My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 26. Sun and Shadows
Waves of heat scorched their way across the forsaken land, robbing the burning sand of any semblance of moisture or relief. Temperatures soared as the sun reached its zenith, and the life that struggled in this desolate wasteland came to a grudging halt. Cowering in meager shelters, man and beast waited out the day with the knowledge that nighttime would bring a respite from the sun’s scornful gaze. Most of Harad’s inhabitants slept, finding refuge from the heat in dreams. But there were also those who did not sleep, much though they longed to, and of those, there were even a few who did so by choice rather than by force.
Asbad, ruler of the Khurintu tribe, was one of these. For the past few hours, sequestered in his tent, Asbad had been carefully planning the final moves that would see him successfully on the way to complete control of Harad and eventually the northern countries as well. But that planning was now drawing to a close, and it was nearing the time when he should seek rest and sleep. The day was already quite warm, and ere long, it would be too hot for him to function properly.
He smiled slightly as his thoughts took him beyond his tent toward the elf and the dwarf in their own small tent, which lay with its broad sides facing the sunlight. One of the easiest ways to cow and subdue prisoners was to subject them to the heat of the day. Asbad would never be so foolish as to leave anyone out in the desert unprotected if he desired them alive for later purposes, but there were things that could be done to make a captive’s stay highly uncomfortable. Arranging a tent so that it collected the day’s heat was one way. Those caught within would still be protected from the murderous effects of direct sunlight, but they would be greatly weakened and discomfited. Resistance usually dropped dramatically after such lessons, and captives were much easier to control. Of course, there were some prisoners who did not survive this treatment and died, but Asbad was fairly confident that his elf and his dwarf would endure.
Still, it was best to err on the part of safety in such situations where safety was permitted. Glancing at the sides of the tent and noting the position of the sun, Asbad decided that water should probably be sent to the two prisoners. Dehydration was desired since it made captives disoriented and weary, but dehydration to the point of death was not the objective this day. Khurintu could utilize the corpses if the elf and the dwarf died, but the overall plan would be better served if they remained alive for now. With this in mind, Asbad motioned to the guard who stood at one of the entrances to the tent, picked up a skin of water, and handed it to the man.
"Takes this to the captives and see that they drink it. If they are awake, they may refuse. Force them. If they are yet unconscious, wake them so that they do not choke and then give them the water. Are my orders to you clear?"
To his credit, the large guard did not hesitate in barking an affirmative, but his eyes clearly showed his distaste for the assignment. This duty was the work of servants and water boys, not renowned soldiers. Beyond that, the desert was currently an oven, and the tent holding the prisoners was in no way an effective shelter. But the loyalty of Khurintu’s tribesmen was legendary, and despite his feelings of reluctance, the guard took the water skin, turned smartly on his heel, and left the tent.
With this last problem out of the way and the remainder of the plan worked out in sufficient detail, Asbad stretched and moved to his pallet. He had no intention of remaining awake any longer. The day was growing hotter, and after another hour or so, his own tent would offer little in the way of protection. And so the leader of the Khurintu tribe lowered himself to his bed and shifted until he found a comfortable position. He fell asleep almost immediately, welcoming with open arms the dreams that came to greet him as he was carried into a new age in which his power was uncontested.
* * * *
Within a small white tent, arms and legs still firmly bound, Legolas tried to think of a time when he’d felt more miserable or more wretched. It was a rather grim testament to his plight when, after searching several centuries of existence, he decided that he had not been in a worse situation. His head still throbbed, he’d lost all sensation in his hands and feet, and his throat felt as though it had been dragged over the volcanic Sihal and then laid out to dry for a few days. The heat in the air around him was stifling, and the rising temperature of the sand was sapping his strength. And beyond that, there was the dwarf…
Legolas shook sweat out of his eyes and turned to examine Gimli as he had already done many times that day. The dwarf was still far too pale, and his breathing had become increasingly labored as the temperatures rose. But other than speaking to him and offering unheard words of encouragement, the elf knew of no way to aid his best friend. And so he was forced to watch in helpless frustration as Gimli went from bad to worse, all the while wishing vainly for a change in fortune that might somehow see them through this trial.
