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Land of Light and Shadows: 37. From the Ashes
"You have something resembling a plan?" Eomer’s subdued but skeptical tone spoke for all of them.
Aragorn’s lips twitched in what might have been a hidden smile. "That would be the most accurate description. At the very least, though, it is a far cry from what we had earlier."
Eomer did not look encouraged, and Arabano frowned in silent agreement. They could not afford to base their next actions on passing whims. They needed something solid upon which to build a strategy. Arabano would concede the point that they’d had nothing before meeting with Fastahn whereas now they had allies. Allies that their enemies did not know of. Allies that, in the case of the Warra tribe, had not been decimated by Orthanc Fire. These allies might very well prove to be the deciding factor in this game of plots against Asbad and the Khurintu tribe, but even so, they still needed a good plan.
"This may be an improvement on our situation, but our situation was dire and it remains so," Budari said, concurring with the unspoken protests of his second-in-command. "We require more than a mere improvement. We require power and the ability to display this power before all of Haradhur."
"And that is what Fastahn and the Soltari tribe shall provide," Aragorn answered, turning his head toward the temporary head of Soltari. Fastahn looked away and said nothing, doubtless still upset over the way Aragorn had blackmailed him into an alliance. "Fastahn?" Aragorn prompted, a hint of warning entering his voice.
"That which we can provide, you shall have," Fastahn murmured.
"Good. For the moment, then, you will lead Budari, Arabano, and myself to Joranen and Radarad. Then we shall all proceed to our encampment and speak more on these matters."
Arabano blinked and flicked a sideways glance at Eomer even as the king of Rohan cleared his throat. "I am not to accompany you?" Eomer asked with a challenging gaze.
"I had a different task in mind for you, if you are willing. Would you return to camp now and organize a search of the belongings? We need empty packs. Small ones, and as many as you can find. Perhaps some of the skins that carry perishable food would serve. The packs containing salves and medicines should also work."
"Packs," Eomer said flatly, his eyes narrowed.
"Yes," Aragorn nodded. His voice took on a reflective tone, then, and it seemed as though he spoke to himself. "They will have to be altered, of course, but we can adjust them later when we know exactly how many will be used. We may even wish to…" The king trailed off and frowned, his eyes distant. "No, that cannot be put off until evening. It will have to be done now."
Arabano exchanged a discreet but confused glance with Budari. "Altering the packs cannot be put off?"
"No, that can certainly wait," Aragorn murmured. "But other matters should not." He was quiet for a moment, oblivious to the stares of his companions, and then he seemed to come to a decision. "Budari, I must request the use of your robes."
The group beneath the market building had been quiet to begin with, but now it became completely and utterly silent.
"My robes?" Budari questioned after a lengthy pause. It was becoming clear to Arabano that Aragorn’s something resembling a plan was far more complicated than he’d led them to believe.
"Yes," Aragorn said. "Your outer robes, at least. Or if you are reluctant to part with your own, the robes of one of your guards would suffice. In fact, that would probably be best, for then I will not be marked as a leader."
Another confused silence ensued.
"Why?" Budari finally asked, and Arabano could hear frustration in his leader’s voice. He did not blame him, for Arabano was also becoming frustrated. They had been groping about blindly in the shadows, guessing at motives and plots, and now it felt as though they were still blind.
"I must see to something, and I would rather not be recognized as the king of Gondor," Aragorn said. "It will not take long. An hour, perhaps. And then I will join you at the encampment."
"Aragorn, we have not yet even determined if your wrist is broken or strained," Eomer broke in angrily. "If anything, you should return to camp with me and—"
"Whether my wrist is broken or not is of no consequence," the king of Gondor said sharply. "But our plans for tonight are. And unless I can assure myself of several suspicions, there will be no plans."
Eomer’s eyes were hard, but after a tense moment, he shook his head and looked away, his expression one of reluctant resignation. "You will have your own way, regardless of its folly. But will you at least tell us either your purpose or your destination?"
"Lotessa’s former camp."
"What can you possibly hope to find there?" Budari demanded, not quite ready to give up the fight.
"I would rather not say in the event that I am wrong and raise hopes needlessly. Should I be right, though, then you will have your answers in an hour." Glancing around at their faces, Aragorn’s eyes flashed. "One hour," he said softly. "No more than that. You have my word."
Life in the desert had taught Arabano to distrust everyone save those who had earned his loyalty beyond all doubt. Yet for reasons he could not explain, he found himself believing in this foreign king and according him the same respect he accorded Budari. Something about the man demanded fealty from those around him, and in spite of his desert upbringing, Arabano felt compelled to grant this fealty without question.
"I will hold you to that hour," Budari said after a tense moment. Turning away, he signaled to one of the guards that stood near the entrance of the market building. "Mahmara! Ahta’ana ardit’ak idduun." A brief moment of hesitation followed this order, and then the guard addressed began to shed his outer robes, leaving him clad in a light tunic. "I assume you shall want the scarves as well so as to cover your head," Budari said, taking the proffered robes from the guard.
"It would be appreciated," Aragorn answered.
Budari nodded and spoke to the guard again, quickly obtaining the long, intricate wrappings that were used as protection from the sun and from blowing sand. "You should not go alone," he cautioned, handing over the requested items.
"You think others might accost one of your tribe?" A challenging glint entered Aragorn’s eyes as he deftly wound the scarves about his head with his right hand. From his quick, confident movements, it was clear that he had done this before. "I was under the impression that Lotessa was feared and respected."
"And so we are, but much of that is because we do not take foolish risks," Budari said evenly as Gondor’s king donned the robes he’d been given, shrugging into them awkwardly with the use of only one hand. None stepped forward to help him, but Aragorn did not seem to be in any great need of assistance. At length, Budari frowned and sighed. "As you are intent upon this, Arabano shall accompany you."
