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PostPosted: Sat 30 Dec , 2006 10:10 pm 
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Joined: Thu 28 Oct , 2004 6:24 am
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Location: snake-hunting
Upon a sign from his captain, Khômiyi stepped forward, and in his raspy, crow-like voice asked them to follow him. Two of Khorazîr’s guards and the two rangers, Turgon and Aralas by name, stayed behind with the crew – to lend a hand if required, as Khorazîr put it, to the laughter of the crew who had their own opinion of the ‘landlubbers’. In truth Faramir knew his friend did not wish to take any chances, and thus make certain his men had an eye on the corsairs whenever possible, and moreover to remain on deck lest all of them be led into a trap at once. He also was certain the corsairs were aware of this, and were viewing this open display of caution with humour, or even approved of it, as they would have acted likewise.

The small man led them aft and down a short flight of stairs below decks, to a surprisingly spacious cabin at the stern of the vessel, underneath the quarterdeck, which Faramir assumed was the captain’s own. The light filtering in through the small, partly shuttered windows at the rear glinted on gilt lamps hanging on stout timbers upholding the low ceiling, and played on richly ornamented rugs which covered the walls. Most of the furniture had apparently been removed to make space for several hammocks which had been fastened to hooks on the beams and were swaying gently with the ship’s movements, and for low, narrow berths along the walls, to serve for seating as well as sleeping. Two large chests remained, also richly decorated with metal fittings, and secured by large locks. Faramir suspected they contained some of the captain’s riches, and had been too heavy and unwieldy to move. Mingled with the smell of tar and wood and the sea, a heady, spicy scent very different from the musty smell Faramir had expected below decks lingered on the air. Some kind of strange incense, he assumed, and decided he did not really want to know more about it. He was glad about the veil covering his lower face, as it kept out some of the smell.

Khômiyi bade them accommodate themselves, and apologised for the lack of space. Indeed, the cabin was small for nine men, but since some part would most likely be on watch, or else spend as much time as possible at the fresh air if the weather allowed, it would do, as Khorazîr assured the corsair.

“The captain will be with you shortly,” said Khômiyi, “once we have mastered the rapids. This is a treacherous river.” With that, he turned and closing the door behind him, left. Faramir half expected to hear a key turn in the lock, but nothing happened of the kind, and he told himself he was regarding the corsairs with more suspicion than seemed appropriate.

The men had looked up at the mention of rapids, and indeed the ship’s motion had changed from a gentle sway to a more forceful, rocking one. Dorgil who had been walking across the cabin soon found himself clutching a hammock to steady himself. Faramir had sunk down on one of the berths, resting his head against the rug-covered bulkhead and closing his eyes. Despite this soft carpet which dulled the slight tremors and shivers of the vessel’s hull, he could feel the ship’s struggle against the river. It heaved and trembled, and once he thought he could hear the harsh grating of the sharp keel on something hard and unyielding. Footsteps pattered on the deck above, voices were raised in command, and there was a low rumble and a grating sound as apparently the oars were lowered into the water. Again orders were shouted and acknowledged, and the ship’s violent motion eased somewhat.

“Bloody corsairs,” Faramir heard Dorgil mutter, and when with an effort he opened his eyes and looked about, he found the men’s faces paler than before, betraying their anxiety. One of Khorazîr’s men looked even worse – obviously he was battling an onslaught of seasickness, clapping a hand to his mouth and looking completely wretched. Only Khorazîr himself appeared fairly unconcerned. He was walking about with surprising steadiness, surveying the colourful rugs before settling down on one of the massive chests and studying its lock.

“I wonder what he keeps in there,” he mused, his teeth glinting briefly in the dim light as he smiled, then noticing the dire plight of his guard, “Get yourself up on deck, Murâd, before you spoil our dear captain’s floor,” he told the man, with only a faint hint of amusement. Murâd dashed out of the cabin with a speed Faramir would not have thought possible on the heaving ground.

“Azrubâr appears to be doing well,” he remarked glancing back at Khorazîr, glad about the conversation since sleep was again calling to him persuasively. The wound on his chest was throbbing faintly. It was not yet painful, not unless he moved his arm, but nevertheless it was a sure sign that today’s journey had cost him far more strength than he was willing to admit. Dorgil came to sit beside him, wearing his habitual concerned frown. Just as Khorazîr was about to reply, the healer said gently, “Captain, if you are tired, you should sleep. Never mind this corsair. We will watch him. You need to rest. Lay down on this cot. These hammocks are not for you, not with this injury.”

“His account may be important,” Faramir muttered, cursing his weakness which had conquered his otherwise so steady self-control that in the past had allowed him to go without sleep for several nights on end. Yet he did not protest when Dorgil helped him out of his boots and outer garments. “He may know more about the situation in Umbar, he may have tidings of –”

“I will make sure to inquire about that, Dúnadan,” Khorazîr fell in. “I shall squeeze him out like a sponge. Actually, the less you show yourself on deck, the better – lest someone recognises you. Remember, right now you are just one of my guards. And as such, I command you to sleep now.”

Too exhausted to object, Faramir only nodded as carefully he lay down on the berth. It was narrow and hard, and the blanket which Dorgil spread about him smelled even more strongly of the strange incense than the rest of the cabin, but for now he did not mind. Within moments, he was fast asleep.

+

He woke when a light was brought up to his face. There was a whisper of voices in the background, too soft to be understood. For a moment he lay with his eyes still closed, wondering slightly why his bed was swaying gently and there was a creaking and groaning and dull throbbing all about him. Then he remembered he was on a ship. Slowly opening his eyes, they fell on Dorgil sitting next to his head on the berth, a tray on his lap with a lamp and some foot and drink. His face brightened when he noticed his captain was awake.

“Good morning, sir,” he greeted Faramir. “How are you?”

Still struggling with the remainder of sleep keeping hold of him, Faramir nodded in sign that he was feeling rather well-rested, and that his shoulder had ceased throbbing. Then he realised what Dorgil had said. “‘Tis morning already?”

