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Twilight of the Gods: 31. The Battles Within
CHAPTER 31 The Battles Within
Though the path they trod was no longer as difficult as during the days that had passed the captives struggled to match the demanded speed. Pushed on relentlessly by Asentis' and Nisenur's polearms and brutal force the men marched until noon and the king as well as Hilberon were staggering with exhaustion. Suddenly Hilberon stumbled and fell and would not move again when the guards shouted at him. Groaning he pressed his bound hands on his belly and closed his eyes tightly shut. Grudgingly Asentis called for a halt and inspected the young man lying on the ground with the same disdain he would have shown a fallen Orc.
"Wake him up," he ordered Ridasha in a clipped tone and left immediately. The woman was glad to escape his angry stare for a while and made sure he returned to Harishdane. She crouched beside the young soldier and needed not to turn her head to know that the healer had knelt beside her.
"He is completely spent," she uttered regretfully, opening the water-skin to sprinkle some water on his lips and face, hoping he would wake. It was in vain, and she was at a loss. She looked down on the hands of the healer, wrapped in her red scarf.
"Untie me, Ridasha, please."
"I am not allowed to."
"I can help him."
Deliberately she lifted her gaze.
"You said that before. Can your herbs do magic – help your comrade?"
The healer's eyes expressed deep worry and urgency. Hilberon on the ground groaned, clenching his teeth.
"Please, let me help him."
She hesitated and looked around. A dreadful weight lasted on her shoulders. She had her orders – but she believed in the healer's powers to help the soldier. Exhaling she rose.
"I cannot decide this, Strider, I… I have to ask for permission." When she returned minutes later Nisenur followed her, bearing an expression of utmost reluctance. Upon crouching beside Hilberon Ridasha nodded to the healer. "You may proceed." She took off the scarf and saw Nisenur, whose polearm was deposited nearby, wind the rope like Asentis had done it. "There will be no need for this," she interrupted Nisenur's preparations and loosened the ropes on the captive's wrists and arms.
"This is not your decision to make," he rebuked haughtily, trying in vain to intimidate her. He was too young and Ridasha too agitated to let him win.
She caught the sling when it fell and stood up, pulling the rope tight between them.
"I said no." She faced him. "Go on," she advised the healer without a glance, concentrating on Nisenur, who set his jaw. "You are standing here, and I am standing here. We both have our weapons ready. Do not tell me that you doubt your ability to prevent any attempt to escape. I don't."
He tore the rope out of her hands, and his faced tainted with anger.
"The gods will curse you for your failure," he spat, but refrained from trying to put the rope around the healer's neck.
Ridasha stood firm to his accusing stare.
"The gods already cursed you for your wrong-doing."
Nisenur bared his teeth, growling in shék, but she did not reply to his insults. There was no need to further enrage the young man of the Jásheni-Rhûvenan, for he would tell his leader. She had already gone too far in order to regain Harishdane's benevolence. And if Gishvané sentenced her she would be disgraced in her tribe for the rest of her life, a threat that hung above her and would not be removed by any deed she could do from now on. Being sure Nisenur would not try to choke the prisoner she turned to kneel and watch the healer crush two leaves between his fingers.
"What else do you need?" Her voice was low, and she felt it hard to look into Strider's eyes. Úshemor had turned to be the strangest goddess Ridasha had ever served; all rules suddenly did not apply anymore, and for the first time she had quarrelled with the young soldier, who had used to be her friend. What kind of sentence was the goddess about to deliver on Ridasha and her kin?
"Water." Strider held the two leaves and gently breathed on them. "Remove the clothing from his belly." Halamin reacted faster than the surprised Easterling and bared Hilberon's stomach. Dark purple bruises indicated the degree of his injury, and the healer grimaced, but adroitly applied the wet leaves and held his palms on them like warming the skin with his fingers. A pleasant scent rose, refreshing all crouching or standing nearby, and making them think of better and finer days. Nisenur snorted. He had coiled up the rope again and taken hold of his polearm, ready to strike the captive if he moved too fast.
Ridasha watched the healer, deeply frowning when he closed his eyes and lowered his head, exhaling. She wanted to know what he was doing, but at the same time dared not to utter a word, instinctively believing she would break a Gondorian ritual. She did not want to anger more gods on the way, even if they did not belong to her own culture. So she watched as silent as the soldiers around them, until Strider took away his hands and rested them on his thighs for a moment, breathing heavily. The scent lingered on, and Ridasha looked at the soldier's belly still covered with the rest of the crumbled leaves. The bruises were still visible, but covered in a light red.