If only he would say something, the elf thought desperately, watching his friend closely as only an elf can. He had a vague hope that Gimli—always slightly uncomfortable under the prince’s intense scrutiny—would move away or tell him that if he were to chisel a sculpture it would last longer. But the dwarf remained deathly still, and the elf remained, for all intents and purposes, alone in his misery.
He was not alone for much longer. Noise outside the tent caught Legolas’s dulled hearing, and he turned his head toward the flap curiously. What madness would drive anyone into the sun at this hour of the day? He received his answer when the door of his shelter was thrust open and a large, burly man entered. Dark eyes flashed angrily beneath a sheen of sweat, and the man surveyed the tent’s occupants with a curious mixture of fear and disdain. Seeing that Legolas was awake, the man advanced, flipped the elf onto his back before Legolas could even think about resisting, and shoved something into his mouth. Despite the protests of his back and his bound arms, Legolas was hurriedly running through plans of attack when something trickled across his lips. Frozen in shock, he almost allowed the precious liquid to run down his chin before he gulped greedily. Soon more water flowed from the flask, which the man now tipped upward. Pride thrown to the wind, Legolas closed his eyes and sent up multiple prayers of thanks for the lukewarm drink that was a balm to his mouth and throat. But far too soon for the prince, the flask was taken away and he was shoved back onto his stomach.
Despite the fact that he was wheeling in sweet ecstasy, the elf tried to keep an eye on the man. The guard was now bending over Gimli and seemed to be trying to rouse the dwarf. Legolas’s blood boiled when he heard two hard slaps, but an accompanying groan put a stop to his ensuing protests. The flask containing the life-giving water was placed against Gimli’s lips, and Legolas’s breath caught as he watched the dwarf open his mouth and reflexively swallow the water that started to flow. Then the flask was taken away. The man rose, shoved Gimli back to his stomach, and left the tent with a low grumble in Haradric.
Hardly daring to hope, Legolas immediately forgot all about trying to track the man’s footsteps outside the tent and instead kept his eyes glued to Gimli. The dwarf was moaning slightly and seemed to be on the verge of waking. Fearful that he would destroy the moment but anxious to hurry the process, Legolas hesitated and then called the dwarf’s name.
Another moan was his answer, and then blurred eyes fluttered open so slowly that Legolas felt he might go mad with impatience, a feeling as foreign to the elf as snow was to Orodruin. The prince grimaced when he noticed the fixed, dilated pupils, a clear indication of a head injury. Of course, considering the blow that felled him, Legolas would have been amazed had there not been some injury, but it was still painful to see the evidence of that hurt. At least the dwarf was opening his eyes and responding to his name. Those were good signs, and Legolas was hoping for more.
"Gimli, can you say speak?"
A seemingly infinite pause was finally followed by a very tentative voice. "Legolas?"
The dwarf was blinking his eyes as though trying to clear them, and Legolas surmised that his vision was blurred. He doubted that Gimli could see little more than vague lights and shadows. But he could hear and he could respond. These two accomplishments were priceless, and Legolas hurried to encourage his friend to even greater achievements.
"Yes, Gimli, I am here. How are you feeling?" Even as he said it, the elf realized how ridiculous the question was. He could easily see and guess for himself how Gimli was feeling, yet what else could he ask? What else would the dwarf be capable of answering? Was he even capable of answering this?
"Stupid question," Gimli mumbled.
Legolas smiled slightly and shook his head, which—thanks in part to the water—had stopped throbbing and currently only sported a dull ache. "I should have expected such a response from a dwarf," he answered even as relief filled his heart. If Gimli could jest, then things could not possibly be as bad as they seemed to be.
The elf watched with a mixture of hope and fear as Gimli sighed and closed his eyes, wincing unconsciously at the pain that Legolas knew must have been crippling. "What happened?" the dwarf whispered.