Arabano flicked a quick glance at his leader and read the command hidden within his eyes – Keep him safe and learn all you can of whatever he intends. Arabano inclined his head in silent acknowledgement and then moved to stand slightly behind Aragorn. It was difficult to tell Aragorn’s feelings on the subject as his face was now mostly covered, but whatever thoughts he had, he kept them to himself and simply nodded. "Then we shall we go now. In one hour I will return to the camp." And ere anything more could be said, Aragorn walked out the entryway, passed the Lotessa guards, and melted into the shadows cast by the crowded buildings.
With a farewell look for his leader, Arabano hastened after him, taking care that his pace was quick but unhurried. Appearances were important in Haradhur, and the Lotessa tribe especially had to look strong this day. Fortunately for Arabano, Aragorn had slowed his own pace after leaving the building, and Arabano was able to catch up with him after a moment.
"You left rather abruptly, honored one," he observed.
"I have promised to spend only an hour on this venture," Aragorn answered, his long legs eating away at the ground as they made their way to the western side of the city.
"And then you shall return to camp," Arabano said, thinking back over the words that had been used. "I noted that you did not say we shall return to camp. Was that by design?"
"It was," Aragorn conceded. "You have a sharp mind, Arabano."
"It is a necessary gift for those who lead in the desert, and it becomes useful when others attempt to deflect questions," Arabano said rather pointedly. "Why did you not say that we will return to camp in an hour?"
"Because it is possible that I shall return alone. If we are fortunate, you may need to stay behind and gather supplies."
Arabano frowned. "But what supplies must we gather while the sun is still overhead, honored one? If you wish to search for weapons that may have escaped the blast, we can easily do so at sunset. We need not risk the heat of the day. Even should they race to get here, Khurintu is far enough away that we will have several hours of night ere they are upon us."
"Our strategy may depend upon how many weapons we can recover, and I wish to finalize our plans as soon as possible. Several hours we may have, but I would use them to set our position rather than to search for weapons."
Arabano shook his head and decided that Aragorn would have made an excellent tribal leader. His curt answers satisfied the questions asked but revealed no more than that. Arabano now knew that they were searching for weapons, but he still did not understand why they had to do so now. Surely the difference of a few swords and spears would not drastically alter Aragorn’s plans for the evening. Something else was intended, yet—
"Walk ahead of me," Aragorn suddenly hissed, his pace slackening.
Realizing that they were approaching Haradhur’s western gate, Arabano stepped in front of Aragorn and took the lead. The intricate detail of his headscarves clearly set him apart as Lotessa’s second-in-command, but Aragorn’s scarves were simple and only sparingly adorned, marking him as a common guard. It would look odd for Aragorn to precede Arabano as though he was his better.
Coming to the gate itself, Arabano nodded curtly to the Gartabo guards, never slowing his pace. Their eyes were grim beneath their scarves but they made no move to stop or question him. It seemed that Lotessa’s authority still held. At least, it did for those in positions of power. Arabano was quick to note the way the guards’ eyes followed Aragorn, who now walked with his head down and his shoulders slightly stooped. But the act was convincing enough to pass muster, and the two soon stepped out of the city and into the desert.
Once clear of the shade, the full strength of the sun’s gaze hit them hard. The sand itself was a carpet of hot coals beneath their feel while the air was still and stifling. Once again, Arabano wondered what Aragorn could need so urgently that would drive him into this heat. The Gathering was held during the hottest days of summer so as to minimize movement during the day. It was not wise to challenge the sun, especially around the noon hour. But Aragorn said nothing of turning back, so Arabano—accustomed to even hotter days thanks to a childhood in the southernmost stretches of the desert—continued onward.
Beneath the fierce glare of daylight, the charred remains of the former camp were easy to see. Arabano had not fully understood the extent of the damage during the dark hours of morning, but he was now treated to a sight that wound hound his dreams for years to come. Bodies and body parts, burned beyond recognition, littered the ground. Some of the remains were so badly mangled that Arabano could not discern whether they belonged to man or horse. A thin haze of smoke hung over the destruction, and the smell of seared flesh gave rise to a burning in the back of Arabano’s throat.
"Perhaps you should remain here and keep watch whilst I search."
Suddenly aware that he’d stopped walking, Arabano closed his eyes for a moment and swallowed the bile that filled his mouth. Grief for his kinsmen rippled angrily beneath the surface of his thoughts, but he pushed it to one side. Now was the time for vengeance. The time for tears would come later. "I am well, honored one," he said thickly. "And this will go more swiftly if two participate, especially since you do not have the use of your left hand. For what do we seek?"
"You are certain you wish to proceed?"
The sympathy in Aragorn’s voice was difficult to hear, but by now, Arabano had regained control of his thoughts and favored the other man was a sharp look. "For what do we seek?" he asked again.
Aragorn’s eyes flickered with something that Arabano did not recognize, and then he nodded, moving forward briskly. "We seek packs."
Arabano felt as though they had just traveled a very large and senseless circle. "Packs? Is not the Honored Eomer tending to that portion of your plan?"
"As I said before, it is not entirely a plan," Aragorn answered, weaving his way through the mangled, twisted remnants of blackened tent supports. "Not yet. And the packs we seek are somewhat larger than the packs Eomer seeks."
"Then these packs are of a particular kind?" Arabano asked, forcing himself to maintain his focus despite the burning in his eyes.
"They are. They will be leather, and they will probably have been treated with shiraj at some point in time."
Arabano blinked. "Shiraj?"
"Yes," Aragorn answered, kneeling to sift through a pile of debris. "That is still how you prepare your water-skins, is it not?"
"It is," Arabano said slowly, unsure of how this was important. "Then we seek packs capable of holding water?"
"They could hold water, certainly, but you would not wish to use these packs for such a purpose. Not if you intended to drink the water."
And at that point, Arabano came to the sudden conclusion that Aragorn was deliberately baiting him. It seemed an unlikely prospect, for the man was under the sun in the heat of the day, injured, missing two companions he accounted close friends, and unaware of the location of five of his fellow king’s riders. Nevertheless, it felt as though Aragorn had put aside his own concerns and was now trying to distract Arabano with elusive, almost teasing answers. It was a subtle diversion to his grief that did not directly insult his pride, and Arabano's spirits lifted slightly even as he was hit with a swell of gratitude. If Aragorn’s mind was clear enough for this, then it was probably clear enough to develop a workable plan for the night.
