My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 30. Gamblers
It was the crackle of fire that first roused his dazed senses. As consciousness crept back to him, Arabano found it strange that he would even recognize such a sound, for fuel was scarce within the desert save around some of the larger hidden lakes to the east. As such, fires were quite rare and Arabano could count on one hand the number of times he’d had either the fuel or the need to light one. But nevertheless, it was definitely the sound of a fiercely burning flame that caught his ears. And as he hesitantly blinked his eyes open and found that he was face down in the sand, the memory of exactly what had happened came rushing back to him in graphic and horrific detail.
He remembered that Aragorn had shouted a sudden warning and that Eomer had reacted instantly as though he knew already what was to be feared. After that had come the screams. He remembered those most vividly, but they had not been what overwhelmed his ears and his eyes. There had been a sudden pressure, a blinding light, a deafening roar, and then the feeling that he was being thrown through the air. But after that, his mind drew an unnerving blank, and he could not remember anything of what had happened next. Nor did he know what was currently happening. This greatly disturbed Arabano, for he was accustomed to knowing what went on in the world about him. But his body and mind both were greatly shaken, and if someone were to tell him what was going on, he wondered if he would even comprehend their words.
Still, he could not lie here in ignorance. In the desert, ignorance was an open invitation for death. With this idea ringing through his thoughts, Arabano closed his eyes and managed to roll over onto his back. He spared a quick moment in which to celebrate this small but important achievement, and then he moved back to the task of learning what was going on. And of learning why a fire should be burning, he added, his face twisting into a concerned frown. Mustering his energy once again, Arabano concentrated on getting his eyes back open. It was a rather difficult challenge as much of his strength had gone into turning over, but the desert breeds great persistence in the men that survive its dangers. Eventually, Arabano forced shuttered lids open and turned his head toward the crackling sound of flame. He was met by a ghastly sight.
Almost nothing remained of his camp. The main tent was completely gone, and all the tents that had stood next to it were burning rapidly, sending columns of smoke into the sky and hissing as the fire devoured what little now was left to it. Blackened bodies that had been flung into the air by the force of the explosion lay scattered and broken. Some who had survived the blast were beginning to stir and there were those among them that cried out in terrible pain. It was a scene that would haunt Arabano’s dreams for many years to come, and he could never look upon fire the same way again. But neither could he look away, and for long moments he stared at the hungry flames that seemed to have taken on a life of their own.
My kinsmen, he moaned within himself, feeling something in his gut twist and churn. The Lotessa tribe was a tribe of warriors. They were employed in guarding caravans from mercenaries, and they rounded out their living with a few mercenary activities of their own. In order for this system to work, trust and brotherhood were essential, and Arabano had formed strong ties and strong friendships with almost every warrior that had come to the Gathering. These men were not only bound by ancestry but by word and by deed. They lived together, struggled together, fought together, and died together. Oh my kinsmen, what have I brought upon you?
Arabano was not a particularly religious man. He had been duly schooled in Harad’s ancient lore and he did believe in the Iluh, though he saw them more as guardians and watchers than as active participants in the lives of men. But many of the other legends, such as the Destroyer or the desert drake, he had taken to be but the fluff of fancy. Yet he now began to reconsider everything that had happened since he’d aided in escorting Gondor and Rohan to Haradhur. The ball of fire that had exploded upwards and momentarily blinded his eyes had been larger than anything he’d ever witnessed before. It had been greater and more powerful than anything the messengers of Sauron had been able to do when they were sent to intimidate the more independent tribes within Harad. The heat and the blinding light might have been likened to the sun at noon, while the blast’s tremendous power alone was enough for Arabano to seriously rethink the way he viewed legends of the Destroyer. Perhaps the rumors were right. Perhaps Gondor and Rohan were cursed and had brought doom to Harad.
But even as these thoughts crossed his mind, his practical side fought back, reminding him that he had seen Asbad’s face beneath the Destroyer’s cloak and that Aragorn and Eomer were as ordinary men. Well, perhaps ordinary was not quite the term needed, but they were certainly neither agents nor enemies of the Iluh. The battle between his sudden fear and his intellect raged hard within Arabano, and in his confusion, he began looking for others around him in the hopes that they might be able to tell him something.
He saw Aragorn and Eomer first. Both had regained their feet and both were staring at the destruction with horror and shock upon their faces, much as Arabano had done. But there was something more in their eyes than simply grief. There also seemed to be a strange look of remembrance. Arabano narrowed his eyes, struggling to gain a firmer handle on his reaction to the situation and carefully locking his emotions away for safekeeping. There would be time for sorrow later. Now was the time for questions and for answers. And as his mind eventually began to clear, Arabano became more and more convinced of his impressions. This was not the first time that Aragorn and Eomer had experienced this phenomenon of fire and light.
"Blood of the sand!"
Arabano turned his head to the side and felt a great surge of relief sweep his body as Budari slowly pushed himself up. Arabano had not seen Lotessa’s leader until now, and he was grateful that Budari seemed to be in relatively good condition. He was heavily favoring his right side, but he was alive and not only was he alive but he was on the verge of achieving a standing position.
"What has happened?" Budari demanded, his voice trembling slightly. It was the most emotional reaction that Arabano had ever seen his leader give, and this was cause for great alarm. Though he certainly has good reason to fear, Arabano conceded, watching as Aragorn moved to help Budari. The king’s left arm was heavily splinted, and a growing stain of blood dirtied the crude bandage upon his head.
