Many Guises and Many Names
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Lesser Ring: 26. Trial and Justice
Trial and Justice
Legolas had gone several times between the house of Rustovrid and later that of Afraim and the not-so-empty house which Sohrabi had once inhabited. Not long past midnight Prince Faramir had ridden with Mablung and one of Ankhrabi's guards and that of Lord Ghants'pa'amon on horses sent by Lord Afraim to watch the road north for messengers expected to be sent to Risenmouthe once the revolt started in Thetos. They'd captured the expected message riders right at dawn and had brought them back to the Farozi's house. Three hours before dawn Aragorn had returned himself, had checked on the condition of Ankhrabi, and had fallen onto a bare bed in another chamber and had fallen deeply asleep.
Pippin managed to put together a breakfast for those in the house, and took a serving of bread, dried fish, and juice to each of the prisoners.
About an hour after dawn Afraim sent several of his servants and guards to bring Ankhrabi and the prisoners back to the palace. The King woke and took a hasty meal, straightened his garb as best he could, and walked beside the Haradri prince's sedan chair, hunting bow and quiver over his shoulder. Pippin walked with Hildigor and Damrod behind Lords Berevrion and Ghants'pa'amon, glad to have turned the guarding of the prisoners over to Afraim's Men. Rustovrid and Afraim, accompanied by Hardorn, Legolas, and several of the captains of the defending troops, awaited them near the temple of Scarab, and joined the growing procession back into the compound of the Farozi's palace.
They were met and admitted by Amonrabi, who advised them that the Farozi had commanded a good meal and baths be readied for them, advising them that a trial was set to commence an hour after noon for the rebels. Aragorn entered the guest chambers to see his wife and daughter and son waiting for him; a smile broke on his lips, and he came forward to gather the three of them into his arms, then went gladly to bathe, accompanied, to the scandal of the Farozi's servants, by his wife who stayed by him, unwilling to let him out of her sight.
After the noon meal, the Farozi of Harad, fully painted in keeping with his status and in full regalia, crook and flail in his hands, the high mitered Crown of Harad with the insignia of Amon and Osiri upon it on his head, took the high seat in the great outdoors pavement area, many of the notables of the city and realm nearby. A great chair was set on his right where the Lord King An'Elessar of Gondor and Arnor now sat; on his left a similar chair had been placed for the Lord King An'Éomer of Rohan. Both Northern Kings were also in full regalia: the King of Gondor with the Star of Elendil on his brow, his blue riding leathers with embossed Tree, Stars, and Winged Crown plainly displayed beneath a white mantle fastened with the green glory of the Elessar brooch, the Sceptre of Annúminas in his hand, his great sword Anduril across his knees; the King of the Horselords with the White Horse of Rohan on the breast of his green robes, his golden crown on his head, his drawn sword also across his knees. Ankhrabi sat on a lower chair between and before the chairs of the Lord An'Elessar and his father; Amonrabi stood on his brother's left. Opposite them against the wall were set two chairs to which Sherfiramun and Merdirion, both gagged, were led and bound. Finally many of the folk of the city who'd learned of the attempted revolt during the night now filled the court to witness for themselves what was going forth.
For the sake of those who'd accompanied the northern Lords to Harad the Lord Amrahil, ambassador from Gondor and Arnor, now stood to translate the findings of this tribunal to Westron. The Lady Arwen herself stood by Benai to translate for him, for which he was grateful.
Lord Amonrabi came forward to speak for his brother. Striking the staff of office he carried three times upon the pavement, he called out, "Behold, the Farozi sits in judgment."
The people of Harad gave a short cheer.
A general under Afraim's command came forward and bowed deeply to the Farozi. "Great Lord," he announced, "I rejoice to tell you that a plot against your sovereignty and the peace of Harad was exposed yesterday, and those who would have changed our rule by force have been halted and taken prisoner."
"Let the captains of the troops who would have led the revolt be brought forward," said An'Sohrabi. At a signal, an escort, half from the forces of Thetos and half from the desert armies, brought eight officers of the rebellion through an archway from the prison area into the open square of the pavement of justice. They all wore halters about their necks in token that they'd been involved in treasonous matters, and their hands were tied behind them. When at last they stood before the Farozi a signal was given and six fell to their knees, the other two slapped behind theirs with a rod to force them to follow suit. Lord Ghants'pa'amon, who'd agreed to take part in the trial, read the charges.