"Could I drink water from these packs if I was in dire need?" Arabano asked, deciding to play along with the game. He suspected that the distraction worked both ways.
"Your need would be even more dire afterwards." Aragorn’s voice moved off to one side, and Arabano heard him wander to a different section of the ruined camp. "And it is unlikely that these packs will ever contain water, so there would be no use in going to them for drink."
Arabano grimaced as he gingerly moved aside what might once have been a horse’s foreleg. "Did these packs contain water in the past?"
"Doubtful, but I suppose it is possible. They certainly did not contain water in the recent past, though. Ah!"
Arabano looked up quickly and saw Aragorn on his knees, pushing aside the remains of a collapsed tent. He was using both hands now, and the scarves had fallen away from the lower portion of his face to reveal a grimace of pain. But that did not stop him, and fearful that the sun’s heat might be having an adverse affect on his companion, Arabano hastened over.
He stopped short when Aragorn pulled a leather pack out of the ashes, his hands dusted with a fine layer of black powder.
"This is what we seek," Aragorn said, his eyes gleaming. "We will not find much, but Valar willing, I think we will find enough. And perhaps we may find some in the camps of Soltari and Portu as well."
Speechless with sudden understanding, Arabano felt the beginnings of a smile tug at the corners of his mouth.
The sun was near its zenith by the time Dashnir shoved aside the flaps of the tent that he was to share with Asbad. His morning had been spent organizing the men that would accompany him in the search for the elf and dwarf and calming the horses, who had been upset by the elf’s song and the subsequent explosions. Following that, he had spent time with the healer in seeing to the injured, both those that had come with him when leaving Haradhur and those that had been wounded when the elf and dwarf escaped Asbad’s company. Dashnir’s robes were now blackened with powder, and the smell of smoke followed him like a second shadow, a dark reminder that things had not gone entirely as planned. Dashnir’s mood had been grim when he learned of the prisoners’ escape, but it had grown even worse after dealing with the consequences of that escape. If the day were not so hot, he might have been tempted to ride out after the elf and the dwarf immediately so that he could have time to thoroughly teach them what it meant to defy the Khurintu tribe.
"All is in readiness?"
Dashnir flinched in surprise, and his head shot up, looking around the interior of the tent. Asbad had retired hours ago, and Dashnir had not expected to find him awake. He certainly had not expected to find him sitting calmly in a corner of the tent cleaning his sword. Asbad’s quick, sure motions over the curved blade paused for a moment, and Dashnir realized that his leader was waiting for a response. With a quick nod, he lowered the protective scarves from his face, wiping sweat off his brow as he did so. "Yes, honored one. I have selected the men who are to accompany me, and I have also seen to the horses and the injured. All are settled for the day."
Asbad shifted his sword across his lap and began cleaning the hilt guard, never once looking up from his work. "What tidings can you give me of the wounded?"
"The healer has been to all of them," Dashnir said as a slight twinge of concern entered his mind. Asbad had yet to look away from his sword, and the avoidance of eye contact was unusual. "One shall have to lose a leg, two shall never walk again, and there is concern about blood loss in a fourth. All others should recover with time."
"How many dead?"
"Twenty-three, honored one." Somehow, Dashnir managed to bite back his anger as he said it. "That number includes those killed in Haradhur as well as those killed here this morning."
"Twenty-three." Asbad’s hands paused again on the sword, but he still did not look up. "That is a respectable number for two injured prisoners. I had not expected the elf and dwarf to be so…formidable."
Dashnir pressed his lips together and studied the other man as silence fell between them. "Honored one, what troubles you?" he finally asked, unable to decipher the cause of his leader’s reticence. "You are not sleeping, yet it seems to me that you are not truly awake, either."
"Perhaps that is because I am attempting to wake."
"Attempting to wake?" Dashnir frowned, confused by his leader’s choice of words, until an unwelcome thought flitted through his mind. "Do you speak of ma’awnwa? Does the elf’s shadow troubles you still?"
"You warned me of this, did you not?" Asbad set his sword to one side and finally looked up at Dashnir, his dark eyes hard in the filtered light of the tent. "You warned me of what a shadow strong enough to block an elf would do to a man."
"Yes, but the elf is gone and you are still suffering, honored one."
"If I remember events aright, you were not entirely yourself when you arrived this morning. Perhaps the shadow lingers even though the elf no longer accompanies me."
Dashnir felt his temper rise slightly. "I apologize again for slighting your authority, honored one, but given the circumstances, I think my actions can be explained without reference to the shadow over the elf."
"Indeed?" Asbad’s look became sharp and piercing. "You are a shrewd and decisive man, Dashnir, and I have come to value these traits in you. But this morning, you faltered. You thought of the past and what should have been done. You grieved over possible mistakes that cannot be altered now. You doubted your actions, and you doubted our ability to overcome setbacks. That is not like you, Dashnir."
Looking back over his actions and thoughts, Dashnir found himself confronted with the uncomfortable fact that he could not refute this. It was something of a surprise, and he took a moment to ponder what this might mean before speaking again. "Do you believe that we still labor beneath a shadow?"
Asbad’s eyes narrowed and he studied his second-in-command. "Nay," he said at length. "Nay, the shadow is passing. Your anger and willingness to defend your actions are indicative of your freedom from this shadow."
Dashnir frowned. "The shadow is passing, you say, but does this not imply that a part of it lingers still?"
Asbad reached out and sheathed his sword, never once taking his eyes away from Dashnir. "Yes. A portion of the shadow remains, and I suspect that shall be the case until the elf dies, I die, or the shadow is lifted. I would have you remember this when you pursue the elf and dwarf this night. Watch your actions and your thoughts carefully."
"Of course, honored one," Dashnir murmured, troubled in spite of himself. We did not adequately study ma’awnwa and what effect it would have upon an elf. We trusted too much in our strength and the strength of our forefathers. What have we unleashed?
