My Aragon Stories
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Land of Light and Shadows: 9. First Blood
Eomer awoke feeling as though he’d fallen asleep next to one of the natural geysers on Rohan’s southwestern border. He had enough sweat in his light hair to fill a small wash basin, and his thin tunic and trousers were saturated with perspiration. With a feeling of disgust, Eomer raised himself into a sitting position and looked around the tent, trying to guess the time of day judging from the sunlight that filtered in through the thick fabric.
"We have two hours until sunset if that is what you wonder," a voice said, intruding upon his thoughts.
Eomer nodded, not bothering to question how it was that Aragorn seemed to know every thought that went through his head ere even he was aware of it. It was something he’d grown used to, and it now seemed natural that Aragorn should have a talent for reading minds. The king of Rohan stretched, grimacing at the trickles of moisture that meandered down his back. While he was not a finicky man and had endured many harsh campaigns where hygiene was not close to being of even secondary importance, Eomer did enjoy feeling that he was somewhat presentable and would not drive his enemies away by smell alone. What does one do for a bath in this wasted land?
"The desert cools rapidly once the sun hides her face," the king of Gondor continued. "You will feel more at ease then, but until that time, I fear you will have to endure this heat."
Eomer sighed and considered the merits of going back to sleep, but he was hot enough and uncomfortable enough that he wondered if such a thing could even be accomplished. He was a veteran warrior and had learned to take sleep when it could be found, but this extreme heat was something new. "Have you been up long?" he asked, turning his eyes to Aragorn.
"No, not long," came the rather vague reply. Eomer translated this answer to mean that Aragorn had been up for over an hour but that he’d slept for at least part of the day. This fit rather well with Eomer’s belief that Aragorn was a closet insomniac, a view also shared by Faramir, Legolas, and Imrahil. Arwen wouldn’t comment when asked and Gimli had declared it really didn’t matter how much sleep Aragorn had so long as he was able to function in the morning. Eomer supposed this was true, but he had a nagging fear that one of these days, all the countless nights of missed sleep would come crashing down on the king of Gondor with disastrous results.
But that day was probably still several years off, and so Eomer worried instead about adjusting his clothing in such a manner that it was not clinging to him with every movement. Aragorn looked up from something he’d been studying and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth as he watched Eomer pull his tunic away from his chest. "I take it that this land is not to your liking."
"If the Haradrim endure it, then so shall I," Eomer said with a confidence that he did not feel. Trivial concerns for cleanliness aside, Eomer was growing to dislike the desert with every passing minute. The heat seemed to make him weak and drowsy as though he were afflicted by a wasting disease that sapped his strength and left him helpless. He shuddered to think of what his horses had endured and hoped that they would be able to travel this night. Maybe more water could be procured for them. After all, Gimli had managed to sneak back with some for Legolas earlier.
A low moan and something akin to a whimper suddenly echoed through the tent, interrupting Eomer’s thoughts. Alarmed, the horse lord looked over to Legolas who was shifting his head from side to side and moving restlessly as though plagued by evil dreams. "What ails him?" Eomer asked quietly.
"I do not know," Aragorn answered, his voice equally quiet.
If Aragorn had said that Sauron had returned and was slowly turning Legolas into a dwarf, Eomer could not have been more alarmed. The king of Rohan did not respect Aragorn so much that he believed him to be infallible, but he did trust him to explain matters when situations turned dark. The fact that the heir of Isildur was at a loss for something was an idea that did not sit well with Eomer, particularly since he already distrusted this land and its people.
Getting to his feet, Eomer walked over to the elf and knelt by his side, brushing away strands of damp hair from Legolas’s forehead. A sheen of sweat glistened in the dim interior of the tent, and it was a small consolation to the king of Rohan that the hardy elf was also subject to the intense heat of Harad’s sun. Placing two fingers against the elf’s throat, Eomer timed the pulse and frowned. "His heart races as though he has just finished a hard race. Does he…" Eomer suddenly trailed off as Legolas moaned again and turned his head. After the elf fell quiet, Eomer continued. "Does he suffer from his head injury? I did not think it was this severe."
"It isn’t," Aragorn answered, standing and moving toward the two. "Something else troubles him, but I have yet to uncover what. We can only hope that Legolas himself will have answers when he wakes. In truth, I am worried that he does not wake now. Our voices should have roused him."
"And he always seems to know when he is the subject of a conversation, even while sleeping," Eomer added.