It was a simple enough question, but Legolas did not have a simple answer. Or any answer, for that matter. He was still trying to piece together the puzzle himself, and he was also lost as to the motives behind abducting the two of them. Power, to be certain, but the elf sensed something larger was at stake. Something larger than any of them suspected. But as for what that something was, the elf could not say. He had pondered on it for much of the morning, but the increasing temperatures had slowed his thought processes and he had been unable to reach an answer or even a vague guess. "What do you remember?" Legolas finally asked, turning the question back on his friend since he could not seem to put his own thoughts in order. Besides, this would help him uncover the extent of the dwarf’s head injury.
"Night…tents…" Gimli trailed off and his brow furrowed.
"Do you remember leaving the company of Aragorn and Eomer?" Legolas asked when the dwarf’s pause began to stretch into minutes.
"Aragorn?" Gimli’s voice was becoming faint, and the elf sensed he was about to lose consciousness again. "Is Eomer…where are they?"
"Not here, Valar willing," Legolas said. "What do you recall of them?"
"I…I do not know," Gimli murmured. "I cannot remember…"
Watching the dwarf closely, Legolas saw his body relax and his labored breathing deepen slightly. "Gimli? Gimli?!"
There was no response and the elf sighed heavily. He did not know what to make of the dwarf’s broken speech and he could not tell how much damage had been done by the Haradrim’s blow. Gimli’s ramblings might be the direct result of an injury to his brain or merely the side effects of semi-consciousness in the midst of paralyzing heat. Legolas was sorely tempted to wake the dwarf again and see if he could push him to greater coherency, but he eventually decided that sleep would probably be best for him. At least that way, he could remain unaware of the blistering temperatures.
"Rest well, Gimli," the elf said quietly. "Perhaps when you wake again, I will have the answers for which you seek and you will have the answers for which I seek. But until then, rest well." And with that, the elven prince returned to his own confusing thoughts, once again alone.
* * * *
Weaving through the alleys and buildings that protected Haradhur’s wells, Arabano and a small group of guards dared the deadly heat of the early afternoon and hastened toward the area where Gondor and Rohan camped. It had been a hazardous journey through the burning desert to reach even the walls of Haradhur, but strange things were happening and Budari had felt the risk was necessary. Arabano concurred with his leader, but he almost wished that someone else had been chosen to make the journey. Not that anyone else really could have gone. He and Budari knew the most about the situation, and no one else could be trusted to handle matters as convoluted as these had become.
Arabano froze, and at his side, the Lotessa guards all reached for their daggers. A wave from Arabano relaxed them slightly, but the feeling of alarm and warning continued. As one, the group turned to watch as Fastahn of the Soltari tribe, accompanied by two guards, approached.
"Honored one, I would speak with you upon a matter of some importance," Fastahn said, his voice quiet but firm.
Studying Fastahn closely, Arabano eventually nodded and motioned his men back. "Speak quickly, then, for I have much to do this day."
"As do we all," Fastahn sighed. "But I would know what has become of the elf and the dwarf. Our spies reported that they never left Haradhur, but it seems they are no longer within the camp of Gondor and Rohan."
"Have the vaunted spies of Soltari faltered at last?" Arabano asked with mock dismay, neatly avoiding the question at the same time that he began wondering about Fastahn’s purpose. "Surely they did not fail to keep track of the abominations within Haradhur."
Fastahn’s eyes narrowed marginally, but he did not rise to the bait. "Our spies observed members of the Khurintu tribe advancing on the camp of Gondor and Rohan. This was shortly after the elf and dwarf had entered. There were sounds of a struggle, but then all fell silent again. After that, word came of the attack in the desert and our spies were recalled to aid in driving off the raiders. So I ask again, honored one, what news of the elf and the dwarf? What has become of them?"
"Why does this matter interest you?"
"They are not within Haradhur, are they? Khurintu has taken them."
Arabano was rapidly losing what little patience he had left. "Why does this matter interest you?" he repeated through gritted teeth.
"It does not interest me specifically, but the welfare of the Soltari tribe is in a precarious position," the man answered. "For this reason, honored one, I seek information. And your refusal to answer is answer enough. I thank you for your help."
Arabano felt the iron control that held his temper in check begin to slip. If pressed much further, he would be unable to restrain himself. "Listen well, Fastahn, and then consider well your answer. Why does this matter interest the Soltari tribe? How does the location of the elf and the dwarf affect you and those beneath you?"
