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Twilight of the Gods: 26. The Marking
The flickering glow of a lit torch bathed the atmosphere in a poisonous swirling orange as his two commanders came into view… followed by two of the Dunlending tribal leaders they had come to search for! Éomer recognised the stout figures of Durden and Woldro and froze. So that had been the cause for the commotion he had heard earlier. What had happened? Still kneeling on the wet rock, Éomer turned towards the approaching men and registered the bewildered expression on their faces – as well as the shocked expression on their guests’ features. Apparently, they knew about this secret path and were now dismayed that it was a secret no more.
“My lord?” Elfhelm narrowed his eyes at his commander’s strange stance and then stared perplexed at the opening. At last he remembered why he had come. The words he directed at Éomer were in Rohirric. “We have guests. Their delegation just arrived. They said they wanted to talk to you.” A curt nod. “You found a cave? How could we have missed it?”
“We’ll see about that in a moment.” Éomer shifted his attention to the Dunlending leaders and switched to Westron. “You still want to negotiate? That is interesting. What is it, Durden? Have you realised you made a mistake by attacking us?”
“Our leader was murdered in your house, Éomer-King!” the Dunlending spat, hardly able to control his temper. It had been Woldro who had persuaded him to seek out the Rohirrim after what they had learnt upon their return to their defeated, yet still living, people. Yet he was far from being convinced. “What you expected? A welcoming ceremony? You received the welcome you asked for!”
Éomer squared his shoulders.
“It was the deed of a solitary man, Durden. He is dead now, and your leader has been avenged. There was no conspiracy. We found that out yesterday, when he attempted to kill me, too. Perhaps it is a small consolation for you to hear that. However, you should be very clear about one thing: I am here against the advice of my marshals and against the will of my people, but as much as I want to see this undertaking through, there are limits to what I am willing to take for peace’s sake. If the King of Gondor remains missing or is found dead, there will be no peace. If you know anything about his whereabouts or what has happened to him, now is the time to share that knowledge.”
The two hillmen exchanged an unreadable glance. Clearly, these revelations were not what they had expected. It was Woldro who finally spoke.
“And you expect us to believe you.”
“We did not kill your men when they attacked us. Instead, we let them go free. If that speaks not clearly enough of our intentions, then there is nothing left to say between us. But then tell me, Woldro, why you came if you suspect that we are only here to continue what unfortunately happened in Meduseld?” Éomer stared at his opposite, hardly aware of the rain that was running over his face. It was getting very dark.
At last the tribal leader granted him a short nod.
“Give us a moment, horse-lord. We must discuss.” He turned his back on the Rohirrim and mumbled something to the other leader in their guttural Dunlending tongue. Éomer shifted his attention to his waiting men and motioned them over. Right now, his priority had to be to find out what was lying behind this rock. He could not concern himself with Durden and Woldro further for now.
“Elfhelm, Thor, I need a hand with this. There is something behind these rocks, and I think it holds the answer to the riddle!”
Thor handed Éomer the torch and then climbed up the same way as his king had, followed by the marshal. Éomer pointed at the gap between the rocks. “I only saw it because it began to rain and the water didn’t reach the ground. There must be a cave behind it – or a tunnel!” He pried his fingers into the opening and waited until his men had joined him, then counted them in – and pulled. The rock shifted, but rolled back when their fingers slipped on the wet surface. Groaning and swearing, they tried again, using their accumulated weight. Finally, with a low grinding noise, it rolled to the side to reveal more of the narrow crack in the mountain’s face, hardly wide enough for one man to walk through.
Rubbing his chafed fingers on his breeches, Éomer took the torch and held it into the opening, almost extinguishing the feeble flame in the draft of wet air. Further sticking his head in, he strained for noises. And in the same heartbeat, called himself a fool to assume that someone would still be waiting for him in there after two days. Hearing Thor’s low curse and Elfhelm’s faint objection from behind, he carefully probed the darkness with his foot before he entered, almost at once hitting his head on the ceiling.