"These eight were found, each leading one of the troops set to take part in the rebellion against your rule." The name of each was read, and the description given of where his troop was found, how many had been in it, and what kind of force each consisted of.
When the reading was done, the Farozi pointed with his flail at the first. "Who was it who asked or commanded you to lead your Men against the peace of Harad?"
With a sigh, he said, "Lord Sherfiramun, my Lord Farozi."
"Did you know this was intended as a revolt against me as Farozi of Harad and Far Harad?"
"Who was to become Farozi after myself?"
"Who supplied you with arms to fight against me?"
"Serbhatosiri and Merforim of this city."
"Did you know that if you were unsuccessful the penalty for your actions is death?"
"Has my rule of Harad caused you any loss?"
The Man looked up, surprised. "My Lord?"
"Have you suffered because I was Farozi of this land?"
"No, my Lord."
Each of the other prisoners was asked the same series of questions, and all had similar answers, although two swore they did not realize that the revolt was against the Farozi himself and another two said that the one to recruit them was Merdirion.
At last all had been questioned. The Farozi looked to the lords of the realm. "My lords," he asked. "Can any of you think of any other questions you would ask of them?" None could. "Is there any who believes any of these did not know what he was doing?" All the lords shook their heads. "So be it then, my lords."
He looked back to the eight Men. "This day you are found guilty of fomenting war within the realm of Harad and Far Harad for no other reason than to help place one of untried leadership upon its throne in my stead. The penalty for such is death. You will be taken tomorrow to the wall outside the city and will be slain with arrows. And may Annubi find reason to bring you before Osiri, and may Osiri treat you with mercy." He watched the eight led away.
The next group to be led in were the two merchants who had helped to arm and finance the fight. Again names and charges were read.
The Farozi pointed the flail at Serbhatosiri. "You chose to assist in financing this rebellion?"
"It was a business decision only, my Lord...." the Man began.
An'Sohrabi cut him off. "A business decision only?" he asked, amazed. "The unmaking of the Farozi is no longer a sacred trust for the benefit of the realm, but is merely a matter of business?"
"But----" Confused, the merchant found he could not answer, and looked to the ground instead.
"Several days ago was my seventieth birthday, and all the temples were decorated with great cloth rosettes."
"Yes, my Lord," he responded dully.
"From whom were these decorations purchased?"
He raised his head, his face solemn. "From me."
"From you. I see. Did the ones negotiating with you for their purchase pay you less than you paid for the cloth originally?"
"No, dread Lord."
"Did they insist they pay no more than you did originally?"
"No, dread Lord."
"Was the profit you made on the sale of the things too little?"
"No, dread Lord--it was a decent profit."
"Much of the cloth used in the making of new robes for courtiers and priests was purchased through you. Did you suffer losses through the sale of this material?"
"Of course not."
"Did any of those in your employ suffer losses due to the custom you have done with the palace of the Farozi?"
"No, my Lord."
"Have you been limited in the profits you have been allowed to make?"
"And what reasons were given at those times for the limiting of those profits?"
"That the profits I would have commanded would have impoverished the people, and you would not allow that."
The Farozi let all think on that for several minutes. Finally he asked, "Then why did you choose to finance this revolt?"
"I was promised better trade routes...."
"By Sherfiramun and Merdirion."
"Who holds the trade routes you would seek to have?"
"Bestgebpelrabi of Nestor, my Lord."
"How is it he holds those trade routes?"
"He inherited them from his father."
"How long has his family held those trade routes?"
The merchant shrugged. "Perhaps eight generations, my Lord."
"Did I have any part in them receiving those trade routes?"
"No, my Lord."
"To whom would you have granted your current trade routes?"
Serbhatosiri looked affronted. "I would have surrendered them to no other than myself."
"So, you sought only to enrich yourself at the expense of others?"