Seeming to sense the imminent explosion in Arabano, Fastahn backed away slightly. "Asbad, using the guise of the Destroyer, has labeled the elf and the dwarf as abominations," he said after a moment of silence. "The interpretation has come to mean that they shall bring doom upon Harad unless the Gartabo tribe is able to contain them and hold them without Haradhur. But this has not happened, and that is also the work of the Khurintu tribe. They have opened the way for destruction, they have absolved themselves of blame while placing responsibility upon the tribe heading the Gathering, and they are leaving so that they are not caught in the path of doom. And you wonder that the Soltari tribe is concerned?"
"The power of the Khurintu tribe is less than what rumor makes it," Arabano said firmly.
"But rumor has a way of becoming reality if left uncontested," Fastahn countered. "Can you stop the rumors, honored one? Can you stop the fears? For out of fear is born submission, and already there are tribes who speak of following in the footsteps of Khurintu. Some are thinking of departing after tonight’s meetings."
"Then let them depart," Arabano spat. "They are of no importance to us."
"You are not strong enough to stand alone," Fastahn warned.
"Gondor and Rohan stand with us."
"Most of Harad will stand with Khurintu."
Arabano let out a frustrated sigh and leveled Fastahn with a dark glare. "What is your purpose? You ask concerning the whereabouts of elf and dwarf, and then you speak of politics and Khurintu."
"My purposes are the purposes of the Soltari tribe. As for its purposes, we seek only to maintain the balance of power within the desert. Khurintu is looking to upset that balance," Fastahn answered. "One more question, though, ere I depart. Know you the identities of the raiders who attacked last night?"
"What binds me to tell you anything?" Arabano demanded.
"Because I warned you of the plan to take Legolas and Gimli."
"The warning did more harm than good."
"I also explained to you the rumors and interpretations of the Destroyer that were spreading yesterday."
Arabano sighed and shook his head. "My tribe does not know the identity of the raiders," he eventually answered. "However, King Eomer and the Rohirrim believe that they were of the Portu tribe."
"Were they certain?"
"When I spoke with them, they were," Arabano said. "Does this information mean something to you?"
"Perhaps," Fastahn murmured. "I thank you for your time, honored one. If you will excuse me, there are now other matters I must attend to on behalf of my tribe." And without another word, the advisor from Soltari walked away, leaving Arabano to puzzle over their conversation.
"Honored one?" one of the guards asked hesitantly.
"Come," Arabano said quietly, still wondering about Fastahn’s intentions. Now that he thought about it, without Soltari’s warning, Legolas and Gimli would never have fallen into Khurintu’s hands. But had Khesva and Fastahn known that? Were they truly seeking to maintain a balance, or had they aligned themselves with Khurintu? Shaking his head, he decided this would have to wait until he could consult Budari about it. "Come," he repeated, turning and resuming his walk toward the camp of Gondor and Rohan. "There is much to be done this day."
* * * *
If there was one thing Dashnir hated, it was cleaning up after other people’s messes, even if those messes were necessary. This particular mess had even been expected, but it still gnawed at Dashnir’s temper.
He had cleared out one of the larger tents in the Khurintu encampment for use as a place of healing as well as a morgue. Not wishing to be burdened with bodies, Asbad had left behind all that had been wounded or killed during the capture of the elf and the dwarf. Consequently, they were Dashnir’s responsibility, and it was his duty to see that no one else noticed that Khurintu seemed to have suffered an inordinate number of casualties during the night’s attack. Eleven men had been killed by elven blade or dwarven axe, and seventeen had been wounded, some grievously so.
Dashnir sighed and rubbed his head. The dead tribesmen would have to be given proper rites, and that could certainly not be done here. There were far too many of them, and the required ceremonies were far too conspicuous. Thus, they would have to be disguised as baggage and carried out on the horses. With a grimace, Dashnir wondered if it would have been easier had Asbad taken the bodies along when he left with the elf and dwarf. But then, Asbad had been unable to take horses because of the havoc caused by the Portu tribe and the numbers kept by the Soltari tribe. And without horses, eleven dead men would have been a terrible burden.
