My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 35. Fractals
Author’s Notes: As a result of several remarks about the multitude of characters in this story (as well as the fact that I haven’t updated for a while because I had no access to the Internet) I’ve included a new and updated character list at the beginning of this chapter. So if you warning a refresher course now, here you go. As a warning, you may need it for this chapter. We’re about to blow everything wide open.
Character List (OC indicates Original Character)
Arabano(OC)—Second-in-command of Lotessa
Aragorn—King of Gondor
Arhelm(OC)—Captain of Rohan’s guard
Asbad(OC)—Tribal head of Khurintu
Aulit(OC)—Tribal head of Gartabo (Also charged with overseeing this year's Gathering)
Bron(OC)—Member of the Portu tribe (Killed by Dashnir at Lake Supt)
Budari(OC)—Tribal head of Lotessa
Dashnir(OC)—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe
Eomer—King of Rohan
Faensul(OC)—Legolas’s elven horse
Fastahn(OC)—Member of Soltari’s advisory council (Temporary ruler of Soltari in the wake of Khesva's death)
Garat(OC)—Second-in-command of the Warra tribe (Killed by Legolas in a cave while waiting out a sandstorm)
Gimli—Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond
Imhran(OC)—Captain of Gondor’s guard
Imrahil—Prince of Dol Amroth and Captain of the Swan Knights
Joranen(OC)—Tribal head of Warra
Khesva(OC)—Tribal head of the Soltari tribe (Killed by Orthanc Fire outside of Haradhur)
Legolas—Lord of Southern Ithilien and Prince of Mirkwood
Mohart(OC)—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (Inadvertantly poisoned by Imrahil at Dol Amroth, though he survived the encounter)
Radarad(OC)—Tribal head of Portu
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
Imrahil, ruler of the lush, coastal province of Belfalas, sat in a small and stifling tent three days into the arid deserts of Harad. Sharing both Imrahil’s misery and Imrahil’s tent was an unconscious Rohirrim captain who—with four other riders—had ridden a stumbling horse into camp while trailing members of what had appeared to be the Khurintu tribe. Upon arriving, the Khurintu had scattered and the Rohirrim had collapsed, leaving the men of Dol Amroth to hastily drag them in out of the burning sun. To make the situation more bizarre, Imrahil had been surprised by the appearance of Rohan’s riders but not by the appearance of Khurintu. He had anticipated this development since the unanticipated discovery of corsairs camping down the lakeshore, a discover which in turn had alerted him to a military alliance between Khurintu and Umbar that allowed both parties to create Orthanc Fire. Additionally, the corsairs were apparently awaiting the arrival of a captive elf that was to be supplied by the Khurintu tribe.
And this morning has only begun, Imrahil sighed wearily. If nothing else, the day promises to be interesting.
The sheer volume of information that had assaulted Imrahil in the past few hours was confounding, and he was desperately trying to sort through the facts in order to form a coherent picture that would guide his next actions. But the prince’s normally sharp mind seemed as lifeless and blank as the endless sands that surrounded Lake Nurnein. He was tired, for dark dreams had prevented him from finding true rest during the previous day. And the environment was certainly not helping. Imrahil’s light tunic was soaked with sweat, a rare experience as the faint echoes of a distant elven heritage usually guarded against perspiration. The complete absence of humidity burned his lungs and seared his throat. He yearned for water, but the liquid in his water skins was unpleasantly warm and only seemed to encourage his thirst.
Perhaps I should seek sleep, Imrahil thought, running the back of his hand across a brow that dripped with sweat. I cannot seem to think clearly. Mayhap rest will clear my mind.
But even as he considered this idea, Imrahil discarded it. Before the arrival of the Rohirrim, he had tried to sleep and failed. He would not sleep now. Imrahil was a veteran soldier of many campaigns and had learned to rest whenever possible, but he was also a scholar and a gifted strategist. Sleep was valuable but so was information, and at the moment, Imrahil valued the latter over the former. Earlier, he had known nothing. His only clues had been vague dreams and dark suspicions. Now it seemed as though plans were being handed to him, but it was happening too quickly for him to make sense of it. And sense was what was needed, for a tingling itch of foreboding told him that time was running out.
So he sat wearily in his tent with his eyes fixed upon Arhelm, the Rohirrim captain who had swooned and fallen from the back of his gelding upon reaching Lake Nurnein. And while Imrahil waited for Arhelm to show signs of stirring, he tried to piece together what he knew so far.
As inconceivable as it seemed, Umbar had become involved in the affairs of the Haradrim. Imrahil could not quite fathom how this was possible, especially since the corsairs were intensely scornful of anyone who did not live on or near the sea. They deemed that the open waters could be likened to a refiner’s fire that in turn created a strong and hardy people. Thus they tended to downplay the abilities of the Haradrim, for those in the desert had no wild, untamed seas to mold them into true warriors. Ironically, the Haradrim were equally scornful of anyone who did not live in or near the desert—giving the reason that the desert’s heat was more akin to the refiner’s fire than any glorified puddle—and so Imrahil was baffled as to how these two groups had formed an alliance. Nevertheless, it seemed an agreement of sorts had been forged, but as for the exact terms of this agreement…
Imrahil shook his head and pushed away the frustration that was beginning to consume him. In days past, he had been renowned for an almost elven patience that occasionally managed to wear away even Denethor’s stubborn reticence. But that patience seemed to have vanished in the heat, and Imrahil was hard-pressed to settle his mind. Some of his earlier anxiety had been quelled by the arrival of the Rohirrim, for familiar faces had lightened his heart considerably. But the restlessness that had formed during the night’s ride was returning in force as he pondered the situation. Imrahil enjoyed a good puzzle, but when time was slipping away and lives hung in the balance, he preferred to have the puzzle completed and the answers at hand. Such was not the case here.
