My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 27. To One Side of Comfort
The dancing shadows upon the walls of the tent informed Eomer that the sun had set and lamps had been lit within the encampment. With a sigh, the king of Rohan ran his hand along Shade’s broad back and wondered how things had gotten so off course. Sensing his rider’s despair, the dark gray horse turned black eyes upon Eomer and gently whickered, almost questioning.
"My mood is no fault of yours," Eomer said quietly, stroking his stallion’s neck as he turned back to his task of grooming the horse. "Pay it no heed."
A soft snort answered this and Shade turned his head away from Eomer, but his ears flicked back as though waiting for the king to speak again. But silence suited Eomer’s mood well this evening, and so he stroked Shade’s sleek coat without a hint of the usual quiet song that accompanied him in this chore. But though his voice was still, his mind was very active. The last time he had been this obsessed with a political problem was the day that Wormtongue somehow convinced Theoden to dispatch a full eored northward when the true threat clearly lay in the west. And on that day, much as he was doing now, Eomer had sought out his horse, for he found solace in the seemingly mundane chore of grooming. And as Shade aids me this evening, so Firefoot aided me then. But in this is yet another parallel: Both then and today, I cannot fully escape the misgivings of my heart.
Arabano and a few guards had arrived in the camp of Gondor and Rohan during the mid-afternoon, drenched in sweat and filled with many questions but very few answers. He, Aragorn, and Eomer had held a long discussion, but ultimately they only confirmed that they knew next to nothing. They all agreed that the Portu tribe had been the attacking tribe during the night, they agreed that it had been done under Khurintu’s orders, and they agreed that Khurintu had been the tribe to take Legolas and Gimli. More than that was sheer speculation. They all suspected that Khurintu had yet to unveil the crux of their plan, they suspected that something traumatic would happen during this night, but they knew neither what nor when nor how. Arabano had informed them that Budari intended to have some of Lotessa’s riders trail the departing Khurintu tribe when they left Haradhur, but he did not know how long they could follow them or if it would do them any good. Of course there were spies watching the Khurintu camp throughout the day from various vantagepoints, but according to Arabano’s latest information, nothing of note had yet happened. Eventually, Arabano had left, making mention of urgent matters he needed to discuss with Budari. But before he had done so, he had left a strange warning concerning the Soltari tribe. Aragorn was almost as surprised by this latest bit of news as was Eomer. So far as he knew, save for supporting the interruption in the Gathering the previous evening, Soltari had remained a neutral party in all proceedings. And according to Aragorn, such was their custom, for their livelihood depended upon neutrality within the desert.
Giving Shade a final pat and setting aside the brushes he had used, Eomer sighed and moved away. He had lingered here far too long, for there were yet many things to be done. He and Aragorn were still debating whether or not to send out a few riders in pursuit of the departing Khurintu tribe or whether one of the kings could afford to miss the Gathering and lead a search for those who had abducted Legolas and Gimli. Eomer’s personal preference was to take the entire Rohirrim company and conduct a search on his own terms, a plan that involved storming the Khurintu caravan and leaving them much as they had left the Gondor guards on the previous night. Aragorn was rather reluctant to sanction this action, but Eomer has a suspicion that the king of Gondor was of half a mind to do the same thing.
A commanding whinny suddenly snagged his attention, and he turned to find himself looking into the large, black eyes of Faensul. The elven stallion whinnied again, causing the other horses within the tent to shift nervously. "Has no one been to see to you, my friend?" Eomer asked quietly, making use of a tone that managed to calm even the most restless of colts. Raising one hand cautiously, he ran it along Faensul’s strong face, making his movements slow and deliberate for the horse was clearly skittish.
In response to this, Faensul snorted and tossed his head, but he did not move away. He turned his eyes to the tent’s entrance and then looked back at Eomer, his ears lying flat upon his head momentarily.
"I can see that you have been groomed already, great one," Eomer said quietly, now stroking the horse’s neck. "And you do not lack for food or water. Why this fear and anxiety? Perhaps you miss Legolas?"
At the elf’s name, Faensul threw back his head and whinnied a third time, but this whinny turned into something akin to a keening wail, its eerie sound rising into the night air and startling the other horses. A few neighed and some pulled sharply against their stakes. It was a sound that Eomer had never before heard from a horse, but then, he had never before worked with elven horses. Uncertain of what to do, he resorted to a trick that had never failed to calm Firefoot. He began to hum.
Faensul seemed startled by this development and he ceased to keen, but the look he turned upon Eomer was not friendly. Stomping his back foot, he tossed his head and his ears went back. Still Eomer continued to hum, never ceasing to stroke the horse’s neck. After a few minutes of this, Faensul dropped his head and whickered quietly. It was almost as though he had given up for the time being. Eomer did not know what to make of this strange behavior, but since Faensul was no longer agitating the other horses, the king of Rohan judged it safe to leave him.