Shaking her head in the utmost puzzlement she turned to look at the healer.
"What did you do?" Her voice was but a breath.
He opened his eyes, and if she was not mistaken by her surprise she saw him smile through his exhaustion.
"Let the herbs do magic," he said quietly and took her water-skin to drink. She did not protest, but watched the other captive kneeling across the young man cover Hilberon's belly. The young soldier woke after a couple of minutes. His eyes needed time to focus, but he could drink some water and did not lose consciousness again. Ridasha watched him sit up after a while and look at the healer gratefully. Strider nodded in appreciation and turned to Ridasha. "Give him another mishénian leaf if you can spare one." She did, gave Strider one too, ignoring Nisenur's objection. Strider handed back the water-skin and stretched out his hands. "You have to bind me again."
"I take care of this," Nisenur cut in, the ropes already in his hands while his weapon was tied to his belt.
"I have to watch over him, Nisenur," Ridasha replied, sticking to Westron to let the others understand, but the young Easterling only sneered.
"You disgraced yourself by your inaptitude to watch over that prisoner." He bound the ropes tight, blind to the pain he caused, and threw the scarf at her.
"You did so before when you followed our leader to misuse the holy ritual." She wound the scarf around the healer's hands and rose.
Nisenur straightened to his full height, and while looking down on her, took the polearm again, playing with it as if he could hardly restrain himself from using it, again an action mimicking Asentis'.
"She leads us, yes. And we follow her. Wasn't it one of your cousins who fell against Asentis in the scásh?" Ridasha reached out to slap his face, but he was too fast and caught her wrist. The man pulled her toward her. "Your tribe has to obey like the others, no matter what she says." He let go of her wrist and left, but turned again, adding, "You are a good fighter, Ridasha, but you let that slave weaken your will."
"I never misused a ritual for my own purpose!" she cried, but he already strode back to report the incident to Harishdane. Ridasha's shoulders sagged. With one hand she pushed a strand of hair out of her forehead, with the other she took up her weapon. She felt the healer's look lasting on her. "I am disgraced," she mumbled, but she stopped like struck when she saw Hilberon rose. In utter disbelief, she shook her head. "I… I do not understand," she whispered looking at the soldier, who swayed, but nodded when he was asked whether if he could walk. Her eyes turned to Strider again. "You were marked and you still escaped. You do not only help your people but me too. - You should be under the influence of Úshemor, but… I think this bind doesn't apply to you. It cannot be." He only looked at her, solemnly, but friendly, and with another shake of her head she added lowly, "My leader must know this all, Strider. I am sure she knows. And I am afraid she will do other things to keep you from escaping."
"Yes," he replied and his voice was heavy with the knowledge of his fate, "I know."
Url hated to be pushed around like a pig that was chased back to its sty, and his mood sank when he saw the haughty expression of Harishdane, who was crouching on a high rock and staring into the sunset.
"What you want?" he spat when Nisenur backed a few steps before he turned to leave. She did not bother to look at him, and he growled lowly in Dunlendish about the mistake to ally his kin to that people.
"You and your men will leave tomorrow morning."
"With what? Where is our reward? You said we get it in the plain."
"Your leaders will get the reward."
"That was not our…"
"You feel being treated unfairly?" Harishdane slowly turned her head, and Url squinted against the intense stare of her luminous eyes. "You feel you need a reward right now?" It was not only her dark voice that made him shiver, but the memory he had of earlier confrontations.
"You will give the reward to our leaders," he nodded and only dared to exhale when her expression softened. "And we leave tomorrow."
"Very well." She turned back to the beautiful image of the sun setting beyond Eregion.
Asentis viewed the campsite. The Dunlendings talked with each other, and by their agitation he knew that Url had announced their departure back south. The faces lightened up though Url did not share his kindred's joy. The second-in-command was satisfied to get rid of the primitives. From tomorrow morning on they would push the captives downhill to finally reach the open plain. He flexed his hands and lazily played with the polearm. It would be their last return to Rhûn, and he longed to fight.