Swearing and rubbing the base of his skull, Éomer moved the torch around to see where he had landed and found himself in a puddle of water. Next to him lay a dark unmoving shape. A Dunlending.
“Éomer?” Elfhelm’s voice sounded dull in the narrow chasm. “Is it a cave or a tunnel? Does it continue?”
Waving the torch and then stepping over to the body, Éomer narrowed his eyes to peer into the solid blackness beyond the reach of his light.
“It appears that it does.” He rolled the corpse over with his boot. A deep cut to the neck had ended this one’s life, and the sight caused him to grind his jaw in satisfaction. At least the Gondorians had not gone down without a fight. “There is a dead Dunlending down here. I suppose we truly found the path Aragorn’s captors have taken.” He plodded a few more steps further into the mountain, but returned to the opening after he found that the chasm seemed to go on and exited to confront Woldro and Durden. “You know of this way, it is written in your eyes. Where does it lead?”
The hillmen just stared at him, obviously fighting with themselves over what they should tell. Éomer granted them the time by looking at his own scout.
The younger man’s expression spoke volumes as he shook his head in perplexed rejection. He blamed himself for failing his king. They had lost two days with the search, passing this entrance again and again without noticing it. How could he ever make up for this?
“I cannot say, sire. I…” Words failed him. What were they supposed to do now? They could not follow that path into the mountain right now, unprepared, with night approaching. The tunnel could be swarming with all kinds of foul things. It was likely, too, that it was rigged with traps. An undertaking like this had to be thoroughly planned. And besides, their enemy had a lead on them they could not hope to diminish without knowledge of the territory. Not without horses. And they would have to leave the horses behind. Yet worse, if the enemy had horses waiting for them on the other side, they would never be able to overtake them. Still, the longer he stared at the opening, the more he felt an indistinct tug, like the shadow of a memory, yet too distant to be named.
“Have you heard about this tunnel?” When no answer came, Éomer handed the feebly burning torch to his scout, wordlessly inviting him to go investigate himself. While the younger man disappeared inside the crack, the king turned towards the Dunlendings who were staring at him uncomfortably, very much aware that their answer would define the further relations with their eastern neighbours. “There is a dead kinsman of yours in there, so it must be the path the others took. They wiped their traces cleverly, and if it were not for the rain, they would have thrown us off their track for good. But it is your decision now: you either tell me where the path ends, or you can consider the peace talks over once and for all. Do we understand each other?”
Durden knit his bushy eyebrows in distress.
“Let us look at the dead. Then we consider.”
Éomer shook his head, determined.
“You have considered enough, and the dead doesn’t change anything. Tell me now, or choose to remain silent, but then my army will raid your villages like yours raided ours. There are four hundred mounted warriors positioned at the river Isen, not far from here, awaiting my orders. It is in your hands now to determine what their orders will be. If I were you, I would pray to my gods that King Elessar is alive and well. If anything has happened to him, you shall find that the combined wrath of Rohan and Gondor will be too much for you to handle.”
“The path leads through the mountains,” Woldro at last could be heard, his dark gaze on the mouth of the cave. It was now almost too dark to see. “It is a passage few know about.” He felt Durden’s angry gaze upon himself, but chose to ignore him.
“And it ends where?”
Another long pause, another exchange between the two leaders.
“North of here. Seven to eight days of hard marching. On the western side of the mountains, still in Dunland.”
“So approximately four to five days on horseback,” Elfhelm estimated, feeling despair rise in him. “And we already lost two days searching this forsaken place! We must leave at once!”
“And ride during the night?” Éomer shook his head and gave the two hillmen a wary glance. “It would make it too easy for them to ambush us. And the moon is hardly half-full. This terrain is treacherous, and we need to see where we are going. No, as much as I am loath to lose yet more time, we cannot ride through the darkness. Tomorrow at first light, we shall make haste, but not tonight.”
“I agree, sire,” Thor’s made himself heard as he squeezed through the exit of the tunnel. The torch in his hands was almost extinguished. “I followed the chasm to an intersection. It seems to be a great system of tunnels, and I fear it would be hopeless to try and find a way through ourselves. We would get lost.”