The healer smiled. “Aye. Noon, almost. You slept far more than half a day, and I told the men to let you sleep. Most were too seasick anyway to keep you company, and spent most of the night feeding Harnen’s fish over the gunwale, much to the amusement of the corsairs and their notorious captain. And your Southron friend, who sadly is quite unaffected by the ship’s motion.”

“But we are still on the river, are we not?” inquired Faramir, stretching carefully.

“We are approaching the Ethir Harnen now, and will reach the open sea in the late afternoon, if all goes well and we do not run aground on the shoals. The corsair has been driving his men relentlessly during the night, with many a curse from the lads and a smack of the bosun’s lash to keep them at their work and shut their loose mouths. The wind was not favourable, still strong from the west, and the river is too narrow for much tacking. Still, we should have a fair wind for Gondor once we reach the sea. Apparently we were lucky, however. This storm some nights ago brought some rain which caused the river to swell. The current sped our journey considerably, or so I heard the captain tell Lord Khorazîr. It was fairly difficult, thought. They had to navigate through several tight spots and around shoals, not to mention those rapids. But, despite my reluctance to see much good in these renegades, they seem to be handling their vessel with skill and circumspection. And they have got some stout lads at the oars. Umbarian slaves, as Azrubâr told us proudly, showing them off to us like a man might display his collection of strange beasts. Apparently they were captured at sea, and their ships taken a prizes and sold very profitably.” His cheerful, excited expression darkened, and turned thoughtful and grave. “I do not approve of slavery, and neither do you, I know. And despite knowing that some Umbarian upstarts are getting what they deserve right now, and are working off some of their penance ... still, you should see them. They are not treated worse than they would on other, similar ships, still I pity them. No man should be forced to work under the constant threat of the whip, not even those Umbarians.”

Faramir had pulled himself into a sitting position while the healer had been talking, and now reached for the cup with steaming tea Dorgil was proffering him on the tray, “I understand you very well, Dorgil,” he said quietly. “‘Tis always the question of how much punishment one should receive, whatever the crime. I keep imagining what to do if I should ever capture Al-Jahmîr, and be in a position to punish him for his crimes. Right now, I doubt I would quail to see him pulling an oar on the vessel of a man he has wronged, or doing worse labour, nor knowing that if he slackened, he would receive a smack of the lash. And at the same time I am appalled that I should even think so, and afraid of what is happening to me. I do not wish for my soul to be poisoned by the desire for revenge, and by cruelty. I fear I would not know how to turn back if I stepped upon that road.” He shifted the cup to his right hand resting on the blanket and ran the other over his eyes.

Dorgil glanced down at his hands holding the tray. “Nay, that would not be you anymore, captain,” he agreed softly, looking very different from the man who only some hours ago had proclaimed savagely that he should like to pour poison on Al-Jahmîr. Glancing up and meeting Faramir’s gaze steadily, he said, “And I doubt you would ever become like that. You will know when to draw the line, as you have shown so often before, during the War and later. We always admired you, I and the lads did, for your sense of justice, and your mercy. I do not think any prisoner nor any of our foes was ever treated cruelly or unjustly, or if he was, it happened because somebody disregarded your orders.” He smiled faintly. “You know, at times the men even considered you too soft and lenient, until they realised that there was not only mercy ruling your decisions, but also foresight, and cunning. I am sure this foresight is not going to fail you when you have to deal with Al-Jahmîr. And perhaps the decision concerning the Snake’s fate will be taken out of your hands entirely.”

Faramir nodded slightly, staring down into the steam rising from his tea-cup. He did not know if he should truly hope that this decision would not be required of him indeed, or if that would be a too easy route of escape from responsibility. And did he not desire revenge, if he was honest with himself? The Snake had to be brought to justice, yes, and there had to be punishment, for sure. But if he could add a little extra to pay the other back for the grief and pain and despair he had caused him these past years ... would he forgo the opportunity?

He was relieved to have his musings interrupted when Dorgil changed topic. Indicating the tea, he said, “I thought I should better boil the water they have here, lest you catch some disease in your weakened state – although I daresay you look much better today. The sleep was really necessary.”

Faramir nodded while taking a careful sip from the cup – it contained a light peppermint-tea, obviously donated by Khorazîr or one of his men, who seemed very fond of it, brewing it whenever an opportunity presented itself. “The captain,” said Faramir after swallowing another sip, “what kind of a man is he? Did you have a chance to talk to him, or at least listen to his account?”

Dorgil nodded, rolling his eyes. “Oh yes, I had. He invited Lord Khorazîr and me and Mezlâr who he seems to have met before to dinner yestereve (as we were the only ones neither on watch nor seasick). And I am glad my ears are still attached to my head and have not fallen off from his tales. He likes to talk and boast and brag a lot, Captain Azrubâr does, and his men love him for it. His tales were fascinating, and well recounted, for sure, but I doubt less than half of what he has told us has truly happened, and the rest he has elaborated so that one has to constantly filter truth from fancy, and with a large sieve, too. But at least his account of the situation in Umbar appears to be close to the truth, and consistent with what young Azrahil recounted.”

He smiled wryly. “I doubt there would be much to elaborate, even for this highly imaginative corsair. Umbar is in uproar. Many traders seem to have fled the city, whereas other folk flock to it, mercenaries and people who believe they can profit from the upheavals. Governor Beretar appears to be hard-pressed. He does not have many men with him, and has recalled most as were out on patrol. He has issued a curfew to keep folk in check, but as you can imagine, he has not really gained any friends that way. A number of Haradaic warships from neighbouring fiefs has come in to keep an eye on the Gondorian vessels and keep them from carrying word to Gondor, and more are on their way, which made leaving the bay and gaining the open sea a difficult and dangerous venture. It looks like one of the reasons for our fearless captain to embrace this errand so eagerly was the opportunity to get away from Umbar and vicinity for a while. The closer to Gondor and our fleet, he appears to reason, the safer for the moment. He does seem loyal and moreover indebted to Lord Khorazîr, however, and despite his frequent chestful or even stingy remarks concerning us Gondorians, I do not think we need to fear him. I only wish we could let some more air into this cabin,” he ended, casting a glance round the compartment. “This bloody incense, it cannot be healthy. We had our meal in a smaller cabin forward, underneath the fo’c’s’le, and the room was filled with these poisonous fumes. Worse than what the King and certain lords are doing to sweet galenas when they smoke it.”