Concentrate, he told himself. Breathe slowly and concentrate. You can do naught while the sun is overhead and neither can your opponents. Use this time wisely. It may be all the time you are given before you must act. Closing his eyes, Imrahil opened fists he did not remember clenching and firmly directed his mind back to the matter of the unusual alliance.
The only reason for Harad and Umbar to join together would be that each had something the other wanted and could not get by other means. It seemed fairly obvious that the wants in this case were charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur. Also obvious was the conclusion that both groups were making Orthanc Fire, a deduction backed by the tidings that Mohart’s kinsmen had given. And the shared weapon had in turn led to a military alliance that desired the subjugation of Gondor.
But none of that did Imrahil any good at the moment. With the exception of Umbar’s involvement, the prince might have guessed all of this on his own. Now came the hart part: details. Imrahil needed to know why the corsairs had been expecting an elf to arrive with Khurintu. He needed to know what had become of King Elessar and his company. He needed to know how far along in their plans Khurintu had gone. He needed to know if any other tribes were involved in these plans. He needed to know why five riders of Rohan on the verge of collapse were chasing an equally weary group of Khurintu tribesmen across the desert. And above all, he needed to know times and places. He needed to know when and where the next stroke would fall.
Some details Imrahil had already. An assault on Minas Tirith was planned. Before this happened, Ithilien was to be neutralized using a weapon that the corsairs had developed specifically for the elves. This weapon was untested, though, and Umbar was wary of using it. This indicated that the weapon’s success was highly questionable, for the corsairs did not usually shy away from risks. And that, in turn, explained their eagerness for a test subject: an elf.
But it did not explain how an elf—presumably Legolas—had fallen into Khurintu’s hands. Nor did it explain what had happened to that elf’s party. And as for what other tribes might be involved or whether or not the plans had progressed so far that there was no stopping them… Imrahil resisted the urge to shake his head in frustration. One reaction would lead to another, and before he knew it, he would find himself pacing the length of the tent.
A cynical voice in the back of his head noted that his guards would probably be greatly entertained if he did succumb to pacing. For some reason unfathomable to Imrahil, the men of Dol Amroth seemed to find it vastly amusing when their prince showed hints of impatience. Faramir also seemed to find Imrahil’s occasional bouts of haste to be decidedly humorous. When questioned, Faramir could not truly explain his mirth except to say that Imrahil’s look of frustration was…interesting. Faramir’s advice to his uncle was that Imrahil should maintain his stoic composure—something that the prince of Dol Amroth did quite well—and leave the impatient expressions to those that could make them without looking like a drowning troll.
A drowning troll indeed! Imrahil thought with a touch of indignation. When has Faramir ever had occasion to see a drowning troll? The boy would not know a drowning troll from a charging mûmak. Absently wiping the perspiration from his brow, Imrahil shook his head and gave a quiet snort of laughter. I must be in great need of both sleep and water if my mind has strayed to conversations regarding drowning trolls. He began debating about whether or not drinking some of his hot, rationed water would make things better or worse, but he was interrupted by a low moan from the corner of the tent.
His mind immediately snapping to attention, Imrahil hastened to Arhelm’s side, hopeful that the rider was waking. And for once, the Valar were merciful. It seemed that Arhelm was indeed waking, and Imrahil quickly seized a water skin should it be desired. The parched riders had swallowed water even in their unconscious states, but doubtless they would be thirsty again when they woke. Not that this warm water will do much for their thirst, Imrahil’s cynical side commented. Still, the gesture might be appreciated.
Wetting a cloth and rubbing it across Arhelm’s brow, Imrahil called to the man, anxious to add speed to the waking process. "Arhelm? Arhelm, can you speak?"
Silence was his initial reply and Imrahil held his breath as despair began to creep into his heart, but then Arhelm stirred and moaned again, his eyelids fluttering slightly.
"Arhelm, return to us," Imrahil encouraged. "There are things I must know, and only you can give me answers."
It seemed to Imrahil that Arhelm was now considering the idea of waking and finding it to be a prospect he did not appreciate. His struggles died away slightly and his breathing deepened as he began to slide back into the cool abyss of unconsciousness.
"Nay, you cannot so lightly abandon your duties!" Imrahil pressed, seizing Arhelm’s hand and holding it tightly. "Unless my guess is far astray, your king is in dire need. Come now. Show me the loyalty of the Rohirrim. Wake for your king!"
That produced results.
Arhelm stiffened, his muscles tensing and his brow furrowing. His chest heaved with exertion, and he seemed to be mustering energy for some great endeavor or another. Imrahil suspected that Arhelm was attempting to open his eyes. Having been knocked unconscious several times himself, Imrahil knew just how difficult it could be to force open reluctant eyelids. And as the prince of Dol Amroth continued to watch his companion, his guess was validated. With a groan of effort and a show of strength, Arhelm tensed and then slowly opened his eyes, struggling with every arduous step of the process.
"Haedin?" he whispered.
Imrahil frowned. "Haedin?" he repeated, hoping for an explanation while thoughts and fears rushed through his mind. Was this the name of the man who had brought harm to his king? Was this some form of code that another of the Rohirrim might understand? Was the captain delirious and mistaking Imrahil for someone else?
"My horse," Arhelm hissed, his voice harsh and raspy. "Is he—"
"Your horse has been cared for," Imrahil answered, shaking his head with a slight smile of exasperation. He should have realized that Arhelm’s first thought would be his gelding. Their overall reputation might say otherwise, but in this and many other things, the Rohirrim were really quite predictable. "He is well and resting," Imrahil continued. "We ensured that he received water."
"Thank you," the rider sighed, his eyes closing with relief. Then his brow creased and he forced his eyes open again, only now seeming to realize who it was that kept him company. "Prince Imrahil?" Arhelm’s jaw clenched and he lifted his head slightly as though attempting to rise. "I…I thought you were a dream, my lord."
"Nay, I am no dream," Imrahil answered, pressing Arhelm back and handing him the water skin. "And you are very much awake, my friend. Gently," he cautioned when Arhelm began gulping water in earnest, apparently heedless of its temperature. "Too much too quickly will do you no good."