Silence fell between them once more, and then Asbad gestured to Dashnir’s pallet, indicating that he should sit. "As we are both awake, I think it best to hear an accounting of your actions in Haradhur now rather than later."
Dashnir was still trying to puzzle his way through the mysteries of ma’awnwa, but recognizing that time was moving forward and that they would soon need to sleep if they wished all to go well tonight, he nodded and began his report. "All went as planned with the exception of three incidents," he said, easing himself down onto his pallet. "The first took place during the afternoon ere we left. I received a visit from Radarad of the Portu tribe. He was threatening to confront Joranen of Warra regarding the details of our alliance."
"I am surprised he did not threaten to do so earlier," Asbad mused quietly. "Your response?"
"I warned him against such foolish action," Dashnir said. "And I also had the black powder planted throughout the Portu encampment. They suffered the same the blow that Lotessa suffered last night."
Asbad nodded thoughtfully. "I wondered if such action would need to be taken. Portu was growing restless. You did well. What of the other two incidents?"
"One I spoke of earlier this morning, and that was the small number of Rohirrim who followed us into the desert. As I said before, there were initially ten behind us, but toward the end of the night, only five remained. In thinking back on it, it is possible that some of them followed the contingent that I sent north to Lake Nurnein. I thought to advise the traders from Umbar that our shipments to them would be delayed at least one day and that they would receive the elf with the sulfur and the saltpeter."
Asbad’s eyes narrowed, and his fingers began tapping against the sheathed sword at his side. "Would these Rohirrim have been clever enough to listen to any conversations that took place between our men and those of Umbar?"
"I do not believe so, honored one," Dashnir said, having already considered this possibility. "There were only five Rohirrim, and our men would have dispatched them upon reaching Nurnein."
"We must hope that proves to be the case," Asbad said coolly. "If not, we may have tipped our hand too early. Gondor and Rohan know of our animosity, but they do not yet know of Umbar’s growing forces. Nor do they know of Umbar’s weapon. If the riders who pursued our men to Nurnein learn of these things and then journey to Gondor, we lose the advantage of surprise."
"Even if the Rohirrim still live and have learned of our plans, they will return to Haradhur rather than to Gondor," Dashnir said with a shake of his head. "Their loyalty to one another and to their king is too great. They will not leave him alone in the desert."
Asbad did not look entirely convinced, but he did not pursue the matter. "And what of the last incident?"
"The last incident involves the Soltari tribe," Dashnir said, trying to think of a way to phrase this.
"The Soltari tribe? How have they become involved?"
"I am not entirely convinced that they are involved," Dashnir said slowly. "But Fastahn certainly was."
"Was?" Asbad’s voice was tight, and his eyes were hooded as he watched his second-in-command.
"Iluh willing," Dashnir murmured. "Fastahn came to me yesterday afternoon shortly after my discussion with Radarad. He revealed that he knew the identity of the Destroyer and bargained for the freedom of the Soltari tribe. I would have killed him then, but he warned that his tribe was awaiting his return." Dashnir frowned and looked away. "I do not know if he spoke truly in this matter. In fact, it occurs to me now that he was probably acting alone. Khesva would not have permitted Soltari’s fate to rest on the shoulders of Fastahn. He would have sent another. Still, the fact that Fastahn knew that you posed as the Destroyer, honored one, was a danger I could not overlook, regardless of how much his tribe knew or guessed."
Asbad was completely still save for a small tick in his cheek. "And your actions?"
"The Soltari tribe was targeted last night along with Portu and Lotessa."
Asbad murmured something too low for Dashnir to make out, but it sounded very much like a curse. "If the leaders did not die in the explosion and they did indeed know that I was the Destroyer, they will not hesitate to bring this before the Gathering."
"Who would believe them?" Dashnir asked, making a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Our relationships with Soltari have been driven by necessity. They are not friendly with us and we are not friendly with them. Moreover, their trade preferences are usually for Lotessa rather than for us. Aulit and the rest of the council will see this as another step in the rivalry."
"It was a dangerous move."
"We have already made many dangerous moves."
"You should not have acted so rashly. We should have allowed them their bargain and then destroyed them later after securing our hold on the desert."
"Had I allowed them to survive the night, they might have viewed it as their duty to take action against the destruction of the other two tribes," Dashnir argued, confident of his reasoning. "Khesva can be a sentimental fool. Hopefully, he is now a dead sentimental fool." He drew himself upright on his pallet, meeting Asbad’s eyes boldly. "Censure me if you wish, honored one, but I stand by my decision. Soltari shall not prove a danger for us. They will be too scattered, and any action they attempt now will have to be along the lines of a warrior. Soltari is not a tribe of warriors."
Asbad’s eyes narrowed, but at length he blinked and the tension seemed to break. "I suppose it shall not be too great a trial to find some reason for why the Soltari tribe was made a part of the Destroyer’s wrath," he murmured. "I shall consider what must be said. But we will speak of this again. I do no think it was wisely done." He paused, his face taking on an intense look. "What men have you chosen to go with you this night?"
"I had thought to take those that are still hale and that accompanied you when you took the elf and dwarf prisoner," Dashnir answered. "They shall be more accustomed to their defenses should we be forced to subdue them. But if you would rather I take others, I am certain that something could be arranged."
"Nay, you are welcome to those men," Asbad said, shaking his head. "Be wary, though, and watch them closely. Those men experienced the shadow as intensely as I and are only now recovering. As you draw closer to the elf, the shadow will resume. But as you say, those men will be most accustomed to it." He sighed, the intensity leaving his face. "And now I believe that we should retire for the day. We must address our companies ere we depart, and I wish to leave just prior to sunset. That will enable us to maintain a reasonable pace for the horses and arrive with energy left for the battle."
"That is when I should also leave, for if I wish to find my charges and bring them both to Haradhur ere the sun rises too high for travel, I shall have to move quickly and soon," Dashnir added. Dipping his head in lieu of a bow, he stretched out on his pallet and forced himself to relax. "I wish you a good day, honored one," he murmured, closing his eyes. "May the Iluh guard your dreams."