“So you know nothing about this place.”
“I had once heard of a way through the mountains, years back when I was only beginning to develop my skills, but I have to admit that I never wandered that path myself. It was said to be a way only few were shown.” He inhaled. “My lord, we should really head back to the camp. The torch has almost burnt down, and very soon, it will be so dark that we cannot see our hands in front of our eyes anymore.”
“Aye.” Éomer turned to the Dunlendings, motioning them to leave along with them. “Durden, Woldro... you’re coming with us. I suppose you are well-versed in the use of a map. You show me where the path ends, and you will let your people know that we are not to be attacked as we’re riding north. Or… no. I know something better. You will be coming with us, at least one of you.”
“Coming with you?” Woldro grumbled, unhappy about being given orders by the strawheads’ king, but sensing that his obedience was the only connection to the greatest chance at peace they had ever had. “How? We cannot ride. And I refuse…” An intense glare silenced him.
“You know how to stay on a horse, and that is good enough. You will clear the way for us if we meet any of your tribe. And I will not take ‘no’ for an answer! One of you will remain here for the night and accompany us on the ride north. Decide who it will be.”
“So this means you are taking one of us prisoner?” Durden asked, incredulous. His eyes were shooting daggers at his comrade. He had foreseen trouble with Woldro’s suggestion. “We have come to parley! You cannot...”
“Do you want this peace or not, Durden? Leave if you think you must, but then our next meeting won’t be friendly!”
“I will go,” Woldro made himself heard over the heated discussion. It took both opponents a while to register what he had said. “I will accompany you, Éomer-king. But only for two days. My influence does not reach further, and having to walk back through territory that is unknown even to me could easily claim my life. You must understand.”
Contemplating his offer, the Rohirrim stared at him. At length, he nodded.
“Very well, Woldro. I appreciate your gesture. Be assured that you will have nothing to fear from my men. We will keep you safe.”
“Like Grodes?” Durden threw in acidly. Searching Thor’s gaze, Éomer continued.
“Stay close to the captain. He will see to it that no harm will be done to you. You have my word.”
The exchange between the two men continued for another long moment, and then Woldro turned his head to cast an equally long, scrutinising glance at Thor. Finally, he nodded.
“I put my trust in you, Éomer-king. But do not fail us again.”
Nisenur and Ridasha had shared a short conversation while the prisoners as well as the Dunlendings had slurred along the path, and now that he had left to fulfil his duty her mood had lightened. Nisenur had reported to her how well Harishdane had prepared the trap in which the Gondorians had been caught and that the Dunlendings had followed their orders without great mistakes. Still her ruler's decision to turn south in the coming night troubled her, but she was sure that Harishdane must have her reasons. She did not question her, but after an hour's walk in the darkness led the soldiers through a short tunnel which ended in a wide circle divided by mighty rocks, which lay scattered as if a giant had played with them long ago. It was a dead end; the surrounding inclines were too steep to climb, and the circle bore only one exit. Since the wind had calmed the place was as sombre as a meadow. It was a perfect place to guard the prisoners, and Ridasha silently praised her leader again for her flawless planning.
Asentis and Ridasha gathered the prisoners on one side of the rocks, and tired and weary from the day’s efforts, they sat down moaning and flinching with pain. The youngest soldier the healer had treated along the way almost fell to the ground, and Ridasha was sure not even the call to arms would have forced him to his feet again. Some men demanded food and water, and the guards handed them water-skins while the Easterlings provided pieces of flat-baked bread and dried fruits. Only one of them was still standing, and when Ridasha turned she found his gaze fixed on her.
“I have to tend to these men,” the Gondorian in the plain leather clothes said urgently when she approached him. Again he held out his hands. “Most of them are wounded and they will get worse if I do not take care of them.”
Ridasha considered the possibility that that prisoner – ‘Strider’ as the soldier had called him – would break into a run, but then saw the Dunlendings take position at the entrance to the tunnel leading northward. And her own kinsmen would be even faster to prevent an escape than any of the hillmen. A fire was kindled in the centre of the circle; no one would escape unnoticed, and she did not count on the healer to be a very capable soldier. She made up her mind and drew her knife.