“Why Dorgil,” remarked Faramir with a grin, “I did not know you were that fluent in the sailors’ tongue.”

The healer flushed slightly. “Well, my cousin lives down in Pelargir whence my family hails and has been sailing as master on several ships. He is about to be made captain on his own vessel come next spring. I am hoping to get my eldest into the navy, for he loves the sea. He would also make a good healer one day, but I fear he will never be happy with his feet on steady ground only. So I told him he will have to start small to learn the craft, as a midshipman.”

“I did not know you were thus associated with the navy. Your son is thirteen, is he not.”

“Aye. When Vëantur gets his ship, he will be fourteen, and old enough to take to sea. I do not know if you know, but ere I got apprenticed to the healers and eventually joined the rangers, I spent two years on a merchant-ship myself, rather as a passenger than a sailor, but I picked up a thing or two.”

“I did not know that indeed. It must be difficult to let him go,” said Faramir thoughtfully, imagining how he would feel if any of his sons decided to venture out to sea.

Dorgil shrugged. “His mother is very reluctant. But one day they will fly the nest anyway. And if he can do something he loves so much, why should I stop him? ‘Tis not that the house is going to be completely empty with him gone. His sisters will keep it lively, I have no doubt. Do you wish for more tea, captain?”

“Later, perhaps,” replied Faramir, taking another sip. A thought had struck him at this talk of leaving and getting out and about. “I have been thinking about Khorazîr’s words yestereve. Although I can see his point of not showing myself to the crew, I do hope you will not condemn me to this cabin for the remainder of the journey. I need some fresh air, and sunlight, and a chance to stretch my legs.”

Dorgil nodded, shoving the plate with bread, dried fruit and a roasted fish toward Faramir. “Actually, I had a little discussion with Lord Khorazîr concerning that, but in the end he agreed that to deprive you of all you just mentioned would impair the progress of your recovery. So you may leave the cabin, but only in disguise, and accompanied by him or me or the guards. Actually, when you have finished your meal and feel well enough, we should go up. The scenery is quite fascinating. So many sea-birds. And the crew is a sight in itself.”

+

Dorgil had not exaggerated the view. When Faramir stepped on deck, again clad as one of Khorazîr’s guards and his face hid behind a veil, a stunning scenery unfolded under in the bright sunlight. The river had broadened considerably, and was beginning to split up into several smaller arms, divided by marshy islets grown with a thick tangle of swaying reeds and rushes, and tall grasses with plumy flowers. Beyond these ever-moving fields of water-plants rose gentle hills to both sides, blue in the distance. Myriads of birds could be seen and heard all about. There were flocks of geese, gull’s were keeping up with the ship in the hope of something edible being thrown to them, there were ducks and white herons and storks and all kinds of little piping birds that hid in the reeds. High overhead in the azure sky birds of prey were circling on the wind, watching the delta that Harnen created on its way to the sea with keen eyes.

The river’s current had slackened, so that the oar-men were at work again, with Azrubâr’s tall guards keeping them at a steady pace, one beating a drum, and one walking about with a whip on his belt. The captain himself was pacing the quarterdeck talking to Khorazîr, while Khômiyi stood at the wheel, steering the ship through undeeps and dangerous shoals with a sure, steady hand. Most of the men were busy aloft, readying sails and rigging for when the Balak anDolgu would meet the more forceful waters of the open sea, the sight of which was yet obscured by the tall reed-beds ahead.

Even though they were not yet using the full force of the wind, and the ship was forced to navigate carefully through these tricky waters, nevertheless Faramir noticed that obviously when it came to his vessel the captain had had little need to boast or exaggerate. It was swift, cutting the water like a knife, her sails taut and well-rigged, with not the slightest bit of canvas flapping. Gazing about the deck, he became aware of more and more modifications the frigate had undergone, most, as Dorgil who had more knowledge about ships than Faramir himself confirmed him, to achieve more speed. The usually high forecastle had been lowered by some yards, which would mean less advantage for archers in an engagement, but would also decrease the bow’s resistance to wind. The bowsprit had been stretched, and equipped with a jib in addition to the fore staysails, and the two masts seemed to be holding more canvas than was wont on a frigate. Dorgil pointed out some other changes to his captain, most of which seemed to especially fascinate him, until Faramir quietly suggested to fetch a pen and some paper and to note down or even sketch these modifications.

“Why not, if they are sound and effective ones?” he asked when Dorgil looked positively indignant at the suggestion. “Although they may be corsairs, why not learn from them if they have innovative ideas? After all, our ships may be their next prey, so we had better be prepared to beat them with their own weapons.”

After a short internal fight, Dorgil indeed shuffled off, after making sure that Aralas and Mezlâr were near to guard his captain. In their silent, watchful company Faramir wandered along the starboard side of the main deck toward the bow, keeping one hand to the railing to steady himself. He noticed how many of the sailors stayed their work to watch him, regarding him with curiosity. He began to wonder if Khorazîr had told the captain anything about him, which Azrubâr had forwarded to his crew. He detected no hostility, only sincere interest, and some slight bewilderment. Apparently they were not certain what to make of him. Mezlâr also earned curious glances. What Khorazîr had mentioned about his fearsome reputation was proven true by the respect the sailors displayed towards him. Some even tipped their foreheads as if saluting to a superior, and he replied with a benevolent glance as he strode before Faramir and the ranger.

Upon reaching the forecastle, Faramir sat down on a trunk, and resting his back against the railing, spent the next hours as the ship progressed through Ethir Harnen on a fairly comfortable lookout. Even though the sun was hot, his light flowing garments protected him from her rays, and the constant breeze from the west as well as the wind of their speed sufficed to cool him. Dorgil returned after a while with a water-skin and a small leather-bound book – his diary, Faramir assumed, surprised that the healer who so far had never shown any inclination of writing should be keeping one. While the ranger took to making notes about the ship and indeed sketching some of the most noticeable and intriguing features, Faramir watched the crew go about their work and listened to their various tongues and accents. He also watched the captain, and the way he dealt with his men, in order to get a clearer picture of Captain Azrubâr.