"We are the Iluh now, Dashnir," Asbad answered, and sounds from his direction indicated that he was settling down upon his own pallet. "And by this time tomorrow, all of Haradhur shall know it."
It was entirely possible that Eomer had endured situations far more uncertain than the one created by his current companions, but at the moment, he could not think of any.
He was leaning against a wall in one of the buildings where Gondor, Rohan, and Lotessa had chosen to make camp. To his right, Budari stood silent and solemn, his eyes fixed upon the tribal leaders Joranen and Radarad, who stood a few feet away on Eomer’s left. For their part, Joranen and Radarad spent their time staring back at Budari while also including Eomer and Fastahn. Fastahn had withdrawn to a dark corner and was avoiding eye contact, but he would occasionally mutter darkly to himself when he thought no one was paying attention. The feeling of tension was palpable, and all others were giving the five men a wide berth. Near Fastahn’s corner lay a growing collection of empty packs, and the men who brought in additional packs moved swiftly and said nothing, disappearing as quickly as they had come.
Eomer had tried to draw upon his experiences with Wormtongue when it became evident that little would be accomplished until Aragorn joined them, but he could find naught in the past to help him now. When dealing with Wormtongue, there had been no possibility of cooperation or compromise, even in the initial years. Eomer and Gríma had never seen eye to eye on anything, and their relationship had begun with thinly veiled hostility that eventually transformed into overt disdain and loathing. But here, there was the possibility of an uneasy alliance, and Eomer was unsure of how to proceed. He was not a man who worked well in the gray areas. He was either friend or foe, ally or enemy. When he gave his trust, he gave it wholeheartedly, and when he gave his hatred, he did so with a vengeance. He could do neither now, and both his unease and his impatience were growing rapidly.
"It has been nearly an hour."
The silence within the group had been just as thick as the tension, and when that silence broke, the tension seemed to explode as though wishing to compensate. Budari instantly became the center of attention, and even Fastahn stopped his muttering long enough to look up and stare at Lotessa’s leader.
"Then he will be here shortly," Eomer said quietly, curbing his own restlessness.
"And he has a plan?" Joranen asked, his voice curt and abrupt.
Fastahn and Budari both looked at Eomer, who wisely decided that the assurance of something resembling a plan would not be well received. "We would not have brought you here otherwise," Eomer answered with more calm than he felt. Do not make a liar of me, Aragorn!
Joranen sniffed and looked away. Radarad shifted uncomfortably as though he wished to speak, but he said nothing. Budari gave Eomer a meaningful glance and went back to staring at the other two leaders. Fastahn resumed staring at nothing. Eomer lifted his shoulders in a silent sigh and tried to keep an eye on all of them.
This would be easier if I was not so uncertain myself, he decided grimly, his mind straying to thoughts of Gimli, Legolas, and his five missing riders.
Gimli and Legolas were actually somewhat of a manageable distraction. During the last years of Wormtongue’s lecherous counsel, captains and sometimes entire companies would often turn up missing, and Eomer had learned not to dwell overmuch on their fate until something definitive could be done about it. Thus, thoughts of Gimli and Legolas were not difficult to put aside, thought it pained him to do so. The elf was a trusted ally, and during the seven years Gimli had ruled the dwarves in Aglarond, he had become a valued friend and confidant. But as Eomer could do nothing for them at the moment, he stilled his continuing worry and put it to one side.
Arhelm and the other missing Rohirrim, though, were another matter altogether.
Eomer was well aware that he could do nothing for them now, but the circumstances surrounding their disappearance were slightly different than the circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Gimli and Legolas. The Rohirrim had not been abducted in the night from the supposed safety of the camp. Rather, they had been aware of the danger into which they rode, and they had been armed and prepared for that danger. Five of the ten riders had come back, but the other five… Why had they separated? Arhelm should have known better. And after they separated, what had become of them? Based on statements from Budari and Aragorn, it was likely that Eos and his men had followed the main Khurintu group. If Arhelm and his riders had followed a smaller group, then the danger would have been less for them. So why had they not returned? Was there a second army? Had they become lost in the desert? Did Khurintu have other allies? Eomer shook his head. The absence of Gimli and Legolas was distressing, but it did not raise the questions that the absence of the riders raised. And Eomer was beginning to hate questions, especially those he could not answer. If Arhelm survives this, he will find himself mucking out stalls for the remainder of my reign.
Struggling to direct his thoughts back to his current companions, Eomer shifted his gaze from Budari to Joranen, and as he did so, he caught sight of one of his men approaching them. Pushing away from the wall at his back, Eomer stepped forward and the rider stopped, bowed slightly, and then nodded toward the open square beyond the building.
"Something of interest, Honored Eomer?" Budari asked, once again breaking the stillness and becoming the center of attention.
"I believe so," Eomer answered, taking a few steps toward the entrance and peering into the blinding sunlight. His eyes passed over a few guards hovering in the shade of the buildings and came to rest on the lone figure skirting the edge of the shadows. "It seems that King Elessar has returned."
This caused a stir in the previously silent group, and it gave Eomer some consolation to know that he had not been alone in his impatience. Tracking the movements of his companions through sound, he turned the rest of his focus back to Aragorn, and frowned as he watched his progress. The king of Rohan was not a healer, but he was a horseman. He had learned to determine much from strides, and if Aragorn had been a stallion, Eomer would have said that he was moments away from going lame.
Much of Aragorn’s strain seemed to come from a heavy pack cradled in his right arm, and upon seeing this, Eomer moved forward, intending to relieve the other of his burden. Stepping out of the building, he blinked rapidly at the sudden increase of light, and when his vision had cleared, he saw that Aragorn had left the shadows and was now walking toward him. Eomer opened his mouth to offer a greeting and also to demand that Aragorn relinquish the pack, but at that moment, Aragorn drew close for Eomer to recognize what it was that he carried. And all words fled.
"I trust I am not late," Aragorn said.