The two fell silent for a while, the stillness broken only by occasional moans, and then Aragorn spoke again. "Come. We can do nothing more for him until he wakes, and I would speak with you. I need your counsel on a matter that has troubled me since the raid this morning."
Aragorn seemed to be one surprise after another this afternoon. Brows raised at this request, Eomer said nothing but merely nodded silently, rising and following Aragorn over to his corner of the tent. The king of Gondor bent and picked up what appeared to be a swatch of fabric. Handing it to Eomer, he folded his arms and waited as if expecting revelation to strike him.
Deciding that he was probably expected to say something, Eomer turned the thick cloth over in his hands and studied it briefly. It was of a fine make and not dissimilar to the clothes worn by the Rohirrim. The fabric was stiff as a protection against the hazards of long periods of riding, but it was flexible enough to move and breathe should the wearer need to adjust his position quickly. It was a protection against cold breezes that might be incurred by high speeds, but it could also be cool, as spaces between the stitches were wide enough to let some air through.
"It is akin to the clothing of my people," Eomer eventually said. He looked questioningly at Aragorn. "Is this of some significance?"
"The fabric was taken from one of the fallen raiders. I seek your opinion on it."
"It is of good quality," Eomer said, unsure as to exactly what Aragorn was looking for. "He who wore this was often on the back of a horse."
"Can you see anything more?"
Turning his eyes back to the cloth, Eomer frowned and studied it yet again. There was something…familiar about it. The color was a deep blue, the result of an inexpensive dye, and that was something of a shame since this cloth took colors well and would be quite beautiful with a more exotic dye. "This was part of an item of necessity rather than an item of show," Eomer said, analyzing the material from a different angle. "It belonged to a man who had a need for durable clothing but who had no money to spend on elegant trimmings or trappings. A poor man’s clothes."
"The other raiders wore very similar garments," Aragorn said, watching Eomer carefully.
"A poor tribe, then," Eomer said. He looked at the material for a bit longer and then his frown deepened. "This…I have seen this before. I have seen this cloth before, but in a different style and a different color. Yet it is the same material and even, I believe, the same make."
"You are certain?"
"I cannot say from whence my memory recalls this, but I do recall it," the king of the Mark said firmly. "And it seems to me that I have seen this material only recently."
"As have I," Aragorn sighed. "Think of Bron. Does that suggest anything to you?"
"Bron," Eomer murmured, searching his mind. "Yes, Bron. His robes…his robes are made from this. But that would mean…" He trailed off and looked at Aragorn. "This could be coincidence. Perhaps this fabric is made throughout the desert and the raiders from this morning have no connection to Bron."
Aragorn shook his head. "No, this is a rare fabric that must be imported from Belfalas, and I wonder that I did not think to check it earlier. Many things that should be obvious to me are becoming clouded and I wonder…" He trailed off and glanced at Legolas before shaking his head. "I suppose it does not matter now as there is nothing to be done about it. But did you mark how the riders sat their horses?"
"Yes, that I did notice," Eomer said, thinking back to the specifics of the raid. "They rode further back in the saddle than I am accustomed to seeing. It was much like…" he sighed and shook his head. "Their riding was much like Bron’s style of riding." Eomer glanced at the cloth still in his hand and narrowed his eyes. "Why did neither of us see this earlier?"
"To that, I have no answer," Aragorn said quietly.
Twice in one evening, Eomer reflected with a frown. He wondered if the heat had affected Aragorn’s mind or if something else—something darker—was at work. "What reason would Bron have for attacking us?"
"Again, I have no answer."
Eomer grimaced and wondered if this was some sort of record for Aragorn. "Then if we are both at a loss for answers, we must turn to the source of the confusion, for there is much to be gained from simple questions of one who holds knowledge."
"You speak rightly, Eomer," Aragorn said, and a hard smile crept over his features. "Let us speak with Bron just ere we depart this night. There is much he did not tell us earlier."
* * * *
Gimli shrugged on his corselet of chain mail and tried to adjust it in such a way that it did not contribute more warmth to his already overheated body. The sun was moments away from setting, and it was significantly cooler now than it had been when the dwarf had awakened an hour earlier. But it was still far warmer than the Glittering Caves and arguably warmer than the hottest days of Rohan’s summers.