"Of...." Once he realized how close he had come to agreeing with the Farozi he went silent and his face went totally white, then a brilliant, angry red.
The Farozi just looked at him steadily for several long moments, before finally giving a sigh and turning his attention and the pointing of the flail on the other.
Merforim did not answer all the questions asked of him. He was of the desert people from the South of Harad originally, and his people had held pasturelands and farmlands first, had made their fortune in the sale of their produce and the meat of their herds of cattle. He had expanded into the trading of metalworks, eventually into the sale of weapons. His profits on the sale of weapons had begun to fall off since the fall of the Death Eater, although his sales of food had indeed risen. But he had heard that there were profits to be made in the sale of weapons to Umbar and many in the lands East and South of Umbar and Rhun and Mundolië....
"To whom do you sell most of the weapons you now trade?"
"To the Crown, my Lord."
"You do not make a decent profit from these sales?"
Merforim did not answer, merely looked at the pavement before his knees.
"Would you increase your profits so much if Sherfiramun were Farozi in my place?"
"There would be wars again fought."
"And when wars are fought, then your weapons trade would increase." The Farozi again sighed. At last he looked to the lords and asked for questions. This time there were a few, and the answers added to the realization these sought only to build themselves up at the expense of the peace and the profits of all rivals.
"Hear the judgment against you, then," An'Sohrabi said at the last. "You are found guilty of assisting in the fomenting of rebellion so as to only continue to profit in the disruption of the peace finally known by the people of Harad and Far Harad.
"When the Eastern Lord held sway over our lands, ever he promised us that the deaths of our soldiers would work to our benefit in terms of profits, slaves, lands, booty, and power. Yet ever the one who benefited was himself and not us. Our land was diminished, and was filled with the lamentations of parents, wives, and orphaned children. Better than half of the children of this city alone for generations knew not their fathers because they had died in Sauron's wars." There was a general growl of agreement throughout the assembly. "Power and profits were concentrated into the hands of a few, who as long as they supported the Death Eater and his aims received riches and power over all, but at the cost of their own integrity and the continued losses to our people." Again the growl of agreement. "My brother, An'Maosiri, sought to expand on the improvements made under our father, and Mordor grew to hate him for his honesty and his caring for our people, and in the end had him murdered. The poison used was from the om flower which grows only in the South of our land, in the lands administered by your family, does it not, Merforim?"
Through gritted teeth, Merforim answered, "Yes, that is true."
"We usually use the poison of the om flower's sap to kill ants in the kitchens of our homes. To protect our children, it must be sold only in special containers of metal which only the ants can enter, find the crystallized sap amongst crystals of sugar, carry them home to their queens and so destroy the nests, is it not so?"
"Yet enough of the pure syrup was sold to the agent of Sauron to kill a Man, and other Men as well."
Merforim did not speak, his face was full of the realization of what was to come, his eyes filled with fear, but also with the determination to face it without showing that fear overmuch.
"The two of you are now condemned to death. Of old you would be taken out into the desert and buried to your necks in the sand and left to a slow and lingering death of thirst, starvation, heat, and the attacks of the creatures of the desert. We will give you this mercy: you, too, shall die tomorrow against the wall under the swifter points of arrows. And may Annubi find reason to bring you before Osiri, and may Osiri be merciful unto your souls."
Serbhatosiri had to be carried from the pavement area.
The six who had followed Mablung through the marshlands of the delta were brought next. That they had been under the command of Sherfiramun and had been commanded what to do by both Sherfiramun and Merdirion was made plain. The tale of the run after a single Man from the North and how one of theirs had fallen to the crocodile was described. That their orders included the order to kill Sherfiramun himself if it could be made to look like the action of one of the Northerners caused the onlookers to gasp in surprise. That they had been given arrows and darts which had been dipped in asp venom and the poison of the om flower was also brought out, and the physical evidence of the darts from their quivers was spilled onto the pavement before them, the tell-tale blue-green glint on the surface of the metal tips obvious to all who were familiar with the effects of the poisons on metals.
They, too, were condemned to death before the wall.