"Peace, my friend," he whispered, giving the horse a final pat. "I shall come to see you again shortly. And if it is within my power to do so, we shall find your rider. That I promise."
If Faensul understood these words, he did not show it. He now seemed utterly dejected, a far cry from the spirited stallion that had splashed and played in the Anduin before crossing on the barges. With a sigh, Eomer shook his head and turned away, quickly leaving the tent. Faensul was not the only one possessed of a pessimistic mind this night. He was beginning to feel rather overwhelmed himself, and the lack of both answers and action was telling on Eomer. He did not truly mind waiting out a situation so long as there was an objective to the wait. But stalling because one knew not what else to do…that was something else. Eomer shook his head as he pulled aside the flap to his own tent. If things did not change soon, he might well face a mutiny. The Riders of Rohan were not accustomed to sitting quietly and waiting. They did so with an ill grace.
"How fare the horses?"
"Well enough, all things considered," Eomer answered, spying Aragorn sitting in a corner and sharpening a knife. Legolas’s knife, the king of Rohan realized with something akin to despair. It seems that I am not the only one at a loss for things to do. "Faensul does concern me, however," Eomer continued, praying that Aragorn would stop playing with the elf’s knife in the near future. "His behavior is not that of a normal horse, and I do not know how to interpret his actions."
"That was his cry, then?" Aragorn asked. "I wondered. Elven steeds form very strong ties to their riders. It does not surprise me that he misses Legolas’s presence."
"Is there anything that can be done? I know not how to handle him, and he is vexing the other horses."
"We must find Legolas," Aragorn answered with a slight shrug. The king of Gondor held the elf’s knife up to a lamp that flickered nearby and nodded slightly, apparently satisfied with his work. "As for how we shall do that, it remains yet to be seen."
"Would the break in tradition be too great if we decided to avoid the Gathering tonight and instead spend our time in the desert?" Eomer asked. "Or is tradition a moot point by now?"
Aragorn gave a rather humorless laugh and ran his thumb over the edge of Legolas’s blade. "Tradition is never a moot point in Harad, but customs are certainly changing during this Gathering. Of that there can be no doubt."
"Then we are free to go?"
"Somewhat, I suppose, but would it be wise to do so? Would we be playing into Khurintu’s hands by leaving Haradhur?" Aragorn rubbed his brow and sighed. "Let us run through our speculations and the situation again. What do we know so far and what do we fear?"
"We know that the Portu tribe is working for Khurintu," Eomer said, running through a growing mental list of facts and theories. "We know that Khurintu has used the legend of the Destroyer to turn much of Harad against us. Or at the very least, they are suspicious of our motives and our intentions. We know that the Gartabo tribe was commanded to apprehend Legolas and Gimli and to hold them outside Haradhur, but the Khurintu tribe got to them first. And now they are missing. We know that Arabano suspects treacherous dealings on the part of Soltari, and we know that the Khurintu tribe is leaving Haradhur within the hour. We also know that there are a substantial number of Khurintu tribesmen located northeast around Lake Hajim. What else do you wish me to list?"
"This seems a fair place to begin," Aragorn murmured. "Now what of our fears for the future? We believe that Khurintu has a weapon or plan of some kind that will reinforce fears that the Destroyer is about to live up to his name. We believe they will use this weapon tonight. We believe that Khurintu’s objective is supreme power in the desert and ultimately the capture of northern lands. They wish to obtain Mordor’s glory."
"And they shall start with the overthrow of key tribes such as Gartabo," Eomer sighed. "Because Gartabo has failed to capture Legolas and Gimli, they have failed to obey the Destroyer’s commands. Whatever happens, they shall be held responsible."
"Which is probably why Khurintu wished to capture Legolas and Gimli for themselves. They are now the agents of the Iluh. They shall be the ones to obey the Destroyer’s commands"
"But it does not explain why they wanted Legolas and Gimli alive," Eomer pointed out, rubbing his temples. "Nor does it give us any clue as to what they plan to do that will incriminate the Gartabo tribe."
"But it does, in its own a way," Aragorn said quietly, seeming to speak to himself. "Khurintu cannot afford to destroy the Gartabo tribe, for they will need them as an agricultural base. One cannot feed warriors upon the blood of their slain enemies unless one is an Orc, and even then, something more is required."
"Then they shall do something that causes a stir, is highly visible, but leaves valuable tribes intact," Eomer concluded. "Which means that whatever they do, it will undoubtedly be a localized occurrence. Perhaps they shall target key tribes or groups."