In the late afternoon, as predicted by the corsair, the Balak anDolgu finally broke free of the last straggling islets and reed-grown shoals. With the oar-men putting in a last spurt battling a heavy swell and the onslaught of the tide, and fighting their way through a thick layer of kelp and upswept seaweed that entangled their oars, they finally gained the open waters. Commands were shouted in hoarse voices, Khômiyi’s crowing most noticeable, and soon the sails were loosened, the oars were pulled in, and the ship gained speed, cutting through the white-plumed waves like a dolphin, now and again sending a shower of salty spray over the occupants of the forecastle.

“This is quite some ship,” Faramir heard Dorgil mutter before the healer got out his diary again, and stepping up to the bowsprit began to scribble again furiously, his eyes shining.

Azrubâr had her put on a larboard tack to gain some distance between the vessel and the mainland to starboard, the coast of which showed low cliffs grown with hardy plants shaped by the ever-blowing wind, and in front of these cliffs rocky, barnacle-covered islands which were being swallowed by the rising tide. They were journeying in the midst of an ever-broadening bay, the sides of which eventually swerved to the north and south, upon which the ship took on a more northerly course, keeping parallel to the coast.

Some of the sailors had been fishing in the brackish waters of the delta, and caught a number of large crabs and several rather adventurous looking fish, called blennies by the sailors, which the ship’s cook fashioned into a small feast for the corsair, his guests and choice members of the crew. This time, dinner was held on the quarterdeck as the weather was warm and the cabins to small to host all guests. Having found their sea-legs at last, all of Khorazîr’s retinue except the unfortunate Murâd who still suffered from acute seasickness and Faramir joined Azrubâr at his table. Despite the tantalising smell and the captain’s especial invitation concerning him, Faramir had decided against it, as he would not be able to eat or drink without lowering the veil. Khorazîr promised him to save him his own ration, as he cordially disliked all seafood (although he would not tell why). So Faramir had his dinner in his cabin with Murâd keeping him company, involving the young man in a conversation about horses which he was very knowledgeable about, his father being a famed horse-breeder, to take his attention of his seasickness.

+

The next day passed in a similar routine. The wind held, even swerving to the south-west, speeding them on their course. Always the coast was in view to starboard as a faint blue line, and even though several times the outlook spotted sails on the horizon or nearer the coast, not once they passed another vessel at a distance close enough to make out her kind or colours or bearings. Obviously the corsair avoided any closer encounters on purpose.

During all this time, Faramir not once had a chance to speak to the captain. When finally an opportunity presented itself, it was Azrubâr who accosted him.

Faramir had spent the time mostly on deck, now reading in Khorazîr’s book, now sketching down a concise account of what had befallen during and after that dreadful night at Kadall, supplemented with observations from Dorgil or Khorazîr or the two rangers, now looking out over the heaving bowsprit or the railings, or astern where life on the ship unfolded, on his habitual seat on the forecastle where he was out of the way of the working sailors, and yet could watch most of what was going on aboard. He also took as much exercise as Dorgil allowed, pacing the ship from bow to stern, and feeling some strength return to his body and the pain recede. As during his first visit on deck, the corsairs completely left him in peace, going even as far as disregarding him. He had mentioned this to Khorazîr, who had only smiled mysteriously.

“Yes, I told them you were not to be molested, and a few other things besides. They know you are not one of my guards – it would have been difficult to maintain that, anyway, with your injury, for who in his right mind would take a wounded guard on a journey like this. Nay, I told them you are a very special friend of mine on a secret mission to Gondor, to with the King arrange for Al-Jahmîr’s downfall. Hence the speed, and the fact you do not show your face. I have heard the most outrageous suspicions concerning your identity, although your true one was not among those. So it seems our little ploy is working well. They hold you in awe, and well for it.”

“And Azrubâr was not offended by my repeated decline to join him at dinner?” inquired Faramir, who had become aware of the curious, yet also shrewd and calculating glances the corsair was giving him whenever he was in sight.

Khorazîr shook his head. “He is a proud man, and very blunt and straightforward. He would have told me had your behaviour offended him.”

The sun was already westering as Faramir stood in the forecastle, watching the blue line to larboard which during the past hours had accompanied them, indicating where the island of Tolfalas lay. Only too well he recalled how, little more than a year ago, he had spent four months as the Snake’s prisoner on this island, eventually escaping and making his way along the rugged, deserted southern tip of Tolfalas to the more settled regions, only to be wounded and caught again by Al-Jahmîr’s henchmen and brought before their vile master. He had been rescued by King Elessar shortly afterwards, in the very nick of time, yet the memory was still evil. And yet, he had managed to endure whatever hardship Al-Jahmîr or the merciless island had subjected him to, because he had known that back home in Ithilien his beloved wife and his children were yearning for his return. Now he was again a pawn of the Snake’s, or so it seemed, and the queen, his queen was gone. He sighed deeply, leaning on the gunwale more heavily. Had his message reached her by now? And would she be able to receive it, anyway?

“We’ve made excellent speed,” he suddenly heard a deep voice next to him, and turning, he beheld Azrubâr leaning against the railing, watching the bow cut through the waves for a moment before shifting his gaze to Faramir. “I’m sure you’ll be pleased to hear that we’re going to reach Pelargir tomorrow morning, if nobody decides to try and hinder us. The tarks are very keen on protecting their shores against us evil corsairs lately.”

“With good reason, I would reckon,” remarked Faramir calmly, aware that the other was again studying him intently.

Azrubâr laughed. “Of course. This is a fat land, with rich farmers and richer traders and merchants, and even richer lords. We only ... harvest a little of those riches. Only the foolish corsair kills his prey. Those with a little wit only take so much as to leave the trader to go about his business, so that in a few years, it’s profitable to harvest again.”

