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PostPosted: Tue 24 Oct , 2006 5:31 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
It was early evening when Éowyn woke from her unnatural slumber. She opened her eyes slowly, then shut them tightly again. Though the room was quite dark because the windows were shuttered, the light from the oil lamps was still fiercely bright, or so it seemed to her, especially the one sitting on the small table next to her bed. She took a deep breath and choked suddenly, feeling a liquid slide down her throat. The coughing fit combined with the ever-present headache felt like they would undo her. She groaned and tried to curl up into a tight ball, hiding her face in her hands. The world seemed to be spinning out of control, and if she closed her eyes and kept still, she might have a chance of staying in one piece. She breathed slowly and shallowly, trying not too move too much lest the pounding in her head increase. Already it felt like two weights were pressing on either side of her head relentlessly.

All around her she heard what sounded like roaring and moaning, and she could not place the sound. After several moments, she decided it must be the wind, but she had never heard the wind make these kinds of noises. Where am I? she thought when she was able to form a thought without pain. She relaxed her cramped position and tried to think back to the last thing she could remember clearly.

There was the wedding at Khiblat Pharazôn, and the celebrations after. Narejde had been beautiful, and Khorazîr seemed to have grown back into his youth again. There was little Hanneh with her bouncing curls, smiles, and giggles. There was Azrahil walking around in his red burnous with black fur trim that his mother had bestowed upon him, one of the many signs of her doting. Then came the many dances, most of which she and Faramir did not know but attempted anyway. Then the celebration began winding down, folk began going back home, and soon they were packing their own things and readying their horses for the journey. There was the sun and the wind, and for some reason she was staying several lengths behind Fararmir, talking to Narejde. Then a break, and the others had to leave, something had happened, what was it? An attack, she remembered. Someone escaped. Then they moved on, talked to the borders, and went into the pass. The wind had whistled here too as it toyed with the many ribbons and strips of cloth tied to ropes. She remembered descending, finding signs of trouble, then learning of the raid on the village. And then they were in the village. The dead. The living. The wounded. She shuddered, the images coming back to mind. There was the little boy and his sister, and their fatally wounded mother. Then she had been forced to leave, and they crept through the back streets and alleys, until they reached the village square.

She thought a moment longer, then the last few pure moments of consciousness came back to her. Shrieking, she instantly sat up straight, recalling clearly the sight of Faramir being hit with not only one but two arrows and sinking to his knees as blood began soaking his shirt. This sudden movement did not agree with the rest of her body, and she clutched her fiercely protesting head as she sank back down into the pillows, and into welcome blackness.

+

She woke again, not long after, the sound of quiet, frantic voices and soft caresses on her back and arms.

“Why did you not stop her?” one voice asked in Adûnaic.

“It happened too quickly. She sat up and fell down again almost in the same moment,” the other replied. Éowyn felt the owner of this voice stroking her hair. She flinched. The hand paused a moment. “I think she is waking up again. Fetch a cup of water. Are you awake, my lady?” Éowyn wanted to say no, that she never wanted to wake again, but all she could manage was a slight moan. “That’s close enough for me. Let me help you sit up a bit so you can drink. Slowly now,” the girl continued her soothing patter as Éowyn felt her surprisingly strong arms lift her to a half-sitting position.

“Here,” the other voice said. She felt something cool press against her lips, and it seemed her mouth opened of its own accord, because she soon felt the refreshing water running down her throat. It had been well over two days since she had eaten or drank properly, and her stomach suddenly rumbled its disapproval. But she did not feel like eating. He is dead, she thought, the weight of the realization shattering what strength she had. He is dead, and you will never see him again. He ran into danger because of you. Another, more horrible thought crossed her mind. You were the one who killed him. She felt tears stinging her eyes, then burning paths down her cheeks. She turned and buried her face in what she guessed was a shoulder, sobbing uncontrollably. She shook as each sob racked her body. He had only wanted to protect her, and she had done what she could to flout his efforts. And what had it achieved? He was dead. Her beloved Faramir, the man who had led her out of darkness and despair, gone.

Her two new maidservants exchanged desperate, bewildered looks. They had been cautioned that when the lady woke she may be disoriented and unstable, but they had not expected this weeping fit. “Should we send for Bataye?” the one holding the cup asked, concern evident in her voice.

“Not yet,” the other said, continuing to stroke her charge’s strange yellow hair. “Besides, do you want her to think we aren’t good enough for this, and have to go back to Rashidah?”

The other girl’s eyes grew wide and she shook her head. “I’ll go find her a nightdress,” she said. “What she has on is filthy.”

As she scampered away, the other began humming a lullaby to the weeping woman in her arms, trying her best to sooth her. “It will be alright,” she murmured. “You’ll see, you’ll see.”

+

Eventually, Éowyn’s sobbing storm passed, and she hung limp in her serving girl’s arms, exhausted and numb. She could not think clearly anymore, and surprisingly her headache had eased somewhat. The roaring wind was still unaccounted for. She raised her head from the girl’s shoulder and cracked her eyes toward a window. “What…” she started to say softly.

“Tis only the wind,” the girl assured her. “There’s a shirrikan close, but the men say it will pass south of here.”

“A what?”

“A shirrikan, it’s… it’s a really big storm that comes off the sea,” the girl said, relieved to get any sort of sane words out of the woman. “But don’t worry, the house is safe.”

Éowyn nodded slightly. She felt that she should ask just where this house was, and who it belonged to, but she knew she had a fairly good guess, and at the moment she did not care. She began staring off into empty air, then realized, perhaps for the first time, that there was a person next to her. Through bleary eyes, she saw a girl, certainly not come of age, but perhaps seventeen or eighteen years old, with skin the color of new saddle leather, hair dark and braided, and eyes just as dark but caring. She wore a plain gray dress with shortened sleeves and no device or insignia. “I am Miliani,” she said gently, pushing a damp strand of Éowyn’s hair back in line with the rest. “Saredeen is going to get you something nicer to wear.”

As if on cue, the second girl returned, with looks and clothing much the same as Saredeen’s, though her hair was loose and tied back with a cord. She carried a green nightdress made of what shimmered like silk. “I made sure there was a bath started as well,” she said, carefully laying the garment on the bed. “Are you feeling better?” she asked, bending slightly to look Éowyn in the eyes. Éowyn stared back, unable to form a response. Saredeen twisted her face a bit. “Hmm, you do need a bath then, if you can’t even answer that.”

“Be nice,” Miliani scolded. “And get her a bathing robe if you’re going to draw a bath.”

“You’re turning into Bataye,” Saredeen muttered, but she went off in search of a robe.

“Let’s get you ready for a nice bath,” Miliani said, helping Éowyn to a full sitting position. Éowyn groaned, not enjoying the movement. She wanted to lay back down and go to sleep. She no longer cared now she looked or whether she smelled nice. Together Miliani and Saredeen helped her out of her sweat-, dirt-, and blood-stained robes and into the clean, fresh bathing robe. Then they led her across the room, up six stone steps, and into a curved nook off the main part of the room. Its three windows would have looked over the bay below, had they not had their covers on. An alabaster bath tub stood in the center of the area, with several fluffy towels piled beside it and oil lamps lit around it as well. Steam spiraled its way up from the tub, accompanied by the faint smell of roses.

“Ah, here we are,” Miliani said as Saredeen positioned two ornate screens behind them, blocking this area from the rest of the room. “Just step in… that’s it…”

Éowyn soon found herself in the tub, though she could have sworn she had never actually lifted a foot to step in. Well, it didn’t matter. She sank down until the water almost reached her chin. And the water was hot, almost as hot as she liked it. She closed her eyes and sighed as one of the maids carefully placed a towel under her head. The heat soothed her sore, cramped muscles and even seemed to quiet her troubled spirit.

“Does Rashidah know about this thing?” one of the girls whispered.

“I don’t think she does. Hers is only marble.”

“Do you know how furious she’d be?”

“Well, she’s not going to find out.”

The whispers came and went as Éowyn drifted into a doze and woke repeatedly. Her tears started again, though this time they were just quiet streams down her face instead of shattering sobs. The girls helped her wash her hair, continuing to murmur soothing remarks in her ears. I may never see my sons again, she thought, their faces coming to life in her memory as though they were in front of her. She reached up to touch one, the soap bubbles falling from the back of her hand, then realized that they were not there. She trembled and covered her eyes. How will they grow up without their father? she wondered. And without me? As soon as the thought entered her mind, another follow. Because they will not have to. Once she had recovered her strength, and her will, she would see to it that she left this place. But this brief glimmer of hope and resolve was dimmed by yet another thought. But they will not have their father. Elboron may be old enough to carry a few memories of him, but the twins, they are not. How… How will they… How will I… I… She let out a small sob.

“Come on now,” Saredenn coaxed, “let’s get you out of there before you get all wrinkled.” Éowyn found herself distracted from her grief as two pairs of determined hands lifted her until she was standing. She shivered as a draft slipped its way into the room and around her soaked body, then disappeared as she felt herself wrapped in a robe and towels. The maids continued drying her, left a towel wrapped around her hair, and led her back to her bed. She slipped into her nightdress and slid under the covers, clutching one of the blue pillows to herself. She felt utterly exhausted. She did not remember much of the past few days since Kadall, but right now she did not want to. She shut her eyes against the glow of the lamps, the howl of the wind, the complaints of her stomach, and even the scent of the rose water that had soaked into her skin. “Don’t let her fall asleep before we get that hair untangled,” she heard Miliani say, then she was lost to natural sleep.

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PostPosted: Tue 24 Oct , 2006 8:54 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
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Location: snake-hunting
There are cries and fire and smoke everywhere. He has lost his orientation, not knowing which direction to turn to avoid the flames. Even now they are licking at his skin and hair. There, ahead, seems to be an opening between the raging fires, but as he watches with tear-filled eyes from smoke and ash it vanishes again in the wavering heat. And he cannot leave now, despite having been here forever, it seems, having been forced to fight countless enemies, to free people from collapsed houses, to bury dead children. He is almost spent, barely able to keep on his feet, but leave he cannot, and should he perish here as well. He has to find her first. Although he has no hope left he shall.

Why did he not stay at her side? Why did he leave her? What if he cannot find her again in this inferno? And where are the little ones? Where they not just with him? Has he lost them, too? He spins round, searching his surroundings. Curse the smoke! And curse his inattention. He should have taken better care to keep them at his side. Despair fills him. They will perish if he does not find them again. They are so small, still, so vulnerable. And so easy to lose. Then his weary eyes spot something. Are there not three small soot-blackened forms, sheltering underneath a leaning beam of one of the burnt and broken houses? But the beam has already caught fire, small flames dancing on its upper side, scorching the wood black.

He starts towards the three figures. They huddle together. They are filthy from the fires but unhurt, thankfully. One dark-haired and taller than the two fair-haired ones; the first hovering protectively over the two little ones. Is it the wavering heat, or do they change before his eyes as Faramir approaches? They seem to grow taller, and their child-like forms change into those of young men. As he draws near, he sees them rise and step out of their shelter. Relief fills him: now they are grown up, and do not need his protection as much as when they were smaller. He realises the dark-haired one resembles him closely in face and build; the other two, so alike to each other that it is difficult to tell them apart, are slightly smaller, and their features remind him of their uncle and his ancestry, and of their mother. Of her most of all. And then he remembers he has been looking – no, desperately searching – for her.

“Have you seen her?” he asks of the three sharply, and they seem to flinch from his harsh tone. They shake their heads sadly. “We looked, but we do not remember her face,” one of the twins says. “We may have passed her by in the streets, yet we did not recognise her.”

“But she looks like you, only in woman’s form,” cries Faramir desperately. “How can you not remember her?”

“We were too small when she was taken. And you hardly spoke of her afterwards. We were grieved like you, yet you never asked us about that. We did not dare to bring up the subject because we knew it hurt you. But we hurt as well. But you never cared about our grief, only your own.”

Feeling something heavy in his hand, Faramir looks down and sees the white rod of his office. Suddenly, he is clad in long dark robes, with cold chainmail underneath and a sword at his side. His hair, usually quite short, is reaching to his shoulders now. And something more heavy than that of the armour is weighing him down – he has aged, he realises. He is an old man.

And the three forms in front of him have vanished, or rather merged into one: the dark-haired youth is still there, looking at him. His features have changed slightly, have become sterner and leaner, his nose somewhat more aquiline. He gazes at himself, he notices with a slight shock, at himself as a young man. But who is he now, then? And then he knows. And everything in him fights the idea. He wants to return to his own body. He does not want to become like his father, aged by grief and despair long before his years. I can still find her, he thinks, if I keep looking. She is not lost, as long as I search for her. She is not lost!

He turns about him again, searching, always searching. What is this dark shape a long way off, in the shadow between two dark houses? It comes closer, and he walks towards it as well. There it steps out of the alley, and suddenly red firelight glints on fair hair. Warm relief fills him. It is her, and unhurt. Just a few more steps and he can reach her and pull her into his arms and never let her go again. She approaches him, too. And suddenly he notices she is not alone, but there is something moving behind her, hidden by her legs. Something small, like a dog. There it comes forth. It is not a dog.


+

Faramir’s eyes flew open, and it took him some time to get them to focus on his surroundings. Eventually, they found a source of light which turned into a lamp, its flame flickering in a strong draught coming in through the closed shutters. They were rattling against the windowframes, and outside there was a moaning and hissing as of many voices raised in clamour. He was feeling very weak and parched, and slightly cold, too, when a gust of wind hissed through the room and fanned over his sweat-drenched skin. He shivered a little, only now realising that the blankets had been cast back and he was almost naked, only clad in his drawers still, but with moist bandages drenched in something smelling of mint round his lower legs, and a likewise wet and strangely cool rag on his brow. There were no fires despite a faint trace of smoke in the air, and the awkward sensation that he could still feel part of their heat on his cheeks. Fever, shot through his mind. This would also account for the dizziness and disorientation, and for the weirdness of his dream. But before he could give any thought to what he had seen there, especially the last image, “There is a shirrikan blowing outside, Dúnadan,” said a deep voice in Adûnaic, startling him. “It comes from the sea, but thanks to the steep mountains surrounding us we are safe here. Its noise is worse than its actual force in these parts.”

Turning his head slightly which caused the rag to slide down onto the pillow, Faramir’s eyes searched for the speaker. He was difficult to make him out in the flickering light of the lamps – apparently it was night again, for the room was quite dark otherwise. He sat a little aback from the bedside, and was half cast in shadow. “Khorazîr?” Faramir whispered. His mouth and throat were very dry again, and there was still a painful stinging in his chest whenever he drew breath.

There was a rustle of cloth and a faint clink of chainmail as the addressed rose and approached the bed, carrying a cup with a steaming drink. “Aye,” said the Haradan, and as he drew closer and stepped into the light, Faramir saw his clothes were stained from travel. His dark hair had a lighter shade due to the dust that had settled on it. His face and hands he had washed, obviously, but still he looked all but refreshed: weary and deeply troubled. Setting down the cup on the empty chair next to the bed, he took the rag and ran it over Faramir’s forehead, then he put it away and reached for the blankets to draw them over him.

“I arrived but an hour ago, at nightfall,” he explained as he went to fetch the cup again. “Your captain and the healer were so exhausted from tending you that I sent them to bed. They did not even protest.” He lowered himself to edge of the straw-filled mattress and helping Faramir raise his head with his other hand, he held the cup to his lips. Faramir made a face when he tasted the first sip of the tea or brew it contained. It was awful.

“I know,” said Khorazîr, eyeing the dark-brown liquid doubtfully, “it smells like poison, and must taste worse. But the old crone assured me it will help you get rid of the fever. I doubt it is wise to argue with her. You are lucky to be alive still, so all agreed who saw to you. So drink. We need you back on your feet for the hunt.”

“The hunt?” asked Faramir weakly, after having swallowed another sip.

Khorazîr lowered the cup and nodded grimly. “I need not tell you what shock the tidings of what befell here dealt me. First comes one of my borders with the message of Kadall having been attacked by raiders. We were on the road an hour later, with extra provisions as asked for, and a company of my household men. And then, on the way hither my scouts catch a fellow who turns out to have been pursued by your rangers. They had been following him ever since the second attack, they told me, having chosen his trail amongst the many the raiders had left because his horse had a horseshoe missing, and was thus easy to track. Moreover, he had been accompanying two others, and one of them had been riding double. They followed him down to Harnen, where apparently he and his mates parted company. Your lads did not see it, but suspect his two companions and their captive took a ship downriver thence. There was a strong east-wind, and even with a more favourable wind it is very difficult to get large ships uprive due to the strong current. Knowing they would never catch up with the vessel, your men decided to try and catch the raider instead who rode on with the spare horses, to question him. But he was clever and exchanged steeds regularly. He would have given them the slip. But unfortunately for him, he chose his course so that he rode directly into our arms. And we welcomed him amicably, as you can imagine. He needed some persuasion, but in the end talk he did. Here, drink some more,” he said, holding the cup to Faramir’s lips again and almost forcing him to take another sip. His head was swimming from the information he was receiving, but he felt strangely strengthened by it, even more than by the revolting tea. Finally, finally a trace of what had happened to Éowyn after the attack. Was she alive still after all? Whither had she been brought? Why all this trouble if she was not desired to stay alive? There were so many questions on his mind that he did not know where to start asking. But Khorazîr did not let him utter even one, instead made him drink more tea.

“I think you have your own ideas of who set up this trap,” Khorazîr stated gravely, watching the other apprehensively, apparently considering if he should continue his account lest it upset the sick man in any way. “And by all accounts, you are right. She was indeed taken by Al-Jahmîr.” He made the name sound like a curse, hateful and evil. Faramir shut his eyes. Al-Jahmîr, of course! He had indeed known all along it had been the snake again who had dealt him such a fell blow, and almost managed to kill him – again. What a victory for the silver serpent! And yet, and yet, again his plans had not been thought trough in their entirety. Again there appeared to be loopholes for his adversaries to step into. In all the games we played, thought Faramir grimly, his recent bout of utter despair almost forgotten, and replaced by cold resolution, you only won when I let you. I may have given you an easy start with my blunder here, but the game is only won when the king is dead. And you did not manage to slay him yet again. You may have taken the queen, but did you not know there is always a chance to retrieve her? You will wish you aimed that second dart more precisely!

“I see my tidings cheer you up – if cheering is the right word,” commented Khorazîr with grim satisfaction. “Good. Your men were very worried about you, saying your fever comes not from the wound but from your will surrendering to defeat. I will not have that, you understand. Your lady needs you now more than ever, or do you wish her to languish forever in Al-Jahmîr’s golden bower? And so do your sons. And so, in fact, do we, your friends. You will stop this bloody defeatist thinking now. And as for blame: I have been blaming myself, and so has Narejde, for ever inviting you down here and thus putting you into danger. Your captain is beside himself with self-reproach and guilt. It should not astound me should he wish to resign his post once you have recovered – which is utter nonsence, of course, such an excellent fellow as he is. But have you not noticed that in fact only one person is to blame?”

“Yes, I am,” said Faramir quietly. Khorazîr made a violent gesture that caused some of the tea to spill on Faramir’s bandaged chest. “No! And I will not hear you blaming yourself for what happened here ever again, or else you are going to invite my wrath somewhat seriously, and you should remember from our first encounters how unhealthy that can be. You are not to blame for what happened to you and your lady! Perhaps you could have evaded the trap, yes, but they would have caught you elsewhere. And you stopped here because you had to help the villagers. You would be feeling as bad had you left those poor folks to their doom. One person only is to blame, the same as ever: Marek Al-Jahmîr. And he is going to pay dearly for this one, I promise you. When the first tidings reached us, I sent Narejde to gather information straight away, or else she would have exploded with wrath. Azrahil rode with her. They are going to send word as soon as they know more about whither the ship was headed.”

Faramir frowned slightly. “Azrahil? Was he not out hunting for Akarshân?”

Khorazîr nodded, looking quite pleased of a sudden. “Indeed he was. But the hunt was short. Akarshân did not get very far, the bloody fool. I would have preferred had they caught him alive. Perhaps he would have come in useful in terms of ransom, or the exchange of prisoners. Then again, him having been not even Marek’s son but only that of his half-brother, I doubt he would have considered him worth a great prize. Now we have him off our hands, and good riddance, I say.”

“He is dead, then?”

“Aye. Azrahil saw to that. Or, rather, his lioness did. Pharzi attacked Akarshân’s horse, and he fell off his steed and broke his neck. Now, where was I with my account? Right. The ship she was brought upon belongs to one Rhudakhôr. He is not unknown round here, selling everything to everybody, but mostly dealing in poisons and antidotes. I doubt he offered passage to so notorious a customer gladly, but I suspect he was paid exceedingly well for his troubles. The raider did not know whither they were headed. My reckoning is they followed Harnen down to where it joins the sea, and thence travelled along the coast. Al-Jahmîr has hiding-places there, and perhaps he even returned home, should his sons allow him to, that is. And if the shirrikan did not sink the ship.”

Faramir drew a breath to speak and inquire after Éowyn, but the Southron forestalled him. “You must empty the cup, you know. The old woman insisted. And after that, you must drink another. Well, I can go and fetch her, if you do not believe me,” he went on with a faint smile, which, Faramir thought, looked rather mischievous. “But she would have you drink even more of this foul brew, and moreover she would not be able to give you the information you crave.”

“You are enjoying this, right?” asked Faramir, giving the Haradan a sharp glance.

Khorazir smiled. “Old habits do not die easily. Years ago I would have given much to be in a position to torture you so.”

“With tea?” inquired Faramir with a faint smile.

“Aye, it works splendidly, does it not? But let me continue. We questioned the fellow about what he knew of the Lady, too. He repeated his orders that they had to look out especially for her and you, but that she was not to be harmed, under no circumstances. Apparently they used some kind of sleeping fumes on her to render her unconscious – another sign they wanted her unhurt. During the ride down to Harnen she was put on Marek’s horse, so he was the one riding double.”

Faramir’s left hand twitched and clenched round a fold of his blanket. Khorazîr saw and nodded with an appalled expression. “I know, I know. It is sickening to imagine his slimy hands on her. So try not to think about it over much, if you can. Imagine rather that he is going to have her clad in silks and live in all luxuries imaginable. He is, after all, a gracious host. Even you were treated fairly in terms of food and clothes. She is going to have a comfortable life there, especially if she has indeed been brought to his residence upon the red cliffs, if that is a solace to you. I have been imprisoned there myself, and before I was brought to a nasty cell in the dungeons my life there was quite enjoyable (but for the snake’s company, of course). As long as she does not annoy him over much and overstrains his patience, she has little to fear in terms of ill treatment, I am sure. She is very beautiful, and prestigious to have as his ‘guest’, and Marek likes to surround himself with things of rare and special beauty. He is not going spoil her, if he can help it. And rest assured, should he try something she does not want, she will remind him that she is the one who slew the Witchking. Al-Jahmîr is going to wish he had not kidnapped her at some point, you can bet on that. May that time be not too long delayed!”

Drawing a deep breath – too deep, as he realised to late when his chest stung like being stabbed with a knife –, Faramir nodded. Khorazîr’s speech had sounded very reasonable, and he wanted to believe that things were indeed happening that way. Éowyn would indeed hold her own against any ill treatment, as best she could. And the thought of her clad in finery and living in luxurious surroundings was far more comforting than imagining her languishing in a dark, dank cell with hardly any food and rags for clothes. And yet ... what if Al-Jahmîr drugged her to render her help- and defenceless? What if he messed with her memory to prevent her from even want to fight or resist him? What if she tried to escape and got wounded in the process? There were so many ‘what ifs’ ...

“Trust in her strength of will, and her desire to return to you and your children,” Khorazîr’s gentle, imploring and yet also stern voice broke into his stream of thought, “as she trusted in yours after you had been abducted.”

Faramir cast down his eyes. “She must think I am dead,” he said very softly. “I was shot down before her very eyes.”

Khorazîr cursed softly but violently. “That must have been part of his evil plan. But even if she believes you slain, there are still her boys. If she thinks their father dead, her motivation to return to them must be even stronger.” He placed a hand on Faramir’s hale shoulder and squeezed it reassuringly. “Do not worry, Dúnadan. We shall rescue her from wherever he hides her. And trust her that she will not let him harm her. And now, here is another cup. Drink up. You must be better tomorrow. You captain is anxious to send word to Gondor and Rohan, and he would like to add a more confident note that you are out of danger. I offered to provide an escort of my own men for his messenger. Perhaps you would even like to add a few words of your own to your King and the Lady’s brother?”

“I should, should I not?” said Faramir slowly. “Even though I almost fear their reaction. Elessar was against my setting out all along, so was Éomer. He is not going to greet me with fair words when we next meet.”

“If by then you have rescued your lady and tread on the serpent like an oliphaunt steps on a worm on the ground, I doubt he will be cross with you. And your King has a game of his own to play with Al-Jahmîr, after he gave him the slip last year. I say, the trap the snake has devised for you and Lady Éowyn is going to be his own downfall, for good this time. Let us look at things from another perspective: in truth it is us who set up the trap, with you and the lady as the bait. And now we only have to haul in the line, or else follow it to the slimy creature at the other end, and cut it up for soup.”

Almost against his will, and despite his heavy heart, Faramir had to smile at this comparison. “I am not going to taste that soup,” he stated firmly.

Khorazîr laughed. “Nay, neither am I. ‘Tis for the pigs. But speaking of soup, the wise-woman is making some for you right now. You must be hungry.”

Remembering what Mablung had mentioned about he village-boys’ prey and after having endured the tea, Faramir’s face took on a very concerned expression. “What is it?” asked Khorazîr while pouring another cup of the revolting tea.

“I am not sure I would like to try her soup, either.”

“Why? From what I saw, she has even been putting limbîri in. It is going to be a very good broth, nothing like this foul tea. And since when have you been picky when it came to food?”

“Limbîri?” asked Faramir doubtfully. “They are not a kind of lizard, are they?”

“Lizards do not taste good in soup. Everybody knows that. They must be roasted. As for limbîri, you will see,” he said with a decidedly mischievous expression. “And now, more tea.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Last edited by Khorazîr on Thu 26 Oct , 2006 8:32 am, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Thu 26 Oct , 2006 3:43 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
The shirrikan blew itself out during the night. By morning the wind had slowed to a moderate breeze, and the once thick cloudbanks had thinned and threatened to reveal full sunshine instead of the beams that managed to filter through. The area had taken the storm well enough, especially since it seemed that this had been only part of the outer edge. Farther south the countryside took far greater damage, but here most buildings were left standing, though most were missing roof tiles at the very least. Water jars were filled to the brim and sitting in thick mud thanks to the downpour. Some unlucky maids would end up spending the day sweeping water, mud, and frogs out of their flooded houses.

It was late in the morning when Éowyn woke, and even then she woke slowly, being exhausted both in body and spirit. She smelled roses before she opened her eyes, and in her sleepy haze she wondered if the rose bush beneath her window was blooming again. Then she opened her eyes and realized that her rose bushes were far away. Her eyes were still swollen and red from her weeping the night before, and as she sat up slowly and looked around, she felt more tears prickling behind them. She drew her knees up to her chest (though this was not as easy as it had once been), wrapped her arms around them, and looked around.

The shutters were still on most of the windows, but one from the nook where her bath had been was open, letting in light and the fresh breeze. The room was rather large, carved out of pinkish-orange stone, and split into two levels. On the upper level was the bath nook, of course, a small table with chairs, what looked like a rug from this angle, and various potted ferns and flowers. Another window stood behind the table and chairs. On the lower level, where her bed was, were cushions of multiple sizes and shapes, another rug, a long free-standing mirror, a chest of drawers with its own mirror, and something else hidden behind a curtain on the far wall. A cushioned seat had been built into the wall created by the split levels, with three large, red cushions as seats and three more as backrests.

She shivered and hugged her knees closer. The room was indeed beautiful, but she did not want to admit it. To do so would almost be like conceding a win to the enemy. A soft knock at the door made her whirl her head to look just as a servant-girl seemed to rise out of the floor on the upper level and go answer it. Éowyn bit back a gasp. The girl moved silently, opening the door to allow a second to step in. This one was carrying a tray laden with food and drink. Both girls turned to look as Éowyn’s stomach protested its hunger loudly.

“Ah, you’re awake!” the one who had remained in the room noted cheerfully. She motioned for the other to follow and trotted down the steps. “We feared you would sleep the rest of the day, like you did yesterday.” She reached the bedside and naturally dropped to her knees, leaning back to rest on her heels. Her eyes were lowered, focused on the floor. “Are you feeling better, my lady?” The other girl set her tray on a small endtable by the bed that Éowyn had not noticed previously and joined her companion on the floor.

Éowyn stared at her with a mix of shock and horror. This maid was acting as though she had been serving her for years. Nothing about this situation seemed unusual to her. Did she always greet prisoners so good-naturedly? And she was so young!

The girls must have recognized her silence, for they glanced quickly between themselves. “I am Miliani,” the first said, raising her right hand to her forehead, “and this is Saredeen.” The other mimicked her gesture. “If those names suit you, my lady,” Miliani continued.

It took a moment for Éowyn to find her voice. “They do,” she rasped. Her throat was dry and cracked. The scent of fresh-baked bread drifted to her nose, and she turned to look at the tray. She unwrapped an arm to reach for it, but Saredeen was on her feet instantly, lifting the tray and placing it next to her on a space on the bed. She took the cork out of one of the three flasks on the tray and filled a short, wide cup with water. A second flask revealed fresh milk, and the third a thick juice.

On one plate were several slices of warm bread, some cheese, and some butter. Another plate contained fruit: slices of oranges, grape clusters, pineapple chunks, pear halves, bananas, and a strange, round fruit with a skin that seemed to fade from red to green. A final plate held two fried eggs and a small jar of honey. “So much,” Éowyn murmured. The girls glanced at each other again and raised their eyebrows slightly, but kept their thoughts to themselves.

Éowyn’s hand hovered over the food as she tried to choose which to eat first, then reached for the cup of water. She had emptied it and set it back on the tray before the thought of poison crossed her mind. She coughed and shrank away from the food, which now looked dangerous and mocking. Her body told her it was famished, but her mind told her that she could not be sure what was before her was safe. It would be like Al-Jahmîr to poison food. He did it to Faramir, she thought, feeling tears sting her eyes again as she thought of her husband. But are you even sure that this is Al-Jahmîr’s doing? another thought questioned.

“You must eat, my lady,” Miliani murmured, keeping her eyes lowered. “We were told it has been many days since you’ve eaten properly.”

“What day is it?” Éowyn asked, suddenly aware she had no idea.

“The sixth.”

Éowyn blinked and reached for a piece of bread. Four days since they had left Khorazîr and Narejde, and she could not recall the past three. She ate the bread slowly, ignoring the urge to stuff the rest of it in her mouth and try for some of the grapes. Only when she had finished and taken a breath did she grab the cluster and hurriedly pluck the grapes. When the cluster was bare, and the grapes themselves gone, she asked hesitantly, unsure she really wanted to know, “Where am I?”

“In your private chambers at Ihimbra al-Soor,” Miliani answered, “the home of Lord Marek Al-Jahmîr, his sons, and their families.”

Éowyn choked on a piece of pineapple and coughed until she found relief. It should not have been a surprise, yet the confirmation of her fears stung. She felt herself beginning to tremble again. Had he been the one who sneaked up behind her in the alley? No, he always sent someone else to do his work for him. She remembered the feel of whoever’s arms as they clutched her and pressed that cloth against her face. She stared at the wall opposite her, recalling those last moments of her memory. There was a dark flash beside her, and Iorlas fell. She wondered if he had survived, for she had not seen his injury completely. But just as quickly as she thought that her memories replayed the sight of Faramir running toward her, then skidding to a halt as an arrow buried itself in his shoulder. She felt the hot tears streaming down her cheeks. He had forgotten all caution to reach her, and what had it gotten him? Certainly not her freedom.

If you had not left that inn, she berated herself, he would have known where to find you. Even if you had returned sooner, this would not have happened. You could have brought those children with you. If you had not been stupid and stubborn that morning and listened to him instead of twisting his words because you did not want to admit he was right… If you had just respected his desire to see you safe, you would not have been responsible for his death. She sobbed and reached for a pillow, pressing her face into it as her shoulders shook. How could she face her sons again, if ever she did, knowing she was why they were without a father? How could she ever explain to them, when they asked, when they cried at night, that she was to blame?

She felt a hand on her arm. “My lady?” Miliani started softly. “’Tis not so terrible here, really. I don’t know who you are, but already you have better things than—”

“I do not care about things,” Éowyn snarled, her voice cracking. She jerked her arm away from the girl’s touch. “My husband is dead because of me, because of your master, and because of your master,” she spat, “I may never see my sons again.” The girl shrank back to her position, keeping her eyes downcast.

“It would still be wise to eat something more,” Saredeen ventured cautiously.

In reply, Éowyn shoved the tray off the bed. It clattered to the floor, shattering at least one of the glasses, spilling the drinks, and scattering the food in all directions. “Get out!” she screamed. The girls began cleaning up what they could of the mess. “Get out!” They leapt to their feet and ran from the room, ignoring the still-rolling pieces of fruit and the growing puddle of water, milk, and juice.

Éowyn rolled onto her side, keeping her back to the door, and clutched the pillow. Anger, guilt, and sorrow all muddled inside her. She was still hungry, and that only made her feel worse. She curled up as best she could, and her sobs did not ease until they had lulled her to sleep.

+

“You really are a stupid girl,” Bataye said to Saredeen, sighing as she rubbed her forehead. She had been overseeing the cleaning of one of the inner courtyards when Miliani and Saredeen came running to her, gabbing about what had happened in their lady’s room. Now the two girls stared at the tiles, silent, fearing a swat or worse.

“Give her some time to compose herself,” she said after a pause. “But for now find some rags and a bowl to clean that mess up when we go back.”

+

Éowyn stared at the wall through half-closed eyes. Her personal storm had passed, and now she was left feeling wrung-out and empty. She truly had not meant to scream at the girls so harshly; it was not entirely their fault they were ignorant. But still, they could not be entirely blind to their master’s doings, could they? Surely they had not come here willingly at so young an age? Or maybe they did, and they have forgotten, part of her insisted. Familiarity was just one cause of forgetfulness.

She closed her eyes, feeling the breeze brush over her shoulder. She wondered what the rest of the day would bring. Would she be summoned elsewhere? Be free to wander at will? Be forced to stay in this room forever?

The door creaked slightly on its hinges, and she froze. Footsteps she heard, and she wondered if they were the girls returning to clean up the mess. Her mess. She really should be the one cleaning it up, not them. If Elboron had thrown such a tantrum at the supper table, she would not have tolerated it. As the footsteps descended the stairs, she had just resolved to tell them that she would do it when she heard a sharp crack and felt an equally sharp pain on her thigh. Yelping, she rolled over to see her attacker: a stern woman with keen eyes. A wooden spoon swung from a loop on her wrist as she crossed her arms. “Get out of bed, you miserable woman,” she ordered.

Éowyn felt the heat rise in her cheeks. “Who are you to— ah!” She winced as the spoon struck her arm. When did old women get such strength?

“If you are not out of bed by the time I am finished speaking, my spoon will find first your left cheek and then your right, and I do not care that—”

A bit to her surprise, Éowyn found herself scrambling out of bed, grimacing as she stepped on some sort of fruit. It squished between her toes. The woman nodded slightly. “You do learn then. I am Bataye, and I am the housekeeper here,” she said rapidly but firmly. “I know this is not where you wish to be, but that does not give you reason to ruin good food and drink by dashing it to the floor in a fit of immature rage. You are not the first girl brought here against her will, and I doubt you will be the last, but I have seen much younger girls in much worse situations handle themselves with better grace.”

Éowyn stared at her, her mouth slightly open. She was being scolded like a child, which she admitted she deserved, but that this woman could do so with a manner that radiated unquestioned authority stunned her. This woman expected things of her.

Bataye turned and took a large bowl and a handful of cloths and held them out. “You will pick up every piece of fruit, every scrap of bread, every ounce of liquid until this floor is spotless. I want it so clean a mouse would starve in this room.” When Éowyn did not immediately take the objects: “Now!”

Éowyn grabbed the bowel and cloths and found herself on her knees in a matter of seconds, frantically sopping up water with one hand and corralling grapes with the other. Miliani and Saredeen looked on, horrified. “No, no, Bataye, we can do it,” they whispered.

“If she wants to act like a child, I can treat her like a child. You know this,” Bataye answered, glancing around the room. “But since you so desperately want to work, I see windows that need to be cleared of shutters. The day is nice.” The girls scuttled off to do their chore, though picking up fruit was the nicer of the two.

Bataye stood still as Éowyn worked around her, lifting a foot once so her charge could take away the orange slice. Éowyn almost laughed bitterly while she worked. She certainly had not expected to be doing chores like this in her captivity. She sopped up the last of the liquid and turned her attention to find all the bits of food. When she came upon the shattered glass, she put the shards in the bowl as well. Several minutes later, she stood, wiped her forehead, threw the rags on top of the food, and held out the bowl. Bataye uncrossed her arms and took several steps back, studying the floor. She checked under the bed, looked on the other side of the end table, and in other tight spaces Éowyn thought no fruit could possibly reach. Then the housekeeper returned to her position, crossed her arms, and waited. Éowyn looked at her. Bataye raised an eyebrow. “More?” Éowyn asked. The housekeeper did not answer.

Éowyn sank to her knees again and peered under the bed. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the dimmer light, but the she saw the loose grape lying tranquilly in the center. Sighing, she half-crawled under the frame to get it. She plopped it in the bowl and stood up. Once again, Bataye engaged her in a staring contest. “More?”

Éowyn sank to her knees a third time. This time she found an orange slice under the end table. But when she stood again, Bataye let out a long breath and began tapping her fingers. She hit her knees a fourth time, and then a fifth, and only after she had walked around the entire lower level, even checking behind the chest of drawers on the opposite side of the room, did Bataye take the bowl from her. “What was the point of all that?” Éowyn asked, the irritation evident in her voice. “I had everything after the third time.”

“But until you walked the room you did not know that,” Bataye answered evenly. She glanced at the bowl’s contents and swished them around. “You threw the glass shards in here with the food. Now it is not fit for even the sabra to eat. I would make you pick out all the pieces, but even then I could not be sure you had everything, and I will not be held responsible if that beast cuts its throat because of you.”

What was I supposed to do? Éowyn wanted to say, but wisely held her tongue. What’s a sabra? How should I know you feed bruised fruit to some creature? She felt the anger stirring in her, and it took the rest of her effort to keep it quelled.

“Miliani, Saredeen,” Bataye called casually. The names had hardly left her lips before the girls appeared, sweating and wiping their hands on their skirts. “See to it that she is cleaned up and dressed. The master wants the healers to see her.”

“Yes, Bataye,” the girls said as the housekeeper turned to leave.

“I trust we will have no more of these incidents?” she asked, climbing the steps. When she reached the top, she looked over her shoulder, her eyes narrowed.

“Yes, Bataye,” Éowyn muttered. When the look did not end, she clenched her jaw.

“Yes, Bataye,” she said clearly.

The housekeeper nodded and left the room.

_________________
Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

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PostPosted: Fri 27 Oct , 2006 2:52 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
Contrary to Faramir’s worst expectations, limbîri turned out to be some kind of aromatic root, tasting a little like parsnips. After Khorazîr had forced the third cup of tea into him and left to see to the preparations for supper, Faramir fell asleep again, but not for long. The disturbing dreams did not return. Around midnight, as Dorgil who by that time had returned with the Southron informed him, he woke again. He was still weak and had to fight a bout of dizziness when he was helped into a sitting position by Dorgil and Khorazîr in order to eat more comfortably, but the worst of the fever had abated. Also, he was ravenously hungry – a very good sign, announced the healer after his examination.

His fears concerning the soup’s taste or contents proved unfounded: it was a good and very nourishing broth. After having tried the first spoonful cautiously, he quickly emptied the bowl, and asked for it to be refilled. While he was on his second, the curtain was moved and the wise-woman stepped in, accompanied by another elderly woman with a stern, thoughtful face like a brown, wrinkled apple, contrasted by grey, almost white hair which she wore in a tight braid. She looked like she had had to endure some recent grief, but had settled with her troubled feelings and was calm and controlled now. She gave the impression of someone people would ask for counsel, and whose judgement and decision they trusted. She was introduced to Faramir as the lady of the house, and the wife of one of the elders. He recalled having been told that she graciously had allowed his company to reside there, and thanked her earnestly. She only waved a hand.

“The least I could do, lord,” she said, “after you risked so much to help us. We would have been lost without you.”

Faramir cast down his eyes and shook his head slowly. “That is not true. You would almost have been lost because of us,” he said sadly. When he lifted his head again, his eyes met the wise-woman’s stern gaze. The elder’s wife frowned as she gazed at him.

“What do you mean, lord?” she asked.

“I mean that these raids ...,” he sighed, “they served two purposes only. The first was to cause as much havoc and destruction here as possible, to render the village helpless and in need of aid. The raiders knew that help was on its way. They knew we would pass through Kadall on our way home. And they knew we would not forsake you, but, even if we should suspect a trap, we would stop and give what aid we could. And they were right. And then they struck again, to achieve their true purpose. You know they captured my wife, do you not? This must have been their chief goal all along. Another was to kill me. At least there they failed, narrowly. My lady, you and your people, you suffered because someone wanted to strike at me, at my family. And at the realm I represent. Thus, it is not you who owe us, but the other way round. And I fear ‘tis a debt we can never fully repay.”

The old woman was gazing at him numbly, her eyes slowly filling with tears. He recalled Mablung telling him that she had lost her husband during the first raid, and pity welled up in his heart at seeing her so distraught. The wise-woman put her arm round the other’s shoulders and whispered some soothing words, at which the elder’s wife sniffed, but then with effort composed herself. She ran a hand over her eyes, then stroked back the silvery strands of hair that had slid out of her tight braid and drew herself up slightly.

“Nay lord, we shall not speak of compensation,” she said proudly, a fierce light burning in her dark eyes now, “but of revenge. For you and us, we suffered from the same hand. We might have been only an instrument used to trap you, but we have our pride, too. And our customs. Many of the people of Kadall have relatives elsewhere. And friends. Word is going to spread soon of what befell here, and people will rally to help us. We shall mourn the slain, yes, but then we shall seek to avenge them. Kadall has been raided before, repeatedly, but never with such cruelty and cold calculation. From whispers among your men I have heard who they think led this attack, and if that be true, I tell you that soon the entire Harad is going to rise up against the Snake. He is a foul curse upon these lands. It is time we free ourselves of him.” She bowed slightly to Faramir. “If you will excuse me now, lord. I have to write a few messages.” With that, she left.

The wise-woman watched her departure, then she turned toward the others. “She has six brothers, two of whom are lords of desert-tribes. And four brothers-in-law,” she said with satisfaction, her eyes glinting in her tattooed face, giving her a fell and dangerous expression. “And two sons, both in influencial positions in Umbar. We may only be accounted weak and dumb villagers by some. But oh, they are going to realise their error soon. We were under shock from these raids. Normal raiders do not slay, they only take what they need – for who in his right mind would kill the hand that feeds him, albeit grudgingly. But the Snake has made a grievous mistake. He underestimated us. And you. I know the tale of your imprisonment, lord. I know how you suffered there, and yet defied him over and over again, and in the end escaped, taking with you a great deal of his reputation.”

“You know?” asked Faramir astonishedly. “I was not aware the tales had spread this far.”

“Ah, but they did,” she replied with a wrinkled smile that made the tattooes on her cheeks form new and even stranger patterns. “Swifter than you guess. And my knowledge is not based on tales and rumours only, but on a first-hand account of someone who has met you on the island. It was the head of my order who cured you of the poison.”

“Zinizigûr,” said Faramir in amazement. “She is the head of your order?” Then he recalled that the mysterious woman who had saved his life on Tolfalas after his near-fatal poisoning had borne similar marks on her cheeks. “I still owe her my gratitude. After my return to Gondor I tried to send her a message, to express my thanks, but I never received an answer, and after a while the message was returned to me. No messenger could find her. Do you know where she resides?”

The wise-woman shrugged, a mysterious smile playing about her lips. “Nobody knows. She comes when she is needed, and then leaves again. You need not thank her. It is her duty to help people, as it is mine, without accepting anything in return. This is what we swore upon entering the order.” She held up a hand, apparently divining the question upon Faramir’s lips. “It is not permitted to us to speak of the order and its laws to the uninitiated. So do not ask. I will tell you only that it is good to have the order on your side – as have you and your friends. And it is deadly to have as your enemy. So fear not, lord. From now on, we have a feud with the Snake, and he will wish he never had interfered with us. I will make you more tea now.”

She left, with the three men staring after her. “I have heard of this mysterious order,” said Dorgil at length, still eyeing the swaying curtain with unveiled marvel in his eyes. “But I thought those were only tales.”

Khorazîr shook his head, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “It has existed for a very long time, yet it is indeed difficult to part truth from rumour when people speak of it. I heard only women are admitted. My sister was once tended by a member, after she miscarried. The woman appeared out of nowhere, it seemed, and disappeared as mysteriously after her work was done. And a neighbouring clan was almost entirely wiped out because one of them had slain a healer of the order. Should they truly rally against Al-Jahmîr now, the Umbarian is in big trouble.” He smiled grimly.

“Still, he has invited their disfavour before,” cautioned Faramir, continuing with the soup. Although his hand was still weak and shaky, he finally felt strong enough to hold the spoon and feed himself, “and is yet strong enough to deal us so deep a blow.”

“Of course, even the order is not almighty,” replied Khorazîr with a shrug. “From what I heard, it mostly consists of old women. They cannot defeat armies. But they can wreak havoc from the inside, with venom and well-placed rumours. And we will need all allies we can find, for surely Marek will have won a few new friends once word reaches Umbar about his success here. Many who have turned their backs on him during his exile will rally to his foul banner again now when apparently he is powerful again. They are that false and fickle down there, curse them, without any notion of true honour.”

Dorgil only shook his head as he removed the bandages round Faramir’s calves. “You Southrons are a strange people,” he stated. “I still wonder how you managed to overcome your internal feuds and constant strife long enough to march side by side against Gondor.”

Khorazîr smiled. “Well, we hated the tarks even more than we hate each other.”

“And now you do not hate us anymore?”

“As long as you buy our silks and spices, and amber and pearls and copper, why should we hate you? Unless of course you try and cheat over the prize.”

Dorgil frowned. “From what I hear, your merchants cheat more often than their northern customers do.”

Khorazîr let out a laugh. “Is that so? I reckon this comes from the enormous tolls and taxes in your realm. Especially in certain fiefs,” he added with a wink and a mischievous smile at Faramir.

He swallowed his spoonful of soup and said, “You are referring to Pelargir, I take it?”

Khorazîr shook his head. “Actually, I was referring to a certain Princedom of Ithilien. The lord there must be out of his mind when it comes to taxation.”

“I shall have a word with him next time I meet him,” promised Faramir with a mock-serious expression. “I shall tell him to raise the taxes for every good that comes from your realm. And to levy those goods especially. And have the merchants searched thoroughly each time they pass the borders.”

Khorazîr eyed him darkly, but with amusement glinting in his dark eyes. “I should have slain that particular lord when I had the chance,” he muttered.

“Ah, but then you could not torture him with tea now,” said Faramir, upon which the Haradan laughed. Dorgil watched the two with some bewilderment. “Torture him with tea?” he asked.

“The brew that wise-woman made,” explained Khorazîr. “Lordship here has been complaining constantly about its taste. Apparently he does not know what is good for him.”

“Dorgil, it is revolting,” said Faramir.

“As long as it helps – which obviously it does,” shrugged the healer without pity. “I must admit I was quite surprised to see you so well again, after the shock you dealt us last night. I thought we would lose you there, captain,” he added gravely, the deep lines on his face speaking of worry and exhaustion more than his words could. “It is good to see you that confident again.”

Faramir nodded slightly, staring at his soup-bowl. “I am sorry for having caused you so much additional worry, Dorgil,” he apologised softly. “You and Mablung and Brandir and whoever else had to work twice as hard at keeping me with you than should have been the case. I should never have let my hopelessness and despair get the better of me like I did.” He lifted his eyes again to meet the healer’s gaze steadily. “‘Tis not going to happen again, I promise.”

Dorgil smiled warmly and with obvious relief. “I am pleased to hear this, captain. Shall I send for Mablung? He wished to speak to you urgently concerning the messages to Gondor and the Mark? Or are you too tired? He is eager to send them off, but I am sure they could wait until tomorrow, too.”

Faramir shook his head while swallowing another spoonful of soup. “Fetch him, please. The two kings need to know what befell here as soon as possible, and ‘tis a long ride to Gondor.”

+

By the time Mablung arrived, Faramir had finished his second helping of soup and had just been given another cup of the tea. The captain looked like he was about to fall asleep any moment, and Faramir felt a deep stab of pity as he gazed at the weary ranger when Mablung sank onto a chair next to the bed.

“Is that tea?” he asked groggily, running both hands over his eyes and through his hair. “I could do with some, too.”

“Ah, you do not wish to try that one, Mablung, believe me,” said Faramir. “But I am sure Khorazîr can find something drinkable for you.” The Haradan rose and left.

Faramir gazed at Mablung and Dorgil who had busied himself with rinsing out the bandages in a wide copper bowl that stood in a corner of the recess. “I have not yet thanked you for what you have been doing these past days. I know that you two bore most of the work and even more responsibility upon your shoulders. I am deeply grateful for your commitment. And no, Mablung, I do not wish to hear any objections from you. You are not to blame for what happened, and I do not want you to try and convince yourself that you are.”

Mablung drew a deep breath. For a moment he looked like he was fighting some internal struggle, then, almost reluctantly, he nodded. “Aye, captain,” he acknowledged. “Still, I wish we could have done more. Protect the lady, for example. Iorlas was slain doing so, yet had there been more men to look after her –”

His voice trailed off when Faramir shook his head. “Mablung, I should have been there to protect her,” he said gravely. “But I came too late. But let us not speak of blame. ‘Tis not going to help us in our present plight. You spoke to the scouts that returned, I heard.”

Mablung nodded, suddenly looking full of energy again, his dejection gone. “Aye. Not all have come back yet, but already we have learned more than we hoped for. Lord Khorazîr has told you of Haldad and Morandir, I take it? It appears they followed just the right set of tracks.”

Faramir smiled gently. “It seems to me you chose and moreover trained your men very well, captain,” he remarked appreciatively. Colour shot into Mablung’s cheeks, and his weary face looked less pale and drawn of a sudden.

“They were lucky,” he murmured, but upon meeting Faramir’s glance, he smiled slightly as well. “They are good lads indeed,” he agreed. “Some of the best. Others had less success, but they, too, managed to find out some more about the raiders. Obviously quite a large number regrouped about a day’s ride south-west from here, toward the coast. Unfortunately they were spotted and had to flee, not wishing to get involved in a fight. But they suspect the raiders are going to wait for another ship to fetch them.”

“Like I feared,” mused Faramir. “They were not common raiders, but Al-Jahmîr’s men. Perhaps even some of his house-hold guard. I wonder how he managed to rise to power again so quickly, and draw upon so many resources, when only a year ago he was left with little more than a fast ship and a handful of men. He was not even allowed to return to his home near Umbar because his own sons cast him out, fearing to invite the displeasure of Gondor should they side with him openly. And then he vanished so that even Elessar could not find him. And now he has risen again, more powerful than ever.” He shook his head. “I may be loath to admit it, but ‘tis still an amazing feat.”

“And yet I think he blundered again,” came Khorazîr’s voice from the curtain through which he stepped, accompanied by one of his servants carrying a tray with a steaming pot of the strong, sweet peppermint tea the Southrons were so fond of, and several small silver cups. “Some decent drink for a change, although I fear you, Dúnadan, are still too sick to partake of it.” He laughed when Faramir glared at him.

“I agree,” said Dorgil when the servant handed him one of the ornate cups and poured the tea. “You are still feverish, captain, and should stick to the wise-woman’s medicine.”

“Is this a new strategy of trying to speed my recovery?” asked Faramir as the others exchanged half-veiled grins. “Or are you just repaying me for the extra worry I caused you.”

“Both,” said Dorgil, before he sobered up again. “Why do you believe this Al-Jahmîr blundered again, Lord Khorazîr?” he addressed the Southron who had taken one of the chairs again and also helped himself to a drink. He shrugged. “For one, his plan to kill the Steward failed yet again. Secondly, he did not hide his traces as well as he must have hoped he did. Why did they split up if not to confuse us? And yet we learned how he escaped, and have a pretty good idea where to look for him and his prisoner now. And thirdly, if I am not entirely mistaken, he is going to find the lady a rather tough surprise as well. I think he has no idea of her true strength. After all, he underestimated him as well,” he nodded towards Faramir, “and it almost finished him for good. If I am not entirely mistaken, he is going to find Lady Éowyn an even tougher nut to crack. And imagine that: Marek Al-Jahmîr, he who considers himself the greatest warlord of the South, the man who managed to first capture and then kill the second most powerful lord of mighty Gondor (or so he believes), defeated by a woman.” His face took on an almost dreamy expression. “If that should really happen, and I strongly hope it will, it is going to be his end. We need not even kill him. His reputation will be damaged beyond repair. It happened to his half-brother, do you remember, Dúnadan? Nobody speaks now of proud Zohrân anymore, he who once was feared for his cruelty and ruthlessness in all of Harad. Or if they do, they laugh about him, for they only recall he was beaten by a woman. The very woman he betrayed and whose life he made miserable for many years. Things always work out in the end. They did for Zohrân the Stupid, and they will for Marek the Snake.”

“Hearing you speak so confidently makes me wish more than anything that you are going to be right, Khorazîr” remarked Faramir gravely. He had been wondering about the Haradan’s obvious belief that things would turn to the good. Was this only pretense to encourage him? But then, Khorazîr had never taken care to hide his true thoughts and feelings, and Faramir doubted he would now. The Southron’s straightforwardness was something rather comfortable to be around, as it so contrasted the behaviour of others with their guarded ploys. Gazing at Khorazîr now, and the fierce, proud light glinting in his eyes, Faramir could not help but admire the other’s confidence.

“And why should they not?” asked Khorazîr now. “You will see, Marek is going to turn out his own greatest foe. There will come a point in his oh so well-laid plans when greed or pride or simply stupidity take over, and he will spoil what he has spent months to set up. And then we strike.”

“We should see to those messages now,” interjected Dorgil. “It is late, and you need to rest, captain.”

“Right, the messages,” agreed Mablung, who had been gazing at Khorazîr with some astonishment and grave respect during his speech and now began to search the pouch at his belt for a folded sheet of paper and the remains of a pencil. “I am going to write that out more clearly after we have sketched the letters,” he said a little apologetically upon Dorgil’s doubtful glance at the pencil-stumb.

Faramir felt weariness rise like a dark wave while, with the help of the others he tried to concentrate on the difficult task of composing a number of letters: to Beregond in Ithilien, to his uncle Prince Imrahil of Dol Amroth, to King Elessar in Minas Tirith, and lastly, to Éomer of Rohan. In each, he outlined the events and described the present state of their operations, and expressed their need for help, but also cautioned against rash acts that might inflame the entire South and kindle a new war there. The matter was serious, he said, and should be seen not only as an attack upon him and his wife personally, but also as one upon the realm he represented, yet war should not be declared upon the Harad in general, but upon Al-Jahmîr and his allies only. He also expressed his doubts that a full-scale attack upon the Snake’s hiding-place would render any satisfactorly results at all but most likely only endanger Éowyn, and expressed his wish for Elessar and whoever of their friends who was willing to come or could be spared in Gondor to journey down here so that they could discuss and contrive a plan with hopefully more information at hand than he had at his disposal now.

In the letter to Éomer, he added a more personal note, and mentioned how much the matter with Éowyn troubled him, and that he considered himself at fault (to an exchange of dark gazes and some shaking of heads from those sitting around him). He closed with a message to his sons, and here his inspiration almost failed him. What should he tell them? That their mami had been taken by some bad man and that they might never see her again? That he would be confined to the South and forced to stay away from them for far longer than he had anticipated? Or that everything was alright, and their return-journey delayed due to some minor disturbance? He sighed when he looked over the notes Mablung had jotted down, not knowing how to continue.

“I cannot lie to them,” he said sadly. “The twins are still too small to understand what happened, but Elboron, he will ask why it takes us so long to return to them. And what shall I have Éomer and his wife tell him?”

“I am sure they will find fitting words,” said Khorazîr encouragingly.

Faramir sighed, then winced slightly when he felt a stab in his chest upon drawing breath. “I should return home as quickly as possible,” he said darkly. “As soon as I am fit to travel again, to look after them. We have left them alone for far too long already. But how could I leave here, with Éowyn in captivity and danger?”

“I understand your plight only too well, Dúnadan,” said Khorazîr gravely. “When Dereja fell ill, she wanted me to remain at her side, while I yearned for setting out and trying to acquire this antidote which would have cured her. But I stayed. The rest you know. I am not sure my presence at the expedition to Gondor would have made a difference. But my stay at her side made a difference to her, and that is what counted. So if you yearn for your sons, you should indeed return, if only for a while. We will not sit idle here. We wish to rescue the lady as much as you do. And while we gather information there is little you can do.”

“Lord Khorazîr is right, captain,” agreed Mablung.

“And be that as it may, it is enough for tonight, for all of us,” announced Dorgil, emptying his cup with one draught and replacing it on the tray. “You are going to rest now, Lord Faramir, and so are you, Mablung. I shall take care nobody rouses you this time, and if you dare to rise of your own ere the morning, I shall give you a sleeping-draught tomorrow.”

Mablung gave the healer a jestful salute. “Do you hear this, captain? I begin to suspect our dear healer here has been usurping my authority in this company.”

Faramir smiled gently. “Our dear healer here still has his lord to answer to, and his master tells him to get some sleep tonight as well. Good night, all of you.”

While the other two took their leave and Khorazîr’s servant came again to fetch the tray, Dorgil helped Faramir lay down again and covered him warmly, then he went round and blew out the lamps and candles. Soon Faramir was left alone in the dark. There was still wind outside, rattling the shutters now and again or whistling through their fine lace-work, but otherwise it was quiet in his corner of the room. From behind the curtains he could faintly hear the sounds of the other men, but most seemed asleep or in the process of settling for the night. From far away, up on the hillsides, he reckoned, suddenly the sharp clear bark of a desert-fox rent the night, but then silence reigned again.

Despite his weariness, he did not fall asleep right away. Finally things were set in motion now. Of course, Al-Jahmîr had a good start, but his hiding-place would be found, of this Faramir was certain. And then the long, slow process of setting up a plan of how to rescue Éowyn would begin. Even if the messengers rode with all speed they could muster and caught a swift ship to Harlond at the joining of Poros and Anduin instead of passing through Ithilien, it would be at least a week until they reached Minas Tirith or Dol Amroth. And another to Edoras. Unless ... well, there was a swifter way to send a warning of danger or a call for help to Rohan, should the King account the situation that grave. How long would it take him to muster what force he needed? Would he perhaps use the Stone to acquire more information? Umbar was a long way off, even for a Palantír, but Elessar was strong-willed and had experience with the Stone. He might see things that might help them even more than the scraps of information they would manage to pick up from the outside.

He sighed slightly, careful not to aggravate his injury more than required. Would the King be able to see Éowyn in her confinement? Her ‘golden bower’, as Khorazîr had put it? Faramir tried to imagine her standing on a balcony overlooking the sea, the wind playing with her golden hair and swirling fine silken robes about her. Yes, Al-Jahmîr had a liking for beauty, and he could only hope he would indeed refrain from spoiling it. With the image of his beloved wife gazing up wistfully to white seabirds sailing on the breeze, Faramir finally fell asleep.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Last edited by Khorazîr on Sun 29 Oct , 2006 7:55 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Sun 29 Oct , 2006 6:20 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Éowyn glared at Bataye as the woman left the room. She understood the lesson, but she did not have to appreciate it. This certainly was one person she would have to watch out for while she was here, though hopefully her stay would not be a long one. But she could only lie to herself so much. An outside rescue would not likely come for several weeks yet, as they still needed to find out where she was and, moreover, how to get her out. And she doubted that she would have very many opportunities to slip out unnoticed. But you have to try, she told herself. Elboron, and Meriadoc, and Peregrin need you to.

“My lady?” Saredeen’s meek voice broke into her thoughts. Éowyn shook herself slightly and turned to look at the girl. “Let me show you where your dresses are,” she said as she started toward the wall with the curtain.

Éowyn followed, and gasped when Saredeen pushed back the curtain to reveal a room as large as the one she stood in filled with dozens dresses of varying styles and colors. Two windows looked out over a courtyard below and the sea beyond, and they let in plenty of light. As she stepped in and looked around, she was certain she did not have even half as many clothes at home. If she had to guess, she would say that she could wear a different dress every day for the two months without wearing the same one twice. It was a stunning and revolting sight at the same time. This room certainly contained beauty, but it was also obvious that someone had been planning her stay for a very long time. “How do they stand up?” she asked, reaching out to touch the fabric of the nearest dress.

“They’re put on molds shaped like shoulders,” Saredeen explained, “and that’s put on a pole that goes into a base.” She lifted one of the skirts to reveal a large, plain wooden block. “See?”

“Yes,” Éowyn said faintly, still looking around at the display. The gowns were sorted by colors, with clusters of blues blending into greens and then yellows and so forth. Some were quite elaborate feast-day clothing, whereas others were simpler, and some were quite plain. There were solid colored fabrics and patterned fabrics and delicate embroidery. Some had sleeves that hung to the floor, and others had more sensible lengths, stopping at the wrists. Some had no sleeves at all, it appeared. As she walked around, she came upon a small collection of darker dresses in browns and blacks tucked away in one corner. She stopped in front of a simple black gown with a red sash belt. Studying it, she noted that despite its somber hue it was not cut or styled as a widow’s trappings but instead was quite scandalous with its low neckline, sheer sleeves, and slit skirts. “You choose,” she said, turning to Saredeen. The girl’s eyes widened. “I care not.”

“N-no, my lady, it’s not my place to—”

“Choose one,” Éowyn said firmly, turning on her heel and going back to the main room.

Miliani had found a chair and was positioning it in front of the chest of drawers. “Did you find one you liked, my lady?” she asked.

“No, though they were beautiful.”

Miliani blinked. “I can send for the tailor, so you can tell him what you want, and—”

Éowyn shook her head. “That is not necessary.” Miliani bit her lip but did not argue further.

Saredeen reentered with a rustle of cloth. “Will this do, my lady?” She held up a soft red dress made of silk. It was unadorned except for some cream-colored accents on the bodice and along the hemline. It seemed to have no sleeves, but there were gold ringlets sewn into the shoulder area where the sleeves should have been.

Éowyn was about to ask when Miliani opened one of the drawers and took out a long sheath of shimmering, gold-colored tulle and held it up like a sleeve. Then Éowyn noticed the ties hanging from the girl’s hand and realized that this was the sleeve. “Alright,” she said, sighing. Is that really necessary for just a visit from the healers? Saredeen’s beaming smile went uncommented, but not unnoticed. This makes up for some of your rudeness earlier, she told herself.

The girls helped her out of her night dress and dusted her with a light, scented powder, adding a little extra under the arms. Then they began adding undergarments, adjusting ties as needed, and finally added the gown proper. It was not as comfortable as it had looked in Saredeen’s hands. Éowyn found the bodice and waist were both tighter than she liked, almost to the point of asking for another dress. When she mentioned this, Miliani frowned and exchanged glances with Saredeen. “It should fit you nicely. The tailor had your measurements and took into account that they were a year or two old when he was—”

Éowyn turned her head sharply to see her while Saredeen took one of the tulle sleeves and began threading the ties through the many loops and tying them one by one. “How did he know my measurements?”

The girl shrugged, her face showing her bewilderment. “I don’t know, my lady, but from what I heard he’s had them for awhile.”

What… How… Could Al-Jahmîr really have been this thorough? Well, it would not be the first time he had encouraged her to try Umbarian fashion. Two years ago he had sent a stunning green dress and emerald jewelry for her to Ithilien. That audacious present had been rejected then, much like she was rejecting his outrageousness now. Do you think I am your live doll that you can dress up in fashion and parade around, Al-Jahmîr? Do you think you can buy my favor? You would do better to throw your money into the sea.

“Do you not like the dress, my lady?” Miliani ventured cautiously. “We can bring you another one, if you wish.”

Éowyn sighed and unclenched her fist. “No, ‘tis not the dress that I am angry with.”

The girls finished attaching the sleeves, then led her over to the long mirror. Éowyn saw, now that she was closer, that the frame was encrusted with fan-shaped seashells of all sizes in various shades of white and cream. She recalled seeing similar decoration on some of the furniture at Dol Amroth. Studying herself in the mirror, she was surprised at how well the dress indeed fit her. The rest of the gown had flare enough to compensate for the snugness in other areas. The skirt swirled and fluttered as she moved, and the sleeves floated on the air. The sleeves were whole down to the elbow where they were slit and draped over her forearm. In different circumstances, she would have loved it. “You’re beautiful,” Saredeen murmured.

“Yes,” Miliani murmured in agreement, “but you’ll be even more beautiful once we’ve finished your hair.”

Éowyn closed her eyes. She did not want to think about the mess of tangles and knots that was what her hair surely was at this point. The girls had her sit on the chair in front of the chest and set to work on her mane with various brushes and combs. Miliani and Saredeen worked the better part of an hour until they were satisfied with the results. When they were finished, Éowyn ran her fingers through it and remarked how it had not been this smooth in a long time. Unconsciously, she took several strands near her temples, rolled them several times, and pulled them to the back of her head as though to tie them, when she realized that she did not have a band. Miliani quickly found a small one in one of the other drawers and easily finished the style. “Do I look presentable?” she asked.

In the mirror above the chest, she saw the girls exchange looks and silent giggles. “For your own chambers, yes,” Saredeen said.

“But there’s more to do if you wish to be seen elsewhere,” Miliani finished. “But the healers don’t mind if you’re not entirely put together.”

“I’ll go get them,” Saredeen said, scurrying up the stairs and out the door.

Éowyn studied herself in the mirror. What else is there to do?

“Come,” Miliani said. “You have not seen your sitting room yet.”

+

“Sitting room” was hardly the term. It was not a small, cozy room for entertaining guests or private thought. The room was easily sixty feet long and forty feet wide. The walls were whitewashed and hung with paintings and tapestries depicting a pod of dolphins, a sailing ship, a school of brightly-colored fish, and other maritime scenes. The ceiling was at least three times her height, and a row of windows about twice her height looked out toward the sea, which still appeared gray and angry. From this spot she could see that her rooms were on a second level of the castle, and below her she could see a courtyard and gardens, and beyond those the red walls and battlements lined with soldiers. A pair of doors was set into the center window panel, opening out onto a balcony. The windows were framed with black and hung with blue and white curtains, drawn back now of course.

A series of green rugs woven with intricate patterns lined the floor. Sets of stuffed cream-colored armchairs were set in pairs or trios around low, dark-wood tables. A candelabrum stood behind each set, with fresh candles in the holders. There was a long, low, cushioned bench in front of the window, topped with pillows and a folded blanket. Toward the center of the room stood two statues of dancers draped in veils. They were captured in the middle of their dance, their veils flowing over and around them as they spun. Though they were carved in black stone, they looked as though they moved still. On the opposite side from where they had entered stood a set of white double-doors. Another set of doors were set into the wall across from the windows. Éowyn turned in circles, trying to take everything in, speechless. The red house-shoes she wore made no sound on the thick rug. This room was frighteningly magnificent.

“This is yours,” Miliani said, spreading her arms. Éowyn stared at her a moment, still too stunned to speak. “Go see the balcony,” she encouraged. “Your shutters were the first to come down once the storm passed.”

Éowyn slowly walked toward the windows and found the handles. She paused, took a breath, and opened them. The heavy, salty scent carried on the breeze from the sea hit her in the face. Mingled with it were the smells of jasmine and other flavors she could not name. The breeze toyed with her sleeves and skirts, sending them swirling as much as the dancers’ in the stonework behind her. The balcony contained no furniture, though it may have still been in storage. She walked to the railing and looked out to the sea, then glanced to her left and right. The castle stretched to either side, a massive monument to the ingenuity of its architects. From here she could see other balconies and rooms, some not far off, with open windows and fluttering curtains. Men continued to tear down shutters on other windows, a task they had spent two days finishing, and now would take another two days to undo. There were mechanisms that would have allowed them to keep the shutters open on the walls, but former masters of the castle had found them unsightly blemishes, and the current master felt the same.

Éowyn turned and hurried back inside. She did not want to think about how big this place was. Did its size mean there would be places to hide, or that she would be watched all the more closely? So far she realized that she had not seen a guard within these walls, only her servant girls. “Am I guarded?” she asked suddenly. Miliani looked started. “Am I guarded?” she repeated, walking toward the girl.

“Well, yes,” the girl said hesitantly, “there are always guards in these parts so nobody tries to sneak in to disturb the women. But if you want more protection—”

Éowyn was about to say that she was not concerned with protection when the doors opposite the windows opened and Saredeen stepped in, followed by two healers dressed in soft grays trimmed with greens. One was an older woman with hair almost as gray as her dress. The other was younger, obviously an apprentice. “Here she is, healers,” Saredeen said reverently. She shut the doors and assumed her kneeling position off to one side. Miliani joined her.

“Lady,” the healers said, bowing their heads. “How are you feeling?”

+

An hour later, Éowyn sat on the cushioned bench seat and stared out at the sea without really seeing it. The healers had left, and her servant girls remained in their positions by the door, but she felt more alone now than she even had when she had woken the night before. Oh sure, the healers had examined her, asked several questions, and declared that overall she was healthy, but she did not feel fine. They said she might feel some of the side effects of the sleeping fumes for a day or so still, but it might be difficult to say when those effects caused by the fumes ended and those caused by other factors began.

Well, those other factors certainly explained why her dress did not fit properly. A growing child would do that to a woman. A tear trickled down her cheek, but she did not raise a hand to brush it away. The occasional suspicion had flitted through her mind over the past few months, but she had not taken it seriously. She had been traveling frequently, from Ithilien to Rohan and from Rohan to the south, and one could never be sure what the truth about health was when a journey’s stresses factored in. Tiredness? The journey. Dizziness? The hot sun and climate. Upset stomach? The food was aging.

It was not until they had finally settled at Khorazîr’s that she had had the opportunity to relax and rest. And then she had wondered, wondered and not said anything, perhaps out of fear of being wrong, or perhaps even being right. But surely she could not be three, almost four, months gone with child and not have noticed? She had carried children before; she knew what her body felt like when it was forming a baby. Or at least, she knew what it had felt like the previous times. And yet she had not noticed anything overtly unusual, not even the sickness that often accompanied her pregnancies. But then the night before they set out on the journey home, when Faramir had fallen asleep yet she lay awake, she thought she had sensed a slight fluttering in her abdomen, so faint she could not be sure if she had imagined it or if it was truly her fourth child making its presence known. She had lain awake much longer than she should have, but her thoughts had been too jumbled to let her rest.

Pressing a hand to her somewhat rounded belly, she wondered again how she could have missed this most obvious sign. Ah, but the traveling clothes she had worn had been much looser than this dress, as they were designed for long hours of traveling in relative comfort. Even if she had noticed at Khorazîr’s, she may have blamed the feasts overflowing with delicious foods on why her stomach was rounder than normal. You stupid woman, you should have told him what you suspected instead of speaking vaguely, she chastised herself. But would it have had an even worse effect? He was already hesitant enough about having another child, even one that he did not think would be conceived for many months yet. She knew his hesitancy sprung from his concern about her health, an honest concern, but she had begun to panic anyway. What if she had told him her suspicions and he had rejected her? But he would never do that, a small part of her said. He may worry about you to the point of alienation, but he would not willingly reject you.

Tears burned her eyes before streaking down her cheeks. She picked up one of the larger pillows and hugged it to herself, letting the tears soak into it. Had he died thinking she was still angry with him? Her muffled sob broke the silence. Why, why, why had she not overcome her stubborn pride and apologized when she had the chance? Her fears had been groundless, and she had known it. Of course he still loved her, still desired her. If anything, this child was proof that he still enjoyed his privileges as husband. And this child may be the last gift he gives you. Her shoulders shook with heartbroken sobs.

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Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

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PostPosted: Mon 30 Oct , 2006 8:19 pm 
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Faramir slept throughout the following day and some hours into the night, only waking up briefly when Dorgil changed the bandages, cleaned the wounds and washed him, but not taking any further notice of what went on around him. Mostly, his sleep was deep and dreamless, although shortly before he finally woke he had a strange vision of Éowyn chiding him for getting himself shot and forced to lie abed, when they had been planning to journey to Umbar and pay Al-Jahmîr a visit, and that now she was forced to travel on ahead so as not to keep their host waiting. Then there was Al-Jahmîr himself on a small but elaborate ship with green sails, hailing them and telling them to hurry up or else he would leave without them. He was dressed in long flowing robes of the most outrageous colours, adorned with feathers and what looked like the shed skin of a snake.

Faramir woke with a somewhat bewildered expression. When he opened his eyes he heard a soft laugh, and turning his head towards the sound there was Khorazîr sitting in the same chair as he had the night before, a small leather-bound book in his hands. A faint smell of peppermint lingered on the air. Gazing about searchingly, Faramir spotted the tray on a low table next to the Southron, the silver tea-pot and the small cups glinting in the warm light of the lamps.

“What is so funny?” he asked, pleased to discover that his voice sounded less faint and hoarse and actually somewhat like himself again.

Khorazîr shut his book and smiled at him. “Your healer said your fever was almost gone, yet your dreams appear still to be feverish. You talked a lot, especially during the last hour.”

“I talked?”

“Oh yes. I did not understand all of what you said, for mostly you used this uncouth Elf-tongue, but what you uttered in proper language was highly entertaining. Something about our special friend Al-Jahmîr – you told him not to wear lilac as this colour does not suit him, and that it was not your fault you had been wounded and could not attend his invitation as planned.”

“I am glad to have entertained you so, Khorazîr,” said Faramir dryly, to hide his embarrassment as blood rushed into his cheeks. He did not recall all of his visions, and was not sure if Khorazîr was trying to fool him now. “The dreams must have been brought on by that tea,” he muttered.

Khorazîr laughed again. “Aye, blame the tea.” His expression changed to a more serious one. “I think we can also blame it for improving your condition. You look much better tonight, Dúnadan.”

“I feel better, too,” said Faramir, only now realising that most of the dizziness brought on by the fever was gone, that he was feeling stronger altogether, and that his chest did not hurt quite as much when he drew breath. There was still the impression of a weight resting on it which should not be there, but it had lifted some.

“Good,” stated the Southron. “Food is on its way. And ere you ask, there are no tidings. We had hoped for the remainder of your men to return during the day, but none came. Your captain is concerned they were slain, but I do not believe we need to fear for them. Most likely they only travelled further than the others. No tidings from Narejde and Azrahil, either. Which also does not astound me, to be honest. They need to travel a lot now, carefully and secretly, and they have to gather information without being noticed by Al-Jahmîr’s folk. The messengers to your King and your friends and kin are on their way. They left very early this morning.”

Faramir nodded thoughtfully as Khorazîr poured him a cup of tea and handed it to him. “I am sure we can risk feeding you something tasty now, after you have bravely endured two pots of this other brew,” said the Haradan with a wink.

“I am obliged,” replied Faramir as he took the cup. The tea was sweet and very hot, so that he almost burned his lips upon taking the first sip. “I need to write a more thorough account as soon as I am able, with Mablung’s and your help to fill in the parts I missed,” he mused while swirling the drink around in the cup and waiting for it to cool. “Also, I forgot to send word to Túrin. Surely he is going to worry when we do not return as planned. How have the villagers been faring these past days?” he inquired.

“Considerably well,” answered Khorazîr, also helping himself to tea. “They are still distraught by the losses they suffered, but most have realised that life must go on. They have rounded up all folks and determined who is in need of help, and of how much. There are several children orphaned who have to be looked after, and others have lost their homes or their trade and require aid. But so far they have been doing a good job of helping themselves, and each other. I brought enough men and provisions to help them over the worst, and things should improve once the houses have been rebuilt, and Kadall can go about business again and look after travellers as they used to. They will cope, Dúnadan. And do more besides. This old woman in whose house we are accommodated, she spoke to the people and told them what you told her yestereve. There was some weeping and some dark gazes and murmuring about you and your company, but very soon they all agreed that in truth all the woe came from one source only, and that it was time to pay him back for what he has done to them. Over the course of the day, a number of people set out with messages. Word is going to spread of the rape of Kadall, as quickly as fire in a hay-loft. I am not sure Marek has really considered what he might kindle here.”

“I doubt he cares,” said Faramir darkly, watching the steam curl up from his tea. “He has displayed great ruthlessness before in trying to gain his desires, and I fear part of his plan was to impress those who turned away from him after his recent failures, and to lure them into aiding him again. And they are the kind of people who cheer acts of aggression like this, or else are cowed and daunted into obedience. I begin to believe that even last year when he captured me, it was not really the Steward of Gondor he wished to catch. It was not a political thing, it was entirely personal. And not aimed at me in the first place.”

Khorazîr gave him a questioning glance. “At who else? Your King? But then it would have been political.”

Faramir shook his head. “Not at him. Elessar is a nuisance to him, but little more. You and me he truly hates, and he has attempted our destruction before. But his recent strokes were aimed at Éowyn, I fear. Always at her. I do not know if it was really him who contrived to bring about her miscarriage, years ago, and successfully prevented us from having children earlier. But there are indications for his involvement. Later, Éowyn received a precious dress from him, accompanied by a taunting note, and on another occasion, exquisite jewellery. He sends her gifts, and at the same time tries to murder our children. Why? What has she ever done to him? Her only fault is to have married me. I first thought he tormented her to hurt me, but I am not convinced of this any longer. For some reason, he seems obsessed with her.”

“For some reason? You are telling me you cannot understand him?” asked Khorazîr shrewdly, his dark eyes glinting with quiet amusement.

Faramir flushed slightly. “I do understand his fascination, certainly,” he admitted with a faint smile, “but not his dangerous obsession. He had never seen her before, nor spoken with her, nor even exchanged letters save one. So why is he so keen on capturing her? Not to trouble or blackmail me – he wanted my death this time and almost achieved it. And surely he knows that with her abduction he invites the wrath of Gondor and Rohan and half the Harad. And yet … and yet he is willing to risk all this, in order to gain her company.”

Khorazîr took a sip from his cup, watching the other thoughtfully. “Would you not do the same for her?” he asked.

“I would,” said Faramir directly, without considering the question. Then more thoughtfully he added, “But I love her, and I hope that in the years we have been married I have gotten to know her, so that I can claim I love not just an image or a first impression, but her in her entirety. Al-Jahmîr knows naught of her apart from what is commonly said. And I doubt he is capable of love. For him, she must be just another precious treasure in his collection.”

“A special one, nonetheless. Are you trying to creep into his twisted mind and search for his motives, Dúnadan? Beware! ‘Tis a dangerous place to tread.”

“Perhaps. But how else are we going to get at him unless we try and think like him, and devine his future moves?”

Khorazîr shook his head, smiling slightly. “You speak as if the two of you were sitting at a chess-board.”

“In a way, we are. The game was begun years ago, and it looks like this is going to be the final match.”

Khorazîr smiled grimly. “He checked you,” he stated. “And he took your queen. This is a deadly situation. How are you going to resolve it and turn it to your advantage.”

“The game is only over when the King has been taken,” he said softly but with a dangerous glint in his eyes. “Did you not know that the queen can be recovered if you manage to bring a pawn all the way to the other side of the board – into the realm of the enemy, so to say?”

“I know, but I have never managed to. And who shall be the pawn, Dúnadan?”

Faramir drank from his cup, thinking. “I do not know yet. But he will be found.”

+

Their conversation was interrupted by Dorgil arriving with supper. He obviously had had some sleep, looked less exhausted but still not rested entirely. He had not shaved, either. After questioning Faramir concerning his state and checking his temperature, pulse and breathing, he announced his satisfaction about his captain’s recovery

“You will have to remain abed for some days yet, but if you continue to heal like this I am confident I can allow you to leave it sooner than I hoped – if we can find a way to prevent you from overdoing things and aggravate your injuries,” he added with a stern expression.

“Rather prevent me from dying of boredom,” returned Faramir. “I cannot lie abed for days yet while there is work to be done. Give me at least some maps of the areas where Al-Jahmîr may hide, or something to read.”

“Or a chess-board?” added Khorazîr with a wink and a smile.

Faramir turned towards him. “If you are willing to play, I would indeed appreciate this.”

Khorazîr laughed. “I am by no means as good as you, so I fear the match would be rather uneven, but yes, we can play a game or two. I can pretend to be Al-Jahmîr, and you can swipe me and my henchmen off the board. This should cheer you up, at least.”

“Actually, your presence here cheers me even more,” replied Faramir warmly.

“Do give him something to eat now, Master Healer, so that he can fill his mouth and is prevented from uttering more sentimental nonsense like this,” said Khorazîr, to divert from the fact that actually the words had quite touched him.

+

Dorgil had brought not only soup this time, but some bread and fruit as well: fresh figs and dried dates, and peaches and oranges and three different kinds of melon. “The villagers provided most of the fresh stuff, in exchange for the goods Lord Khorazîr provided,” he explained while he helped Faramir into a sitting position again and then set the tray before him so that he could help himself to food. “Luckily their orchards have not suffered during the attack. Their herds and flocks have been found as well – mostly, the beasts have not been slain but had been driven off by the noise and the fires and scattered in the hills. We found some of the raiders’ horses as well – obviously their owners have been slain. But there are some good steeds among them, so that the villagers are recompensed for some of the damage they suffered. The well has been cleaned, too. I advised the people to boil their water before use for some time, against the danger of catching disease, but at least there is enough water again to last them over the summer.”

“Good,” said Faramir between tasting the melons – they differed in colour more than in taste, he found, before he noted the slight variations. “You and the men seem to have been doing some excellent work here,” he added appreciatively.

Dorgil blushed slightly. “We have only been doing our job, captain,” he said modestly. “Moreover, the villagers helped us, too, with food and shelter and the like, because they know we lost men as well.”

Suddenly reminded of this grievous fact, Faramir hesitated in taking another bite from the bread – flat and baked on both sides, containing some spice he could not define. “I recall you mentioning that four men were slain, but I only recall Iorlas. Who are the others?”

Dorgil told him, and described how they had fallen. When he had ended, Faramir sighed. “All have families back home,” he said softly. “Iorlas was betrothed to his long-term sweetheart only half a year ago.” He stared at the bread in his hand. “How can I possibly explain to the bereaved ones why they were slain, and that the danger I led them into could have been avoided?”

“I thought we had agreed you are not to blame, Dúnadan, but Al-Jahmîr,” interjected Khorazîr, and there was some sharpness to his voice.

Faramir looked up and met his smouldering gaze. “What is Al-Jahmîr to those who have lost a husband, father, brother or son now? Just a dark name and a rumour. What shall I reply when they ask me why we did not avoid the village when we suspected a trap all along? To help some villagers unknown to them?”

“They will understand, captain,” said Dorgil soothingly. “Mablung sent some letters along with your messages and tried to explain the situation, and the difficulty of our choice. He showed them to me, and I think he did a good job in describing what befell, and that they died doing their duty: defending those in sore need of aid. Of course this cannot assuage the pain of their loss, but after a while it may ease their bereaved ones’ hearts.”

Faramir drew a breath and at length nodded hesitantly. He wondered why this matter was troubling him so much. It was not the first time men of his company had been slain in battle or even through accidents – alas no! He did not recall the many times he had been forced to bring tidings of woe to fallen men’s families. Of course they had died doing their duty, but this time he felt that the duty had been ill-devised.

“Try the soup, ere it gets cold,” said Dorgil, to change topic. “Our host made it this time. I hope ‘tis not too spicy. Earlier this evening she cooked some stew for the lads and asked if they liked their food spicy. Those fools started to boast about who could endure the most of those wicked small red pepper they are so fond of down here. And the lady obliged. You should have seen them when they had to eat the stew, captain. Most did not last three spoonful ere they had to run for water.”

“Hah, there it shows again: you tarks are soft,” stated Khorazîr. “Most of your food tastes of nothing.”

“Only to those whose tongues have been deadened by the amount of hot spices they eat,” returned Faramir with a grin before carefully trying his soup. At the wedding-feast he had tasted some of the really hot dishes, and found them interesting but nothing for every day consumption. The soup, however, was only mildly seasoned and very tasty. It too contained some herbs or spices he did not recognise. “’Tis good. Edible even for us soft tarks.”

“There is more if you like,” said Dorgil, then he looked up sharply as hurried footsteps approached and the curtains were jerked aside. Dírhael’s tousled head appeared, followed by the rest of him which stood to attention and saluted a little awkwardly. “Sorry to disturb you, lord,” he panted, “but Captain Mablung sends me. Dorgil, you must come swiftly. Meneldir, Baranor and Duilin have returned, and only Duilin is fairly unscathed. The two others are badly wounded. Please hurry. I have already told men to fetch stretchers and blankets.”

“Good work, Dírhael,” said Dorgil as he leapt to his feet. Khorazîr had risen also, looking tense. “I shall check what is going on there,” he told Faramir when Dorgil grabbed his bag, a bottle of water and some spare bandages and dashed out behind Dírhael. The Haradan followed more slowly, but with no less anxiety. Faramir was left alone, frustrated about his weakened state that prevented him from joining the others. His appetite gone of a sudden, he listlessly poked at his soup with his spoon, his ears straining for sounds from outside, and his eyes wandering to the curtain ever so often, hoping for someone to step through and release him of his ever increasing anxiety.

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PostPosted: Thu 02 Nov , 2006 4:05 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Some time later, Éowyn sat still and silent, staring through the glass toward the sea, not comprehending the sight before her. She had finished weeping and now let the numbness that followed settle in over her. Yet her thoughts would not completely quiet. She wondered whether there was a way to leave this place and not be seen, and moreover how to find it and use it. Narejde had found a way, but also she had lived here many years before successfully stealing away. And you do not have that much time to spend, she told herself. But what would she do even if she did manage to escape these walls? She was alone, in hostile territory, and with child as well. She knew she would find a way to manage the hardship, but would the child? It was a risk she was unwilling to take right now. She clenched her hand, her numbness turning to anger. Curse you, Al-Jahmîr! It would be your luck to earn two prizes instead of one.

A knock at the doors at the far end of the room startled her from her thoughts. Miliani leapt to her feet and hurried to answer it. She spoke softly to whoever was on the other side, then shut the door and came back to knee before Éowyn. “Rashidah wishes to speak with you, lady,” she said quietly.

“Who?” Éowyn asked, closing her eyes. She did not wish to see anyone, but if this was someone important, she may have to.

“She is the most senior of the harem girls.”

“What will happen if I do not see her?”

Miliani hesitated. “She’ll be angry, but she can’t do anything to you. But my lady, I wouldn’t kindle her anger. She can be vicious in her own way.”

Éowyn had heard stories of richer lords who still held onto the custom of keeping a harem for their own pleasures, but she had never thought she would be this close to one. She shook her head. “No, tell her I do not wish to see her.”

Miliani nodded and went back to the door. A loud squawk came from the other side, and Miliani quickly shut the door before the person on the other side could say anything else. There was silence for a moment, then a loud pounding on the door. Muffled threats and curses could barely be heard through the thick wood. Miliani, halfway across the room by now, looked to Éowyn for guidance. Éowyn shook her head, and the girl returned to her place by the other set of doors. After awhile, the pounding stopped, and silence again fell across the room.

Another knock came soon after, this time from the set of doors opposite the windows. Saredeen stood and answered this visitor. She stepped aside and allowed a manservant to enter. He was dressed in white with blue and green accents. Éowyn saw his reflection in the window, but did not stand to greet him. He did not seem to notice or mind her lack of acknowledgement and said clearly, “Lady Éowyn of Ithilien, Lord Marek Al-Jahmîr requests your presence at the noontime meal today. He eagerly awaits your reply.”

What will you do, boy, if I say nothing at all? she wondered. She tested his patience by remaining silent several moments. Of all things, she did not want to dine with Al-Jahmîr. If the snake wished to taunt her, he could come here and do so himself. Perhaps he wished to poison her as he had Faramir. She doubted he sincerely and merely wanted the pleasure of her company. He never did anything that had only a single purpose. She felt the heat rising in her as she clutched the pillow with both hands. Straightening slightly, and without turning, she said, “And my reply is this: I do not wish to dine with him, not today, not tomorrow, not ever.” The calmness in her voice surprised her. The servant waited another moment to see if there was any further reply, then bowed, spun on his heel and left.

Éowyn’s shoulders sagged. Refusing her captor may not have been the best response, but she did not want to oblige his desires. He had stolen her away from everything that was dear to her, and she knew her own anger was justified. You killed my husband. You are keeping me from my sons. You are not letting me go home. You have killed innocent and good people for no reason. You do not deserve to even speak my name.

The messenger returned. “Lady Éowyn, Lord Marek Al-Jahmîr requests your presence at the noontime meal. You will have every opportunity to show your displeasure with him. It would be wise for you to accept this invitation. It will not be offered again.”

Éowyn turned to see the messenger clearly. She tried to discern his thoughts, but his face was impassive. He was a servant only, relaying messages from one part of the castle to another, without attaching any emotion to the words he delivered. And this message was different from the first. She toyed with the idea of refusing this one as well, wondering how far she could push her captor. And if she refused, had he not said he would not extend the invitation again? She wished she could believe those words held no deeper meaning, but she could not entirely lie to herself. Refusing this time could be deadly.

“I will dine with him,” she said finally. Then she smirked. “But first I must make myself presentable.”

+

Some time later, she stood in front of the seashell mirror, studying her appearance. She had changed into the sable dress with the red sash belt, a color more fitting for a widow. She had wanted to be rid of the sash entirely, but when she took a closer look at the dress, she found that it was not a true belt, but instead that the bodice and skirt were each sewn to it. Though the color was appropriate for her status, the cut certainly was not. This gown was as tight as the first she had put on and revealed just as much. The neckline curved deeply, and when it finally joined the sleeves, there was hardly anything keeping it on her shoulders. The sleeves remained solid down to her elbow, then turned into tulle that draped to the floor.

The girls had washed her face with cool water, trying to keep her eyes from puffing because her weeping earlier. Then they had gone through a process of applying some sort of cream, then a powder, and then another powder on her face. They told her to close her eyes, and when she did, she felt the light sweep of one of the tiny bristled brushes across them. Then they told her to keep them closed as they put something else on her lips, and then began working on her hair.

When she was finally allowed to open her eyes again, she stared at the face looking back at her in the mirror. It was her, but it was not her at the same time. Her eyes were shaded with a dark blue powder and her lips tinged with a rich red. The rest of her face looked smoother than it normally did. Her hair they had twisted up and behind her head and fastened with a tall black hair comb set with shimmering pearls. She was not sure she liked this. “No,” she said, reaching back to take the comb out. Miliani stopped her with a gentle hand on her own.

“You said you wanted to be presentable, my lady,” she murmured, “and now you are. Believe me, you will make everyone who sees you jealous.”

Éowyn hesitated, then shrugged. “All right,” she said, sighing. “If this is what presentable means.”

The girls led her to the door of her sitting room, where Saredeen stayed. Miliani took her out to the corridor, where the white-robed servant and a guard were waiting. The guard was dressed in black, silver, and green, with a black cloth masking the lower half of his face. He held a spear as tall as himself at his side. Miliani nodded to the servant. “We are ready,” she said.

Éowyn tried to remember the course they walked through the castle, but their route was so twisty that she eventually lost track of where she had been. She felt sure that this was just a ploy to confuse her, though she could not necessarily figure why. They walked through high-ceilinged rooms and courtyards, past tinkling fountains and still, silent statues. Occasionally their path took them across open-air walkways suspended over gardens below. Éowyn was surprised at how open most of the castle was. It seemed like the breeze could drift anywhere it pleased, with latticed windows built high into walls and doorways without doors to block its passing. Sunlight filtered in at the oddest places, though she did not have the opportunity to investigate the reason. In the more classic interior spaces, potted plants were arranged to make the space feel like the outdoors. And the colors! Some rooms were a soothing white or cream shade, whereas others were painted so violently blue that she her eyes hurt if she looked too long. There were various shades of red and orange as well where the rock’s natural color had not been tampered.

At long last they stopped in front of a great mahogany set of doors. The man-servant stepped forward and knocked. Another dressed like him answered. “The Lady Éowyn for Lord Al-Jahmîr,” he announced.

The other servant nodded and opened the door wider, saying “He is waiting.”

While Miliani took a place by the door, Éowyn stepped inside and looked around the room. It was whitewashed like her own, though smaller, and set with several windows along one wall. They were framed with blue curtains and looked out over green orchards and stone pathways. Tapestries and paintings clung to these walls as well, though their contents reflected a more agricultural taste. Dark-wood furniture was spread throughout the room. The flooring was a pattern of alternating white, black, and dark green tiles. Éowyn found herself glancing around the room so much that she did not notice the round table in the center laden with food, nor the man standing next to it, for several moments. When her gaze finally rested on him, she stiffened, aware that that she had been gaping like an ignorant child.

“My lady,” he greeted her, bowing deeply, “it is an honor to finally have your gracious presence. I am Marek Al-Jahmîr.”

He did not look like an evil man. He could have been any number of grandfathers, weathered by the sun and elements, with rich brown skin and long, gray, curly hair pulled back and tied. His face seemed friendly and jovial, if it were not for the keen and cunning looks in his dark eyes. He wore his beard short, which was the current fashion, and touched with jasmine oil. He also wore several gold and silver earrings, some set with jewels. His robes shades of cream and white, tied with a green sash and topped with a vest of the same color. He did not look the part of a snake, and this made Éowyn hate him all the more.

“Please, sit,” he offered, holding a chair for her. Éowyn found herself stepping forward and sitting, though part of her urged her to refuse. As Al-Jahmîr took his own seat, she studied the platters of food between them. There was roasted fish and shrimp, breads of various shapes and sizes, squares of cheese, soups, and avocado halves stuffed with a strange, saucy mixture. There were various fruits, of course, and a green salad topped with what looked like almonds. It was far more than two people could ever consume in one sitting.

Al-Jahmîr sat and spread his hands. “Take what you like, dear lady, and if you do not see a dish you prefer, I will have it sent from the kitchens immediately.”

Éowyn stared at him, not quite in shock, but certainly in wonder. This was like a holiday lunch that a lord of fief would invite his neighbors to. As Al-Jahmîr took one of the avocados, she kept her hands in her lap and looked down at the delicate white plate before her. She discerned a raised pattern of shells around the rim, a pattern which matched the silverware beside it. She raised a hand and ran a finger along the knife’s handle.

“The fish is tender enough that you should not need the knife, and unless you choose an avocado, there is little use for the blade here.” Al-Jahmîr’s words were casual, but as Éowyn’s glance returned to his face, she saw that he was studying her intently, with a hint of amusement in his eyes.

Her own gaze cooled. “If that is so, then you certainly have no use for a naked dagger at the table,” she replied, noticing the slender blade next to his left hand.

“Tis not for the food,” he answered, amusement evident in his voice, “nor necessarily for you.” The silence descended again, broken by the sound of wine being poured into a goblet. The silence deepened, turning cold. Éowyn still made no move to take any food. She continued to level her gaze at her husband’s murderer until he looked up, noted her gaze, and sighed. “If you wish to starve yourself, that is your choice, but I doubt that it is healthy for the baby.” At her startled look, he wiped his mouth with a cloth napkin and continued. “Yes, I know. You think I would not? I was quite surprised, expecting to hear from my healers that you were safe and well, and learning that you were carrying a child also. My congratulations.”

“You are a sick man,” Éowyn said softly.

Al-Jahmîr chose a fish from the platter. “No, my healers assure me that I am in fine health. Now please eat something, though I would advise against the hummus.” He nodded toward a bowl filled with a thick, creamy white substance topped with oil and some sort of red spice. “I have heard that this recipe causes terrible indigestion in pregnant women.”

“Does it?” Éowyn asked, taking a piece of flatbread, dipping it into the mixture and taking a bite.

Al-Jahmîr chuckled. “Yes, and the fish will make your feet swell, and the soup will make your back hurt.”

Éowyn put the rest of the bread on her plate. “And how much of this is going to poison me?”

At this, Al-Jahmîr looked offended. “I know that in the past I have stooped to using poisons to keep my guests in check, but I would never use such a dirty method on such a beautiful lady.”

“You think your flattery will impress me?”

He paused and looked thoughtful. “No, I do not think it will. I capture the rainbow for you and put it into silks, and you choose this nighted color to wrap yourself in. I see to it that delicious breakfasts are sent to your bed only to hear later that they end up on the floor.” He leaned back in his chair. “No, my flattery will not appease you, though you can be sure I will continue to use it. Your beauty would cause even the most callous of men to weep for joy.”

“And I am sure you dry your tears on the sleeves of the innocent dead,” she spat.

Al-Jahmîr’s eyes narrowed. “Beware, Éowyn,” he said, his voice deadly soft. “I am a courteous host, but my courtesy does have its limits, and I beg you not to tread them.” And almost with the next breath he was the amiable host once more. “The fish is excellent today. Do try it.”

Éowyn grudgingly took a piece of the fish and began eating it, forcing herself to do so slowly, as it was indeed good and, moreover, she was famished from her disastrous breakfast. She took one of the avocados and tempted fate by finishing the rest of the bread with hummus. She found the pitcher of water and poured some into her own goblet, not without seeing the odd look of approval in Al-Jahmîr’s eyes.

They ate in silence for the most part, occasionally broken by Al-Jahmîr making some comment about the food, until at last he wiped his mouth and leaned back in his chair. Éowyn had finished some time sooner, and had been tracing the pattern on the plate with a finger. “Now that you have had a decent meal,” he said, “it is time to discuss your stay here.”

“You make it sound as though I have a choice in the matter.”

“You do, to an extent,” he replied. “You can choose to do what I ask of you and be at peace, or you can choose to go against my wishes and find how quickly your life here can change. You are free to move about the women’s quarters as you wish. It is a safe place, and very few men are allowed there. It will not take you long to learn who those are.”

“I suppose you are one of them,” she said with contempt.

He smiled and nodded slightly. “I am. Those who are not allowed there and try to sneak in anyway face severe punishment, I assure you. As I said, you are free to move around there as you wish. Your girl will show you around.” He paused and chuckled. “No doubt you will soon come across Rashidah. She likes to know everything that goes on within those walls, and you have thrown her entire world into chaos. She is a silly girl. Do not let her frustrate you.”

He took a sip of his wine. “Outside the women’s quarters you will have an escort in addition to your girl wherever you go. I am sure you noticed you had one bring you here.” He waited for her nod before continuing. “I am quite serious about this detail. I prefer to house you in luxury, but your living conditions can change quickly should you test my patience. Do not attempt to run away. You are many miles away from your native land, and moreover with those eyes, hair, and skin, you would not be able to disappear into a crowd. It is a long and dangerous journey by foot, with less hospitable company hiding in the shadows. I need not mention the vipers and lions. But, should you attempt a valiant escape, my men will find you and bring you back. Do not doubt that. When they return you, I will make sure you refresh with a cup of fûliah tea, and a few hours later you will find that you are no longer an expectant mother.” He sipped again, watching her reaction.

Éowyn felt the blood rush from her face. He was using her own child against her! That he could so mildly speak of forcing a miscarriage… She vividly remembered the pain and sorrow of the miscarriage she had had almost six years ago. Had he caused it? She narrowed her eyes and pressed her mouth into a hard, thin line. Desperately, she tried to keep the tears already pricking her eyes from forming. He returned her gaze, daring her to speak. “It was you,” she said finally, not able to keep her voice entirely free of a quiver.

He tilted his head. “Perhaps.”

“How can you live with the things you do?”

“I do what I must to achieve my goals.”

“What goal could possibly require destroying my children?” she asked bitterly.

“That is not for you to know,” he answered, taking a piece of pineapple. “But we digress. Escape and you lose your child. Stay and I will give you whatever your heart desires.”

“I desire only my husband, my family, and my home,” she said, her voice cracking from anger and the beginnings of despair.

“I can find you a husband, I can see to it your sons are brought to you, if you so wish, and this is your home now.”

Éowyn shook her head and pressed her hand to her eyes, trying to cling to what little control she had left. “You killed my husband,” she said after a moment, refusing to look at him, “you tried to kill my sons, and yet you refuse to kill me. Why?”

Al-Jahmîr said nothing but watched her. It had not taken her long to lose her composure, he noted. He had expected it to take much longer, but then again, she was still recovering from the sleeping fumes and experiencing the emotions of pregnancy. She was not broken though, he knew, and it had not been his intention to break her. Not today. By the stars, she was beautiful! And within that fair form dwelt a spirit that was still wild. He looked forward to the challenge of taming her.

Three quick knocks sounded on the door, followed by a pause, a single knock, a pause, and three more rapid knocks. Al-Jahmîr turned his head sharply. He had forbidden any interruptions during this time, but this also was important. “Enter!” he barked.

One of his lieutenants strode in and saluted. “Forgive me lord, lady, but Minastîr demands to be let out of the oubliette and says he will give names.”

Al-Jahmîr sighed and rubbed his forehead. “I will deal with it momentarily,” he said. “Find the rope, at least.” The soldier saluted again and left. “I apologize, dear lady, but I am afraid our lunch must end. I wish it had not ended with such unhappy talk, but I fear it was inevitable. I am sure you must be tired still from your travels and the exquisite task of making a child. Rest. Your girl and the guard will show you back to your quarters. I will have supper sent to you.” He stood and bowed to her again. “A pleasure.”

Éowyn glared, rose, and said nothing in return. It took all her fraying will to keep her temper down, and she felt that if she opened her mouth at all a string of curses and oaths would be the only words to come out. She turned her back to him and started for the door. “Strange,” she heard him murmur. “I thought they taught manners in the northlands.” They do, but the only manners due a snake is the sharp edge of a blade.

Al-Jahmîr followed her to the door and opened it. He ducked his head, but she slipped out before he could draw close enough to touch her. She still felt his breath fall on her shoulder. “Girl,” he said softly, and Miliani quickly touched a hand to her forehead. “See to it her ears are pierced tonight. There are jewels aching to be hung from them.”

“Yes, master,” the maid said meekly.

“And show her around the quarters. It is her home now.”

“Yes, master.”

“And Éowyn,” he added, waiting for her to turn. When she did not, he added, “Look at me.” It was a command, not a request. Éowyn turned slowly, making sure all the rage and hate she felt showed on her face. “Lunch was quite pleasant. We shall do it again tomorrow.”

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PostPosted: Sun 05 Nov , 2006 7:17 pm 
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Minutes seemed to stretch like hours as Faramir waited for the return of Khorazîr or one of the rangers, or anybody feeling bound to inform him of what had befallen his returned men. Outside the window there were sounds of men and horses, a dog was barking, and there was a murmur of excited voices. Soon there were also sounds from the other side of the curtains, but too soft to determine what was passing there. After a while he grew weary of straining his ears to the vague noises and returned to his supper. He finished the soup and helped himself to some more bread and fruit, only realising while he ate how hungry he had truly been.

When he was done, with some difficulty he managed to shove the tray with the bowls and plates from his mattress onto the empty seat next to the bed, then set to the even more adventurous task of refilling his tea-cup without having to stretch so much as to aggravate his injuries. He was pleased to note that once he had reached the slender handle with his left hand, he could lift the still half-full tea-pot even with his arm outstretched. Not long ago he had been too weak to lift a spoon to his mouth.

His cup refilled and still nobody returning to dispell his anxiety and impatience for tidings, his eyes fell on the book Khorazîr had been reading from. It lay where the light of the lamps did not quite reach, on the low table behind the tray with the tea. Gilt ornaments glinted faintly on its spine, but it was impossible to read the red letters on the cover. The book looked very old, or else it had seen much use and wear. His curiosity aroused, for so far Khorazîr had never shown much interest in books or inclination to spend his time reading, Faramir carefully leaned forward for a closer look. When this did not give him a better view of the writing on the elaborate cover, with sudden inspiration he freed his left leg of the blankets and hooked his foot round one of the legs of the table, and cautiously so as not to upset the teapot and cups drew it towards him. The floor was covered in smooth tiles so that soon he had pulled the book into reach and took it.

It was bound in black leather with a gilt ornamentation of stylised ships along the spine and parts of the front-cover. Bold red letters of an old, highly decorative mode of Tengwar announced the title in Adûnaic, Akallabêth. Faramir opened it at random and leafed through it. Obviously it had been written by a very skilled and moreover creative scribe, for he had illuminated many pages with small figures in red ink, and even gilded parts of those. Ar-Pharazôn always appeared as an almost entirely golden figure as befitting his name, which when spelled out began with a gilded capital. The lettering was in dark-red ink throughout, only when Sauron was mentioned it was deep black. Faramir gazed at the worn pages in fascination. The book was of exquisite craftsmanship, and clearly quite old. After reading some passages (and actually stumbling over some words as they were ancient and not in use anymore, not even in the Adûnaic books or on maps he had studied in Minas Tirith), he came to the conclusion that here the Drowning of Númenor was being told from rather different perspective than he was used to – almost all accounts still kept in the deep vaults of the Citadel had been written by the Faithful after their escape, and only few books and scrolls hailing from Westernesse itself had survived their flight. But the anonymous author of this book obviously had had access to sources other than the Faithful, and had moreover revered the “other side”. He referred to the Elf-friends and the house of the Lords of Andúnië as traitors, claiming that Ar-Pharazôn had been right in persecuting them. Doubtful, however, he seemed of the benefit of Sauron’s influence on the great king, and of his plans to conquer the Undying Lands he did not quite approve.

“An interesting read, is it not?” Khorazîr’s voice startled Faramir out of his lecture. “I thought you might like it. It was given to me years ago by my teacher Irkhâim. I have not looked in it for many years.”

“Why did you bring it with you now, then?” asked Faramir, closing the book and gazing up at the Southron.

Khorazîr shrugged as he took the tray with the remains of Faramir’s supper and set it on the floor in order to reclaim his chair. “I had wanted to give it to you as a parting gift. And forgot. But when I received your captain’s message I thought that if you survived your injuries you would appreciate some distraction during your recovery. And there you are. Finally you can read what really befell back then. I am quite certain all accounts you are familiar with are a twisted kind of tale, since they were written by those traitorous Faithful.” There was a glint of amusement in his eyes which soon faded again as he ran a hand across them wearily and then bent forward to help himself to another cup of tea, only now noticing that the table had been moved. He glanced at Faramir questioningly. “Your doing?” he asked astonishedly. “But how did you accomplish it?”

Faramir smiled faintly. “Magic. And the help of my foot.”

Khorazîr laughed. “And for a moment I thought you had left your bed and begun to walk about. I would not put it beyond you. By tomorrow, your healer is going to have to tie you up to prevent you from escaping.”

“I am going to leave the bed as soon as I can keep on my legs again,” said Faramir firmly. “Whatever Dorgil says. As long as I do not embark on any strenous work, he cannot compell me to lying here. But being forced to remain abed is a sure way to impair my recovery – especially when there is work to be done. You have no idea how straining and unhealthy it is having to lie here waiting for somebody to stoop to bringing me tidings. What befell out there just now? What of my men: Meneldir, Baranor and Duilin? Dírhael said they were wounded? How did that happen? Were they involved in a fight with the raiders? Do they bring news of Al-Jahmîr? What–”

“Easy, Dúnadan,” interrupted Khorazîr, holding up a hand. “I shall tell you all in good time. Your healer is still looking after the wounded. The three have seen some tough fighting recently, and in order to escape their pursuers, had to ride long and hard. Two look like they will make it, but one they had to tie onto his horse to prevent him from falling off. He has received an arrow in the back, and lost much blood.”

“How did that happen?” asked Faramir.

Khorazîr leaned back in his chair, cupping the small tea-vessel with both hands. “Apparently they followed another group of raiders, which was joined by more and more of their comrades as they travelled, ever towards the East until they veered south to cross Harnen. Your men spied on them and tried to overhear their talk whenever they made camp – they also had some wounded with them and thus had to rest more frequently than otherwise they might have done. They learned these men belonged to a group of mercenaries lead by a fellow named Murad Al-Kaîsh. I have heard the name before – he is one of those desert-raiders who robs traders and travelling merchants, but also goes to war for any lord able to pay his fees. Obviously he received his pay from Al-Jahmîr for this venture.”

He glanced down into his cup, frowning. “I admit to being troubled by this,” he continued after a moment’s silence. “Al-Kaîsh is an unscrupulous, cruel and greedy fellow, but according to my previous information he was Marek’s utter enemy because of a blood-feud between their families. Money can of course be a powerful motivation to switch sides and overcome personal hatred and desire to revenge, but I fear there is something more than greed behind his recent change. Not even Al-Jahmîr has that much gold to move a man to forget a blood-feud if his heart and mind are really set on it. And Murad is not a man to be cowed by threats into doing the Umbarian’s bidding. So I reckon Al-Jahmîr’s undoubtedly generous offer met with some inclination to accept it from the other side. And I wonder what brought this about.”

“Hatred of Gondor, perhaps?” ventured Faramir, studying the troubled expression on the Haradan’s face with worry.

“I wonder,” mused Khorazîr. “Certainly, Murad is unlikey to be a friend of you tarks. But he profits from the increased trade with the North.” He took a sip from his cup. “The matter needs more looking into. Perhaps your men can add some more details once they are recovered from their adventurous escape. According to their account, they followed the raiders to a hide-out of theirs, in the hills to the south of the Harnen valley: an old watchtower overlooking the vale of one of Harnen’s tributaries which only recently seems to have been repaired and fortified against attack. There Murad welcomed his men and questioned them about the outcome of their venture. According to their report which your men managed to overhear the raid went entirely accordings to plan: the woman had been captured and the tark – you – had been slain. Al-Khaîsh greeted the tidings, especially those of your demise, with delight. So perhaps ‘tis really his hatred of the Gondorians and certain promises on Marek’s behalf to trouble and deeply humiliate great Gondor that made him join forces with his former enemy. Or it was something more personal, a desire of seeing you destroyed in particular. Are you perhaps familiar with him?”

Faramir shook his head. “I have never heard of him before, nor of anybody of like name. Which of course does not rule out that perchance I had dealings with him or a member of his clan or family in the past. Maybe I slew his brother in a battle, or some such thing.” He shrugged.

Khorazîr nodded thoughtfully. “That is possible. I shall investigate further into the matter. It interests me as well. As for your men, at one point, almost inevitably they were spotted and had to flee, which they managed, narrowly. They were pursued as far as Harnen, but at the river their chasers suddenly left them be and returned to their leader, as if afraid of crossing the water again. Well, and here they are. They were very brave, I must say.”

“Yes, they are good men,” agreed Faramir appreciatively. “They must all make it. I very much hope Dorgil can save them. We have lost too many men already.” He glanced down at the book in his hands, the flickering lamplight playing on the gilt ornamentation of the cover. “So, word is out I was slain,” he mused softly. “Al-Jahmîr must think so, too, unless he has received contrary intelligence.”

“From whom?” asked Khorazîr, watching the other with a shrewed expression. “Not many have seen you as fit as you are now. Until yesterday your life was still in imminent danger. Of course the villagers inquired after you, but most have other, more pressing matters to see to.”

“Surely Marek has established a spy or two in the village, in order to keep him informed of what passed here after he left,” observed Faramir.

“Spies can be deceived, if the deceptioin is carried off care- and skillfully. What is your intention, Dúnadan? Are you considering to die indeed, to enable you to strike at the snake from the after-life?”

Faramir ran his thumb across the debossed ornaments on the spine. “It might put him at ease, the knowledge of my death,” he said thoughtfully. “Convinced Éowyn’s husband will not come to rescue her might encourage him to forgo some of his caution and lower security round her – although he must reckon with her brother and friends to come after her, even if I am not around anymore.”

“You may be right. ‘Tis going to be difficult, but I think we can kill you off convincingly. Give you a proper burial and the like, and wear mourning colours so that even the most shrewed and doubtful of Marek’s informants are cheated into believing you have passed on indeed. Actually, it would give me quite some satisfaction to get rid of you terminally, Dúnadan.”

Faramir smiled faintly. “It would have surprised me to hear diffently from you, Lord Khorazîr. “There is another difficulty, however,” he went on quietly, his expression pained of a sudden. “Éowyn! I should not like to so deceive her as well. Most likely she believes I am dead as it is. She saw how the arrows hit me, and with all the blood on my garments ... she must be going through hell now, all alone with the snake as her companion, and parted from everybody and everything she holds dear, with no hope of ever regaining some of that.” He drew a deep breath. “As soon as we are certain of her whereabouts, we must try and convey a message to her, to tell her the truth about my fate and console and encourage her.”

Khorazîr sighed. “I need not describe the difficulties of that task to you, do I?” he asked darkly. “She is going to be guarded very well, and I doubt she will be allowed to receive correspondance from the outside at all. We shall have to establish someone inside her prison to have a chance to reach her, and that is going to take long. Would we had that marvellous buzzard of your Elvish friend now. He could bear a message to her.”

“Aye,” said Faramir softly, recalling the buzzard Aiglos with whose help he and Éowyn had exchanged letters during his imprisonment at Tolfalas a year ago. Without the faithful bird and the constant reassurances of his wife’s love he brought regularly, his sojourn there would have been unbearable. Éowyn had not such consolation and encouragement now. “According to my friend Maradir’s last letter, Lordel is back in the North,” he told Khorazîr sadly. “‘Tis highly unlikely the Noldo is going to help us this time.”

“We shall get word to your beloved somehow,” assured him Khorazîr, obviously trying to cheer his dark mood. “It will take a while, however. I hope Narejde is going to send tidings soon. She rode south to check some of the places where Marek is likely to have taken your lady to. I do not doubt he tried to bring her there secretly, but there are always open eyes to see things, and quick minds to put two and two together out there. And a woman like Lady Éowyn is not easy to hide, even in an impregnable fortress. Leave it to the servants to get word in and out. If we can find one we can trust, or get in one of our own folks ... Or find a trained monkey to climb walls and crawl through narrow windows ...”

Despite his troubled heart, Faramir had to smile about the last suggestion. “A trained monkey?” he asked doubtfully.

Khorazîr shrugged. “Why not? They are smart creatures. My sister used to have one that could steal a jewelled necklace from your throat without you noticing. We often used it for snatching fruit from high up in the trees, or to nick small cakes from the kitchens.”

“Which again shows that you Southrons are a bunch of criminals,” stated Faramir with a grin, causing Khorazîr to laugh out loud. “While you are law-abiding citizens without the slightest intention of robbing people of their property, right? That is why the Umbarians are still battling you over the territory you claimed as yours some time ago.”

“I see we understand one another,” stated Faramir jestfully, before his mirth faded again somewhat and his expression turned serious again. “I think in this matter we shall need all the help we can get, and if a trained monkey can aid us, I shall be the last to complain.”

“I agree,” said Khorazîr. “And now, if you are done, you should try and get some more sleep. There are several hours until dawn still, and your returned men need to rest as well ere they can report to their lord. As for your death, I shall speak with your captain and the healer, and listen to their counsel. If they agree, we shall try and devise a plan of how to kill you convincingly.”

“Thank you, Khorazîr,” said Faramir earnestly. “There is something else you can do for me. I am loath to admit it, but at the moment there is not much I can do here while our people are out gathering information. And when I am dead, I will need to remain hidden for a while, or else walk about in disguise. I have been thinking about returning to Gondor as soon as I am able – not for long, of course. I am somewhat torn in two, however. I feel I need to stay here, to be as close to Éowyn as possible, and ready to interfere should an opportunity to free her present itself. But looking at our plight realistically, ‘tis unlikely that any rash attempt at rescuing her is going to be successful. And as yet, we do not even know where she is being kept. We shall need Gondor’s support, and I should be present when the matter is being discussed in council. And I need to see my boys. That most of all. They may have lost their mother for the moment, but they have still got their father. And he should not be parted from them any longer.”

“I understand your dilemma,” said Khorazîr with sincere pity. “But do you really think you will manage the journey in your state, only half-healed, when it is a difficult and dangerous road for men completely healthy?”

“I have no mind to travel over land. You have connections down here. Do you think you could organise a swift ship to bring me to Gondor – to Harlond at best, or at least as far as Pelargir? It could wait for me down on Harnen so that I would not have to travel long on horseback to reach it.”

Khorazîr returned his empty cup to the tray and leaned back again, stroking his beard. “I could find somebody willing to undertake the journey, I reckon. ‘Tis going to take some time, though. And ‘tis going to be expensive, although I am sure to get a good price. There are some captains out there who owe me favours still, and others are going to be eager to work against Al-Jahmîr. Or to get certain passage-rights into Gondor, if you take my meaning.”

“This can be arranged, I am sure,” said Faramir, smiling wryly as an image of haughty Falastur of Pelargir flashing through his mind when he learned his arch-enemy in council had been granting passage-rights of Gondorian rivers and coastal waters to men no better than corsairs in his reckoning.

“Excellent. The captains will be glad to hear it. You will get your ship, I promise. But first you need to get well again. Sea-voyages can be rough, too. And you are going to be dead by then, too. But for now I shall leave you. Try to sleep.”

He whistled softly, and soon after his servant stepped in to carry away the tray with the food. “I shall leave you tea and book,” said the Southron as he rose and stretched. “Good night, Dúnadan.”

“Good night,” answered Faramir. Khorazîr went round to extinguish the lamps, then with a soft swish of the curtains he was gone. Outside, the noises had died down, and from the room beyond the curtains the soft sounds of sleepers could be heard. Moving carefully, Faramir pulled the pillows that had propped him up from behind his back and stretched out, drawing the blankets about himself. The night was cool again, but warmer than before. Soon the nights in this area would be almost too warm to sleep. Suddenly he yearned for the softer clime of Ithilien. At this time of the year rhododendron, columbines, lupines and the first rosebushes were in flower. And the lawns in the birch-grove by the frog-ponds so beloved by his sons would be swatched with a soft veil of white hemlock. He sighed deeply as these imaged appeared before his eyes. Last year about this time he had returned home after his capture by Al-Jahmîr. It had been a time of profound bliss, the joy and contentment even more poignant after his long absence from the people and home he loved. Would there be such a joyous reunion again, when he had freed Éowyn from the snake’s vicious coils? He had to believe in it. But she, what happy ending could she believe in if she truly was convinced of his death? The thought hurt more than his wounds. Ah, Éowyn, you must feel I am not gone. When I die, ‘tis not going to be Al-Jahmîr’s doing, be assured of it. Do not despair, melda. He has tried to part us before and failed. He is not going to succeed this time, either.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Thu 09 Nov , 2006 3:05 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
Posts: 3304
Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
I will see you dead, Snake. Éowyn’s thoughts were tumultuous, but that one clearly rose above all.I am not some prize you can keep on display or beck and call at your leisure. You will not keep me here. And yet she knew he would, for now, while the threat to her child lasted. She clenched her jaw. He did not need elaborate poisoning schemes or a legion of guards to dissuade her from leaving. He would just use her own baby against her. She cursed under her breath. Miliani glanced at her, but wisely said nothing.

Éowyn did not even try to memorize the path they took back to her quarters. Her anger clouded most of her mind as it was. You have taken my husband from me, and my sons their father, but you will not have their mother for long. Even if I cannot find a way out of here myself, there are others who will come for me. I will cost you more than you know.

“My lady? What would you like to do?” Miliani asked.

Éowyn blinked suddenly, not realizing they had stopped in front of the doors to her chambers. She let out a long breath she had been holding. I would like to go home, she thought, but doubted that answer would get her anywhere now. She did not really want to see the rest of the women’s quarters, did not want to give the Snake the pleasure of thinking she was acclimating to her living area. But if she was free to roam here, why not? “Alright,” she said quietly. “Show me this place.”

Miliani led her through the corridor until they came to a small courtyard. “This is one place where the women’s quarters end,” she said, indicating the pair of guards just beyond the walkway. “There are others, but this is closest to your rooms.” They turned back the way they came and this time branched off to another corridor that emptied into a small, enclosed room. The only natural light came from a window carved into the ceiling. Éowyn glanced up at it as they passed through. “This sometimes serves as a dining room,” Miliani was saying, “and then it is filled with candles of all sizes. Or it can be an entertaining room, or a place to stay during a very bad shirrikan.”

They continued walking, and came to another room that held a great aquarium. Éowyn stared at the large glass box filled with fish of various sizes and colors. Some were bright orange with white stripes, others deep purple with yellow fins. Others were vibrant red with long, flowing black tails. Sea plants seemed to grow from the bottom of the tank, and small silver fish darted between the tendrils. Some stuffed chairs and low tables were arranged around the aquarium. “I’ve heard that watching the fish can be very calming,” Miliani said, admiring a large yellow one that lazily floated by.

They went to other sitting rooms and dining rooms, and rooms that did not seem to have a purpose at all other than being rooms. They went down a flight of stairs. “And here are the gardens,” Miliani announced. The stairs landed on a wide tiled terrace which opened to the still-wet gardens. The sun was trying to peek through the clouds, and occasionally a sunbeam would manage to fall on trees. Éowyn looked out to trimmed hedges and tall, swaying palm trees. There were raised boxes of flowers, kinds she had never seen before. There were some large blossoms tinted purple and blue, and white, tiny, curled blossoms tucked under each other like a snowball. Other boxes were alive with reds and yellows, whites and oranges. From where she stood her view was obscured, but she knew somewhere beyond these friendly blossoms were the ultimate walls of her prison.

Éowyn found herself walking on the path through the flowers. She breathed deeply their fresh, exotic scents. Clearly the Snake had had no part in this area, for nothing was spoiled. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. She wondered if the balcony above her was the one she had stood on earlier this morning, but as she looked, she saw others jutting out over the gardens as well. She turned her attention back to the lower level and followed the path as it led into an alcove. She stopped and stared at the ground, puzzled. The path continued on, but it wove itself into an intricate pattern in the center of the alcove. It never crossed itself, but it doubled back many times and created various loops and spirals. There was a blank space in the center. “What is it?” she asked, hearing Miliani step beside her.

“It’s a labyrinth,” the girl replied. “Walking along the path supposedly helps you think more clearly. Helps you make better decisions, I guess.”

“Do you think so?”

The girl snorted. “I can follow any line in the ground and say it helps me think. Doesn’t mean it does.”

Éowyn smiled slightly. “Indeed.” She looked around. “Is this it?”

Miliani scrunched up her face. “There are a couple rooms on this lower level that are part of the women’s quarters, but they aren’t anything special, really. You’ve seen just about all there is.” She paused. “Well, except for the more popular common room, but that’s right next to yours, so we’ll see it when we go back.” She paused again. “If you’re ready to go back. You look the happiest you’ve been, here.” She added, “If I’m not too bold to say.”

Éowyn shook her head. “Yes,” she said softly. “This is a good place.” She traced a petal with one finger. This was a good place, and she would have to come back here when the sun was out again. “You say I can come here anytime?”

“Yes, my lady.”

She nodded, more to herself than in affirmation. “Then show me this other room that I need to see.”

They went back upstairs and through the various passages and rooms until Éowyn recognized the hallway near her rooms. As they passed the doors she knew led to her sitting room, Miliani said, “The common room is right beside your rooms here. You recall the doors at the other end? They lead directly into the common room as well.”

She paused in front of a pair of white doors and placed her hands on the golden handles. “Now, remember, this is a favorite room among the women, so most likely there will be at least one person here.”

Why does that sound like a warning? Éowyn wondered. Miliani pushed the doors open and held one for her as she walked in. Éowyn noted that the room was at least as large as her sitting room, if not larger, and had several pairs of doors leading off to what she guessed would be other private chambers like hers. The walls were the familiar pinkish-orange hue, and at the far end the wall turned into windows, draped with thick white and blue panels, looking over the gardens and the sea. She saw long lounge couches topped with pillows and folded blankets, thick rugs bordered with tassels, the occasional statue, and in one corner she thought she saw a harp tucked away under a light covering. There were other decorations, but she did not note them as she came to realize that she was the center of attention now.

Three women were seated on one of the couches in the center of the room, and each looked like they had frozen mid-movement. One held a comb inches away from her companion’s hair, another had her hand raised halfway to her mouth, and the third sat cross-legged holding a long, thin stone she used to file down her nails. After a moment of exchanging stares, the third dropped the stone onto the seat and ran into one of the siderooms.

Of the two who remained, Éowyn wondered where the rest of their clothes were. Whoever had made the shirts had apparently forgotten to sew the backs into them. The cloth that should have held shirtsleeves was instead tied behind their necks and what would have been the hem, though it was too far above the navel to be called a hemline, was tied at their backs. Their skirts had slits up to mid-thigh and threatened to fall apart at what few seams they had. The woman with the hair comb, dressed in green, bent down and whispered something to the girl – for truly she could hardly be called more than that – in white and cream. The younger one giggled.

Before Éowyn could speak, she heard the rustling of cloth and saw the third girl run back out into the room, dragging her look-a-like in blue and white with her. The fourth girl’s mouth dropped open, and she clamped her hand across it, stifling a laugh. They trotted over to the couch and dropped to their knees beside it, whispering to the other two and stealing glances at her. Éowyn wondered if they were ever going to say anything directly to her. She glanced at Miliani, and found that the girl had taken a spot by the doorway and was staring at the floor. Something in her demeanor suggested that she was not thrilled to be here.

“I said who are you?” There was a peal of laughter. Éowyn looked back to see one of the girls in blue speaking. “Maybe she can’t understand me.” The girls continued studying her and talking amongst themselves, their whispers turning into audible comments.

“What did she have to do to herself to get hair like that?”

“Maybe something went wrong. You remember when Lahar tried to color her hair red?”

“I said never speak of it,” one of the girls in blue hissed. “That dress does nothing for her.”

“It is the color,” the girl in green wondered, “or is it because she’s too fat for it?”

“She’s not that fat.”

“Kalikarîsha was fat, and the master certainly liked her enough.”

“Does she not know what sunshine is?”

Éowyn continued to stare at them as their comments hit her. She had not even been in the room two minutes and already they considered her stupid and ugly. Dark hair bobbed and swished as they chattered away, dark brown eyes declaring their amusement.

“Who are you?” The voice, though thick with sleep, sounded like one that was used to being obeyed.

The other girls instantly fell silent. Behind them, Éowyn could see a tall woman slowly walking toward them. She looked bored as she nibbled on a piece of pineapple, if seduction incarnate could be boring. If what the rest of the girls were wearing was scandalously skimpy, she wore tailor’s scraps of red. Clothes were too much of a bother. She yawned. “Shall I give you a name?”

“I- I am Éowyn.” Why had she stuttered? Perhaps because she was completely out of her element now.

“Ah, she can speak,” the newcomer drawled. “But what sort of name is A-wih?” She finished the rest of her pineapple. “I think I shall call you Kishka. You certainly look like a kishka.” The other girls snorted and tried to muffle their laughter.

“There’s no need to be that mean, Rashidah,” the other girl in blue said.

Rashidah gave her a withering glare. “Shall I give you a name too, Lael?” She pushed herself off the pillar and walked forward with deliberate slowness, her hips swaying. “Hmm, you may be right Saribêth, that color is terrible on her. But if she can’t even wear black, what can she wear?”

“Maybe nothing?” A chorus of “oooohs” floated around the couch.

Rashidah turned and just stared at the girl in white. “Child, what would you know? You haven’t even had First Night yet.” The girl flushed and looked away suddenly. Rashidah turned back to Éowyn and continued her perusal.

Éowyn did her own study. This was Rashidah? This spiteful, bossy, arrogant girl? No wonder the Snake was fond of her. She may have been of age, but then again, maybe not. She certainly did not seem mature enough to be that age. Rashidah continued coming closer until she was almost touching Éowyn. Éowyn could smell jasmine on her skin, and a hint of one of the flowers from out in the garden and… She wrinkled her nose. She could smell him on her. Rashidah must have understood the disgusted look and smiled slyly. “Oh yes,” she whispered, “I had him, and no one can take him from me.”

“You can keep him,” Éowyn answered, her voice low. “I do not want him.”

Of all the answers, Rashidah had not been entirely prepared for this one. For a moment doubt and confusion flashed in her eyes, but they were quickly replaced with wariness. She took a couple steps back. “Is this some sort of joke?” she asked, throwing up her hands. She looked back at the others, who shrugged at her. “Why are you here?” she growled, turning back to Éowyn.

Because I was stolen. Because your master killed my husband. Because your master is a thrice-cursed son of a goat who should be destroyed, and I will gladly be the one to do it. Éowyn felt the heat rise in her cheeks though she remained silent. Because your master wanted a prize, and for once he got it.

“Can you sing?” Rashidah hissed.

Éowyn looked startled. “What?”

Rashidah groaned and clapped a hand to her eyes. “Can you really be so stup—” her voice trailed off. “Can you sing?” She performed a difficult soprano scale.

“N- no, I’ve—”

“Can you dance?”

“Yes.”

The other looked at her skeptically. “No, not those blasted formal dances that anyone can do. Can you dance with veils and ribbons and your shadow?”

“No.”

“Can you do acrobatics?”

“No,” Éowyn said miserably.

“Can you play the harp or flute?”

“No.”

Rashidah narrowed her eyes. “Can you pleasure men?”

Éowyn returned the gaze. “I have given a man more pleasure than you ever will.”

Rashidah snorted. “I doubt that.” Then she raised an eyebrow. “Just one? Shame. I almost thought even you could be good at that.”

Éowyn glared at her. I had a man who loved me and died to save me, which is far more than what your master would do, I bet. I have given my Faramir three sons, and a fourth child he will never see. I comforted him when he was heartsick and cared for him when he was injured. She felt herself begin to shake slightly. I saw him through great happiness and utter despair. I had his vow of love and protection. Can you say that about anyone, girl? Would your master stay up past midnight, in the rain, waiting for you to come back home? Would he go look for you? Would he run into danger and die for you? She felt tears stinging her eyes but did not care. You may be able to pleasure him, but he does not love you for it.

“Aw, you made her cry, Rashidah.”

Rashidah smirked. “If you can’t do anything, what good are you?” she asked softly, crossing her arms.

“I am a wife and a mother,” Éowyn said, her voice trembling. “And I have had more real love than you will ever know.”

Rashidah looked shocked. “A mother? You had brats wherever you come from?” She sniffed. “You really are nothing more than a common kitchen girl, aren’t you?”

Éowyn never knew how she managed to rein in her anger, turn, and leave the room. Laughter and calls followed her into the corridor, and then were cut off as Miliani shut the door behind her. They know nothing, she tried to tell herself as she stormed down the corridor. They will never be even shadows of real women. You have the love of a family, and nations, to return to. A small, wicked voice added, But not the love of a husband. He is buried somewhere in the sands of Kadall. Now she did not stop the hot tears from falling.

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PostPosted: Thu 09 Nov , 2006 8:28 pm 
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Faramir woke to a merry chatter of children outside the window. Flecks of sunlight were playing on the walls, and a draft of warm are was wafting through the room. He was not sure about the time, but reckoned it to be late morning. Someone had been there recently and placed a pitcher of water, some fresh tea and a on a tray plate with what looked like flat seedcakes on the low table next to the bed. Also, there was a bowl of a porridge-like substance with some raisins and cinnamon sprinkled on top, and various kinds of fruit. The table had not been moved from where he had pulled it so that he could reach everything comfortably even with only one good arm at his disposal.

He felt well-rested and stronger than the previous night. His sleep had been deep and untroubled by disturbing dreams. He dimly recalled that there had been dreams, but they had been rather pleasant – something about his children as they played in the gardens of Dol Arandur, with Elboron showing his two little brothers how to race frogs against each other, and Peregrin always bringing up a toad which could not jump like the frogs. The three had been older than they were now, and when he tried to remember the dream now, Faramir was not sure anymore if the three boys had truly been his sons, or rather himself with his two best friends, Maradir and Túrin, who at one time had tried to breed frogs in the pond of the White Tree in the very Citadel of Minas Tirith. Listening to the lively sounds of the children outside now lightened his heart as he recalled how much grief and misery the little ones of Kadall had seen recently, but it also saddened him as it reminded him of his own boys, who he would not see for another fortnight or longer.

Also, as he lay watching the sunlight play on the walls, suddenly an image flashed through his mind which he had not heeded when the vision had first appeared in his fevered dream of Éowyn and his sons: the small figure following behind his wife. Many details of the dream had vanished, but this last image, strangely, had stuck in his memory. He had not given any further thought to it so far, his mind occupied with other matters, but it had crept up again, and now refused to vanish. Had this really been just the fever and his stirred-up emotions and worries speaking, or was there more to it? His conversation with Éowyn on the morning of their departure from Khorazîr’s which had ended in a nasty argument came to his mind again. She had wanted another child, and he had been reluctant – overly reluctant, unjustifiedly reluctant – about the idea. And now this dream ... Was his subconscious trying to tell him that his hesitancy had been the wrong attitude all along? Well, he had understood that now. Another pregnancy would certainly prove less danger for Éowyn than other things – like being abducted and imprisoned by Al-Jahmîr? She may have as many more children as she likes, if only she returns to me unhurt and well, he thought sadly.

Then another thought struck him which made him pale slightly. What if the matter had already been resolved before they had ever taken up the issue for discussion? What if she was with child, and had not told him out of fear of his reaction? Or perhaps she had not known herself, only suspected – for surely he had never given her reason to fear him? He stared at the white-washed ceiling where moths had hidden in the dark corners, without actually seeing it. If it was true and she really was with child, her situation was even worse. Any attempt at escape would be impaired by her desire to protect the unborn baby. And Al-Jahmîr would know that. Faramir’s head was spinning with all the possible consequences of a pregnancy. Even more than before he cursed his own situation, his inability to interfere. Suddenly, the necessity of conveying a message to her was even more urgent. A way had to be found, whatever the difficulties. Before he left for Gondor, he had to gain the conviction she was well, at least according to the circumstances. And she had to learn he was still alive.

He sat up sharply, and almost sank back again when especially his chest-wound sent a stab of hot pain through his body. He drew a breath and reached for a large pillow to put behind his back to steady himself. He leaned into it, trying to fight down the pain by breathing shallowly and relaxing his body as best he could. The pain indeed eased after a while, but his anxiety did not. You have to be patient, Dorgil’s voice rang in his ears. Patience! Already he had begun to hate the word, despite usually being a rather patient man.

A squeal of surprise or delight – it was difficult to say – from quite a large number of children came from outside, stirring him out of his troubled contemplations and arousing his curiosity. What was going on there? Now there was clatter as of applause, and then a man’s voice was raised above the clamour. Faramir thought he recognised Hirgon’s: the young ranger was famed as the company’s minstrel (and often teased for his dedication to poetry and song other than the often rather rowdy rhymes and tunes of the rangers). He not only had a sheer boundless imagination and a good singing voice, he also was an able public speaker. It was almost impossible to make out the words, even as Faramir strained his ears to the speech and concentrated on what was being said. Carefully, minding his injuries lest they pained him again, Faramir leaned toward the window as best he could, in order to try and catch a glimpse of what was passing outside. But the shutters were partly drawn, and even though they let in some sunlight through the fine holes in the lattice-work, it was impossible to see beyond them.

With a disappointed sigh he sank back into the pillows, only to slowly sit up again a moment later. It was not far to the window. Just a few paces, with the back of a chair to hold on to. And he was alone. He was not sure if his legs were strong enough already to carry his weight, but he would not know unless he gave it a try. He cast back the blankets and slowly and carefully manoevered himself to the edge of the bed and placed his feet on the cool floor. The bed was rather low and difficult to rise from, but luckily the chair next to it was massive and heavy, so that he could grab the arm-rest with his left hand and use the unhurt arm to pull himself up. His chest again protested at the movement, but the pain was bearable, not a deep stab but rather a low, dull strain. Then he stood on his feet, using the chair to steady himself. For an instant his head swam with dizziness, which faded after he had taken several breaths – by now he had learned quite well do so without aggravating his injury, only from time to time he tended to forget that deep intakes of air were rather unsuitable at the moment.

Now for the walk. Fixing his gaze on the window and holding on to the chair’s high back, he carefully pushed his right foot forward, then let his weight follow. It went well, better than he had feared. He had no trouble keeping his balance, and despite his legs feeling somewhat shaky from little use, they did not give the impression of quitting service and giving way underneath him any moment. Cautiously and very slowly, he took another step, and then another. Just three or four more, and he would reach the window. The difficult part came when he had to shift his hand from the chair to the windowsill, and for a moment had to rely on his balance and strength of leg alone, but even this task passed without problem, so that soon he stood at the window, clutching the frame for support. The elbow of his right arm which he had pressed against his body to prevent himself from moving it too much, he used to push open the shutters a little further. Then he leaned against the frame and sill more comfortably, taking as much weight off his legs as possible, and peered through the gap.

As he had expected, he could overlook a part of the village-square. There was the well in its middle, and round it a fair number of children of all ages had gathered, watched by some elderly villagers lounging in the shade in front of the houses on the other side of the square. Also there was a group of rangers, clad only in shirts and trowsers because of the already considerable heat on the sunlit yard. Hirgon was standing on something that raised him above his audience, and was just now holding up what looked like a close-tied bundle of rags, fairly the size of a human head or a small watermelon. Upon realising what it represented, Faramir began to laugh softly.

Obviously, there was going to be some kind of competition between the rangers and the children. Hirgon made a gesture now to hush his excited audience, and in the silence that ensued he began explaining the rules of a popular Gondorian ball-game to the children of Kadall. Meanwhile, two rangers had busied themselves with sketching a field into the sandy ground: a smaller rectangle inside a larger one, divided by a long line that cut through the middle of both, dividing up the inner into two squares. The teams were chosen, rather to the advantage of the children who outnumbered the men almost two to one, mostly because they could not decide who was to play and who had to watch. After some lengthy discussions this was settled, however, and the two teams took up their positions on the field, each team placed in one of the inner squares. Hirgon acted as the referee. He strode into the middle of the field, in his hands the make-shift ball, waited until both teams were ready, then he tossed it high up into the air and swiftly left the field.

The game consisted of the players trying to hit someone from the other team with the ball. Those who were hit or did not manage to catch it were banished to the sides of their adversary’s half of the field, to from there try and hit them. The children proved very adept at evading the bundle, however skilfully the rangers cast it, despite their greater number causing their half of the field to be rather crowded. Faramir laughed out loud when he saw Herion, his attention shortly diverted by two young women walking past to bring tea and water to the elderly spectators, received the dusty ball straight into his face. The force almost conveyed him to the ground, and he had to move from the field to great clamour from the children – he had previously sent a fair number of them to the sides. In the end Dírhael alone of the rangers remained on the field, faced by three children in the opposite field, and ringed by a cheering, chattering mass of them on three sides. They were calling for the ball to be thrown to them to finish off the tark, while his own comrades tried to encourage the poor youngster. He managed to send another child to the sides, but then the ball he had tried to catch slipped from his hands, and with great clamour the children rushed onto the field to congratulate the two victors.

“Tsk tsk, there it shows again,” said a deep voice from the direction of the curtains, startling Faramir so that he almost lost his balance as he turned towards the sound. Khorazîr had returned, his clothes covered with a fine layer of dust which made Faramir assume he had also watched the spectacle on the square.

“What shows again?” he asked, steadying himself on the windowframe and only now noticing that he had managed to keep on his legs throughout the entire game without feeling the strain. The realisation pleased him – apparently his recovery was indeed proceeding well.

“That you tarks are a bunch of weaklings,” answered Khorazîr, stepping into the recess, “losing against children, hah!” His eyes were glinting with amusement. “But well ‘tis so. I just won my bet against your captain, who stubbornly insisted on your lads conquering. Oh, and if I were you, I would return to bed speedily. Your healer is about to check on you, after he has treated the other wounded. I doubt he is going to appreciate to find you like this. How long have you standing at that window?”

“I watched the entire game,” said Faramir with some pride. Khorazîr looked suitably surprised. “You are stronger than you look,” he said, walking over to Faramir to help him back to the bed. “One should not think that of a lean, half-starved creature such as you.” He laughed softly. “Al-Jahmîr is going to explode with wrath when he learns he did not manage to kill you yet again.”

“Hopefully he is going to be discouraged from trying once more,” Faramir replied wryly. “But I thought the plan was to convince him of my passing,” he went on as with the Haradan’s help he slowly lowered himself to the edge of the bed. “Have you spoken with Mablung and Dorgil?”

“Aye, and both were reluctant to agree, I must say. Your healer saw the difficulties in pulling the deceit off convincingly, and your captain had rather moral scruples – he is loath to deceive your faithful men. But they will tell you themselves. They were not opposed to the idea in general, just more cautious in embracing it than I.”

“Yes, I can see how it would appeal to you in particular,” commented Faramir dryly, upon which the Southron smiled broadly. “Have some breakfast, Dúnadan. The tea and this ...,” he held up the bowl with the porridge and studied it with a doubtful glance, “gruel or whatever ‘tis supposed to be, they are almost cold.”

Faramir lifted his legs on the mattress again and sat back against the pillows, but did not draw up the blankets as the air was warm. The porridge proved rather tasty, despite its somewhat unpleasant colour and consistency, and the seedcakes were particularly good. “Where are you accommodated, by the way?” asked Faramir between bites.

“In an empty building close to this,” said Khorazîr. “The lower storey appears to have been some kind of warehouse, but on the first floor there are comfortable rooms – the villagers told us to occupy the house as its owner was slain during the first raid, and his remaining family lives far away.”

“Good morning, captain,” came Dorgil’s rather low voice from the direction of the curtains and the healer stepped into the room, laden with a large washing bowl, another pitcher of water, some towels, his bag, as well as fresh bandages. Khorazîr stepped over to relieve him of some of his burdens.

“Good morning, Dorgil,” replied Faramir, watching the healer unload onto the bed with a slight frown. Dorgil noticed and said, “I know I could have asked Brandir to lend a hand, but I thought the fewer men see you up and well, the better. From now on, only Mablung, myself and Lord Khorazîr are going to visit you. I am going to tell the men your state has worsened, and you are still suffering from the fever due to an infection of the wound. We could have you die of that quite convincingly, and whenever it suits us. You would be required to act the part, however, should anybody peek in unbidden.”

“I think I can manage that,” Faramir assured him with a faint smile. Then his expression turned grave. “What of Meneldir and Baranor?” he inquired.

Dorgil heaved a sigh and shrugged slightly while laying out the bandages and pouring water into the bowl. “Meneldir is still in pain and troubled about his injury – an arrow shattered his ell. I set the bone as best I could, and hope it will mend, but should gangrene set in he is going to loose his lower arm, and he is deeply afraid of that. ‘Tis his left arm, and I told him he would still be able to wield his beloved blade.”

“But he is also an excellent archer,” remarked Faramir. “It would be a sad blow to him indeed not being able to shoot his bow anymore. Still, I am certain his wife would not mind him returning with just one arm, if only he returns at all.”

“This is exactly what I told him,” said Dorgil, “and Mablung has been trying to cheer him up, too. He has been doing a lot for the men’s morale lately, Mablung has,” he added appreciatively.

“I know,” said Faramir. “No wonder he is reluctant to embrace the idea of deceiving them with tidings of my death. I wish there was another way. But even though I trust them, the more people know of the matter, the more likely it is that somebody gives forth a hint. And we cannot risk that. But you have not told me of Baranor yet.”

“Aye, Baranor,” said Dorgil slowly, hanging his shoulders with a sigh, then reaching up to run a hand over his eyes. “I fear he will not make it. His injury is similar to yours, only that he was hit from behind. His ribs prevented the arrow from driving deeper into his lung, but he has lost so much blood.” He shook his head sadly while rinsing his hands in the bowl. “I marvel he survived the ride hither at all in his state. He has got high fever, and little strength left to weather it.”

The healer absently stared at his hands in the water for a moment, and Faramir once more noted how weary he looked, then his head jerked up and he shook water off his hands before drying them on a towel. “What about you, captain?” he switched topic. “You look well-rested, and there is even some colour returned to your face.”

There came a soft laugh from Khorazîr. “You may be pleased to hear that your captain even embarked on a little expedition this morning,” he said. Faramir shot him a quick, warning glance, upon which the Southron only smiled broadly.

Dorgil gave first him then Faramir a questioning glance. “Expedition? What does that mean? Surely you did not leave the bed, sir?”

“Truth is, I did. I watched that game on the market-square from the window.”

“From the window?” asked Dorgil sharply. “The entire game? Captain, I need not tell you to take things slowly. Even though your condition has improved and your fever,” he placed a hand on Faramir’s cheek and brow, “your fever is gone, you have suffered a very serious injury. ‘Tis –”

“Calm yourself, Master Healer,” interrupted Khorazîr, “surely you know your trade, but perhaps you should consider your patient’s emotional state as well. If you condemn him to a long dull stay in bed he is going to quickly sicken with anxiety. Allow him to rise and occupy him, and I am sure he will mend with a speed to surprise us all.”

“That may be,” returned Dorgil defensively, “nevertheless, he needs to remember not to ask to much of his body in its still-weakened state. Also, I must remind him that he may still be suffering from the long-term damages of his poisoning the previous year. Lady Teherin mentioned his heart may have been damaged from what has been done to him, and King Elessar confirmed this. So I am not going to take any chances. He is no use to Lady Éowyn or his children when he dies of utter exhaustion or an infection taking hold of his weakened body only because he was too impatient to wait for it to recuperate properly.”

“You know, ‘tis nice of you to speak like I was not present,” remarked Faramir, upon which Dorgil blushed. “Forgive me, captain,” he muttered. “I am simply concerned about you. As are we all.”

“I know, Dorgil. And believe me, I do not wish to cause you any additional worry. I have promised you before not to overdo it, and I am not intending to break my word.”

The healer nodded curtly as he set to unwinding the bandages round Faramir’s chest and shoulder to clean and inspect the wounds. “Good,” he said.

+

After Dorgil had finished his inspection, announcing himself pleased with the healing of the wounds, and had left again, and Khorazîr also had departed to the account of an errand-rider who had arrived with tidings from his son and daughter-in-law, Faramir read half a chapter in Khorazîr’s book before he grew drowsy and fell asleep. He woke again when dusk had descended upon Kadall, and the cicadas and other night-creatures had begun their concert in the blue twilight. To his surprise, he found Mablung at his bedside, slumped in a chair and leafing through the book slowly and with a rather absent expression. When he heard the rustle of Faramir’s sheets and blankets he stirred and gave him a confused glance, before pulling himself together.

“My apologies, sir,” he said while stitting up straighter, “but it has been a long day.”

“A long week, more like,” returned Faramir. “And I daresay you worked much harder than most of the others. I have heard several people speak your praise – people who otherwise are rather sparing with that, so I reckon ‘tis well earned.”

Mablung blushed, so that in the light of the lamps his cheeks glowed deep orange. “I only did my duty,” he muttered. His next words were drowned in a rush of footsteps, and the question, “Is he awake?” from behind the curtains, which almost immediately after were drawn aside and Khorazîr stepped through. Mablung rose from his chair, giving the Southron a questioning and somewhat alarmed glance, which then shifted to the figure following behind.

He was a young man of average height, clothed in long, dusty travelling-garments of reddish-brown hues. Underneath he was clad in dark, wide trowsers and boots of red leather with a curved tip, and over a long dark-red tunic slit for riding in back and front a hauberk of small rings which glinted briefly when he moved and the light found its way through the folds of his burnous. His hair was also covered with dust, giving it a lighter shade than its usual black. It was long and wavy and partly gathered in a braid to keep it out of his face. His features looked somewhat older and harder than his years allowed – by Gondorian reckoning he had scarce come of age –, they were sun-tanned, and fierce and proud, despite weariness now lying on them like the fine layer of dust. He wore a short beard round mouth and chin as was currently the fashion in these parts, and the scars, one on his forehead and another set on his cheekbones and chin indicated he had seen some rough times. His eyes, which rested on Faramir with a surprised glance, where brown, but of lighter hue than was common among the Haradrim.

Faramir sat up straighter upon recognising Khorazîr‘s recently acquired stepson Azrahil. “Greetings,” said the young man, nodding to Faramir and Mablung. His speech indicated he had spent most of his life in Umbar. “I have only just arrived, and Khorazîr told me to accompany him here to deliver my account to all of you at once, instead of repeating it. I am pleased to see you that well again,” he said to Faramir. “When Narejde and I left we only knew you had been badly wounded.”

“Where is she?” inquired Khorazîr, hiding his disappointment about the fact that obviously his wife had sent her son as a messenger and not come herself. “She is well, I hope.”

Azrahil nodded while taking a seat on the other chair. “Oh yes. She is very angry about what happened, and has been working feverishly on gathering information. I was surprised how many people she knows there – there meaning the bay of Umbar and the surrounding towns and villages,” he added upon a questioning glance from Faramir and Mablung, “and even more about how many of those owe her some favour or other. We have several good leads now which –”

All four gazed up sharply and turned towards the window when a most unusual sound issued from outside: the roar of a lion. Immediately, Azrahil leaped up and strode towards the window. “I told them to leave her in peace,” he hissed angrily as he peered out. “Excuse me, I need to check what these villagers are doing. I shall be back in an instant.” With that he dashed through the curtains and was gone.

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PostPosted: Sun 12 Nov , 2006 4:41 am 
A maiden young and sad
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A breeze blew through the open window, stirring the curtains and carrying with it the scent of flowers from the gardens below. Éowyn lay curled up on her bed, as misery got the better of her. She didn’t understand why she felt as humiliated as she did. Surely the opinions of those girls didn’t matter to her, did they? All their comments had centered on foolish things like looks and clothes, things that likely changed from day to day. There was nothing serious in them. And yet… and yet their words had stung. To add to her woes, the indigestion that Al-Jahmîr had warned her about had hit her with all its force, and her emotional disarray was only adding to the intense discomfort.

Miliani sat behind her and rubbed her shoulders and back gently, murmuring soothing words. Éowyn continued to sniffle while her tears slowed but still fell regularly from red eyes. Stop acting like a little girl, she tried to tell herself. You did not know they existed until today, and they mean nothing to you. Why are you letting yourself get so upset about what they think of you? Why should she care if Rashidah thought she was worthless? What did Rashidah know of running a household or raising children or defending her homeland? “She is a silly girl. Do not let her frustrate you.” Al-Jahmiîr’s words echoed in her mind, and as much as she hated to admit it, he was right. She was a silly girl, a selfish girl, concerned only with what affected her.

For a moment, Éowyn found comfort in the thought, but then she realized that even if Rashidah was a silly girl, the others would follow her lead, either out of fear or custom. She had seen how Rashidah did not hesitate to snap at any of them, either, and it looked like they had to put up with her far more than she did. And if they feared retaliation, then it was not likely they would go out of their way to talk to her. Then Éowyn realized that was what she had unconsciously hoped for when she had walked in there: to find someone to sympathize with. She had walked away empty and even lonelier.

“Is everyone here so heartless?” she asked suddenly, tears still heavy in her voice.

“What do you mean?” Miliani asked, smoothing back part of her hair that had fallen loose from the shell comb.

“I saw my husband shot down before my very eyes, and no one here seems to care.”

Miliani sighed and paused a long time before answering. “We all have our sorrows,” she said softly, “but we would go mad if we dwelled on them too long. I cannot change my life, and I can learn not to fight what I cannot change.” She took a soft cloth and wiped some of the lingering tears from Éowyn’s cheeks. “When I was first brought here,” she continued, “I cried myself to sleep every night, wondering why nobody was trying to save me. But I learned to live here, and once you accept that, it’s not such a bad life.”

“How can you say that?” Éowyn asked, certain she would not fall into the same trap of complacency and acceptance. She had too much waiting for her back at home.

“I do not have to wonder where my food will come from every day. I have clothes to wear and a place to sleep. I’m safe from thieves and raiders. As long as I do my duties, there’s little I have to worry about.”

Éowyn sat up, wiping her eyes with the cloth the girl gave her. “How can you say that?” she asked again, pressing a hand to her stomach as a wave of nausea washed over her. She closed her eyes and waited for the feeling to pass. “How can you enjoy living in a cage like this?” She gestured toward the harem common room. “How can they enjoy living like this when their duty is to give men pleasure and expect none for themselves?”

Miliani shook her head sadly. She had heard questions like these before. “Some girls cook. Some girls clean. Some girls pleasure men,” she said quietly. “We all have our duties. Does it matter whether one breaks her back or lies on it to earn her keep?” She waited a moment, and continued. “And those girls do receive in turn. They wear the finest silks and jewels. They have the best foods on their tables. They can ask for the most outrageous favors and get them, most of the time. They are the lucky ones.”

Éowyn stared at her. They were the lucky ones? She did not see anything lucky about being forced to satisfy a man’s desire for pleasure. Surely they did not think that Al-Jahmîr loved them? Surely they had their own hopes and dreams for a life beyond this, but what life could there be for a girl who had served like that? “They… they… you…” she shook her head, “you have no freedom. No hope for a better life. How—” Her hand flew to her mouth as her face paled drastically. Miliani quickly reached for a basin that sat on the end table and pushed it into Éowyn’s lap just in time to prevent disaster. She pulled the golden hair away from Éowyn’s face as she coughed and wiped her mouth with the cloth. Her hand shook noticeably.

“All this talk’s only upsetting you more,” Miliani said as Éowyn’s head dropped again. “And your baby doesn’t need you to be so troubled.” She stood, found another clean cloth, dipped it in water, and brought it back over to her charge.

Éowyn nodded slightly, trying not to move too much lest she be sick a third time. The child certainly did not need its mother to be so agitated, and perhaps this was its way of telling her to calm down. She dared to take a deeper breath as the girl took the one basin from her lap and replaced it with another. Miliani dabbed at her mouth with the damp cloth and wiped some of the sweat beads that had formed on her forehead with another. After several moments, she felt that she could sit up straight again without too much worry. Her stomach still rolled, but she did not feel the immediate need to find relief. She moved back until she could rest against the headboard. She closed her eyes and let out a shaky breath.

“Would you like to rest?” Miliani asked. Éowyn nodded, feeling a headache beginning to form. “Well, then let’s get you into something a bit more comfortable,” the girl suggested, bringing over a yellow cotton nightdress with white seashells and dolphins embroidered along the hem.

Éowyn was glad this gown was cut looser than the formal one she had worn. There was no longer pressure on her chest and stomach, and this instantly made her feel a little better. As she slipped under the covers, she barely heard Miliani say Saredeen would be with her the rest of the afternoon before she drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

+

Later that evening, after supper, Éowyn sat out on her balcony on one of the long lounging chairs with the tilted backs, watching the sun sink into the bay. The roasted chicken had been very mildly spiced and the bread had been brushed with a delicious herb-butter mixture. Fresh fruit was a constant presence at every meal, it seemed, along with a selection of cooked and fresh vegetables. This time a frosted cake had accompanied her tray, but the flavor she could not quite place. She had eaten cautiously, careful to avoid any potential problems like at lunch.

Now she leaned back into the canvas straps that wove the chair and shifted the blanket on her legs. The breeze was already cool, and it would only grow cooler as the evening progressed. In Ithilien it would likely be considered a warm breeze, but she had in a hot climate long enough to reconsider what was warm and what was cool.

She sighed and forced herself not to rub her ears by playing with the blanket’s hem. Her ears had been pierced that afternoon once she had woken up from her nap, and they still held a dull ache. The healer had come in with her sharpened needles and explained what she was about to do, and most importantly to hold still. She had ignored this last part, causing Saredeen to practically hold her down. She only stopped her struggle when the healer said that it would be terrible if she missed the ear and hit an eye because the woman kept squirming.

The slender gold posts tipped with emeralds looked glaringly out of place in her ears when she saw herself in the mirror, and she hated them for what they meant. The healer had given her strict instructions not to touch them, to clean them every day, and not under any circumstances take them out until she said to. If she took them out too soon, her ears would get infected, swell up, fall off, and she’d die. Éowyn wasn’t sure she believed most of that. Well, she certainly believed the swelling part, as her ear lobes had turned a vivid shade of red and were quite tender. The healer also said she would come back tomorrow to check on her, and every few days after that to make sure she was healing properly.

Éowyn cursed Al-Jahmîr under her breath, watching a gull swoop down into the gardens. She was not his slave girl that he could pierce with needles and gold. She was a free woman, only confined for a period of time, and as soon as she was free again the first thing she would do would be taking those blasted jewels out of her ears! She gripped the blanket with both hands lest she act on her resolution this instant. A horn rang out, and she heard the sounds of the guards along the wall as they changed duties. It was as though they were reminding her that freedom was as close as the wall she looked over, yet farther away than she could imagine. You will be free again, she told herself. Pay attention and be ready.

As she watched the sun sink deeper into the bay, the colors changed from pleasant yellows and pinks to fiery reds and oranges, turning the cove into a bowl of flame. Her mind drifted back to her memories of Kadall – she still could not remember anything between there and waking up the previous night in this place – and the flames that had set the night sky aglow. She remembered the firelight flickering on Faramir’s face as he looked for her, and how it had highlighted his relieved expression when he had seen her. It had also revealed his look of shock and dismay when the first arrow hit him, and surely had colored a face that had gone pale as the second arrow drove home. He sank to the ground and, like her memory from that point on, was gone.

She blinked rapidly, trying to hold back the tears, but eventually gave in to their heated protest. She had never allowed herself to shed so many tears before. But then again, she had never mourned a husband before. As she wiped at the salty drops, she wondered about what would happen to his body. It should go home to Ithilien, she thought. That was where he had been happy all his life. It was where he belonged. She smiled slightly through her tears, recalling how he would often come back in the house with bits of leaves or a honeysuckle tendril stuck in his hair and always the smell of the trees and fields on him. Often she would tease him, saying she was glad that Ithilien was not a woman, for she would steal him away. And he had had the nerve to agree! Of course, he had followed it with a laugh and a kiss, assuring her that there was room for only one woman in his life, one who liked to cheat at archery.

Her smile trembled at their favorite joke. Yes, he belonged back in the land he had spent most of his life defending and cultivating. A troubling thought crossed her mind. Ithilien was many days away, and the journey was not swift in any sense. Moreover, high summer was setting in, and the heat would quickly cause a body to rot. She felt her stomach churn and tried to push the thought from her mind. She did not want to imagine her beloved Faramir’s body rotting under a hot sun, especially when he was still so alive in her mind. At times she half expected to turn and see him walking up beside her, commenting about how extravagant these rooms were and that the money could have been put to better use elsewhere.

She wiped a few more tears from her eyes with the blanket edge. Maybe they would take him back through the pass and bury him just inside Khorazîr’s realm. The irony certainly would not go unnoticed, and she doubted that the Haradan would be stingy on giving his long-time enemy a proper burial. She muffled a sob with the blanket. What was it Khorazîr had said just before they parted? “Look after her well on the journey, Dúnadan. I wish to hear no complaints lateron.” Well, he would hear no complaints if he saw her again, only a widow’s heartbreak.

A thought chilled her more than the breeze. What if they think I am dead as well? She had not considered this. Surely they would not, but what proof was there that she was truly alive? How would they begin to find her? Al-Jahmîr had many places to hid his treasures. If they think I am dead, that will change how they respond to Al-Jahmîr’s attack. And my sons – they’ll be considered orphans, and who will take care of them? They are so small yet. She knew Éomer would gladly raise her sons with his own, and there were others in Minas Tirith who would open their arms to them. Túrin and Visilya’s son Vorondil, just a few months younger than Elboron, would be delighted to have his friends live with him.

But they will not, she told herself suddenly. You are still very much alive, and you will return to them. Though her words sounded resolute, she actually felt much less certain. If anyone was coming for her, they surely would not expect to find her with child, and that would likely throw their plans into disarray. Her rounded form would not make a daring escape any easier, and it would be impossible to disguise her as a simple guard and slip away. But even if they did manage to get away, there was only so much hardship and strain she could put herself through before triggering disastrous consequences.

She pressed a hand to her midsection. “I will see you safely home, little one,” she said softly. “I will see that you play with your brothers, and every day I will tell you about your father and how much he would have loved to meet you.” And one day I will tell you that it is my fault that he is dead.

As the sun disappeared entirely and the twilight deepened, she stood, took the blanket in her arms, and went back inside to her chambers. Her first full day in captivity was over.

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PostPosted: Tue 14 Nov , 2006 6:03 pm 
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“He brought his lioness with him?” asked Mablung in amazement, stepping over to the window and gazing out curiously. Growls from the large cat as well as Azrahil’s voice raised in anger could be heard. Whoever else was there had fallen silent in awe of the lion and her master.

“He dotes on the creature,” explained Khorazîr with a shrug. “He must have fetched her from Khiblat Pharazôn on his way hither, for I doubt he would have been able to make the journey to Umbar and back so swiftly with her coming along. Like the errand-riders, he must have exchanged steeds regularly.”

“How far is it to the Bay of Umbar from here?” asked Mablung, turning his back on the window and looking at the Haradan.

“About a hundred leagues as the lion runs,” came the answer. “The roads are fairly good, and there are inns and villages where fresh horses can be gotten. Still, ‘tis no wonder he is so exhausted. He must have spent the greater part of the previous days in the saddle, riding as much as fourteen hours a day. If that is enough.”

“And I doubt he intends to rest long here,” observed Faramir thoughtfully. “He seems eager to return to Umbar. Actually, even though I am loath to drive him so hard, I would indeed prefer if he rode back as swiftly as possible. Perhaps Narejde has found out about Éowyn’s whereabouts by now. I am impatient for tidings. I need to know how she is faring, if she is well.” If she is still alive, a small voice added nastily, but he managed to supress it for the moment. “Also, I need to send her a message. To encourage her and to tell her I was not slain by those arrows.”

“How are you going to convince her?” asked Khorazîr. “Should she indeed receive your message, how can she be sure it was you who wrote it – or even that it is meant for her?”

“We could attach something of hers which she would recognise,” said Faramir. “Mablung, could you try and find her luggage? And her saddle-bags? I am not sure where she put those, but –”

“Oh, they are here, sir,” Mablung fell in swiftly. “Like yours. We had all our stuff brought to this house. I shall fetch them presently. Also, I can bring you your writing utensils.” His eyes fell on Faramir’s bandaged shoulder and a frown stole over his face. “Do you think you can write already?” he inquired, a little doubtfully.

Faramir flexed his fingers and moved his hand. As long as he did not try to lift his arm, the movement was virtually painless. “My handwriting may look a little shaky, but writing in itself should not pose a problem.” He looked towards the window in alarm when the lioness roared again, upon which the bystanders let out a small scream. But then a most unusual sound followed: bright laughter, and a babble of young voices. Azrahil was still talking to his audience and the lion, but he sounded far more relaxed. As he strained his ears, Faramir thought he could hear a deep purr. He laughed softly. “Apparently he showed them how to tame Pharzi,” he remarked.

He himself had encountered the lioness as a cub upon Tolfalas where she had spent many hours with him in his room during his recovery from Al-Jahmîr’s poison. Given to the Umbarian as a present from one of his allies, he had soon discarded her disinterestedly and left her to Azrahil, then employed as his right-hand man and top assassin. The young man had, grudgingly at first, begun to care for the small creature and very soon come to like her. Lateron, she had even played a crucial part in freeing him from the dungeons and Al- Jahmîr’s revenge, after the Umbarian had learned of Azrahil’s switch of sides.

Now a year later, Pharzi was no small cub anymore but a full-grown lioness, fierce and dangerous – only Azrahil was allowed to come near her. Indeed, although he, too, tread warily around her, she was surprisingly docile and kind when he was about, rolling on her back to allow him to stroke her and pawing at him playfully when she wanted his attention. And Azrahil, even though he was slow to admit it, adored her and went great lengths to ensure she was well.

Mablung shook his head after peering out of the window again, smiling. “He cuddles her like a kitten and she suffers it, and even displays all signs of enjoyment. And the villagers tand round and gape. Apparently they have teased her with a stick, keeping out of the each of her leash. But now she has settled down again and he rubs her between the ears. He is quite fearless, is he not?” he ended with some admiration.

“He is bloody reckless,” said Khorazîr, a proud smile betraying the disdain of his statement. “Which shows he has not been entirely spoiled by those soft maggots from Umbar. No wonder his mother shows him off proudly now whenever she has the opportunity.”

“But how does his horse endure the lion’s company?” inquired Mablung, obviously fascinated by the large cat. “It must be near mad with fear.”

Here Faramir laughed. “You have not seen his horse, have you?” he asked, recalling when he had first encountered Azrahil’s ‘steed’. Mablung shook his head.

“‘Tis an old white mare,” explained Khorazîr with a grin, “scruffy and bony, looking like she would break down and die any moment. But she is as tough as a camel, and surprisingly swift. And utterly fearless. She gave that lioness hell from hooves and teeth when first they got aquainted. And now apparently, after having settled the question of who is the mistress of their company, they get along rather well.”

“Have you been talking about my horse?” came a question from the curtains, and Azrahil stepped into the recess again, causing the flames of the lamps to flicker. “I hope they have learned their lesson now. One of those village-lads got a scratch on his arm because he dared to approach too close. But I have set one of your men to watch Pharzi,” he said, nodding towards Khorazîr. “Let us hope they will not go near her again, and poke at her with sticks like they did, the fools.”

He walked round Faramir’s bed and collapsed onto a chair again, running a hand over his eyes and pushing back some strands of hair that had slid out of his braid and fallen into his dust-covered face. “I was reporting our progress down south, was I not?” he asked, gladly accepting a cup of water from Mablung. “Well, as I said, things look rather good. I was not able to stay long – I arrived one day and set out the other, but we had sent messengers ahead, so that already during that night we received tidings from spies and informants about Al-Jahmîr’s recent doings. He seems to have been working in secret for a long time, and had not shown up in his favourite haunts in Umbar for more than a year. But, surprisingly, his sons are there now. You may recall that last year they refused to aid him openly, fearing Gondor’s retaliation. They had even gone as far as casting him out of his home, Ihimbar al-Soor, taking the castle for their own.”

“Ihimbra?” asked Faramir, recalling to have heard the name before. “Is this not where you where imprisoned, Khorazîr, and whence Narejde freed you?”

“Aye,” replied the Southron darkly, as obviously memories of his stay there were stirred up. “So you mean his sons are not at Ihimbra anymore but have settled in his palace in Umbar?” he inquired of Azrahil. “That is interesting indeed. It must have been a deep blow to the Snake to have been denied return to this place last year. ‘Tis his ancestral home, and he adores the castle, obsessed as he is with riches and luxury. And it is impregnable, or so ‘tis said.” He studied the light playing on the folds of Faramir’s blankets thoughtfully, then nodded to himself. “Aye, it would make sense to bring her to Ihimbra. I doubt there is a more secure place anywhere down there, or a more comfortable one. Also, ‘tis not in Umbar directly, which means less interference from the tarks who wickedly have established a governour there. It lies a little to the north, behind a ridge of rough hills that divide the bay of the great haven and the Bay of Soorah, and has a fortified port. Also, there are a number of smaller castles and watchtowers placed on the cliffs, overlooking the entire bay.”

“‘Tis impregnable, you say,” began Faramir with a worried expression, but Azrahil waved a hand. “Against a grand attack, perhaps – although I daresay nobody ever tried. It is well fortified, for sure, and cannot easily be taken from land or sea. Yet it is possible to get in and out. He is the living proof.” He pointed at Khorazîr.

“Yes,” said the Haradan slowly, his expression troubled. “But he had to jump down the cliffs to get out, and he would not recommend that to anybody. I still marvel Narejde and I did not break our necks and every other bone during that fall, or drown, or were eaten by sharks.”

“There are other ways,” interrupted Azrahil impatiently. “I know a few, although I would need time to check if they are still available, and determine how well they are guarded. I am not sure a full-scale attack would do any good, safe as a distraction. But it is possible to get a few good men in, and the lady out.”

“All this sounds very encouraging,” said Faramir, having listened to the exchange with a mixture of hope and anxiety, “but first we need to be sure that Éowyn is indeed kept at Ihimbra. And that she is in a state to attempt an escape at all. Who knows what they did to her.” He hesitated briefly, before voicing his greatest fear. “Or if she is still alive,” he went on, his voice low. “I would not put it beyond Al-Jahmîr to murder her should she not submit to his wishes, or even try and escape on her own.”

Khorazîr shook his head. “We cannot be certain, of course, but as I have told you before, Dúnadan, I consider it very likely he has not lost patience with her yet. ‘Tis only, what ... five days since she was taken? He has invested so much time and effort into acquiring this prize for himself. He is not going to waste it in a fit of wrath. Not even him.” He cast a glance at Azrahil who had sunk a little lower into his chair. “You should retire for the night,” he told the young man with surprising sympathy and gentleness, “for you will have to set out again tomorrow morning. But ere you leave, you shall learn of our plan concerning the tark here.”

He indicated Faramir, who explained, “You are going to have to deliver a message to my wife, to inform her I am still alive. To everybody else – safe your mother, of course – you will tell that the Steward of Gondor was slain during the raid. Or rather, that he was sorely wounded and died some days later, of fever and an infection that befell the wounds. We shall arrange for a burial and everything here to add credibility to your tale should there be spies in Kadall in Marek’s pay. I want Al-Jahmîr to be convinced of my death, so that hopefully he is not going to expect an attempt at rescuing Éowyn so soon. But she must learn the truth; ‘tis of utmost importance. I am going to write a message for her later, so that it is ready for you in the morning.” Azrahil nodded, suppressing his weariness and looking interested and alert now.

“As soon as I am fit,” went on Faramir, “I am going to journey to Gondor, to there consult with King Elessar and King Éomer, my wife’s brother, and other kin and friends who hopefully are going to help us in our further cause of action. I agree that we shall need a distraction. Also, I am sure Elessar will be in favour of a demonstration of power against the upstart, to discourage others from following his example. I fear Al-Jahmîr’s popularity and fame has increased after this raid, if word gets round he managed to slay the Steward of Gondor and abduct his wife. At the moment, I care less about my own reputation which without doubt has suffered because of what befell. I would much rather see my wife again than seeing it restored. But I will not deny that I would like to avenge the injuries done to me, my family and my good name, and to finally pay back Al-Jahmîr for all the anguish he has been causing us for so long. And,” he added less fiercely, “I need to see my sons. But I shall return as soon as possible, in strong company, it is to be hoped.”

“I shall accompany you, if you wish,” offered Khorazîr immediately, which Faramir thanked him with a smile. “I would indeed appreciate that, although you might be better employed down here. Also, I would not ask of you to be parted from your wife for so long.”

Khorazîr shrugged, giving him a wry smile. “Well, as things look, we are parted already. But we shall see. First you need to get well again, and then we shall have to kill you. How long is it going to take you to return to Umbar, Azrahil?”

The addressed shrugged. “With Pharzi, about five days I would reckon. But I shall send a messenger ahead to inform Narejde of what has passed here.”

“Be careful with that,” cautioned Faramir. “Messengers can be intercepted, and it would not be like Al-Jahmîr to not spy upon our doings. So be extremely wary in all you do.”

“I shall,” promised Azrahil, stiffling a yawn. “I shall take leave of you now. We can speak again tomorrow ere I set out, but for now really I need to rest. Good night.”

+

Mablung left with Azrahil, but returned a short while later carrying Faramir’s and Éowyn’s saddle-bags which he discarded upon the bed. “I have just spoken with Dorgil,” he said quietly, with a grieved expression. “Baranor’s state has worsened. Dorgil says he is not going to survive the night.” He sighed. “His mother is going to be distraught – she was so proud when her Bara joined the rangers. And now she will not even be able to visit his grave. ‘Tis going to be hard for the lads as well. They are mourning the other fallen already, and Baranor was – is – very popular.” He glanced at Faramir. “Captain, to be honest I do not know how I shall manage to tell them you have died as well.”

Faramir nodded slowly. “I wish it could be avoided, Mablung. Like you, I hate to have to deceive the men, but –”

“You could take the ranger’s place,” suggested Khorazîr of a sudden, “for the villagers and everybody else outside your company. I doubt they have seen much of him. Should he truly die, he will be buried under your name, and with honours far above his status, I daresay. And you will take his place in the company, or better, hide from view and take ship to Gondor as soon as you are able – I have already sent out word to arrange for one. Thus a real body is going to be buried and we do not have to worry about faking one. And your men could be in the know. If you really trust them, that is.”

Faramir exchanged a glance with Mablung. “I do,” he said. “And your idea ... ‘tis worth consideration. Under normal circumstances, I would reckon that an attempt would be made to preserve the Steward’s body to return him to Gondor and entomb him in Rath Dínen – although to be honest, even though the Steward’s House has been rebuilt, I am not sure I should like to be buried there. I would prefer to be laid to rest in Ithilien. Luckily, it looks like I shall be able to return there as a living man. Anyway, as an excuse for not conveying the Steward’s remains back to Gondor, you could always bring up the hot clime down here and the long, difficult and dangerous road.”

“Aye, that could be managed, I am sure,” said Mablung, looking relieved about the possibility of telling their true plan to the rangers. “Do you want me to speak to the men, then, and explain what we have in mind? I doubt they would object to the plan, and there is not one among them I do not trust utterly to keep the truth behind our ploy to himself.”

“Nevertheless, we must take great care that your speech cannot be overheard,” said Faramir thoughtfully. “Do not use Adûnaic or even the Common Speech when you address them. Speak Sindarin. ‘Tis less likely to be understood in these parts. And inform the men not to discuss the matter openly amongst themselves.”

“Certainly, sir,” acknowledged Mablung, then looked up when he heard his name. Dorgil stepped through the curtains. He again smelled of the mixture of herbs he had used to battle Faramir’s fever, and had a towel slung over his shoulder. “You should come,” he said softly. “Baranor has asked for you.” Then he gazed at Faramir. “And for you, lord. But I do not think –”

“Where is he?” asked Faramir.

“Just outside the curtains. I have caused another part of the room to be screened off for him and Meneldir, despite most of the men having moved to other rooms by now – the parlour was rather crowded after all. But captain, it is too far for you to walk there.”

“I shall manage if you help me,” Faramir insisted.

Fighting a small internal battle by the changing expressions on his face, at length Dorgil relented, even stepping to the bed to help Faramir on his feet and placing one of the colourful woven blankets over his shoulders so that the long tassels played round Faramir’s legs. Walking slowly and carefully, leaning on Mablung and the healer for support, he followed Khorazîr who held back the curtains. On the other side some stout screens hung with vividly patterend rugs had been set, of a similar lace-like woodwork as were the shutters of the windows. They created a small room, and also, he realised, dulled the sounds coming from his recess – apparently somebody had taken into consideration that otherwise conversations could be overheard too easily.

Small lamps fashioned of earthenware or coloured mosaics of leaded glass had been set on two low tables standing next to the two mattresses which had been put on the tiled, partly rug-covered floor. Meneldir lay on one, fast asleep, his splinted and bandaged arm lying on top of the coverlets. His face still bore the marks of the recent, strenous days, but otherwise he looked quite well. Baranor’s features, however, were hardly recognisable. Despite the warm glow of the lamps, he was deadly pale. Sweat was glistening on his hollow cheeks and his forehead, and his eyes were dull with fever. He lay on his side, his chest and back heavily bandaged, and but for the faint rattling sound of his breath he could have been dead already.

This could have been you, shot through Faramir’s mind as he watched the young man pitifully. Not long ago you were nearly as bad off as him. He did not know what had saved him back then, but he wished with all his heart to be able to convey the same strength or luck to this young man now, despite knowing that it would be too late. Dorgil knelt down at his side now and took his hand. “Captain Mablung has come,” he told the dying ranger gently. “And Lord Faramir, too.”

At this Baranor stirred and raised his eyes. “Do you think you can kneel down so that he can see you better?” asked Mablung quietly, and Faramir nodded.

With the captain’s and Khorazîr’s help he lowered himself to one knee, pressing his right arm against his body so as to make sure he would not use it and aggravate his injuries. He found it a little difficult to keep his balance, but partly leaning against Mablung, he managed.

“You asked for us, Baranor?” he asked of the young man. Baranor nodded faintly, obviously mustering his last reserves of strength. His eyes cleared a little, and his breath seemed to come easier. His mouth twitched, and Faramir realised he was trying to smile. “They ... said you were ... dying, lord,” Baranor whispered.

Faramir shook his head, reaching for his limp hand which Dorgil had released again and squeezed it gently. “I am not dying, Baranor. I am on the mend, and the tidings you and Meneldir and Duilin brought sped my recovery.”

The young man looked relieved, the smile plain on his features now. Then his expression darkened. “But ... I am,” he breathed. Faramir exchanged a glance with Dorgil and Mablung, who hung his head, carefully dabbing at Baranor’s fevered brow with Dorgil’s towel. Not knowing what to reply, Faramir only nodded very slightly, and squeezed his hand again. “I wish it could have been prevented,” he told the ranger earnestly, his tight throat giving his voice a strange sound.

But Baranor shook his head. “I am ... not ... afraid,” he said. “I hope ... I did not ... fail you, lord.” Faramir swiftly shook his head. “Baranor, you have never failed anybody in this company. On the contrary. Few would have endured what you have to gain tidings from the raiders. I am deeply grateful for your commitment, and honoured to have known you.”

He felt Baranor’s hand twitch in his, then all tension left it. The young man still smiled when Mablung reached out to close his eyes, then helped Faramir to his feet again. Dorgil stooped and drew the blankets over the body. “He must be buried tomorrow,” he said in a low, toneless voice, which Faramir took as an opportunity to inform him swiftly of the new plan. The healer stared at the shrouded form thoughtfully for a long time after he had finished, until at length he nodded slowly. “‘Tis a good plan,” he said, finally tearing his eyes away from the body and stepping over to Faramir to accompany him back to his bed. “I shall see to the arrangements. We will have to move you to another room, captain. This recess is too open, and since it is situated on the ground floor, it is easy to spot you through the windows.”

“You could move to our accommodation, Dúnadan,” offered Khorazîr, closing the curtains after the others had stepped through. “There is a small room next to mine which is currently occupied by Azrahil. But since he leaves early tomorrow morning, we could move you over ere the entire village is astir. If we disguised you as one of my guards, nobody will recognise you.”

Faramir and the others agreed to this, and soon Mablung, Dorgil and Khorazîr left to either retire to their quarters or see to the preparations of the plan. Faramir sat in bed, a pillow in his back, and the assorted saddle-bags spread out over his legs and the rest of the mattress. He found the small wooden box with his ink-bottle, seal-wax, quill and pencils and folded sheets of paper. Then he began to unpack Éowyn’s bags, his grieved mood caused by Baranor’s death deepening with each piece he withdrew. Many of the items held some memory of his wife, or were even especially beloved by her. There was a linen shirt with plain embroidery along the collar and the lower hem, it’s hue already yellowing, the hem darned in places – she had brought it from Rohan, where long ago it had been sewn by her mother. He handled it carefully, almost reverently, recalling how she had worn it that stormy night in the White Mountains when they had first lain together, a day after their official wedding night which had been spent in conversation, due to the fact they had not seen each other for many months prior to their wedding, and had mutually decided against rushing the consummation of their marriage. Will she ever wear it again? he thought as he stared at it.

His hands began to shake slightly and he put the shirt aside, reaching for a small wooden box instead. It contained some pieces of jewellery, mostly plain ones. Silver instead of gold or even mithril, set with pearls or small gemstones, well-crafted and beautiful, but never overladen. Most were family heirlooms of either her family or his; only one piece he had had made for her especially and given her on their tenth wedding-anniversary: a slender necklace set with clear aquamarines that together with the silver surrounding them glinted like sunlight playing on a swift-flowing mountain brook. He gazed at it thoughtfully as it lay in his hands, recalling her reaction upon receiving it, and their ensuing conversation. Then of a sudden he smiled slightly, and putting the necklace aside, he reached for his writing utensils.

The flames of the lamps were dying when he had finished the message. His handwriting was indeed shaky, but looked fairly like his own. He hoped she would recognise it. To ensure only Éowyn would understand the message, he had written it in Rohirric. He held it up to the last small light and reread it:

My dearest Éowyn, I fervently hope you are well and unhurt.
You must have been worrying about me, even fearing my death.
I was sorely wounded by those arrows, yet I am alive, and my
recovery advances swiftly. You may distrust this message when
everything and everybody tries to convince you of my demise,
and I have considered long how to prove to you that this letter
was truly written by me. I have added the necklace I gave you on
our wedding-anniversary. Do you remember what I told you when
you put it on for the first time and the clasp got entangled in your
hair, so that I had to cut a strand to free it again? I said the stones
matched the colour of your eyes, but would never match the light
shining in it. I know not if you are convinced now. But I am alive,
melda, and I shall come for you and fetch you and take you home
to our boys. Al-Jahmîr is going to pay dearly for what he has done
to us. The longer he believes he has killed me, the better. Tread
warily around him, and take care of yourself lest he finds reason
to hurt you. And look out for me. I will find you, I promise.
I love you forever, Faramir.


The flame of the lamp dwindled, so that Faramir barely had time to fold the letter and place it and the necklace on the chair next to the bed. He returned the rest of Éowyn’s things to the bags, and slid them down onto the floor. When the flame died, he stretched out on the bed, listening to the whisper of the wind as it hissed through the shutters and the sounds of the moths fluttering about until sleep crept up on him, overwhelming him swiftly.

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PostPosted: Fri 17 Nov , 2006 5:14 am 
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Éowyn flinched, waking suddenly. She blinked as the bright sunlight stung her still-sleepy eyes. She was half-reclining on a long chair out on a balcony, though she was not sure what house the balcony belonged to. From somewhere below, the sea roared, and white gulls swooped and soared in the sky, begging for something tasty to eat. The breeze, carrying the scent of lilacs, pushed strands of her hair in her face, and she brushed them back behind her ears and stretched gently.

Hearing footsteps and laughter behind her, she looked over her shoulder in time to see Faramir jog barefoot onto the balcony, his plain white linen shirt and brown trousers soaked and dripping with water. Apparently he had recently had a close encounter with one of the waves. He sank onto the chair near her knees and shook his hair, sending salty droplets in all directions.

“Stop that!” she chided, wiping a drop from her face. “You’ll wake the baby.” She nodded to the shaded bassinette beside her that cradled their dark-haired, sleeping child.

Still chuckling slightly, Faramir leaned over her to study his infant. “Still so tiny,” he mused.

Éowyn reached forward and ruffled his hair. “But growing quickly. And you had better hurry back, too, otherwise you will miss everything.”

He murmured something, then lifted his head to kiss her gently. She kissed him back, glad for these moments they could spend together without having to entertain ever-curious and lively toddlers or hush an upset baby. He had been so busy of late, traveling, attending council meetings, and seeing to other affairs that demanded his attention. Now he had to leave again, and she did not want him to go.

“Do not despair for me, melda,” he said soothingly, running a hand along her cheek. “I must die so you can live.”

“What are you talking about? Don’t say those things!” she hissed, shivering as a cloud cast a shadow over the balcony. “You cannot die. Not now. Not while I still need you, while your children still need you.”

He rested his forehead against hers for a moment, then drew back. “Do not despair, my love,” he told her, smiling still. Éowyn’s eyes grew wide with horror as she saw red stains appear on his shirt over his shoulder and chest and grow into large blotches as he sat up fully. “Do not despair,” he whispered once more as he swayed slightly and fell back.

She opened her mouth to shriek, but no sound came, and she reached forward to try and catch him.


Éowyn’s eyes flew open as she quickly sat upright, clutching the sheets to her. She tried to steady her rapid breathing and pounding heart, but they would not obey. Her eyes stared at nothing as drops of sweat beaded on her forehead. It was just a nightmare, she told herself, but so much of it had been a twisted version of the truth.

The soft light coming through the windows said that the sun had only recently risen. The sky over the bay was still mostly gray with hints of color creeping into it. It was only a dream, she repeated as she lay back down and pulled the covers over herself. But what did that matter when the reality was far worse? She shuddered and closed her eyes. She pressed a hand just below her stomach, feeling a light flutter there. Did I wake you, little one? she wondered, rubbing the area gently. The movement, though still faint, was stronger than it had been a week previous.

She turned onto her side, flinching as her still-tender ear rubbed against the pillowcase. You will not be born here, child. I do not know how, but I will get us out before it is time for your birth.

But where will you go?
a nasty voice asked. You have no friends here, no one to help you. How far do you really think you will get on your own?

She traced a circle on the sheet with her finger. Then I will find friends, somehow.

Her thoughts were broken as the door to her room opened and Miliani entered. She started to kneel by the door, then realized Éowyn was awake and hurried over to the bedside, her footsteps nearly inaudible on the stone stairs. The girl touched her hand to her forehead. “Good morning, my lady,” she said quietly. “Would you like your bath or your breakfast first?”

Éowyn continued tracing circles on the sheet. I want to go home. Silence stretched between lady and servant for several moments. “Bath,” she said finally. “And hot.”

+++

By midday she had bathed, breakfasted, and dressed. As she waited in her sitting room for Al-Jahmîr’s inevitable summons to lunch, she gazed out the windows at the bright sunlight sparkling on the bay. It certainly was a breathtaking sight, and if the circumstances had been different, she would have appreciated it. Now it only served to remind her that she was far from home and in the care of a dangerous and deadly foe.

Her glance fell on the balcony, and she shook her head slightly as memories of her nightmare flooded back. She wondered if she would have a chance today to go explore more of the castle. Her guard would follow, of course, but what was so terrible about her getting to know her new surroundings? She smiled wryly to herself. And no doubt that later her guard would have to recount every room she passed through and every object she gave more than a passing glance.

A knock came at the middle doors and Miliani answered it. It was the same messenger and guard, delivering the same summons as before. This time she came without a fuss (at which a fleeting look of surprise passed over the messenger’s face before it regained its passivity.) They took a different route this time through places Éowyn could not recall seeing the previous day. At one point their path took them on an open-air walkway positioned above another branch of the gardens. Éowyn felt a bit dizzy as she looked down at bushes of blooming red, white, and yellow flowers more than thirty feet below her.

They entered what was obviously someone’s study area, as evidenced by the large desk off to one side covered with maps and papers and inkwells. Éowyn thought she heard the sound of male laughter. Their journey ended when they passed through a smaller room and stepped onto a large balcony that overlooked the town almost a league away.

Three men, leaning back in their chairs, sat at a round white table. One was the master of the house. The man to his right looked so much like him that Éowyn guessed that this was one of his sons. He had the same jovial face and keen, bright eyes, but something in the way he held himself suggested that he could be quick and deadly if pressed. He swirled his tea cup as the other spoke. This third companion was quite… odd. His black hair, mostly tied back with a dark red kerchief, was wild and unwashed. Several large, brightly-colored beads were strung on his locks, and a feather dyed with blue and white stripes was secured in a knotted strand just behind his left ear. The stubble on his face suggested that he had shaved recently and had been unable to find the razor again. His dark brown shirt was heavily stained and tattered, and the cuffs of his sleeves were fraying as well. His eyes darted back and forth as he relayed a story, gesturing wildly with his hands almost continuously. He looked vastly out of place among the finery, and yet he seemed quite at home.

“And then the lob had the nerve to tell me that I was going to run my ship onto the shoals if we didn’t pull to the starboard. So I says nothing to him and keep straight with the Maiden’s Arm and, what do you know? My ship doesn’t run aground!” He took a large gulp of something – not likely tea – from his mug. “Like I always says, follow the Maiden’s Arm, and she’ll give you...” His voice trailed off as he saw Éowyn for the first time. The other two glanced over their shoulders to see what had silenced their companion and quickly rose to their feet.

“Ah, how wonderful of you to join us,” Al-Jahmîr said, stepping forward and taking her by the hand. She tried to pull free, but his grip only tightened. “Gentlemen, I would like you to meet Éowyn of Ithilien, the fairest jewel in my collection by far. She will be staying with us now. Éowyn, this is my second eldest, Adûnakhôr,” he nodded to the man dressed in blue robes, “and his notorious friend Castamir. Your friend Falastur of Pelargir has quite a bounty on his head, from what I hear.” The corsair had gained his rather wobbly feet, nodded, and grinned at the reference.

“Five hundred gold pieces and possession of my feather,” he explained.

“I doubt they care about your damned feather,” Adûnakhôr said, his stern look holding for barely a second before breaking into amusement as the corsair twirled the feather around his finger. “But honestly, father,” he said, turning back to Al-Jahmîr, “are you trying to get me in trouble with my wife? I doubt she will be pleased when she learns about our lovely dining companion.”

Al-Jahmîr pulled out a chair to his left for Éowyn to sit in. When she had taken her seat, with a glare in his direction, he took his own and said, “As long as she is my guest and not yours, your wife should have no complaints.”

Éowyn took a moment to study the son further. He appeared to be only a few years older than Azrahil, and he had the same determined look to his features. His beard was trimmed short, though not in the fashion of his father’s, and his hair was kept far shorter and neater than his corsair friend’s. He seemed genuinely agreeable, if a bit mischievous. She had to remind herself whose son he was to keep from liking him. She noted that Castamir was watching her, his chin resting on his clasped hands. She returned his gaze evenly. Their staring match continued until Castamir’s eyes darted to one side and lit up as a serving girl brought over a pitcher. He wrapped an arm around her waist as she poured a golden liquid into his mug.

“You really should just leave that entire thing here, love,” he said, holding her close.

“Mind your manners, Castamir,” Al-Jahmîr scolded. “We do have a lady present. I know you still remember your upbringing, even if you claim to have renounced it entirely.” With a last longing glance, the corsair loosened his grip on the maid.

“Castamir was of noble stock until he ran away and joined a corsair vessel,” Adûnakhôr told Éowyn. “Now his family won’t speak a word of him unless it’s to curse his name.”

“Oh aye, and when I find the treasures of Anadûnê from the depths of the sea, I’ll enjoy how quickly they rejoice in seeing me.” He pressed the back of his hand to his forehead dramatically. “The long-lost son, returning home and bringing honor to the family name.”

“Those treasures are lost forever,” Adûnakhôr said. “There is as much chance of you finding them as of me sprouting wings.”

Castamir waved his hand. “You, you know how sometimes a fisherman will gut a fish and find a ring or jewel or something caught in the stomach? I don’t care if I have to drag every fish out of the sea to find those treasures.”

“Then the Fisher’s Wharf will have a bounty out on you as well,” Al-Jahmîr mused, “for the heinous crime of pillaging their fishing beds.” He raised his tea cup. “To the glorious Corsair who turns to fishing to find his gold.” He took a sip, and then sputtered. “Here am I reproaching Castamir’s manners when I have completely forgotten my own. Would you like something to drink, dear lady? I should have offered you tea long ago.”

Éowyn leveled her gaze at him and shook her head.

Al-Jahmîr sighed and rubbed his forehead. “You should really try to be more sociable.” He turned to his son. “I invited her to lunch yesterday as well, and she spurned the invitation. I had to practically beg her with a second before she would dine with me. Then, when she does deign to arrive, do you think she is wearing one of the festive gowns I had designed just for her? Of course not! Instead she chooses to wear one of the two more solemn dresses in her collection, and today she wears the other one.”

“Tis more fitting for a new widow,” Éowyn said icily. “Especially when she must dine with her husband’s murderer.”

“And then when she does speak, it is always with these same pleasant remarks.” He looked back to Éowyn, his voice turning stern. “You may stop naming me ‘murderer’ as I did not shoot the arrow.”

“That is true. You are far too much a coward to actually leave your haven and carry out your own evil plans.”

Al-Jahmîr set his tea cup down with deliberate slowness. “Oh Éowyn,” he said, his voice deadly quiet, “you seem to misunderstand me. Why should I go out when there are men as capable as I to do the work? I go out when I am the only one competent enough to finish the task. Know that if I was not the one holding you in my arms as you fell asleep in that alleyway, it is doubtful you would be here. You may have woken in the dark recesses of some cave, or the hold of a ship, or worse. You were too great a challenge for me to leave to anyone else.”

Does it really take a woman to bring you out of hiding, Snake? Éowyn thought. Do you really think you are so clever or so brave that you were the only one who could capture me? Azrahil and others dared to come almost to my very doorstep to waylay my husband. You lured us into a trap by slaughtering innocent villagers. Is that what your standard for capability is? Killing women and children? She did not feel the need to speak to him again, to give him the opportunity to twist her words to his own uses.

Tense silence reigned until Adûnakhôr coughed slightly. “Well, I see what you mean by pleasant conversation,” he said under his breath.

Al-Jahmîr nodded and sharply clapped his hands twice. Almost instantly, servants appeared carrying trays and bowls of food. They quickly set the table with plates and goblets and poured drinks to suit each diner. Éowyn found herself sipping a sweet fruit juice mixture. She tasted orange and banana, but could not place the other flavors.

“How is your wife faring?” Al-Jahmîr asked his son, taking a slice of the roasted duck in the center of the table. “I did not think the journey wise considering her late stage.”

“Inzilbêth is quite well, and resting now. You know we both wanted the child born here. Minastir and I both were, and it is a safe place for her should other matters, well, get out of control in Umbar.” He took a spiced muffin, opened the top, and buttered it slowly. His father watched him closely, waiting for him to continue. “Umbar is in an uproar, and I doubt it has settled since yesterday. Half the noble families think you’re brilliant, half think you’re a fool for openly inviting Gondor’s wrath. But some of those people aren’t ones we would think would be in the camps they’ve fallen in. You’ve won some new friends, and lost a few lesser ones.”

Castamir spoke up, his cheery mood turned serious. “Your name is a constant presence in the signal flags I’ve seen on passing ships, and generally for the good. Many still swear vengeance against that land-bound tark for what he did at Pelargir. Any chance we can get to worry his coasts or sink his ships will be welcomed.”

Adûnakhôr nodded. “There are many in the city who are ready for a call to arms. The tark governor dares not leave his home lest some assassin be lurking in the shadows.”

“Though if he were, that would surely encourage some of the dawdlers to join the revolt,” Al-Jahmîr mused.

“Indeed, it might,” Adûnakhôr agreed. “Salkathôr is keeping an eye on things and will keep us informed of any developments.”

“At least one of my sons is loyal,” Al-Jahmîr murmured, swirling the wine in his goblet.

Adûnakhôr narrowed his eyes. “I have always been loyal to you,” he said fiercely, his voice loyal. “But I did what I had to do to keep the tarks from stealing this place from under us. Minastir was willing sever all ties if it meant he could be called lord and master.”

“He is lord and master of a hole in the ground right now,” Al-Jahmîr said, “and seems content to stay there since he has not given me any useful information in the past three months.”

Éowyn sat up slightly, recalling the name from the previous day. So that fellow was another one of the snake’s sons, it seemed. She did not feel as much pity for him now, knowing his identity. He could stay in that hole as far as she was concerned. Al-Jahmîr glanced at her. “But that is a matter for another discussion,” he added. “I should not like our meal spoilt by politics. I heard that you met Rashidah yesterday, Éowyn. What do you think of her?”

“She is a stupid girl,” Éowyn said evenly, “who knows nothing about anything that really matters.”

The three men laughed. “That is an accurate description,” Al-Jahmîr agreed. “Though, I also heard that the meeting did not end well. I said not to let her frustrate you, but apparently she did.”

“She can frustrate me all she wants,” Castamir muttered. Al-Jahmîr shot him a warning glance and he quickly found something interesting to study in his mug.

Al-Jahmîr continued. “Perhaps I shall invite you both to lunch sometime and allow you two to get better acquainted.

“That will not be necessary,” Éowyn answered.

“I think it might, considering how little you’ve eaten now,” he countered. “I told you that starving yourself would not be good for the baby.” Adûnakhôr and Castamir exchanged glances.

“What would you care if I did?” she said, skewering a cucumber slice with her fork.

“I know you could not bring yourself to do it even if you tried.”

“I would do anything to keep my child out of your filthy hands.”

“Anything?” he asked, leaning back in his chair and studying her closely.

Éowyn chewed the cucumber and scowled at him, but did not answer.

Castamir leaned toward Adûnakhôr. “This is the best entertainment I’ve seen in weeks.” Adûnakhôr nodded and bit his lip to keep from grinning. It was not often he saw his father arguing with a woman – Bataye not included – and the sight was rather amusing. She was a decent match as well, which made things even better.

“I believe the boys find this entertaining,” Al-Jahmîr said, “but since you insist on being rude instead of how a lady should act, you are free to go.” He sipped his wine. “Besides, I expect the conversation will turn back to politics and intrigues ere long, and I doubt such topics would interest you.”

“On the contrary, I think they might,” Éowyn said. “I believe learning the consequences of my abduction would be quite intriguing.” How far can I push you before you bite, snake? she wondered to herself.

“No,” he stated, “you will go, now. Your girl will see you back to your rooms.” Miliani appeared at her cue. Éowyn rose slowly, her gaze never leaving Al-Jahmîr. The two younger Southrons jumped to their feat, her host rising more deliberately. “If you truly wish to starve yourself, I can see to it that your supper deliveries are discontinued, starting tonight.”

Éowyn held his stare, feeling the heat rise in her cheeks. She wondered if he was bluffing as well, but unlike her, he had the power to turn his bluffs into action. He would starve you, too, and say that it was by your own request. You have given him too much temptation as it is. Though her common sense told her she was being an idiot, the greater part of her wanted to fight him, to prove him wrong, to show him that he could not sway her. Another thought crept in that had a more potent impact. Do not punish your child because of your stubbornness. She blinked suddenly. What was the good of harming herself? The only point she would prove to her captor was that she was stubborn and foolish. Why would he need to be vicious to her when she would do so of her own free will?

“That will not be necessary,” she said through gritted teeth. She would be gracious and concede this victory to him. But no others, she resolved.

Al-Jahmîr nodded and smiled slightly. “Lunch was delightful, as always,” he said, bowing to her.

“It was a pleasure,” Adûnakhôr added, with Castamir echoing.

Éowyn glanced at each of them in turn, spun on her heel, and stormed back indoors. Inside, the change from bright sunlight to dim interior blinded her for a moment and she slowed. Thrice-cursed son of a goat! I hope you are forced to throw every rock of your beloved home into the sea. Then I hope that you are cast down upon them. I will see you dead, one way or another. You cannot, will not, cage me!

Miliani almost had to run to keep up with her, opening the proper doors and making the needed turns, though the guard merely lengthened his stride a bit as he followed. If she left every meal with Al-Jahmîr this angry, she would not likely remember anything of the house except her own quarters, so focused was she on his behavior.

He does not think I act like a proper lady. What would he like me to do? Obey his whim to wear those clothes? Giggle at his jokes like a naïve girl? Congratulate him on being such a fine master of politics? Is that what a lady does, in his mind? He certainly is not acting like a proper lord. Butchering innocent villagers. Murdering Faramir. Kidnapping me. He should work on his own manners before commenting on mine. I did not ask to be here.

She reentered the Women’s Quarters and followed the path to her rooms. Miliani fell a few steps behind now that her charge was back in familiar territory.

“Kishka! Come join us.” The call broke Éowyn from her thoughts. She recognized the voice, unfortunately, and looked around for the speaker. She heard a dramatic sigh. “In here.” What she had thought was a wall hanging turned out to be a beaded curtain closing off a doorway. She pushed some of the strands aside and found herself stepping into the room.

The harem girls were sitting on large pillows at a low table laden with various fish dishes, fruits, and breads. Rashidah was half-lying on two of the great pillows at the far end of the table. “I wondered if I would see you again, Kishka,” she said as she studied a piece of cheese. “Where have you been lately?”

“I have had to endure lunch with your master,” Éowyn spat.

Rashidah’s eyes widened. “You what?”

Éowyn sighed dramatically and rolled her eyes. “Can you really be so stupid?” she asked, mimicking the girl’s voice from the previous days. She knew that she was truly not behaving as a lady should, but now she did not care. She did not need to be proper to this wretch of a girl.

Rashidah leapt to her feet much faster than Éowyn thought possible and stalked across the table, not always avoiding the various dishes and plates. The others hurried to get their food out of her way lest their meal be completely ruined. She stepped off the table without looking down and continued moving. “What business could you possibly have with him? You are fat, ugly, old, and—”

“I am a daughter of kings, wife to a prince, and lady of a realm,” Éowyn snarled as the girl came to stand in front of her, arms crossed and eyes blazing. She knew her own eyes must have looked similar. “I am cherished by kings and beloved of one who died to save me. I have defended my homeland against foes and ridden in search of death. I have fought on field of battle and seen kin and friend fall beside me.” She took a step forward and would have been pleased to notice Rashidah take half a step back, had she not been seething. “What business does your master have with me? Far more important business than any you have with him. Any whore can warm his bed at night. I doubt he cares if she is you or her or her or her or her.” She pointed to the others in the room. “When you are fat and ugly and old, will any lord slaughter a village to steal you for his own? I doubt anyone would even step on an ant to have you. I am a more desirable woman than you will ever be.”

Before Rashidah could get a word out, Éowyn turned and left the room, back straight, head held up. When she had cooled she would have time to think back and be pleased with herself, but not now. Now she needed to keep walking lest she explode.

+++

By nightfall, practically everyone from the lowest kitchen girl to Bataye herself had heard about the encounter.

Most agreed that the tark had won.

_________________
Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

Sweet home Indiana
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PostPosted: Sat 18 Nov , 2006 4:51 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
Posts: 499
Location: snake-hunting
Faramir was roused from deep sleep by a hand shaking his shoulder gently but persistently. “My apologies for waking you so early, captain,” said Mablung’s soft voice, and opening his eyes slowly, Faramir beheld the dark form of the ranger bending over him. The room was still mostly cast in gloom, despite a faint light seeping through the shutters.

“What is it, Mablung?” murmured Faramir groggily, trying to clear his mind of sleep.

“Dawn is at hand, and Master Azrahil is about to set out. I thought you wanted to give him your message, and perhaps add a few words. Also, the village is still asleep, so we thought it best to move you to Lord Khorazîr’s quarters now, when few people are likely to see you.”

Faramir nodded and sat up deliberately, rubbing his eyes and stretching carefully. The ranger continued, “I have brought some garments for you to wear.” He produced a bundle of clothes and put them on the bed before Faramir. “When you are gone, Dorgil is going to move Baranor here and prepare him for the burial. I have informed the men of our plan.” Despite the dim light, Faramir beheld his face take on a proud and pleased expression despite the grisly subject. “I think you can rely on them completely. They embraced the idea with great enthusiasm, even added suggestions of their own. I made them swear not to betray a word of the truth concerning your state unless you yourself release them of their word, and you know yourself how seriously they take their oaths.”

“Excellent, Mablung,” said Faramir appreciatively, now fully awake. “I wish I could talk to them personally, but the risk of getting seen or overheard is too great.” As he spoke, he opened the bundle and began laying out the garments. It contained the livery of Khorazîr’s guards, without the armoured parts: wide black trowsers; half-high boots of soft black leather decorated with red and a slightly curved tip; a long black linen shirt, slid in back and front and at the sides; and a tunic of similar cut, dyed dark-red, with black embroidery around the collar and down the front; a wide burnous of dark-brown cloth; a tasseled sash of bright red wool with in-woven patterns; and a fitting veil to cover head and face against the elements – or unfriendly eyes.

Mablung watched him, now and again helping to unwrap an especially long piece, all the while throwing nervous glances in the direction of the window. “I should hurry?” asked Faramir.

“Well,” said the ranger a little abashedly, “truth is, yes. ‘Tis getting lighter by the moment, and soon the first cock is going to crow and rouse the villagers.”

“Right. You will have to help me dress, however.”

Soon after, Faramir stood arrayed like a southron soldier, his face hidden behind the veil and his figure swathed in the burnous. The garments had been made for a smaller man – with large feet, however, for the boots fit well – but they were loose-fitting in cut and despite the sleeves being a little short, they did not look too small and weird on Faramir’s tall frame. Mablung had also brought a sling for his right arm, which was now hidden by the long over-garment.

Footsteps approached, and Khorazîr stepped through the curtains. “Morning,” he said a little gruffly – apparently he also had been roused before time. “Good, you are ready. Azrahil is anxious to be gone.” He came to Faramir’s side and together with Mablung escorted him towards the curtains.

“Wait a moment,” Faramir halted them. “Could someone grab the letter and the necklace on that chair over there. Azrahil needs to taken them with him. My saddlebags you can bring up later, Mablung.” The addressed went and fetched the items.

As they passed the small recess where Meneldir was still sleeping peacefully beside the covered body of his slain comrade, Faramir noted that even though his two companions were walking beside him and each had a hand to his arm, he did not have to lean on them as heavily as on the previous evening. He still felt a little shaky on his legs, but the longer they walked, passing out of the screened recess into the large, only dimly lit parlour that was still partly occupied by men sleeping on blankets and mattresses along the walls, the better it went, until the two men hardly needed to support him anymore.

They must have noted the change as well, for Khorazîr glanced at him surprisedly. “You do recover swiftly, Dúnadan,” he said with honest astonishment.

“I have all reason to,” replied Faramir with some grimness.

“Indeed you have,” said the Haradan with a faint smile that made his teeth glint briefly in the gloom. “I very much hope we are going to be in a situation to witness when the Snake learns the truth about your fate. I have seen him wrathful before, and so have you, but the ire he feels when he finds out he did not manage to kill you yet again is going to exceed all those occasions.”

“He will even be more wrathful when I have freed Éowyn from under his nose,” said Faramir quietly, but with a dangerous, determined edge to his voice. “Never before have I been in a situation where I could truly claim I hated somebody enough to want to destroy him utterly, but now ...” He gazed at Khorazîr searchingly as if trying to see his own, altered reflection in the Haradan’s dark eyes.

“But now you do,” said the Southron softly. “Aye, Dúnadan, I know how that feels, better than you deem. I know what strength and endurance it can mobilise in you. And what daring. It will heal you more swiftly than any cure or medicine. But be careful lest it devour you. Almost, it would have taken me. I was lucky to see the error of my ways ere it was too late. And now here I am, steadying the very man I wanted to destroy utterly so that he does not fall down.”

Faramir glanced at him, and at length smiled slightly. “You are counseling me not to pursue the man with hatred who threatens all I hold dear? Khorazîr, if I did not know better I would indeed say you were getting old and settled. And overly cautious.”

“I would not count on that, Dúnadan,” said the Southron and laughed softly. “Settled and more cautious, perhaps. And a little wiser, too. But old, never. Be careful with those steps.”

They had reached the front of the house where a couple of worn steps were leading down onto the sandy ground of the market-square. The wind was swirling dust about in intricate patterns. It was deserted but for Azrahil waiting impatiently next to his old white mare that was nibbling his long travelling burnous affectionately, and his lioness whose leash he held in his hands. Pharzi was lying on the ground, but was watching the approaching men intently, her head raised and her tense poise indicating her alertness.

“I told the pickets who had the last turn of the nightwatch to make sure nobody is lurking in the alleys round here,” Mablung told Faramir softly as they walked towards the young Southron, “to lessen the chance of this exchange being spotted by curious eyes.”

Faramir nodded slightly, realising once more what a resourceful and circumspect captain Mablung had become in recent years. “Good work, Mablung,” he said plainly, but noted to himself that when the occasion arose, he would express his gratitude and appreciation for what the ranger had achieved during these past days more fully.

“Even in these garments you do not look like a true Haradan,” commented Azrahil with a smile. “You are too tall, and your eyes are the wrong colour. But they will do.”

“I am relieved to hear it,” replied Faramir. “I have something for you.” Mablung stepped forward slowly, all the time eyeing the lion that was watching him closely with a wary expression. Swiftly, almost hastily he put letter and necklace into the young man’s hands, and returned to Faramir’s side afterwards. Azrahil looked down at the items, turning the silver chain this way and that so that it caught the faint first light of dawn.

“Find a way so that these items reach her,” said Faramir. “Be careful, however. No unnecessary risks. I cannot stress this enough.”

Azrahil slid necklace and message into a pocket inside his garments. “I shall find a way,” he promised, then mounted. Pharzi rose to her feet and stretched, studying Faramir and his companions interestedly until Azrahil tugged on the leash while urging on his horse. As the mare set in motion and Pharzi, rather reluctantly, followed, he nodded to the three men. “We shall meet again in Umbar,” he said.

“Give my greetings to Narejde,” said Khorazîr. “You have my message to her, have you not?” Azrahil patted the pocket underneath his burnous in reply. Then spurring his steed so that she gave a snort and accelerated into a canter, he rode off, the lion leaping after him gracefully.

The three watched his departure until the houses blocked him from view, and only the dimming sound of the mare’s hooves could be heard. “Let us get you up to your new room, Dúnadan,” said Khorazîr into the silence, his slight frown betraying his worry for the young man, a worry he shared with the others.

He turned to one of the nearby houses. The front looked similar to the one they had just left: two-storied and built of stone, the upper storey whitewashed and slightly reaching over the lower. Steps lead up to a massive wooden door decorated with intricate metalwork, beside which two of Khorazîr’s men stood on watch. They nodded to their lord as he passed, but if they were in any way intrigued by his companions, they did not show it. Inside was a large hall paved with chequered tiles, and beyond another set of doors which appeared to lead into a small open courtyard. To the right side of the hall a wide arch led into a large, long room with a roof upheld by pillars which was full of crates and boxes – obviously the storage-rooms of the merchant.

“What must have been the shop is on the other side of the hall,” explained Khorazîr quietly as he and Mablung led Faramir across the room and into the courtyard. There was a small fountain in the middle which did not hold any water, and some untended greenery which indicated the house had not been lived in for some time. A colonnade upholding the upper storey and a roofed walkway behind an ornamental balustrade surrounded the open space. Another two of Khorazîr’s men sat at the fountain, rising to their feet when they beheld their lord. The Southron nodded to them that all was well, then turning to the left, they approached a flight of steps leading up to the walkway, and thence on through a door and down a corridor.

His new room lay behind Khorazîr’s, and was small but cosy, and far more lavishly furbished than Faramir had expected in this rather remote village – apparently the merchant the house belonged to had been a rather wealthy man. Decorated similar to Khorazîr’s, it was oblong, with a floor covered in dark-green tiles interspersed with smaller red ones. As in his last abode, there were also tiles along the walls up to half the height of the window, which was rather small and also covered with laced shutters against the heat of the day. It did not overlook the market-square, but one of the larger streets leading up to it. The tiles along the walls were heavily patterned in complicated, colourful ornaments, and there were painted patterns on the white-washed ceiling as well. The right side of the room was taken up by an alcove covered with light woven hangings, and there was a tasselled rug placed in front of it. A large wooden chest with a flat top so that it could also serve as a table or a chair stood next to it. Currently, it was used to bear a large washing bowl, some towels and linen underwear as well as a spare blanket and a slender lamp of laced metal with coloured glass-panes in between. Two chairs draped with patterned blankets and a spindly table made up the rest of the furniture.

“The only way in here is through my room, or the window,” explained Khorazîr as he led Faramir over to the bed so that he could sit down. Climbing the stairs had been more exhausting than he had wanted to admit to himself, and he was glad for the respite. Mablung left to fetch Faramir’s saddlebags and some more of his luggage, and Khorazîr departed soon after to organise some breakfast.

Faramir waited a moment until he felt recovered enough to rise again. Slowly, he went over to the window to carefully peer through. The house across the street was the one he had spent the past days in, and the upper storey was occupied by some of the rangers as well as the lady of the house. He knew he had to be cautious showing himself at the window without his disguise, but for now, with the veil covering most of his face he doubted anybody would recognise him. He returned to the bed, and lowered himself to the surprisingly hard mattress again, then discarded the head-dress and, with some difficulties, the burnous. He would have liked to get rid of more of his clothes to be able to wash properly, but knew he would require help for that since because of the bandages, the movement of his shoulder was very restricted. Just when he was wondering if he would be allowed to bathe, Mablung returned with Dorgil.

“As long as you do not soak your wounds, that should be possible,” said the healer as he helped Faramir undress again to check the wounds and exchange the bandages. “I will see if I can arrange for a bath, captain.”

“Thank you,” said Faramir, then he inquired about Meneldir.

Dorgil did not look up from his work as he controlled the stitches on chest and shoulder, but Faramir noted how his face took on a grimmer expression. “He is feverish, and the arm does not look good. I shall see how it develops today, but if it has not improved by tomorrow morning I fear I will have to amputate. Believe me, I do not look forward to that. But your wounds, they are healing well now. The stitches on your shoulder I shall remove soon.”

Faramir scowled slightly. He hated stitches (and their removal), and suddenly recalled how Éowyn had always used to tease him with that. Now he would gladly endure the stitches, and her teasing, if only she was back with him.

Having bound the wounds again and reminding Faramir to wear the sling to relief his right shoulder, Dorgil left. Mablung had been studying the street outside the window and now turned to Faramir. “Would you be requiring anything else, lord? There should be somebody here to wait on you, but I fear it would look too suspicious if one of the men were about this house all the time.”

“Khorazîr will look after me,” Faramir told him. “I will get by, do not worry.”

The captain nodded and turned to go, when Faramir said, “Mablung, would you spare me a moment ere you leave? I know you have much to prepare still to set up the funeral, but I should like to tell you how grateful and indeed relieved I am to know the men are being looked after so well – by a captain who in these past days has proven his capability as a dedicated, resourceful and farsighted leader, and a true friend.”

Mablung’s face flushed bright scarlet so that even his ears were flaming red. “Nonsense, captain,” he muttered, “others worked much harder ... Dorgil, who has hardly had a good night’s sleep ever since ... and some of the men who set out as scouts and risked their lives out there ... and the pickets, hardly sleeping, either ...”

“And their captain who bore most of the responsibility, and pushed himself much harder than he would any of the men. Mablung, remember I was captain in this company as well for many years. I know what it is like, I know what is expected, and how we always strive to exceed these expectations, however high they are. Indeed, for many of you I still am captain, an honour I truly appreciate, yet which also makes me feel a little uncomfortable, because sometimes, when the men look to me instead you for a command or decision, I feel like I am usurping your authority. But during these past days you have proven more than once that you are the true captain of this company.”

“I am sorry, lord,” muttered Mablung, still not raising his head in embarrassment.

Faramir laughed. “Mablung, there is no need to apologise. You have truly earned the love, respect and utter commitment of the men, which they do not bestow on their superiors easily. I wish I could express my gratitude and appreciation for your dedication more deeply than with a few halting words. Be certain that I shall mention your conduct here (and that of the men, of course) to King Elessar. I am truly honoured to still be accounted a part of this company.”

Mablung stood with his head bowed still, until, slowly, he raised his eyes and met Faramir’s gaze. They were shining with gratefulness and silent pride. “Thank you, captain, my lord. May ... may I convey your words to the men. I am certain they would appreciate them, especially now, in these dark times.”

“I was about to ask you to do just that. Thank you, Mablung, for all you have done here. You saved my life – yet again.”

Mablung sighed, and suddenly a shadow passed over his features. “But I failed to protect your Lady, sir,” he said darkly.

Faramir gazed at him steadily for a moment, until at length he nodded. “And so have I. All of us are to blame in that respect, but it was me who decided to ride into the village. So do not consider yourself at fault. We were all trapped by Al-Jahmîr – voluntarily, almost –, and together we will find a way to undo the evil he has wrought, or at least to repair what can be mended still.”

Mablung drew a deep breath. “Aye, captain,” he agreed with some relief. “I shall see to the preparations, then. Will you be watching the ceremony?” He blushed again slightly as apparently something occurred to him he had not considered previously. “I will be required to hold a speech, will I not? Oh bugger, I am no good at that sort of thing. I would not know what to say.”

“Perhaps Hirgon could help you,” suggested Faramir, trying not to smile when imagining his captain’s unexpected dilemma, “he is skilled in these things.”

“Indeed. Maybe he could even sing a dirge,” said Mablung thoughtfully. “After all, it must be a burial fit for the Steward of Gondor. Once, my father told me what it was like when your grandfather Steward Ecthelion was laid to rest. He was one of the guards of honour at the occasion. But I do not recall much of what he said.”

“You need not trouble too much with ceremony down here,” said Faramir. “The show is only for the villagers, and whoever else may look on. As long as they are convinced I have died and lie buried here, it will serve. ‘Tis going to be more difficult for you and the men to play your parts once you are back in Gondor. Have you made plans when to set out, by the way?”

“I have already spoken with Dorgil, and he reckons that except for three men, all will be fit to set out the day after tomorrow. Meneldir, Brandir and Vëandur are going to stay here until they are healed, or longer if needed. Brandir is almost recovered, but volunteered to stay and look after the two others. He has learned much from Dorgil. They are going to function as errand-riders to deliver messages to Gondor or further south, so that we (and you) can keep in better contact with our allies and what is passing down here. To tell the truth, a great many more of the lads volunteered to stay, and to do what they can to aid the return of the Lady, and the Snake’s downfall. When are you going to take ship, captain?”

“I do not know for certain, but I hope in the next couple of days. In any case, I shall reach Gondor sooner than you, and I hope we shall manage to meet to exchange tidings and develop ... – wait a moment,” he interrupted himself, gazing up at Mablung thoughtfully. The captain returned his searching glance first with slight confusion, until slowly comprehension set in.

“‘Tis going to be hard on some of the men who have not seen their wives and families for a long time,” he said, “but captain, there is nobody amongst them who would not stay gladly, to see that this matter is resolved rightly and as swift as possible.”

“I am glad to hear it, Mablung. It would be foolishness to send you all home, only to then drag you down here again. Those of the men who cannot bear to be parted from their loved ones any longer can always leave to deliver messages to Gondor – and we shall have great need of errand-riders in the weeks to come, I should reckon. But I would indeed appreciate if the rest stayed here – what a fool I am to even have considered sending you away. You could move down to Khiblat Pharazôn and use Khorazîr’s castle as a base of operations. I am sure he will not object. And nobody should look askance at the men desiring to avenge their murdered lord, and to recover his lady.” He smiled faintly. “Also, I will not deny that I would very much appreciate knowing to have you down here to look after things. There may be hard handstrokes at hand once we have determined where Éowyn is being held, and to be honest, in such a situation I would rather have my rangers about than a company of heavily armed soldiers.”

“I know what you mean, captain,” said Mablung with a sly smile. “Shall I convey that to the lads as well?”

“You may,” returned Faramir, smiling as well.

+

Mablung had left quite a while ago, and Faramir had begun to wonder what had held up Khorazîr and the promised breakfast – for by now his stomach was complaining with hunger –, when there was a knock on the door and the Southron entered. He was carrying a tray with tea and some bread and fruit, as well as cold meat and a small bowl with a brownish paste. “I see you have accommodated yourself in your new abode,” he remarked, casting a glance at the saddlebags and the spare garments lying about, for Faramir had not troubled with donning the long over-garments after Dorgil’s inspection, and sat clad in shirt and trowsers only.

“I have,” answered Faramir as Khorazîr set down the tray on the small table and carried both over so that the Dúnadan could help himself to food and drink. Then he drew up one of the draped chairs for himself and sat down. “Your bath should be ready soon. Breakfast took a little longer to deliver because I wished to attend the meeting at the inn first.”

Faramir reached for a tea-cup and poured tea for Khorazîr and himself, then took a piece of bread and the bowl with the strange paste, which proved to be made of dark olives by the smell of it. “‘Tis quite a remarkable sight – having you wait on me,” he commented as he spread some of it on the bread. “What meeting?”

Leaning forward to fetch his cup, Khorazîr said, “I cannot send my servant in, can I, to one who supposedly has died this morning? And the meeting – your captain has just informed the villagers of your demise. He did a good job – held a short speech explaining about your injuries and your fever, and how despite every medicine tried you at last were overcome by the shadow. It was very moving, and a number of villagers stood wiping their eyes afterwards. The only ones who did not look entirely convinced were that old wise-woman and the elder’s wife in whose house you stayed, but I would not worry about those. They are on our side, and will do nothing to impair our plans. On the contrary, I am certain they are going to try and aid our cause as best they can. Anyway, I think your funeral is going to be well-attended this evening. Apparently you impressed them deeply with your decision to turn and face danger in order to aid them, and paid for this noble act with your life. You know, there were many among them who still had resentments and prejudice against you tarks, despite the War being over so many years and them profiting from the trade with Gondor that has flourished in its wake. But your noble sacrifice and the work of your men here sufficed to dispel those that remained. They may even raise a monument for you, Dúnadan, and certainly they are going to look towards Gondor with friendlier eyes.”

“And tear it down again when they learn they have been fooled,” said Faramir.

“They will see the necessity of that once everything is over and Al-Jahmîr defeated, and you are happily reunited with your wife and family. And when the maggots in Umbar have been told a lesson. I know these folks round here. They are slow to forget old grief, and now their wrath, slow to kindle but powerful once lit, has turned towards Umbar. No wonder Azrahil was anxious to return there. The city must be a like a beehive that has been robbed by a bear. Many scum are going to try and swim up to the surface now, clinging to Al-Jahmîr’s tail. And others are going to turn their backs on him out of fear of mighty Gondor.”

“And they are right,” said Faramir sternly, reaching for some grapes after having finished his bread. “Gondor is going to strike hard this time. ‘Tis a highly dangerous situation. We cannot risk another war, and yet ... we also cannot let Al-Jahmîr and his friends do as they please. And they have overstepped the mark by a long stride this time.” He sighed.

There was a knock on the door in Khorazîr’s room, and the Southron went to answer it, closing the door to Faramir’s room so that he could not see what was going on. Shortly after Khorazîr returned, his expression strangely stern and thoughtful as he watched something in his hands. “Your bath is ready, over in my room. Also, there is something else.” He held up a small bag of green cloth tied with a silver ribbon. “One of my men found it in down in the storage-room, on top of one of the crates. It contains pieces of a puzzle, it seems. Some have letters on them. Since the bag was not covered with dust like everything else in that room, it must have been placed there only recently. If you ask me, it looks suspiciously like something of the Snake’s.” He set the bag onto the tray so that Faramir could reach it. He took and inspected it. The cloth was heavy, expensive silk, and the ribbon contained silver thread. Upon closer inspection it looked like a snake, with a flat silver bead at one end as the serpent’s head. It indeed seemed like something Al-Jahmîr would leave behind. Had not Iorlas been found next to this house?

Faramir weighed the bag in his hands thoughtfully, feeling the pieces move inside. “I shall have a look at it later.”

+

The puzzle occupied him more than he liked, causing him to spend less time in the warm water than he had intended. Nevertheless the bath refreshed him greatly, and when he retuned to his room only clad in his drawers which he had managed to don without assistance – Khorazîr having left to give him some privacy –, he lowered himself onto the bed and untied the bag, emptying its contents onto the coverlet. It indeed contained an assortment of thin flat pieces of light wood, partly painted or written on. His curiosity as well as a faint sense of foreboding aroused, he began searching for the corner-pieces of the jigsaw, and put the puzzle together.

+

When the Southron returned a short while later and opened the door to Faramir’s room, he reacted just in time to avoid being hit by a part of the puzzle as it sailed in his direction and thudded against the door-frame. “Whoa, Dúnadan,” he gasped in surprise, “what –” The question died on his lips when he saw Faramir’s expression. Slowly, he stooped and picked up the pieces, putting them together in his hands. “Checkmate?” he read with a frown.

“A message from the Snake,” hissed Faramir, the tremor in his voice betraying his fury, his eyes burning with wrath like Khorazîr had never seen before. “This puzzle is addressed to me: ‘To Faramir, Prince of Ithilien and Steward of Gondor: Checkmate.’ And ‘tis signed by him.”

“Calm down, Dúnadan,” soothed Khorazîr, approaching him. “This is just another of his little games. Do not heed it. He will get what he deserves.”

“I will not bloody calm down,” snarled Faramir, leaping to his feet and barely resisting the urge to grab one of the small silver tea-cups to cast it at the Southron. Instead, he took the rest of the puzzle and tore it apart, then winced as he had not considered what the movement might do to this chest and shoulder. “He took care of everything, it seems,” he roared. “Even though he planned my death and almost brought it about, still he has the nerve of leaving a little message behind in case I should survive, to taunt me, to humiliate me even further.”

“This can only humiliate you if you allow it to do so,” said Khorazîr, stepping closer, but with caution. “Take is as no more than it is – a silly little chest. Child’s play. And dare not fling these pieces at me, or aught else!” he added in a slightly raised voice.

“I shall throw them around as I like,” returned Faramir fiercely. “I am sick and tired of enduring his malice. You have no idea what it was like, day after day, having to listen to his talk, his taunts, his stinging remarks. Knowing that but for a miracle, I would not leave his company as a living man, and that my death would be slow and painful. That poison he used to keep me with him, it was pure and utter pain as I have never felt the like before. I doubt even orcs could torment their prisoners the way he tortured me. And now he has robbed me of what I hold even dearer than my own life. And you tell me to calm down! Calm down, when chances are high I will never see her again. When she may be dead already! What if he poisons her as well, tell me that? What if she has to spend her days and nights in utter agony? What if he keeps her drugged to do his bidding? What – leave me,” he cried when Khorazîr grasped his hands firmly, squirming to free himself of the Southron’s grip and not heeding the painful protest of his shoulder.

“You will shut up now, otherwise you will be heard down on the street,” said the Haradan sternly. “And you will stop talking like this. Al-Jahmîr has dealt you a deep blow, yes, and unless you pull yourself, he is going to win this game. But if you keep your mind, you will beat him. Did you not say he only won at chess when you let him? Stop playing into his hands, then! He wants to destroy you. Do not let him! Calm down. Think. That is what you are best at. ‘Tis about time he realised he cannot win a battle of minds against you.”

Faramir stared at him out of eyes burning with wrath, until slowly, his anger subsided, leaving him shaking slightly in front of Khorazîr, who held on to his hands for a while longer until almost cautiously, he released them. The puzzle dropped from Faramir’s grip as a wave of weariness washed over him, accompanied by the pain in his wounds he had neglected during his fit of wrath. He ran his left hand over his eyes. It was trembling. “Forgive me, Khorazîr,” he murmured. The Southron patted his hale shoulder, then went to fetch his remaining clothes. He waved a hand at the apology. “Never mind. Just do not do this again, at least not to me. Save your wrath for when you stand face to face with the Snake.”

Faramir nodded, sinking back onto the bed again. “I made quite a fool of myself, did I not?”

Khorazîr turned to him and grinned faintly. “A most impressive fool, I must say. With your burning eyes and your fierce expression you looked like one of the Númenoreans of old one hears about in ancient tales. I am truly glad I am on your side now.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Tue 21 Nov , 2006 7:24 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
But long before word had spread about her speech to Rashidah, Éowyn sat in one of the stuffed chairs in her sitting room, waiting for her anger to cool. At least two hours had passed since she had returned from lunch, and yet her fury had hardly lessened. Every time it seemed to be easing, something reminded her of Al-Jahmîr or the women, and her muttering would start back up again. Her jaw ached from how intensely she had been clenching it, and her fingernails left marks in her palms. Who do they think I am? she thought. All of them. To that snake I am just a prize, something to show off. I was a means for him to achieve glory. To those whores I am just some old woman who does not seem beautiful enough to please a man. Though her vanity was not as great as other ladies she knew, it still hurt to be called old and ugly. But what else would you expect them to say? They survive because of their looks.

She sighed and rested her head back against the rest, drumming her fingers on the arm rest. Was there nothing else to do in this awful house? Was she doomed to answer to Al-Jahmîr’s beck and call and be left to stare at these walls the rest of the daily hours? If it were later in the afternoon, she would have gone out into the gardens, but the sun was at its hottest, and she did not want to face its intensity. Instead, she stood, walked over to the windows, and looked out. The sun glittered on the water in the distance, and she could see the sails of vessels entering and leaving the harbor. So many other people were free to leave of their own will, it seemed. But then again, were they? Did Al-Jahmîr have some sort of blade hanging above their heads as well? She put a hand to the glass, still cool despite the weather. Everything bearing Al-Jahmîr’s mark or influence was a prison of some kind.

She curled her hand into a fist and tapped it against the glass. “But I will find a way out,” she said fiercely. There was always a way out of any prison, even if death was the escape, but she would not court death this time around. Unlike when she had previously despaired into shadow, she had her children to live for and see again. And Al-Jahmîr’s humiliation once she was free. “You will not rule me for long,” she promised. Pressing her fist to the glass once more, she turned and went back to her seat as a knock sounded from the doors to the harem room. Miliani rose to open it. “Don’t answer,” Éowyn ordered.

The girl looked hesitant but returned to her spot. There was a pause before the knock came a second time. A longer pause followed before a third knock sounded. Éowyn shook her head. They certainly were persistent. Several moments passed with no further interruption. Éowyn thought they must have given up when someone knocked on the hallway doors. “No,” she said when Miliani leapt to her feet.

Miliani touched her hand to her forehead. “I’m sorry, my lady, but I must always answer these doors,” she said meekly.

Éowyn rubbed her forehead. If she was trumped by some higher order, she was trumped. She heard the girl answer the door and shut it again.

“Lahar, Lael, and Aliah wish to speak with you,” Miliani said, kneeling by her chair.

Éowyn thought two of the names sounded familiar and then remembered why. “Tell them they do not need to be in my presence to mock me.”

Miliani rose and padded to the door to relay the message. She came back a moment later. “They do not want to mock you,” she said quietly. “They only want to talk to you.”

“I’m sure they do,” Éowyn said under her breath. “Alright,” she said aloud. “I suppose I can throw them out if they do begin to mock.” She straightened in her chair as Miliani escorted the girls in. Two were either sisters close in age or twins, and the third was the youngest girl who had been dressed in white and cream the day before. Now she wore soft yellow. Éowyn folded her hands as they sat in the three chairs opposite hers, tucking their feet under themselves. She kept her gaze even and unimpressed. The three glanced at each other. One twin raised her eyebrows at the other, who sent a meaningful look to the girl in yellow. She shook her head slightly and sent a pleading look back.

Éowyn found the entire exchange odd. They had been so quick to find things to say to her, well, about her, the day before, but now they looked as though they were afraid of saying the wrong thing. She wanted to snort. From what she had seen, they had a lot to worry about. She watched as the first twin glared at the girl in yellow without trying to be entirely obvious about it. Éowyn had to suppress the start of a smile. This was almost entertaining. Finally, she decided to be nice and play the polite hostess.

She leaned forward slightly. “I was told you wanted to speak with me,” she started, trying to keep her voice pleasant. “What about?”

All three girls jumped slightly at her sudden speech, but quickly recovered themselves. Their exchange of glances increased until finally the girl in yellow blurted, “Are you really a princess?” The twin closest to her groaned slightly and put a hand over her eyes.

Éowyn blinked at the outburst. She had not expected this for the first thing, and studied the girl carefully. The girl seemed nervous and unsure of herself, looking repeatedly at her two companions as if to check for their approval or displeasure. Éowyn leaned back in her chair again. “Yes,” she said at length. They had not given her a reason to use an elaborate answer, and until she was sure of their motives, she was not going to indulge them.

“Please excuse her,” the first twin said. “She is still young and has not mastered proper manners yet, though she has been taught. I am Lahar, and this is my sister Lael.” She stretched out her hand to the girl beside her. “We have been here four years. Our third companion is Aliah. She has only been here a year and has not had her First Night yet.” The girl at the end flushed slightly and rolled her lips firmly together.

And was that supposed to explain everything? Éowyn wondered.

“What Aliah meant to say was, we have met many women who claim to be princesses,” Lahar continued, “and yet they rarely rule over more than a kitchen or laundry room. We were curious as to what your claim was.”

Though her demeanor was reserved, Lahar seemed to have some cunning hidden in her dark eyes, Éowyn thought. Sharpness lingered there, a sharpness born out of thought and action. Éowyn felt it better to be wary around her for now.

“I am Éowyn,” she began, since introductions appeared to be the theme, “and I rule over more than kitchens and laundry rooms. My brother is the King of Rohan, far to the north, and my husband is—was—the Prince of Ithilien and Steward of Gondor. I have known kings and lords and been called lady my entire life.”

The three nodded at different intervals, Aliah the quickest and Lahar the slowest. “I have heard of these places,” Lahar said slowly. “How far is your old home from here?”

Éowyn forced a grim smile. “It is still my home. My stay here is only temporary.” From their skeptical looks, she guessed they had heard this answer before as well. “I would say that by land Ithilien is almost a month’s journey from here, though less on sea.”

“How much was paid to your husband for you?” Lael asked. “It must have been quite a sum.”

Éowyn stared at her as though she were mad. Paid? They thought she had been bought? “Two arrows. One in the shoulder and one in the chest,” she said without further thought.

The girls looked puzzled and guilty in turn. “My father was given fifty gold coins, a rubied scimitar, and two white monkeys,” Aliah said tentatively, breaking the uncomfortable silence. “He still receives ten gold pieces a month for the next year.”

“Our father received a jar of Tallin spice and several shipping contracts,” Lael said, and Lahar nodded.

“But why?” was all Éowyn could ask. She did not see how they could be so calm, so resigned, so matter-of-fact about their sales.

“It is a great honor for a man’s daughter to be chosen to be a lord’s consort,” Lahar explained. “She will be given a life her sisters can only dream about. She will be provided for, and taught, and molded into a thing of beauty even greater than what she already is.”

“But how can you enjoy a life like this?” Éowyn responded. “What honor is there in being chosen just to pleasure a man?”

“Did your husband not choose you to pleasure him?” Lahar asked. “He likely paid a bride-price for you, and took you to live with him. How different is that from the way we were chosen?”

Because he loved me, Éowyn wanted to say. Because we had been healed from shadow and fear together. Because he saw me as a friend. Because he could trust me. Because… She shook her head. They would not understand. Their lives were vastly unlike hers, and yet she could not find the words to explain the gaping differences. She looked at each of the girls before her. They were worth gold and shipping routes and monkeys only because they were beautiful and could satisfy a man’s desire for pleasure.

“You said yesterday that you were a mother,” Lael said, breaking into her thoughts. “How many children do you have?”

“Yes, and what are their names?” Aliah added, ignoring the hard stare Lahar gave her and Lael.

“Oh,” Éowyn stuttered, not expecting the sudden change in conversation. “I have three sons,” she smiled sadly as each of their faces formed in her mind. “Elboron is the oldest. He just turned three years old a couple months ago, and he looks exactly like his father. Meriadoc and Peregrin are twins, and they are almost a year and a half old. They look more like me.”

“So tiny still,” Lael murmured.

Éowyn nodded, feeling the sting of tears. And you cannot imagine how terribly I miss them this moment, she wanted to say. “I have a fourth child on the way,” she added, pressing a hand to her stomach. “The healers say the birth will happen in a little over five months.”

Lael and Aliah squealed and clapped their hands, but Lahar studied her thoughtfully. “You are not like us,” she said slowly after a moment. “You are far past the age to be a consort, and you gladly keep and bear children.” She rested a hand on her chin. “Are you to be the master’s wife?”

Éowyn almost choked on her own breath. “No!” she cried. “I am his prisoner, not his bride!” She felt herself pale in spite of her protests. Surely he was not that crazy, to think that she would marry him. No, no, that could not be. Never.

“Look what you’ve done, Lahar,” Lael said accusingly. “You’ve upset her again.” She went to crouch by Éowyn, taking her hands in her own. “Don’t start worrying about that,” she said soothingly. “Bataye won’t let him marry anyone who doesn’t have her approval, and I doubt any of us in this room can sway her.” She leaned closer and whispered conspiratorially, “You’ve heard the rumors, haven’t you? No, you only just arrived.” She dropped her voice even lower, as though to tell some great secret. “Well, all the stories say that the reason why Bataye holds so much influence over him is because she was the one he became a man with, and he still asks for her sometimes when he dreams.”

“And you know as well as I do that story’s a bunch of lies,” Lahar said.

“Is it?” Lael said, winking at Éowyn before rocking back on her heels and returning to her seat. “It seems as good a story as any other told around here.”

“Like the one about Rashidah and the water guard?” Aliah suggested.

Lael spun in her chair. “You shut up about that and fast. If she hears you say that, you’ll have claw marks across both cheeks and be turned out within a fortnight.”

“So that one is true, then?” Éowyn commented.

All three watched her warily. “It’s less debated than others,” Lahar ventured, “but for your own sake, and ours, please do not try to prove it. If one consort begins a love affair with a guard or servant or whoever, it is not unheard of for the lord to turn out all of them in case her audacity inspired others to do the same.” All three girls looked surprisingly sober at this statement.

That this should be such a serious thing to them should not be that unexpected, Éowyn told herself. This was their entire world, after all. “What happens to them then?” she asked out of genuine curiosity.

“Some go back to their families and try to find a husband, if they’re lucky,” Lael said.

Lahar added, “It’s a deep disgrace to be turned out. Sometimes a family will not take the girl back because of the dishonor. Those girls often end up in brothels in a city somewhere, or worse.” Aliah shivered.

Éowyn furrowed her eyebrows. “That’s what happens if a girl is turned out,” she started, “but what is her future if she stays? I mean, all of you are quite young, and it sounds as though there were others before you.”

The three stared at her as though what she had asked for was basic information. Then Lael said, “Oh, you don’t know. I don’t know why I keep forgetting you don’t know.” She shook her head and continued. “A girl will join the consorts and begin training just after her fifteenth birthday. Sometimes if a girl is particularly beautiful and there’s a lot of competition for her, she may be brought in a bit sooner so nobody steals her, but never before she’s fourteen. Then, she trains for a year in singing and dancing and acrobatics and all sorts of things. Soon after her sixteenth birthday, she has her First Night and—”

“Pardon me,” Éowyn interrupted, “but what is that? You have mentioned it before.”

Lael and Lahar both smiled sweetly and turned to look at Aliah. “Would you like to explain what First Night is, dear Aliah?”

Éowyn could tell that the girl was flushing deeply despite her deeply tanned skin. She shook her head at first, but after much teasing from the twins she finally said in a small voice, “It’s the night that a consort, ah, first goes to him, ah, by herself and… stays alone with him for, ah, the entire night.”

The twins laughed merrily. “Oh, you are such an innocent. It is not nearly as scandalous as you make it sound,” Lahar said amidst giggles. “You’ll find out in a couple weeks.”

“So that makes you almost sixteen,” Éowyn said to Aliah. The girl nodded, her embarrassment still obvious. “You two are…”

“Nineteen,” the twins said in unison. Éowyn nodded slowly. So young, and yet so confident to discussing intimate details with a relative stranger.

“So, now you know what First Night is,” Lael said. “After First Night, a girl is considered a full consort and receives new clothes to wear and sometimes new furniture or even entirely new living quarters, if the lord is particularly impressed with her. She continues to study and learn and improve her skills. Sometimes a consort will be taken to a feast or on holiday somewhere. Often one consort will be favored over the others for a time. It all depends on how well the master likes you and whether you make him happy.” She paused. “Well, this goes on for nine years, and on her twenty-fifth birthday one of three things could happen: the master could marry her, which isn’t likely; or he could promise her as a bride to a lesser son or outstanding soldier or someone else as a favor or reward, which is far more common; or he can turn her out with enough money to last the rest of the week,” she finished darkly. The silence lasted a few gloomy seconds, then she added softly, “But there’s almost always a guard in need of a wife.” It was more of a weak self-assurance than a guarantee.

Éowyn stared at the three girls, each of whom had found something interesting to look at on the floor or her own fingernail or a bare patch of wall. She felt truly sorry for them, especially when she realized that they were fully aware that their futures may not forever hold the treasures that surrounded them now. If anything, their plight was made worse by the knowledge that they were on a strict schedule. Nine years of luxury, and then who knew what would follow?

“Rashidah will turn twenty-five in a few months,” Lahar said absently. “And then Saribêth will most likely be the favorite, unless he chooses you.” She glanced at her sister.

Lael flushed slightly. “I doubt that will happen.”

“No, he likes you more than her,” Lahar insisted. “You are not as demanding as her or Rashidah.”

“So the favorite is like the leader of the consorts?” Éowyn ventured.

The twins thought about this. “Yes and no,” Lahar said. “There’s no real leader, but mostly the oldest one is in charge. Sometimes the favorite does, if she is more bossy. Things change every few years anyway.”

“When we first came in,” Lael said, “Rashidah wasn’t the favorite or as bossy as she is now. But then the favorite had her birthday and left, and Rashidah quickly took her place. After Rashidah leaves, it will likely be we four for a time until a new girl is brought to train.”

“And Rashidah knows her time is short,” Lahar added. “Just watch. One moment she’ll be pleasant, or what passes for pleasant, and then she’ll be absolutely vicious if you so much as breathe the wrong way. She wants to be the master’s wife, but we all know that isn’t going to happen.”

“Maybe he’ll marry her off to a goatherder,” Lael said, giggling.

“Was this what Narejde meant when she said she was a favorite?” Éowyn wondered softly, not really listening to the others talk. She heard three gasps and turned her attention back to the girls, all of whom were staring at her in horror.

“Don’t ever say that name,” Lahar said, her eyes wide. Aliah nodded in agreement.

“We have yet to see again the last girl who said that name,” Lael added.

“Some people say she was killed,” Lahar said. “And not nicely, either.”

“What’s so terrible about that name?” Éowyn asked, though she thought she could come up with several good reasons for why the Al-Jahmîr clan would want that name forgotten.

“I—I don’t know all the details, but many years ago she was a servant here, but she was being paid by another lord to spy on the family and the guards and give him the information so he could attack. She was found out, but managed to escape before they could kill her. Several years passed, and she tried to get back in to rescue one of her other master’s soldiers, and she managed to kill several guards and even some of the family. Some people say she escaped, others say she got trapped and was killed on the spot.”

That’s not the story I have heard, Éowyn thought. She would think about this different story later. Did everyone think this was what happened? Well, some didn’t, since there were two endings.

“Just… just for your own good, don’t say that name,” Lael told her. “Bad things happen when that name is mentioned, and we all suffer because of it.”

Éowyn nodded. “I understand.” I understand more than you know.

Lahar glanced around the room and out to sea before saying, “We really should be going. Rashidah will have a fit if she learns we were here.”

“Why are you all afraid of her? Does she really have any power over you?” Éowyn asked.

“Technically, no,” Lahar said. “But she can make life miserable since she’s the favorite, and it’s possible she tell enough lies that the master thinks we’re the ones being awful to her. It’s not good to upset the favorite. Which is why you need to become the favorite,” she told her sister. “You wouldn’t be as terrible.”

Lael laughed softly. “I will see what I can do,” she said, twisting a lock of hair around her finger. “But you are right, we should go. I want to try a new song on the harp.”

“Well, if you have to go,” Éowyn said reluctantly. Despite her misgivings, she had rather enjoyed the conversation. These three at least appeared to be sensible girls, to an extent. “Thank you for coming to visit.”

“Thank you for having us,” Lahar said, standing. The others rose as well. “You should come into the common room more often. Rashidah is rarely there, though I think she may try avoiding you for awhile. You really stunned her today.”

“She deserved it,” Lael said.

“Yes,” Aliah agreed. She had not completely gotten over her embarrassment yet.

As the three started for the hallway doors, Éowyn said, “Wait, please.” She paused, not sure she wanted to know the answer, yet feeling the need to have it answered anyway. “What does ‘kishka’ mean?”

The three girls exchanged guilty glances. Lael spoke up when it was obvious the other two weren’t going to. “Freak, or monster,” she said quietly. “Though maybe harsher than that. It’s not nice.”

“Oh,” Éowyn said, again feeling that twinge of hurt that she couldn’t quite explain. After the three had left, she went into her bedchamber and stood in front of the long mirror, turning various ways to see herself, watching her reflection with sad eyes. Compared to them, she was a kishka.

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PostPosted: Sun 26 Nov , 2006 8:42 am 
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Location: snake-hunting
“And I am glad to have you on my side,” replied Faramir earnestly, raising his head to look up at the Haradan. His fury spent, he was beginning to feel weary. Also, his shoulder hurt from the sudden, forceful movements. “I do not know where to begin to thank you.”

Khorazîr waved a hand. “You owe me nothing. I know that should I need your help in return, you would not hesitate to give it, as you have shown in the past. Your lady means a lot to me as well, and more than anything I want to see her returned to you. Well, to bring about the Snake’s downfall is also a very strong desire. If we can achieve both in one stroke, I shall be perfectly content.”

“I am much tempted now to send him a little message in return,” said Faramir grimly, “but of course I must restrain myself, or else our little act here would be all in vain. When is the funeral going to take place? And where? Would it be possible for me to attend?”

“It can be arranged, yes,” said Khorazîr, hanging Faramir’s garments over a chair. “The villagers have chosen a spot up on the hillside, a small outcrop of rock whence one can overlook the entire valley and even catch a glimpse of the pass. Some are up there now, as well as a number of your men, to gather rocks to build a cairn. The funeral is going to be at dusk. You should try and rest now, for it is a bit of a climb. I shall rouse you in time and bring you there. I sent a few of my men up as well, so it will not look strange if you join them. Something else: I spoke with your captain, and we should like to leave Kadall tomorrow and return to Khiblat Pharazôn. Well, at least your men and most of mine shall. We of course will only journey as far as the river, and await the ship there.”

He gave Faramir a long, searching and slightly sceptical glance. “Admittedly, we have not consulted your healer yet. He might object to you undertaking the journey so soon, despite it only being a few hours ride down to Harnen. We could arrange for a cart or wain, perhaps – for you and your injured rangers – so that you will not have to spend hours on horseback under the sun. How do you feel? Do you think you would manage?”

Faramir shrugged. “I must. Dorgil is indeed likely to object. Yet every day lost in idleness here increases my anxiety. Moreover, tidings of the funeral are bound to travel swiftly, to Umbar and to Gondor. And I should like to outrun them, lest Elessar and my friends and kin get a wrong impression of my true state of health. And I am doubtful about sending another messenger. There is always the danger he might be intercepted.”

“True. Still, you must take things slowly. Not even a week has passed since you received an injury that would have killed many a man of a constitution less formidable, or a will less staunch. Do not squander the improvements of these past days. You will serve neither your lady nor your sons if you reach them half-dead.”

“But first I have to reach her at all,” said Faramir gravely and sighed, running a hand through his hair. The Southron stood watching him with an expression of kind pity for a moment, then sighed as well. “Get some sleep, Dúnadan. I shall come for you in time for the funeral.”

+

It took him some time to indeed fall asleep because his thoughts kept lingering on the taunting jigsaw, and on Éowyn and what she might be doing just now. Where was she accommodated? Was she wounded? How did Al-Jahmîr manage to keep her from trying to escape? Not the poison he had employed to keep him prisoner, surely! Or would he use it on her as well?

He stared up at the painted ceiling between the hangings of the bed. If he began imagining now how the dreadful venom worked on her, he would find no rest. Surely, surely the Snake would not subject his precious prize to such torment. Unless she gave him reason. Faramir turned upon his hale side, his left hand clenched into the pillow, not knowing what he wanted. On the one hand he did not wish any harm to befall her, which for her would mean to keep her captor well-humoured. But if that meant for her to bow to his every demand ... – his hand gripped the pillow more tightly. No, she would not surrender. She would stand up to him, like she had so many years ago, in darkness and despair, to the Lord of the Nazgûl himself on a bloody battlefield. What was Al-Jahmîr in comparison to so dread- and powerful a foe? Just a little worm that crawled on the earth, a slimy serpent that could be squashed by a heavy boot. And she would show him his place! If the Dark Lord himself and his foul minions, and the vile Black Breath he had sent to wither men’s hearts had not managed to break her, neither would this Umbarian maggot. Had he not tried to break him and failed? And she is stronger than I, he thought with grim conviction. Had she not born three children? She knew what pain was, and would not be cowed by threat of it. “You will shatter your poisoned fangs on her, Snake,” he said softly. “And I shall see to it you grow no others.”

+

The sun had reached the peaks of the mountains that formed the western wall of the valley, casting the eastern slope in a warm, golden light. Faramir, clad again as one of Khorazîr’s guards, with the inconspicuous help of the Haradan who was walking next to him and upon whom he could lean now and again when he had need, slowly followed the steep, winding path towards the site of the funeral. Like Khorazîr had warned him, the climb was exhausting, but they took things very slowly, resting from time to time against the low stone-walls that lined the path, or the trunk of a gnarled olive-tree. The outcrop where the cairn was still being set up from the red rock of the hills was situated above the small, terraced and stone-walled fields and meagre olive-groves of Kadall. The path had obviously been built to enable the farmers to reach and tend their lands. At the steepest passages short, uneven flights of steps had been hewn into the rock. The tracks of mules and donkeys could faintly be descried in places where the ascent was less severe and the path covered with loose rubble.

When again they had to stop for Faramir to catch his breath and take a sip of water from the waterskin Khorazîr had wisely taken with him, Faramir turned and looked down upon the village as it lay, the western part already cast in blueish shade, the smoke from cooking fires catching the level rays of the sun at it spiralled up from the houses. The villagers had worked hard these past days, repairing and restoring what they could with the help of the rangers and Khorazîr’s soldiers. Nevertheless many houses still showed the signs of the raids, and some had gone altogether, leaving heaps of roof-tiles and rubble and scorched beams like ugly wounds between the hale buildings with their partly white-washed walls.

Faramir’s expression darkened. “What for?” he asked softly, staring absently at the stricken village.

“To satisfy one man’s desire for revenge, and beauty,” came Khorazîr’s grim reply. Faramir stirred and turned to look at him – he had not expected an answer to his murmured remark. A gust of wind came down from the pass which could be seen like a gap in the line of rugged peaks that screened the southern end of the valley. It swirled his long robes about him and tore at his hair, carrying with it a scent of sun-warmed stones and the hardy, resinous shrubs that grew on the hill-slopes. Involuntarily, Faramir shivered slightly, gathering his robes more tightly about him with his left hand, but it had nothing to do with the wind.

“I cannot help worrying about what will happen when this beauty eludes him,” he said. “Or rejects him, rather.”

Khorazîr glanced down to where, at the foot of one of the walls and ringed by stunted trees a large mound could be seen – here the people of Kadall had buried their dead. Not far away was the grave of the fallen rangers, set about with spears to which small personal belongings of the fallen had been tied. “She is in a very dangerous situation indeed,” admitted the Southron. “I will not deny that. But she will find a way to keep him at bay without endangering her life. She is not entirely alone in there, and given time, she will find allies. And when she has received your message, she should be greatly encouraged.”

“If she receives it.”

Khorazîr turned to him. “She will,” he said with conviction. “Leave it to Narejde. She has taken Marek’s action as a personal insult. And I guess you can imagine what that implies. I need not remind you of her hatred for the Al-Jahmîrs. She has been waiting for an opportunity to bring about their downfall almost all her life. If Marek has left her out of his reckoning, he is a greater fool that I gave him credit for. But, of course, ‘tis all the better for us.” He ran a hand through his long hair which the wind had tangled and brushed it out of his sun-tanned face. Faramir thought that it had acquired more lines since their initial parting almost a week ago. But the Haradan’s eyes still burned with a fell light, fiercer and brigher than before. Faramir could not help marvelling at this. It almost seemed like the Southron was enjoying this feud. “Marek will be brought down by our ladies, I have a feeling,” said Khorazîr, with a smile as fell as the glow in his eyes. “And what a glorious day that shall be.”

Faramir smiled faintly as he watched his friend. “Whither do you take your optimism, Khorazîr?”

The Southron shrugged, reaching up to re-tie the braid that kept his hair out of his face. “Dereja always used to say it was a waste of time and effort to only look on the dark side of things. She was not dismayed easily. She even kept smiling when she was almost too weak to do so. For a long time after she was gone I strongly rejected her optimism. But recently I think I have begun to understand what she meant.”

“Took you a long time, then, did it not?”

“Aye,” nodded the Southron, “so learn from my example and do not make the same mistake. You used to be rather optimistic, in the past.”

Faramir gave a small nod with turned into a shrug. “Al-Jahmîr can quickly shatter one’s faith in things turning out to the best,” he said gloomily. “I am torn between hope and utter despair. If only I had some word from her, some sign that she is well – or even alive. But this doubt ... ‘tis worse than anything.”

“We shall soon know more, as soon as Narejde has heard from her sources inside the castle. Who knows, perhaps there is already a messenger on his way.” He clapped Faramir’s shoulder. “Let us walk on, if you feel rested enough. ‘Tis a bit of a climb still.”

+

They reached the site of the funeral when the sun had vanished behind the mountains and dusk was descending upon the valley and the surrounding hills. Not far away a fennek was barking sharply, falling silent suddenly as perhaps he spotted them. Large bats came out of their caves or hiding-places in barns and old houses and fluttered through the still warm air, hunting for moths. A number of rangers, villagers and some of Khorazîr’s men were already assembled round a low cairn they had erected, with a narrow entrance built of large rocks with a flat one on top, facing toward the West. Another large stone lay by, to bar the doorway once it had received the body.

As he gazed down back to the village, his eyes following the path they had climbed, Faramir beheld dots of light like fireflies as they began gathering between the houses: people bearing lamps and torches. Soon the first began descending the path in a long twinkling row. It seemed that almost every inhabitant of Kadall was coming up to witness the funeral. He was touched by the gesture. What did he mean to these people, a strange lord from another country, a former enemy, even? And yet here they came to pay him their respects, and to honour the sacrifice which in their eyes he had made for the defence of their village. Perhaps, he thought, this was a sign that the old resentments and hatred fuelled by the long wars were finally laid to rest with what for the villagers was the body of the Steward of Gondor. A sign for better, more peaceful times, hopefully. We would be enjoying peace already, but for people like Al-Jahmîr, he thought bitterly.

He watched as the line of torches wound up towards him. There was a group moving slowly: most likely those were the men bearing poor Baranor’s body. He stepped back a little behind Khorazîr to a low rock he could sit on comfortably and re-fastened the veil across his nose and mouth. Dusk was deepening, yet he did not want to take any chances of being recognised. So far nobody had taken especial note of him, not even Khorazîr’s men. The first torch-bearers had reached them now and silently and with solemn expressions gathered round the cairn and upon the slope mounting behind it. Even some of the older children had come, he noted, holding flowers in their hands. He spotted the small boy who together with his sister and the innkeeper and his wife had visited him. What had been his name? Sarleem? He was gripping a few silvery thistles, such as grew in abundance near the river. They were already unfolding into plumy seeds that were carried away by the wind. One got stuck on the rough cloth of Faramir’s burnous and he caught it, holding it in his hands carefully so as not to damage it. With a sting he recalled how Éowyn had once told him of a Rohirric belief: if one managed to catch a seed of thistle-down and set it free again, and made a secret wish on it, it would be fulfilled. He recalled teasing her about the custom, saying that the strawheads were superstitious about so many things that most likely they had lost track of them all. He also remembered what Mablung had said about tying a coloured ribbon at the pass, and how he had ridiculed the idea. “I reckon we shall need all the help we can get,” he murmured, holding up the thistle-seed and letting the wind catch it and carry it away, his wish unspoken but hardly a secret.

+

Most villagers had assembled when the rangers carrying the bier were coming into view. Four men were walking before and four behind, all bearing torches, between them the four with their grievous load. The rest followed behind, and the rear was brought up by Khorazîr’s men and the last stragglers from the village. As the bier passed near him, Faramir caught a glimpse of the body. It had been wreathed in clean linen and covered with a precious woven blanket – a donation by Khorazîr, he reckoned –, the splendid dark-red tassels of which were rippling and flapping about merrily in the wind. The rangers carried the bier in front of the cairn and placed it on the ground, then assembled round it in a wide semicircle. Khorazîr’s men withdrew round their lord, who stood to one side of the cairn, studying the silent form with a grave but otherwise unreadable expression. A hush fell on the crowd, the silence only broken by the sigh of the wind and the soft sounds of the bats as they fluttered overhead, to catch the insects drawn hither by the torches. The silence stretched on, until Faramir thought he could hear a soft shuffling of feet and rustle of cloth as heads were turned, and people were growing impatient, or uneasy, even. The scene, despite its solemn dignity, had an undeniable touch of eeriness, increased by the flickering light of the wind-bent torches and the bats whirling overhead.

Suddenly, a man stepped out from the row of the rangers, cleared his throat, and began to sing. All stirring ceased as the bystanders were enthralled and increasingly moved by the music. The song, a dirge, obviously, yet despite its sad theme neither slow nor overly grieved in tone, was in Sindarin. Faramir doubted most villagers understood the words, yet as is the nature of Elvish poetry, they remained graven in their hearts, and they understood the overall meaning, and the mood. Faramir understood, and as he listened to Hirgon’s sonorous voice, he could not help swallowing hard, trying to get rid of the lump that had built in his throat. The ranger had composed a lay about him, describing not only his merits as captain of the rangers, Steward of Gondor and lord of his Princedom, but also rendering a very fitting description and appraisal of him as a person. He felt the blood rise to his cheeks has he gazed at the faces of his rangers, and saw them nod with approval or exchange knowing glances when Hirgon sang an especially fitting passage. Once again, Faramir became aware that for these men he was more than a mere superior, a lord they had sworn allegiance to. They were willing to die for him, but not only because they had vowed to as their duty, but because they truly appreciated and loved him. They would follow him into utter darkness and back, he knew, regardless of their own lives, and he felt elated and encouraged by this realisation. Once again he praised the fact it had not been required of him to deceive his men about his death. Some were weeping silently, but they were not mourning their fallen lord, but were stricken by the beauty of the song. Also, the tears they shed were for their slain comrades, for Baranor and Iorlas and the others who had given their lives to guard their lord and lady, and to defend the people of Kadall.

Of the villagers many were crying as well, some in silence and some passionately, on the shoulders and in the arms of their friends or kin, or simply the person standing next to them. They were not mourning him, Faramir knew, but their own dead who they had been forced to bury hastily and devoid of a proper ceremony. Their sniffs could still be heard when Hirgon had ended his lay and returned into the line of rangers where he received many a grateful clap on the shoulder or commending glance, and Mablung stepped forth. Whatever unease or anxiety he had harboured in regards of his speech, apparently he had overcome them, for what he delivered – in Common Speech now so that the villagers, too, were able to follow – was both to the point and touching. He gave a short summary of Hirgon’s lay, repeating the merits of the fallen Steward without embroidering the truth too much, then went on addressing Faramir’s past encounter with Al-Jahmîr, the details of which had been omitted by the rumours that had come to the ears of the villagers. He finished expressing his hope that in the face of a mutual, cruel and remorceless enemy, old resentments between North and South were finally overcome. Khorazîr used this as a cue to come forth and add a speech of his own, recounting his own story of his feud with Faramir which eventually had turned into friendship.

“A decade ago, I desired nothing more than to slay the very man who now I mourn as a dear friend,” he said, his strong voice carrying far into the night. “And I swear here and now that I will avenge his death, and the injustice done to his family. His lady shall be freed from her vile captor, and Marek Al-Jahmîr and his slithering breed shall be swiped from the earth.”

A call went up from his men and the rangers, and was joined in by many of the villagers. If Al-Jahmîr had placed any spies among them, thought Faramir, they would have interesting and rather worrying tidings to report to their fell master. There was cold resolve in the faces of the men (and women) as they uttered this oath. The elder’s wife who had housed the rangers came up to Khorazîr, and slightly bowing to him and the wreathed body, she turned to face the assembly, the torchlight playing on her snowy hair and her lined yet proud and stern face.

“You have spoken well, Lord Khorazîr and Captain Mablung of Gondor. And the lay was one of a rare beauty we shall never forget, Master Hirgon. Be thanked for it, for although you sang it mostly for your fallen lord and your slain comrades, it spoke to us in our grief as well. As did your vow, Lord Khorazîr. Rest assured that we, too, shall do what we can to repay the debt we owe Lord Faramir and his wife, for their great sacrifice. For long years we looked towards the North with hatred and fear, and even though in recent times we profited from the trade with the Northerners, we never considered them friends. But now this attitude is changing. Our hatred is turning south now, to the Serpent in Umbar who has dealt us so deep a blow. He shall realise that the nest he raided with fire and sword is inhabited by fierce little birds who will peck at him relentlessly from now on, until he is so weakened that the eagle from Gondor can finish him. The eagle, or the falcon,” she ended, and for a brief moment her gaze lingered on Faramir. He returned it steadily, nodding his head ever so slightly in sign he had understood, and in recognition and thanks of her offer.

More people now came forward to place small tokens on the bier: flowers, small coins or many-coloured beads of glass, as well as miniature figures of clay. Faramir was not familiar with the custom, yet again was moved by how many people obviously considered themselves bound to provide him with a parting gift. When the last child had placed its flowers on the body, the rangers who had carried the bier took it up again and placed it inside the cairn. The large stone was rolled in front to shut the entrance, then all rangers, and, after a moment, all the people as well turned and faced west in silence, as was the custom in Gondor at mealtimes. All rangers had brought their longbows, and now they ignited arrows on torches, and upon a sign from Mablung released them in a single volley. They arched high through the darkness, towards the faint line of light that still lingered in the West over the dark mass of the hills, then fell down to the river and their light was extinguished by the waters.

Slowly, the assembly began to dissolve as groups of villagers returned to their homes. Khorazîr’s men followed, until finally only the Southron, his two personal guards, Faramir and the rangers remained. Most torches had been extinguished, so that the stars and the crescent moon were visibly, casting a faint silvery light upon the cairn. Dorgil and Mablung came over to Faramir who carefully rose from his seat and stretched gently. He was weary, and his chest and shoulder ached.

Dorgil shook his head sternly as he approached and saw Faramir wince slightly. “This was done unwisely, captain,” he chided. “I counselled against you climbing up here. Have you considered getting down again? You should have prevented him from leaving his room, and his bed,” he threw at Khorazîr.

“I am alright, Dorgil,” Faramir assured him swiftly. “And actually, I am rather pleased I managed the ascent.” Dorgil scowled, but refrained from deepening the discussion. Faramir turned to Mablung and Hirgon, who had come up as well. “My sincerest thanks to you both,” he said gravely. “And to you, Khorazîr,” he added with a glance and warm smile towards the Southron. “Your speeches and the lay touched me deeply, and I fear I lack the words to express my gratitude properly.”

Mablung shook his head. “There is no need, captain. Speaking for myself, I felt the need to say what I did for a long time. And the men felt likewise. They are utterly devoted to you, and not because you are the Steward of Gondor and Prince of Ithilien, but because you ... well ...” He gave Hirgon a somewhat helpless glance as words eluded him.

“The men love you, lord,” substituted Hirgon. “If you command them to storm this Al-Jahmîr’s castle, they will, whatever the cost to themselves.”

Faramir smiled. “I know, Hirgon. And believe me, it eases my heart greatly to know I have so devoted a company behind me. As for the storming, we shall see. First we need to determine whither Éowyn has been brought.”

“First, you have to regain your strength, captain,” fell in Dorgil, “and you will not do so if you linger here. Here, lean on me. ‘Tis back to bed for you now, and I will hear no objections, otherwise I will knock you out personally and have the men carry you down. I have to check your stitches, and we have to talk about tomorrow’s journey. I will not have you travel on horseback, not after today’s exertion. You can join Meneldir and the others on the cart.”

“Meneldir, how is he?” inquired Faramir as they set in motion.

Dorgil’s stern expression softened. “It looks like he will keep his arm, although ‘tis going to take a long time until it is healed properly. His fever is gone, and with the help of some of this wise-woman’s herbs I managed to suppress the infection that had set in.”

+

The walk back to the village took so long that Faramir began to doubt it had indeed been a good idea to risk the climb. By the time they had reached the first houses he was so exhausted that he could barely keep on his feet. Dorgil and Khorazîr had to steady him, and when finally he sank down onto his bed it took him all his remaining strength not to surrender to sleep right away. Dorgil helped him undress, examined his wounds and exchanged the bandages.

“Despite your carelessness, your wounds are healing well,” said the healer as he pulled the shirt over Faramir’s head again, then drew up the blanket to cover his lord. “I will check on you again tomorrow morning, to see if you are fit for the journey.”

Faramir nodded faintly, already on the verge of sleep. “Thank you, Dorgil,” he murmured, and drifted off.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Sun 10 Dec , 2006 4:04 pm 
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There had been dreams, weird ones, too, but when Faramir woke to the first rays of the sun playing on the white-washed wall opposite his window he could not remember much of these nightly visions. He had dreamt of Éowyn, he recalled. And of her uncle, strangely. Somehow, he had had to explain to late King Théoden who in reality he had only met once, many years ago as an adolescent when he and Boromir had visited the Riddermark, why he had not managed to prevent his beloved niece from being abducted by an Umbarian renegade.

For a while he lay musing quietly and trying to remember more of his dreams, but without success. The curtains of his bed where partly drawn, so that when he heard the door open and footsteps approach, he could not immediately see who was coming. Then Dorgil’s voice said softly, “Is he still asleep?”

“I hope so for him,” replied Khorazîr, “because that way he will not feel how you remove the thread.”

Faramir groaned. Dorgil had come to remove the stitches. With a sigh he sat up. “Ah, you are awake. Good morning, captain,” greeted him the healer upon hearing the rustle of sheets and coverlets. He stepped up to draw aside the hangings. He sounded more cheerful than what Faramir considered appropriate, given the purpose of his visit.

“Morning,” he returned a little curtly. “I take it you now wish to repay me for my little expedition yesterday?”

“Nonsense,” said Dorgil, his smile not without a trace of mischief, betraying his words. “Although I should like to know how you are feeling this morning.” Faramir moved his right arm gingerly, then with more force, and drew several deep breaths to test how the chest-wound would take it. He was rather pleased with the outcome.

“I feel well,” he announced, before admitting, “Better than I thought.” Taking Dorgil’s outstretched hand, he carefully got up and walked a few paces to the window and back. He had expected some soreness in his legs and indeed the rest of his body after the strenuous exercise of the previous evening, but there was hardly any. Even the pain in his chest upon drawing breath had lessened, and the muscles and tendons of his chest and shoulder only ached when he lifted his arm too far. Dorgil observed his movements, then helped him out of the shirt and drew up a chair for him. “‘Tis your luck you were in such very good shape ere you received these injuries,” he said while rummaging in his bag. “Otherwise your recovery would not have advanced this far.”

Khorazîr had walked over to the window, opened the latticed shutters and peered out. Now he turned to the others. “Ere sunrise this morning I received word from a captain I know. His ship is coming to fetch us, and is going to await us at sundown today, at Huzîn Hazid, an old and now ruinous fortress on the hither shore of Harnen. We should not tarry here much longer, for ‘tis a long journey for someone only recently returned to the living, although an unhurt man on a good horse could cover the distance in a few hours only.”

“The rangers are ready to depart,” reported Dorgil as he removed the bandages. “And your men looked packed as well, those who are going to accompany us.”

“Aye, they are only waiting for my word.”

“You should have roused me earlier, then,” said Faramir a little reproachfully, but Dorgil shook his head. “You sorely needed the sleep, sir. I am rather pleased with your recovery. I am going to take out the stitches from your shoulder now – yes, I know you hate it, but it must be. Your chest-wound needs more time to heal properly. I shall accompany you to Gondor to be able to look after you during the journey.”

“What about Meneldir and the others?” asked Faramir, wincing slightly when Dorgil began to work on his shoulder.

“Brandir is well enough now to look after them, and moreover I know for a fact that you have skilled healers at your home, Lord Khorazîr, who will take good care of them. They are going to be alright. I am still a little worried about the journey itself, however. Even though we managed to procure a cart, ‘tis going to be a rough ride up the pass and down the other side again, until we reach the Vale of Harnen where the roads get more even. I am debating with myself to allow the men to cover the journey on horseback, which certainly they would prefer –”

“I would prefer that, too, actually,” fell in Faramir. “Getting jostled about on a cart on these roads sounds worse to me than a slow, careful ride. The only problem is going to be the heat, and the sun, but we can cover ourselves up against the elements, and with lots of water and frequents rests ... And do Meneldir and the other wounded have to leave with us at all? Some of your men are staying here, did I understand that aright, Khorazîr?”

“Yes, I commanded them to stay until we know more about the situation in Umbar and Gondor. Your wounded could stay here as well. I will send up one of my healers, although I doubt it would be necessary, with your man and the wise-woman looking after them. Both seem capable enough to me, and none of your injured appears to be in danger anymore”

“Actually, it would be a good idea to divide up the company,” said Faramir. “Mablung will travel on to Khiblat Pharazôn with the greater part, while the wounded and some score men remain here under Edrahil’s command, to convey messages to Gondor and lend a hand with the repairs and generally keep an eye on things.” He winced again. “I am tempted to believe you are doing this on purpose, Dorgil,” he complained, upon which the healer grinned slightly.

“For someone seemingly resistant to death, and moreover able to endure greatest pain and hardship and anguish, you are quite a girl when it comes to stitches,” he remarked. “If I may say so, captain,” he added respectfully, and all three laughed.

“I should like to see you receiving them,” muttered Faramir with a dark glance at his shoulder where Dorgil had almost finished his cruel work by now. Although the wound had healed well, a faint scar would most likely remain – one of many on his chest and shoulders, and indeed his entire body.

Dorgil had deliberately overheard his remark and, after putting some sharp-smelling tincture on the wounds bound them again with bandages. “Do not forget to wear the sling,” he reminded Faramir. “And try not to move the shoulder over much. We are going to attempt the ride. I shall speak to Mablung. He is already fretting over the imminent parting – you know he can get pretty sentimental at times. Get him ready for the journey, Lord Khorazîr. In order to use the cool of the morning hours ere the sun has risen too high, we should set out in an hour at the latest.”

With that he packed his bag again, nodded to the others and departed. Faramir washed and then dressed, with the Southron’s help. “I shall take your belongings with me, your saddle-bags and everything,” said Khorazîr, beginning to pack them. “Also,” and now his eyes twinkled amusedly, “I think I will finally be allowed – or indeed required – to ride my horse again, the one you stole from me so viciously many years ago.”

“I only ‘stole’ him because you had my own horse shot underneath me,” retorted Faramir, grinning as well. “Most likely Narâk will throw you, and well for it, considering your constant teasing. But honestly, you are welcome to ride him. It would not look very believable if a common Haradaic soldier suddenly rode the steed of the late Steward of Gondor. Take care of my belongings – and Éowyn’s – as well. I should like to take everything to Gondor with us, except the horses, which will have to journey on to Khiblat Pharazôn.”

“My men will take care of that. I shall fetch you some breakfast, and look how far the preparations for our departure have advanced. We took leave of most of the villagers yestereve, when you had already fallen asleep. They were gathered at the inn, discussing your funeral. But inadvertedly, some are going to come to see us off, despite the early hour. I am going to deal with these, so that we can set out without further delays.

+

About an hour later half the village was assembled on the market-place to watch the departure of Lord Khorazîr and his retinue, and the greater part of the northern rangers. The idea of leaving the wounded members of his company as well as a guard of twenty men had met with Mablung’s approval. In fact, Faramir thought as he watched the captain from his position behind the assembled mass of Khorazîr’s soldiers, with two of his rangers discreetly disguised as such at his side, Mablung looked rather relieved that this way he did not have to worry about conveying the injured to Khorazîr’s home without causing them inconvenience or even impairing their recovery. He looked troubled still, however, but for another reason. Faramir knew from Khorazîr’s reports that apparently Dorgil and Mablung had had some discussion as to who was to accompany their lord to Gondor. Mablung considered it his duty to see the Steward home safely, after having blundered so gravely during the raid, whereas Dorgil had argued he still needed a healer at his side for not being completely recovered from his grievous wounding. In the end Dorgil had won the argument, narrowly. Although he stood with the rangers now, Faramir knew that as soon as they were in safe distance from the village, he would join his side and pester him with questions concerning his state, and if the shoulder hurt, or the heat or the sun was too much to bear.

Indeed it was promising to become a hot day. Only a few clouds lingered in the far West, just visible beyond the peaks of the mountains, bright white against the deep blue sky. A strong wind was blowing from the south-west, a fact Faramir welcomed as it would make the heat more bearable. Moreover, if the wind did not change direction during the days to come, it would provide them with excellent sailing conditions for their journey up north, once they had travelled down Harnen and reached the open sea. He had not yet had the opportunity to question Khorazîr about the friend of his who owned the ship, and was curious who that would turn out to be.

Most men had already mounted (Faramir under difficulties and the painful protest of his chest and shoulder, but managing with the help of his two guards) when Mablung and Khorazîr stepped forth from their respective companies and spoke a few words of parting, renewing their vows to avenge the rape of Kadall, which was met with grim cheer by the population. The elder’s wife uttered a grave parting in return, wishing them luck in their chase, and utter destruction to Al-Jahmîr, resulting in even louder signs of approval from the crowd. Women went round offering small cups of sweet peppermint-tea and flat honey-cakes to the travellers, before the leaders mounted as well, and the captain of Khorazîr’s men blew a sharp note on a silver trumpet upon which the horses snorted and tossed their heads, and began to stir restlessly. The companies set in motion, accompanied by a crowd of children and dogs that followed them well past the last houses and at least a mile up the winding road towards the high pass. At the site where the slain shepherd had been found and where now a heap of stones accumulated round his upright staff adorned with red ribbons fluttering in the wind marked the border of the village, they at last hung back, waving and calling after the men, until they had rounded another shoulder of the hills and were lost to view.

Khorazîr had reined Narâk, who, to Faramir’s surprise and minute annoyance was suffering his new (old) rider without his customary fuss, and waiting until Faramir who rode at the end of his company, just in front of the first rangers had caught up with him, he glanced back towards the village. “This little nest is going to be famous now,” he said.

“Not a kind of fame others will envy it for,” remarked Faramir darkly.

“True. But fame nonetheless. As perhaps you have heard before, fame is everything in the Harad. Fame will keep you alive after you have died. As long as people remember you, you are not gone.”

“So this is why the Snake goes such great lengths to achieve it?”

Khorazîr shrugged. “Well, it is not that he can achieve much by personal courage, is it?” he said viciously. “The gutless worm! He can only send his men to do his dirty work, like young Azrahil. Or threaten others to do his bidding, because he has the power to make their lives very unpleasant should they refuse him. But when has he ever stepped forth and raised his sword in an actual fight – against a true and unscathed enemy, I mean? Fighting wounded or utterly exhausted men who can barely lift a sword, that is more his style. Ah, I so wish to one day cross blades with him.”

Faramir watched the Southron as he spoke, his dark eyes glinting dangerously, and his face which he did not bother to protect with a veil looking proud and stern and fell. He knew from personal experience what a fierce and highly skilled swordsman Khorazîr was. After all, he had felled and almost slain him in their fateful duel. And afterwards, when their feud had turned to friendship the Haradan had consented to teach his former enemy his most fearsome strokes, causing Faramir to come to appreciate and actually prefer the lightness and deadly swiftness of the scimitar over the more strength-driven force of the broadsword, the use of which he had grown up with. Although a skilled and, if he had asked the rangers who had seen him fight, dreaded swordsman, the blade had never been his favourite weapon. He preferred the longbow, where indeed only few of the rangers could challenge their lord’s sureness of aim. Boromir had been the true master of the sword, and had almost always beaten his little brother whenever they had fought mock duels or trained together. Knowing the scimitar to be more suited to his fighting style which relied rather on speed and agility than strength and brute force, Faramir was not sure if even Boromir would master him in a fight now. He hoped that as soon as he was well enough to pick up the blade again, Khorazîr would agree to take up their lessons again. Although not a man to peck a fight willingly, Faramir had the dark feeling he would be required to use the scimitar rather sooner than he liked. Or, he thought grimly as the image of his wife’s captor appeared before his inner eye, not soon enough!

“I hope you will get your opportunity,” said Faramir, “although I fear you will have to join the long queue of people wishing for just that. I should like to have another go as well, unscathed this time, and so, I am sure, will Éowyn. And Narejde. And Azrahil.”

Khorazîr laughed. “Aye, and your King, and your Lady’s brother, and even your special friend Lord Falastur, I daresay.”

Now Faramir laughed as well, imagining his greatest rival in council fight a duel with the Umbarian. “Falastur is not much of a fighter, unless it was with words and icy glances. But certainly, he will grasp any opportunity to achieve the Snake’s downfall. I think he still blames him for what happened to his second-born son Vinyaran. Rumour goes he was lured into treason by Al-Jahmîr or some of his friends during his stay in Umbar, and after his conviction and imprisonment, was slain in his cell to prevent him from revealing those people’s names. It was quite a scandal in Gondor some time ago, in the year ere Elboron was born.”

“Oh yes, I heard of that. And afterwards you managed to catch and imprison the Snake himself, but somehow he escaped from the Lord of Pelargir’s prison. Oh, what shame. No wonder he would like to finally get him done in for good. Moreover, the more trouble there is down South, the more the trade suffers, and Falastur’s purse, am I not right?”

“Perfectly right. And this, of course, is the most important reason for him to pursue Al-Jahmîr and all his corsair-friends with relentless hatred.”

“Speaking of ‘corsair-friends’ as you so fittingly – and somewhat condescendingly, if I may add – described them, do not be too surprised if the captain of our transport turns out to be just that.”

“What, you entertaining ties to corsairs, Khorazîr?” exclaimed Faramir with mock consternation, “I am truly shocked.” Then he smiled. “Actually, I expected nothing less of you. I do know you, after all, and some of your friends as well. Or the people indebted to you. Personally, I have no problem with who we travel with, as long as he has a fast ship and knows how to handle it. Should any problems arise because of his other cargo or true trade once we have reached Gondor, for surely we are going to be accosted by the coast-watch as soon as we draw nigh to the Ethir Anduin, I am certain we will find a way to assure a swift passage through Gondorian waters. And should the Lord of Pelargir get wind of the matter, as most certainly he will, I shall personally take over negotiations.”

“I am relieved to hear that. Remember, though, that you are dead now. Do you really consider it wise to let Falastur in on our little conspiracy?”

“I will have to decide that according to the circumstances. He may be an uncomfortable, unwelcome ally, but he is an ally nevertheless. And a resourceful one, too. In his own, twisted way, he is quite loyal and even devoted to Gondor, and would never willingly betray it. Thus I doubt he would oppose our plan, and even be outraged if let out of it. He would be a more dangerous foe than friend, so I should like to keep him on my side, as much as he is going to allow that. What can you tell me about this corsair-friend of yours?”

Khorazîr shrugged, before suddenly turning in the saddle to see who was approaching at a brisk trot. “It appears you healer wishes to check on his charge,” he remarked dryly, and made room as best as this was possible on the narrow track to allow Dorgil to ride up to Faramir.

“How is it going, cap–” he swallowed the rest of the word upon a warning glance from Faramir. Switching to Sindarin and lowering his voice several degrees, the flush creeping up his cheeks so that it was even visible behind his veil, he went on, “Any pain? Are you thirsty?”

“I am fine,” replied Faramir. Even though he could feel every step of the horse on the hard ground, by now he had grown accustomed to the slight jolts. They did not cause him any pain, either, and in fact he very much appreciated to be out at the open air now, and no longer conveyed to a small room. He appreciated the wind tearing at his garments and the sun warming his arms and shoulders, and felt even more revived that during his climb up the mountain. Finally, things were moving again; he was allowed out and about, no longer a prisoner of the healers. “I have enough water here, and food, too, should I become hungry, and the horse’s movements trouble me less than I feared,” he thus assured Dorgil. “‘Tis much better than the cart, in any case. I think I shall last quite a while this way. Do not worry about me, Dorgil.”

Dorgil nodded reluctantly. “That is easier said than done,” he muttered, but holding back his horse, with a nod and a somewhat doubtful, worried glance he let Faramir pass. Soon, Khorazîr returned to his side. “He is a good man,” he said appreciatively, “if a little too caring, at times. But you asked about the corsair. He goes by the not very imaginative name of Azrubâr. His true name I never learned. As far as I know, for he likes to surround himself with rumours and legends like most corsairs, he hails from a once wealthy family of silk-traders from Far Harad, from the land of the Mûmakil, where the people are black-skinned and black-eyed and fierce. His grandfather once dared to cheat Marek’s father over a shipment of silk, and paid a price more high than he ever thought possible. Only the boy survived the Umbarian’s revenge. I do not know the details, but somehow the lad ended up on a corsair-ship, swiftly rising in their esteem because he was completely fearless and a true menace in any fight. They specialised on raiding Al-Jahmîr’s ships, inviting their wrath but also gaining great riches and considerable fame for their recklessness. After the War, Azrubâr acquired his own ship. ‘Tis named ‘Balak anDolgu’ for its black sails and black hull. When I last met him, he boasted it was the swiftest ship in these reaches, including the fell green-sailed Narîka n’Azri of Al-Jahmîr or the deadly frigates of Gondor.”

“We shall put it to the test,” said Faramir, gazing ahead to where the colourful ribbons at the pass where rippling in the wind. “‘Tis fair wind for sailing north,” he then observed.

“Aye. But first we have to get downriver, and since Harnen is broad and sluggish here, and moreover has little water in summer, the journey is going to be toilsome. Let us hope Azrubâr has got some strong lads at the oars.”

+

Despite travelling at a moderate speed, due to the road-conditions and the fact they wanted to make the journey as easy as possible for Faramir, they reached the pass sooner than he had expected. Khorazîr halted the companies and dismounted to inform the borders of what had passed in the village. They looked rather stricken at the tidings of the Steward’s death, and promised to guard the pass even more vigilantly now.

Faramir remained mounted, at the rear of Khorazîr’s company, taking a drink from the waterskin hanging from his saddle and eating a few dried figs. His horse was one of the spare ones of Khorazîr’s men, a placid chestnut gelding, who now stood dozing in the sun, lazily swishing his tail at flies. Gazing to the South and shielding his eyes against the piercing sunlight – for by now the sun had climbed far above the mountains and was baking their rocky shoulders relentlessly –, Faramir could see the hills descending in long, sparsely wooded slopes towards the greener valley of Harnen. The air was hazy from the up-stirred dust and sand, so that the blue ridges beyond the vale could only dimly be descried. Up there somewhere Khiblat Pharazôn was situated, a proud castle on a rocky outcrop overlooking a steep but fertile valley, fed by two swift streams that met near Khorazîr’s home and travelled on to add their waters to those of Harnen. Once, gold had been found in these creeks, hence the name of the valley and the Haradan’s castle, but that was a long time ago, and now the inhabitants of the vale grew wine and olives and various fruit on the slopes, or sent pigs to pasture in the stone- and cork-oak groves, or sheep and goats into the thick, tangled bushlands beyond, where herbs and gorse and resinous evergreens grew in abundance.

Faramir looked long towards those distant hills. They had went for rides there, Éowyn and he, once even giving their omnipresent guards the slip and spending a wonderful hour simply in the other’s company until their protectors found them again. High up on a rocky shelf overlooking the valley with their horses resting in the shade of a large stone-oak, they had sat, first in conversation, then in comfortable silence with a large sun-warm stone in their backs, listening to the high chirping of the many insects round them and the lone cries of birds of prey circling in the thermal winds rising up before the hills. It had been an hour of utter peace and contentment, Faramir recalled wistfully, finally averting his eyes and closing them for a moment as they had begun to sting, but not from the sun and wind. Would he ever be allowed to share a like moment with her again?

He drew a deep breath and raising his eyes he now shifted his gaze to the south-west. His eyes narrowed with doubt and worry. There, far beyond those hills, lay Umbar. And there, somewhere, his beloved was being held. Was she still alive? Again all the nagging questions that had been pestering him ever since she had been snatched from his side came up, tearing at his heart. How could he even consider taking ship to Gondor, when he was needed here? When she was a captive in the South? How could he increase the distance between them, lengthening the way messages had to travel? His right hand clenched round the reins which rested on the gelding’s mane. He had to journey home, for the sake of his children. And somehow find a way to explain to them why their mami had not come with him. And then, then he had to leave them again. He closed his eyes and hung his head. He dreaded this parting already.

His mind was snatched back to the present when his gelding gave a snort and tugged at the rein. The company set in motion again, and Faramir had barely time to gather up the reins ere his steed began to follow the others. The descent was slow and cautious. Apparently the shirrikhan had brought some rain to this side of the hills, as the gullies on the road had deepened, causing Khorazîr to mutter about impending repair-works.

+

Around noon they had reached the first terraced fields and olive-groves, and soon after a cross-roads marked by a large white-washed stone carven with withered markings that may have been Cirth-runes, but were barely legible anymore. The Harad-Road went onwards in south-easterly direction, to cross Harnen about three leagues further down its course by an ancient, arched bridge of massive stone. Khorazîr’s men and the rangers were to follow it, while their lord and his greatly reduced retinue were to take the smaller track branching off to the south-west and making directly for the river.

Deciding to allow men and horses a short rest ere they parted company, the men dismounted and lounged in the shade of the gnarled trees whose silvery leaves rustled overhead. Faramir kept himself a little apart from the men, aware of the glances he received from his rangers who could not hide their concern for his wellfare, and the fact that soon they would not be able to look after their lord anymore. Once again, he realised how devoted they were to him, and once again, he was deeply touched by it. As he lowered himself onto the stump of a broken branch that protruded from one of the trees and made a fairly comfortable seat, he saw Mablung approach him. The captain looked troubled, as well as slightly embarrassed.

“Well, that is it, then,” he said quietly when he had reached Faramir. “I am not happy about this parting, as I am sure you have heard.”

“Indeed I have, but Mablung, there is no other way,” Faramir replied encouragingly. “And I shall return as soon as possible, with reinforcements, I hope. I need you down here, to uphold communication with our people in Umbar, and to generally look after things until I return. ‘Tis of utmost importance that you swiftly learn about Éowyn’s fate, so that you can convey the information to me.”

“We shall not disappoint you,” promised Mablung gravely. “You will be safe with Lord Khorazîr?”

“Do not worry about me. I shall be fine. Dorgil is going to look after me, and so are others. And if all goes well, in a few days we will have reached Minas Tirith.”

Mablung nodded slowly, then sighed. “I wish you a safe, speedy journey,” he said.

“To you as well. We shall meet again soon, at Khiblat Pharazôn or even in Umbar, or wherever the Snake hides at the moment.”

“We shall find out, I promise.”

“I know you will. Please convey my sincerest thanks to all the men for their excellent work, and their willingness to stay longer in the Harad than originally intended. I know this means quite a sacrifice for some of them.”

“Yet they take it gladly, if that way they can help you. Farewell, sir. May Ulmo and Ossë speed your journey.” Reaching for Faramir’s hand, he squeezed it briefly, then almost abruptly turned and marched off. Faramir gazed after him, knowing how difficult this parting was for the steadfast captain. No less difficult than for himself, he decided.

+

After about half an hour’s rest, the men mounted again, and after a few words of parting the companies split up. With Faramir and Khorazîr only Dorgil remained and two rangers, as well as eight of Khorazîr’s men, four of whom were about to accompany them on the ship, whereas the other four were to take the horses to Khiblat Pharazôn with them. The road they now followed was stony and narrow, descending in steep serpentines between the stone-walled fields and groves. Luckily the horses were used to such terrain, and were sure-footed and steady. Also, the riders took their time, leaving the steeds to pick their own speed. Eventually, the slope lessened, and the road got broader, with signs of more frequent use. As the afternoon advanced and the shadows lengthened between the trees and low walls, they came across farmers who tended their fields, plucking peaches and oranges and limes, and eyeing the small company curiously. They passed the outskirts of two small villages, smaller than Kadall. Those folks who saw them and recognised Khorazîr greeted him respectfully. After all, he was the lord of this realm, and an accepted ruler, too.

The further they came toward the river, the more tame and orderly the countryside looked. On the meadows cattle and horses were grazing, on others farmers were mowing hay or tending to cotton, melons and peppers on the fields. It seemed a fertile land, which Khorazîr confirmed when Faramir inquired about it.

“It would be even more prosperous if there was finally peace at the borders,” said the Haradan darkly. “Yet as long as the Snake and people of like mind are on the loose, there will be no end to raids and war.”

+

They interrupted their ride with another short break on the outskirts of a small settlement where an old woman and her grandchildren were guarding drying grapes from the birds. They had spread the fruits on large canvases in the courtyard of their house, and while the rest of the family was out on the fields or in the vineyards, they lounged in the shade of the doorway and the grandmother sent out the children whenever a thrush or crow should dare to attack the fruits. When the children heard the horsemen approach, they gladly left their task to check on the travellers, to then report to their grandmother. Soon, the old woman hobbled out on her stick to catch a glimpse of the riders herself. Khorazîr greeted her courteously, and she seemed pleased at being so recognised by the lord of the realm, showing them were they could water their horses. Faramir did not catch much of her exchange with the Haradan – she seemed to inquire about Dorgil who she recognised as a stranger –, since she spoke in the local dialect of which he had only acquired a little during his stay – it was an odd tongue, mixing an ancient form of Adûnaic, it seemed, with expressions from several Haradaic dialects, and also a great number of words Faramir did not recognise at all.

As they rode on, his curiosity stirred, Faramir began to question his friend about the history of the region and the strange tongue the woman had used. “‘Tis said this dialect has been in use in these regions even before the Númenoreans came out of the West and began to settle in Umbar,” explained the Haradan. “It acquired some words from the tarks, as well as some of their grammar, and others from the South and East, from the languages of the desert-tribes and even the wild folks of Khand. But the basic language is older even than the Adûnaic as it was spoken in the Second Age, ‘tis said. Only few people remember it now, and I speak barely enough to be able to communicate with these. The story-tellers and wandering bards mostly keep it alive, and it surely was never studied or written down.” He smiled fondly. “Little Hanneh seems to enjoy the sound of it, for her nurse often sings the old lays to her. You know how much she likes music. Perhaps one day she will learn to speak the tongue as well. ‘Tis comforting to know that these old traditions live on in the children.”

“Indeed,” agreed Faramir. “The boys are also growing up with several languages. Éowyn often speaks in her own tongue with them, especially with the twins, whereas I usually address them in Sindarin as this is commonly spoken at our home. And sometimes in Westron, as this is used ever more frequenly in Gondor nowadays than the Elventongue, with the increase of traffic and dealings with other peoples and folk from different realms.” He sighed softly as he thought of his sons. Who would talk Rohirric to them if Éowyn did not return, or sing the twin’s favourite lullaby?

“Ah, there ahead you can already see our destination, Huzîn Hazid. Another hour, and we will have reached it,” Khorazîr’s voice interrupted his contemplations. He gazed whither the Haradan was pointing: they had turned towards the west now, riding almost parallel to the river which was still about a league distant, but could already be descried glittering like a vein of molten silver. It was early evening now, and even though it was still hot, the sun was not burning as relentlessly as during the past hours. Ahead, casting a long bluish shadow toward them, rose the rocky mass of a singular hill. Apparently it was of a harder stone than the surrounding mountains, and the river had not been able to wash it away like every other obstacle in its course when long ago it had carved its broad vale. The hill was wooded, grown with hardy pines and oaks and cypresses, apart from its steepest sides where dark red rock showed. Near its foot where it reared up from the river, on a natural terrace raised some hundred feet above the plain, were the remains of a tower. Once, a village seemed to have nestled at its foot, but only ruins of it remained, surrounded by untended, now mostly barren fields fenced by crumbling walls.

“Huzîn Hazid, the ‘Seven Ears’?” translated Faramir with a curious glance at their destination. “‘Tis a strange name for a tower. Do you know why this place is called thus?”

Khorazîr smiled mysteriously. “According to old tales, the tower is the last standing remain of an old fortress. It must have been built by the Númenoreans when they first settled in the Bay of Umbar, and sent ships up the rivers to explore the countryside. The fortress marked their progress at one point. The area here was settled long before the tarks arrived, by nomadic tribes and small groups of hunters. They mostly fled from the tall, white-skinned men with their fell, piercing eyes and their deadly weapons. During the centuries that followed until the end of the Second Age, the tower was held by masters of both sides, that of Westernesse and of the Dark Lord. Not much is known about its fate until it was reclaimed and rebuilt by the Ship-kings of Gondor, and maintained as a Gondorian stronghold throughout the Kinstrife. When the power of the Kings waned, for some centuries it was in Umbarian hands to control traffic on the river. It fell into ruin and was rebuilt, repeatedly. At some point it was seized by emissaries from Mordor when the Dark Lord’s power grew, until finally it was deserted altogether. During my grandfather’s days, it was a much coveted refuge for outlaws, until he cleansed it. The village had been deserted long before that. Now my scouts and rangers use it from time to time, as it commands a good view onto the river. Perhaps one day I or Aravôr shall have it repaired, and made a proper watchtower. For now, it suffices the way it is. And as for its curious name, it hails back from the time of the Kinstrife, according to what I was told as a boy. Back during Telumehtar’s reign – I shall not use the name he so haughtily assumed, for nobody ever conquered cursed Umbar for good –” he stated, upon which Faramir smiled, “the fortress was again in Gondorian hands, for a while. The local population feared and hated the cruel usurpers from the North who controlled the lands with an iron fist. Thus, more or less openly, they supported the corsairs. One day, a group of outlaws managed to waylay and capture the commander of the Gondorian garrison. In the hope of a profitable ransom, they sent word to Umbar and the tark-governor. He sent ships and a small host in return. Some of the outlaws were killed in the hunt that ensued, and three men were rounded up and imprisoned in the tower, to await their execution – during their desperate flight from the Gondorian reinforcements, they had slain the commander. The governor himself journeyed up from Umbar to witness their deaths, which were to be especially cruel in order to cow the population and dissuade them from raising a hand against their oppressors ever again. Moreover, the slain commander had been the governor’s kinsmen, and he wanted to personally avenge his death. He arrived in splendour on his large ship, and in order to gain information about the leaders of the rebels who had not been caught, he had their captured companions nailed to the wooden gates of the tower by their ears. They were left standing in the merciless sun, without food or water. But they would not tell a word about their comrades and their refuges in the hills. So the governor left them to die, and perish they did. But when the tark-lord went aboard his ship again to return to Umbar, there came an arrow flying from up on the hill, and it hit him in the head. And do you know where the arrow struck him? Right through his ear. Hence, because seven ears were pierced, ever since the fortress and the tower were called Huzîn Hazid.”

Faramir had listened to the tale with fascination. “I seem to recall having read about this governor in our books of lore,” he mused. “Of course, the story is told slightly different in Gondor, but I do remember reading about a lord who was slain by Umbarian outlaws and was felled by an arrow through his ear. I never knew it happened here, in your realm.”

“We are a fell people,” remarked Khorazîr with a flashing smile and obvious pride. “My ancestors claim to be descendants of those very outlaws who dared defy mighty Gondor so many centuries ago.”

Faramir laughed softly. “What would they say to you now, if they saw you ride side by side with the enemy?”

Khorazîr waved a hand, laughing as well. “You are half Southron already, Dúnadan,” he stated. “You simply have not realised it yet. You speak our tongues with hardly any accent anymore, you ride our horses, you prefer the scimitar to the broadsword, and according to what my wife told yours at our wedding-feast – and I definitely shall have a word with her concerning that when next we meet –” he added with a mock serious expression, “she considers our garments to greatly enhance your looks, to which your lady agreed. Personally, I think ‘tis the way the veil hides most of your face,” he added with mischievous grin, upon which Faramir replied lightly, “Well, I do not have the advantage of a beard covering most of my face, I have to make do with a piece of cloth. And you should really have a word with Narejde, if she starts looking at other men on your wedding-day already.”

Khorazîr shrugged. “She may look at them as much as she likes, as long as it remains at looks only. But she has never given me reason for any jealousy, even before there was talk of weddings and the like.”

“Neither has Éowyn,” replied Faramir quietly, gazing at the sunlight playing on the river. And yet, right now he felt quite a powerful twinge of just that. Al-Jahmîr, the man he loathed and hated like he had never imagined to be able to hate someone, was in a position now to enjoy his beloved wife’s wit and beauty. It would not be given willingly, he was sure of that, too. But what solace was that? It might be surrendered due to force, or cunning. Al-Jahmîr was capable to using both on his prisoner to gain his desires. Never before had Faramir had any reason to imagine his Éowyn in another man’s arms and feel jealous or worse about it. And now this gruelling image became all too clear.

He was grateful when approaching hoof-beat announced an interruption of their conversation, and his dark contemplations.

“Lord Khorazîr,” one of the Haradan’s men who together with a companion had ridden ahead to scout the area now addressed his lord, “we have advanced as far as the old village, and all seems clear. Mezlâr has climbed up to the tower, to look out for the ship. The path is in a bad condition, but we should be able to bring the horses up.”

Khorazîr nodded, signing to the man to rejoin his companion. When the scout was riding off again, he turned to Faramir. “Let us hope Captain Azrubâr is punctual. You never know with those corsairs.”

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PostPosted: Tue 19 Dec , 2006 3:42 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Éowyn slept fitfully that night, her dreams vivid and unwelcome. One moment she was standing in the stable, saddling her horse, and the next she was walking in the garden with Al-Jahmîr and Radishah on his arm, the both of them saying they could all be great friends if Éowyn would only give up her stubborn pride. Then she and Al-Jahmîr were having lunch together out on some terrace with the sun shining brightly, and he was telling her of all the silks and jewels he would gladly give her if she only swore that she was through with her ridiculous fascination with tarks and loved him alone. Then she dreamed she was standing on the bow of a ship, watching the vessel cut through the waves. She did not know where the ship was headed or even whose it was. All she knew was that she did not belong there. The cycle of dreams repeated throughout the night, until finally she woke and reached for the basin on the nightstand when the ship-dream became too much for her stomach to handle.

+++

“Saredeen tells me you didn’t sleep well last night,” Miliani commented later that morning as she brushed out Éowyn’s hair.

Éowyn shook her head slightly, glancing at her reflection in the mirror. She did not look well either, pale, with hints of dark circles under her eyes. Even the festive green dress (she had exhausted her supply of black dresses) she wore did not distract from her sickly features. She had eaten little at breakfast this morning as her stomach was still protesting the thought of ships and rolling decks.

“I have nightmares when I sleep and nightmares when I wake,” Éowyn said quietly, tracing the lines on one of her palms with a finger. “I cannot escape them.”

“Did you eat something again that didn’t agree with you again?” the girl asked. Then she added hesitantly, “Or is it something else?”

Éowyn snorted. “I am sure that the company I am forced to keep plays some part in it.” She did not see the girl turn her face away to hide her sudden downcast expression. “Your master insists on lunching with me when he knows full well that I would rather see him dead. Then, he shows me off to his friends and kin, and they smile and congratulate him on his marvelous triumph as though he had actually earned their praise. Once he dismisses me, I have to endure the teasing and chattering of mindless girls who could spend all their days preening in front of some mirror or another.” She sighed, tired by her outburst. “It is a tedious life,” she said after awhile, “one that I refuse to live.”

Miliani continued to run the brush through her hair, stopping occasionally to untangle the strands lest they break. “You don’t have to like this life to live it,” she said quietly. “What good is it to make things harder on yourself than they need to be? You’ll only make yourself feel worse, and that’s not good for you or the baby.”

Éowyn bit her lip. The girl’s words made sense in themselves, giving in somewhat to the pressures around her would ease some of the stresses, but to her, that seemed too much like admitting defeat. She knew Al-Jahmîr would be delighted to find her a meek prisoner, malleable to his will, but she could not, would not, let that happen. If she gave up now, what hope would she have? She would never return to her sons, and they would grow up with her and their father as only snatches of memories, too faint to be fully grasped. She pressed a hand to her stomach. What would this child’s life be like if she remained here? Could she hope to have the child know her as its mother, even? After all, Narejde had had her child taken from her moments after he was born, and she had been less valuable a prize.

“I will not live this life until I am certain that I cannot live another,” she said finally. “When I see that there is no hope for rescue or release, then I will let myself be dressed in the finest silks and be led like a child through the streets.”

Miliani sighed and began braiding her hair. “For your sake, I hope that is soon.”

+++

Toward noon, Éowyn waited in her sitting room for the inevitable summons to join her captor for their daily meal. She wondered if they would be alone again or if he had invited more of his friends to come witness her beauty and charm. She twisted the end of her braid around her finger repeatedly. How wonderful would it be some day to have the situation reversed, and she was hosting him in chains in Ithilien and parading him in front of the rangers as a captured prize? Such an opportunity was too much to ask, and really, she would not wish the snake any closer to her home and family than he had already come. As she glanced out the windows toward the sea, sparkling under the sunlight and clear skies, she realized that the messenger was late in delivering his usual tidings. Had Al-Jahmîr forgotten about her so soon? Or did he think he had trained her well enough that he felt she did not need a very early invitation? She almost said no to this possibility too, when she realized that she was indeed already dressed and waiting on his call. The thought infuriated her. You really are giving into his demands already, she scolded herself. What will you find yourself doing next? Making him tea and simpering about how lovely the weather is today?
She would have continued her self-chastising further had a knock not sounded at the door. Miliani opened it and delivered the messenger’s pair of envelopes to her lady. Éowyn’s eyes narrowed as she took the topmost envelope, then widened as she read its contents. It was the best news she had received all week. In green ink on gray paper was written,

Éowyn,

I regret that I must postpone today’s lunch until a later time.
As much as I delight in your company, the situation in Umbar
needs my attention as well. I hope to return soon, perhaps
within a week. Please do not worry much over me, as I
doubt the situation will get entirely out of control. Do take
this time to explore the castle and even come up with some
new topic for conversation when I return.

Marek Al-Jahmîr


Éowyn laughed aloud and re-read the note, just to make sure she had not misunderstood it. So, she did not have to dine with him today, or tomorrow, or even the day after that? Hurrah for riots in Umbar! she thought. She leaned back in her chair and laughed again. The news certainly did not equal complete freedom, but it was a sort of release.

“I do not have to see his smug, arrogant face for a week,” she said to Miliani, “an entire week! Perhaps my ‘new topic for conversation’ can be how lovely it was to have him away. Maybe I should even suggest he leave more often.” She shook her head and slipped the note back into its envelope, still chuckling. “I even have his permission to explore the castle again, though I am sure he will see to it that I have a guard at my side and another lurking in the shadows. He must think he is quite generous.”

The second envelope contained sand-colored paper, blue ink carrying its message. Unlike the first, she did not immediately recognize the delicate handwriting.

Lady Éowyn,

It would be my honor if you dined with me this
afternoon. Before my husband left for Umbar, he
suggested that we take a lunch or two together while
he was away. It would be wonderful to talk to
someone new for once. Please consider my offer. I
await your response.

Inzilbêth


Éowyn mouthed the other woman’s name, trying to remember why it seemed familiar. When she asked Miliani, the girl said, “Oh, she’s Lord Adûnakhôr’s wife.”

“What is she like?” Éowyn asked, remembering bits of conversation from yesterday.

Miliani shrugged. “I haven’t met her, really.”

Éowyn studied the note, trying to discern the writer’s personality from her handwriting. She did not want to walk into the dining room and find herself face to face with another Al-Jahmîr. The note’s tone did not seem as abrasive and proud as the first, though there was a bit of spirit there. Like she said, this is someone new to talk to, she thought as Miliani brought her supplies to write a response.

+++

Less than an hour later, Éowyn found herself in a part of the castle she had, surprisingly, never been in before. It looked much the same as the rest of the castle, though occasionally a strand of glazed clay bells hung from the arched doorways, tinkling merrily if someone’s arm brushed against them. Here and there caged birds in multitudes of colors chirped contentedly or preened themselves, taking no notice of the passing people. Éowyn noticed that there were fewer solid doors in this area. In their place, sometimes a doorway would be closed off with a curtain or strands of beads, allowing the warm breeze to flow where it wished.

She heard laughter well before she saw any people. Her escort stopped in front of a beaded doorway and rapped his spear against the wall. A moment later a serving girl appeared to welcome Éowyn and Miliani into the room. Éowyn first noticed the vast number of pillows and cushions in the room, then the various girls in the room, some carrying trays of food or drink, others with bolts of cloth and other household items.

Then she saw the very pregnant woman, who could hardly be anyone other than Inzilbêth, sitting at the table with her feet propped up on a footstool. Éowyn immediately pitied the woman, recalling how Adûnakhôr had said they had only just arrived from Umbar. She was not sure how far the city was from this place, but she guessed that any sort of traveling as far along as this woman was could not be pleasant. Inzilbêth’s hair fell in dark curls past her shoulders, complementing her rich brown skin. Perhaps because she was sitting, and had a very swollen belly, she did not look to be very tall. She laughed as one of her maids whispered something in her ear. Then she saw Éowyn step into view.

“You must be Lady Éowyn,” she said, pushing back a few loose curls that had fallen in her face. “Please forgive me for not rising to greet you, but I’ve only now found a somewhat comfortable seat, and I’d rather not take the next hour to find it again.”

Éowyn found herself smiling and nodding in agreement. “I understand what you mean,” she said, still studying the young woman. She could not have come of age more than a handful of years ago, and it looked as though her child was ready to come at any time. “Thank you for your invitation,” she continued, taking a seat across the table. “It is a nice change from dining with men constantly.”

“I hoped it would be,” the other replied. “It was convenient that they decided to leave us alone for a few days. I don’t know what I would have done if Adûnakhôr had remained around, worrying over me like he does.” One of her maids poured a glass of water, and she drank from it gratefully. The maid did the same for Éowyn.

Éowyn noticed that the activity in the room had quieted since she had sat down. A few girls still remained, but they were quickly finishing their tasks and slipping out. “He seemed to be amiable when I met him yesterday,” she said.

“He is a good man,” Inzilbêth said, “though a rather nervous father. I so much as flinch because the baby kicks too hard and he’s ready to send for the midwife.”

Éowyn hid her smile behind her glass as she sipped. She had not expected that out of the confident Umbarian. More surprising, she found herself at ease around Inzilbêth, despite having just met her. “When are you due?” she asked.

The other sighed and ran a hand across her belly. “Two weeks, maybe sooner, though not soon enough. I feel as big as a cow, and I haven’t seen my feet in weeks.” She dipped a piece of bread in a thick, creamy soup. “My husband says are you expecting a child as well.”

Éowyn nodded. “Though I still have many months to go. I learned only a few days ago that I was expecting at all.”

“I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for you here, a new widow, and the rest of your family so far away.” Her words startled Éowyn, who gave her a questioning look. “Adûn told me some things,” Inzilbêth continued quietly, “about how you were captured, and your husband killed. I’m sorry for your loss.”

Éowyn dropped her gaze and pressed her lips together, feeling a tight lump form in her throat as tears stung her eyes. “I can’t believe he’s gone,” she managed to say before her voice choked. “We quarreled that morning and had not made amends when the attack happened. I’ll never forgive myself because most of my last words to him were in anger or spite.” Her voice broke again, and she wiped her eyes with her napkin. I would give so much to have him back, if only for a few moments, to tell him how I really felt. She drew several more ragged breaths before she could calm herself again, though she dare not speak lest she lose what she had just gained. The sympathy in Inzilbêth’s eyes was almost enough to make her lose control again. She took a pear half and began eating, hoping to distract herself somewhat.

“I too have lost a man dear to me,” Inzilbêth said very quietly after several moments, her voice strained as well. “Even though he lives for awhile yet, I must consider him dead, for he’s a traitor to this family and will be killed eventually.”

I do not want to solve word puzzles, Éowyn thought for a moment, still trying to blink back the last remaining tears. However, the realization quickly caught her. “Azrahil?” she mouthed.

Inzilbêth nodded slightly. “We were sweethearts, and he did his best to prove to my father that he was a worthy man. But my father refused to have me wed the son of a common slave girl and the lesser half-brother of one of the great lords.” She sighed and shook her head. “I was furious with my father. He’s not so great as he likes to think he is, as being a pottery merchant does not bring much prestige. He’s ambitious, though, and sent a letter to Marek suggesting a marriage with one of his sons. I didn’t think the match would work, but…” Her voice trailed off as she glanced down to where her child rested. “We were wed in spring last year, and by late autumn I found I was with child.”

“Do you still love him?”

Inzilbêth chuckled once and absently ran a hand through her curls. “What can I do about it if I do? I’m long since wed, and his death will come soon. You’ve learned that there’s little joy in loving a memory.” Her eyes reflected her hurt despite her strong words. She bit her lip. “Yes, I still love him, in a way,” she softly said after a long pause, “but not as I once did.”

Éowyn listened to her words carefully, then asked, “Do you love your husband, then?”

The other flushed slightly and ducked her head. She raised it after a moment, saying, “When I learned who I was to marry, I swore that I would never be able to love him. Since then… I don’t know if what I feel can be called love, but I must call it something.” She ate a little more soup before continuing. “Adûn is gentle with me,” she said, her face softening. “He made sure I was as comfortable as I could be on the journey here, and made the carriage stop whenever I couldn’t handle the jolts anymore. He worries about protecting me, especially with Umbar in an uproar. I’ve discovered that even if he sometimes is as unmovable as these cliffs, he’s still a good man. Perhaps he’s not the one I day-dreamed about being wife to, but he is real and with me, and I would not change that.” She finished her soup and cleaned out the inside of the bowl with another piece of bread.

Éowyn thought about her words as she ate her own soup. What would she say if she knew that a little more than a week ago Éowyn had seen Azrahil the (relatively) happy stepson of one of her husband’s enemies? What would he say if he ever learned that she had dined with his former sweetheart? She remembered the scant few conversations she had had with him when this subject came up. He had always been reluctant to talk about it, for good reason, and she had not pressed him for so much as a name. She wondered if he knew Inzilbêth was married and about to bear his cousin’s child. If he did, perhaps he had resigned himself to the inevitable

“Well,” Inzilbêth said hesitantly after several silent minutes, “that really chilled the mood. Let’s say we talk about something lighter?” Éowyn agreed, and soon found herself being peppered with questions about childbirth and raising, and even laughing at some of the misconceptions that the young woman had. After the dishes were cleared, the women continued talking well into the afternoon. When Éowyn left, it was with a promise to return the next day to continue their conversation.

As she walked back to her chambers, she felt relief, knowing that finally there was someone she could talk to without fear of being mercilessly teased or insulted. However, this knowledge did not quite top that of knowing she would not have to see Marek Al-Jahmîr for at least a week. That was truly priceless.

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Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

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PostPosted: Tue 19 Dec , 2006 7:13 pm 
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Soon, the riders reached the first stonewalls. They showed great gaps where apparently stones had been quarried and used for buildings elsewhere. The rest was overgrown by terebinth, junipers and gorse, and a great variety of shrubs, many of which were in flower. Butterflies and many beetles were busy among them, and here and there a snake or lizard peered out from between the sun-warm stones under their blanket of stonecrop. The road they had been following had over the past mile deteriorated into a narrow track. The horses had to pick a path between bushes and the tall, thorny shrubs that grew in the middle of it, and the ground was stony and uneven. Only in places the trail was wide enough for two horses to walk abreast.

What remained of the village itself was mostly crumbling walls, either. Few still reared up high enough to indicate where once windows had been, or doorways. Piles of rubble and broken roof-tiles had long ago been reclaimed by vegetation. Here and there grew ancient olive-, orange- and fig-trees, last remainders of long-vanished gardens between the houses. The only piece of masonry still fairly intact was a quay at the river’s edge, where obviously long ago ships had anchored to exchange goods and passengers. The river was narrower here as it passed the steep rocky sides of the hill. There seemed to be a similar hard kind of rock on the other side, creating a narrow channel through which Harnen poured its brown waters with increased force. There was a strong current which obviously had helped to wash out a natural bay where the lowlands met the lone hill. By good planning and skilled hands it had been fashioned into a small harbour. Apparently the captain of their transport knew the area well, Faramir thought, to have suggested this place as their rendezvous.

From the small harbour a steep path wound up toward the old tower. It was indeed difficult to climb for the horses. Tree-roots had cracked the ancient steps and scattered the paving-stones of what once must have been a fairly comfortable road. Now the path was often overgrown or partly covered in fallen debris from the hillsides. But at least there was some shade, and the strong resinous smell of the pines and cypresses, together with the sweeter one of various herbs and shrubs in the underbrush was invigorating, and caused Faramir to straighten a little in the saddle. During the past two hours, even though he had kept silent about it so as not to impair their progress by another halt, he had grown increasingly weary. Also, the pain in his shoulder and especially his chest had doubled. He was glad the ride was almost over, since especially this last climb and the horse’s more forceful movements were tearing at his reserves of strength and endurance.

The trees gave way, and the tower came into view. It was still in fairly good shape, despite most of his battlements having crumbled away over the years. Of the fortress which once had surrounded it now only low walls and one ornate archway remained. Obviously some parts had been claimed by a hill-slide not long ago, and vanished into the river which wound underneath.

“The cellars and dungeons are still fairly intact,” explained Khorazîr who had been riding behind Faramir, spurring Narâk into a short trot to cover the last yards of ascent and draw level with the Dúnadan. “But we will stay out in the open. Soon this courtyard will be cast into shadow by the hill, so we should enjoy the warmth of the sun as long as we may. You must be exhausted. And hungry. I shall have the men prepare some supper. Ah, Mezlâr,” he then addressed the weather-beaten, brown-faced scout as he climbed down the withered staircase that led up from the courtyard to the watchtower, “have you spotted our transport yet?”

The addressed nodded, giving Faramir a quick, sharp glance from dark, deep-set eyes, but then turning to face his lord. “Aye, I have seen it. By my reckoning, they are going to need another two hours before they reach us. The shirrikan has caused Harnen’s waters to swell, and with this wind, the going is slow upriver.”

“Well,” said Khorazîr as he dismounted and then walked over to Faramir’s steed to hold it by the bridle so that the Gondorian could dismount as well, “this suits us quite well, actually. We can rest and have some food.”

Faramir only nodded wearily. After he had dismounted with Khorazîr’s help, he carefully stretched his arms, shoulders and back, before fetching the waterskin and slowly walking over to what looked like the remains of another doorway and gingerly lowering himself onto the pile of rubble, startling two lizards that swiftly sought cover between the stones. He was tempted to withdraw the veil and splash some of the water into his face to revive him, but decided against it. Resting his head and back against the warm stones, he closed his eyes.

Having retrieved some food from the saddle-bags, Khorazîr went over to him. “You need not trouble with the veil here,” the Haradan said, setting down the bags on the stones. “The men all know who you really are. They are the ones I trust most, and you can trust them, too.”

“Mezlâr just gave me quite a sharp glance,” muttered Faramir, not bothering with opening his eyes. The warm rock in his back was comfortable, and he felt sleep beckoning to him persuasively. “Perhaps he does not trust me.”

Khorazîr laughed softly, rummaging in the bags and unwrapping something, by the sound of it. “Mezlâr took a long time to understand that the tarks can be friends as well. He is my sister’s husband’s cousin, and fought bravely in the War. For him most tarks are still brigands and usurpers, present company excluded. I thought it might do him good to visit Gondor again now, on a friendly mission.”

Faramir raised his head and gazed at Khorazîr with some bewilderment. “He is going to accompany us on the ship? Do you not suppose another of your men would be better suited, if he is so prejudiced against my people?”

Khorazîr grinned and shook his head. “Mezlâr, show our Gondorian friend why you are the perfect choice as a companion.”

The addressed flashed a fierce smile, there was a rustle of cloth, and something flew towards Khorazîr and the loaf of bread he held up. A heartbeat later, two slender, slightly curved daggers buried themselves in the crumbling masonry some yards behind the Haradan, whereas the top and middle part of the bread slowly slid apart and fell into his outstretched hand. There was a murmur of respect from those men who had managed to watch the spectacle.

“He could have missed,” said Faramir, quite impressed by the performance, and the cold-bloodedness and utter trust Khorazîr had displayed while assisting his companion.

“I never miss,” returned Mezlâr proudly, but what from another man would have sounded like a boast was a simple statement of fact from him. Khorazîr’s guards who by now had gathered round nodded in agreement, one of them clapping Mezlâr’s shoulder appreciatively. Apparently he had some reputation for his skill.

Faramir returned his glance steadily. “In that case, I am glad to have you accompany us on the journey,” he said earnestly. “As long as you do not use your daggers on my fellow countrymen.”

Now Mezlâr grinned. “As long as they do not give me reason. But never fear, my knives are not for the tarks. They are for the vermin of Umbar.” He went to retrieve his daggers and slipped them back into his garments, then giving Khorazîr a short salute, he went to sit with the rest of the Haradrim who were gathering round in a circle and began to unpack their provisions. Faramir noted that his two guards had joined them, their company obviously welcome. Only Dorgil had come over to Faramir and Khorazîr.

Khorazîr sent a brief glance after Mezlâr, handing one piece of the bread to Faramir and one to the healer. “He has got a blood-feud with one of Al-Jahmîr’s captains who captured his daughter and sold her as a slave,” he said quietly. “That man will wish he had never done so, or indeed that he had never been born, when Mezlâr finds him.”

“When did that happen?” asked Faramir as quietly.

“About half a year ago. He is burning with hatred, but keeps quite a cool head at the same time. That is why I decided to take him with me. Several of my men have feuds with the Umbarians. Some inherited theirs, others have been wronged personally. They have been waiting for an opportunity to get back at their enemies. And now it has presented itself.”

Dorgil shook his head. “It strikes me how the Snake is still able to walk freely, when he has accumulated so many enemies, even on his own side.”

“He is still master of many resources, and has too many allies despite his malice,” replied Khorazîr. “Nevertheless, I firmly believe that this time he has overestimated his power and that of his friends. This time, he is going to fall right through the floor, and we are going to put a slab over the hole so that he cannot slither out from it again.”

“We should pour some poison down that hole, too,” said Dorgil with uncharacteristic vengefulness. Both Faramir and Khorazîr gazed at him surprisedly, upon which the healer shrugged. “What? I have had enough of stitching or bandaging up men, or worse, have them die under my hands, because some bloody Umbarian thinks he can stick them full of spear and arrows, or slash them with scimitars, or poison them. Look at him,” he pointed at Faramir who had finally got rid of the veil in order to cool his skin and take a bite from his bread and a sip from the water-skin. “Even though he is back on his feet again, in less time than we all anticipated, you can still tell by his looks how he suffered these past days – and last year, from that horrible venom. I was truly shocked when I saw him again then, a mere shadow of his former self. I will not have anybody do that to my lord – or my lady, for who knows what she is suffering now at the hands of this criminal – without avenging it.” Catching Faramir’s expression at mentioning Éowyn, he faltered slightly. His face flushed. “Sorry, captain,” he muttered. “I did not mean –”

“‘Tis alright, Dorgil,” said Faramir quietly. “You just speak plainly of what we all are afraid of putting into words, or even contemplate. When I imagine what might befall her there, I am all in favour of pouring poison on the Snake, after dropping a heavy stone on him, believe me.”

“Here, have some meat and fruit,” said Khorazîr, dealing out strips of cured meat and dried figs and dates from his bags. “You will get your opportunity to pay him back for what he has done to you and your beloved, Dúnadan, I am certain of it. I only hope you will spare a little of him so that I can add some of my own revenge as well.”

“I will see what I can do,” Faramir promised. For a while they ate in silence, Faramir only now realising how hungry he had been, and for the moment even forgetting his weariness. Khorazîr’s men and the two rangers were involved in a lively debate, now in Adûnaic, now in Westron, about the different countries of their home, their customs and traditions, and, inevitably, about the War. Both lords had a watchful eye on the proceedings, but there seemed no danger of the debate turning into an angry, heated argument. The men were teasing each other, playing with the common prejudices against the respective strangers still very much alive on both sides, but neither seemed to consider them insults, but took them for what they were. In fact, they looked quite relaxed and well-pleased, and seemed to enjoy their little banter.

“I wonder if the messengers have reached Gondor by now,” Dorgil mused as he sent his gaze out westward over the river, interrupting their silent listening.

“I doubt it,” said Faramir, “unless they found a ship to shorten the ride. Otherwise we are likely to arrive in the City around the same time as they do – if all goes well on the way thither, and Azrubâr’s ship is indeed as swift as he claims it is. Is he really trustworthy?” he inquired of Khorazîr, who shrugged and grinned.

“He is a corsair, so of course he is not. But he can be trusted to hate Al-Jahmîr, and to embrace a good opportunity to get back at him when it presents itself to him. He does not love the tarks, and under different circumstances I am sure he would try and ransom the Steward of Gondor if he strayed upon his ship. But he owes me a big favour, and as far as this counts with corsairs, he is an honourable man. We shall have a safe passage, as far as he and his men are concerned.”

+

Nevertheless, the longer they waited for the ship to arrive, constantly informed about its progress upriver by the outlook atop the tower, the more restless the men grew, uneasy, even. Having supped, Faramir had his wounds examined again by Dorgil, then, despite a slight anxiety having taken hold of him as well, his exhaustion got the better of him and he dozed off on his sun-warm seat. He woke, somewhat startled, when a hand shook his shoulder gently. The sun had vanished behind the mass of the hill and the courtyard was cast into shadow. Most of the men were already mounted again, awaiting their departure. The horses were restless, pricking their ears and pawing the stony ground nervously.

“The ship has arrived, captain,” Dorgil informed Faramir. “They are making fast in the harbour. Lord Khorazîr and the knife-artist –”

“Mezlâr,” muttered Faramir, his mind still a little befuddled from his nap but quickly clearing up now as he got to his feet. He placed his arm in the sling again and hid it underneath the burnous, and drawing the veil over his features walked over to his horse.

“Mezlâr, right. They went down to check if the ship is really the one we are waiting for. We cannot be too careful in these troubled times.”

+

They did not have to wait for long. Soon Khorazîr and his kinsman returned, accompanied by a short, wiry man whose bare, brown arms were covered with tattoos of stylised birds up to his shoulders. He was clad in plain garments of sun-bleached black cotton and wore no armour, but was quite heavily equipped with weapons nonetheless. The black, tasselled sash he wore round his waist was stuffed with an assortment of knives and daggers, and there was a broad-bladed scimitar hanging from the leather belt he had fastened above the sash. Golden rings glinted at his fingers and in his ears. His black hair he had tied up in a tight bun, into which he had stuck several black feathers at odd angles. His features were lined because of their constant exposure to wind and sun, but he seemed a young man still, not yet thirty, Faramir reckoned. His face was beardless and lean, with keen, dark, birdlike eyes and a nose like a beak.

“This is Khômiyi, Azrubâr’s second-in-command,” Khorazîr introduced him. Faramir saw the soldiers and his rangers exchange glances. The name stuck, for the man looked like a crow indeed. “If you are ready, we should leave.”

Khômiyi studied the assembled horsemen with a keen, searching glance, which lingered on Dorgil and the two rangers, who despite their Haradaic garments were recognisable as strangers by the swords they wore at their sides, and the longbows albeit wrapped which were fastened to their saddles. The gaze passed Faramir, and he took this as proof for the quality of his disguise. “Aye, we should leave,” the corsair then said curtly, in a hoarse voice like the call of a crow. With that, he turned and strode down the path, moving with great agility over the uneven ground. The horsemen followed in single file.

Despite the rest and his short sleep, Faramir felt the journey begin to tell on him, more so with every step of his horse. The steeper the path wound down between the trees, and the more the gelding had to maneuvre over tree-roots and loose stones, the more jolts and jumbles his rider had to endure. Both his chest and shoulder hurt increasingly, and when finally the descent lessened and the ground grew more level, Faramir let out a small sigh of relief, and released his grip on the saddle’s pommel which he had grabbed in order to steady himself in the saddle.

Soon between the trees the tall masts and black sails of a sleek, two-masted ship could be descried. She lay in the harbour moored to the quay. By some feat of seamanship, the sailors had managed to turn her in the current and bring her in with her prow facing downriver already, ready for the setting out. When the vessel was fully visible, Faramir could not help smiling wryly behind his veil. Despite her unusual colour – for she was indeed all black, from the scrubbed hull above the waterline to the smallest of her sails, and even the black banner rippling from her topmast –, and the fact that over the years she had undergone a number of modifications of hull and rigging, such as the inclusion of a line of stout oars to both lar- and starboard to increase her maneuvrability in rivers and during calms, her basic shape with the sharp keel and the proud bow-sprite looked rather familiar to him. He was no expert on ships and their various types, but he recognised a Gondorian frigate when he saw one.

“She does look fast,” remarked Dorgil who had ridden up to him. “I did not know they build ships of this kind down in Umbar.”

Faramir laughed softly. “They do not, although – unfortunately, I should add – they do construct excellent warships to trouble our fleet. But this vessel is one of ours. Built in Pelargir, most like. I should really like to know how she fell into the hands of this corsair.”

“Taken as a prize during some battle, perhaps?” mused Dorgil with a shrug, rising in the saddle to catch a glimpse of the sailors watching them intently from up in the rigging or their places at the railing. They were an assortment of wild and quite dangerous looking creatures. Most hailed from various regions of the Harad, the colour of their skin varying from light-brown to deepest black. But there were also two fair heads amongst them, betraying a northern ancestry. They studied the small company with interest, especially Khorazîr of whom apparently they had heard before, and who they regarded with respect.

“Possible,” replied Faramir thoughtfully to Dorgil’s assumption, his eyes also on the motley crew now. Or sold to increase someone’s wealth, he added in thought, noting to himself to have a word with the Lord of Pelargir about this matter the next time Falastur should attempt to deliberately throw stones into his path or simply annoy him.

Khômiyi had gone ahead and was now standing with a small group of three men that was awaiting them on the quay. Two looked like guards: tall men with dark skin and black, curly hair, they wore light leather armour over their garments, and were armed with short hunting-bows and quivers of arrows, as well as scimitars and long daggers. The third was an even more imposing figure. Almost as tall as Faramir and thus towering over everybody else aboard his ship, but much broader in built, he was daring enough – even reckless, Faramir thought, for how would he manage to swim in this array if he went overboard – to wear a coat of brightly burnished fishmail armour over light-brown garments that contrasted with his dark, almost black skin. Although the fishmail and the short hauberk he wore underneath must have been heavy, not to mention warm as they required a padded jerkin underneath to be effective, he bore them with ease. Apparently he was as strong as his built indicated. His long curly hair he had divided up into thick strands, many of which were braided with gold. Gold also shone on his neck and his ears, and his leather vambraces were decorated with small brass plates. He was armed with an ornate scimitar which drew an admiring gaze from Khorazîr. Apparently Captain Azrubâr and his crew were doing well in their chosen profession.

His face was open and jovial. He seemed to laugh a lot, by the wrinkles round his mouth and eyes. He, too, was rather young, in his mid-thirties, perhaps, although his hard life had left traces on his features. Khômiyi had obviously just told his captain about the various members of the company, for Azrubâr scanned them all with a long glance, which alighted on Khorazîr. His face split into a broad grin. “Where have you left your wife, Khorazîr?” he greeted the other in a booming voice while walking out to the horsemen. He spoke with a strange, rolling accent Faramir had never heard before. “Has she given you the slip already? Ran off with a younger man, eh?”

Faramir saw how Khorazîr’s guards visibly bristled at the disrespectful greeting of their lord – Mezlâr even discreetly reaching for one of his daggers, muttering a not very favourable description of the corsair under his breath –, but Khorazîr seemed completely untroubled by the teasing comment. He only shrugged and grinned as well. “So she has indeed,” he replied as he dismounted and handed Narâk’s reins to one of his men. “With her son.”

Azrubâr laughed out loud and stepped forward to clap Khorazîr’s shoulder amicably. “It’s good to see the Umbarians have not done you in, as rumour has it,” he remarked.

“Rumour has it they sunk your ship several times,” returned Khorazîr.

Azrubâr’s mirth wavered for an instant. “By Ngulu, they tried,” he said darkly. “But as you see, without success,” he then added, cheerful once more, and with no little pride and swagger. “I’ll tell you all about our special little friends and their recent antics. Umbar is in uproar, like a swarm of little fish when a shark draws near. But not here and now. We must be off. Are all of your lads going to come along?”

Khorazîr shook his head. Those ready to take ship had dismounted as well, and while those about to ride to Khiblat Pharazôn gathered the reins of the various horses to themselves and made ready to ride off, two of Khorazîr’s guards and Dorgil and another ranger went about and collected the saddle-bags and other luggage that was to journey on to Gondor. That done, with wishes of speed and good guidance, Khorazîr saw the men with their small herd of horses off. “Just us,” he said, indicating the remaining men: Faramir, Dorgil and the two rangers, and Mezlâr and three of his men, and himself.

“Come aboard, then,” said Azrubâr with a sweeping, inviting gesture, before turning and walking towards where a plank had been lowered to the quay. “I hope your tark-friends there can swim,” he added, with a rather mischievous glance at Dorgil and the two rangers. “Usually, I don’t permit them to set foot on my ship, you see. Not for long, that is. The last ones who ended up as our ... guests chose to swim home on their own account. By now I’m sure they have reached Gondor.”

Those of his crew who had overheard his remark laughed out loud. Their captain apparently notorious for his pranks and chestful remarks, he leapt up the plank more lightly than Faramir would have thought possible in his heavy armour, and gave his crew a mock bow when he had reached the deck upon which they applauded. The others climbed the swaying plank more warily, especially Faramir, who was quite glad about Dorgil’s steadying arm in his weary state. Khômiyi and the two black-skinned guards brought up the rear, then the plank was retrieved, and quickly and far more orderly than Faramir had anticipated from this ramshackle crew, the anchor was hoisted, and with sails unfolding, the ship was turned into the current.

Azrubâr turned to Khorazîr and his companions. “Welcome aboard the Balak anDolgu, the Ship of Darkness,” he said with obvious pride, spreading out his arms as if to embrace them. “We won’t harm your tarks, my friend – unless they give us reason, of course –, for as long as you are on my ship, your friends shall be my friends.” His eyes narrowed, and he added in a far more serious, almost dangerous tone, “And your enemies my enemies.”

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PostPosted: Thu 28 Dec , 2006 5:37 pm 
A maiden young and sad
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The next three days passed with relative happiness for Éowyn. Though Al-Jahmîr was away in Umbar, he managed to leave reminders that he was still in charge. They first morning of his absence, the tailor visited Éowyn in her apartments, bringing with him bolts of cloth in various colors and textures and dress patterns for every occasion. The tailor was a tall, thin man with a rather pointed nose and eyes that darted everywhere when he was not focused on his trade. He blinked rapidly as he spoke, apologizing profusely that he had gotten the measurements wrong on her current wardrobe. He promised that her new wardrobe would take into consideration the needs of a lady with child. When Éowyn asked him whether he could also make some garments appropriate for a widow, he almost choked on his own breath as he shifted from one foot to another.

“I-- I’m afraid not, my lady,” he stuttered. “Lord Al-Jahmîr asked specifically to stay away from a darker color palette and use the brighter colors of summer.”

Éowyn sighed and let the man babble on about the hues that would contrast nicely with her skin or the tones that would brighten her eyes. She wondered how Al-Jahmîr could put up with such a nervous fellow, but when his demeanor changed entirely as he began taking measurements and calling out numbers to his assistant with confidence and authority, her thoughts of him changed.

That day, and the two following, Éowyn again had lunch with Inzilbêth and stayed with her the rest of the afternoon and often well into the evening. They spoke of many things, from summer customs to family life to entertaining memories. Politics they generally stayed away from, “On principle,” according to Inzilbêth, though occasionally their conversation grazed current matters in Umbar.

“The king needs to put an end to the rebellion found in the city,” Éowyn said one afternoon, “once and forever. Otherwise the rogues are only going to grow more bold and continue their harassment.”

At this, Inzilbêth frowned slightly. “It seems to me that there would be no need for rebellion if Gondor would leave us alone. We had our own autonomy at least in practice, if not officially, long before the Ring-War. Then the war is over and some new king arises and forces us to bow to his rule. We were doing quite well by ourselves.”

“But the city was also part of Gondor of old,” Éowyn argued, “and the king is merely trying to restore it to the realm.”

“Umbar has and has not been a part of the realm as often as the wind changes direction. We’ve done well enough on our own long enough that it shouldn’t be surprising that we balk when a new king that we feel no particular allegiance to demands our loyalties.” Inzilbêth sighed and rubbed her forehead. “If you really want to argue this, speak with Adûn. He is far better at it than I am.”

Éowyn shook her head. “I am quite tired of Umbar, in any form. It has plagued me too much lately.”

Inzilbêth nodded. “Now tell me, are the stories I’ve heard about you true? Did you really fight in the Ring-War?”

Éowyn told her account in brief, recalling that she had been young and without hope. “All I saw in my future was death, and I wanted to meet it at my own choosing, rather than wait for it to find me. I did not want to find it alone, when the rest of my close kin had ridden off to find it in battle. And glory,” she mused after a brief pause. “We rode into darkness, looking for death and glory. Fight so even if the battle goes ill, the enemy will still be moved to sing a song about our valor.” She closed her eyes and rested her head back against the cushion, remembering the sounds, the smells, the feel of that long ride to Gondor and the sunrise charge. She remembered the men, young and old, with far more experience, dying all around her while she, a foolish girl, had lived and gained the glory they deserved. She did not consciously remember much of her great duel, or really anything after sounding the horns at that red dawn. Perhaps that was best, as the memories that haunted her dreams were terrible enough. Every year near the battle’s anniversary, the nightmares returned, and in them she heard that cold, deadly voice promising her death and saw flashes of mace and sword all around her. Often she awoke drenched in sweat and shaking uncontrollably. Other times she would hear the cries of the wounded and dying, or those of her brother, calling for her in the darkness, Éowyn, Éowyn…

“Éowyn?”

Her eyes flew open, startled by an actual voice. She turned to see Inzilbêth studying her intently, concern written on her features. “Are you alright?” the women asked.

Éowyn smiled faintly. “Sometimes memories take us places we did not expect to go,” she said quietly.

“I’m sorry,” Inzilbêth said. “I should not have asked you to call up such troubling memories.”

“They are no worse than what I have to deal with on a regular basis,” she assured her, glancing out the window to make sure the sun was still shining on the garden and that the great darkness had not returned.

With some effort, the conversation came back to more pleasant topics and the mood lightened once again. he next day they continued their debate of whether sailing or land travel was better as Éowyn helped Inzilbêth finish the embroidery on some of the soft blankets she was making for the baby. At Inzilbêth’s insistence, she began working on some of her own, having to acknowledge the unpleasant thought that she may actually have her child here instead of in Ithilien like she wanted.

“This reminds me,” Inzilbêth said slowly, concentrating on a detail in the design she was creating. “Could I ask a favor of you?”

Éowyn looked up from her work, puzzled. “What can I do?”

The other woman bit her lip before speaking. “Would you,” she began hesitantly, “would you be willing to help me when the baby comes? I’ll have the midwife there,” she continued in a rush, “but it would be nice to have someone else too, who has been through it before.”

Éowyn had to hold back a chuckle. There were times when the younger woman was wildly self-assured in the manner of most Umbarians, but there were also times like these when she wondered how much of that was a show to hide other vulnerabilities. “Of course I’ll help you,” she said soothingly. “It’s always good to have extra help during a birth, especially a first one. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Inzilbêth nodded and smiled, the relief evident on her face. Éowyn knew she was still nervous, but she could not blame her. She had been just as nervous, if not more, with her first, and she had been outright afraid when the twins had come a month earlier than expected. She would gladly do what she could to ease another mother’s anxieties.

On the fourth day of Al-Jahmîr’s absence, Inzilbêth sent Éowyn a message saying she was not feeling well and would not be able to meet as they had planned the previous day. Éowyn felt a pang of disappointment, but also a bit of relief as she had not slept well the night before from a combination of headache and sickness and did not feel up to seeing anyone that day. Instead, she rested in bed part of the morning and looked at the first of the new dresses the tailor had delivered. She even convinced Miliani to forgo the usual dressing routine and let her spend the day in a simple linen underdress. After taking her noon meal a bit earlier than usual, she went out to sit on the balcony for awhile. She stretched out on one of the long chairs, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and the feel of the breeze through her toes. The comfortable conditions and the rhythmic sound of the waves below eventually lulled her to sleep.

When she woke, the sun was low in the western sky. She yawned and stretched gently, keeping her eyes shut against the sunbeams that seemed to be directly in front of them. When she stood, she swayed slightly on her feet as an unexpected wave of dizziness swept over her. She groaned slightly and pressed a hand to her forehead, surprised to find it quite warm. She opened the door to go back inside the castle, stumbling a bit over the threshold. Why am I acting like a common drunk? she wondered to herself, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the shadows of the room. She moved to scratch her arm and cried out softly as her nails scraped across tender skin. She shuffled over to a chair and sank down into it, hearing Miliani’s footfalls as she rushed to her side.

“My lady, are you hur-- oh no!” the girl gasped.

Éowyn heard her say she would send for the healer as though through a fog in her mind. She stared down at her hands, her arms, her chest, her legs, all a deep shade of angry red. The sun had burned her before, as her fair skin offered little resistance to its rays, but this burn was worse, far worse, than any she had had before. Miliani came back and offered her a sip of cool water, and drew the cup back before Éowyn could fully indulge. “Not too much,” she cautioned, “or you’ll make yourself sicker.” Éowyn nodded and flinched as the girl touched her hand softly. “Do you need to lay down?” she asked.

Éowyn shook her head slightly. She could feel a headache coming on and did not want to do anything that might encourage it to develop further. Time seemed to creep by until she heard the door open again and the healer say, “Where is she?” Hearing footsteps, she opened her eyes to find the healer crouched in front of her, studying her with great concern. “This is bad,” she said, carefully lifting one of Éowyn’s arms to study the burn. Without turning to her apprentice she said, “Fetch me as many jars of almond milk as you can carry and some vera plants. She’s going to need a lot of help.” Another order was to draw a bath, cool but not cold.

Soon, though not soon enough, Éowyn found herself soaking in a bath of mixed almond milk and water. The healer said that the almond milk was supposed to draw the heat out of the burns, but Éowyn was not sure she believed her. She felt as though she were roasting inside her own skin. The parts of her that were submerged felt relatively well until she lifted them out of the liquid. As soon as they made contact with the air, she felt as though the skin was tightening around her, trying to squeeze her to death. Her face constantly felt the same tightness, as she could not keep it underwater for long, and the soaked cloths that Miliani and the healer had pressed against her face were scratchy enough to be irritating.

“Oh, you poor thing,” someone said softly. Éowyn opened her eyes and turned her head slightly to see Aliah and Lael standing beside the bathtub. Lael dropped to one knee and brushed a hand over Éowyn’s hair gently.

“I fell asleep,” Éowyn said through cracked lips trying to smile weakly and failing.

“You didn’t have a chance,” Lael said, sighing. “I’ve been burned before, but never like this. It must hurt.”

Éowyn closed her eyes and nodded slightly. It did. A lot. Not only did it hurt, but it was also tiring. She felt exhausted now, even after an afternoon-long nap. A nap she had been stupid enough to take in the sun. She knew better than that! She bit her lip, forgetting that it was sunburned as well, and suddenly squeezed her eyes tighter against the pain.

“We heard a ruckus in the hallway,” Aliah said. “The apprentice dropped one of the jars, and it shattered. The healer was furious with her.”

As if on cue, the healer returned to the nook. “What are you two doing here?” she demanded, putting her hands on her hips. “She doesn’t need the two of you chattering over her while she rests and heals. Go!”

“We won’t tell Rashidah,” Lael promised, giving her a comforting smiling before rising and trotting out of the room with Aliah at her heels as the healer shooed them away. Éowyn wished she would have let them stay, or spoken up herself and asked them to. It seemed to her that the healer, her apprentice, and Miliani worrying over her were more exhausting than listening to talk.

When the healer felt she had soaked long enough, she made Éowyn get out of the tub and subjected her to the brutal (at least in Éowyn’s mind) processes of drying off. Really it was a gentle dabbing at her skin with soft towels, but to Éowyn, it felt as though she were pressing as hard as they could with the roughest cloth available. When they finished, the healer let her have something to eat, but only a little lest she become sick. Then she sent her to bed and took some long, green leaves with what looked like saw teeth on the edges, broke them into pieces, and smoothed the sweet-smelling sap into Éowyn’s skin. Éowyn flinched every time she was touched, but after awhile she did begin to feel a bit better. Her eyelids were heavy, and she was about to drift off when she heard the apprentice ask softly, “What about the baby?”

“I doubt she roasted it,” the healer said as she rinsed the sap off her hands, “but she certainly was foolish enough.”

Éowyn suddenly felt chilled. She could not recall the last time she had felt her child move. Was it this morning? Before or after lunch? She felt panic rising in her despite the heaviness and exhaustion that overwhelmed her. I… I can’t remember. What have I done? She felt tears stinging her eyelids even as a more sensible part of her said, The child is still small yet, and sometimes you don’t really feel movement even when you’re paying close attention. You were too distracted to notice anything at all this evening, and now maybe the child is resting as well. Éowyn surrendered to sleep even as these thoughts and others swirled in her head.

She woke late that night, starlight shining through the windows. She felt hot, as though she were on fire, and kicked off the light sheet someone had drawn over her. Still feeling too warm, she reached to take off her night-shirt when she realized she wasn’t wearing even that. “Just lie still, dear.” Éowyn looked to see a different healer sitting beside her, breaking off more of those toothed leaves.

“What are those?” she whispered, pointing to the bits of plant.

“These are leaves from a vera plant,” the healer replied. “The sap helps take the pain out of the burn.”

Éowyn nodded and flinched as the healer started putting the sap on her skin. As the healer worked, she remembered that something had been bothering her just before she fell asleep, but right now she could not place what it was. She reviewed the talk before she drifted off, then suddenly went rigid as she remembered. “My baby,” she whispered, her voice carrying more than a hint of panic.

“I’m sure your baby is fine,” the healer said soothingly. “You would know by now if something was wrong.” Seeing that her charge was not convinced, she continued. “Do you feel any pain here?” she asked, pressing lightly above her hip where she had escaped being badly burned. Éowyn shook her head slightly. “If there’s no pain, and there’s no blood on the sheets, I would say you have no reason to worry. You have some fever, but that’s to be expected with a bad burn like this. Relax and try to rest some more. Don’t make yourself feel worse by worrying until you have good reason to.”

“But I haven’t felt the baby move all day,” Éowyn protested.

The healer chuckled softly. “I’m surprised you’ve felt anything at all,” she said. “You barely have a bump started. I think my second son must have slept the entire time I carried him because I rarely felt him move. Here, drink some of this,” the healer handed her a cup of water, “and then get back to sleep. You need all the rest you can get.”

Éowyn slept fitfully the rest of the night, waking up frequently when she felt too warm or uncomfortable, before finally finding a deep sleep just before dawn.

_________________
Ithilien, the garden of Gondor now desolate kept still a dishevelled dryad loveliness.

Sweet home Indiana
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