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 Ã‰owyn, he recalled. And of her uncle, strangely. Somehow, he had had to explain to late King ThÃ©oden 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 Dorgilâ€™s voice said softly, â€œIs he still asleep?â€
â€œI hope so for him,â€ replied KhorazÃ®r, â€œbecause that way he will not feel how you remove the thread.â€
Faramir groaned. Dorgil had come to remove the stitches. With a sigh he sat up. â€œAh, you are awake. Good morning, captain,â€ 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.
â€œMorning,â€ he returned a little curtly. â€œI take it you now wish to repay me for my little expedition yesterday?â€
â€œNonsense,â€ said Dorgil, his smile not without a trace of mischief, betraying his words. â€œAlthough I should like to know how you are feeling this morning.â€ 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.
â€œI feel well,â€ he announced, before admitting, â€œBetter than I thought.â€ Taking Dorgilâ€™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. â€œâ€˜Tis your luck you were in such very good shape ere you received these injuries,â€ he said while rummaging in his bag. â€œOtherwise your recovery would not have advanced this far.â€
KhorazÃ®r had walked over to the window, opened the latticed shutters and peered out. Now he turned to the others. â€œEre 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 HuzÃ®n Hazid, an old and now ruinous fortress on the hither shore of Harnen. We should not tarry here much longer, for â€˜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.â€
â€œThe rangers are ready to depart,â€ reported Dorgil as he removed the bandages. â€œAnd your men looked packed as well, those who are going to accompany us.â€
â€œAye, they are only waiting for my word.â€
â€œYou should have roused me earlier, then,â€ said Faramir a little reproachfully, but Dorgil shook his head. â€œYou sorely needed the sleep, sir. I am rather pleased with your recovery. I am going to take out the stitches from your shoulder now â€“ 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.â€
â€œWhat about Meneldir and the others?â€ asked Faramir, wincing slightly when Dorgil began to work on his shoulder.
â€œBrandir is well enough now to look after them, and moreover I know for a fact that you have skilled healers at your home, Lord KhorazÃ®r, 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, â€˜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 â€“â€
â€œI would prefer that, too, actually,â€ fell in Faramir. â€œGetting 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, KhorazÃ®r?â€
â€œYes, 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 anymoreâ€
â€œActually, it would be a good idea to divide up the company,â€ said Faramir. â€œMablung will travel on to Khiblat PharazÃ´n with the greater part, while the wounded and some score men remain here under Edrahilâ€™s command, to convey messages to Gondor and lend a hand with the repairs and generally keep an eye on things.â€ He winced again. â€œI am tempted to believe you are doing this on purpose, Dorgil,â€ he complained, upon which the healer grinned slightly.
â€œFor 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,â€ he remarked. â€œIf I may say so, captain,â€ he added respectfully, and all three laughed.
â€œI should like to see you receiving them,â€ 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 â€“ 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. â€œDo not forget to wear the sling,â€ he reminded Faramir. â€œAnd 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 â€“ you know he can get pretty sentimental at times. Get him ready for the journey, Lord KhorazÃ®r. 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.â€
With that he packed his bag again, nodded to the others and departed. Faramir washed and then dressed, with the Southronâ€™s help. â€œI shall take your belongings with me, your saddle-bags and everything,â€ said KhorazÃ®r, beginning to pack them. â€œAlso,â€ and now his eyes twinkled amusedly, â€œI think I will finally be allowed â€“ or indeed required â€“ to ride my horse again, the one you stole from me so viciously many years ago.â€
â€œI only â€˜stoleâ€™ him because you had my own horse shot underneath me,â€ retorted Faramir, grinning as well. â€œMost likely NarÃ¢k 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 â€“ and Ã‰owynâ€™s â€“ as well. I should like to take everything to Gondor with us, except the horses, which will have to journey on to Khiblat PharazÃ´n.â€
â€œMy 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 KhorazÃ®r 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 Mablungâ€™s approval. In fact, Faramir thought as he watched the captain from his position behind the assembled mass of KhorazÃ®râ€™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 KhorazÃ®râ€™s home without causing them inconvenience or even impairing their recovery. He looked troubled still, however, but for another reason. Faramir knew from KhorazÃ®râ€™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 KhorazÃ®r 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 KhorazÃ®r 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 elderâ€™s wife uttered a grave parting in return, wishing them luck in their chase, and utter destruction to Al-JahmÃ®r, 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 KhorazÃ®râ€™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.
KhorazÃ®r had reined NarÃ¢k, who, to Faramirâ€™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. â€œThis little nest is going to be famous now,â€ he said.
â€œNot a kind of fame others will envy it for,â€ remarked Faramir darkly.