Those who had been held in the wine closet of the house in which Sohrabi had gathered his illegitimate brothers and sisters as a young Man and in which his older son had dwelt until his death were brought out. Pelseti admitted he was from the region near Nestor, that his father had been part of the revolt which had drawn the Farozi's older heir south, that orders had been to see to it that Bhatgebamun son of An'Sohrabi was to die in the uprising before the other captains and generals put it down. There was a growl of anger from the crowd, for the Farozi's older son had been popular with the people of Harad.
That Tutankhrabi had used a dart poisoned with asp venom on Ankhrabi was brought out, as was his surprise that the Prince was alive and looked as well as he did, considering what he'd undergone.
One of the Lords asked, "If he did indeed use asp venom on you, my lord Prince, then how is it you are yet alive?"
Ahkhrabi stood and turned toward the Man, drew aside the cloak he wore to show the bandage on his side. "The Lord King An'Elessar of Gondor and Arnor is, among other things, a healer of great skill and gifts. He treated my wound and effected my healing."
Ghants'pa'amon nodded his head in agreement. "I saw this happen, saw the King heal our Prince. The wound was cleansed of the poison, and began to heal even as I wiped away the expelled poison and blood."
Prince Faramir, who stood with his wife at his side amongst the nobles, stepped forward. "During the battle between the forces of Mordor and the defenders of the city of Minas Tirith, I was also wounded almost to the death. My Lord King Aragorn Elessar healed me and brought me back from the Gates of Death, as he did for she who is now my wife and many others in the wake of that battle and the next. Long has it been said among us that the Hands of the King are the Hands of the Healer. Thus was he recognized by our peoples as the rightful King of Gondor and Arnor."
The Farozi turned to his guest. "Our land owes you yet another gift of gratitude, that my remaining child and the heir to the seat of the Farozi not be taken again betimes from us."
The King of Gondor nodded solemnly. "I would not see a companion to whom I owed so much honor die of such treachery, my Lord An'Sohrabi."
That Sherfiramun and Merdirion were the hatchers of this plot was again brought out, and that they had been told secretly that should Sherfiramun die and it look as if he'd been killed by either Ankhrabi's Men or the Northerners that would be desirable. The lords of the realm had no further questions, and again the sentence of death before the wall was spoken. Those who led them away looked on them with great anger.
Those identified within the palace of the Farozi were now brought out save for Gefferel alone, and their part in the conspiracy was told. All of these were condemned to death by beheading.
Those soldiers who had been part of the revolt were then led out in groups of ten. Their part in the revolt was told, and all bowed their heads, expecting they, too, would die. But to them a mercy was granted. "Your lives will be spared, but only under a condition. You will swear fealty to the rightful Farozi and be scattered among other troops, never more than one to a troop, and will fight ever at the forefront of your troops faithfully for the protection of our land and its people; or you will appear before the executioner and forfeit your sword hands and be released from the service of our land." That almost all would seek to accept the first condition was obvious.
The messengers who had set off toward Risenmouthe were brought out, and it was identified to whom they had been sent. To them was given the same choice as the common soldiers. The names of other messengers sent other directions were elicited, and they were sent off to wait the night in prison before being allowed to express their choices the following day.
At last four soldiers approached each of the two chairs on which Sherfiramun and Merdirion sat, and lifted them bodily and brought them before the tribunal. One of the generals of the hosts of Harad now stepped forward to remove the gags from each. At a sign from the Farozi each of the bound Men was given water to drink. There was a general growl that this was too good of treatment to be offered to such traitors, but the Farozi ignored it, and he noted that those whose respect he valued most were looking on him with approval.
Sherfiramun was almost fawning as he expressed his apologies and tried to explain there was nothing personal in his decision to accept the offer to make him Farozi in place of An'Sohrabi and his son and grandsons. He kept on for several more moments before finally An'Sohrabi silenced him with a wave of the flail.
"Nothing personal in your decision to see me dead and yourself in my place? Nothing personal in allowing your Men and agents to carry illegally poisoned weapons to use against me, my son, and my guests?" Sherfiramun's face went pale.