"And those groups will have to be kept under careful watch," Aragorn sighed. "So who becomes a target?"
"Ourselves," Eomer answered with a shrug. "That much is obvious."
"Is it?" Aragorn grimaced and shook his head. "I fear that I must disagree with you. I do not think that we are a target. Not yet. That is not how Khurintu operates. They will slide around the bush and eliminate all subordinates who stand in the way, but when confronting their primary opposition, they prefer to do it directly. Nay, we are not a target yet. We shall be in the future, but for the moment, our encampment at least is safe. I suspect that this is one of the reasons for our being inside the city rather than without its walls. We are shielded from the desert and from angry tribes. We are being protected against the time when Asbad and Dashnir will come to claim us themselves."
Eomer thought this logic over, but while it made sense, he was still unconvinced. "Would it not be easier to destroy us when we were unawares?"
"It would, but it would not further the plan. If I were placed in Asbad’s role and had his desires, I would wish to make an example of the kingdoms from the north. And I would wish to do it in such a way that none would doubt my supremacy after their defeat. Of this much I am becoming very convinced, Eomer. We are being spared for a later date. Our time will come, but it is not yet here."
"As you say," Eomer said, still feeling rather uneasy about this idea but lacking the necessary knowledge to debate it. "Then whom shall we watch? And whom shall we warn?"
"Lotessa," Aragorn said, conviction beginning to grow in his voice. "They shall be among the first. They are a rival but not a direct one, nor have they done aught during the Gathering that might merit Khurintu’s ill will. Thus, a quick end to Lotessa’s power suits Khurintu’s needs. The Portu tribe, also, may become a target. Khurintu cannot risk their telling the other tribes of their participation in last night’s raid. More than that, though, I cannot say. If Khurintu specifically singles out all their rivals, it will look suspicious. Perhaps one or two is all they require."
"What of the Warra tribe?" Eomer questioned. "Upon the journey here, Garat seemed to be working with Dashnir, yet I have not seen anything in the way of partnership between Joranen and Dashnir."
"I have also wondered about this," Aragorn murmured. "It makes no sense, for you are right. There was an alliance between Dashnir and Garat. But between Dashnir and Joranen, I have seen nothing. I wonder if we should not look into the structure of the Warra tribe. It may be that there are rebel factions within it. Perhaps Garat was operating independently."
"And in addition to this, we must also discover how Khurintu’s bid for power will take shape. We must discover what they shall unleash upon us tonight." Eomer sighed and rubbed his temples. "This takes time, Aragorn. All of this takes time and research as well as resources. May I point out that we are lacking in every one of these requirements?"
"I am well aware of our limitations."
"Then may I also point out that Legolas and Gimli are somewhere in Harad and that we must also devote time, research, and resources to finding them?"
"How would you draw the line, Eomer?" Aragorn asked wearily. "We have requirements that must be met. We need to maintain a presence of some kind at the Gathering. We need to prevent an unknown disaster from taking place tonight, and to do that we must discover not only the targets but the nature of this unknown disaster. We must rescue lost comrades, and to do that we must discover their whereabouts and their captors. We must also fathom why live captives would be better than corpses and how long live captives will be esteemed useful. Additionally, we must investigate the Soltari tribe and the Warra tribe, but we must do so quietly. Where shall we start, Eomer? And how shall we divide ourselves?"
"Aragorn, what troubles you?" Eomer demanded, deciding that he had endured quite enough of this. "This is unlike you. You act as one lost, and yet we have discussed possible answers. Are they not enough for you? Come, what is truly the problem?"
It was a rare day when the king of Gondor was caught off guard by a question, but a look of surprise flashed across his face. Normally, Eomer would have been greatly amused by this, but at the moment, it only added to his conviction that something was very wrong with his friend.
"Usually, I can sense things before they happen," Aragorn eventually said, his voice quiet and thoughtful. He raised Legolas’s knife and studied the weapon, seeming to find comfort in the delicate workmanship of the silver haft. "Only rarely does this foresight fail me, and when it does, I am sometimes at a loss for direction. It does not help that my mind and thoughts have already been tampered with upon this journey. Perhaps it is taking longer for my foresight to recover from this. Perhaps I simply lack the confidence I once had. Whatever the cause, though, I no longer sense where destiny is leading us. And without the guidance that foresight once provided, I seem to be plagued by indecision."
Eomer blinked and stared at the king of Gondor. He had never expected such a detailed answer, but as he studied Aragorn, he wondered just how long his friend had been dealing with these feelings and misgivings. Gondor’s king was a very private individual, and as he had learned more of Aragorn’s past, Eomer had come to realize the reasons for this privacy and its extent. Thus, he was quite surprised to be told so much so quickly by a man for whom secrecy had once been equated with survival.