“You will not live to see the morning sun if you try to betray me, Strider,” she said in a dark and low voice that did not sound like a threat. Rather it was a statement, and he understood that her generosity had limits. She cut the knot, and with a bow, the healer turned to look after the young soldier first. Ridasha remained at his side, eyeing him closely to let him know with her hand on the hilt of his own hunting knife that any wrong move would have bitter consequences. At the same moment she acknowledged his abilities. To their fortune a healer was among the captives, and though he had received his share in battle, he was still able to perform his duty.
“What is your name?” the healer asked when he had changed the bandage around the man's arm. He looked up to her. She hesitated as if giving her name would mean the same as laying down all weapons. “You know mine.”
She looked into his eyes, searching for the reason for his question and when she found only truthfulness, she answered quietly,
The healer nodded curtly.
“I thank you, Ridasha, that I may take care of these men.”
“They have a long walk ahead of them,” she said plainly, lifting her brows. “And they walk better when they are healthy.”
“A long walk?” he immediately asked. “How long? Where are you taking us?”
Suddenly Ridasha was aware of her leader at one of the huge rocks on the other side of the campsite. She seemed to have appeared from nowhere, and her angry stare was fixed on Ridasha. The female soldier swallowed, but stayed close to the prisoner; he was under her supervision, and she would not neglect her duty. Harishdane called Asentis to her, then Nisenur, and another woman, who left the illuminated side of the circle with a load of matchwood.
Aragorn had followed Ridasha's gaze, alarmed by the stern face of the leader.
“What is happening?” he asked her, but she neither answered nor moved. The leader's mouth was set, her words poignant, and her stare never left Ridasha. When Harishdane ended, Asentis had taken a long rope in his hands and crossed the campsite with long strides. The young woman frowned, uncertain what this conversation meant, and all the Gondorian soldiers looked up, suddenly tense and disturbed. “Ridasha, what is this about?” Aragorn asked urgently, getting up.
But Asentis was already close, his appearance and posture a threat by itself. She had experienced that before and felt a shiver running down her spine. She did not dare to utter another word.
“Leave,” he ordered her in shék, and his position demanded her unconditional obedience. Swallowing the words she would have wanted to utter, she bowed to him and retreated. Though she was no apprentice in the work of war, she was only a soldier who followed commands. Asentis turned his dark eyes to the healer, who was facing him warily but without fear. “Hold out your hands.”
The king's frown deepened, and with a last glance at Ridasha, he stepped back. The woman seemed troubled and obviously could not imagine what Asentis had in mind.
“I was only treating the injured,” Aragorn tried to explain, but Asentis did not listen.
“Deliver yourself or I will fight you.” His voice and his eyes sparkled with hatred. He moved forward, but Aragorn quickly side-stepped Asentis' attempt to seize him, feeling the sudden impact of fear again like a cold hand touching his heart. “Surrender!”
“What is this about?” Aragorn shouted, glancing again at Ridasha, but the woman watched the developing quarrel without any indication of wanting to intervene. “I am their healer!”
Ridasha turned to watch Harishdane. The leader's face gleamed with determination. Asentis was only fulfilling her order. Ridasha's frown deepened. The prisoner was already under her control! Why had Harishdane sent Asentis to bind him when that man was only doing his work? And why was the second-in-command so eager to overthrow that man? Was it not so that their goddess told them to take care of the prisoners of war?
The other soldiers suddenly came to their feet, determined to protect their healer against Asentis. Waking from her musings, Ridasha moved in and ordered them to sit down again. She pushed those down who did not obey at once, but at the same time she admired the beaten-looking men for their courage. With a few commands she stopped the hillmen from misusing the chance to hurt the soldiers. They barked at her, but she insulted them back.
Asentis attacked Aragorn at the same moment. He was as agile as he was vicious, distracting his opponent while Nisenur moved in from behind.
“Watch out!” Halamin screamed, unable to help on his own.