"Have you not heard the testimony of those who took place in the assaults on the hunt in the marshes? Ankhrabi, An'Elessar, Lord Faramir, and Lord Berevrion and their guards were not the only expected targets--you, too, were expected to die there. Even as his late master ever lied to us of the benefits we would receive from serving him, even has Merdirion lied to you as to his making you Farozi once my remaining heir and I were dead. He intended to work through the sons of my son, serving as their regent, corrupting them that it might look to all who did not desire to look more deeply that they were indeed rulers of Harad when instead it would be he who ruled all."
Sherfiramun looked at the one next to him with fury in his eyes.
The weapons taken from those who'd taken part in the revolt within the palace grounds itself were now brought out, including strangling cords carried by soldiers and slaves, poisoned darts and knives. Merdirion's slave was brought out, also, and was made to kneel before the chair on which his master sat, facing the Farozi. Again he was questioned at length, and his role in coordinating the movements of troops, in aiding in the recruitment of the merchants, in aiding his master to decide how Sherfiramun and his wife would in the end die, was elicited.
At last the Farozi pronounced the slave's doom. "Death is too easy an out for you. I cannot do this with all of those who took part in this revolt, for so many concentrated in a few places would only increase the probability of another revolt, a slaves' revolt in the future. But for you--you shall go to the quarries of Ghantser, and shall labor there for the rest of your life."
The Man's face went pale. "No my Lord--I beg of you----"
The slave was dragged away still weeping and pleading.
Sherfiramun looked after with a look of satisfaction until the Farozi pointed the flail against himself. "And you, my former lord, will join him. You would have made yourself this ones slave--let you become a slave indeed." Sherfiramun looked at him stunned, his jaw dropped in disbelief. The Farozi turned to the chief of the guards. "Let him be stripped of his finery, and let it and all the clothing and jewelry that were his be given to the beggars before the temple of Neryet for their comfort. Give him the loincloth of a slave, brand his shoulder in token he is and will ever remain a slave, and tomorrow let him go to the quarries with he who was slave to Merdirion." The soldier bowed in obedience, and drawing his belt knife saw to the cutting of Sherfiramun's bonds. He signaled one of his Men to assist in leading Sherfiramun to his fate, and the three of them left the pavement area.
Gefferel was now led out and was made to sit in the chair which Sherfiramun had quitted, and was bound there in the former lord's stead. The Farozi looked on him with regret, for Gefferel had been in his service for eighteen years, and he'd liked the slave, had given him favor and gifts. Gefferel had been born to slavery and had yet been given preference over many of the paid servants, and had even been given a salary equal to those of the paid servants for the past fifteen years. The Farozi and others had taken Gefferel's unwillingness to use this to buy his own freedom as a sign of devotion to An'Sohrabi himself. Yet now it was made plain that Gefferel had been working with Merdirion to bring about the death of An'Sohrabi and the enslavement of Harad to one from Umbar.
The questions began, and this time the Kings of Gondor and Rohan joined in the questioning, wanting to know what was to have been done with their wives and children and their people. The answers were enlightening: the women, including Ankhrabi's and Sherfiramun's wives, were to be given to any lords who might be brought to support the Umbari's aims; given to serve as concubines, once their royal children were weaned. When she began menses the same was to happen to the Princess Melian. The boys were to be raised in isolation and brought up to obey Merdirion in all things. If they obeyed him they would be rewarded with food, pleasures, small gifts. If they defied him they would be punished. The small ones would have all three been sold as slaves for the entertainment of their new masters, who would undoubtedly have enjoyed seeing such thinking of themselves as equals to Men of proper stature. The soldiers were to have been forced to join the forces of Harad under Merdirion's command or would have been killed outright. The Lords were to have been tortured for information if they survived the assassination attempts.
The more that was said, the more indignation was shown by the lords and people of Harad, and the more stern grew the faces of the Northern Lords. "You would not only have agreed to the degradation of my friends and the enslavement of our wives," An'Elessar said, "but to the enslavement of our children and all of your people as well."
"When have I been other than a slave?" Gefferel spat out. "Those who took my grandparents kept me as a slave in the far Southlands, then sold me North when An'Sohrabi sought one with the knowledge of languages used beyond Harad to serve him here in Thetos."