Arhelm nodded with reluctant obedience and lowered the water skin. Turning his eyes back to Imrahil, he frowned and shook his head. "Forgive me, my lord, but…how did you come to be in the desert? Yours was not a face we expected to see."
"My reasons for being here can wait," Imrahil said. "They are not as important as the answers that you can give me, for it seems we have been handed a pretty puzzle. Strange rumors reached our ears this morning. Where is your king? And where is King Elessar?"
Panic surged through Arhelm’s pale face and he struggled upwards. "Why? What tidings have come, my lord?"
Somewhat taken aback by this, Imrahil frowned and pushed the man back down. "We are not sure of how to interpret the tidings. It was hoped that you could aid us. Do you not know where your king is?"
"Insofar as I know, my king is yet at Haradhur. Have you heard differently, Prince Imrahil?"
"And what of King Elessar?" Imrahil pressed, ignoring Arhelm’s question for the moment. "Was he with Eomer?"
Arhelm nodded. "Yes, my lord. But my party and I left Haradhur last night as evening fell. We do not know what has transpired since then. If you know something, my lord, then I beg you to tell me what has happened!"
"I do not know much," Imrahil answered, his earlier frustrations returning. "But I suspect that something has happened. Recent conversations have led me to believe that Lord Legolas may be a prisoner. But I have heard nothing that reveals the fate of those who were with him."
"In this, at least, I can aid you," Arhelm said, his face growing dark. "Two nights ago, the guards around our camp were murdered. Lord Gimli’s axe and Lord Legolas’s knife were discovered in their tent, but their bodies were never found. We assumed that they had been taken captive."
Imrahil blinked. "Both of them?"
Arhelm nodded, licking his dry lips and taking another sip from the water skin. "Last night, my king sent ten riders in pursuit of the Khurintu tribe, for we suspect that they were the culprits. My men and I were part of that company, but we separated when the trail seemed to split. I do not know if Eos and his group were successful, but it appears now that my men and I were not."
"Two nights ago," Imrahil murmured, his mind beginning to whirl as he called forth every rumor he had heard between now and the time he had left Lake Supt. "Do you know how or why they were taken, Arhelm?"
"Nay, I do not, my lord," Arhelm said, an unspoken apology contained within his voice. "But I do know that Lord Gimli and Lord Legolas were in danger of being apprehended by other tribes before Khurintu took them. They were sent to join our scouting parties in the desert for the city had become dangerous. But they never arrived, and we could not look for them because Haradhur was then attacked."
"And this attack was made with Orthanc Fire?" Imrahil guessed.
Arhelm’s eyes widened. "Orthanc Fire? Nay, our attackers were raiders. What is this of Orthanc Fire?"
"Word reached us this morning that a weapon similar to Orthanc Fire had been used in the desert. I assumed you would know of this."
"I have not seen Orthanc Fire since the Battle of Helm’s Deep," Arhelm said. "By the blood of Eorl…" The man trailed off, his face darkening as memories of the hated weapon rose to the surface of his mind. "Prince Imrahil, do you know if my king—"
"I know little more than what I just told you," Imrahil answered, rubbing his brow and struggling to make sense of this. Was it possible that Mohart’s contacts had been wrong? Perhaps his suspicions about the ingredients were off.
"If Orthanc Fire has been used, then—"
"Then we can do nothing here but put together what we know and what we suspect," Imrahil interrupted, focusing on something that Arhelm had said earlier. "You spoke of raiders. What raiders would attack Haradhur in the middle of the Gathering?"
His eyes still showed fear for Eomer, but to his credit, Arhelm put aside this worry and concentrated on Imrahil’s question. "We have no proof, but we believe that the raiders were of the Portu tribe."
"The Portu tribe?" Imrahil repeated incredulously. "Surely you are mistaken. They may be raiders, but they are not warriors. It is not their nature to attack even an armed camp, much less a fortified city. And they would never presume to attack during the Gathering!"
"We also found it strange, my lord, but we are fairly certain of our suspicions. Nor do we believe it to be the first time that Portu attacked our position, for we were similarly beset at Lake Supt on our first night in the desert. We believe they were ordered to test us. And some suspect that their representative, Bron, was murdered the next evening to prevent us from learning of this."
Bron? Murdered? Varda’s stars, what is happening in this land?! His mind now spinning wildly, Imrahil shook his head and closed his eyes. "Let us start at the beginning. Tell me everything that transpired beginning with the night you left Dol Amroth. And relate every detail, no matter how insignificant it might seem."
"My lord, such a tale could consume the rest of the day."
"Then the day shall be consumed," Imrahil snapped, the heat and frustration finally wearing through his patience. "But I will not be taken unawares, and I will not let fall any chance to save my king. Begin, Arhelm! Time marches on, and I will have my answers now!"
* * * *
For most of his adult life, Fastahn had served in the ruling and advisory councils of the Soltari tribe. And as such, life within the winding mazes of Harad’s cities was more familiar to him than life upon the scorching desert sand. But as he hastened through the twisting labyrinth of buildings and cross streets, Fastahn began to long for the openness of the land beyond the city walls. Haradhur’s cramped, jumbled quarters reminded him all too well of the contorted web of disaster into which he’d plunged his tribe. A disaster largely of his own making.
The man walking beside him only served as a further reminder of the calamity that Fastahn had brought about. Radarad, leader of the Portu tribe, walked with a pronounced limp, a result of the explosions that had decimated his camp. His scarves were drawn snugly over his head, hiding the burns and the vicious cuts. The only visible part of his face were his eyes, black with rolling waves of anger and loathing.
It had taken quite a bit of coaxing on Fastahn’s part to convince Radarad to make this trip. Room had been made in Haradhur for the raiding tribe, but the survivors were confused and disoriented. They were filled with rage that could not be loosed for fear of harming their families far away. Radarad had been hesitant to leave his kin in such a state, and Fastahn could not blame him. He had left his own tribe in turmoil without explanation or apology. But if he was to make this right, he had to act and he had to act now. Thus his years of training as a leader and a diplomat had gone into every persuasive argument he could think of, and in the end, he had convinced a very reluctant Radarad to accompany him.