Ridasha only dared to get closer to the healer when Asentis and Harishdane had retreated to their own private campsite from where they usually did not return until sunrise. She still wondered how Asentis could have known about the healer's attempt to escape, but there was no answer at hand, and her own problems exceeded the desire to know about Asentis' whereabouts. While Hilberon – who had reached the campsite with the last strength – had been allowed to stay with his people the healer had been forced to the other side of the camp. His ankles were already bound, and he lay on his left side, but lifted his head when he saw her coming. Ridasha made sure she was not watched when she untied his arms and took away the scarf so he could hold the water-skin.
"Thank you." He drank while she let her gaze travel over the soldiers and finally asked,
"I saw no women among the soldiers, Strider. Are the women of your land inapt in warfare or incapable of wielding a sword?"
He gave back the water-skin and while she handed him a piece of bread he held a weary smile for her.
"There are women serving in the army, but mostly they consider it their task to take care of the children and the household." He briefly thought about Éowyn and that she would not see her life in that way. The memory of her great deed on the Pelennor Fields hurt him more than he would admit. She would have preferred to die honourably like a soldier than live to see her wishes never fulfilled.
Ridasha could not help shooting him a disdainful look.
"I gave birth to new life before. Why should I then restrict myself to that low work when I can prove myself in a war? Have Gondorian women no honour?"
"We do have women who fight. But usually war is a man's work." He followed her gaze to his soldiers and exhaled regretfully. The days of their captivity had covered up the reason for their ride to Dunland. "But we did not come here for war. We came here to end the eternal quarrel." He saw her frown and added, "King Éomer of Rohan offered the Dunlendings peace instead of war." Her eyes went wide, and her lips parted as if she would reject this possibility. "He even invited their leaders to Edoras."
"Is that a holy place?" she whispered, and looked over her shoulder to make sure they were alone.
"No, it is the capital of Rohan. The king wanted to end the feud between the two peoples." Unbeknown she slightly shook her head. That was completely impossible! It took her a moment to collect her thoughts and explain that Harishdane had told them that the Rohirrim would prefer killing over sharing land and that the Dunlendings only had a chance to survive if they worked with the Easterlings to conquer Rohan. The healer fell silent, looking down on his hands full of scratches and weals covering his wrists. "The conspiracy has to end," he finally said, and she shied away from the urgency in his grey eyes. "Rohan must not lose more men."
"Our leader will do what she considers right. And we have to follow her orders." To avoid his look she knelt behind his back to tie him again. She did not pull roughly, but noticed his sudden spasm. Only then she realised that his garments were torn.
"What attacked me?" he asked, interrupting her musing.
"The gods," she replied shivering, unwilling to let him see her anxiety, but he knew by her tone and refrained from further questions when she wrapped the scarf around his hands and retreated into the darkness.
At dawn the Dunlendings vanished southward without another word. Url cast a last glance at the tall woman with the long black hair, but though he longed to curse her in all languages he knew he but turned and left to follow his men. Harishdane breathed deeply. As well as her second-in-command she was glad and relieved to watch the primitives walk back the path they had come. She was very close to fulfilling her plan, and upon her command the tribal soldiers ordered the captives to get up. She watched them rise. They looked miserable, worse than others her kindred had led through the mountains. The Rohirrim had been peasants or soldiers without a leader; they had given in to the threat. But with their king to protect those handful of soldiers had developed a surprising stamina. Harishdane thought they would become valuable slaves once they had reached their destination. Parted from their ruler any resistance would falter. It had been like that many times before. After short days of resistance and struggle the prisoners – once marked by the high priestess – had given in to avoid being punished by Úshemor. From thereon their lives had been filled with work and obedience.
She turned her head to watch the king get up. There had not been many kingly attributes about him when he had been caught, but now he looked as dishevelled as the allies she had sent home. And the king was weak now. It would not take long until his strength and will would be completely broken. She let her stare become fierce when Aragorn straightened and moved to his men. On half of the way he stopped and lowered his chin to his chest, grimacing with pain. Two of his men immediately approached to escort him further. He stumbled and would have fallen without the support. Harishdane exhaled, confident that her plan had been flawless to the last details.