"I have given you my favor," the Farozi said. "I would gladly have given you the right to buy your own freedom."
"What is freedom here in Thetos, here in Harad? I do not know how to use freedom. But I would be avenged on those who allowed my family to be made slaves."
He turned to glare at the King of Gondor. "And then this one comes, and he takes slaves also."
Aragorn looked at him blankly, then laughed. "Benai," he called, "please come before this one."
Once the call had been translated, Benai came forth to stand before the slave. In Haradri the King made his questions, and they were translated to Adunaic by the Queen. "Benai, who took you to enslave you?"
"The G'bani tribe."
"Are you now a slave?"
"No, for you have presented me with the articles of mannumism, and have embraced me as your kinsman."
"What makes me your kinsman?"
Benai opened his robe to show off the star-shaped scars cut into the flesh of his breast. "Your fathers and mine were both refugees from Númenor when it foundered. The ship of my fathers and mothers was driven ashore South of Far Harad. The ships of the fathers and mothers of the rest of our peoples were driven ashore far to the North, in what are now Gondor and Arnor. We are all Dúnedain, the folk of the West, all descendants of Elros Tar-Minyatar and his followers, all descended from the kindred of Lendil, all blessed by Rendil."
"In what capacity do you now serve me?"
"It was your wife who recognized I was not born a slave and who bought me out of such degradation. I have accepted the right to serve as her guard until the day I can return to my own folk and let them know that the promise has been fulfilled, that our kinsman Aragorn Elessar Envinyatar Telcontar sits as King, and has reunited our line with the other line of descendancy from Rendil, that he is married to the granddaughter of Rendil the Half-Elven."
"And the girl who was purchased along with you--what has become of her?"
"She also was not born to slavery, but was made so on the death of her father leaving debts. She also has been freed, but is bound now to see if she is able to learn the skills the Queen may teach her, that when she comes to adulthood she may be able to support herself and her family, and know honor and respect as a weaver and seamstress and embroiderer of Gondor."
The King of Gondor finally turned to Gefferel. "Now, have I indeed taken slaves?"
Gefferel simply looked at him dumbly.
"Slavery has ever been illegal in the lands of our peoples. My wife has bought two out of slavery. And, from what I hear told in testimony of you, you, too, were given more than ample chance to do that for yourself as well. Yet you failed to do so, and none here understood, not even your lord," he added, indicating the Farozi.
The Farozi sighed. "Much love have I felt for you, but no more. You have betrayed the trust and love shown you. You have chosen to remain a slave, and so it shall be. But no longer will you serve my person--you shall labor in the laundries of the palace, less than the lowest slave there, who are yet freer than you. No longer shall I willingly look upon your face."
Gefferel was untied and led away to be branded as a perpetual slave. The second chair was removed.
At last only Merdirion was left to judge.
"Bring out the chest of papers taken with this one," the Farozi commanded. It was brought out by Lord Afraim and laid with the weapons before the assembly. Lord Afraim now stood before the court. "You have gone through this chest?"
"Yes, with the assistance of Lord Amrahil and others who know the languages Merdirion used."
"What does it contain?"
"Lists of folk from here, Umbar, Gondor, Arnor, and Rohan targeted for death. Indications of the ones who have been successfully eliminated and what means were used to effect their deaths. Lists of those who must be taken and enslaved. Lists of those likely to support Merdirion in his attempts to gain power over the lands of Harad, Umbar, and Gondor. Information about various folk such as yourself, the Lord King An'Elessar, the Shkatha An'Moritum of Rhun, the Lord Marcipor of Umbar, and others, and what is known of your strengths and weaknesses.
"There are descriptions of previous attempts to unseat various lords, including An'Théoden King of Rohan, Denethor Steward of Gondor, An'Éomer King of Rohan, An'Moritum of Rhun, Lord Marcipor of Umbar, An'Elessar of Gondor and Arnor, Arathorn of Arnor; and what caused the disruptions to the plots that failed--which were almost all of them.
"There are communications with former leaders in Angmar and Dunland, and notations of how Merdirion's agents in the Northern Lands have been found out or converted to service to Gondor in recent years. There is a description of what is known of the capture and death of Landrion of Umbar, who was Merdirion's nephew and leader of their people who remain in that land.