Eomer shook his head silently and stared at Aragorn’s pack, noting the thin dusting of black powder upon the borrowed Lotessa robes. All thoughts of taking this pack from Aragorn had vanished along with all thoughts of Aragorn’s injuries. The notion that they might have just acquired another advantage was staggering.
"You approve, then?" Aragorn asked, and in his voice was a hint of amusement.
"Most assuredly," Eomer whispered. "Orthanc Fire! But how in Béma’s name did you come by this?"
"I promise to answer that question, but first I would step inside. The sun is unforgiving this day."
Suddenly aware of the fiery heat upon his brow, Eomer pushed his shock away and quickly composed himself. "Yes, of course. Come. The other leaders have gathered and will doubtless with to hear this tale. You arrive in good time, my friend."
"And by that, I assume that our alliances are somewhat tentative," Aragorn guessed shrewdly.
"That would be a mild way of putting it," Eomer said, lowering his voice. They reached the building and ducked inside, at which point Eomer realized that Aragorn was still carrying the pack. "Let me take that. Seek out water, and I will inform the leaders that you will join us shortly."
"I thank you," Aragorn said, handing over his burden and startling Eomer with his willingness to give it up. "But water will have to wait for another time. We must speak with the others immediately."
Eomer began to protest and insist that Aragorn take a moment to recover from the hour spent beneath the sun. But even as he opened his mouth to speak, the grim realization came to him that Aragorn was right. Time was running out, and they could not afford to stop now. Not until cooperation was assured and plans were set in motion. So Eomer motioned one of his riders over, procured a water-skin, and then followed Aragorn over to the other leaders.
It was, of course, Budari who spoke first. "Where is Arabano?"
Accepting the water-skin from Eomer with a grateful look, Aragorn took a quick drink and then answered. "I suspect he is at the remains of the Soltari camp by now."
This mention of his ruined camp managed to break through the walls of grief and fear that had fallen upon Fastahn, and he stepped forward, eyes flashing. "What purpose does he have there?"
"He searches for more of what I have brought," Aragorn said, motioning to Eomer. Dutifully taking his cue, Eomer let the sack of powder swing forward, gently setting it on the floor in their midst. "I believe that Budari will recognize this."
Judging from his sudden stillness, Budari did indeed recognize the powder. His movements slow and deliberate, he bent down and ran one hand lightly over the bag. "This weapon can be used more than once, then?" he murmured at length. "We can gather what Khurintu used?"
Aragorn shook his head. "It is similar to wood in a fire. The powder is consumed by the flames and cannot be used again."
Budari frowned and straightened. "Then how—"
"For myself, I would like to know what this is," Joranen broke in sternly. "And why it is of such import that we were forced to wait for its arrival."
"It produces Orthanc Fire," Eomer said quietly. "That is our name for the flames in the desert last night. This powder caused that."
Despite the tension, Eomer almost laughed aloud when Fastahn and Radarad took a fairly large step back. "This powder is capable of setting fire to an entire camp?" Radarad demanded, his eyes wide.
"Several packs of powder set in different places have that capability, yes," Aragorn said. "When this powder comes in contact with fire…something happens. I am not entirely sure how it works. Even the dwarves have no sure explanation for it. But the result is the fires you witnessed last night. We have seen it used before in the north."
"When we met earlier, Arabano insisted that Khurintu had engineered the fires," Joranen murmured, moving closer to the pack. "But I did not fully believe him."
"I would offer a demonstration, but I do not wish to draw attention at the moment," Aragorn said.
"You say that this powder is consumed in the fires?" Radarad asked, still keeping his distance from the pack. "If that is the case, then how is it that some was found in Lotessa’s camp?"
"Because not all of it came into contact with fire," Aragorn said. "Were it otherwise, then Budari, Eomer, and I would not be here now."
"The guard!" Eomer exclaimed, feeling foolish for not having seen this earlier. "I guessed what he held, and we went to examine the pack to be certain. We were still very close to that pack when the first of the explosions struck the camp. We should not have survived."
"No, we should not have," Aragorn agreed. "Which is why I suspected that this pack did not explode. The fires never touched it. Nor is it the only one to have survived. Khurintu planned their attack well, but their archers could not hit every pack of powder and they could not hit them all at once. This meant that some packs were missed outright while others were thrown aside by the first explosions. The heat probably ignited some regardless of their position and doubtless others were thrown into fire and then exploded, but this was not the case for all. The pack you see here was but the first we found. Ere our search was over, Arabano and I discovered two more packs buried beneath the ashes." Aragorn stopped and turned to Budari. "Arabano asks that you send men to join him in his search, for he cannot bring all the packs in alone and he does not wish to seem burdened as he walks through the city. He will wait in the Soltari camp for them and once finished there, they shall conclude their search in Portu’s camp."
"I will send men now," Budari said, moving away to summon Lotessa’s guards.
"It is fortunate that we have a weapon capable of such power," Joranen said slowly, and Eomer felt a slight chill creep down his spine at the choice of words. "But how shall we use it? Khurintu was able to plant it among camps and then strike from a distance at their leisure. We have not that luxury. Khurintu’s camp is gone."
"Khurintu’s camp may be gone, but there are other camps we might use for the same purpose," Aragorn answered.
"You mean to attack the other tribes?" Fastahn demanded.
"Those were not my words," Aragorn said sternly, a hard light entering his eyes. "I observed that there were camps in which we might place Orthanc Fire, but I did not say that these camps would belong to other tribes. Or that they would be occupied."
"You mean to use Warra’s camp," Eomer suddenly realized, his mind clicking rapidly. "And you mean to insist upon your plans for an ambush."
"We have the numbers for it now."
Eomer frowned. He did not completely agree with that assessment, but Joranen spoke up before he could say aught. "What is this of my camp? You would seek to use this Orthanc Fire within it?"
Aragorn began to answer but Budari chose that moment to return. "Why do we speak of Orthanc Fire in the Warra camp?" he demanded.
Tension was rising swiftly now, and Eomer found himself reflexively clutching his sword hilt. Forcing his hands to relax, he took a step closer to Aragorn.