On their departure she met eyes with Ridasha and could not help regretting her soldier's misbehaviour. Harishdane had always appreciated Ridasha's eagerness and skill. She had been among the first groups of her kin being sent to the Misty Mountains to make contact with the primitives, and during the two years of their alliance she had been helpful and obedient. She had even learned Dunlendish to communicate with those unable to speak Westron. It was a shame Harishdane had to let her being sentenced like a criminal by the high priestess. With a curt nod Harishdane ordered her to the king's side, and the woman obeyed. Harishdane gleamed at Asentis, and they moved on faster to head the group.
Dumarin snorted noisily. Halamin had once again stated that the king would do everything in his power to ensure their safe return to Gondor. His comrade could no longer believe in that idle talk. It was all too obvious that King Elessar would not be able to attempt any further escapes or even dare to fight against their captors; even during daytime he was now bound to immobility, and he had seen him stagger and almost fall. This was Dumarin's worst fear: That the king would let them all be dragged to the home of their foes and order them to obey. He shivered at the thought of never seeing his own home again, and with the hours passing to days he was even more convinced that there was no hope to regain freedom. He cursed the Easterlings and their motives, and he could not help being repelled by the king's docile behaviour. From the night of that awful cry of the king on Dumarin had suspected that their ruler was affected by some spell. Now, after the king had lost his run for freedom a second time, the soldier was sure that wizardry played a role. He could not explain how it worked, but there was no other possibility. The king would not order an attack in the mountains, and once they would have left them behind there would be no chance to try and fight. Their fate was set.
Halamin looked back over his shoulder, making sure that neither Hilberon nor any of their captors would listen.
"You better keep your foolishness to yourself, Dumarin," he hissed. "Don't speak to the others about it. There is nothing to it, and I won't hear anything about it again."
"You have naught to say to that! You are blinded, my friend."
"It is you who is blinded by your own fear!"
Dumarin shook his head, and glanced at an Easterling woman, who had covered the lower half of her face with a red scarf. He grimaced angrily in her direction, and she moved on, unperturbed.
"Why should I not fear to stay a prisoner of that bastards?"
"Watch your mouth, Dumarin, they are not all the same."
Dumarin almost laughed bitterly. Halamin was turning against him too!
"Yea, and we will start being their friends tomorrow!"
"What would you have expected me to do?" a very familiar deep voice cut in Dumarin's mockery. The fat man almost stumbled out of surprise. His ruler had overheard the conversation! "Speak, Dumarin!" he ordered, ignoring the red colour of shame in the soldier's face. Dumarin swallowed hard, and in his heavy breathing found no words. The king held him in his stare, making him feel the power he still possessed. Finally the soldier stuttered,
"It is naught, my lord, naught, really."
He could not stand the fierce gleam in the king's eyes.
"You will speak up, Dumarin! I want to know what you both were talking about."
"Just another of his fantasies, my lord," Halamin said lowly, but Aragorn's attention was directed on Dumarin, who grumbled,
"Captain Faréd would have preferred to go down fighting instead of being captured like mice by a cat."
Halamin held his breath to the obstinate tone his comrade bore, and was about to inhale for an apology, when Aragorn answered,
"I will not prefer death, Dumarin, and you should not too. There are alternatives to fighting."
Dumarin stared at the stones to his feet.
"Like giving in? Like obeying to their orders?" he muttered, and Halamin would have wanted to grab the man and hold a hand over his mouth to stop the insults. Anxiously he looked at his king, but instead of furious his expression was sad and regretful.
"It might look like this to you, and I understand your doubts. But as long as we live there is hope to escape. Maybe not the same way like before, but be assured I will not give up. And you should not too. We all want to return home."
Dumarin did not dare to lift his gaze, and Halamin hesitated to repeat the assumption Dumarin had made before, but when the king seemed about to console his soldier he could not remain silent.
"He thinks you to be not yourself anymore, my lord," he said lowly, "he thinks this… sign changed you, made you like one of them." While Dumarin shot him an angry glare the king seemed to be taken aback.
"It was painful," he then stated after a moment of recollection, and his eyes found the regretful look of Halamin, "but it did not cloud my mind. Do not believe me to have changed, Dumarin son of Doran, just because despair grips your heart."