"There is also a map of Middle Earth and how it shall be controlled by Umbar, and with it a long scroll on which Merdirion has described how he shall control the lands of Arnor, Gondor, Rohan, Umbar, and Harad through the control of their child-heirs; how he will wrest control of Umbar from Marcipor to himself; how he will seek to do the same in Rhun, and possibly one day in Mundolië as well.
"All shall fall into the web of Umbar as it once lay so overwhelmingly in that of Mordor, and he shall be the spider at the center of its web."
All fell silent. At last the King An'Elessar of Gondor and Arnor began to ask questions. All saw that he used no torture, no threats, only the great power of his voice and personality--and although it was plain that Merdirion did not seek to answer, yet he did, again and again. The history of his place as one of the Black Númenoreans was given, of his acceptance of servitude to Mordor. His time as captain of the guards at the trading docks of Risenmouthe was given.
"In those days you were yet not totally corrupt," the King pointed out. "When I appealed to you about the theft of my legitimate profits as a trader, you overruled your Men, saw to it they were punished for the wrong done, made them return my money and even make reparations."
Merdirion looked at him warily, but now did not answer.
"Why did you accept that which you wear on your hand?"
Merdirion glared at him. He spat, "I would see my people again leaders in Middle Earth rather than ignored by the world at large. My people once ruled most of Middle Earth that was not ruled by Mordor. We were partnered with Sauron, and shared in the glory of that time."
"The glory of that time you say? The time spent below the dark which Sauron lay over all of Middle Earth to veil himself within? Your folk worshipped him, helped to begin the worship of him by which he realized he could grow in power by means of the deaths of others."
"You taught him the way by which he might regain his strength should he ever be cast down. You set up altars to him, he who is less than the Valar even, he who is certainly below the only One who deserves all worship. You made of him who was created to be messenger and servant a false god.
"Life is a great gift, and death is meant to be a great gift also, by which we can leave behind the griefs of our lives as they pile up and find release and the delight of what is to come when we quit the body. It is not meant to strengthen the powers of such as Morgoth and Sauron."
"Death is annihilation," Merdirion said dully.
Aragorn shook his head in disbelief. "So you believe in truth? How poor you are in spirit, then, believing such a lie!"
"You know better?"
The King rose, set his sheathed sword across the arms of the chair he'd quitted, came forward to stand before Merdirion. "I have seen the deaths of many over the years, and have caused many of those myself, for I am the warrior King as well as the healing King and the judging King. I slew both Maruset and Virubat. I knelt over the body of Boromir as he died, spoke with Gandalf when he was sent back from death. Oh, I have reason to know that death is not the end, but merely another beginning--for those who will accept it."
The great King Aragorn Elessar shook his head. "Death claimed the brothers who would have been born to stand beside me, the other sons of my parents. Yet Iluvatar did not allow their spirits to languish, and the promise of their lives has been fulfilled. I will die myself one day, and perhaps will spend a time in the portion of the Halls of Waiting set aside for mortals--but I doubt I shall remain there long, when the promise of the Presence is there for me beyond the bounds of Arda, when I shall know reunion with all whom I have loved, including the brothers I so desired and the cousins and other relatives and friends I so sorely miss."
His eyes bored into those of the Umbari. "You have a chance to know that freedom, Merdirion, but to have it you must remove that," and he pointed to the ring Merdirion still wore. Aragorn looked at Afraim. "Untie his left arm only that he might do this, but do not stand near enough he might grab your belt knife or sword."
Afraim looked at his own Lord, and after giving his guest a long, searching look, An'Sohrabi nodded confirmation.
"But it will give me life...."
"As I told you, this is not true, Merdirion. Sauron lied to you as he did those who before you have worn such things, as he lied to those who bore the Nine wrought by Celebrimbor and corrupted by himself. Do any of the Nine yet remain? And while they did remain, did they remain as they were, and grow greater? No, they became wraiths of horror instead. Does Sauron himself yet hold any power outside the hearts of those who, like you, believe that they can know absolute power over others?"
Merdirion's face was white.