“A sound philosophy, and yet, most traders prefer not to be raided at all. And so do the lords they are answerable to.”

Azrubâr’s eyes narrowed. “And you’d know about what the lords prefer and what they don’t, wouldn't you?”

Faramir shrugged. “Why do you not ask the question which has been bothering you ever since I set foot on your ship?”

He could tell how, despite his attempt to hide his surprise, this blunt remark had startled the corsair. He again gazed at Faramir, until at length he smiled very slightly. “If you insist. Who are you? Khorazîr has not lied to me, so much I know. But he has ... twisted the truth a little in order to keep your identity a secret, am I right? Are you indeed on a mission to the Tark-King? Why should he receive you, were you a common soldier? And why should he aid you against the Snake? Unless ... I’m neither deaf nor stupid, you know, and I’ve heard a rumour or two in Umbar ...”

“And what say these rumours?”

“That you’d know best, I reckon. He really had the cheek to abduct your wife? Well, she is famed for her beauty in all of Harad, with hair like gold and skin like ivory. And he tried to murder you? That’s crazy, but I’ve always known he’s out of his mind, bloody upstart that he is.”

“The official version is that he succeeded in murdering me,” said Faramir, reaching up to lower the veil so that Azrubâr could see his face, before refastening it. The corsair laughed out loud and clapped his hands.

“This is capital! And I was about to declare Khorazîr a fool when he assured me we would have a save passage up the Great River. Hah!” He spat over the railing. “That’s for you, slimy Umbarians, and for you idiots in Pelargir. We’ll show you. Ah, I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this for many, many years.”

“Easy, captain,” cautioned Faramir, amused but also slightly alarmed by the excitement of the other. “If possible, I do not wish my identity to become known. Al-Jahmîr must not know that I am still alive, for the longer he believes me dead, the nastier his surprise when he learns the truth. So please be silent about what you have just learned. I would prefer not having to interfere once we have reached Pelargir, to indeed secure our passage upriver, but knowing the ruler there …”

He sighed, gazing ahead to where the Ethir Anduin lay, still obscured in blue haze, and where he expected to meet the first real obstacle on his errand to King Elessar, in the person of Falastur of Pelagir.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


Last edited by Khorazîr on Sun 14 Jan , 2007 6:04 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Tue 09 Jan , 2007 1:42 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Joined: Wed 27 Oct , 2004 10:49 pm
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Éowyn woke with a start. The sunlight streaming through the windows indicated the day had passed noon already, and she marveled at how long she must have slept. She stretched gingerly, feeling the tightness in her arms and shoulders. Her skin was still a bright shade of red, but she did not feel as much pain as she had the night before. Her stomach rumbled as she sat up. Turning at the sound of the soft clink of metal on table, she saw Saredeen setting a tray of food on the nightstand.

“Where’s Miliani?” Éowyn asked quietly, her voice heavy with sleep.

“I’ll be with you during the day now,” the girl replied, pouring a glass of water and handing it to Éowyn.

“But where is she?”

Saredeen hesitated. “I don’t know. Have some peaches. They were picked this morning.”

Éowyn frowned as she took the offered fruit. “What happened to her?”

“I don’t know. Really, I don’t,” Saredeen sighed. “All I was told was that I’d be with you during the day and someone else would be found for the night.”

Éowyn watched her carefully, but the girl seemed to be telling her the truth. She took a bite of the peach, wiping at some of the juice that dribbled onto her chin, flinching slightly. The tender skin did not take well to being rubbed. She still wondered what had happened to Miliani. She thought back over the previous evening, trying to remember if the girl had said anything, but when all she could recall was a blur of events and treatments, she gave up. Perhaps she would be able to find out more later in the day.

“The master visited you this morning,” Saredeen said, interrupting her thoughts.

“He’s back?” Éowyn said sharply. Her hopes of him having a long holiday in Umbar were dashed. Four days was not long enough.

Saredeen nodded. “He didn’t seem pleased to find you in your present… condition,” she continued. “He kept asking how sick you were and how long it’d take you to recover. He wants you to join him for supper tonight.”

“Tell him I am too ill for that,” Éowyn said bitterly.

“I’m afraid I can’t.” Saredeen smiled weakly. “He’s already talked to the healers, and they said you should be well enough to join him.”

“Then tell him that despite their predictions, I still feel too sick to move from bed.” She was prepared to stall him as long as possible.

“He also said that he expected you to protest, so he could make arrangements to have supper here if you wished.”

“I do not wish to have supper with him here or anywhere,” Éowyn stated. She took another bite of peach and chewed furiously.

Saredeen simply watched her in silence, unsure of what else she could, or should, say. After several long, uncomfortable moments, she added, “He also said that he brought you a gift.”

Éowyn shook her head and took a drink of water. “If he is trying to buy my favor, he should stop wasting his money.”

+++

Nonetheless, as the sun sank toward its watery escape, Éowyn found herself making the long walk to Al-Jahmîr’s quarters. Dressing had been painful, but the green gown she wore was loose, and the cloth felt cool against her skin. She gritted her teeth when they arrived at the familiar doorway and the guard stepped aside to her pass. Al-Jahmîr turned from the window where he had been gazing out over the gardens and came over to greet her.

“Ah good, you came,” he said, reaching for her hand and brushing a light kiss across it. “I thought perhaps you would indeed be too ill to join me,” he continued. Éowyn tried pulling away from his grip, but he held her firmly. The concern that had highlighted his features melted into stern resolution. “I doubt there is anything that can keep you abed for long,” he mused. “Even now you have the strength to fight me.” She turned her face away as he reached up to stroke her cheek and flinched as his rough hand met her flaming skin. “It hurts me to see you in such pain,” he said softly, his voice smooth, “perhaps later tonight we will find a way of easing it.”

“Let go of me,” she said through clenched teeth, still refusing to look at him.

Al-Jahmîr studied her for a moment before tightening his grip. “No.”

Éowyn lifted her gaze to stare him in the eyes. Her anger flared as he smiled slightly.