â€œTrue. 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.â€
â€œSo this is why the Snake goes such great lengths to achieve it?â€
KhorazÃ®r shrugged. â€œWell, it is not that he can achieve much by personal courage, is it?â€ he said viciously. â€œThe 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 â€“ 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.â€
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 KhorazÃ®r 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 lordâ€™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, KhorazÃ®r 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 wifeâ€™s captor appeared before his inner eye, not soon enough!
â€œI hope you will get your opportunity,â€ said Faramir, â€œalthough 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 Ã‰owyn. And Narejde. And Azrahil.â€
KhorazÃ®r laughed. â€œAye, and your King, and your Ladyâ€™s brother, and even your special friend Lord Falastur, I daresay.â€
Now Faramir laughed as well, imagining his greatest rival in council fight a duel with the Umbarian. â€œFalastur is not much of a fighter, unless it was with words and icy glances. But certainly, he will grasp any opportunity to achieve the Snakeâ€™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-JahmÃ®r 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 peopleâ€™s names. It was quite a scandal in Gondor some time ago, in the year ere Elboron was born.â€
â€œOh yes, I heard of that. And afterwards you managed to catch and imprison the Snake himself, but somehow he escaped from the Lord of Pelargirâ€™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 Falasturâ€™s purse, am I not right?â€
â€œPerfectly right. And this, of course, is the most important reason for him to pursue Al-JahmÃ®r and all his corsair-friends with relentless hatred.â€
â€œSpeaking of â€˜corsair-friendsâ€™ as you so fittingly â€“ and somewhat condescendingly, if I may add â€“ described them, do not be too surprised if the captain of our transport turns out to be just that.â€
â€œWhat, you entertaining ties to corsairs, KhorazÃ®r?â€ exclaimed Faramir with mock consternation, â€œI am truly shocked.â€ Then he smiled. â€œActually, 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.â€
â€œI 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?â€
â€œI 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?â€
KhorazÃ®r shrugged, before suddenly turning in the saddle to see who was approaching at a brisk trot. â€œIt appears you healer wishes to check on his charge,â€ he remarked dryly, and made room as best as this was possible on the narrow track to allow Dorgil to ride up to Faramir.
â€œHow is it going, capâ€“â€ 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, â€œAny pain? Are you thirsty?â€
â€œI am fine,â€ 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. â€œI have enough water here, and food, too, should I become hungry, and the horseâ€™s movements trouble me less than I feared,â€ he thus assured Dorgil. â€œâ€˜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.â€
Dorgil nodded reluctantly. â€œThat is easier said than done,â€ he muttered, but holding back his horse, with a nod and a somewhat doubtful, worried glance he let Faramir pass. Soon, KhorazÃ®r returned to his side. â€œHe is a good man,â€ he said appreciatively, â€œif a little too caring, at times. But you asked about the corsair. He goes by the not very imaginative name of AzrubÃ¢r. 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 MÃ»makil, where the people are black-skinned and black-eyed and fierce. His grandfather once dared to cheat Marekâ€™s father over a shipment of silk, and paid a price more high than he ever thought possible. Only the boy survived the Umbarianâ€™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-JahmÃ®râ€™s ships, inviting their wrath but also gaining great riches and considerable fame for their recklessness. After the War, AzrubÃ¢r acquired his own ship. â€˜Tis named â€˜Balak anDolguâ€™ 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 NarÃ®ka nâ€™Azri of Al-JahmÃ®r or the deadly frigates of Gondor.â€
â€œWe shall put it to the test,â€ said Faramir, gazing ahead to where the colourful ribbons at the pass where rippling in the wind. â€œâ€˜Tis fair wind for sailing north,â€ he then observed.
â€œAye. 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 AzrubÃ¢r has got some strong lads at the oars.â€
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. KhorazÃ®r 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 Stewardâ€™s death, and promised to guard the pass even more vigilantly now.
Faramir remained mounted, at the rear of KhorazÃ®râ€™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 KhorazÃ®râ€™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 â€“ for by now the sun had climbed far above the mountains and was baking their rocky shoulders relentlessly â€“, 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 PharazÃ´n was situated, a proud castle on a rocky outcrop overlooking a steep but fertile valley, fed by two swift streams that met near KhorazÃ®râ€™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 Haradanâ€™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, Ã‰owyn and he, once even giving their omnipresent guards the slip and spending a wonderful hour simply in the otherâ€™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 geldingâ€™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 KhorazÃ®r 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. KhorazÃ®râ€™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.
â€œWell, that is it, then,â€ he said quietly when he had reached Faramir. â€œI am not happy about this parting, as I am sure you have heard.â€
â€œIndeed I have, but Mablung, there is no other way,â€ Faramir replied encouragingly. â€œAnd 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. â€˜Tis of utmost importance that you swiftly learn about Ã‰owynâ€™s fate, so that you can convey the information to me.â€
â€œWe shall not disappoint you,â€ promised Mablung gravely. â€œYou will be safe with Lord KhorazÃ®r?â€
â€œDo 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.â€
Mablung nodded slowly, then sighed. â€œI wish you a safe, speedy journey,â€ he said.