The king parried two strikes aimed at his face and chest, but was caught by a punch to his back. He evaded to his right. And while his comrades were kept down he fought back, holding Nisenur at a distance, searching with his eyes for a weapon to use. Ridasha stood aside, puzzled and unable to understand what her kinsman was doing. Aragorn caught Nisenur's arm and twisted it. The man screamed in pain, but Asentis ended the moment by taking the king in a stranglehold, cutting off his breath. Using the diversion, Nisenur punched his opponent hard enough to break his grip. The king thrust his elbow back, but could not sufficiently hurt Asentis to free himself. The Easterling's face was contorted with effort when he ordered Nisenur to bind the prisoner again. The king still wrestled ferociously in Asentis' grip when Nisenur took up the rope to wind it around the prisoner's wrists. He tore at the bonds, and kicked Nisenur, but his strength was fading. The Easterling pulled the cord tight, and still Asentis held fast though the prisoner no longer resisted. When his captor finally loosened the grip, Aragorn coughed and sucked in air
“Move!” Asentis growled and held the captive's upper arm to forcefully steer him to the place from where Harishdane had observed the fight. Now she was gone, knowing that her man had won.
“Where are you taking me?” the king demanded to know and coughed again. His men shouted, but Asentis pretended not to hear them. “What do you want?”
Ridasha was bothered by the same question since the healer had not been thrown back among his people as she had expected. She took up the pouch the healer had left behind, and, closing the thin cord around its opening, followed the three men around the rock formation to the place beyond the campsite. A small fire had been kindled within the secluded space, and Harishdane looked up to them.
“Put him down here,” she simply said, and Asentis nodded and pressed the captive to the ground, close to where his leader waited. “Bind his ankles.”
Aragorn caught no more than a glimpse of the things on the stone in front of the leading woman, but he gasped in shock. A knife was lying in the middle. Had he been brought here to be killed? Would that woman sacrifice him as an offering to one of their gods?
Nisenur moved in to help by holding the prisoner down on his belly until Asentis had fastened the knots. Ridasha stepped closer. Carefully and curiously she eyed what Harishdane was doing hardly five feet away from the healer. He had turned on his right side, and rested his head on the ground, panting in exhaustion. Nisenur stood aside, watchful and ready to act if the man dared to move.
On the smooth surface of a stone in front of her the leader had spread out the contents of her small sack, and the items looked very familiar to Ridasha. She gasped in utter surprise and confusion.
“You cut his bonds,” Harishdane accused her in shék, cutting off the soldier's question. “Twice.” She had knelt behind the stone, but her voice bore enough superiority and threat to make the woman swallow with nervousness.
“He is their healer,” she answered lowly, but without hesitation. “I thought not…”
“You will not do that again.”
The order made Ridasha frown. She suddenly knew that her assumption was right when Harishdane unfolded a piece of cloth to reveal a piece of dark red bark.
“What harm could he do?” she dared to ask, her eyes fixed on the small bowl and the knife on the stone. “He wanted to help his men.” Her gaze found the healer's who watched her intently, unable to understand a word. He asked her with his stare to explain, but the leader's next words caused Ridasha to shift her attention back at her.
“He will do no more harm when he is under the guidance of Úshemor,” Harishdane decided. “Then he can no longer rouse his people.”
“Rouse? He helped them, he treated their wounds!” She could not believe what was about to happen. Harishdane would not… “What will you do?” Her voice was but a breath.
“Do not question me, Ridasha,” Harishdane warned, and the young woman pressed her lips tight. Again her eyes found those of the healer, and he frowned deeply.
“What devilry is on her mind, Ridasha?” The leader's lips twitched upon hearing her soldier's name spoken by that impure creature. “Is she about to kill me?” He received no answer, and she averted her eyes. When he turned his head he saw Asentis crouching in front of the fire he maintained, murmuring words that sounded like a strange, hissed prayer. Ridasha still stood at the same place, her lips slightly parted but without saying a word. “What is it, Ridasha?” he pressed. “What is she up to?”