“You are not in a position to be making demands.” He ran his hand down the side of her neck and across her bare shoulder. “I did not ask you to prepare food or blankets for my return,” he continued, “for I know you ran away from that once. All I ask is the pleasure of your company, and a bit of courtesy to go with it.”

“You say that as though I had a choice,” Éowyn said, her voice even.

Al-Jahmîr leaned close, his face almost touching hers. His voice retained its soft tones. “We have had this conversation before, and the answer remains the same. Fighting me will only exhaust you.”

“I will stop fighting you,” Éowyn stated, “when I see you dead.” She could feel herself starting to sweat as her already overheated blood mixed with the rage she felt. She hated how his eyes roamed over her face and down to survey her neckline as though he had a right to do so. To enjoy her as he did one of his consorts – was that what he wanted? He would find that she was not as simple a conquest as they had been.

Al-Jahmîr chuckled at her firm statement, before kissing her swiftly. He stepped back, but her free hand still connected with his cheek, the slap echoing in the still chamber. He chuckled again. So, she was still as untamed as the stories – well, some of the stories – had said. He released her other hand and watched as she spun to leave.

Éowyn stormed toward the hallway, blind to everything except her indignity. The nerve he had to take such liberties with her! She was not his to kiss and caress and never would be. Those privileges belonged to only one man, and he would never do so again. Her eyes stung from anger and frustration. She did not take heed of Al-Jahmîr’s call behind her, but she did notice when she ran into the guard who stepped out of the shadows. She flinched and moved to go around him, but he blocked her progress yet again.

“I did not say you could leave,” she heard Al-Jahmîr say.

“I do not care about your permission,” she replied as she continued trying to get around the guard.

“You have a supper to eat.”

“No!” Irritated at her lack of progress, she shoved the guard with all the force she could muster. He didn’t budge. He looked over her shoulder as if awaiting an order, and, at a nod from Al-Jahmîr, returned her gesture. Her burns stinging fiercely from where they had been hit, Éowyn stumbled backward, tripping over the hem of her dress. Before she could regain her balance, the guard strode forward, grasped her arm, and began leading, or half-dragging rather, her back to Al-Jahmîr.

“I do not like having to force you to cooperate,” he said, arms folded across his chest, “but if you will not follow a suggestion, then force I shall. You will join me, and you will be courteous, and you will stay until I bid you goodnight.”

Éowyn stood before him, shaking with rage, hating him with renewed fervor. You will not break me, snake, she promised silently. Do what you will, but I will not give you what you seek. She took several breaths, trying to calm herself before she did something rash, but her efforts did nothing. She spat in his face.

Al-Jahmîr cringed and wiped the spit away. Then he lunged and grabbed her jaw, pulling her face close to his own. “Do not be foolish, Éowyn,” he hissed. “Do not make me be cruel. I can be, sooner than you think.”

She held his gaze as evenly as she could, despite the searing pain his grip caused. You do not have the courage to be cruel to me, she thought, even though she immediately questioned it. He was hurting her now, himself, something he had not done previously. Could she push him enough to make him really show his viciousness?

When he was satisfied she had understood his point, Al-Jahmîr released his grip and took her by the arm. “Come, the cooks did particularly well with tonight’s meal.” They began walking toward the table.

Éowyn tugged slightly at his hold, testing him. She stopped when his fingers tightened and wondered if she would have a blue bruise in the morning to go along with her red skin. “How often did your husband have to beat you, I wonder?” Al-Jahmîr muttered.

“He never had to,” she answered.

Al-Jahmîr pulled out a chair for her, and she sat down slowly. He took a seat opposite her and began tearing into a loaf of honeybread. Éowyn concentrated on slicing a piece of roasted duck drizzled with a garlic and butter mixture while refusing to acknowledge his glower. The strained silence lengthened across the table as though they were trying to forget each other’s presence. For awhile, the only sounds were that of silverware clinking on plating and liquid swishing into glasses.

Éowyn’s relief at not having to make conversation was broken when Al-Jahmîr spoke up, saying, “I see that the tailor has visited you.”

She did not look up from her plate. “How observant, since you were the one who ordered him to come.”

Al-Jahmîr leaned back in his chair. “I also ordered you to be polite.” He sighed and took a sip of wine. “What did you think of him?”

Éowyn took a bite and made sure to chew thoroughly, and take a sip of water to rinse her mouth, before answering shortly, “He fidgets too much.”

“He would be nervous in an empty room, Al-Jahmîr said, “but he is a master with the cloth. Surely he created gowns more appealing than this less-than-extraordinary piece.”

“I do not choose my clothes to please you.”

“Oh? I had not noticed,” he mocked. “Perhaps I should visit your wardrobe and remove any items that do not please me. Then you will be left with no choice but to wear something I fancy. Girl,” he called to Saredeen without turning to her, “see to it that she wears the blue satin tomorrow. “If she makes a fuss, send word, and I will come dress her myself.”

Éowyn raised an eyebrow. “Then I will make sure not to fuss.”

Al-Jahmîr returned her look. “I may come anyway.”

Éowyn shook her head and looked away. Not long after, she asked, “What happened to Miliani?”

Now it was Al-Jahmîr’s turn to ignore her gaze. “Who?” he asked absently, studying a skewer of shrimp.

“The other girl who waited on me.”

“Ah, her.” He slid two of the shrimp off the sharp stick and dipped them in a red sauce. “She was flogged and sent to the scullery.”

Éowyn looked aghast. “What? Why? She did nothing to merit that.”

“She let you sleep out in the sun all afternoon, knowing you would fry like a fish. I thought you would be pleased that she was punished for her oversight.”

“No! I should have known better than to let myself fall asleep.” Éowyn glared at him. “I want her back.”

“I want you to be cordial, but I doubt that is going to happen as well,” Al-Jahmîr stated, beginning to peel an orange. “Perhaps if you behave, I may consider letting her return to you.”

Éowyn narrowed her eyes. “Then I shan’t get my hopes up.”

Al-Jahmîr smirked and continued enjoying the fruit. “You have not asked me about Umbar yet,” he said after a pause.