But compared to what I must do next, convincing Radarad was as simple as finding sand, Fastahn sighed. Still, I suppose that in light of my actions, the difficult road is the only course now available.
His actions. It had been the greatest risk Fastahn had ever taken, and it had been a risk he’d lost. At the time he had deemed it to be absolutely necessary. The tribal leaders had left him no choice. Soltari was going to sit quietly and watch as the Lotessa tribe battled Khurintu with only Gondor and Rohan as allies. It had been a decision debated at great length with Fastahn and a few others pressing Khesva to align against Dashnir and Asbad. They were not a military tribe, but neither were they unskilled in battle. They had not the talent that warrior tribes possessed, but they could still be an asset upon the field of war. They should have extended an offer of aid to Lotessa. They should have stood against Khurintu and helped maintain the balance of power in the desert. But they had not. Khesva had ruled against such a strong departure from their traditionally neutral position. He believed they had jeopardized their neutrality enough already.
But how can one claim to walk a middle line when there ceases to be a middle? Fastahn demanded, attempting to rationalize his actions. Lotessa’s defeat would have enslaved us to Khurintu. There would have been no balancing power to challenge them and thus there would have been no position of neutrality for us to assume. There would have been only servitude. Blood of the sand, I had to make them see! I had to turn them against Khurintu and to do that I had to force Khurintu’s hand! I had no other choice!
But now most of the Soltari tribe was dead. His gamble had backfired, and drastically so. Soltari would not rise to Lotessa’s aid in retaliation for Khurintu’s attack. Soltari would not rise anywhere! Most of the tribe’s leaders were now dead. Those few that had survived were either grievously injured or mentally traumatized. None could stand with Lotessa. And should Fastahn send for more of his tribe, it would take several days for the message to even reach Soltari’s settlements to the south.
I was so blinded by the past! Fastahn wailed, still attempting to rationalize. I never expected Khurintu to retaliate as they did. They have always planned their moves well in advance! My actions should not have made us a target on the same level as Lotessa and Portu!
Stifling a groan, Fastahn glanced at his companion and bit back a wail of grief and rage. Such emotions had no place here. All speculations about what should and should not have happened were moot at this point. The damage had been done, and Soltari’s ruling council lay dead. For all intents and purposes, Fastahn was currently the highest ranking Soltari tribe member at the Gathering, which made him the de facto leader. And as leader, it was his duty to see to the welfare of his tribe. But if his final efforts came to naught, what then? Should he stay in Haradhur and witness the triumph of the Khurintu tribe? Should he flee to his own tribe and warn them of what was coming? Should they abandon their settlements and journey east, hoping for sanctuary in the jungles?
Nay, I will not consider it, he suddenly decided. I shall not think on what will happen should I fail today, for if I fail then my tribe and my kinsmen are lost. Success this day is our last best chance, and even then, it is no guarantee. Khurintu will come with all its forces. Lotessa is now depleted, Portu has been attacked as well, and Gondor, Rohan, and Warra combined have not enough to offer Khurintu much in the way of challenge should Khurintu bring the bulk of its forces. But there is no other choice. Not anymore.
"When shall these wanderings cease?"
The gravely voice of Radarad startled Fastahn out of his despairing thoughts and he hurriedly composed himself. The Portu tribe held naught more than contempt for the agricultural tribes, and if he was to convince Radarad to listen to what he had to say, then Fastahn had to appear strong. He had to act as though he was confident in his abilities, something that Fastahn was usually able to do with ease. But his successive failures and the death of his kin had shaken him badly. And when coupled with everything that could go wrong with the alliance that he intended to forge…
"Soon, honored one," Fastahn said, forcing his voice to be firm and calm. "We shall reach our destination soon."
"My patience runs thin today."
"Then I suggest you control your temper wisely, for if things continue unchecked, today may well be the last day you ever see."
Before he knew what was happening, Fastahn suddenly found himself pressed firmly against a wall with the sharp point of a knife digging into the skin of his neck. "If that was threat, then I suggest you reconsider your words," Radarad hissed. "Or it will be the last day you ever see."
"Nay, not a threat!" Fastahn choked out, his hands locking around Radarad’s forearms as he struggled vainly to push the stronger man away. "A warning of things to come beyond my control. I wish to aid you!"
"And what aid could the Soltari tribe possibly offer?"
Fastahn tipped his head back, feeling the knife dig even deeper. "As I…told you before," he wheezed, "what I have…to say must be…revealed in the presence of another!"
The world seemed to hold its breath for a long moment, and then something deep within Radarad’s eyes flickered. A slight breeze ruffled the scarves around his face and he stepped back, abruptly releasing his hold on Fastahn’s neck and slipping his knife back into the folds of his robes. "If I do not find your words worth my while, I will not hesitate to finish what I just began," Radarad warned.
Fastahn clutched at his throat, gasping for breath and deciding that projecting an air of indifference might have been a bad decision. Given the success of his other recent decisions, though, Fastahn could not say that he was truly surprised. "I promise you, honored one, that you will be most interested to hear my words," he assured Radarad.
"We will see."
Deciding that now would be a good time to continue their journey, Fastahn clenched his teeth and resumed walking. Radarad fell into step beside him and oppressive silence joined them as a third companion. Still, Fastahn felt that oppressive silence was better than death at the hands of Radarad’s knife, so he did not complain.