“She will mark you.” Her voice bore no feeling, too deep was the cut she had just received.
“What for?” he asked horrified.
“To indicate that you are her slave,” she stated flatly, still eyeing Harishdane in utter disbelief. “To make sure you belong to her tribe for your time to come.”
“A slave?” The word stuck in Aragorn's throat like a bad piece of meat. “She…”
But Ridasha had already turned to talk to Harishdane, who examined and cleaned the small shining ceremonial dagger. The young soldier looked down on her and waited until her leader looked up. She summoned her strength to get the words on her tongue past her lips.
“The high priestess of the Mushéni-Rhûneshan is not with us. She awaits us five days away from here. It is impossible to do what you are about to do without a proper ceremony. And you know that we agreed to share the prisoners with all other tribes, Harishdane. To mark them back home.” The leader shot her an angry look, but continued with her preparations, and for a moment of hesitation Ridasha fell silent. She swallowed hard. It was not her place to remind the leader of her duties, but she could not keep quiet about this. Too old were the rituals they were all living by. Not even Harishdane should be allowed to break them. “You have no right to…”
Infuriated, the leader cut Ridasha off with a few harsh words in shék, which made even the man at the fire raise his head. Ridasha went on, pleading, demanding, and Aragorn's eyes were fixed on both faces. It was obvious Ridasha could hardly restrain her anger and again exchanged words that sounded like accusations with her superior. The leader answered curtly and determinedly, and finally Ridasha bowed deeply to her. Her lips were pressed into a thin line, her fists clenched tight, and she was breathing heavily. Though Aragorn had not understood a word, the woman's eyes were telling everything. She did not dare to contradict anymore. All her words were spent, and the quarrel settled. Avoiding her leader's angry look, she waited for the command to fetch water. She brought it and put down the bowl with gestures and prayers that indicated that she – for her part – followed the ceremony as she knew it. The Easterling leader gave her an intimidating look, but for a moment she stood fast.
Aragorn looked around, desperately searching for a way out. He would do everything in his power to not be set under a spell by that witch from Rhûn. He had to escape somehow, but he knew he had only one attempt left. There was no need to try and free himself; the ropes were tight, and they were watching him. If he could only make it back to the main fire… He tried to gain Ridasha's attention, but she had cast her eyes down to the ground. Her cheeks were flushing red, and she was still tense. He could not expect her to help him; she had already lost her battle.
Harishdane took a deep breath. She had needed far too long to gain Ridasha's obedience and would not forget her obstinate replies. But right now she was one of those who had attended the ceremony often enough that she could be of assistance, so she allowed Ridasha to stay. There would be another time and opportunity to punish her. She started singing while she ground a small piece of the red-coloured bark into a little wooden bowl and mixed the powder with a handful of water. She lifted the bowl, let it be praised by the goddess, and put it down again. Glancing at Asentis she rose to present the dagger to the sky where Úshemor would watch her. Then the dagger was rinsed with fresh water. Harishdane continued singing quietly in shék. It was a monotonous up and down melody and a string of words that was repeated again and again, to wake Úshemor and ask for her attendance and blessing of the ceremony. The Easterlings' leader nodded to Asentis and he stepped closer to Aragorn. The king met his fierce stare.
“What do you want?” he frowned, when he saw the dagger in Harishdane's hands, its blade shining in the fire's glow. “What are you about to do?”
Harishdane ignored him, but praised the goddess for dedicating the artfully crafted ceremonial dagger with its light brown handle and engraved symbols to her task. Its blade was curved and split at the tip, the metal embossed with glyphs. Asentis and Ridasha, whose face still glowed with restrained anger, fell into the singing when they approached their prisoner.