“I do not care to know.” Éowyn rested her head in her hands, feeling a headache forming.

“What a shame. You are quite the talk of the town. I had many people ask if I really had you. I think I shall have to arrange an event here and show you off.” He studied her carefully. “Though certainly not until you look more like yourself. It would be terrible if someone thought I had substituted a lady for a lobster.”

Éowyn shook her head slightly and said nothing. That’s all I am to you. A prize to show to your friends the way a child shows a pony.

His next comment he spoke slowly, as though he was more interested on seeing her response. “I have also heard that a blue-eyed whore and her bastard son were seen lurking in town, trying to find a way to steal you from me. I hope they were disappointed to learn you were not around and their efforts were wasted.”

Éowyn kept her head down, staring at the wood grain of the table without really seeing it. Did he speak the truth? Were people looking for her? If anyone could find a way to weave into a snake’s hold, surely it would be Narejde and Azrahil. She suddenly longed to see them, reminders of happier days, ironically. She bit her lip. Even if they did find where she was, how would they let her know it? She doubted anyone could send her a letter without it being opened and examined long before it reached her, if it ever did. Breathe, she told herself. They will find a way. They have to find a way.

Lifting her head and keeping her face impassive, she said. “Stealing implies possession, and I do not belong to you.”

“Oh, but you do belong to me know,” Al-Jahmîr said softly. “You may not care to admit it yet, but you are mine.” He finished the orange and dabbed at the corner of his mouth with a napkin. “And one day your child will be mine.”

It was not an idea Éowyn wanted to consider, but she steeled herself and replied, “Yours? What will you do, hide him from me as Azrahil” – Al-Jahmîr’s face darkened at the name – “was?”

“I have not entirely decided yet,” he answered. “Maybe I will take him from you. At least he will not have to grow up knowing how uncivilized his mother is. Or perhaps I will let you keep the brat. Maybe once you are exhausted from nursing and caring for an infant you will not have the strength to fight me. No,” he held up his hand as she started to speak. “I am tired of your mindless chatter.”

He rubbed his forehead and poured another drink. Éowyn found a peach looked appealing and devoured it, anything to take her mind off of her captor’s threats and musings. She would not let herself think about what could happen once her child was born. Her dark fears could be fulfilled, or they could remain just that, fears. She doubted Al-Jahmîr would let her know anything beforehand, and would most likely tease and worry her until she began to labor. Wretched man, she thought.

“Am I free to go?” she asked after a long silence.

“No.”

She sighed. “I don’t see why you insist on keeping me here. All we are going to do is antagonize one another until we both get angry again.” She was getting tired, and aches were beginning to show up throughout her body. Another treatment of vera sap and almond milk would feel good, she thought.

Al-Jahmîr set his glass down. “Actually, I am debating whether you still deserve the gift I brought you from Umbar. I’m tempted to say no, though I am a forgiving man.”

“I do not want your gifts. I have never wanted them.”

“I know,” he smiled, “and those jewels and that gown would have been ravishing on you. I am still slightly bitter you did not agree.”

“I was expecting twins at the time. Nothing would have looked ravishing on me.”

“Maybe, maybe not. I was not there to judge. But,” he pushed his chair back and stood, “I am generous, and I believe I will give you my gift, though you certainly do not deserve it.” He came over to her and offered his arm. “Come, we have a bit of a walk.”

Éowyn groaned softly. She wanted to rest. “Why can’t you bring it here?” she asked.

“You’ll see why. Come on,” he goaded, suddenly cheerful, “it’s not that far, or have you grown astoundingly lazy since I brought you here?”

Éowyn stood slowly, feeling her irritation with him renew. “Tis not like I had much to occupy me,” she said.

“Maybe this will change things,” he said.

To her surprise, Éowyn found herself walking through the lower gardens, which were much larger and more ornate than the gardens in the women’s quarters, and eventually passing out of the main portion of the castle. Twilight had settled in on the land, and they passed several servants lighting embellished lamps that hung alongside the pathway. Night insects chirped and whirred, and birds flew to their nests, singing one last song before complete nightfall. A breeze toyed with her hair as she walked, and its coolness felt soothing across her burns. As they passed beneath one of the lamps, she looked up and thought that Al-Jahmîr looked rather pleased with himself. She was somewhat annoyed with herself for giving in so easily to his whim, but if that meant that her evening with him ended sooner, so be it.

They went through a small gate in one of the garden walls and down a flight of stairs. At the bottom, Éowyn saw that they were on the crest of a small hill, and at the foot lay a long, low building. She could see lamplight dotting its overhangs, and shadows of people moving about outside. Whatever this place was, it certainly remained busy late in the evening. Their pathway turned from stone to loose sand at the bottom of the hill. As they drew closer to the building, Éowyn thought she spied familiar shapes much larger than the average person shuffling in the dim light. Do not raise your hopes, she told herself. It would be like him to bring you here only to give you something like a cat or goat.

As they passed under one of the overhangs, her suspicions were confirmed when curious residents stuck their heads over stalls doors, whickering and blowing at their late-evening guests. At one point, Al-Jahmîr stopped, frowned, and left her to speak with one of the nearby stable boys. He returned, and the boy led them to a large box stall in the center of the stable. “Ah, here she is,” he said, stepping aside. “From Umbar with love.” He added quietly, “I know how you favor the greys.”

Éowyn tried to keep her reaction cool, but she still had to clap her against to her mouth when she looked at Al-Jahmîr’s gift. In the soft glow of the lamplight, she saw a small dapple grey mare with the same arched neck and sleek build that reminded her much of Narâk and his desert kin. The mare was busy nosing her haynet, but raised her head and whickered as Éowyn slipped the bolt on the stall door and went inside. “Hello,” she murmured in her native tongue, slowly walked toward the horse. “Are you really mine, or is this going to end as some wicked ruse?” The mare took a tentative step forward and sniffed at her outstretched hand.