Turning a few more corners and feeling Radarad’s impatience looming over his head like the hand of the Destroyer ready to descend, Fastahn sighed with relief when their destination came into view. Eager to escape the silent streets, he hastened forward to the low building that he had chosen as a meeting place. Somewhat removed from the main wells of the city and having no well of its own, very few people used this building as a shelter during the day. At night it was a marketplace, but beneath the heat of the sun it only provided shade for abandoned stands and carts. Fastahn felt that they would not be disturbed here, and if any should happen across them, they would think twice before interrupting. Radarad was considered a powerful leader by those who did not follow politics closely, and Fastahn was also seen as one who wielded clout. Additionally, the man they were to meet was greatly feared, and Fastahn felt that these combined factors would allow them to speak freely without disruptions from others.
"We are here, then?" Radarad questioned.
"Yes," Fastahn answered, moving beneath a wide archway and under a broad cloth pavilion that sat before the entrance to the main building. "Come. I do not know if the other member of our party is present, but it would not do to keep him waiting if he has arrived."
"It does not sit well with me that you have yet to reveal his name."
Fastahn turned to discover that Radarad had slowed his pace and was now eyeing the doorway to the dark building with no small amount of suspicion. "If it eases your mind, honored one, I can tell you that he does not know your name," Fastahn said.
"Then we are both ignorant and you assume power."
Cursing both himself and the paranoia of warrior tribes—though given the night’s events, paranoia was certainly a justified reaction—Fastahn reached into his robe, drew his knife, and extended its hilt to Radarad. "I give to you my weapon and a request. If what you hear this day does not satisfy you concerning my intentions, kill me with my own blade. I care naught for dishonor and tribe, nor will any in the days ahead if we cannot avert what will happen."
Radarad was silent for a long moment, his dark eyes narrowed in thought. At length, he took the knife and concealed it within his own robes. "Let us go," he said quietly.
Grateful that his act of submission had momentarily placated Radarad, Fastahn moved forward quickly before the other could entertain any more doubts. Plunging into the darkness of the clay building, he blinked his eyes rapidly, waiting for them to adjust to the dim light. He heard Radarad’s steps as the other joined him, and then his clearing vision caught sight of a shadow detaching itself from one of the corners.
"I had begun to wonder if you would come."
Radarad stiffened and Fastahn suddenly felt the point of his knife against his back along with a steel grip upon his shoulder. "Tell me that he is not the reason you brought me to this place!" the raider chieftain hissed sharply.
Walking until he was several feet away from the pair, the leader of the Warra tribe studied Radarad and Fastahn before sniffing and shaking his head. "I see nothing of importance here," Joranen said.
Radarad hissed with indignation, and Fastahn felt the knife waver slightly as anger for the other tribe leader distracted his captor. Taking advantage of this, Fastahn lurched forward, breaking the hold on his shoulder and staggering away before Radarad could strike.
Joranen took a precautionary step back and jerked his head, at which point, more shadows moved away from the walls. Fastahn whipped around as guards from the Warra tribe stepped in front of the doorway and the windows effectively cutting off any chance of escape. "We agreed to meet alone!" Fastahn accused, turning back to Joranen.
"You agreed," Joranen said quietly. "I merely consented to attend."
"So it comes to this," Radarad spat, leveling a dark glare at Fastahn before drawing himself up to face Joranen. "It is as I suspect. You truly have no honor."
It was the wrong thing to say. The ring of metal heralded the appearance of Joranen’s sword, and he advanced quickly upon Radarad, his eyes crackling with anger. "On what basis do you challenge my honor?"
"The Portu tribe fulfilled our part of the arrangement!" Radarad shouted, sheathing his knife and drawing his own sword. "We did all that you asked and more, yet here you trap me, having already destroyed much of my tribe. Shall you next enslave our women and children, or shall you merely continue to starve them in the desert?"
The point of Joranen’s sword did not waver, but a look of confusion crossed his face and he blinked. "It seems that grief and injuries have stolen your reason, Radarad," he said at length. "Stand down and I may forget your words to me."
"You deny your actions?!" Radarad shouted, eyes blazing. "Atop your previous dishonor, you would deny that—"
"Enough!" Fastahn interrupted loudly, leaping between the two. It was a perilous move, but he had expected this development and was prepared. "Please, honored ones, allow me to explain why I have brought you here ere any hasty actions can be taken! Both the Portu tribe and the Warra tribe have been unfairly used by others, and I mean to reveal the plots and steps that have been taken against you."
"Your words are madness," Radarad snapped. "The Warra tribe has long deprived our women and children of water and food. Now they seek to destroy us all."
"Nay, in that belief you are wrong!" Fastahn answered, his eyes pleading with Radarad to listen. "It was not the Warra tribe but a rebellion beneath the direction of Garat who worked in an alliance with Asbad and the Khurintu tribe!"
A sharp prod against his spine took Fastahn’s breath away, and he turned from Radarad to find himself looking into the angry eyes of Joranen. "You would dishonor the dead with baseless accusations?" Joranen demanded. "Garat was loyal to me and—"
"Garat had planned to murder you once Khurintu’s plans came to fruition!" Fastahn interrupted, forcing himself to hold completely still even as Joranen’s sword pressed more firmly against him. "Honored one, you were naught more than a lackey to him! And you remain as such to the Khurintu tribe. They are using your own hawks to relay orders to your warriors in the north!"
Everyone—Warra guards included—froze at this new voice. As one, all turned toward the door where a man wearing the colors and insignia of the Lotessa tribe stood just beyond the entryway.
"This does not concern you, Arabano," Radarad warned.
"On the contrary, honored one, if what I suspect is true, this meeting is vital to the continued existence of my own tribe," Arabano answered. He stepped forward, his eyes questioning, and after a moment of hesitation Joranen nodded to the guards, who stepped aside to allow Arabano passage.
"What do you know of this?" Joranen asked.
"Less than what I would like, honored one," Arabano said, "but I would fain hear more of Fastahn’s words. The little I heard earlier intrigues me greatly. And when he is finished, perhaps I may add my own observations, for it seems that we have all been greatly deceived."