"Orthanc Fire," Eomer spat in answer to Budari’s question. His eyes were narrow and his left hand was clenched tightly about the hilt of his sword, seemingly oblivious to the tight wrappings of his left shoulder that were soaked with blood.
What manner of men are these? Arabano found himself wondering as he studied the two kings. Both seemed severely injured, yet both were on their feet with the fires of vengeance burning in their eyes as brightly as the fires that consumed the remainder of the Lotessa camp. My kinsman, he moaned again. Sorrow and pain threatened to pound their way back to the forefront of his thoughts, but ere they could take hold, Arabano sternly pushed them back. Now was not the time. "What is this Orthanc Fire?" he asked aloud, deciding to involve himself in the conversation. It would help keep his thoughts in order as well as giving him a focus.
"Do you recall the black powder that the guards found" Aragorn asked.
"That powder is capable of causing this?!" Arabano exclaimed, failing to conceal his skepticism.
"You should behold what it can do to fortresses of stone if there is a sufficient quantity present," Eomer murmured angrily, shifting closer to Arabano as though preparing to assist him to his feet.
"But how…" Budari trailed off and stared at the remains of the camp that had housed the leadership of his tribe.
"We have never discovered how the powder works," Aragorn said quietly, "but if enough of it is gathered together and fire is set to it—or a flaming arrow, as was the case here—this is the result. A wizard by the name of Saruman, who had fallen beneath the shadow of Mordor, engineered the powder and employed it against us when he sought to destroy the kingdom of Rohan."
"We named it Orthanc Fire after the tower where Saruman dwelt," Eomer added, his voice also soft. "We found much powder hidden there after the war as well as some of the secrets for creating more. But we lacked the resources, the desire, and the need to produce it."
"Harad also lacks the resources to produce it," Aragorn said quietly, releasing Budari as the leader of the Lotessa tribe took a few faltering steps toward the burning fire. "If this is indeed the work of the Khurintu tribe, then they have traded for their resources. It may be that we face a larger and more dangerous alliance."
Arabano was now getting to his feet—having grudgingly accepted Eomer’s unspoken offer to help him—but he froze at this latest statement and turned a sharp look upon Aragorn. "A larger alliance, honored one? Believe you that Soltari is an even greater aid than we suspected?"
"Nay," Eomer answered with a dark shake of his head. "We believe Soltari was not an aid at all, for their tribes burns as does Lotessa."
Arabano blinked and turned his eyes to the south where the Soltari tribe had established their base. A gasp from Budari informed him that he was not alone in his shock. "Who else?" Arabano demanded, watching the distant flames and fighting the nausea that clutched his stomach.
"We have not had time to investigate," Eomer answered wearily. "But there is also a glow to the east beyond Haradhur. Someone there might have been struck."
"You spoke of a larger alliance, honored ones," Budari murmured, still shaking his head in disbelief. "Yet given what I see now, I cannot find it within myself to believe that another of Harad’s tribes had this knowledge and yet managed to keep it a secret. What, then, do we face? With whom has Khurintu allied?"
"With someone who has access to charcoal," Aragorn answered quietly. Seeing the puzzled expressions directed his way, the king of Gondor elaborated. "Charcoal. I know not what it would be in your own tongue—or if such a word would even exist—but it is a black substance that can be found after burning wood. Great quantities of wood, in fact."
"Harad does not have great quantities of wood," Arabano said, his brow furrowing with thought.
"That is why Khurintu would be forced to trade for it," Aragorn said. "But this would not be a trade with another tribe. The resources could not be found any part of Harad. This would need to come from outside."
"If you required wood, to whom would you look?" Eomer asked, allowing Arabano to move away from him as he struggled to regain his balance.
"Lebennin, perhaps," Budari murmured. "Or we might go through one of the eastern tribes, as they have contact with men who live in the jungles."
"Nay, word would leak of the transaction," Aragorn said, shaking his head. "To maintain secrecy, there could be no one acting as a diplomat and negotiating the deal."
"Umbar," Arabano said quietly, feeling as though something in his mind had just clicked. "I would go to those who sail the sea. We have traded for wood with the corsairs before, for they have great stores of it for the building of their ships. And if it was to be a secret arrangement, a member of our tribe could meet them at a fairly accessible location. They have ports up and down the entire northern and western edge of Harad where the desert meets the water. Or one could travel to their country, which sits almost due west of Haradhur."
"Moreover, Umbar bears no love for you or your northern kingdoms," Budari added. "If this trading partnership included a military alliance as well, they could be trusted to keep it secret."
Aragorn and Eomer exchanged looks, and Arabano had the uncomfortable feeling that they were sharing information he could not understand. Glancing over at Budari, he noted that his leader seemed to have the same misgivings. With a jerk of his head, Budari signaled Arabano forward.
"Honored ones, if you would, we must decide our next course of action," Arabano said, causing both Aragorn and Eomer to turn his direction. "But ere we do…" he shot a look back at Budari, and the man nodded his approval. "If you would, what other ingredients would Khurintu have needed to obtain for the making of this Orthanc Fire?"
Eomer’s jaw tightened marginally and Aragorn’s brow furrowed. "The remainder of their needs could have been found here in the desert," Aragorn answered at length. "They would not have been forced to trade for it."
"That is well and good, and we shall watch for shipments of this charcoal in the future," Budari said, stumbling slightly over the foreign word. "But we are coming quickly to a crossroads, and we must decide our direction now. We have an alliance, my friends, but more is needed. You require our aid. You require more allies to stand against Khurintu. We offer you this, but in exchange, we would know what else is needed for the creation of Orthanc fire."