The number of wounded was also going to be a problem. Dashnir had known that both elf and dwarf were capable fighters, but their abilities had surpassed his expectations. And now he was forced to care for seventeen wounded men. Nine of these men could no longer walk, and of those nine, three would never be able to do so again. There were but two hours left until sunset, and Dashnir was still trying to devise a way of getting these wounded men out of camp without calling too much attention to them. Fortunately, almost all other preparations for departure were completed, and Dashnir could devote his attention solely to this.
That is, I can devote my attention solely to this problem if I meet with no other interruptions, he sighed, raising his head and glaring darkly at the guard who had poked his head into the tent. "Report."
"The honored Radarad of Portu is demanding a right to speak with you. I would have turned him away, but his status as a tribal leader—"
"Yes, I know," Dashnir sighed, releasing the poor guard from his sharp gaze. "Send him in."
The man nodded smartly and disappeared. Voices could be heard outside the tent, and then the flaps parted to reveal a rather upset tribal leader. Radarad was not even attempting to mask his anger, and Dashnir wondered what was bothering the man. "Where is Asbad?" Radarad demanded.
A slight tremor of uncertainty crawled through Dashnir’s stomach, leaving a bitter taste in his mouth. "He is not here, honored one, as I explained on the opening night of the Gathering," Dashnir answered, wondering if Lotessa was no longer alone in its knowledge of the Destroyer’s true identity.
"Then where is he?" Radarad demanded. "Surely he would have arrived before now. And I do not think he would bestow upon you the power to withdraw your entire tribe from the Gathering."
Relief swept Dashnir. It seemed Radarad did not know about Asbad’s role as the Destroyer but rather was working from assumptions based upon standard protocol and procedure. "The honored Asbad and I have conversed through hawks," Dashnir explained, gesturing toward some of the perches near the back of the tent where a few hawks were sleeping through the day’s heat. "In leaving Haradhur, we are acting upon his orders. And since we are leaving, he saw no reason to make the journey here but rather to await our coming and join us at a rendezvous point."
Radarad looked less than pleased with this news, and his countenance darkened significantly. But after a short pause, he seemed to come to a decision of sorts and began speaking again. "Then I shall address you, Dashnir, as the resident authority, and I pray that you have the wisdom to handle this responsibility. Call off the Warra soldiers who guard the hidden lakes. My people are dying."
Ah. So this is what so vexes you, dear Radarad. Wondering why he hadn’t seen this before now, Dashnir made his face carefully neutral and studied the Portu leader. At length, he shook his head slowly. "With all due respect, honored one, I fear that we cannot do that. I know not if I have the authority to order those guards, nor do I know if such a policy would be a wise one."
Radarad’s eyes narrowed. "And in what way is this an unwise policy?"
"If we allow your people access to the water, what assurances have we that you will not go crawling to Gartabo and confess all?"
"It would be foolish for us to confess!" the tribal leader exclaimed. "It was my tribe who attacked the Gathering. Such an offense would alienate us from all in Harad. We will not go before them. We cannot go before them. You may rest easy in this knowledge."
"My apologies, honored one, but we simply cannot take chances in this area. After all is said and done, we shall certainly allow your people access to the hidden lakes again."
"My riders have done the work you requested of them!" Radarad exclaimed. "Your plans are set in motion, and none can stop you now. I demand that you uphold your end of the arrangement. Release my people!"
"Prudence is often a kindly master, and though we do not always hearken to its counsels, we heed it as often as we can," Dashnir answered. "As I have said before, the Warra tribe shall guard the hidden lakes until our goals have been accomplished. Yours is not an entirely trustworthy tribe, honored one. I fear we cannot afford to take risks such as you would have us take."
"And is this also the policy of Warra? For they are not represented in this tent. Surely Joranen has better uses for the men that guard hidden lakes from women and children."