"Yet the men endure it better than I," the dwarf muttered angrily to himself. Aragorn and Eomer had left the tent half an hour ago to aid with packing the horses. And while it was clear that both suffered beneath the oppressive heat, neither one had spoken a word of complaint during the time Gimli had spent awake. It was a rather depressing phenomenon, and the dwarf promised himself that he would buckle down and find a way to suffer through this desert in a way that would make his dwarven ancestors proud.
Shoving his axe into his belt, Gimli smoothed out his beard, rolled his shoulders, and decided he was as prepared for the night’s ride as he could be. Having completed his own preparations, his eyes strayed to Legolas. The elf still slept, and though Gimli had vowed only a short while ago to someday rise before the elf did, he now wondered how such a thing had come to be. Aragorn and Eomer had both beaten the dwarf in rising, and Legolas usually woke when others began to stir. But on this evening, the elf’s three tent mates had all awakened, dressed, and prepared for the day without once drawing the attention of the elven prince.
And more than that, Gimli discerned that there was something wrong with the elf’s sleep. As usual, Legolas’s eyes were open, but the dwarf noticed tension in the elf’s lean frame that reminded him very much of a frightened cat poised to either pounce or flee. Shudders and occasional moans would disturb the elf’s sleep, and this was also unusual. Normally, Legolas was completely silent while resting. Gimli could recall only one other time when the elf’s dreams had been this troubled, and that was during the dark journey through Moria.
The tent flaps were suddenly drawn back and Gimli was startled from his thoughts by the arrival of Aragorn and Eomer. Both glistened with sweat and both were breathing hard in an attempt to cool their bodies. This brought a small measure of comfort to Gimli, who had begun to absently wonder if both men were not really disguised elves because of their ability to endure extreme temperatures.
"Do we depart soon?" he asked, wiping a few new drops of perspiration from his brow.
"Within the next half-hour, if that can be accomplished," Aragorn answered. "All that remains to be done is to pack the tents onto the baggage horses and refill the water skins." The king paused and looked to Legolas. "He still slumbers?"
"Not only that, but his sleep is filled with troubling dreams, or so I perceive," Gimli answered, furrowing his brow as he watched the elf. "What happened to him, Aragorn? What did he tell you that he did not tell us?"
"His secret is not mine to share," Aragorn answered reluctantly.
"But if we must look out for Legolas, it would be helpful to know what care we must take," Eomer said. "And if I know anything of that elf’s personality, he will not tell us himself."
"Perhaps not," Aragorn admitted. "But that does not mean I am at liberty to share what is not mine." The king shook his head, considered the sleeping prince, and then seemed to come to a decision. "Gimli, wake him. The time to leave draws near, and he may need a moment to compose himself. Eomer, let us find a certain delegate from the Portu tribe. The Haradrim will have finished their preparations, and they can no longer hide behind the excuse that they must spend their time packing rather than talking."
"Then let us go, but let us become clear upon one thing," Eomer said, looking sharply at Aragorn. "My riders were also involved in the defense of this camp, and if our suspicions are correct then Bron has become my enemy as well as your enemy. Do not expect me to stand silent while you search for answers."
"I expect nothing of the sort," Aragorn said with a slight frown.
"But that was your intent earlier today when you sought out the returning Haradrim and performed your own interrogation."
"Someone needed to care for Legolas."
"And were we to step back and examine the situation logically, we would see that you should have been the one to care for him. You are the greater healer and he would have been better off in your hands."
Aragorn’s eyes narrowed marginally and the muscles of his jaw tightened. Sensing that the heat was beginning to fray tempers, Gimli stepped forward quickly before either one could say anything more. He wondered about the references to Bron, but he sensed that now was not the time for questions. "If you will be on your way, I will finish preparations here and rouse the elf," the dwarf said, hoping he was not transferring their ire to himself. "Did you not say that the next hidden lake is a good distance away and that we should leave as soon as the sun sinks below the sand?"
Aragorn hesitated for a moment, loath to leave the argument with the last words going to Eomer, but he eventually nodded as common sense won out over pride. "Let us seek out Bron, then," he said, making no attempt to soften the ring of command in his voice.
Knowing he had already pushed his luck with Aragorn, Eomer made no mention of the other king’s tone of voice and pulled back the tent flap. "After you," he said.
Aragorn hesitated, but Gimli cleared his throat and the king ducked out of the tent. Eomer followed quickly, leaving the dwarf to shake his head and wonder if the two would adjust to the temperatures before declaring war upon one another. But at least they were gone, and that meant he could turn his attention to the dreaming elven prince.