A thick cloud of silence descended upon the small group, and Arabano found himself tensing as though preparing to repel an attack. Yet what else could they do? Gondor and Rohan clearly had knowledge of a weapon capable of devastating all of Harad. A true alliance could not exist so unbalanced. If Aragorn and Eomer wished for aid, they would have to even the scales. For the sake of its own safety, the Lotessa tribe could not risk continuing with them without getting something valuable in return. In the desert, those who gave and did not take were fools, and fools were ultimately destroyed. Up until this point, Lotessa had done much in the way of giving, holding to the promise of future stability and possible leadership with the downfall of Khurintu. But things had become far more complicated, and this future goal was growing dim. The time for giving without immediate reward had passed. It was now time to take.
"Sulfur," Aragorn said after what seemed to be an eternal pause. "And saltpeter. Both can be found in your strips of volcanic rocks, such as the Sihal, and in the beds of your hidden lakes. Be advised, though, that it is important to know the proportions in which these things are mixed. Without such knowledge, the results can be disastrous."
Arabano smiled slightly and mentally complimented the king of Gondor. Aragorn knew Harad’s customs well. He had given Lotessa the requested information without giving away the secret to the weapon. And though it hurt the pride to be beaten at one’s own game, Arabano was a gracious loser. If Aragorn could bend the rules to his own benefit, he was a worthy ally.
"And now if we are finished, I suggest we gather your people and move them into the city," Aragorn continued. "I know not if other attacks are planned, but the city itself seems to be safe. I do not think Eomer and I were supposed to be here. For the moment, it behooves our enemies to refrain from openly attacking us."
"The injured will not be easy to transport," Arabano said quietly, looking out over the devastated camp and struggling to mask the grief that once again welled up.
"Our forces shall aid you," Eomer promised. "Unfortunately, we have had much experience in moving those who are wounded."
"The city may be safe from Khurintu and its agents, but it will not be safe from other tribes," Budari warned. "This…act…will brand you as symbols of destruction in the eyes of the Haradrim."
"Join us, then, and by your show of trust turn their hatred to sympathy," Aragorn said. "For why would a tribe struck down by the fires of the Destroyer seek refuge with those who brought doom upon them?"
"That would be the logical question to ask, but the tribes will not be reacting with logic, honored ones," Arabano pointed out. "These fires and this ruin…it has never been seen before in Harad. It is a power greater than anything the Lord Sauron ever used in the desert. For those who know not what goes forth, it is nothing short of a demonstration of power on the part of the Iluh. Logic and reason do not come into play when dealing with such things. We shall have panics and riots on our hands."
"I doubt any shall stage an attack upon us in the heat of the day, and morning is coming quickly," Eomer reasoned.
"Moreover, we plan to be out in the desert by the time night falls," Aragorn concluded. "None shall be given opportunity to surround us in the city."
"And once again we play into Khurintu’s hands," Budari sighed. "For doubtless Asbad and Dashnir wish to meet us in the desert where they are strongest. We cannot use Haradhur as a fortress for they have turned it against us. We are forced to ride forth and meet them." The tribal leader sighed and looked to Arabano. Arabano frowned darkly and turned back to watch the consuming flames. Eventually, he glanced again at his leader and nodded slightly. In truth, there was very little else that could be done. This option of relocating seemed to be the lesser of the evils they now confronted. "We will come," Budari said wearily. "And if you would lend us your aid in moving the wounded, we would welcome the assistance. But I counsel that we move your camp away from the open squares and take up residence within the buildings, preferably those with wells. The injured will need water, and if we are attacked, a cooler campsite will give our men the advantage."
"We will heed your counsel, then," Aragorn said. "And we shall take further counsel once all has been settled. Let us depart, my friends. We stand now upon the edge of ruin." He nodded toward burning the camp as he said this, his eyes darkening and his jaw tightening. "It would behoove us to move away."
* * * *
Just outside the protective walls of Haradhur, Fastahn stood and stared with unblinking eyes. He could not say how long he had been standing there, but if the stiffening muscles in his legs were any indication, a significant stretch of time had passed. But Fastahn did not seem to know this, and he continued to stand and stare. Twin columns of smoke obscured the stars in the west, and a third column was rising in the east from the direction of the Portu tribe. The Soltari tribe had been expecting Khurintu to act. For his part, Fastahn had been counting on it. But in all his wildest imaginings, he had never expected this. It was as though the fires of the Iluh had somehow been turned over to the command of Asbad and Dashnir.
Around Fastahn were other men, similarly shocked and dismayed, while even more were filtering out the gates of the city to stare in wonder and awe at the destructive forces that had been unleashed. Those who had been privy to the explosions themselves were still speechless and pale, trembling as they tried to absorb the shock of what had happened. Whispers and rumors were starting to fly. Accusations and predictions of doom were running rampant. A few of the tribal leaders who had tarried in the city for private talks among themselves were vowing to leave the Gathering unless Mohart did something to appease the Iluh. Others were suggesting they drive the foreigners from the city while still others protested this, deeming that such revenge would only anger the Iluh and show them that the Haradrim were unwilling to accept just judgements.
Had he been in his right mind, Fastahn would have listened and watched all of this with great interest. Not only would it benefit his tribes and his schemes, but he had always been fascinated with how paranoia and superstitions spread. But Fastahn was not in his right mind, and he could only stare in horror at the remnants of his tribe’s camp. He could see very little movement, and judging from the evidence before his eyes, survivors would be few.