His confusion must have been evident upon his face, for Aragorn suddenly gave a bark of laughter and shook his head. "My apologies, Eomer," he said with a slight smile, though the mirth did not quite reach his eyes. "I fear you were expecting something different."
"Nay, my apologies," Eomer said hastily, trying to compose himself. "I did not know how deeply you had been affected. I should not have spoken as I did, for it seems that I have stirred memories which are less than desirable."
"Then I account us even," Aragorn said. "But though we may now be at peace with one another, there are still decisions to be made. I did not jest when I asked for your counsel. How would you divide us, Eomer? Where would you place your priorities? For I do not trust my own judgement at the moment."
Eomer grimaced and turned the problem over in his mind, attempting to see it from as many angles as possible. "You know my desires, Aragorn," he said after a minute or so. "You know that I wish to lead a search party into the desert after Legolas and Gimli. But your words have caused me to reconsider, and though my heart still yearns to ride, I think such a task would be better left in the hands of Arhelm. He is a capable captain, and the searchers will not be lacking for want of their king." Eomer pursed his lips, thinking a bit more, and then sighed. "This, then, is my counsel. You and I shall attend the Gathering for a brief period only. We shall send Arhelm out with fifteen riders to search for Legolas and Gimli. We shall keep Imhran at the Gathering Hall to act as a second on behalf of both Rohan and Gondor. We shall send warnings to the Lotessa tribe at least and perhaps to the Portu tribe also. Finally, we send a small team of Gondorrim scouts around the camps without Haradhur to search for anything that might be connected with Khurintu."
Aragorn nodded slowly, thinking through Eomer’s suggestions. "Your plan matches my own with but one exception. I would not send so many riders after Legolas and Gimli. I had envisioned Arhelm’s party as more of a reconnaissance team. Should they find our friends, they would send one back to alert the rest of us. By doing this, we keep more men here in Haradhur."
"By why should we wish to keep them here?" Eomer asked. "We have ample protection, and you have already theorized that we shall not be the first targets. What better use for them than to send them out upon a rescue operation."
"Too many trackers leads to too many trails," Aragorn argued. "Arhelm is not out to rescue Legolas and Gimli. Not initially. His first task is to find them, which shall be daunting enough. Once they are found, we can spare a large quantity of troops as well as ourselves for the purposes of liberating Legolas and Gimli. I would recommend that Arhelm’s group contain no more than five."
"If Arhelm chances upon the prisoners and sees a window of opportunity in which to act, he cannot do so unless he is properly supported by other riders," Eomer protested. An awkward pause fell, and then the king of Rohan smiled slightly. "Ten. Ten riders."
Aragorn returned the smile and sighed, shaking his head. "Ten, then, though what good ten shall do in battle I know not."
"They are Rohirrim," Eomer pointed out with a cheeky grin. "What is there that ten Rohirrim cannot accomplish?"
"My confidence wanes already."
"You do not know the Rohirrim well enough, then."
"Perhaps we should keep it that way," Aragorn said with a faint glimmer of a smile. "But now that we have concluded our business, let us give our orders to our men. Arhelm will wish to start early so that he may examine the desert ere the Khurintu caravan departs."
"Then we shall send him out now," Eomer said. "And Valar willing, Legolas and Gimli we be with us again ere sunrise."
"Valar willing," Aragorn murmured, but he did not sound as though he shared Eomer’s optimism.
* * * *
By nature, Imrahil was an exact, precise, and demanding man. He kept his records in perfect order, his own quarters were never anything less than scrupulously clean, and though he did not require such rigid standards among his men, he did see that his troops acted with order and discipline in all things. Because of this, Imrahil rarely found himself confused or uncertain. Things were almost always carefully planned out well in advance. Even upon the field of battle, most strategies that the prince of Dol Amroth employed were strategies he had formulated ahead of time in an attempt to account for all eventualities. And though his touch of elven blood did give him a penchant for foresight, he usually did not find forebodings to be distressing. They were merely omens sent to warn him, and he arranged his affairs accordingly so as to better meet whatever impending disaster loomed.
But this evening as his men prepared to set out on the journey to Lake Nurnein, the last stop before Haradhur, Imrahil found himself adrift and lost. It was a disconcerting feeling that further unnerved the prince, but there seemed to be naught that he could do about it. He could identify the cause of this unease, but he could not alleviate it.