Dumarin did not dare to reply, and Halamin was glad the awful situation was over. He still felt the urge to apologise for his fellow, but saw it was not the time to dwell on the subject any longer. King Elessar's gaze lifted to the changed landscape. Where had been narrow paths before, now a wider trail opened to their view, partially covered with grass and sturdy plants between the granite. To each side solid walls towered, enclosing a way that turned into a small vale. It was almost noon and the sun touched the ground, illuminating the low growing heathers in white, purple, and pink, which covered places where soil had accumulated. The view was soothing after the long days in which the soldiers' eyes had rested on nothing but rocks and cliffs. Unbeknown Halamin sighed and heard the king do the same. But not only the relief of the green view attracted Aragorn's attention, and his gaze travelled along the grey crags, clefted by rain and snow. Some of these crevasses were wide like chimneys, and Aragorn mused if they would lead to the outer side of the massif.
"There is nowhere to run." Aragorn lowered his gaze to Ridasha, walking a step ahead of him while Dumarin and Halamin lagged behind. "It is not like you want to see it." They met eyes, and the young woman hid her feelings well. "If you try that path over there you will fall into a pit. I do not know how deep you will fall, but you will never surface again."
"Are you trying to deceive me?"
She stood fast.
"There is no need to."
"You roved there?"
"I travelled many of these paths. They lead nowhere." She looked forward to her kinsmen and added in a low and depressed voice, "We will reach the western plains tomorrow. There will be others of my kin waiting, so do not hope you get another chance to flee us."
"Others of your tribe too?"
"A few. Until Harishdane came to Rhûn with her kin we had many tribes living separated from each other. Now…" She let her voice trail off. The Jásheni had led the Easterlings to a fortune no one had considered possible, but at the same time she had demanded the tribes' strict obedience without giving the other leaders a chance to utter their own opinion.
"You told me you do not kill your own," the healer interrupted her memories. "That Asentis would not had killed you for your… wrong-doing."
"Of course not!" She glanced at him with disgust about the mere thought of killing among Easterlings out of a quarrel.
He wet his lips and briefly fought against the ropes holding him, but gave up, though the pain in his back rose with every hour the bonds rubbed on the wounds.
"You said the higher tribe subdues the lower. That Harishdane has done this with your tribe."
"The lower just becomes the servant of the higher."
"And how does the higher tribe show its superiority?" the healer asked.
She lifted her eyebrows. How should she explain the complex way of living the Easterlings had developed over generations to a man from Gondor, whose people were known to be narrow-minded?
"We have very strict rituals about that," she therefore answered with a hint of haughtiness. "We are no Orcs who kill as they go."
"Rituals?" he promptly asked. "Like the one Nisenur mentioned?"
"The scásh, yes." Her brows furrowed with sadness. "It is a fight with very strict rules. Every tribe names a man or a woman to fight, and only those two decide about the fate of all members of their tribe."
"And the one who loses…"
"Loses his life." Ridasha exhaled, lost in the clouds of her own memory. Until Harishdane had arrived with Asentis at her side she had believed that Kepesh was the most talented young man she had ever seen. He had been as quick as he was elegant, as successful as he was humble. The tribesmen had loved him dearly. But there had been no such fights before like the one he had to hold with Asentis. All his strength and skill had been naught against the relentless force the fighter from beyond the Sea had revealed. There had been no chance for Kepesh to hurt Asentis at all.
"What happens if the losing tribe rejects laying down their weapons?"
Ridasha's head snapped around, and her eyes were wide.
"That never happens! The ritual must be fulfilled! It is impossible to deny this – the tribe would be cursed by the goddess and they would all be disgraced." She swallowed and lowered her head again. "Like I am disgraced for my failure."
Aragorn waited patiently for her to continue, but when she refused to explain he asked,
"What will happen to you?"
Ridasha let out a sigh and stared at the polearm in her left hand. As with the bow and arrow, she was a very apt fighter, respected among her kin, but this would end soon.
"Gishvané will sentence me in the name of the gods. When she hears what I have done she will…" She exhaled and lifted her free hand instead of an answer.
"But… said you not that the goddess made me escape?"
Her look bore a flicker of hope, and he tried to keep his face blank of any expression.
"Did you see her? Did she make you run away from us?"
"Would you still be sentenced if that was true?"
She cast her eyes down again.
"I do not know. I neglected my task and you escaped. That is nothing that can be taken lightly. She can even…" Her throat was too narrow suddenly to let the words pass.
"What could she do? She would not… hurt you?"
"There are other punishments than pain, Strider." Her voice was low and sad, and it took her a moment to continue. "I… I have seen it before. The high priestess sentenced one man to become the slave of another tribe."
