45. To Arthedain
"It warms my heart to see one of my people risen so high in the world," the priest said with a smile that showed a mouthful of rotten teeth.
"But…?" Khamul asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Alas, but our leader has been taken captive by the Gondorians."
Khamul sighed. "Well, then he's dead. Pick another leader."
"But that is where I fear you are mistaken. There is this king…Calimehtar. His father renewed communications with the northern kingdom…Arthedain."
Khamul had a bad feeling about this.
"They exchanged gifts and words about alliance. Nothing substantial. However, this Calimehtar's father decided to turn over our leader to this northern king. I believe it was something about 'this is what we have to deal with'. Something like that."
"So you want your leader back," Khamul said.
"Yes," the priest said.
"And you'll make an alliance with me once your leader's back?"
"I have considerable influence over many tribes, both in the desert and in the far-off jungle. If you bring back Chief Harwan, I shall exert that influence on your behalf."
In other words, I get my army. "You want me to travel all the way to Arthedain and get this Harwan?" Khamul asked.
"If you want our aid, then that is what you will do."
Khamul sighed and stood up. "Come on, Malbeth," she snapped. "I'm not going to go ride through Gondor. Calimehtar'll be on his guard."
"So where will we go?" the old man asked.
"We'll have to try the sea, and there's only one place around here that's got a port. Umbar."
"Another Haradrim! They're pouring in like ants!"
Khamul's hand went reflexively to her sword, but she managed to stop herself from drawing it and cutting the bastard's head off. She needed to keep a low profile in this filthy town that should never have been rebuilt.
After its second destruction, Umbar had gradually rebuilt itself and now was almost to its former glory. Ships went everywhere for a price, though they tended to be Corsair ships that raided the shores of Gondor.
"To the north," Malbeth whispered. "Excellent."
"Yeah, that's where you wanted to go, isn't it?" Khamul muttered. "Why?"
Malbeth shrugged. "I've seen most of the south in my time, but the north intrigues me. Does it snow there?"
"Fascinating. When it melts, is it really water?"
"I look forward to seeing it."
"It's spring," Khamul said. "I hope it doesn't snow." She smiled suddenly, spotting a ship that wasn't a Corsair's vessel.
"That ship?" Malbeth asked, looking doubtfully at the bobbing boat. It was fairly small, little more than a fishing craft. The sails were patched together and the whole ship looked like it'd seen better days.
"Looks perfect," Khamul said. "Hey!" she called. "Anybody there?"
A head appeared on the deck, shortly followed by a body. "What do you want?" the man demanded. He looked northern, a good sign.
"Where are you heading?"
"Why do you care?"
"If you're going to Arthedain, you've got two paying customers!"
"Looks like I'm going to Arthedain then," the man said. "Better fishing there, too, although the winters are damn cold. Go much further north and you could get trapped in the ice."
Having seen several ships suffer this fate, Khamul had to agree. "How much you charge?" she asked.
"Eight silver pennies each?" the man suggested. "It's a long journey," he protested as Khamul scowled.
"I will gladly pay for both our fares," Malbeth said, taking out a purse and handing the man eight pennies. "You'll get the rest when we arrive."
"I thought you said you didn't have any money!" Khamul snapped.
"You might've robbed me."
"I still might!"
"So, masters," the man on the ship said with a greedy smile, "when do you want to leave?"
"I believe you mentioned something about having been on a ship before," Malbeth said.
"That was a long time ago," Khamul groaned. I'm immortal and damn near invulnerable, she thought. So why am I getting seasick?
"I must admit that the seas have been a bit rough of late."
Khamul snorted. That was the understatement of the century, if not the millennia. Storms pounded the small fishing boat, waves swamped the deck, and the wind tossed it like a piece of paper. However, there was one good thing about the ghastly weather: it meant they were getting close to Arthedain.
"Weather always gets bad when you go north," said the captain (he was first mate and boson, not to mention the entire crew, as well). "We'll be seeing land soon. A couple of days at most."
"I can't wait to get out of here," Khamul grumbled, trying to stretch her legs in the cramped, narrow bed. "I swear, if Araval's had Harwan executed, I'm going to cut off his head myself."
"How are we going to get into Fornost in the first place?" Malbeth asked. "I can see myself getting in, but you…"
"I'll think of a way," Khamul said. "What's Arthedain like right now anyway?" she asked the captain later when she felt well enough to go on deck.
"I expect it'll have changed somewhat since the last time I was there," the captain said.
"Which was when?"
"About a year or two ago," the captain said after some thought. "Araval's still king, but I heard his son married. His wife'll probably have a kid soon."
"The line continues," Khamul snarled. "With no end in sight!"
The captain looked surprised. "I was wondering what a Haradrim wanted to go to Arthedain for," he said, "but now I think it might be for assassination."
"Don't be an idiot. One of my countrymen is there, so I'm going to break him out."
"Oh. Just that?"
"Yeah, just that." And kill anyone who gets in my way.
The captain nodded, but he looked worried.
The next day saw the dawn rising over mountains and forests. Khamul had never been so glad to see the land before.
"Well, that's the shore," the captain said. "I suppose I could go to the Grey Havens, but I doubt you'd like that, would you?"
"No," Khamul said.
"Can you go up the Baranduin?" Malbeth asked. "All the way to the bend in the river near Lake Evendim? That would put us quite close to Fornost."
"I suppose I could," the captain muttered. "It's hard sailing upriver though."
"How much extra do you want?" Khamul asked.
The captain grinned. "You know how a man's mind works," he said.
"Three silver pennies."
"Done. Five if you get us there fast."
"Yes, master!" The man started bustling around the deck, tying off ropes here, unwinding some there. Khamul hadn't the faintest idea what was going on, but it was entertaining to watch.
It was slow going up the river, but it took less time and trouble than a ride through enemy territory. Khamul mostly stayed below deck, while Malbeth wandered around, watching the land and commenting on the scenery. The captain finally got so annoyed of having him talking constantly that he ordered Khamul to the deck. Not one to obey orders, Khamul had considered refusing, but then took pity on the man.
"What a cheerful land," Malbeth said. It had only been two hours and already Khamul felt like strangling him.
"Yeah, it looks great," Khamul said.
They were looking out on the western side of the river, a green land full of flowers and rolling hills. Somewhere in the distance was a cloud break and golden sunlight streamed down, making everything seem richer and more splendid.
"The other side of the river…" Malbeth didn't finish the sentence.
The Arthedain side of the Baranduin was gray with skeletal trees, marshy ground, and dark, cloudy skies. The trees huddled close together as if for protection, and most of the plants were low and dense, as if trying to escape attention.
"Who lives there?" Khamul asked, gesturing to the sunny side. Such stark opposites, and they were just a river apart.
"I've never met anyone from there," the captain said with a frown. "One of the kings gave some people the land. It used to be a royal hunting ground. They call it 'The Shire' now."
"Humans, I suppose," Khamul said.
"Really short humans," the captain said. "One of my friends knew a few of the people. 'Halflings' they're called."
"A different race?" Malbeth asked. "How curious." He scanned the land for any hint of inhabitants, midgets or no. "Regrettably, it seems they don't live precisely here."
"Nice land they've got, the lucky bastards," Khamul said.
Malbeth put on the mystic air he got when he was making a 'prophecy'. "I foresee that you shall see this land again," he said. "You shall meet with the Halflings and you shall exchange words with them."
"Shut up," Khamul said. "I don't want to meet the damn midgets." Although she wouldn't mind spending some time in their land. It looked very nice. Quite a change from the dreariness of Arthedain or the blazing heat of Harad.
"We'll be at a bend in the river by tomorrow," the captain said. "That's the closest it is to Fornost. You want off there?"
Khamul nodded, still watching this Shire place.
"It's still a good day's ride to Fornost."
"That's why we brought the horses."
The captain nodded, grimacing. It had taken some extra money to convince him to allow them to bring their horses, but he was making enough money on this trip to nearly let him retire, so he'd agreed.
The next day was even darker than the last. Gray, threatening clouds loomed overhead, and as Khamul and Malbeth departed the ship on their horses, the clouds broke forth into a pouring rain.
"Well, this is just great," Khamul muttered as she tugged her hood over her head.
"If it were a bright, sunny day then we would be more likely to be noticed," Malbeth pointed out. "People don't pay as much attention to other people when there's bad weather."
"It'll probably clear up by the time we get to Fornost," Khamul grumbled.
"Speaking of that," Malbeth said. "Do we actually have a plan?"