What is wrong with me? Imrahil demanded of himself, rubbing his temples in a gesture of frustration that would have shocked his men had they seen it. When the Swan Knights had arrived at Lake Miyarr, Imrahil had told Mohart that his dreams and forebodings had quieted. He had told him that they were too late to stop a great catastrophe. Imrahil still believed this, but he had not been entirely truthful when he spoke of his dreams. They had not quieted, but they had certainly changed. And it was this change that was now puzzling Imrahil and occupying his thoughts to the exclusion of all else. Before this day, Imrahil’s dreams had contained images of Aragorn, Eomer, Gimli, and Legolas in the desert. He had seen smoke and flame, both of which were very rare in Harad since fires were scarce. He had seen darkness reaching out over the land, and he had heard voices pleading for help. But this morning, all that had changed. He no longer saw the desert in his dreams. Instead, he saw the sea.
Ere he entered Harad, Imrahil had created a point of reference for his dreams. He had fixed in his mind an image of the place where grass became desert and water met sand. This image was to act as a reference for Imrahil when his sleeping mind tried to recall memories of Dol Amroth. The prince’s dreams were strange in that they took his present surroundings and attempted to make them a part of his remembered experience, and so he often needed a reference point so as to better order his dreams. His perfectionist idiosyncrasies extended even to his sleeping world. But this past day, when Imrahil eventually did sleep, he had not retraced his route over the sand until coming to the castle walls lined with crushed seashells. Instead, he had skipped the desert entirely and dreamed of the open ocean. He had seen ships. Many ships. They had rowed their way toward the mouth of Anduin. He had been unable to identify the boats, but he had sensed no good will from them. And as the ships drew near the shore, Imrahil had seen a small group of people waiting for them. Here the dream began to make more sense, for within this group of people were desert tribesmen. But with these tribesmen was a figure that was not from the desert. He was bound with strong ropes, and they had carried him to one of the ships. After that, the dream was filled with the sound of waves smashing against the shore while the shadow that had risen from the desert was joined by a darkness from the sea. Together, they crept forward, devouring all that stood in their path.
Such a thing should not be! His dreams should have returned him to Dol Amroth. Even if they had not made it that far, they should at least have stayed in the desert. But the sea…why the sea? Nothing and no one in his current surroundings had reminded Imrahil of the sea, and yet he had dreamed of it. How did the sea fit into this picture? Imrahil missed the vast waters of his harbor, that was true enough, but to dream of the ocean with no reference…
Finally registering that someone was talking to him, Imrahil shook his head slightly and turned his eyes to the side. "You have somewhat to say, Mohart?" he asked, hoping his voice sounded more composed than he felt.
"Nay, but I sense that you do," the tribesman answered, running narrowed eyes over the prince. "This morning and this past night you have not been yourself. What ails you, honored one? If something troubles you, would it not be better to share the burden rather than letting it fester?"
Imrahil stiffened slightly and studied Mohart. His men knew far better than to pry into his personal affairs. When Imrahil deemed information should be forthcoming, he gave out that information, but not until then. He knows not my methods, the prince reminded himself, forcing his hands to unclench and his visage to soften. He does this out of concern. Taking a calming breath, Imrahil centered his thoughts and then turned his attention back to the conversation. "I have received strange omens of late," he answered, making his tone one of finality. "Take no thought for it. I shall be well."
Mohart looked less than convinced, but the prince’s voice seemed to deter him from further questions. "As you wish it, but remember that it is a dangerous thing to be alone in Harad. You are isolating yourself, honored one."
"I shall remember," Imrahil murmured, casting his eyes upon the still waters of Lake Miyarr. "Mohart, know you of any tribe within the desert that deals with sailors or those living upon the seacoast?"
The tribesman frowned, somewhat surprised by the question. "None come to mind. Perhaps in the far south they have dealings, for it is difficult for trade caravans to reach so far without coming to grief along the way. But to my mind, none of the northern tribes have ties with those near or upon the ocean. We are two different kinds of men, honored one. Sailors live upon waters. Tribesmen can only dream of them. It is difficult for our two cultures to understand one another."
"That was my impression as well," Imrahil said quietly, his brow furrowing. Mohart’s words made sense and matched what the prince of Dol Amroth already knew, but the lingering image of open waters would not leave his mind.
"Let us depart," Imrahil said, shaking his head and deciding to think on the matter as they rode. The crisp night air in his face might do much for calming his thoughts and so enable him to piece together the puzzle that currently troubled his mind. "The sun has almost set, and it is time for us to be away."
* * * *
Sharp, jabbing pain was Gimli’s first warning that consciousness was returning. Lost in muddied shadows, the dwarf tried to thrust the pain away, but it seemed that the more he battled, the stronger it grew. Eventually, the throbbing pain began to consolidate itself in his head and in his right thigh, slowly releasing the rest of his body from crippling agony. Gimli wondered if this was a good thing and decided he was probably better off not knowing. With that out of the way and firmly stowed deep in the back of his mind, the dwarf moved on to a different set of problems.