Dashnir froze and his eyes became dark. "For your own sake, Radarad, I urge you to never bring this matter before the honored Joranen. The Warra tribe wishes to keep their ties to us quiet and secret in the event that something may go wrong. He will refuse to see you, and he will deny all that you say, for they cannot afford to be caught in a web of deceit. Should aught happen and our plan fail, Warra wishes to remain untainted. And in exchange for their help, Khurintu has allowed this. Do not go to them, or the Portu tribe shall suddenly find itself bereft of its leader."
Radarad’s look became hard, and Dashnir prayed that his improvised speech had worked. The entire plan would become far more complex if Joranen learned that a rebellious faction in his own tribe was working for Khurintu under the assumption that they were still operating beneath the deceased Garat. Should Radarad inform Warra of this, it would throw enough doubt onto the Khurintu tribe that the Lotessa tribe might be able to convince others that Asbad had been the Destroyer.
Eventually, Dashnir’s hopes were realized as Radarad muttered something highly uncomplimentary under his breath and looked away. "Remember our agreement, then," he growled. "You have promised to let my people drink."
"And we shall keep our promise," Dashnir said firmly. "You need only wait a few more days, honored one. I trust that your people shall be able to ration their remaining water accordingly?"
"Do not seek to placate me," Radarad snapped, his eyes flashing. "I will be watching, Dashnir. And if you fail in your word, or if Khurintu fails in its promise, all of Harad shall know of the dishonor." And with this, the man fixed Dashnir with a parting glare and then swept out of the tent.
And a moment ago, he was saying how he could never bring this before all of Harad, Dashnir sighed, allowing his shoulders to slump and thanking the Iluh that Radarad was too dense to see what was actually happening. Another leader would have seen the situation for what it was in minutes, but the Portu tribe was not renowned for its intelligence. They were cunning, devious, and sly upon the field of battle, but in the political arena, they were as children playing with weapons far too sophisticated for their abilities.
Still, something would have to be done about the Portu tribe. They did not know enough to ruin the plan, but they knew too much for their own good. Perhaps the same surprise that was planned for Lotessa and key points along Haradhur’s wall should be extended to Portu. It could be done easily enough before the time came to depart. Two of Khurintu’s guards could deliver a message of apology, and while there, they could—
"Honored one, Fastahn of the Soltari tribe is here to speak with you."
Startled out of his thought process, Dashnir looked up and frowned. First Radarad, now Fastahn. This day was becoming unpredictable, and unpredictable things always made Dashnir extremely nervous. More than that, the Soltari tribe had no pressing business with Khurintu. Radarad’s interruption was understandable, but what could Fastahn possibly want? It made no sense, and given the fact that Dashnir was about to depart into the desert where he would rendezvous with the rest of Khurintu’s warriors, these unexpected interruptions were very disturbing.
"Tell him that I am unable to meet with him," Dashnir said at length. He would set agents upon Fastahn and discover his intentions later. At the moment, he had more important items of business.
"Honored one, he insists upon speaking with you," the man said, his eyes nervous. "He said that if you refuse him an audience, I am to tell you that he knows the color of the robes that the honored Asbad wore on the first night of the Gathering."
Dashnir’s jaw dropped. Things did not usually catch Dashnir by surprise, for he was a man of great planning. He studied his moves carefully, he studied his opponents carefully, and when the time came to act, he had a very good idea of what would happen as well as most of the possible twists and turns that a situation could take. But this… It was impossible for Fastahn to know that Asbad had been the Destroyer. Arabano knew, and the Lotessa tribe now knew, but beyond them… Even if Lotessa had spoken with Soltari about it, Soltari would never have believed them.
"Show him in," Dashnir hissed. His mind felt as though it was now tumbling through the thorn bushes that grew in the eastern part of the desert. How could this have happened? And why hadn’t Fastahn acted on this knowledge earlier? Why hadn’t he gone before the Gathering with it? What game was Soltari playing? Dashnir’s fists clenched at his sides while his teeth ground together. The Khurintu tribe was the one that did the maneuvering. It did not work the other way around!
"Honored Dashnir, I present to you Fastahn, a member of Soltari’s advisory council."
Dashnir looked over, his face now a mask of casual curiosity. But beneath that façade he was burning with anger, rage, hatred, and above all else, fear. "You asked to speak with me?"