I brought this upon us, he thought to himself, feeling a surge of guilt and shame sweep through them. I thought only to prompt us to greater action. I never intended for this to happen. I never intended for—
A sharp oath behind Fastahn interrupted him, and then a commanding voice was ordering men aside as Aulit, leader of the Gartabo tribe, stepped forward. His face was grim, and his hands shook slightly as if from fear. And Aulit had reason to fear, for it had been his duty to see that all went as ordered at the Gathering. Yet now it seemed as though the world was tumbling down around them all. Legends of the past had come to life before their eyes. Fires raged in the desert. Men from the north defied their greatest leaders. An elf and a dwarf had been marked for destruction and had then disappeared. Fastahn shook his head slowly, marveling at how far they had walked into their own destruction without ever knowing the extent of what threatened them. Khurintu had played its cards very well. The Haradrim were frightened and losing faith in their current leaders. All it would take to claim their loyalty would be an act of control that restored the normal order of things. After that, Khurintu’s standing would be assured in the desert as men flocked to their banner and shunned the leaders that had brought death upon them.
The shout drew immediate attention, and Fastahn pulled his gaze away from the ruins of his own tribe to watch as a slow procession made their way to Haradhur from the direction of the Lotessa tribe. And walking near the head of this group, supporting wounded as they came, were Aragorn and Eomer.
Fastahn didn’t know who gave the order, but the reaction was instantaneous. Swords flashed silver beneath the stars, and a great cry went up from all gathered. But the Lotessa tribe seemed to be expecting this, and those still hale closed around the northern kings while Budari and Arabano stepped toward the raised blades.
"Let us pass," Budari called, his voice calm and commanding despite the situation that surrounded him. "You cannot prevail without bringing death upon yourselves. Cease this foolishness and step aside!"
"Where are you going, Budari?" Aulit challenged, managing to shoulder aside some of the men so that he might better confront the other leader. "And why do you shelter those that have been called abominations?"
"By your own words, Aulit, the abominations were not specified. Your own best guess identified them as the elf and the dwarf. As you can plainly see, we do not have the elf and the dwarf with us. We bring no doom here. And now allow us to pass so that we might seek the wells in Haradhur. Our wounded need water."
"But you do have those that brought the elf and dwarf!" someone in the crowd shouted, and an angry murmur voiced its agreement with this statement. But Budari chose to ignore the undercurrent of noise, instead focusing his attention solely on Aulit.
"You have trusted my judgement in the past," Budari said, his voice lowering as though he and Aulit were the only two people in the desert. "I implore you to trust it one more time. There is much about this that you do not understand, nor am I able to explain it to you now. But for the sake of your own tribe, let us through."
For a moment and an eternity, no one moved. Watching with a mixture of despair and fascination, Fastahn could not help but feel suddenly isolated and excluded. His desires and his wishes had no bearing on what would happen. All that mattered was the contest of wills that now sparked between Budari and Aulit. A tense silence settled upon the people until Aulit suddenly blinked and stepped back.
"I cannot guarantee your safety," he finally said.
"I have never asked you to do so," Budari answered. "Lotessa looks to none for its own protection."
There was another stretch of waiting and then Aulit turned, his eyes flashing out over the people who had gathered to watch. "Let them pass into the city. The Lotessa tribe is welcome here. They, at least, have a claim to sanctuary. And some of you go forth to aid Portu and Soltari. Their wounded must also be brought within the city."
At first, there was no response to these words. But after a dark glare from both Aulit and Budari, men reluctantly began moving aside. A few began walking toward the remnants of Soltari’s camp, some continued to hover near the gate, and still others turned back into the city. Budari favorite Aulit with a crisp nod and then called to his men, commanding them forward.
For his part, Fastahn was torn. As one of the members of Soltari’s advisory council, his place was with his kinsmen and his camp. He needed to discover who had survived and what was left of their leadership. He needed to gather the Soltari tribe members who had been within the city. He needed to assist with the wounded and the dead. But he found that he could not move. He could not look at the fires without an overwhelming sense of guilt and shame taking him. It was so powerful that his stomach twisted and wrenched at the very thought of what he had done.
But I cannot now abandon what I began, he sighed wearily, squeezing his eyes shut and turning his head away from the desert. I must continue on this course, or their sacrifice shall have been for naught.
Stifling a strangled sob, Fastahn collected himself as best he could and began walking back into the city. Lotessa, Gondor, and Rohan might have been able to enter the Haradhur without coming to grief, but this temporary peace would be over all too quickly. At the moment, most of the Haradrim were still in shock. They had not recovered enough to take independent action, and so their actions had been swayed by Aulit’s words. But that would change come evening. Budari, Aragorn, and Eomer were probably well aware of this, and they were certain to have plans of escape. But escape was not what was needed. The Khurintu tribe had to be confronted, yet with their diminished forces, Lotessa, Gondor, and Rohan faced certain destruction were they to take that path. Fastahn grimaced and shook his head. It was time to play out his last gamble. The results of his previous gamble were the fires in the Soltari camp, but Fastahn was rapidly running out of both options and time. He only had until evening. After that, the time for action would pass, and for better or for worse, it would all be over.