“You will not put a spell on me,” Aragorn said hoarsely when Asentis was about to kneel at his legs. In a fluent motion he drew up his feet and thrust at the man with all his strength, but Asentis evaded narrowly. Aragorn tried again, hit the soldier's knees and turned around to regain his feet. Asentis fell back against a stone, grimacing with pain, but was up again at once, while Ridasha stood unmoving. Aragorn rose half way to hit him with his bound hands, but not hard enough to make him stumble. Holding Nisenur back with a word Asentis grabbed the king's upper arm and kicked his knee into his back to bring him down. Aragorn spun around, tried to free his arm, and pushed Asentis aside, but with the limited range he was bound to lose the fight. The second-in-command did not hesitate to throw him on the stones again. The king suppressed a cry and closed his eyes for a moment. He was panting, but he promised himself it was not over yet.
“Hold him!” Harishdane ordered, and Asentis pressed his weight on the healer's legs. Ridasha could not believe it – Asentis too misused the ritual. It was wrong, and Ridasha feared that the strong resistance the captive showed was a sign by Úshemor to leave the man alone and wait for the right time and place to put him under the goddess' command. With a deep frown she watched how the healer still struggled and tried to rise and hit Asentis, who was holding him. The veins on his neck and temples stood out, and with the supreme effort he broke into sweat. Clenching his teeth he used every bit of strength attempting to get rid of the enemy forcing him down. Asentis ordered Ridasha to sit down at the other side and pull the prisoner by his shoulders, but she was unable to gain control over the ferociously fighting healer. Upon a call Nisenur came to take her place, and when she sat aside, the young man pressed the healer's head down on a flat stone Asentis had placed there so he could no longer move. Sweat streamed down his forehead and cheeks, and his eyes bulged when he saw Harishdane nearing. The Ring of Barahir and the Evenstar hung loosely around her slender neck and shone in the fire's gleam. She held the ceremonial dagger in her right hand and lowered herself on her knees beside the prisoner, ending the calling to the goddess. “It is time.”
Ridasha flinched at the desperate tone, and again she sent a prayer to Úshemor to not punish them all for their wrong-doing.
Harishdane nodded to her while she moved a strand of hair from the healer's neck and cut open the collar of the tunic to bare his neck and the upper part of his shoulder-blade. Ridasha took off a glove and pressed it into the prisoner's mouth, trying to keep her emotions to herself, before the dagger's tip sank into the flesh of his neck. The leather muffled his scream, and the singing continued in the same rhythm while the blade cut the first set of lines from behind the ear to an inch above the shoulder-blade. Ridasha's lips parted for another inaudible prayer for forgiveness. Blood oozed out of the wound, but the bleeding did not last long. The red creamy liquid the leader applied with her thumb soon afterwards sank in and spread under the skin in both directions. Asking Úshemor for assistance Harishdane lowered the dagger to let it be rinsed again by Ridasha. The young soldier obeyed, but with the utmost reluctance, wishing for the ritual to be interrupted by anything – even by the wrath of the goddess herself – but it did not happen. With a new line of words Harishdane let the blade come to rest again on the prisoner's neck. The singing continued. Úshemor was asked to praise the tribe and keep the slave obedient to the demands of his new life. Ridasha closed her eyes for a moment, unable to watch the healer struggle ferociously under the firm grip of four hands holding him down, and the urgent plea of his eyes for help. She had never before witnessed such resistance, and her prayers became desperate. The leader had to wait to continue, but Ridasha dared not to utter a word of contradiction again.
Aragorn was panting, still fighting to keep that woman from hurting him, though his strength was almost spent. The pain sank in, but there was more than pain. There was a threat behind it he could not name or grasp. He shivered involuntarily. The fear of being helpless took hold of him. It was a fear of facing a power too great to master. The fear of surrendering to a faceless enemy. He could hardly breathe and the shock went deeper when his eyes could no longer focus, and the pain quickly spread.
Harishdane seemed unaware of the prisoner's misery. She knew that his struggling made the liquid only move faster into his body. With a stern look she again ordered the two men to hold him down. With yet another repetition of the prayer's lines the dagger cut again. The second double line of the sign was fulfilled, crossing the first one. The red liquid spread over it flew rapidly like a small creature forcing its way through the open vein. Harishdane's eyes glowed with satisfaction when she watched the king's defences lessen.