Where was he? What had happened? Surely Legolas hadn’t allowed him to drink that much. During the past few years, the elf had developed an uncanny talent for knowing exactly when Gimli had been given just a little too much to drink, and he usually intervened in time to save the dwarf from embarrassment. Of course, there had been times when Legolas’s mischievous side had allowed the dwarf to make a complete fool of himself before the elf had stepped in. But still, something about this hangover—if it was a hangover—felt different.
And hadn’t he woken already? Why did he have to go through this again? It seemed very unfair, but then no one had ever said life was fair. Most, in fact, claimed just the opposite. With a sigh, Gimli concentrated on opening his eyes. Maybe he could speed the waking process along by doing so. Fuzzy memories were beginning to dance through his mind, and with them came growing feelings of fear and bewilderment. His headache had completely isolated itself and now ruled the back of his skull by means of a mithril fist that seemed to have an obsession with pounding. The throbbing from his thigh was more distant and easier to ignore, but it was still a very real agony. Gimli heard himself release a small groan and he cringed at the weakness that plagued him, working harder to open his eyes and achieve full consciousness.
Ah, there was Legolas. And there also lay answers, or so Gimli hoped.
"Gimli? Gimli, can you hear me?"
The dwarf frowned. Legolas wasn’t usually this impatient. In fact, the elf sounded anxious. Why should that be? What could cause the normally composed elf to sound…well…frightened? Gimli gave himself a mental shake and continued with the waking process. He was now growing more aware of his body as well as the sand beneath him that served as a bed. It was comfortably warm in contrast to the rapidly cooling air around him. He was lying on his stomach, and the dwarf winced as he thought about how long it would take to get the sand out of his beard. But he quickly forgot that problem when he realized he had another, more serious, problem. His hands were tightly bound behind his back and his feet were roped together.
That elf is dead, Gimli thought, clinging desperately to the outside hope that this was an elaborate prank.
Unfortunately, he finally managed to open his eyes at this point and discovered that Legolas was probably not responsible for this. The elf was lying partially on his side with unblinking eyes fixed on his friend, and from what little Gimli could see, Legolas’s arms were also bound behind his back, and a thick cord wound around his ankles as well.
"This is a fine mess you’ve gotten us into," the dwarf mumbled blearily, unable to think of anything else to say.
Legolas closed his eyes and a wave of relief seemed to sweep over his entire body. Then it was gone, and the elf was composed again so quickly that Gimli wondered if he had imagined it. "I believe I was the one urging for flight rather than fight, my friend," the prince said with a tight smile. Bright, elven eyes studied Gimli in the last of the day’s light, evaluating his condition with frightening scrutiny. "How do you feel?"
There it was again. To anyone else, Legolas would have sounded calm, poised, and collected, but to his best friend, the fair elven voice was pitched a little too high, revealing hidden distress and concern. Of course, given the fact that we are both securely trussed, there is probably good reason for that distress and concern, Gimli thought bitterly. "I think I am none the worse for wear," the dwarf answered aloud, attempting to gather his scattered thoughts. "What happened? Wait…I asked that before, I think. Or did I?"
Legolas nodded slightly. "You did. You asked that question earlier today when you woke briefly, but then you fell asleep again. I was unable to give you an answer."
"How long…how long ago was that?" Gimli asked, trying to account for the fact that the sun seemed to be setting.
"A few hours, perhaps," Legolas said after a thoughtful pause. "Possibly more. You have been unconscious for most of the day, and I have had difficulty in keeping track of the time."
"Ah. I see." In actuality, Gimli didn’t see anything, but at least he now more or less understood how he’d missed the passing of time. He’d been unconscious. But he still didn’t know why, and Legolas had still not told him. "So, must I ask a third time today or are you going to grace me with an answer?"
"An answer to what?"
Gimli sighed and wished his head would stop pounding so he could better match the other at word games. "Legolas, what happened?"
The elf shifted slightly, a sign that Gimli instantly recognized as uncertainty. "What is the last thing you remember?" Legolas eventually asked.
Gimli had to search his mind for that one, and the process was hampered by the fact that his head had turned into a practice hall for the drums of Moria. "I remember Budari and Arabano coming to warn us," he eventually said. "That Destroyer of theirs had come again and apparently convinced Gartabo that I was also a herald of doom, so we were going back to camp before journeying into the desert. Afterward…" The dwarf frowned as his memories became choppy and confused. "We were at the tent. I know that. And you…you said something to me about…about Amon Hen. And I thought that strange until I noticed you’d set your bow and…I think I had my axe…and then…there was mention of the Morannon, but…" The dwarf attempted to recall something more substantial than those meager details, but after a few more minutes of struggling, Gimli was forced to admit defeat. "I have no memory beyond that," he confessed with a sigh.
"It is a wonder you remember that much," Legolas murmured. "I feared the blow to your head had done irreparable harm. It was a great relief to hear you speak a few hours ago."
"You have always told me that dwarves have thick skulls," Gimli said with a smile.
"And I am thankful that I spoke truly," Legolas said, his quiet voice filled with relief.
"Well, as true as that may be, it is also true that elves have wandering minds. You have still not told me what happened. Shall I now ask a fourth time or shall you speak?"
"There is not much to tell," the elf answered with a small shrug that caused him to wince. "And in truth, my own memories are jumbled. I was rendered unconscious not long after you fell. Still, I think I can better your story. We had arrived at the tent and entered when I sensed we were not alone. That was when I warned you by mentioning Amon Hen. Fifteen men attacked. You and I held our own for a time, but more arrived and they managed to drive us apart. That was when you were struck. At first, I thought the blow had killed you." Legolas shivered, apparently still haunted by that memory. He was silent for a moment before continuing, his voice softer and more solemn now. "I cannot recall with any certainty what happened after you were injured. Somehow I was rendered unconscious. I woke later to find that we had been taken captive."
"Who else, Master Dwarf? The Khurintu tribe. Asbad, their leader, was among the men we confronted last night. I recognized his face."
Gimli cursed quietly, trying to coax his muddled brain into a higher state of alertness so that he could begin deciphering what the Khurintu tribe would want with an elf and a dwarf. "Have you been awake long?" he asked at length.
"I woke when they were pitching camp for the day. It was not long after they captured us."
The dwarf frowned. "And you have not slept since?"
Legolas shrugged again, this time managing to do so without wincing. "I thought it useful to evaluate our situation. And I was not hit as hard as you were. It was easier for me to stay awake. Also, I was concerned for you," the elf added, examining his friend again with piercing gray eyes that never seemed to miss anything. "You are still in pain," he stated.
Gimli grunted as he rolled off his stomach and onto his side, recoiling briefly as the world tilted crazily and then righted itself. "It is nothing," the dwarf managed. "Tell me of our situation, Legolas, since you put your time to good use and evaluated it. Tell me how we fare."
"Not well," Legolas sighed. "Our captors know their craft and they will not linger in one place for long. We will probably be moving once the sun fully sets. They had us in tents during the day as a means of shelter from the sun, though our own shelter left much to be desired. Samwise would doubtless have much to say about their concept of shelters, were he here." The elf was silent for a moment before shaking his head slightly and continuing. "If their intent was to weaken us, it was successful. I fear that, physically, I am at a severe disadvantage. And my mind is only now recovering from the heat it endured during the day."
"What are the men doing now?" Gimli asked. "And what do they plan to do next?"
"They broke camp not long ago and are packing yonder." Legolas looked over his shoulder and Gimli followed the gaze until he spied a group of men working with a collection of baggage. "As I said before, I suspect that they mean to travel soon. And I suspect that we shall be asked to accompany them."
The dwarf studied the men, which he had only noticed after Legolas had practically pointed them out for him. Apparently his mind was still not up to par, but it was becoming clearer. More or less. And as he observed his captors, he saw something rather odd. "Are they not watching us?" Gimli asked, noticing that he and the elf were being ignored for the moment.
The prince gave a small, mirthless laugh. "Do you think to escape? You, who have barely regained consciousness, can you break through the bonds on our wrists and ankles and restore feeling to our hands and feet? And even if you can, what then, Gimli? Can you navigate a way for us across the pathless desert sand? Can you find where the hidden lakes lie that would supply us with water? Can you lead us back to Haradhur, or even to Lebennin and Gondor? Because I cannot, my friend. I cannot."
The dwarf frowned. "Surely we have not moved so far that Haradhur is beyond your…" Gimli trailed off as realization slowly dawned. "Someone has placed you beneath ú-glîr again."
"So it would seem," Legolas murmured, looking away. "I think now that the first time was merely a test to see if it was possible. Then they freed me from ú-glîr so that I might not become too familiar with the use of limited senses. I fear, Gimli, that they were successful in their ploy. This has clearly been planned for some time, and we are but a small part of some larger scheme. We are pawns, my friend. Pawns to move at will, and we are now under the control of the enemy. And given the complications they faced the last time I was put beneath ú-glîr, I do not think we are pawns destined for a long life. So long as we remain in their clutches, our days, nay, our very hours are numbered."
"You seem to have given this much thought," Gimli observed with a sigh.
"I have had little cause to think of anything else," Legolas answered quietly. He was about to say something else, but he stopped and looked over his shoulder again. His elven ears, impeded though they might be, had caught the sound of advancing footsteps.
Gimli glanced up and saw a large man walking toward them. It was the same man who had led the attack the night before. The last of the sun’s light reflected off the sharp tip of a long knife, and the man’s eyes gleamed above the wrappings that protected his face. Behind this man, falling into an orderly procession, the remainder of the group followed with the packed tents and baggage. Four unburdened, doughty men walked at the head of this line, and their eyes were fixed on the elf and dwarf. Our guards, Gimli predicted, glancing over at Legolas. Judging from the set of the elf’s jaw and his intense study of these four men, Legolas had reached the same conclusion.
Gimli felt a flash of pity for these men who were now the subject of elven scrutiny. The dwarf himself had more or less grown used to said elven scrutiny after years of friendship with Legolas, but even he sometimes felt the urge to turn away if the elf watched him too closely for too long. Though Legolas would never match Galadriel, Gimli had learned that practically any elf had the power to make mortals feel utterly worthless. Being pinned beneath the gaze of an immortal who possessed both wisdom born of countless years and the unrivaled power of elven curiosity was enough to make anyone blanch. What made it worse in Legolas’s case was that the prince had grown aware of exactly how disconcerting this ability could be under certain circumstances, thanks in part to Gimli, and could now successfully employ it as a devastating weapon. And despite the crippling effects of ú-glîr, Legolas was still quite capable of making almost any man cringe.
A knife suddenly flashed before Gimli’s face and his thoughts were interrupted when Asbad stepped forward and dropped to one knee between the dwarf and the elf. The man carefully studied first one and then the other, evaluating their condition and their mindset. Gimli noted with a small degree of satisfaction that the leader of Khurintu was unable to meet Legolas’s unblinking eyes for long.
"We are traveling this night," Asbad said in Westron, his harsh voice breaking through the dark stillness. "Your legs will be free so that you may walk, but you will both be guarded. And know this: I do not need you alive. It is easier if you remain so, but it is not a necessity. Should the circumstances require it, I will not hesitate to kill one or both of you."
Legolas narrowed his eyes slightly—a motion imperceptible to anyone but Gimli—and the dwarf interpreted it as a sign that the elf had swiftly reevaluated their plight and didn’t like his conclusion. Gimli was also doing some rapid thinking of his own, and he had to agree with Legolas. Things did not look good.
But before Gimli could get very far with his foreboding ideas, the bonds on his legs were cut and he was hauled upwards. He floundered for a moment as blood resumed its normal flow to his feet and almost toppled over when the world began to spin violently. The stiff, torn muscles from his wounded leg cried out in protest and he doubted for a moment whether or not his injured limb would be able to endure his weight, though he finally managed to steady himself. At the same time, Legolas was also raised to his feet. In contrast to Gimli, the elf did not stumble but continued to watch the humans around him with an intensity that could only be surpassed by wizards.
"One final item of importance," Asbad added as two of his men stepped to either side of Legolas and the other two repeated the maneuver with Gimli. "A wrong move by one will result in punishment for the other. I thought you should be made aware of that." Watching the prisoners to make sure they understood, he eventually nodded to his men, and they took their captives by either arm. "Forward!"
Author’s Notes: There are detectives in our midst, and they are getting very ingenious. Perhaps a bit too ingenious, but it’s great fun to hear all the theories. And may I commend Dwimordene in particular for a very interesting theory she sent me via email. Although incorrect, it certainly got my head spinning about other possible plot ideas. Also, fliewateut must be added to the list of detectives for deducing what the Isengard gift to Khurintu is. Or at least guessing the location where it has made a previous appearance in canon. As for other detectives, Ithilien and Mari are still going strong but getting a tad too creative for their own good. ;)
Anyway, I’ve dropped the last major obscure hint for the story in this chapter. The beans are going to start dropping next. So if you’re still trying to figure this out ahead of time, think simple. The best political moves are the simple ones, but they have to be cloaked in politics to be viable.
And a question has been posed concerning Imrahil. He is NOT my own character. He is Tolkien’s and he appears in Return of the King as the prince of Dol Amroth, leader of the Swan Knights (who seemed to be Minas Tirith’s only real cavalry until Rohan showed up). He is Denethor’s brother-in-law and the major political authority down in Belfalas, though he does answer to Gondor. He also takes control of Minas Tirith when Denethor dies, Faramir is struck down, and Aragorn decides to play Ranger for a bit longer. And according to Legolas, he has quite a bit of elven blood in his veins. Go Imrahil.
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