"I did, honored one," Fastahn answered. "Yet before we begin, I would make plain some things which, until now, have been hidden. I know where Asbad was on the first night of the Gathering. I know where he was during the second night when Aulit entered the hall alone. I know he wore red robes, and I know that he confronted an elf in the name of the Iluh. But this is not all, honored one. What I know, my tribe also knows. If I do not return to them this day, then the honored Khesva shall take my knowledge to all of Haradhur and your tribe shall be disgraced beyond any hope of ever regaining honor." Fastahn gave Dashnir a thin smile. "So kindly remove your hand from your dagger. You cannot kill me without inviting your own destruction. How ironic it would be if the Destroyer’s prophecies turned themselves upon you."
"What business have you here?" Dashnir demanded, dropping the veneer of politeness and twisting his face into a threatening scowl. If Fastahn was going to hide nothing, Dashnir would return the favor.
"We of the Soltari tribe know much of your plan, honored one," Fastahn said with a slow drawl. "We know that you have taken the elf and the dwarf. We know you are amassing significant forces to the northeast around Lake Hajim. We suspect that you have great plans for Harad, and we suspect you wish to hold power over other tribes. We ask only one thing of you, Dashnir—if your plans give you success, then spare the Soltari tribe. You may use us as a vassal tribe if necessary, but allow our people to live as they have always lived."
It took Dashnir a moment to realize that he was staring. It took him another moment to realize that he was only seconds away from lodging his knife in Soltari’s throat. Eventually, he mastered himself and took one slight step forward. It was not much, but it was enough to tell Fastahn that this was Dashnir’s tent and that he would control the flow of their conversation. "And what have you to offer in return?" he asked, his voice cold as the desert sand under the moonlight.
"For one, we offer discretion," Fastahn said. "Many tribes would be very interested to learn of your recent activities, particularly insofar as they relate to a certain religious figure traditionally clad in red robes. But we offer more than simply discretion, honored one. The Soltari tribe knows many secrets and tricks in convincing the desert soil to yield crops. We know methods of irrigation that would enrich your own tribe if you were to rely upon us for agriculture. But if you were to subjugate us as you plan on subjugating all else, then we would hide our secrets from you and the desert would not produce enough to sustain your warriors as you marched them upon Gondor and Rohan."
Last minute surprises were not good, especially on the eve of a plan that would either lift the Khurintu tribe to heights it had never known or bury it beyond any hope of glory. No longer able to hide his emotions, Dashnir scowled at Fastahn even as he considered what was being asked. In truth, Asbad had been planning to make Soltari a vassal tribe anyway, but Khurintu could not grant it upon request. Such a move implied weakness, and weakness could not be allowed. Perhaps the fate of the Soltari tribe should be adjusted to parallel the fate of the Portu tribe. But this would mean the loss of a valuable agricultural base that Khurintu would need as they began to build their empire. There was always Gartabo, of course, and they would be completely at Khurintu’s mercy, especially given their disgrace in losing the elf and dwarf. But would Gartabo alone suffice?
Dashnir mentally raged at the choice placed before him. He could not allow Soltari to coerce Khurintu like this, for such a weakness was unprecedented. But could he destroy the tribe? Did the risks warrant such an action? Their lands will be open to us if we destroy them, Dashnir reminded himself. Techniques can always be learned. We can sift their records and force their survivors to talk. For a moment more, he wavered between the options presented him, and then he made the only choice that he could. Soltari would have to be destroyed. There were other agricultural bases to be found, but a perceived weakness could not be allowed.
Decision made, Dashnir fixed Fastahn with a deadly glare while Fastahn casually examined one of the hawks in the tent as a means of passing time. Sensing Dashnir’s gaze, the tribesman from Soltari straightened and turned, his nose wrinkling slightly as though from an unpleasant odor. His dark eyes took on a questioning look, but other than that, he betrayed no emotion.