* * * *
The moon was low in the west as Imrahil, Mohart, and the Swan Knights rode into the oasis around Lake Nurnein. The stars were slowly winking out as the sun’s light began to edge its way over the horizon in the east. For a moment, the interplay of light between the east and the west transformed the desert, and Lake Nurnein became a vast body of water, spanning the horizon as far as the mortal eye could see. Imrahil felt his breath catch in his throat as he was immediately reminded of not only the sea but also of his dreams from the day before. Something deep within his ordered mind clicked, and he grasped desperately at it, knowing that a clue had been found but failing to understand what that clue meant. And then the image was gone, lost in the cruel laughter of the sand as it tucked away a reminder of life. Lake Nurnein shrank back into what would be considered a small pond in Gondor, though it was one of the largest bodies of water within Harad.
Sighing quietly as he felt the fleeting insight slip away from him, Imrahil tried to turn his mind to other things. He had been unable to find answers to his dreams during the night’s ride and had eventually decided to let the answers come to him at their own pace. This required a great deal of patience on his part, but though he normally possessed patience in affluent abundance, he now seemed strangely short of it. Perhaps it was the growing feeling that time was running out. Perhaps it was simply all the unknowns with which he was forced to work. Perhaps it was the sense that something ill had already been set in motion. But whatever the reason, Imrahil was unusually anxious, and waiting did not sit well with him. But there was truly nothing else to be done, and so disciplining himself as firmly as he might discipline a wayward soldier, the prince began examining the many tents around Lake Nurnein.
Mohart had explained that Lake Nurnein was one of the boundaries that marked the northern edge of the Gartabo tribe’s territory, and running his keen eyes over the tents and people that hovered about the lake, Imrahil noted that most wore Gartabo’s colors. But there were many others also around this lake from various tribes, and Imrahil received the impression that this was not entirely normal. Nor was the feeling of tension in the air a normal phenomenon either, and glancing at Mohart who rode abreast of him, Imrahil could see the fear and suspicion flying across the tribesman’s face.
"Consult with your kinsmen," Imrahil said quietly, his soft voice somehow cutting across the sound of hooves and horses to attract Mohart’s attention. "Learn what you can and report back as quickly as possible. Have you a recommendation for a campsite?"
"Near my own tribe," Mohart answered, his black eyes pouring over the scene before them as they began to slow their horses. "There is great suspicion in the air, and I fear that some of the prejudice we faced at Lake Miyarr might be alive and well here. They will not trust you, honored one. My presence in your company should ensure us the protection of the Gartabo tribe, but it would be best if we were near their tents."
"It shall be as you counsel," Imrahil said. "Do you see that area over there, where the sandbar extends into the lake? Shall that be adequate?"
"A good choice, honored one," Mohart said. "And by your leave, I will depart now to speak with my brethren. I sense that something has happened during the night, and it may take long to sort through the rumors."
"Go, then," Imrahil said. "We shall see to your arrangements and belongings in your absence."
Mohart nodded and then spoke softly to his horse, drawing the mare away from Swan Knights and galloping toward the greatest concentration of Gartabo tents. Watching him go, Imrahil continued to slow the pace of his own company, hoping that a gentler approach might be a lesser cause for alarm than a full gallop. But even as he took these precautions, he was forced to wonder if they aided at all. The previous night, many Haradrim had looked upon the Swan Knights with apprehension and wariness. Now, there was naked fear upon their faces as well as hatred. At the approach of their horses, men moved away and averted their eyes, but not before Imrahil was able to catch horror mixed with a burning desire for vengeance. What was happening in the desert?
They reached the intended campsite without incident, but Imrahil could feel many hostile eyes upon him. Calling the captain of his guard over, the prince gave quiet orders that camp was to be assembled and a double watch posted. The captain nodded smartly and began to organize the men while Imrahil backed his mare away from the others and let his eyes drift out over the lake. If the situation had not been so tense, it might have been amusing. The people were trying very hard to avoid the prince’s gaze, but at the same time they sought to keep watch upon him. Something ill has happened this night, Imrahil sighed. Something that has frightened these people so much that they fear even a glance from me. But neither can they ignore my presence as some did yesterday.
Continuing to survey his surroundings, Imrahil’s eyes eventually chanced upon a small group of men several camps away who did not seem to be experiencing the same anxiety and tension as the others. They were restless and wary, Imrahil could sense that much from where he sat, but it was a different kind of wariness. Almost it seemed they did not care what the other Haradrim were doing. In fact…
Imrahil frowned, his eyes narrowing. Their clothing did not exactly match traditional desert garb. It was certainly serviceable for travel in Harad, but there was no marking of tribe or trade. At least, none that Imrahil could find from his position. And while it was not entirely unusual for lower caste members to dress plainly, the leaders almost always wore something to indicate their tribe. But those who seemed to lead this party dressed as plainly as their subordinates. Nor did they seem to have a problem meeting Imrahil’s gaze. One man stood apart from the others, supervising as they broke camp and erected tents against the sun that would soon make an appearance. And at one point, apparently bored with supervision, this man allowed his dark eyes to sweep outward where they met with Imrahil’s questioning gaze. The man started and stared, apparently surprised that he was being watched, but he did nothing else. And that alone was enough to pique the prince’s curiosity.
This is worth investigating, Imrahil decided at length. Looking over his shoulder, he noted that a few of the guards were occupied with grooming and watering the horses. Nudging his mare over, he called two of them to his side and ordered them to mount and follow. "Teril!" he called out as he prepared to leave.
The captain of his guard looked up, and his eyes seemed to harden slightly when he saw that Imrahil was still mounted. "My lord prince?" he asked, walking over.
"Teril, there is a matter that I must see to," Imrahil said quietly. "Watch our journey, and when Mohart returns, send him to us."