Gimli wondered if Legolas would speak of what ailed him, but upon further speculation, the dwarf decided that this was a rather unlikely prospect. The proud son of King Thranduil had always been reluctant to reveal any weaknesses or problems, and there was no reason for that to change now. No, if Gimli wished to learn what had affected his friend so dramatically in the early morning, he would have to keep an extra sharp watch on the elf and figure it out for himself. He had a few ideas, of course, but those ideas were far-fetched and remote. During his years of friendship with the elf, Gimli had come to learn a little of the Sindarin tongue, and because of this, the conversation between Aragorn and Legolas earlier that day had not been totally incomprehensible to the dwarf. But what he’d heard had made little sense and he was loath to place too much trust upon his weak grasp of the elven language.
Observations, on the other hand…those were things that Gimli could count upon. Also as a result of his friendship with Legolas, the dwarf had developed an almost elven ability to scrutinize a situation or a person. If he put his mind to deciphering a puzzle, very little escaped his notice. And in addition to this, he was now quite adept a reading his best friend’s moods and thoughts. As such, Gimli had a grounded confidence that he would know what had happened to his friend—or at least as much of it as Legolas knew—by the time they set out for the next hidden lake.
"Legolas?" he called quietly, watching the elf’s open eyes carefully for signs that he was waking. He gave his friend a gentle shake when there seemed to be no response and called him again. "Legolas?"
A soft groan answered him, and the elf stiffened as though he expected an attack. Gimli’s own hand strayed involuntarily to the haft of his axe before he could separate his reactions from those of Legolas. With a shake of his head, the dwarf placed both hands on the elf’s shoulders and he shook his friend harder this time.
"Legolas, it is nearly time to depart. Legolas!"
Something was wrong. An elf was never this hard to wake. Gimli did remember having to wake Legolas once after a rather interesting night in Minas Tirith during which they had celebrated the first anniversary of the destruction of the Ring. But even then, it had not taken too much effort to tear the elf from sleep, though he’d been embarrassingly groggy for an hour or so afterwards. But now…now it was as though Legolas struggled through another world and could not rejoin his comrades in Middle Earth.
"Legolas, if you do not answer me, I will fetch Aragorn and Eomer, and together we shall set up such a din that we will completely drown out any dreams that might grace your elvish mind from now until next week."
The elf groaned again, but he showed no real signs of stirring. His concern growing, Gimli stood to go after Aragorn, but a sudden movement stopped him. Legolas rolled to his side and shivered, curling into a protective ball and raising his arms above his head.
"Legolas?" Gimli knelt back down and gingerly clasped the elf’s shoulder, shaking him gently. "Legolas, are you with me?"
The hazed look of sleep slowly drained from his eyes, and Legolas blinked as though realizing that his name was being called. With a look of confusion, he eventually focused bleary eyes on Gimli’s anxious face. "What happened?"
"You asked us that earlier this morning," Gimli said with a frown, wondering if Aragorn had been wrong and the elf had actually been hit harder than they originally thought. "We drove off some raiders and you were knocked unconscious. We don’t know how or why that happened, though."
"Yes," Legolas said, a bit of clarity beginning to enter his voice. "Yes, you told me this. What…what happened after that?"
"After what?" Gimli asked, his frown deepening.
"After you…wasn’t there a…we were lost in darkness," Legolas finally managed to say, his usual eloquence conspicuously absent. "There was smoke and shadow, and we were lost. Yet now we are here. How did we escape?"
Gimli sat back on his haunches and studied his pale friend. The elf was certainly shaken, of that there could be no doubt. He was paler than usual, there was a slight tremble to his limbs, and fear colored his voice. But what could invade an elven dream to the point of upsetting the dreamer? According to what little Gimli knew about the subject, elven sleep was vastly different from mortal sleep. Nightmares were rare and it was only a handful of elves who could honestly say they’d experienced that unfortunate phenomenon. "I know not what to tell you, my friend," the dwarf eventually answered, meeting the elf’s piercing gaze with concerned, dark eyes. "But we have been here for the entire day. There was no smoke. There was no shadow. There was only light and heat. Perhaps your dreams were affected by this?"