â€œTo you as well. We shall meet again soon, at Khiblat PharazÃ´n or even in Umbar, or wherever the Snake hides at the moment.â€
â€œWe shall find out, I promise.â€
â€œI 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.â€
â€œYet they take it gladly, if that way they can help you. Farewell, sir. May Ulmo and OssÃ« speed your journey.â€ Reaching for Faramirâ€™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 hourâ€™s rest, the men mounted again, and after a few words of parting the companies split up. With Faramir and KhorazÃ®r only Dorgil remained and two rangers, as well as eight of KhorazÃ®râ€™s men, four of whom were about to accompany them on the ship, whereas the other four were to take the horses to Khiblat PharazÃ´n 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 KhorazÃ®r 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 KhorazÃ®r confirmed when Faramir inquired about it.
â€œIt would be even more prosperous if there was finally peace at the borders,â€ said the Haradan darkly. â€œYet as long as the Snake and people of like mind are on the loose, there will be no end to raids and war.â€
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. KhorazÃ®r 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 â€“ she seemed to inquire about Dorgil who she recognised as a stranger â€“, since she spoke in the local dialect of which he had only acquired a little during his stay â€“ it was an odd tongue, mixing an ancient form of AdÃ»naic, 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. â€œâ€˜Tis said this dialect has been in use in these regions even before the NÃºmenoreans came out of the West and began to settle in Umbar,â€ explained the Haradan. â€œIt 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 AdÃ»naic as it was spoken in the Second Age, â€˜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.â€ He smiled fondly. â€œLittle 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. â€˜Tis comforting to know that these old traditions live on in the children.â€
â€œIndeed,â€ agreed Faramir. â€œThe boys are also growing up with several languages. Ã‰owyn 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.â€ He sighed softly as he thought of his sons. Who would talk Rohirric to them if Ã‰owyn did not return, or sing the twinâ€™s favourite lullaby?
â€œAh, there ahead you can already see our destination, HuzÃ®n Hazid. Another hour, and we will have reached it,â€ KhorazÃ®râ€™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.
â€œHuzÃ®n Hazid, the â€˜Seven Earsâ€™?â€ translated Faramir with a curious glance at their destination. â€œâ€˜Tis a strange name for a tower. Do you know why this place is called thus?â€
KhorazÃ®r smiled mysteriously. â€œAccording to old tales, the tower is the last standing remain of an old fortress. It must have been built by the NÃºmenoreans 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 Lordâ€™s power grew, until finally it was deserted altogether. During my grandfatherâ€™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 AravÃ´r 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 Telumehtarâ€™s reign â€“ I shall not use the name he so haughtily assumed, for nobody ever conquered cursed Umbar for good â€“â€ he stated, upon which Faramir smiled, â€œthe 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 â€“ 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 governorâ€™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 HuzÃ®n Hazid.â€
Faramir had listened to the tale with fascination. â€œI seem to recall having read about this governor in our books of lore,â€ he mused. â€œOf 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.â€
â€œWe are a fell people,â€ remarked KhorazÃ®r with a flashing smile and obvious pride. â€œMy ancestors claim to be descendants of those very outlaws who dared defy mighty Gondor so many centuries ago.â€
Faramir laughed softly. â€œWhat would they say to you now, if they saw you ride side by side with the enemy?â€
KhorazÃ®r waved a hand, laughing as well. â€œYou are half Southron already, DÃºnadan,â€ he stated. â€œYou 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 â€“ and I definitely shall have a word with her concerning that when next we meet â€“â€ he added with a mock serious expression, â€œshe considers our garments to greatly enhance your looks, to which your lady agreed. Personally, I think â€˜tis the way the veil hides most of your face,â€ he added with mischievous grin, upon which Faramir replied lightly, â€œWell, 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.â€
KhorazÃ®r shrugged. â€œShe 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.â€
â€œNeither has Ã‰owyn,â€ 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-JahmÃ®r, 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 wifeâ€™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-JahmÃ®r was capable to using both on his prisoner to gain his desires. Never before had Faramir had any reason to imagine his Ã‰owyn in another manâ€™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.
â€œLord KhorazÃ®r,â€ one of the Haradanâ€™s men who together with a companion had ridden ahead to scout the area now addressed his lord, â€œwe have advanced as far as the old village, and all seems clear. MezlÃ¢r 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.â€
KhorazÃ®r nodded, signing to the man to rejoin his companion. When the scout was riding off again, he turned to Faramir. â€œLet us hope Captain AzrubÃ¢r is punctual. You never know with those corsairs.â€
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate