20. Tests and Trials
Okay, for those of you who are somewhat confused about what’s going on, I’ve included a VERY extensive recap at the end of this chapter with almost everything that’s been revealed so far. But understand that you’re *supposed* to be confused because not all the plans have been revealed. The recap does NOT cover anything in this chapter, though, because I drop far too many hints here to even attempt explaining it all in a summary. Sorry. Anyway, hope that helps and happy reading!
Despite the circumstances and despite the growing feeling of foreboding, Mohart decided there was something endlessly comforting about returning home. Dol Amroth had been far too muggy for him, and he’d been uneasy in a land with so many trees and rivers. Water flowed by unchecked, and the desert tribesman within Mohart had yearned to collect every drop for safekeeping. Allowing his horse to drink its fill at Anduin had been a painful procedure, and he’d nearly screamed aloud with fury when two soldiers had collided just before departure and accidentally spilled the contents of three water skins. Mohart had been in the northern countries occasionally, and he was aware of the differences in the environment and the resulting differences in customs and traditions, but awareness and acceptance were at opposite ends of the same spear. Yes, Mohart sighed, allowing his eyes to drink in the endless stretch of the horizon and the eternal sand. It is very good to come home.
Mohart noted with some amusement that he seemed to be the only one in the company at ease. The knights of Dol Amroth were clearly unnerved by so little vegetation, and even Imrahil, who had been in the desert before, was obviously uncomfortable. Mohart considered it just payback for the poison he had ingested earlier and decided to enjoy himself until the men finally relaxed and learned to adjust. He held no real grudge for Imrahil as Dashnir’s hand had clearly been involved in the incident, but at the same time, Mohart was enjoying a certain amount of satisfaction in watching the others now squirm.
They were all saddled and waiting on the edge of the desert where the vegetation gradually gave way to creeping sand and an increasingly arid climate. The sun had disappeared behind the western horizon and the chill of night was beginning to steal over the earth. Some of the horses shifted restlessly and tossed their heads, not understanding the delay. Mohart readily sympathized with them for he didn’t quite understand the delay either. It was now safe to set out across the sand, but for some reason, Imrahil had yet to give the order. He sat as though frozen on the back of his silver mount, and his piercing gray eyes traced the contours of the desert that opened before them.
Nudging his own horse forward until he was even with the prince, Mohart cleared his throat and inclined his head. "Should we not begin, honored one?" he asked, his voice pitched so that only Imrahil would hear the whispered words.
"A moment," Imrahil answered. "I would fix this scene in my memory so that my dreams may have some point of reference."
Mohart frowned, wondering if perhaps his command of the Westron tongue was slipping. "I fear I do not understand, honored one. A point of reference for dreams?"
"When we enter this land, my men and I enter unfamiliar territory," the prince explained quietly. "And come day, when we lie down to sleep, this land shall infuse itself into my dreams. I would give my mind some memory of the area where sand meets water and so ease the transition." Apparently sensing Mohart’s complete confusion, Imrahil then laughed quietly and turned, his gray eyes twinkling with the light of the stars. "I fear it is something gifted to me by distant elven ancestors of long ago. My men have no understanding of it either. But you are correct. Time passes while we sit idle. I have now a reference for my dreams, and the hand of fate has a mission for us, or so it seems." And seeming to banish his solemn mood as swiftly as it had appeared, Imrahil then drew his sword and raised it high into the air, crying aloud to the soldiers who waited behind him. "Forward! This day, Gondor has need of us, and Dol Amroth rides to her aid! Forward, knights of the swan!"
A shout rose up from both horses and men alike, and they also drew their weapons as a symbol of both their resolve and their loyalty to Gondor. Then, as one body, the company set out to the music of many hooves. Relishing the touch of a dry wind whipping at his face, Mohart savored the feel of gritty sand a moment before raising his desert scarves about his head and securing them in place. Then urging his mount to an even faster speed, he drew even with Imrahil and shouted to the starry sky, rejoicing with the feeling that he was finally home. He heard the prince’s laughter and for his part, Imrahil encouraged his own horse to even greater speeds. A fey mood seemed to have come upon the group, but Mohart thought nothing of it. He knew only that he rode in the presence of warriors, and the sounds of battle cries rang loud in his ears. Khurintu knew not what it faced, but Mohart did. He had witnessed for himself the courage of these men. They were bound body and soul to the good of Gondor, and should Asbad and Dashnir do aught to King Elessar of King Eomer, then there would be blood upon the sand.
And so the company crossed the border into Harad, spears and swords raised to the stars and the light of the moon glinting silver off bare blades.
* * * *
The history of Harad’s Gathering stretched as far back as the history of the oldest tribes, or so the records of the Haradrim indicated. None knew of an age in which the Gathering had not been held, and none knew of any year in which the Gathering had not taken place, no matter what obstacles or circumstances might have stood in its way. Insofar as the Haradrim were concerned, the Gathering was a tradition that could trace its roots to the dawn of time. While this was certainly something of a stretch, it was probably safe to say that the Gathering was one of the oldest mortal traditions in Middle Earth, and it was in no danger of fading away in the near future.
By comparison, the present location of the Gathering was relatively new. Initially, the Gathering had been held in the Sihal within one of the larger volcanic caverns. But as Harad’s population began to grow and new tribes were formed out of civil wars, it became necessary to move the Harad to a place that offered more water, more shelter, and more space. As the oldest permanent settlement in Harad and also something of a central location, Haradhur was chosen as the Gathering’s new home. A great circular building was erected, crowned by a dome of glass made from the desert sand. The building was actually two circles. The inner circle was a great room in which stood a large, circular table for tribal heads to sit and discuss matters. The area between the walls of the inner circle and the walls of the outer circle was a curving hallway for guards to stand watch should delegates desire it. In recent years, it had also become the center for unofficial tribal business between second-in-commands and others prominent tribal figures.
It was inside the inner circle, or main room, that Aragorn, Eomer, Legolas, and Gimli now stood, patiently waiting as other delegates filed in and more or less ignoring the open stares that were sent their direction. At least, Gimli was attempting to ignore the stares, but having never been the object of such attention, he was beginning to feel a little uneasy. Aragorn had explained that the first night was primarily a night of introductions and formalities, something that had made Gimli shiver with dread. He hated formalities, he hated long speeches, and he hated diplomacy. The dwarf was more than ready to quit this room and retreat into the hall where the real work would begin. By contrast, Legolas seemed completely relaxed and looked as though he had not a care in the world. There were times when Gimli truly loathed his friend.
However, since there was nothing he could do about the elf, Gimli firmly schooled himself in patience and prepared to submit to the endless formalities of men. If Legolas could do it, then so could the dwarf. He would sooner let his axe go dull than allow the elf to upstage him in anything. This being the case, he murmured no word of complaint and stood silently behind Eomer as the last of the delegates entered and assumed their places at the table.
Theoretically, no place was favored above another at the table, but Aragorn had explained that it was best to sit on the north side of the room because traditionally, that was where the more powerful tribes sat. And as Gimli watched, he saw that Aragorn was right. Aside from Gondor and Rohan, Dashnir of the Khurintu tribe was also standing by a seat on the northern end of the table, as was the tribal head of Gartabo—a man whose name Gimli had been told but could not remember. Also on the northern end, Arabano stood behind the tribal head of Lotessa. Gimli recognized no one else, but the other men who stood around them were elegantly dressed and powerfully built. It seemed safe to assume that they came from influential tribes as well.
"Why does Dashnir stand behind the seat?" Legolas suddenly whispered, moving close to Aragorn so that his words might remain secret. "He is not the tribal head. Where is his leader?"
"I know not," Aragorn murmured, keeping his face forward but turning his head slightly as he addressed the elf. "It is not a good sign, that much is certain. Very rarely has a tribal head missed a Gathering. This does not bode well."
Gimli shifted uneasily and moved to ask under what circumstances this had happened before, but a sudden silence fell over the room and he fell back behind Eomer, wondering what was about to happen. He’d been briefed by Aragorn, but he was still somewhat uncertain. The ways of men were always something of a mystery, and he was not one to trust to explanations, even those given by trustworthy men such as Aragorn. And so Gimli watched with all senses straining for any sign of the dangerous or the unusual as the Gathering officially began.
The tribal head of Gartabo stepped forward—What is his name? Gimli demanded of himself—bowed to all gathered in the room and began to speak. "Akhlan, nadiion, liHaradhur."
As one, the other delegates responded quickly. "Akhlan biikak."
Gartabo’s leader bowed again and then turned toward Gondor and Rohan. "This year the Gathering also welcomes King Elessar and King Eomer from the north, rulers of Gondor and Rohan. For their benefit, all official proceedings from this time forth shall be conducted in Westron."
There was some muted grumbling at this, but apparently the announcement was not totally unexpected and no great protest was made. Satisfied, Gartabo’s leader nodded and continued with the formalities.
"The foreigners will introduce themselves first so that we may come to know them, and then we shall introduce ourselves to them. After that, all shall be dismissed save the leaders and the Gathering shall begin." With that, the man inclined his head toward Aragorn and stepped back, relinquishing the floor.
"Nashkranakom bi’ilfirssa wa bi’ilsharraf," Aragorn said with a hidden smile. There was some murmuring at his sudden switch into Haradric, but just as quickly—and to Gimli’s eternal gratitude—the king changed back to Westron. "Leaders of Harad, I am King Elessar of Gondor, Aragorn son of Arathorn, of the house of Telcontar. Behind me stands Prince Legolas the elf, son of King Thranduil of Mirkwood, and Lord of Ithilien within the realm of Gondor. He serves this day as my second." When Aragorn was finished speaking, he stepped to one side and Legolas moved forward, holding himself as proud and as arrogant—arrogant at least to Gimli’s mind—as any elven lord. His gray eyes glittered as they surveyed the men before him, and more than one blanched and turned away under his piercing gaze. At length, Legolas dipped his head slightly and moved back, the corners of his mouth twitching with a suppressed smile. Hushed murmurs filled the room, and Aragorn cast a quick grin back at Legolas, thanking him for the edge he’d given Gondor.
Showoff, Gimli grumbled to himself.
Aragorn now nodded at Eomer, indicating that it was his turn. Eomer took a breath and stepped closer to the table, distancing himself slightly from Aragorn. "Delegates, I am King Eomer of Rohan, son of Eomund, and I command the horse-lords in the fair fields west of Gondor. Behind me, serving as my second, stands Gimli the dwarf, son of Glóin and Lord of the Glittering Caves of Aglarond."
As Aragorn had, Eomer now stepped to the side and Gimli moved forward, bowed to the leaders and then stepped back. More murmurs arose and the dwarf shifted his feet self-consciously. As a general rule, Gimli thoroughly enjoyed attention, but he did not enjoy being the object of intense scrutiny. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught Legolas smiling at him, apparently thoroughly enjoying his discomfort, and the dwarf shot the elf a dark glare, daring him to comment on this and promising fearsome consequences if he should say aught.
"We welcome you this day," Gartabo’s tribal leader said, interrupting the hushed conversations that had filled the room. "And now shall the rest of the introductions be made. I am Aulit, ruler of Gartabo. My second is Mohart, but as he is still in the northern countries, Pakron shall be serving in his place." A man that Gimli assumed to Pakron stepped forward and bowed to the rest of the Gathering. He then moved back and Aulit gestured for the next ruler to proceed.
"The Lotessa tribe wishes to extend its welcome to all. I am Budari, its ruler, and serving as my second is Arabano, who recently escorted the honored ones from Gondor and Rohan."
"A welcome to all. I am Joranen of the Warra tribe. My second, Garat, recently died on the trip back from Dol Amroth and in honor of his memory I act alone at this Gathering."
As the introductions continued, Gimli’s mind began to wander. He hated formalities with a passion, particularly formalities involving men. Elven formalities were also long, but at least they usually involved a large feast to break things up accompanied by song and story afterwards. With men, one could count on no such courtesies. The only thing one could count on was the fact that almost all formalities were destined to take hours on end with no hint of relief. Surreptitiously shifting his feet, Gimli once again caught Legolas smiling at him and it required all of his will power to refrain from knocking the elf to the ground. Instead, he directed a stern glower at the elven prince that suggested he would do well to watch himself. Clearly unimpressed with the dwarf’s threat, Legolas’s shoulders shook with suppressed laughter and his grin widened.
I will catch him after the meetings just ere sunrise, Gimli promised himself. This cursed elven smugness must stop or it shall drive us all mad! I begin to think that I am already less than sane.
Somehow sensing the silent interchange behind him, Aragorn rocked back on one foot and managed to send both elf and dwarf a rather severe glare. With a sigh, Gimli tried to focus on whatever it was the next leader was saying, but there were only so many ways to say "Welcome to you all, we’re glad to be here," and the dwarf was getting bored. Even if Legolas was insufferably arrogant at the moment, he was far more entertaining than the meeting. Besides, Gimli owed him one for vicariously waking him long before the dwarf intended to wake. Come to think of it, Aragorn and Eomer were also in need of some form of payback, not to mention Imhran and Arhelm, who did the actual waking. Yes, there would need to be some serious acts of revenge in retaliation for all that the dwarf had endured this night. Armed now with something to occupy his thoughts, Gimli focused his eyes on a point on the far wall so as not to be staring at anyone and let his mind go to work.
Some time later, Gimli was meditating on the possible uses for a small but nasty little creature he’d learned of called a scorpion when Legolas suddenly shifted beside him, alerting the dwarf to a possible development. Quickly filing the scorpion idea away and marking it for further contemplation, Gimli focused his attention back on the meeting and discovered that it was now Dashnir’s turn to step forward. Or rather, it was time for the ruler of the Khurintu tribe to speak, yet the ruler was not here. Distrust and suspicion now running rampant through his mind, Gimli narrowed his eyes and his hands strayed to his belt where his axe lay waiting. If Dashnir attempted anything, he would be ready.
"Honored ones, I regret to inform you that my leader, Asbad, will not be in attendance tonight. Another matter has come to his attention and he was called away early this evening. He will return in three or four days as circumstances permit. In the meantime, I shall stand in his place at this council."
In response to this announcement, there was dead silence. All stared at Dashnir as though he had gone mad. For his part, Dashnir returned their questioning looks with a smile that reminded Gimli very much of Thranduil during his most pig-headed moments. And I do believe I’ve also seen that smile upon Legolas from time to time, he mentally added. It was rather unnerving, actually, because upon an elf, the smile was usually warranted. It was not appreciated, but there was almost always sound backing for it. Elves had a tendency to be right, and their extreme stubbornness and confidence born from this tendency was something that Gimli had more or less learned to live with. Upon a man, though… No man should ever be that confident, Gimli decided, trying to ignore the chills that spread down his spine. Especially when I do not trust them.
Eventually, Aulit spoke, his voice hesitant and uncertain. "This is unprecedented, Dashnir. No ruler has ever missed a Gathering except because of death or extreme cases of illness. And no second has ever stood in the council."
"Be that as it may, honored one, this is the will of the Khurintu tribe," Dashnir answered proudly. "I suggest we accept circumstances as they have come and move on with other business. Unless, of course, you wish to contest us."
This last statement was accompanied by a strange gleam in Dashnir’s eyes that immediately put Gimli on edge. Not that he hadn’t been on edge before, but now he knew something was definitely up. But what?! Looking to Legolas in case the elf had received any sudden inspiration, Gimli felt his spirits fall when the elf glanced back and shook his head, his expression hinting that he was just as confused the dwarf was. And Legolas does not like to be confused, Gimli reminded himself, watching as inklings of anger and suspicion began to flash across the elf’s bright eyes. But then, neither do I.
Fortunately, it seemed that Legolas and Gimli were not the only two upset by this sequence of events. To their right, Gimli caught a glimpse of Arabano and his leader, Budari, holding a very hushed conversation in their own tongue. At length, Budari looked over at Dashnir and stepped forward.
"Does Khurintu’s will now govern this Gathering?" he challenged, his hand straying to his side where Gimli assumed a curved sword was hidden. That seemed to be par for the Haradrim.
"I could ask the same of you, honored one," Dashnir returned. "Does the Lotessa tribe presume to speak for the other rulers? Or do you merely voice your own misgivings? Answer with care, for my tribe does not like to be questioned."
"Do not mince words with me, Dashnir," Budari hissed. "The Lotessa tribe does not take well to veiled threats either, nor do we take well to seconds who assume the power of tribal leaders. The Lotessa tribe refuses to brandy treaties with a subordinate when it requires a ruler’s authority to act. Where is Asbad?"
"I regret that I am not at liberty to say," Dashnir demurred calmly, but his eyes had grown cold. "It is a matter of some importance to the Khurintu tribe and rather a delicate affair. Rest assured that all will come to light eventually and that your questions shall be answered in due time."
"By that, you mean to say that Khurintu shall dictate the time," Arabano spoke up from behind Budari.
"Arabano, you are out of order," Aulit said sharply.
"Nay, I beg to differ, honored one," Arabano replied. "I address a fellow second, and as such, I should have the leave of the Gathering to speak within these halls. If you grant unto Dashnir the right to speak, I claim that right as well, for upon this field, we are equals."
At this, the hall erupted into noise from both rulers and seconds alike. Stepping away from the table, Aragorn beckoned Eomer back and Legolas and Gimli forward. "Already this Gathering has gone awry," the king whispered, his voice so quiet that it was difficult for the dwarf to hear. "Stay alert and wary. I fear that not even the neutrality of Haradhur can shelter us now."
"But from whence does the threat come?" Eomer asked. "How does Dashnir taking Asbad’s place affect us? What could they possibly hope to gain by this other than to raise suspicion?"
"In truth, I cannot say," Aragorn answered, his expression one of deep concern. "Nor do I dare hazard a guess. This move is unlike them. They usually work in far more subtle ways. To come out and openly insult every other tribe at the Gathering…I like it not. It is as though they are taking the last great step before the storm. And I fear that we shall bear the brunt of it."
"Perhaps the Khurintu tribe has splintered and Dashnir now leads," Gimli offered.
"Perhaps, but I think not," Aragorn said. "From what I know of Dashnir and Asbad, they are sworn brothers in nearly everything they do, and under their guidance, Khurintu has escaped most of the internal strife that has plagued the other northern tribes since Sauron’s fall. Nay, I suspect they are united in this as they are united in all, but as for their purpose…I cannot say and I fear to presume too much."
"Shall I then pursue Arabano after we are dismissed?" Legolas asked, his sharp eyes scanning the room as accusations and questions continued to fly.
"I think you must. Lotessa, at least, has made no move openly against us, and at this point, we must trust someone. We are too few in number to combat Khurintu on our own," Aragorn replied.
"What of your riders, Eomer?" Gimli asked, searching the face of the horse-lord. "Do your instructions stand?"
"Now more than ever, and I would add to those instructions," Eomer whispered. "When you leave this hall, find Arhelm and instruct him to take all of the riders into the desert, not merely half. They are to search the surrounding area and mark the location of each tribe, but more than that, they are to look for signs of Khurintu’s leader. I would know what Asbad intends, for there were rumors that Radarad of the Portu tribe met with him this morning for some length of time."
Aragorn blinked at this and looked sharply at Eomer. "Why was I not informed of this?"
"I heard of this news just ere the Gathering began," Eomer answered, though his tone became slightly chilled.
"Radarad of Portu?" Legolas questioned, his eyes narrowing. "Think you that Khurintu seeks to use Portu against us now much as they did at Lake Supt?"
"There is not yet enough information to make that assumption, but it is a possibility," Aragorn answered. "Though how they would be used against us, I do not know. Of curiosity to me is how Warra might be involved. Garat was clearly working with Dashnir up until the time of his death, yet I sense now no alliance or friendship between Joranen and Khurintu."
"Gimli and I shall endeavor to solve this mystery," Legolas promised, suddenly turning his eyes back to the meeting. Aulit had been shouting for order and his continued cries were now being heeded.
"Dashnir, you realize that this is a serious breach in protocol?" Aulit asked as the room eventually quieted.
"For my tribe, I believe such a breach might be made, honored ones," Dashnir answered, his eyes gleaming. "It would be foolish for this Gathering to refuse to hear our words and our offers, for we have much that would be of value to the rest of you. Do not lightly dismiss Khurintu. It would not be in your best interests."
"This Gathering will not be threatened!" Aulit declared, his voice cold.
"Nor will Khurintu," Dashnir returned calmly. "Choose now, honored ones, for time is passing. If this body truly sees no need to include Khurintu in the Gathering, then I shall depart. But you shall all greatly rue such a decision."
A dead silence fell upon those in the hall, and then Aulit sighed, his voice filled with reluctant resignation. "I suppose that so long as you are here, Dashnir, you may as well act in place of Asbad." There were murmurs around the room at this, but Aulit raised his hand and the voices quieted. "So I have spoken and so it shall be. We will not discuss this further, and this Gathering begins now. I ask that all seconds, with the exception of Dashnir, exit the room so that the leaders might discuss that which is necessary."
"Stay on your guard," Aragorn hissed to Legolas and Gimli as men began filing past them for the exits. "Plots and schemes abound during a Gathering, and not least of these are assassination attempts."
"Then you had best watch your own back," Gimli answered with a small smile. "For it seems to me that you would make a better target than I. Besides, I would like to see anyone try to slip past the combined guard of a dwarf and an elf."
"Your pride serves you well, Gimli, but temper it with caution," Aragorn warned. "The Haradrim have been at this for more years than even Legolas might remember."
Legolas raised a brow at this while Gimli snorted. "Then I shall keep an eye on the elf," the dwarf promised, turning his attention to his best friend. "Come, ancient one, let us see if your skills are up to things that are old even compared to you."
"If my skills are not up to the task, then I fear that the consequences for you, Master Dwarf, shall be even more dire," Legolas retorted.
Eomer snorted and shook his head. "I care not how you go about ensuring one another’s safety so long as you both remember that you are here to serve the interests of Gondor and Rohan. I should not like to be called out because the two of you chanced to have a small skirmish that resulted in disaster."
For answer, Gimli gave a cocky grin and bowed. "Your wish is my command, my liege. Come, Legolas. The underlings have work to do." And chuckling at Aragorn’s almost immediate groan, elf and dwarf left the inner hall for the outer corridor where whispers and murmurs were already beginning to fill the air.
* * * *
Arabano’s mind was whirling with possibilities, accusations, and general dread. He stood in the outer hallway and watched as the lesser delegates like himself began milling about. Already groups were beginning to form, and distrust and suspicion were tangible entities in the air. As far as Arabano’s memory reached, never had a Gathering started on such a grim note. It was not unlike a Gathering to conclude with ill feelings, but to begin like this… Arabano shook his head. It was an ill omen.
And of course it is Khurintu that brings this omen upon us, he sighed, turning dark eyes toward the various groups that were now conversing in hushed whispers. By the blood of the Ages, what does Asbad intend? This move is far too abrupt for Khurintu. They hope to gain something by this, yet I cannot fathom what that something is.
Gritting his teeth, Arabano folded his arms and leaned back against the rounded wall. Unable to find answers on his own, he decided to see to other business in the hopes that it would further the quest for explanations. His sharp eyes swept the masses around him until he found the three guards that had accompanied himself and his leader Budari into the hall this night. Signaling them over, he then began searching the crowds once again. It wasn’t long before his sharp eyes were rewarded.
Hidden in the shadow of a pillar, he spotted the dwarf speaking quietly with Arhelm, the captain of Rohan’s guard. Arabano was somewhat surprised to discover that the elf was nowhere in sight, and he wondered what had caused the two to part ways. He spent another minute or so looking for the missing half of the nearly inseparable pair, but when his search proved fruitless, Arabano eventually gave up and decided that the dwarf would have to suffice for now.
"You have your instructions," he murmured to his guards. "See that you follow them to the letter. I will take no chances. This is far too delicate a matter."
The guards nodded smartly, and at Arabano’s dismissal, they separated and drifted into the crowds, making their way slowly but casually toward the dwarf and Arhelm. Looking about to ensure that his own movements were not being watched, Arabano also began drifting slightly closer, but he stopped a safe distance away. All he really needed was a clear vantagepoint, and he had now obtained one.
Arhelm and the dwarf appeared to have finished their conversation, for Arhelm was now moving in the direction of the doors. Fortunately for Arabano, though, the dwarf stayed next to the pillar. He appeared to be waiting for someone, and Arabano wondered if that someone might not be his elven friend.
Perhaps I should have waited, Arabano thought, realizing he still had time to call his guards back. But after contemplating the idea, he decided that watching the dwarf alone was probably for the best. He had seen enough of the elf and dwarf together to have a fairly good idea of their capabilities. At the moment, he was interested in the elf and the dwarf as separate individuals.
His guards had almost reached the dwarf now, and Arabano took a quick look around. He was more or less alone as he pressed himself up against the wall, and Arabano hoped it would stay that way. He could not afford to be caught away by trivial matters now. Satisfied that for the moment he was safe from the demands of insignificant delegates of small and petty tribes, Arabano turned his attention back to the dwarf. The show was about to begin.
The first guard was creeping toward Gimli from the rear, but apparently sensing his approach, the dwarf turned and confronted the man. The dwarf said nothing and did nothing, but the look in his eyes was enough and the first guard stopped, seemingly troubled. The second guard, though, chose this as his opportunity to move. Slipping silently and stealthily through the crowds, he closed the gap and was upon the dwarf with a speed that even Arabano had difficulty tracking. But as fast as the guard was, Gimli was faster. Sidestepping the man who rushed him from behind, he caught the guard’s arm in a firm grip and twisted, choking a startled cry out of his former hunter and causing a small knife to clatter to the floor.
Impressive, Arabano mentally praised, folding his arms and continuing to dissect the situation as events unfolded before him.
The third guard had arrived now, and with Gimli distracted by the second man, the first and third moved in. A space was beginning to clear around the group as others realized that something was taking place, and a hush had fallen over the crowds. But Gimli seemed not to care that he was drawing attention. Quite the opposite. The observation of others seemed to enhance his skills. Sensing that more guards were bearing down upon him, Gimli planted his weight firmly and then threw the second guard into his companions, knocking them to the floor. The dwarf then backed up slightly, giving them a chance to recover in the event that they should wish to consider peace.
But the guards had their orders, and they would follow them until different orders were given. As one they rose and spread out, preparing to flank the dwarf. Gimli moved against the wall to protect his back, but he now had one man before him and two on either side. If they rushed together, it was unlikely that the dwarf would be able to handle them. Arabano’s eyes narrowed as he considered the situation, but before anything could happen, he suddenly felt cold steel against his neck. He was given almost no time to react to this, for even as he reached toward his hidden knife, both arms were suddenly caught in an iron grip, wrenched above his head, and pinned firmly to the wall.
"Call them off."
Humiliated at being caught so unawares and so easily bested, Arabano turned his flashing eyes to the side and immediately found himself swallowed by an intense, ageless stare that seemed to capture his soul and hold it for further scrutiny. The gray eyes then narrowed dangerously and the knife at this throat moved slightly.
"Call them off," the order was repeated, and the look upon Legolas’s face left no doubt as to what the elf would do should Arabano refuse.
Almost writhing with embarrassment, Arabano turned his eyes back to the guards and the dwarf. Catching the attention of the first guard, he jerked his head and the man nodded, motioning the other two away. Leaving behind a very confused dwarf, the men turned and vanished into the crowd. Sensing that the spectacle was over, the others in the hall went back to whatever business had previously occupied them, taking the incident as part and parcel of life at Haradhur.
"A wise decision," Legolas whispered. The blade at Arabano’s throat suddenly vanished and his hands were released as the elf stepped back. Instinctively pushing away from the wall so as to give himself more room for maneuvering, Arabano began massaging his wrists while keeping an eye on the elf. For his part, Legolas didn’t move but watched impassively. To the untrained eye, his stance was casual and nonchalant, but Arabano sensed an awareness and a readiness about the elf that might put the greatest mortal warriors to shame. Legolas’s arms were relaxed at his sides, but there was a slight tension in them, so faint as to be barely discernable. And having recently been a firsthand witness of Legolas’s stealth and speed, there was no doubt in Arabano’s mind that the hunting knife sheathed on the elf’s hip could be out and ready again in a moment’s notice, possibly faster.
Holding his hands up to indicate that he intended no harm, Arabano inclined his head in Gimli’s direction. Legolas raised an eyebrow at this but after a moment of strained silence, he nodded and gestured for the man to proceed him. With a slight smile, Arabano nodded and began walking, acutely aware of the elf’s presence just behind him. Legolas was taking no chances. This may work after all, Arabano reflected as a hint of hope began to take shape within his heart.
By now, Gimli had spotted both Arabano and Legolas and was moving toward them, but he his eyes strayed to the face of his elven friend and the dwarf stopped cold. Glancing over his shoulder, Arabano wondered what sort of messages were being passed between the two. The desert tribesman could read nothing in the elf’s face other than general wariness, but apparently a wealth of information was rapidly imparted to the dwarf, for his hand tightened itself on his axe and he took an instinctive step back as though preparing himself for some type of attack.
"I believe I owe both of you an explanation. If you would indulge me by listening…" Arabano trailed off and fell silent, watching both elf and dwarf closely in an attempt to gauge their reactions. But the silent language between the two was almost impossible to interpret. Legolas moved his shoulders slightly, Gimli shifted his stance, the elf inclined his head, Gimli folded his arms across his chest, Legolas’s eyes narrowed as he nodded, the dwarf sniffed, Legolas stepped back slightly, and then the conversation seemed to end. Both elf and dwarf looked as though they had reached a conclusion of sorts, yet Arabano couldn’t even begin to guess at what that conclusion was.
"Speak, for we are waiting to hear," Gimli said, his dark eyes studying the man with a scrutiny that reminded Arabano of the gaze Legolas had fixed upon him earlier.
"The Lotessa tribe does not act until we have sufficient information to do so," Arabano began, trying to keep both elf and dwarf within his sight but finding it impossible to do because Legolas seemed to be drifting behind him.
"Go on," Gimli prompted, drawing Arabano’s attention away from the elf.
"The actions of Khurintu have alarmed us this evening, and we seek to cement the alliance that I broached with you earlier."
Gimli’s eyes took on a guarded look and he frowned. "You have an interesting way of cementing alliances."
"That was not the purpose of the attack," Arabano explained. "The purpose of the attack was to evaluate your abilities. Lotessa has quietly opposed Khurintu for years, but Budari and I both feel that the time for subtlety has passed. Khurintu apparently has no more need for it, as you have both witnessed, and now we must also act with boldness. But in order to do so, we must be certain of our allies. We cannot afford to be encumbered by them. Our friends must be able to hold their own without our aid."
Silence fell upon the small group for a moment, and then the dwarf spoke. "This demonstration was unnecessary," Gimli growled. "And how am I to believe your words? For all I know, you could be speaking with the intent of saving your own neck."
Indignation flashed through Arabano and he stiffened, his hand unconsciously straying to his side where his sword was concealed. "The warriors of Lotessa are honorable men," he warned, his eyes flashing. "We are not cowards to escape with words. Nor do we defend our actions to others. We act as we see best, and then we take the consequences that come with those actions."
"Did we pass your test?"
The voice of the elf coming directly behind him startled Arabano, and he wondered how he had managed to lose track of Legolas during the conversation. "Yes," he said, turning away from the dwarf. "You did pass. The offer of an alliance now stands as an official request from Budari."
The elf looked at the dwarf and shook his head ever so slightly. Gimli snorted and mumbled something too low to make out, but apparently Legolas was able to hear it, for he smiled and his shoulders shook as though with suppressed laughter. Then the mirth vanished as quickly as it had come, and a hard light entered the elf’s eyes as he turned back to face Arabano.
"You threatened us, and that cannot be forgotten," Legolas said, his gray eyes darkening. "But I understand the reasons behind your caution. My own king in Mirkwood has used similar measures during long years of uncertainty. And I judge you to be a man of your word, Arabano." The elf glanced again at the dwarf, another series of indecipherable signals passed between them, and then Legolas turned his gaze back to Arabano. "We accept your offer of an alliance upon conditions. You tell us all you can of the Khurintu tribe, and you order the three men behind me to leave the hall and wait outside. I will not chance another…test. Such things have a way of growing beyond one’s control."
Surprised, Arabano tried to meet the elf’s eyes, but he found that he could still not withstand the piercing glance. With a sigh, he stepped back and looked beyond the elf, nodding his head at the three guards who had come back in the event that he might need them. He heard Gimli chuckle slightly at his obvious discomfiture, and despite his embarrassment, Arabano found himself smiling back. "I accept your conditions, and I offer my apologies in the event that I have caused offense," he said quietly. "It was not my intention, but in these dark times, one must make sure of one’s alliances."
"Indeed," Gimli said, the laughter still present in his voice but it was accompanied by a slight note of warning. "And how shall we test your skills, Arabano?"
"Should you wish to test them, you have only to name the opponent," Arabano answered with a slight bow. "It would be a fair request."
The dwarf grunted and looked at Legolas. Legolas nodded and Gimli turned his attention back to Arabano. "Then against my better judgement, the alliance stands. Let us go now and speak of Khurintu, for you have much to tell us."
"Much indeed," Arabano agreed. "Let us depart. I know of a place where we may speak undisturbed. And in Haradhur, such a place is a rare treasure, my friends."
"Lead on, then," Legolas commanded, his head suddenly swiveling and his eyes fixing themselves on a point near the outer doors. "For already I feel the regard of another, and his intentions are ill."
Curious, Arabano glanced the direction in which Legolas was looking, wondering who in the crowd of people might have caught the elf’s attention. What he saw froze him. A face leaped out at him for but a brief moment, and then it disappeared behind desert scarves as a man clothed in red robes turned away. The figure then slipped out one of the hall’s tall doors and disappeared into the blackness of the night.
Completely stunned, Arabano took only a brief moment to collect himself and then he sprang into action, pushing through delegates and eventually making his way to the outside world. But by the time he broke free of the crowds, it was too late. The figure was gone and the night was empty. All was silent.
His heart pounding and his mind thrown into chaos, Arabano slowly turned around to face the elf and dwarf that now stood in the entryway, framed by the light of torches from within the hall. "He is here," Arabano whispered, searching desperately for explanations but finding only questions. "And he comes in the garb of the Destroyer."
"Who?" Gimli demanded, suspicion rising in his dark eyes.
"Asbad." Arabano turned again to face the night and shivered at the darkness he found in it. Something ill went forth. The omens and tidings were clear. "Come," he said as a feeling of dread began to rise in his heart. "Time runs short, and I fear the storm is already upon us."
Akhlan, nadiion, liHaradhur—Welcome, leaders, to Haradhur (Haradric)
Akhlan biikak—Welcome (the response) (Haradric)
Nashkranakom bi’ilfirssa wa bi’ilsharraf—We thank you all for this opportunity and this honor (Haradric)
* * * *
RECAP: First of all, taking my cue from terrific writers like Ithilien and Jocelyn, I’ve composed an original character list. It is not comprehensive, though. I’m only listing the original characters that play key roles either in this chapter or at some point during the remainder of the story. And yes, it looks long, but please don’t freak out on me! Besides, you know most of these characters already.Mohart—Second-in-command of the Gartabo tribe (primarily farmers)
Aulit—Ruler of the Gartabo tribe and chairman of the Gathering
Arabano—Second-in-command of the Lotessa tribe (warriors from the south)
Budari—Ruler of the Lotessa tribe
Dashnir—Second-in-command of the Khurintu tribe (warriors from the north)
Asbad—Ruler of the Khurintu tribe
Fastahn—Member of the Soltari tribe (primarily farmers)
Joranen—Ruler of the Warra tribe (warriors and raiders)
Radarad—Ruler of the Portu tribe (raiders)
Imhran—Captain of Gondor’s guard
Arhelm—Captain of Rohan’s guard
Next up, the recap itself. I’m going to give you guys an overall summary of the important bits broken down by events, tribes, and/or people. I hope it’s not too confusing, but there are a lot of details floating around. Okay, let’s get started.