"What had he done?"
She ignored his shocked tone.
"What could be worse than letting a prisoner escape?"
"Treat a prisoner unlike the goddess bids?"
He could not spark any hope in her.
"I will face Gishvané tomorrow. Then… Harishdane will tell her what I did, and the wise priestess will decide what happens with me."
It was the end of the fourth day of their pursuit. A chase without a trace the Rohirrim could follow, without a sign of their foes, a chase entirely depending on a token of information that had come from a most unreliable source. Their horses were exhausted. They were exhausted, beginning to finally pay tribute to the gruesome effort of riding from first to last light for the last four days, with nothing to show for it. Still the mountains stretched to their right for as far as the eye could see, their rugged, bold granite faces dwarfing them and offering no comfort. They were also running out of provisions, and soon they would have to halt and hunt, which would cause them to lose yet more precious time.
While he unsaddled Battleaxe, doubts resurfaced in Éomer as to whether it was not all in vain. What if Durden and Woldro had lied to them after all, sending them further and further away from where Aragorn and his men had been abducted to? The Rohirrim king knew that he could usually rely on his knowledge of character, and he had had the distinct impression that Woldro had been telling the truth, but in the waning daylight of the fourth day of the pursuit, he was not sure of anything anymore. Not his decisions, not his instincts, nothing. He only knew that returning from Dunland without his friend was not an option. Lost in thought, the king stood for while longer, staring into the thickening twilight with one hand on his mount's muscular shoulder.
"I know that look," a deep voice from behind brought him back to reality. He turned and saw Elfhelm approaching, the grey eyes scrutinising. "We will find them, Éomer. Even if I still despise their kind, I do not think Woldro was lying to us. They must be here somewhere, very close. All your relentless pushing must lead to a result, I am certain of that."
A shadow wandered over Éomer's face as his gaze went past the older warrior's shoulder to where his wretched-looking men were once again building a much improvised camp while mist slowly rose from the ground. Their faces were gaunt and their talking low as they unsaddled their horses and moved to build fires. There was no laughing and no singing, no light-hearted banter between the men while they prepared for the night, and the sight of their dispirited posture left a bitter taste in the king's mouth.
"Am I pushing too hard, Elfhelm?" He inhaled deeply, and when his attention returned, it was an easy guess for his one-time teacher what was on the king's mind. "Tell me honestly, old friend! Are you only following me because I am your king? Am I asking for the impossible?"
A thin, knowing smile wandered over his friend's face as he cocked an eyebrow.
"You know what your father would have said to that."
"Aye..." Éomer nodded, remembrance briefly lighting up his expression as he followed Elfhelm's gaze back to their éored. "'Impossible'... is a word people use who find it easier to accept the world as it is, instead of taking the risk to change it. 'Impossible' is not a fact. It is an opinion. 'Impossible' is not a statement. It is a challenge. 'Impossible' is potential. 'Impossible' is fleeting." He straightened. Another long, meaningful pause before he concluded his speech, looking his friend straight into the eye. "'Impossible' is nothing." He inhaled, letting another moment pass between them. "I once made a promise to live by his words... I can still hear him saying them, each and every part of his speech."
"So do I. You are not telling me that you are beginning to doubt them, are you, son?"
"I only know that my father sometimes bought victory with great bloodshed when a retreat would have made more sense. He could not bear to be proven wrong, or fail. He kept pushing relentlessly to emerge victorious, and many admired him for his recklessness, but I do know that not all people shared this opinion. I sometimes heard them talk." Surfacing from his memory, Éomer's dark gaze found his marshal again. "So tell me honestly, my friend: Have I fallen into the same trap? Have I become so obsessed with seeing my will done that I fail to understand my kinsmen's needs?"
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder.
"Your men, Éomer, will follow you to whatever end. They may have their doubts, as I have my doubts, and even you are uncertain of the path you have chosen to travel. But it is a worthy goal you are pursuing, and great deeds have never been accomplished easily. You are doing this for the sake of us all, and the men are very aware of that."
"Like Galdur," Éomer rebuked bitterly. "And Erkenbrand. They were both fiercely loyal to the Mark, and both opposed me, seeing the dangers behind my idea. Can you imagine what will happen if we return to Rohan without Elessar?"