"If you will permit me to explain, I will do so," Aragorn said, his voice sharp and commanding. "A moment of patience is all I require." He paused, his eyes sweeping the room, and then he continued in a softer tone. "Earlier this morning, Budari, Eomer, and I discussed possible courses of action and I broached the idea that we might set an ambush for Khurintu using the walls of Haradhur. Eomer and Budari disagreed, staging that we had not the forces for such a tactic, and at that moment, they were right. But that has changed now. Not only do we have sufficient men to attempt an ambush, but we have sufficient men to put the Orthanc Fire to good use."
"In my camp," Joranen said flatly.
"I am coming to that," Aragorn said. "Patience and I will explain. I propose that Gondor, Rohan, and Lotessa wait for Khurintu’s coming without Haradhur’s walls. We should position ourselves halfway between the eastern gate and the Warra encampment. Joranen, come evening, you will position your men inside the city just beyond the eastern gate. Radarad will do likewise."
"When Khurintu arrives, they shall see only those that they expect to see," Budari said with a nod. "But how does the Soltari tribe and the Orthanc Fire fit into this plan?"
"This is where the Warra encampment shall come into play," Aragorn explained. His voice was still calm but there was a slight flicker of uncertainty in his eyes, and Eomer sensed that they had come to the point in which the plan became something resembling a plan. And if Eomer’s suspicions about where this was going proved correct, then he agreed. This was the most tentative and dangerous aspect of the plan. "At sunset, the Warra tribe will evacuate their camp but they will leave the tents and enough supplies so as to give the illusion that they have not left. The uninjured men of the Soltari tribe shall then occupy the camp. They shall place the Orthanc Fire about the perimeter and wait. We will position ourselves in such a way that Khurintu shall have to pass near the Warra camp in order to reach us. As they do so, Gondor, Rohan, and Lotessa will ride out to meet them. They will not be expecting such a move, and if we time our actions correctly, we will push them back toward the Warra encampment. Their flanks will hopefully be within the camp itself."
Radarad favored Aragorn with a penetrating gaze. "And the moment Khurintu is pushed back into the tents, Soltari shall clear away and light the Orthanc Fire."
"Exactly," Aragorn said. He fixed his eyes on the pack he had found. "It is my belief that Khurintu shall come bearing more Orthanc Fire and that it shall be placed in the back of their forces. If our timing is accurate and Soltari does its job well, we will destroy both the Khurintu rearguard and their own supply of Orthanc Fire. The explosions will be the signal for Warra and Portu to exit the city and join the attack. Hopefully, the confusion caused by Orthanc Fire will be enough for our forces to rout Khurintu." Aragorn looked up, his eyes dark. "I make you no promises and no assurances. I believe this to be our best chance of success. Asbad and Dashnir will anticipate other attacks, but if we choose an unexpected and more dangerous strategy, it may serve to undermine their careful plans. Gondor, at least, will be outside Haradhur tonight in support of this plan. The choice to join me is yours."
Silence fell, and though Aragorn did not physically move, Eomer received the impression that he was backing away, awaiting the responses of the others. Under different circumstances, Eomer would have chosen this moment to step forward and state that Rohan stood with Gondor. But he hesitated, troubled by things he had heard and things that were even now occurring to him. Whatever the others chose, Rohan would accompany Gondor this night; there was little doubt of that. But Eomer wished to make his reservations known before committing his men to such an act, and so he decided to wait before voicing his support.
Thus it was once again Budari who first broke the silence. "The plan has many risks. How can we trust that a sudden offensive will push Khurintu close enough to the Warra camp to be caught in an explosion? And how can we trust Fastahn’s people to light the Orthanc Fire. He has already betrayed them. Why should he not betray us as well?"
"I did not know the consequences would be so great," Fastahn snapped. "My betrayal was not a willful act of destruction but rather an attempt to persuade."
"And perhaps in betraying us, you will attempt to persuade Khurintu," Budari challenged. "Perhaps you seek a bargain with them."
"Asbad does not bargain with traitors," Radarad said quietly. "I believe that Fastahn knows this. And if he does not, the Portu tribe shall make him aware of it."
"I am already aware of it," Fastahn muttered darkly. "Do not concern yourselves with my tribe or our part in this. We can assume the guise of the Warra tribe, and we can fire arrows into the Orthanc Fire as we depart."
Which amounts to tacit support of Aragorn’s plan, Eomer noted. And based on his words, it seems as though Radarad also supports us. But he and Fastahn are both here under duress. They will not survive otherwise. I suspect that Budari will voice support for the same reason and now only seeks to make certain of his allies. The true challenge shall be Joranen, for his forces are still at full strength. He has not yet reached the point of desperation.
"Even if Fastahn speaks truly and the Orthanc Fires rise, there are still great risks," Budari said, turning his attention back to Aragorn. "Confusion and loss of men may not be enough to give us the advantage. Asbad recovers quickly from setbacks."
"He does, and if confusion is not enough, then we will perish," Aragorn said simply. "And perhaps hindsight will say that we should have taken a safer road and hidden ourselves within Haradhur. But if we do so, we will only be playing into their hands. They will have the ability to lay Orthanc Fire as they see fit and to spread even more rumors about Haradhur. Khurintu expects us to hide. But with the plan I propose, we can turn their own weapons back on them. Even if nothing else comes of it, the sight of Orthanc Fire acting against Khurintu in Warra’s camp will combat the rumors that have been spread and prevent Khurintu from taking control of Harad should we fail." He paused, his eyes grim but determined. "Even if we die, we will win."
"You will win," Joranen corrected, his eyes shadowed and his voice hard. "You will win in that you will prevent Khurintu from gaining control of Harad and uniting the tribes against your northern countries. But if we die with you in the midst of Orthanc Fire, who looks to our people? The remaining tribes in Haradhur may believe that the Iluh acted against all of us, and if this belief persists, then our tribes will be hunted down for fear that the wrath of the Iluh might spread to others."
"Your tribes will be hunted down if Khurintu triumphs, and Khurintu will most assuredly triumph if we continue to do what they expect us to do," Aragorn argued.