"But…no, I could clearly smell the smoke. I…" The elf trailed off and frowned. He was silent for a few moments during which time Gimli hardly dared to breathe, and then Legolas stood abruptly. He staggered, having risen too quickly, and Gimli hastened to his side, supporting him ere he could fall. The elf muttered a brief word of thanks and then moved forward, determined to walk under his own power. Biting his lip, Gimli followed him, wondering if credence should be given to some of his far-fetched, linguistically inspired ideas as to what had happened to his friend.
Legolas had now reached the tent flap and he pushed it open, practically stumbling his way outside. The desert sun was partially below the horizon, and Gimli could detect a definite fall in temperature, something for which he heartily rejoiced. But he pushed these feelings to the back of his mind and watched his elven friend carefully, trying to determine what mood had overtaken the prince. For his part, Legolas was staring away into the south, shading his eyes against the last of the sunlight and shaking like a leaf caught in a fall wind. Gimli moved toward him and then stopped. He was now close enough to assist the elf should his balance fail but distant enough that Legolas would not feel "coddled," as he was wont to call it.
They stood there in silence for quite some time, and scholars of the rivalry that lay between elves and dwarves might have marveled to see the trembling elf and the concerned dwarf who watched him. At length, Legolas shook his head and stepped back. He lowered his slender hand from his brow and held it before his eyes, studying it with the intense scrutiny one might expect to find from a tracker who hunts illusive prey.
The elf started as thought he had forgotten the very existence of the dwarf, and then he turned his bewildered eyes to his friend. "What happened?" he whispered, displaying a vulnerability that Gimli had never before seen in his friend. Not even on the dark journey through Moria had Legolas seemed so troubled. But now was not the time for comfort or consolation. The eyes of the Haradrim would be upon them, and to show weakness was to invite trouble. The dwarf shook his head, cursing the surrounding desert and the Haradrim as a whole.
"Later, Legolas," Gimli said. "Let us pack now, and we will talk during the ride.
The elf nodded mutely, returning his eyes to the sea of sand and shuddering. Watching his friend for a few minutes more, Gimli sighed, shook his head, and turned away, moving to pack the elf’s belongings and find Faensul himself.
* * * *
Aragorn’s mind was involved in what might have been mistaken for a series of complex tumbling exercises. He replayed the events of the early morning over and over again, seeking for explanations and looking to project future possibilities. Making extensive use of simple deductions, the gift of foresight, and his past experiences in Harad, the heir of Isildur evaluated what was known and tried to find some method for identifying and defining the unknowns.
Fact: The Portu tribe was known throughout the desert as one of the most successful raiding tribes, and as such, they were accorded a great deal of respect if not a great deal of trust. They were also known as one of the few tribes who would dare raid the stud herds of Gartabo and Khurintu. During Aragorn’s stay in Harad, he’d met a few members of the Portu tribe. As a general rule, they were cowards at heart, but they hid it well with an outward show of pride that would have impressed an elven lord.
Fact: Bron was exhibiting none of the usual characteristics of a Portu tribe member. He was hesitant, quiet, and he wore his cowardice on his sleeve. He was obviously afraid of Dashnir and Garat, and interestingly enough, Dashnir and Garat were the only two members of the Harad delegation to come under direct attack during the raid.
Conjecture: The Portu raid was an attack on Dashnir and Garat, and the forces of Gondor and Rohan simply got in the way.
Aragorn shook his head. No, that didn’t make sense. Portu might be seen as a politically blundering tribe, but when it came to raiding, they had no equal. They would not attack a camp of armed men in order to exact revenge on two individuals. Retracing his thoughts, Aragorn started to add to his list of facts and to pursue a different line of reasoning.
Fact: Dashnir held a disproportionate amount of respect among the other delegates. Aragorn did not remember the Khurintu tribe wielding as much power as Dashnir seemed to command. It would appear that things had changed significantly since Aragorn’s journey into Harad. Either that or there was something about Dashnir himself that the other delegates feared.
Fact: It was not easy to render an elf unconscious.
Fact: Dashnir and Garat had been standing next to Legolas when the elf fell. Dashnir had not lied when he claimed that he did not strike Legolas, Aragorn was fairly certain of that. No man in Harad could rise to a position of leadership within his tribe without a keen sense of honor, and in the barren deserts, truth was an integral part of honor. But even if Dashnir had not told an outright lie, neither had he spoken the entire truth. He was hiding something.