Teril’s mouth tightened and he looked ready to protest this act, but Imrahil’s stern gaze warded him off. And the captain had served Imrahil long enough to know that there was no changing his mind once he had decided upon something. With a slight sigh, Teril saluted and backed away. "I shall have men mounted and waiting should you meet with any trouble, my lord," the man said. "Do not hesitate to call for aid."
Imrahil smiled slightly, recognizing the tone in his captain’s voice. Even should he fail to call for assistance, Teril would send the guards if he felt the prince was in danger. Satisfied that they had come to a satisfactory arrangement, Imrahil nodded his agreement and then kicked his mare into a gallop. The two knights accompanying him were quick to follow, and together they set off to greet the men who did not seem to belong in the desert. Thinking about it further, Imrahil was forced to admit that this was a rather impulsive move for him, but something deep within his mind was telling him that this action was necessary. Nay, not just necessary, he amended. Vital. And I have come to trust my instincts far too much to ignore them now.
Nearing the strange camp, Imrahil watched as the man whose eyes he had met earlier began wandering out to meet him. The fact that Imrahil’s coming was not greeted with terror and suspicion only further served to cement in his mind that a clue lay here. They were almost upon the man when Imrahil raised his arm and made a fist, signaling his two knights to drop back but to remain mounted should the need arise. Imrahil himself kept his mare moving forward, stopping only a few feet from the other man.
"Akhlan, sahdiini," Imrahil offered as a greeting, dismounting and inclining his head slightly.
"Akhlan biitak," the man replied after a slight moment of hesitation. He studied Imrahil, his dark eyes betraying a strange mix of caution and impatience. Then the eyes went to the knights saddled behind Imrahil, and he seemed to make a decision of sorts. "Hul intar an Khurintu?"
Though he showed no outward reaction, Imrahil’s mind suddenly went into a whirl of swift conclusions. Within Harad, certain colors or certain patterns of embroidery upon the traditional desert robes marked the identity of different tribes. And this far north, no one should have been unfamiliar with Khurintu’s markings, as they were one of the dominant groups. Beyond that, Imrahil himself was clad in loose-fitting robes that did not come from the desert but rather from Belfalas. No native of Harad should have mistaken him for a member of the Khurintu tribe. His earlier guesses were correct. This man was not from the desert.
But he was also not from any of the northern realms. Before crossing Anduin, Imrahil had purposefully left behind his banner and any symbols that would identify him as being from Dol Amroth, hoping that his company would be mistaken as travelers from Belfalas and thus left alone. The temptation to strike against one of Aragorn’s strongest allies—an ally not escorted by men from leading tribes across Haradhur—would be too great a temptation for many to resist. Thus, Imrahil bore nothing marking him as the prince that he was. But even without distinguishing symbols, any man of rank from the northern lands would have at least recognized him as being nobility from Dol Amroth. Thus, this man could not be from the north. Beyond that, his complexion was too dark, and his voice…there was a strange accent in his Haradric. Imrahil knew he had heard this accent before, but at the moment he could not place it. Studying the man as other suspicions began to rise, Imrahil took a gamble and decided to play along.
"Na’am, anar an Khurintu. Wa intar?"
"If we are to speak, let us do so in a language with which we are both familiar," the man growled, abruptly switching to Westron and further startling Imrahil. "I trust you are here for the charcoal?"
Charcoal? By the Valar, what does the Khurintu tribe want with charcoal? "How much did you bring?" Imrahil asked, opting for a neutral answer.
"As much as I brought the last time," the man said curtly. "Now, have you the sulfur and the saltpeter?"
Something clicked in Imrahil’s mind, and his brow furrowed as he searched for a link between these three items. There was something familiar about them, and yet… "They were to have arrived here earlier, but they have apparently met with delay," Imrahil eventually answered.
"We grow weary of waiting for them," the man growled, his eyes darkening. "If you truly wish for our participation in the assault, you must give us the promised materials. And where is the prisoner you wrote of? I see no elf, yet your most recent message clearly promised us one of the elves. We will not act without first testing our weapons."
"As I said before, there seems to have been a delay," Imrahil said, hoping to stall while his mind frantically processed what had just been said. Vital information was landing in his lap, but it was coming too fast and he did not have a context in which to place it. He knew nothing of the situation at the Gathering, nor did he have any idea as to what Aragorn and Eomer were currently doing. But judging from this man’s statements, they were in trouble. Quite a bit of trouble.
"Perhaps we have not made ourselves clear," the man growled. "We will not join you in attacking Minas Tirith without assurances that you have control in the desert and that we can neutralize the elven threat in Ithilien."
"Might I know your name, sir?" Imrahil asked as sudden revelation hit him like a battering ram with mithril plating.
"Aeri-eluwn. And yours, tribesman?"
Umbar! Imrahil nearly cursed aloud. He should have recognized the accent, particularly after the switch into Westron, but he had been too busy trying to track all the information that was suddenly being offered. Still, the name made it absolutely clear. These men were from Umbar. Dol Amroth had dealt with the Corsairs far too often to fail at recognizing their names. But what was Umbar doing so deep in the desert?
Realizing that the man was still waiting for a response, Imrahil quickly cast about for a name that he might give in return, but before he could do so, another man—who seemed just as uncomfortable in the desert as the first—approached them. "Aeri-eluwn, nhvon hadrit…" The second man trailed off and stared at Imrahil, his eyes showing signs of uncertainty. When the uncertainty abruptly changed to startled recognition, Imrahil knew the game was up.