"Éomer!" The older warrior's eyes flashed, and his alarmed tone caused the king to shift his attention back to his friend. "Do not talk like this. We will find him. We will find and free him and his men. You cannot afford to doubt now!"
"No, I cannot..." But his gaze was not convinced.
Still within the mountains, but on an even trail that would have invited a group of wanderers to enjoy nature's purity, the group was called to a halt. Asentis was restless and in a foul mood. The closer they got to their destination the more he hated to tread the mountains. They had tarried here far too long! He wanted to push those prisoners who had made the journey so difficult, so he could make up for the lost day, but Harishdane ordered them to pitch a camp at nightfall.
With all due respect and bowing like any ordinary soldier, he closed in on her.
"We could move on, my leader," he pleaded, failing to keep the pressure out of his voice. "It is not far now. We could reach the open plain at dawn."
"And risk more unrest?" Harishdane laid down her polearm and spread a blanket on the ground. Opposite her second-in-command she was satisfied with the outcome of their journey. And if the Dunlendings acted as she had planned they would now prepare for further raids on Rohan's realm and keep Éomer-king and his men from aiding his ally.
"You need not fear that slave. He is beaten. He is tied up. If you wish I can gag him for the time. And if the others quarrel…" With an unmistakable glance he gripped his polearm tighter. As always Harishdane cherished the impressive gesture of her apt fighter, but she denied his plea.
"I will not risk anything until the ritual is carried out. And the long days in the plain are still ahead of us. They shall not get any further injuries which might slow them down. Though I appreciate your intervention, your punishment was… rather harsh."
"Shall I take an insult without retaliation?" Asentis asked lifting his chin. "Shall I not answer if he provokes me? He fled your command. I could not let this happen. He had to be punished for that insubordination."
"And I am sure your punishment was well understood by all others too."
"Tomorrow we will take all measures required to make sure they won't know where we are going." Asentis still was not satisfied, but set his jaw to calm down. Harishdane's heart was filled with pure bliss eyeing the man in front of her. "My beloved Asentis," she breathed in his ear, "you will get everything your heart desires once we have reached our home."
Asentis relaxed and smiled in the near darkness. No reward would be higher and more cherished than that.
Without having slept much he roused his fellows in the ascending daylight. Asentis felt light and vigorous, and almost jumped from one resting place to the next, shaking Nisenur and Sisune awake.
"Make the prisoners get up!" he ordered at once. "Make haste! We leave soon." Then he ran on, chasing along the trail they would take from there on. He could have run to the camp on the plain and been back in the afternoon, but Harishdane had ordered a woman to announce the group's arrival for the early evening. He reached her and accompanied her for a short while before he returned to the campsite, unwilling to waste another minute. Grunting he accepted that the men shared a scanty meal before Harishdane ordered them to prepare their captives for the day's march. "And make sure you bind them tightly," Asentis added, and his challenging look was directed at Ridasha. "We do not want any further delays."
The Easterling soldiers turned when Harishdane dismissed them. Ridasha approached the already standing healer and from her pack took a long piece of cloth.
"What were you talking about?" the healer asked quietly, but she did not look at him until she had to.
"It's the last day in the mountains. You will not be allowed to see where we are going." Frowning he took a step back. "Don't fight me over this, Strider. Our leader demands it, and I obey. If you struggle Asentis will do it himself." Ridasha noticed that the second-in-command already watched her scornfully. "Strider…" She swallowed nervously. "Bend forward."
Aragorn hesitated. His heart raced. The last chance he had anticipated to gain freedom for his people vanished in that very moment. They would neither see where they would be going nor stand a chance to fight. Tarés had been right: escape was only possible in the mountains. His last hope – even if he could not count on Ridasha's help – was crushed, and he fought the image in his head that they were all doomed to become the servants of Harishdane's tribe.
"I said hurry!" Asentis' sharp voice resounded. He had already bridged the distance, and grabbed the king's shoulder while kicking him in the hollow of his knee the same instant. The captive fell on his knees, suppressing a scream. "Are you no longer able to follow simple orders?" he hissed, and Ridasha hastened to blindfold the healer before he was allowed to get up again. "Move him to the others!" The woman took the healer's elbow and led him to the other captives, who had one of her kin at their sides. Looking over her shoulder she saw Asentis staring at her. She was afraid that Gishvané would not be the only one punishing her.
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