Fact: Something had happened to Legolas aside from a blow to the head. During the day, the elf had been plagued by uneasy dreams. His disturbed sleep had succeeded in stirring Aragorn from his own rest, and Legolas had not awakened at a gentle touch from the king. More than that, Legolas had admitted that his own senses had diminished in power. Aragorn grimaced, remembering something similar being mentioned once in one of Elrond’s more obscure books of ancient lore. But the details given had been sketchy at best, and Aragorn could not remember much of it. Still, what little he could recall frightened him, and if memory served, Legolas was in danger. But Aragorn was at a loss as to how to help the elf. He could only hope that Legolas would know more of what had happened and that a way could be found to aid him.
Conjecture: Dashnir and Garat had conspired to somehow affect Legolas’s elven senses. The raid had been staged for this purpose.
No, that didn’t fit all the facts, either. They’d had no way of knowing how Gondor and Rohan might respond to the raid. There would have been no guarantee that Legolas would stay behind to guard the horses. And yet the two events—the raid and Legolas’s fall—were related. Aragorn could sense it. But what was the connection?
Perhaps there was one accurate guess in his last conjecture. Perhaps the raid was carried out under the instructions of Dashnir and Garat. Perhaps Legolas had been an unexpected bonus. That would mean that Bron had ordered the raid under compulsion. And that would fit with his recent behavior and apparent fear of Dashnir and Garat. But if that was true, then Bron had fulfilled his purpose and his continued existence would be a danger to Dashnir and Garat. It was common knowledge that members of the Portu tribe could not keep a secret.
But that still didn’t explain why the raid had been staged in the first place. What would Dashnir and Garat gain from forcing the Portu tribe to attack? I need more information, Aragorn sighed. With his current knowledge base as limited as it was, Gondor’s king despaired of finding a persuasive explanation in time to prevent the coming disaster. And something was coming. His foresight was able to tell him that much. But at least now he was assured of several key things. Bron’s tribe had been responsible for the attack. Bron had known of the attack ahead of time. And somehow, Dashnir and Garat were behind the attack’s organization.
"The raid was not Bron’s idea," Aragorn said quietly, coming to a stop and watching the Haradrim delegation as they prepared to mount their horses.
Eomer blinked. "And how came you to this conclusion?"
"My reasoning I will explain later, but I think we must press Bron now for details. We may learn much that will be useful, and perhaps we can put evidence behind our accusations."
"Then let us go," Eomer said, his hand coming to rest on the hilt of his sword. The movement was a veiled threat with roots dating back to the beginnings of the Mark, and Aragorn narrowed his eyes as he considered his fellow king.
"Now is not the time for brash actions," he said quietly.
For a response, Eomer smiled disarmingly and started toward the members of the delegation. With a sigh, Aragorn shook his head and followed. In truth, he longed to loosen his sword within its scabbard, which was the way of Gondor’s men when they suspected a threat, but some of the Haradrim, particularly those from northern tribes, would undoubtedly be familiar with that custom. It would not do to express distrust to all of them when for some it would be undeserved. Firmly disciplining his thoughts, Aragorn joined Eomer and together they drew near the delegates.
"Hail to you, honored ones," Dashnir greeted, turning his eyes to the approaching kings. "How fares the injured member of your company?"
"Prince Legolas has recovered," Aragorn said, hoping this was not far from the truth. Stopping, he folded his arms across his chest and adopted a confident stance that was just short of belligerent. "But he wonders about the raid this morning, as do we. It was unexpected, for we are not far from the borders of Lebennin."
"Alas, I fear the desert is filled with their kind," Dashnir said, his eyes surreptitiously darting to Bron’s seething face before returning to Aragorn and Eomer. "They have no real power and so they seek to improve their station by petty theft. What might seem reasonable to them would be as madness to us."
Aragorn nodded, studying Dashnir’s face closely with something akin to elvish scrutiny. "I see," he eventually said. "And what say you, Bron? You are from the Portu tribe, and when I journeyed through this country long ago, the members of your tribe were renowned for their skills as raiders. What do you know of those who attacked us this morning?"
Bron started and stared at Aragorn, his tanned, weathered face paling beneath his heavy beard. "I…I do not know what you wish me to say."
"It is not a matter of what we wish you to say," Eomer said, mirroring Aragorn’s stance. "It is a matter of what must be said. As king of a people who are most often to be found upon the back of a horse, I know somewhat of riding. The way you sit your mount is a perfect match for the raiders from this morning. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, Bron, but such imitation is more easily taught that copied. What do you know of our attackers?"