Acting before any could raise a cry of alarm, Imrahil seized the second man, drew his sword, and laid it to the man’s neck. Aeri-eluwn started forward, but he was stopped by a warning look from the prince of Dol Amroth. "The alliance is over," Imrahil hissed quietly, tightening his grip on his hostage as the man began to squirm. "You will depart with your goods and never again set foot in the desert. Gondor has been privy to your communications. The Khurintu tribe is being dealt with. If you value your necks, corsairs, then you will leave well enough alone lest we turn our eyes to you as well."
"Imrahil! Dol Amroth!" the captive man hissed to his companion before Imrahil could stop him. At these words, Aeri-eluwn froze and stared at the prince, rage and fury swiftly overtaking his face.
"I advise you to hold your tongue," Imrahil warned. The sound of hooves behind the prince informed him that the two guards accompanying him had joined the fray. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see their spears trained on Aeri-eluwn. "Tell your men to back down," Imrahil commanded as the rest of the Umbar party realized what was happening and began to advance. "There are many more of us in the desert. Spill blood now and you will never lay your eyes upon the sea again."
"Twaqf," Aeri-eluwn ordered reluctantly. More hoof beats were sounding, and Imrahil realized that Teril had sent knights after his prince. Which was probably for the best, as Imrahil was outnumbered without them.
"A wise decision, my friend," Imrahil said, continuing to hold his sword firmly at the other man’s throat. "And now I will offer you a choice. Make me an oath to take your men and leave for your own country the moment the sun sets come evening. Refuse this and we will kill you where you stand, beginning with this one." The prince jerked his sword just enough again his hostage’s throat to draw blood, and he heard the ring of steel behind him as other swords were bared.
The man named Aeri-eluwn hesitated, conviction and rage fighting a fierce battle within his dark eyes, and then he nodded slowly. "We will depart at sunset."
"For your own lands," Imrahil reminded him, taking no chances. "Swear it!"
"Upon my father’s house, I swear we will depart for our own lands at sunset," Aeri-eluwn spat.
Imrahil lowered his sword and pushed his prisoner forward, forcing the other man to catch him. "Then I hold you to your word," the prince said, sheathing his sword and reaching for the reins of his mare. "And may I offer a parting word of advice? Do not act against us during the day. If you do, then there will be none left to return to Umbar with tidings of your deeds." He held the other’s eyes for a moment after saying this, letting him know that this was not an empty threat, and then he turned away. Mounting quickly, he backed his mare up and signaled to his men. As silent ghosts, they turned away from the Umbar camp and followed their prince back toward their own camp.
"My lord?" Teril questioned, guiding his horse next to Imrahil’s. At the prince’s gesture to speak, he continued. "Sire, why did we not kill them?"
"There is something foul at work here," Imrahil answered, "but until I can discover what, we will take no hasty action. I will not risk inviting war with Umbar when we do not understand all that such a war would entail."
"They will not submit easily to your demands, my lord prince," Teril cautioned.
"And that is why the double watch shall be maintained throughout the day," Imrahil replied. "Fortunately, the men of Umbar value their word as they value their own lives. We can at least trust them to depart at sunset as they swore to do."
Imrahil looked up as Mohart galloped toward them, his face a mixture of concern and curiosity. "Have you discovered aught of what has caused such unease here?" Imrahil asked when the man neared them.
"The rumors are scattered and fragmented at best, honored one," Mohart answered. "None seem to truly know what is happening. But at the moment, I am more interested to learn what you have been doing. With whom were you speaking? Those men are not of the desert."
"Nay, they are not," Imrahil murmured. "They are of Umbar."
"Umbar?" Mohart repeated incredulously.
"It seems they have a trade arrangement with Khurintu. And an alliance, as well." Imrahil turned a sharp look on the delegate from the Gartabo tribe, his eyes accusing. "Did you know of this?"
Mohart drew himself up indignantly as they rode back into Dol Amroth’s camp. "I knew nothing of such an alliance, honored one. And I find it difficult to believe that such a thing could go unnoticed, especially if they are trafficking in weaponry."
"They are not," Imrahil answered, signaling his men to halt. Dismounting, he handed the reins to a nearby guard and drew Mohart aside, barking a dismissal to the other men. "What use would the Khurintu tribe have for charcoal?" he asked the moment the others withdrew.
"Charcoal?" Mohart echoed, his eyes flickering with confusion.
"A black substance that can be made from the burning of wood," Imrahil explained. "What use would Khurintu have for it?"
"I know nothing of such things," Mohart said. "What uses would any have for it?"
"It can be used as a writing implement," Imrahil said slowly. "But aside from that…" He trailed off as he was once again struck by the familiarity of all this. "Come, tell me what you have discovered," he said, deciding to change the topic for now. "What news from your kinsmen?"
"The reports I have received make no sense, honored one," Mohart answered with a helpless shrug. "There are rumors that the Iluh have sent a destroying fire upon the Gathering and that judgement hangs above us all. Yet I can make no clear sense of their words. They are confused and fearful. And they say that it is the northern companies that have brought this doom upon us."
"A destroying fire?" Imrahil asked, feeling as though he was sitting atop one of the keys to unraveling this mystery. "Can you be more specific?"
"Nay, for they could not be. They had not witnessed it themselves but rather have received their reports through Warra’s hawks. They say a great noise shook Haradhur, and when men turned to look, fire erupted from the sand. Several camps were at the centers of these fires, but I could not confirm which camps were affected. There are too many rumors for that."
"Orthanc Fire," Imrahil suddenly murmured, his mind flashing back to a conversation with Eomer when he and Lothíriel had visited Dol Amroth. Somehow the subject of Helm’s Deep had come up, and Eomer had mentioned that the ingredients for a blasting fire had been translated from one of Saruman’s scrolls. He could not remember all the specifics—and Eomer had been rather vague, as well—but he seemed to recall that charcoal had been upon the list of requirements for producing this destructive fire.
"Honored one?" Mohart questioned.
"If my guess is not far afield, I believe Khurintu has learned the secret of producing a weapon that was used once in the north," Imrahil said slowly. "When struck with flame, there is a substance that will erupt into fire. By Elbereth, I should have pressed those men for greater details!"
"It seemed to me that you were holding one hostage," Mohart commented, his voice carefully neutral but with an undercurrent of curiosity.
"My face is familiar to some of the corsairs, for Dol Amroth has battled them in the past. One recognized me and it was necessary to take action quickly." Imrahil shook his head, running a hand through dark hair. "Yet even so, I believe I can now hazard a greater guess as to what goes forth here. Khurintu and Umbar have been working together in the hopes of overthrowing Gondor. Khurintu was to seize control of Harad. I suspect that this process involves the disposal of Aragorn and Eomer. It is what I would do should I desire the overthrow of the north. With their kings gone, Gondor and Rohan are thrown into chaos. My realm is too far removed to act swiftly enough if Khurintu and Umbar press the attack. Belfalas and Ithilien are then the only obstacles, and Belfalas will be hit too quickly to react. Faramir will take command and the elves of Ithilien will join him, but those men said something about a weapon that they might use to neutralize the elven threat. Which leaves the men of Gondor and Northern Ithilien to defend the realm against a swift attack from both Umbar and Harad."
"Yet how would Khurintu seize control of Harad, honored one?" Mohart challenged. "Most tribes have no wish to rise against the north."
"Have you lost your sight, Mohart?" Imrahil demanded. "Look about this lake. Look at what is happening to your people. Rumors are flying swift and strong, and it seems that Khurintu is creating some great calamity in Haradhur. And did you not speak of a figure from your legends? The Destroyer, I believe? When suspicion, doubt, and legends mix, can you guarantee that common sense will prevail? Nay, you cannot. And we see only parts of what is happening, for we are removed from the center of this. Who knows what goes forth in Haradhur where the leaders of this desert sit in council!"
Mohart was silent for a time, his eyes downcast and his brow furrowed. "Your words have the ring of truth to them, honored one," he said at length. "And perhaps you were right several nights ago when you spoke of our being too late. It seems that events have been set in motion that cannot be easily stopped."
"Perhaps, but perhaps you also had it aright," Imrahil mused, his glance straying southward in the direction of Haradhur. "Events are still happening in Harad, and I have seen victory snatched from the jaws of defeat before. It takes but one slip to turn a revolution back on itself. Mayhap we can cause that one slip."
"What, then, is your counsel?"
What, indeed? Imrahil took a few steps away from Mohart and looked toward the lake. Aeri-eluwn had asked about an elven prisoner. As far as Imrahil knew, there was only one elf in Harad at the moment, and it seemed that he was expected to arrive at Lake Nurnein in the near future. Should they wait for Legolas and hope that by freeing Southern Ithilien’s lord they might put a stop to some of the plans and learn more of what was happening at Haradhur? Nay, for these plans have already been altered. The men of Umbar shall depart at sunset, and the Khurintu tribe shall arrive with none here to greet them. My apologies, Legolas, but I fear I shall have to leave you to your own devices and trust that you shall be well. The threat to the realm is greater. My place is beside my king. "We ride for Haradhur tomorrow night, and we do so with such speed that it will make the horses stumble," Imrahil answered firmly, his mind made up.
"It may be that we are already too late," Mohart cautioned. "Or it may be that we will arrive only to witness the fall of your kings. Perhaps it would be prudent to wait for events to play out and then seek to thwart them."
"Nay, I will wait no longer," Imrahil answered, clutching the hilt of his sword as his eyes glittered with the fires of a warrior. "If we do arrive to witness the fall of the kings, I view it as my duty and my pleasure to die with them. But Khurintu will not win without cost. If they are victorious, then we will make them pay for every step with their own blood."
Akhlan, sahdiini—Greetings, my friend. (Haradric)
Akhlan biitak—Greetings (the response). (Haradric)
Hul intar an Khurintu?—Are you from Khurintu? (Haradric)
Na’am, anar an Khurintu. Wa intar?—Yes, I am from Khurintu. And you? (Haradric)
Aeri-eluwn, nhvon hadrit...—Aeri-eluwn, we are prepared to…(A local dialect from Umbar)
Twaqf—Back (local Umbar dialect)
Author’s Notes: For the "Orthanc Fire" (a name I more or less made up, but it seemed fitting to me) I went with the traditional recipe for early forms of gunpowder, specifically what was used by the Ottoman Empire. For most of their sulfur and saltpeter (also known as potassium nitrate or niter) they raided the deserts of Qatar, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other places. Charcoal was another matter, though, and they had to look elsewhere for that. Thought you might want to know. And FYI, did you know that ancient peoples used to call the Dead Sea the "stinking sea" because of its huge sulfur despots? Random fact for the day.
Anyway, almost all of the cards are now on the table and the counter-plots are starting in earnest. So if you’re still confused with what’s happening, separate out what Khurintu and Umbar planned together and what everyone else is planning as a response. Most (not all, but most) of the former is now known. The latter is still being revealed.
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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