Embers of hope flared to life in Fastahn’s heart and his glance darted back and forth between Joranen and Radarad. He had not thought to bring Lotessa into this so soon, for in Lotessa’s eyes, he was probably a primary suspect. But it seemed that Arabano had seen beyond this, and with his help, the Khurintu tribe might yet be stopped.
The tip of the sword suddenly withdrew from Fastahn’s side and Joranen took a step back. "I will listen," he said. His eyes were still dark with anger, but confusion was there as well and the anger could be redirected.
"As will I," Radarad agreed, though he continued to throw suspicious looks in the direction of the Warra guards who still blocked the exits.
A breath he did not know he had been holding escaped Fastahn, and he hurried to disguise this moment of weakness. Drawing himself up, he moved so that he could watch the faces of all involved, and as he did so, he noticed that his own hope was reflected in the shrewd eyes of Lotessa’s second-in-command.
"Speak," Arabano said, his tone holding both a command and a note of encouragement. "Tell us what you know, and hold nothing back. That which was conceived in darkness must now face the harsh light of day."
Fastahn closed his eyes for a moment, preparing himself. If he was to convince Joranen and Radarad that what he spoke was truth, he would have to reveal the entire story. He would have to speak of the treacherous actions he’d taken against his own tribe. But there was no other way and time was now very short. He had chosen this path. He now had to face the consequences.
Taking a deep breath, Fastahn opened his eyes and began.
* * * *
Contrary to a popular belief held by most of Gondor’s subjects as well as many of the younger soldiers outside of Minas Tirith, Aragorn was not always right.
Eomer would concede that Aragorn was usually right, sometimes maddeningly so. But the king of Rohan firmly believed that no one—not even the heir of Isildur—had perfect judgement. The Rohirrim’s almost blind trust of Gríma when he became Theoden’s advisor was proof enough of that, and Eomer had vowed that Wormtongue’s deception would remain a singular event. Consequently, he now guarded his loyalty and trust with great reservations, and because of this, he was able to take a good step back from the situation and decide that Aragorn had taken a complete leave of his senses.
"You want to set an ambush for the Khurintu tribe outside the walls of Haradhur?"
Aragorn nodded and then inhaled sharply, his right hand flying up to clutch at his bandaged brow. "Yes," he hissed, his eyes shutting as Eomer gently prodded his swollen left wrist.
Alone for the moment in a dark corner of the building that now held the bulk of their forces, Eomer was attempting to determine whether or not Aragorn had broken his wrist during the explosion that had decimated the Lotessa camp. Unfortunately, the swelling had still not subsided enough for either king to accurately judge if the wrist had sustained a break or a sprain, and at Aragorn’s insistence, Eomer was now feeling the joint for splinters. Possibly as a means to take his mind off the pain, Aragorn had begun to talk about their next move, at which point the king of Rohan had decided that the injuries and the heat were beginning to wear on Aragorn’s mind.
"By your own reasoning, Asbad and Dashnir shall bring with them most of their tribe when they descend upon Haradhur," Eomer stated, unwrapping Aragorn’s splinted forearm so as to better examine the wrist. "We do not have the numbers to withstand them."
"We will have Lotessa with us."
"Most of Lotessa is in no condition to ride to battle."
"But they will ride, nonetheless. Their honor demands it."
Eomer pressed his lips together and shook his head, which was thankfully not throbbing quite as much as it had been before. He had to admit that there were definitely merits to Aragorn’s plan, but half of the Rohirrim force had yet to return from the desert and most of Lotessa had been decimated by Orthanc Fire. Their forces were sorely depleted. An ambush the likes of which Aragorn sought to devise required that they separate their men. They simply did not have the numbers to do that. "While I respect the need to uphold honor, Aragorn, I also know that honor alone will not bring victory. We are too few to split our forces, even with Lotessa’s aid. We need more men for an ambush."
"We need more men if we are to do anything about Khurintu!" Aragorn snapped. "There are not enough of us to withstand a siege in the city, for were we to barricade ourselves in, the rest of the tribes here would turn against us. And Khurintu would easily surround us if we rode out to meet them in the open desert. Nay, Eomer. An ambush just outside the walls is the only option with any hope of success."
"We would last longer in a siege," Eomer argued.
"But in the end, we would be defeated," the king of Gondor returned, flinching slightly as Eomer continued to probe his wrist. "And the residents of Haradhur would suffer greatly in a war that is not of their making."
"Then if you seek to hasten our end, why not ride out into the desert and spare Haradhur all of the battle?" Eomer demanded. "That seems a wiser course in my eyes. My men and I are more accustomed to such battles. We may stand a better chance if we ride upon the open sand."
"No. Whatever Khurintu’s final goal may be, we cannot forget that we are not the only players in this game," Aragorn said, flinching once again under Eomer’s touch. "Legolas and Gimli have yet to be found. They are needed for something, and I suspect a demonstration of sorts is planned, possibly for the purpose of consolidating power. If we ride out and meet Khurintu, they will see us coming and either slay their prisoners or send them away with a detachment. If we allow Khurintu to come near the city while we wait in ambush, we may have a chance to free our friends in a surprise attack. Additionally, there is Umbar’s possible connection to be considered. If we barricade ourselves within the city, it will be difficult to send any messengers away. It will also be difficult to send messengers if we ride out to meet Khurintu, for we will not follow a path with which the men are familiar. But if we wait outside of Khurintu, the road north will not be blocked and if the battle goes ill then the survivors can retreat on a known path for home."
Eomer frowned darkly, but he did not take his eyes from Aragorn’s wrist. He had discovered a lump that was either splintered bone or additional swelling. "Let us suppose that you are right," he said at length, his brow furrowed in concentration as he studied the wounded joint. "Let us suppose that Gimli and Legolas are being brought to Haradhur. And let us suppose that a surprise attack will manage to free them. What then? Are we to liberate them only to have them perish with us?"
"There is a chance of success," Aragorn insisted. "There is a chance that some will survive."
Glancing up at his friend, Eomer noted that Aragorn’s face had gone white and that his eyes were sealed shut. "Estel means hope, does it not? The elves named you well. Perhaps they named you too well."
His jaw set, Aragorn opened eyes that were dark with pain and fixed a stern glare upon Eomer. "And what would you have us do, king of the Mark? Have you better suggestions to offer?"
"We send riders back to our own lands the moment the sun sets and we stay hidden within the city," Eomer answered.
Aragorn frowned. "That is not how the Rohirrim do battle. You meet your foes boldly upon the plains."
"We also retreat when overwhelmed. We are, after all, the people who built Helm’s Deep." Eomer sighed and looked back down at Aragorn’s wrist. "It is still too swollen to be certain," he said. "And this bump is not hard enough to be bone. I cannot tell if this is a break or not. But even if the wrist is not broken, it is badly sprained." Rohan’s king eyed his fellow king speculatively. "As you are a healer, it should not be necessary for me to say that this wrist should not be used in the immediate future. But I think I will say it anyway."
"And as a healer, I will agree with you," Aragorn sighed. "But as a king, I am obliged to look first to my country and my people."
"Then let us prepare for a siege," Eomer argued. "Send riders to warn Faramir and Imrahil of what has befallen and recover while we wait for our enemy to come."
"It will not take the enemy long to come, for Haradhur will turn against us, as I said before," Aragorn answered. "And though you can boast of the greatness of Helm’s Deep, Erkenbrand and his men are the only Rohirrim who seem to know how to make use of a fortress. The rest of you are essentially lost in a siege. Nay, Eomer. Time is not a luxury we have. We cannot afford to let Khurintu come to us. We must meet them, and we must meet them on our own terms. If we stage an ambush, we can set the scene before they arrive."
"Aragorn, this is folly!" Eomer hissed. "We have not the numbers for…" He suddenly trailed off, his sharp hearing catching a stir on the other side of the building.
"Numbers will be a problem no matter what plan we adopt," Aragorn said.
Eomer frowned and straightened, his eyes locking onto an area where part of the building had been knocked out to create a passage into a neighboring building. The disturbance seemed to be coming from there.
"Furthermore, if we set an ambush, we can give the illusion of many men, which may confuse Khurintu and buy us time."
Shaking his head slightly, Eomer looked back at Aragorn and abruptly realized that the other had yet to notice the growing commotion. His hearing has been damaged, Eomer realized with a flash of panic. Eorl’s blood, the signs were there. I should have seen this ere now! "I believe we are about to receive visitors," he said slowly, watching closely for Aragorn’s reaction.
Aragorn blinked and turned his head, looking in the direction that Eomer indicated. A frown momentarily settled upon his face before it vanished quickly, leaving his expression blank. "Indeed? Let us go and greet them."
"Come," Aragorn said, rising swiftly. An involuntary hiss followed this movement and Eomer moved forward to support his friend, earning him a dark glare from the king of Gondor.
"Easy," Eomer cautioned, trying valiantly to ignore a look that might have unnerved even Sauron. "Your injuries are catching up with you. If you wish it, I will see what is happening and—"
"We will go together," Aragorn said sharply, shrugging off Eomer’s hold and moving forward somewhat awkwardly. With a resigned sigh and a quiet oath about stubborn kings, Eomer shook his head and followed.
"Honored Eomer!" a voice called out, and Eomer suddenly discovered that Budari had joined them. "It would seem that some of your men have returned."
Several thoughts flew through Eomer’s mind, but one settled heavily. "Some?" he questioned.
"Half," Aragorn said, his eyes looking at the dusty Rohirrim who were now being ushered into the building and given water. "Half have returned."
Now with a quiet oath directed toward his own people, Eomer pushed his way past Aragorn and came face to face with Eos, who was gulping desperately at a water skin. Seeming to sense his superior’s gaze, Eos hastily lowered the water and backed up a step, lowering his eyes. "Sire, my men and I have returned. I apologize for our tardiness. We would have come sooner, but as we traveled through the city we were forced to take a different route and journey through the buildings. There were too many watching eyes."
Eomer’s eyes darkened and he looked at the other four riders. "Your horses have been seen to?"
"Yes, my lord," Eos answered, still keeping his gaze directed at the ground.
"I sent ten into the desert. Why are there only five here?"
Eos blinked and his head came up, his eyes finally meeting his king’s. "My lord?"
"Where are Captain Arhelm and the other four riders?" Eomer demanded.
Eos seemed to be at something of a loss, and his brow furrowed. "We separated, my king. We thought they would have returned long before we did."
You separated!?" Eomer demanded. He would have said more, but a hand suddenly came down upon his wounded shoulder, forcing him to pause as his breath caught within him. Aragorn now stood at his side, and a quick shake of the other’s head warned Eomer about losing his temper. And somehow, despite the heat and his anger, Eomer managed to heed this advice.
"We discovered a trail of horsemen leading away west that appeared to have broken away from Khurintu’s trail," Eos explained. "We feared that Lord Gimli and Lord Legolas might have been taken with them, so we separated to follow both trails."
Taking a deep breath, Eomer closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. Had he been with the group and discovered the different trails, he would have probably done the same thing. But that did not make dealing with the consequences of this decision any easier. Arhelm and his men were still missing. There was no way of knowing whether or not they had found Gimli and Legolas. Or if they were even still alive. Deciding to concentrate on what could be discovered, Eomer firmly reined in his temper and looked at Eos again. "Report on your own progress, then," he ordered. "What did you discover?"
"Naught of note, sire," Eos said quietly with a slight shake of his head. "We followed them as far as we were able and then a bit further, but for all that, we can only confirm that the bulk of Khurintu traveled northeast. We know nothing else. They traveled swiftly and stopped little."
"There was no sign of prisoners?" Aragorn asked.
"None, my lord. I am sorry."
Eomer grimaced, frustration running rampant in his mind. "If there is nothing else, Eos, then you and those with you are dismissed. Seek rest and healing. We shall have need of your spears come evening."
Eos gave a short bow, but he did not turn to leave. Instead, he hesitated and watched Eomer closely, a sliver of fear gleaming in his eyes. "My lord…we saw fires in the Portu encampment and were told it was the work of Orthanc Fire. Is this true?"
Eomer sighed. "It is."
"Sleep, Eos," he interrupted. "I realize you have questions, and they shall be answered. But not now. Now you must recover."
For a moment there was no response to this, but then Eos nodded, his posture clearly indicating reluctance. Satisfied that he would be obeyed, Eomer turned around and found himself confronted with the troubled faces of Aragorn and Budari.
"Our numbers continue to diminish," Budari said quietly.
"Surely you have allies here," Eomer reasoned. "Surely the Lotessa tribe has clout that will persuade others to join us."
"Not after the events of last night," Budari said. "The Orthanc Fire is being interpreted as a sign that the Destroyer is seeking vengeance. And as we have allied ourselves with you, others fear to join."
"But the fires also struck Soltari and Portu," Eomer argued. "They had not allied with us. Surely the people here cannot think that we are the sole cause of this!"
"The people here are frightened," Aragorn murmured, shaking his head. "They seek something to blame this upon, and a foreign presence is easily targeted." Gondor’s king pursed his lips and looked away for a moment before turning to Budari. "What news has been gathered of Fastahn and the Soltari tribe?"
"Few of those I sent to listen for tidings have returned," Budari said, his eyes hooded. He had turned and was watching the five Rohirrim who had recently arrived. Silent for a moment, he eventually signaled to one of the tribesmen that had been accompanying the Rohirrim and had a rapid conversation in the tongue of Harad.
Eomer himself still had no understanding of this strange language, but based on Aragorn’s expression, something was wrong. "What do they say?" Eomer hissed, hoping that Aragorn would be able to provide him with a quick summary.
Aragorn looked his way and blinked. "Pardon?"
Realizing with a flash of despair that Aragorn had not clearly heard him, Eomer raised his voice slightly and prayed that Aragorn’s hearing would recover in the near future. "I asked for a translation."
"We speak of Arabano," Budari answered for Aragorn, breaking off his conversation and turning back to the two kings. "He accompanied the men of Rohan for a time but then left on an errand of his own. After that, they decided to leave the streets and take to the buildings. Arabano was expected to arrive before now."
"First Arhelm and his men, and now Arabano," Eomer said grimly. "All missing and all expected to be here."
"I do not worry for Arabano himself but rather for what he has discovered," Budari said, rubbing his chin. "He was entrusted with the guard of your Rohirrim when they arrived. He would not easily forsake such a charge unless something of vital import caught his attention."
"But until we know what that something of vital import is, we can do nothing about it," Aragorn sighed. The muscles about his jaw bunched and then his shoulders gave a small shrug. "Come, Eomer. I wish to look at your left shoulder. It was hastily bandaged in the desert. And if you would accompany us, Budari, your input would be valued. We are attempting to prepare for tonight. We suspect that Khurintu will return."
"Whatever we attempt, the fact remains that we do not have the numbers to withstand them," Budari said.
"So Eomer has already noted," Aragorn answered. "But that does not mean we shall not try."
"He wishes to stage an ambush just outside of Khurintu," Eomer said flatly.
"An ambush?" Budari’s eyebrows climbed up under the scarves wrapped about his head. "We may as well fall upon our own swords and deny Khurintu the honor. We will not withstand them for even a single night, and our defeat will be witnessed by every tribe here!"
Eomer felt a tangible wave of anger and frustration flow off of Aragorn. "As I have already told Eomer, I—"
Everyone froze and looked toward the building’s main entrance.
"Hold, I beseech you, honored ones," the command repeated itself, and Arabano came forward, sweat glistening off his tanned skin. "If you speak of strategy, you may wish to reconsider whatever plans you have made."
"You were ordered to see to the safety of the returning Rohirrim," Budari said somewhat curtly. "Why were you not with them when they arrived here?"
"I was seeing to the safety of the greater whole, honored one," Arabano answered, his chin rising slightly in challenge. "And my labors have proved fruitful."
"I know why the Soltari tribe was a target of the Orthanc Fire."
A tremor of excitement rushed through Eomer, but even as it did so, despair reached up to reclaim his heart. The time for information had passed. Questions might now have answers, but in the end, it was going to come down to a final confrontation with the Khurintu tribe that they would lose because they lacked the numbers for it.
"That is well and good, but how does this knowledge aid us now?" Budari asked, the tone of his voice suggesting that he shared Eomer’s thoughts on the matter.
"Because this knowledge may provide us with allies," Arabano answered.
A startled hush fell over them, and Eomer suddenly found himself daring to hope. "Allies?" he asked, struggling to keep his voice even. "What allies do you speak of?"
"The tribes of Portu, Soltari, and Warra," Arabano answered, and a faint smiled curved the sides of his mouth.
"How?" Budari demanded. "With suspicion as great as it is, I do not understand how—"
"If you would, honored ones, your questions can better be answered if you accompany me," Arabano interrupted. "Fastahn, Radarad, and Joranen await your presence, if you deign to meet with them."
Eomer blinked and looked toward Aragorn. "Fastahn?" the king of Gondor questioned. "What guarantee do we have that this is no trap?"
"I swear it upon my father’s honor," Arabano replied, his black eyes taking on a look of intensity. "May death and disgrace take me swiftly should I lead you into danger."
This was enough for Budari, who nodded his agreement. "I trust your judgement now as I have in the past. I will accompany you."
"I will come as well," Aragorn said, though his voice was still slightly suspicious.
"And I," Eomer added, not about to let Aragorn out of his sights. He was still concerned about the other’s hearing and as well as the broken arm. If the king of Gondor would not look to his own health, then the king of Rohan would do it for him.
"Then come," Arabano said, and it seemed to Eomer that he loosed a sigh of relief. "It is time to learn all that Khurintu has set in motion."
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