Bron was now nearly as pale as an elf, and Aragorn wondered if someone should step up to catch him before he fell over. "I know of several raiding tribes," Bron finally stammered. "Some of them have learned from Portu, that is no secret, but if you think that…"
"If we think what?" Aragorn pressed when Bron fell silent. "If we think you had aught to do with the raid? And if we did, Bron, would that be a mistake? Perhaps you could enlighten us as to these things. Come, I believe you to be an honorable man. You would not violate Harad’s Code of Truth. What is the answer to our questions?"
"I was not even in the camp for the raid!" Bron protested, backing up even further in the face of Aragorn’s piercing eyes and rising wrath.
"No, but your tribe was," Eomer accused.
"Can you deny that it was your men who attacked us?" Aragorn demanded, bringing to bear all the royal majesty bestowed upon him from Elendil and Isildur of old. "Can you deny that you knew of the attack well before it commenced and had a part in its planning?"
Bron shook his head wordlessly and looked down, unable to meet Aragorn’s condemning eyes. Silence fell for a long moment, and it was several minutes before Bron looked up hesitantly, fear written plainly on his face. He opened his mouth as if to speak, and but he stopped as though frozen and then Eomer surged forward. So intent was he upon his cornered prey that Aragorn jumped at this sudden interruption and then gasped when he saw Bron topple forward, clutching at a knife that had suddenly appeared in his chest.
Eomer caught the delegate from the Portu tribe in his arms, cursed softly, and swung to stare at Dashnir whose arm was still extended from the throw. The other members of the delegation—with the exception of Garat—backed away slowly, unwilling to become involved in this contest of wills. "What possessed you to do that?" the king of Rohan demanded.
"He was a traitor," Dashnir said. "Those who hear the words of a traitor listen to the words of darkness and shadow. It is best to silence such words before they come to light."
"But such words might have revealed who had forced his tribe to take such action," Aragorn said quietly, capturing Dashnir’s dark eyes and daring him to voice a challenge.
"Perhaps," Dashnir allowed, meeting the king’s stare with a power and presence that startled Aragorn. "But perhaps such things are better left unsaid."
Aragorn narrowed his eyes, but a hiss from behind drew his attention away from the delegate from Khurintu. Turning, he moved quickly to Bron as Eomer laid him upon the ground. "Is he—"
"It is too late," Eomer whispered with a shake of his head and a dark glance directed toward Dashnir. "The dagger could not have been thrown with better accuracy. His heart was pierced instantly."
Bowing his head, Aragorn’s jaw tightened and he reached for the sharp dagger still impaled in Bron’s chest. He drew it out, wiped it against the find folds of Bron’s desert robes, and stood. Turning, he fastened his eyes upon Dashnir and then sent the knife hurtling into the sand at the delegate’s feet. "Iddaumm ilawwilt bita’ak," Aragorn said quietly, slipping into the tongue of Harad.
Dashnir smiled a frightening, predatory smile, and nodded slightly. "Anar Khurintu. Hul tishuuf haagur wal?" He bent and retrieved his blade, wiping it against the sand to cleanse it of the remaining blood, and then sheathed it in a scabbard hidden well by his flowing robes. "The sun sets, honored ones," Dashnir continued, returning to the Westron tongue. "Are you prepared to ride?"
"The time of our riding is not determined by you," Aragorn said, his voice cold and hard as the blade that had pierced Bron’s heart. "But in this, you are right. The sun does set. And it is time to go." He turned to Eomer who had risen behind him and shook his head, stopping the questions before they could begin. "Summon your riders," he instructed, lowering his voice to the point where Eomer strained to understand what was said. "We will not ride among the delegation this night but behind them, for there is much I would speak of. There are secrets here that must be brought to light."
"It will be as you counsel," Eomer responded quietly, glancing at the delegation. "And I would know all you can tell me, Aragorn. This country is strange to me, and I feel that the Haradrim are not alone in keeping secrets."
Aragorn stiffened slightly but Eomer turned away before he could say aught. And behind them, the sun finally sank below the horizon, plunging the desert into a darkness that whispered of shadows and deceit.
Iddaumm ilawwilt bita’ak—First blood is yours
Anar Khurintu. Hul tishuuf haagur wal?—I am Khurintu. Did you expect anything else?
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