"Perhaps," Joranen conceded, "but I am not convinced that an alliance with you shall make the difference. You have said already that you have no promises and no assurances. Why, then, should I become involved here? Why should I not trust in my own people? It seems that you need my aid far more than I need yours."
Aragorn studied the man for a long moment and Eomer found himself holding his breath. Not out of tension or uncertainty, but out of a need to stay quiet. The urge to cry out and force Joranen to see reason was overwhelming.
"If we drive Khurintu back, their power will diminish," Aragorn said at length. "You wish to take their place as the dominant northern tribe." He nodded his head slowly. "Gondor shall not stand in your way. We will recognize your authority insofar as your authority does not overreach its bounds."
"Trade routes might become uncertain for a time if we force a change in leadership," Joranen warned, his voice challenging. "What says Gondor to that?"
"That change can be both a good thing and a bad thing," Aragorn said evenly.
That elicited a smile from Joranen. "Wisely spoken, and worthy of an ally. Done, then. The Warra tribe stands with you."
A hint of a smile ghosted over Aragorn’s face, and he turned his attention to Budari and Eomer, raising a questioning brow.
"As all seem agreed, Lotessa shall also join you," Budari said. "But we must speak further on strategy and timing. I will not let this fall to chance."
"Agreed," Aragorn said. "Eomer?"
"You will always have Rohan’s support," Eomer said quietly.
Aragorn paused and his eyes narrowed, but then he nodded and turned back to the other leaders. "Then if that we are all agreed, our first task will be to choose areas of attack. To that end, if would be well if men from Lotessa and Portu scouted the eastern wall and found a place that will force Khurintu near the Warra encampment and also allow those behind the wall to join us quickly after the blast. Fastahn, you will need to ready your own people to move into the Warra camp. Joranen, you must make room for them."
"We will begin these preparations now," Budari said, already moving away. "Let us meet later this afternoon to further set our plans."
There were murmurs of acknowledgement from the others and they followed Budari’s lead, eventually leaving Aragorn and Eomer alone. An uncomfortable silence ensued, and Eomer found himself casting about for ways in which to break it. "How fares your arm?" he finally asked.
"You do not wish to know about my arm."
Eomer blinked at this rebuff. "You doubt my concern?"
Aragorn shook his head. "No, but my arm is not foremost on your mind. Rather, you wish to question this plan but are waiting until others will not hear us. Speak now, then. I believe we have a few moments."
Someday in the future, Eomer vowed that he would achieve the subtly necessary to outmaneuver Aragorn in a conversation. But as he did not seem to have that ability now, he forged ahead, willing to concede this round. "Joranen desires power," he said flatly. "Think you that revealing Orthanc Fire to him was a wise decision?"
"Under the circumstances, I think it was unavoidable."
"He will try to secure some for himself."
"I would be surprised if he did not. I would be surprised if any of them did not."
"And this does not concern you?" Eomer demanded. "We are giving them a dangerous weapon."
"They do not know how to create more, and Valar willing, they shall remain ignorant," Aragorn answered. "I do share your fear, Eomer, but at the moment, compromises must be made."
Eomer frowned. "We still know nothing of my missing riders. Or the degree of Umbar’s involvement. Or of Legolas and Gimli. What if they are brought to Haradhur and ride behind Khurintu? They will be caught in the blast if the plan goes forward."
"I also share your concerns," Aragorn said quietly. "But we can do nothing for the riders, and we must deal with Umbar when they present themselves. As for Legolas and Gimli…" Aragorn’s jaw tightened slightly. "I do not think Asbad will risk his captives in battle. If Legolas and Gimli are hale, they will be giving their captors a difficult time. Khurintu will be forced to expend effort to watch them, and they will not want to distract that effort by taking their prisoners into a battle. Rather, they will wait until all is said and done. And if Legolas and Gimli are not hale, which is likely, then Khurintu will not burden themselves with watching over two injured prisoners. Either way, they will probably not be in the rearguard but in a small company even further back."
"And if they are not?"
Aragorn’s expression was dark. "We cannot plan for everything. We have not the time. I wish with all the strength of my forebears that there was some way to assure their safety, but at this point, we cannot even assure our own." He stopped for a moment, his eyes fixing themselves upon Eomer's. "However, I would assure myself of one thing. In the presence of the other leaders, you told me I had Rohan's support, and I thank you for that. But I now wish to know if I have your support."
A reluctant smile moved across Eomer's face. "This will not be the first time I have followed you into danger, Aragorn. In a way, this is not unlike what we did at the Morannon. We called Sauron’s attention to ourselves while others struck from behind." His shoulders moved in a silent sigh and he nodded. "You have my support, for all the good it will do you."
Aragorn returned the smile. "Then come, and let us make ready. And may we prove as resourceful as hobbits."
"We shall have to," Eomer said, and a spark of hope returned to him. "It will be a sorry reflection on the race of men if we do not."
Ahta’ana ardit’ak idduun—Lend us your outer robes. (Haradric)
Shiraj—Sesame oil (Arabic word transplanted directly into Haradric. For further explanation, see the author’s notes.)
Ma’awnwa—Haradric term for ú-glîr
Iluh—Haradric pantheon of gods (equivalent to the Valar)/P>
Author’s Notes: For the insanely curious, here’s an explanation for the word shiraj as well as factoids on desert water-skin preparation techniques. In ancient Egypt, leather was either chamoised (made using oils) or tanned. Tanned leather was made using tannin taken from acacia pods, which resulted in a black, durable product. To turn this into a water-skin, a variety of oils and fats were worked into the leather to make it waterproof, and it is suspected that one of the oils used may have been sesame oil, or shiraj. The fats and oils would block against liquid leakage, but water would still be able to evaporate out of the skin in the heat. Because of the energy used during evaporation, the water that did not evaporate (about two-thirds of it on long journeys) would stay relatively cool. Which is not only a necessity in desert travel but also a neat trick. Thought you might be interested.
Also, the title of this chapter was taken from something out of The Fellowship of the Ring. Bonus points to any who can figure out where the phrase "from the ashes" comes from.
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