Ridasha feared Úshemor's revenge at any moment. Her leader had taken a wrong way; she walked a path that would lead to the doom of them all. Ridasha watched the prisoner's pain-contorted face. Blood trickled from his nose to the ground. He shivered and his eyes stared into her direction as if the goddess herself accused her for disregarding the ritual. She swallowed hard, knowing that she would be punished.
Aragorn clenched his fists, when, suddenly, he could no longer feel his hands. The moment he realised the numbness he tried to raise his head from the stone but failed. His strength was fading fast now. The smell of the leather glove in his mouth mingled with the strange, bitter scent of the red liquid he could feel in his neck and trickling down between his shoulder-blades. His eyes were out of focus, and he could only see the blurred shape of Ridasha kneeling in front of him. He wanted to make her help him, but he could not speak, and all words seemed useless the next moment.
The dagger was rinsed and praised a third time, and a third set of lines was cut into his skin. Aragorn still heard the singing, but it seemed to come from afar. He heard himself breathe and was dimly aware of the hands and weights on his body, but the impressions faded away. Only the strong pain remained, seizing his body, and making him wish to escape this awful place. Another sting, and the hurting extended from his neck down his shoulder and arm, then along his spine. He was still fighting it, knowing instinctively that giving in would worsen it. But though his heart beat fast he could no longer resist. A fourth short and hard cut ended the marking. Aragorn suddenly felt a soft pressure on the base of his nose, and while the pain ebbed away along with his consciousness he saw pictures in his head he could not explain. Then the darkness closed in.
“Don’t do this,” Harishdane ordered, and Ridasha opened her eyes. Tears streamed down her cheeks. The leader shot her a disapproving glare, but the young soldier held her right thumb on the base of the healer's nose a moment longer while she took the glove out of his mouth with the other. If he had to suffer like that she would at least grant him ease now that the ceremony was over. “He does not deserve your pity.” Harishdane rose after she had rinsed the dagger. Bowing to their leader Asentis and Nisenur retreated since there was no further resistance to be expected from the new slave of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan. Ridasha still knelt in front of the healer and involuntarily stared at the blood red sign on the back of his neck. The colour of the bark had mingled with the lighter one of the blood, which still oozed from the wounds. The ritual required the slave not be washed before sunrise, but she was uncertain if the rule applied in this case. Again she watched her leader and could not help but despise her for the breach of tradition. Since the days of her childhood she had been told by her tribe to value the rituals. She had been instructed in many of them, and never had she witnessed a simple tribesman execute the prayers and songs belonging to the rituals. The high priestess was the only one allowed to guide her tribe in the ceremonies. Ridasha swallowed bitterly. What would her priestess say upon seeing that Gondorian healer already marked with Harishdane's tribal sign?
Hilberon had been half asleep when the cry echoed from the steep grey walls, covered now with darkness. It had been a cry piercing the heart of every man, making Hilberon shiver. He looked around. The other soldiers were frowning, fearing for their leader's life. Hilberon remembered the encouraging look the king had given him on the path. But behind it the young soldier had seen deep worry. He feared for the king – and if he died what would become of his comrades? ‘As long as there is life there is hope’ his father had once told him. Never before had Hilberon wanted to trust these words more.
Tarés clenched his teeth. He had vowed to protect the king, and now that the captain was gone he had taken over the responsibility. It would be considered his fault if the king was killed. Tarés closed his eyes for a moment. He reproached himself that he should have watched better over Elessar. He could have tried to rescue him from that Easterling, and he was ashamed to have obeyed that female soldier. Now he felt as useless and helpless as the rest of the Royal Guard. He could see it in their expressions. Something terrible had happened to the king and none of them had been able to prevent it.
Queen Arwen had fought against her uneasiness the whole day, telling herself that her husband would be safe: that he knew how to take care of himself. But when the night closed in, the feelings intensified, holding her in a tight embrace she could not break. She went to bed and during a restless sleep, she tossed from one side to the other, unable to escape the clutches of the nightmare. In the fire-lit darkness a knife shone. In a face behind it dark eyes gleamed with satisfaction.
She heard Aragorn cry in despair.
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