"Your wish is granted," Dashnir said coldly. "If our plan is successful, your tribe will become a vassal of Khurintu." What’s left of it, that is, he mentally added to himself. "And now if you will be so kind as to leave…"
"My thanks," Fastahn answered, wrinkling his nose slightly once more and then smiling. "You have been most helpful. Now that a place has been assured for Soltari, we shall step back and allow this drama to unfold. May the Iluh guard your feet, honored one."
Dashnir offered no response but turned his head pointedly toward the door, hoping that Fastahn would take the hint and depart. Reading the message with ease, Fastahn smiled slightly and bowed before turning away and exiting. Left alone, Dashnir nearly collapsed, his mind spinning into a state just short of a full-fledged panic. With victory so near, they could ill-afford to have something like this happen. The fact that Soltari, Lotessa, Gondor, and Rohan all knew the identity of the Destroyer was a risk that could not be allowed to persist. The list of tribes slated to become examples of the Destroyer’s power would have to be expanded.
Lotessa was actually already on the list, and preparations had recently been made to ensure their destruction. The alliance that Gondor and Rohan had managed to construct with the Lotessa tribe had been unexpected but ultimately very beneficial for Khurintu. It gave Dashnir the perfect place to plant the last surprises that the Khurintu tribe had to offer before leaving Haradhur. But extending the same courtesy to the Soltari tribe…that was a fairly large risk. It seemed that Soltari had outlived its usefulness and could no longer be controlled with misinformation, but that did not mean they could be wiped from the map of Harad. They knew too much, and if even one member of the ruling and advisory councils survived, then the knowledge they held would be all over Haradhur.
But to let them live… Dashnir shook his head. It could not be allowed. Khurintu was being blackmailed, even though their plans did not have to be altered. Soltari had gone too far this time. Had they kept to themselves as was their wont, all would have been well. But they had not, and so arrangements would have to made to ensure that Soltari received the same gift that Lotessa and Portu would receive.
This gift was quite possibly the crowning jewel as well as the inspiration for the entire plan and was born of a message sent from Asbad’s kinsman, the Mouth of Sauron, almost five years ago. It had traveled first by horseman and ultimately by hawk, originating from the ruins of a fortress identified in the message as Isengard. There were many incomprehensible things in that particular letter—among them some rather strange references to very peculiar trees—but one bit of information had stood out above all. The Mouth of Sauron had spoken of a weapon created in this fortress of Isengard, and Asbad had set much of Khurintu’s extensive resources to the task of learning more about this strange thing. The effort had been long but very fruitful, and the Khurintu tribe now had the ability to topple even the mightiest tribe with a single stroke. So it would be for Portu, Lotessa, and now Soltari. There were great risks in this, but there were now great risks in everything that Dashnir did. And he felt confident that Asbad would agree with him that Soltari should be a recipient of the Khurintu tribe’s greatest asset.
Mind made up, Dashnir stepped to the entrance of the tent and spoke a few quiet words with the guards outside. A short time later, other men arrived and instructions were quickly given. By the time all was finished, the sun was very close to setting, and Dashnir knew his stay at Haradhur had come to an end. He had arranged things to the best of his ability, and it was now in the hands of the Iluh, or so the saying went. Dashnir smiled. Before long, Khurintu would be hailed as the messengers of the Iluh. And after that, all of Middle-earth would bow before them. The saying would have to be altered, for things would no longer be in the hands of the mythical Iluh. Things would be in the hands of Khurintu.
Arabano—Second-in-command of Lotessa (OC)
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard (OC)
Arnor—Aragorn’s horse (OC)
Asbad—Tribal head of Khurintu (OC)
Aulit—Tribal head of Gartabo (OC)
Budari—Tribal head of Lotessa (OC)
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (OC)
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul—Legolas’s horse (OC)
Fastahn—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (OC)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard (OC)
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen—Tribal head of Warra (OC)
Khesva—Tribal head of Soltari (OC)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (OC)
Radarad—Tribal head of Portu (OC)
Shade—Eomer’s horse (OC)
Gartabo—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Khurintu—Northern based warrior tribe
Lotessa—Southern based warrior tribe
Portu—Widespread raiding tribe
Soltari—Centrally located agricultural tribe
Warra—Northern based warrior tribe
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