The Gathering of Harad happens every year during the hottest time of summer. All tribes are expected to participate and tribal leaders must attend, which is why Aragorn and Eomer are going rather than sending Faramir and Elfhelm. It is also VERY unusual for foreign powers to be invited to a Gathering.
The delegation sent to escort Aragorn and company consisted of nine men, which is considered an unlucky number by some of the tribes in Harad. Mohart of the Gartabo tribe was to head the delegation, but when Imrahil attempted to drug Dashnir because of suspicions regarding the man, Dashnir switched cups with Mohart and the Gartabo delegate fell ill. So the group that set out into Harad consisted of eight men escorting Gondor and Rohan under the guidance of Dashnir.
Dashnir comes from the Khurintu tribe, which is composed of warriors and raiders. Also, the leaders of the Khurintu tribe are descended from the Black Númenóreans and have inherited perceptions and powers beyond those of ordinary men. They were highly favored by Sauron before the War of the Ring and learned much of his craft.
Aiding Dashnir in his plans was Garat of the Warra tribe, also a tribe of warriors and raiders but having no Númenórean blood. The Warra tribe is actually filled with internal strife, and unbeknownst to its tribal head, Joranen, Garat was leading a rebel faction and merely biding his time until he could overthrow Joranen. In the meantime, this rebel faction was restricting access to a water hole that the Portu tribe used. The Portu tribe is primarily a tribe of horse thieves, and using the water hole as leverage, Dashnir and Garat convinced Bron (of the Portu tribe) to stage an attack on Aragorn and Eomer in order to gauge their military ability.
During this attack, Dashnir and Garat observed some very fierce loyalty between Gondor and Rohan as well as among Aragorn, Eomer, Legolas, and Gimli. This loyalty inspired Dashnir to create alternative plans and send them off by hawk for approval. His leader, Asbad, agreed. We still don’t know what these alternative plans are. And toward the end of the attack, Dashnir put Legolas under ú-glîr, primarily as a test to see if it could be done but also as a safeguard for things to come.
After the attack at Lake Supt was over, Aragorn figured out that Bron had somehow been behind the skirmish, but before Bron could say anything about it, Dashnir killed him. Things went downhill from there. Because of the extensive shadow required to put Legolas beneath ú-glîr and also to keep him there, Aragorn started doubting himself, Legolas fell into depression, and Eomer became impulsive as well as jealous of Gondor for its power. When the group arrived at Lake Nurnein, Eomer became so upset that he attacked Garat, forcing Dashnir to use some of his sorcerer’s powers to wipe the horse-lord’s memories. This left Dashnir rather drained.
During the trip from Lake Nurnein to Haradhur, a sandstorm drove the entire group into the Sihal (volcanic rocks that run along the western edge of Harad). In these rather close quarters, the shadow of ú-glîr drove Garat to attack Legolas. Dashnir was unable to prevent it or shelter Garat because wiping Eomer’s memories had drained him. Legolas eventually killed Garat, but the attack convinced Dashnir that he had to remove ú-glîr before anything else could happen. Besides that, Legolas was actually adjusting to mortal senses, and ú-glîr was more or less backfiring on Dashnir.
Upon final reaching Haradhur, Arabano from the Lotessa tribe (a rival tribe to Khurintu from the south) broached to Legolas and Gimli the idea of a tentative alliance with Gondor and Rohan. But it was a very tentative offer because the Lotessa tribe is a very wary tribe. They didn’t have Sauron’s favor during the years of his power, and as such, they learned to trust no one. And Aragorn and Eomer aren’t feeling all that trusting themselves.
Which leads us up to Chapter 19. The next part is a little tricky because I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll just try to clarify what’s going on.
Legolas is enjoying a brief stint of euphoria that is natural after recovering from ú-glîr and he’s really not paying attention to his senses very much.
Asbad and Dashnir want to make the Portu tribe serve them again in the near future, but they don’t know if they still have the leverage needed. The contingent of Warra soldiers guarding the lake that Portu uses was under Garat’s command and Garat is now dead. But Joranen (Warra’s leader) probably didn’t know about those soldiers because they were part of a rebel group acting without his authority. Thus, it’s quite likely that they wouldn’t have been informed of Garat’s death, so Dashnir thinks he can still control them using Garat’s name. If Dashnir is right, Khurintu still has control of the Portu tribe (which is lead by Radarad) because they still control the lake that Portu’s women and children need.
And while all this is happening in Harad, Mohart has recovered in Dol Amroth and convinced Imrahil (who has had some rather nasty dreams) to ride into Harad in order to stop Khurintu and Warra. So they’re on their way, but they’re still several days out of Haradhur. They have to reach Lake Supt, then Lake Miyarr, then Lake Nurnein, and then they can get to Haradhur.
And after that, you have Chapter 20, which you’ve either just read or are about to read.
**stops for breath** Okay, I don’t know if that made things worse or not, but I hope it helped somebody out there. If anyone has any questions that they really need cleared up, feel free to clog up the reviews with them or send me an email if it’s just a specific query. I can always try explaining things again! ;)
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.