"You have but one choice left--to die enslaved to that and know the final annihilation you fear, or to remove it and have a chance at a future beyond death."
"And what judgment will be given me there?"
"I am to tell you that, who must stand before that justice with all the blood I have borne on my own hands?" The King held Merdirion's eyes with his own as at last Afraim untied the final knots on Merdirion's left hand. "Will you remove it? If you do not, you tie yourself to Sauron's own end, which was mean."
Merdirion looked at his hand, at the great ring he wore. He reached out to cover it with his left hand, to clutch at it. At last he looked up, his face set and ugly with hatred and fear. "I will not remove it."
Aragorn closed his eyes in acceptance. Finally he looked at his host. "I ask permission to do what must be done, then, my Lord An'Sohrabi."
"What will you do?"
"I will behead him here before all, then ask one to remove that which he bears from his hand."
"You would have me do this again?"
"No!" The fullness of the King's negation took the Farozi by surprise. "No, not again would I ask such a thing of you. I would ask it of one who is of a race shown far more resistant to such evil than we Men. Pippin?"
The Hobbit guard came forward, and stood, white-faced. "For Frodo's sake and yours, yes, I will remove it. But don't let me hold it any longer than necessary."
An'Sohrabi would almost believe it was the same belt pouch as he'd seen so many years previously, were it not clean and shiny green instead of worn as he remembered. The King opened it and took out a small silken bag with fine drawstrings, opened it. "Isumbard, will you come forward, please?" The other Hobbit came forward with uncertainty in his face, was given the bag to hold by the drawstrings. "Do not hold it by the body. Do not allow any more contact than you must." The Hobbit nodded, his expression determined.
The King unfastened the Elessar brooch and removed the mantle he wore, took up his sword again, gave his Sceptre into the hands of his Steward to hold.
An'Sohrabi of Harad, Farozi of that land, spoke the sentence.
"Merdirion of Umbar, you have sought to foment rebellion in this land, and have sought to take control over all lands of Middle Earth, betraying even your own lord in the bargain. You are condemned to death. The Lord King An'Elessar of Gondor has claimed the right to your execution, and it is granted him." He turned to three guards. "Unfasten the bindings on his ankles and waist, and at lastly that on his other hand."
They came forward and did as they were bade, and when at last Merdirion stood upright they slid the chair away from behind him and retreated a distance to watch.
"You would kill me in cold blood, Ranger?" asked Merdirion.
"Do you seek to insult me as you did when you suggested my father was a camel?" asked the King. "I was a Ranger for more years than I've been King, and I have nothing to be ashamed of in that. And at times I am still a Ranger. Ask Velkor or Sestor of Angmar." He unsheathed his sword and handed the sheath into the hands of his cousin Hardorn. "This is your last chance to remove it."
"Will you not give me the chance to defend myself?"
The blow was swift and certain--and remarkably clean. The King stepped back and accepted a rag handed him by Hardorn, cleaned his sword. After he returned Anduril to its sheath and hung that sheath in its place upon his belt, he signed to Pippin, who with his cousin by his side went to the body, stretched out the finger, removed the ring, and dropped it into the bag. The King came forward and fastened the bag as he'd done so many years before, and dropped it into his belt pouch. The faces of both Hobbits were strained, and he laid his hands on both heads, then drew them to him, held them tight as he lowered his head and took in great cleansing breaths. He knelt by them and laid his head on their shoulders, his face turned to Pippin's. What the Hobbits said could not be heard by the onlookers, but both put their arms about his shoulders. At last he stood again, bowed deeply to both of them, then turned to retake his seat. His face was pale but steady, and the others looked on him with curiosity.
Finally An'Sohrabi looked away from his brother Lord and the two small figures who now stood protectively before his seated figure. He signed for soldiers to remove the sprawled body and head.
"Do all agree justice has been done this day?" he finally asked.
The assembled lords nodded, and the populace gave calls of agreement and approval.
"So it is done, then. Let us go from this place."
As the King of Gondor and Arnor, his folk clustered about him, left the pavement area, his pale face lifted, soldiers came forward with sand to cover over Merdirion's blood.
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