Eomer offered.
"My thanks, Eomer," Legolas said, his voice still laden with unease. "That would be much appreciated."
"Then we shall leave you to assume your post," Aragorn said, gripping the elf’s shoulder tightly before releasing it and leading Arnor deeper into the cave system. "I will return after a bit once the needs of the men and the horses are seen to."
"Go, Gimli. You are thirsty. But I do have a favor to ask. Would you lead Faensul to the water?"
Eomer smiled as the dwarf glared at the horse, and for his part, Faensul looked none too pleased with the prospect either. But eventually Gimli nodded, though his nod seemed reluctant. "If that is what you desire, then I shall take this demon of yours and see that he satisfies his thirst."
"My thanks, elvellon," Legolas said with a smile before turning his attention to the elven stallion. "Aphado Gimli, Faensul. Ista ias nen dortha."
The horse snorted and tossed his head but obediently moved toward the dwarf, much to Gimli’s disappointment. With a weary sigh, Gimli sent both Legolas and Faensul a long-suffering look and then turned to follow Aragorn into the bowels of the earth with Faensul following closely. Eomer shook his head and then looked at Legolas. "Watch yourself should any of the Haradrim choose to visit this entrance. Any doubts or uneasiness you have may be exploited for their gain."
"You need have no fear on my part," the elf assured him, leaning against the cave wall and folding his arms across his chest. "Should they come here, they shall find a sentinel watching the storm, nothing more and nothing less."
The horse-lord nodded, wishing he could do something more for Legolas who was clearly ill at ease. But Aragorn and Gimli had already left, and they knew the elf better than any save perhaps the prince’s own kindred. If they were content to leave him alone, Eomer saw no harm in pursuing the same policy. With this knowledge, he tugged gently on Shade’s halter and turned into the inky blackness of the cave system. He was not looking forward to spending the rest of the night as well as the day in this rock with the Haradrim in such close proximity, particularly Dashnir, but perhaps this would turn into an opportunity to press them for more information. Or perhaps the cramped quarters would lead to arguments and bring into the open whatever grudges or ill feelings were kept on the part of the Haradrim. Eomer smiled, suddenly consoled by the prospect of sharing a cave system with Dashnir and Garat. This could be an interesting night.
Aphado Gimli, Faensul. Ista ias nen dortha—Follow Gimli, Faensul. He knows where water lies.
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