Éowyn caught the chinstrap on the halter and brushed aside some of the forelock. The mare continued to sniff up her arm and nudged her shoulder. She flinched, but did not mind the greeting too much. It was better than some company she had recently kept. She ran her hand along the neck and down across the withers, still talking quietly to the horse. She checked the straightness of the legs and the looks of the hooves. It appeared that they had been picked out recently, as there was little accumulation around the shoe. “Someone’s taken care of you,” she said when she finished her inspection, coming back to scratch between the alert ears.

“She’s a good little mare,” Al-Jahmîr said, hiding his annoyance that he could not understand a word she said. He waved at a fly that insisted on buzzing in front of his face. “Six years old, saddle broke of course, gentle as a summer day.”

For once, Éowyn had forgotten that he was watching her. “She is beautiful,” she said. She hesitated, despite his raised eyebrow, and finally said softly after a long pause, “Thank you. Thank you for giving me the means of my escape.”

Al-Jahmîr laughed. “I doubt that. You are not to go beyond the peach and fig orchards to the east here,” he nodded in their general direction. “You will have a guard with you, as always, and should you make any attempt at a valiant escape, he is under orders to prove his archery skills by shooting you first and the horse second. I encourage you not to test him.”

Éowyn rested her forehead against her horse’s. “Well, we will have to see about that,” she said softly.

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

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PostPosted: Wed 10 Jan , 2007 5:04 pm 
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Location: snake-hunting
The sun had just risen, and her first rays were glinting on broad Anduin, making the river look like it was running with gold as so many claimed it did indeed nowadays, since trade and commerce had increased steadily ever since the War, and so had profits and wealth to be gained from them. But at this hour, most of the ingenious traders and merchants in Pelargir were still asleep, perhaps counting their riches in their dreams. Down at the docks there was life, as the fishermen were returning from their nightly expeditions into the Ethir Anduin or even further, to the coast and the open sea, and were now unloading their catches. Soon work in the shipyards would commence, and the city would go about business like everyday. It had grown during the past decade, especially after trade with the South had flourished again. People from all of Gondor and even from further abroad had come to settle, finding work in the shipyards and storehouses, or engaging in trade themselves. Certainly, taxes here were higher than in other fiefs, so were rents and the cost of living in general, but as long as the opportunities to make a fortune were similar high, people did not complain but flock to the great haven.

Despite the fine morning and the generally bright fortunes of his realm, the Lord of Pelargir looked all but pleased as he stood at the tall leaded windows of his study, gazing out over his city and the glittering river to the ridge of blue hills beyond, to the north and east. Even though he had already passed his 80th year, with his short ice-grey hair and piercing eyes in a lean, once quite handsome if rather haughty face, Falastur, the Lord of Pelargir looked decidedly younger. Age had not passed him without leaving traces, but Falastur could claim a good share of Númenórean blood, which he made sure to mention when opportunity arose, looking down with unmistakable disdain on those of ‘lesser’ blood. He was still as clever and quick-minded (and -tongued) as he had been during Steward Denethor’s reign, when he had been his chief opponent in council. He carried on this ‘tradition’ with the King, more cautiously and subtly, but with no less success. Of course he had never given Elessar cause to doubt his devotion to Gondor and his willingness to even forgo personal gain and success for her good, but he had also striven to maintain his independence, and never, not once, kept to himself when he had felt that an injustice was being passed over. For that he could claim for himself before all other lords: he did not shirk from mentioning what was uncomfortable and which others preferred to keep in the dark. He had a reputation for outspokenness, to the point of inviting the other’s enmity. He did not mind. Not even when the King himself rebuked him.

Oh yes, he had recognised the Northerner when he had returned from wherever he had vanished to after his grand victory in Umbar and claimed the throne. He had remembered keen-eyed and valiant Thorongil, who Steward Ecthelion had favoured even above his own son. Which was no wonder, in Falastur’s opinion. He had no great love for King Elessar, who disliked him in return, he was certain of it and did not mind – if others felt the need to lick the King’s feet or be petted by their sovereign, this was their business. Falastur considered himself above such fawning. He and Elessar had come to an arrangement where one side tolerated and to an extent respected the other, and even profited from their arguments and conflicts in council.

Denethor had been a different matter altogether. Falastur had not only disliked, but thoroughly and passionately hated the Steward, but not for political reasons. The reason had been entirely personal. If he thought about the matter objectively (as he seldom did), he had to admit that it had not been Denethor’s fault he had married the very woman Falastur had loved. He had not known, and since Falastur had not spoken to Finduilas of his feelings, he had had no rightful claim to her. Still, she must have known. And still, the memory of him arriving back in Gondor on the day of his coming of age to finally ask her hand in marriage, and to learn from her brother that during the time of his absence she had married the Steward’s heir hurt, even after so many years. Denethor was no more, but Falastur had found another victim to vent this particular hatred on, as this person seemed to be the living reminder of the injustice done to him.

Of course there was a small voice of reason telling Falastur that it was unjust on his part to blame to boy – nay, he was almost fifty already, and no ‘boy’ anymore, despite Falastur always accounting him for one – for his very existence. But he chose not to heed it most of the time. Despite the Steward’s son having inherited his father’s looks and Denethor’s undeniable wit and perception, as well as his mother’s gentleness and her compassion – not to mention her eyes –, and was thus a living image of his parents every time the Lord of Pelargir had to endure his presence in council or elsewhere, Falastur’s dislike of him was due to other reasons. Could he truly claim he was not a tiny bit jealous of the new Steward’s exulted rights and titles, not to mention his prosperous fief – hah, princedom indeed! – that claimed lands beyond the Great River that traditionally had belonged to Pelargir? And, if he was entirely honest with himself, did he not envy the Steward’s friendship with the King? Just a little? Among other things?

There was a long list of what he disliked about Denethor’s son. Oh, the other, the older one had not been so much of a problem. Had he become Steward, even without a King, Falastur would not have complained. Boromir had been a warrior foremost, and a good one, in a time when such men had been needed to stem the dark tide from the East. But his brother, the unambitious, quiet, the clever one, he had always been the more dangerous. And more uncomfortable. And he had become the very man Falastur had long feared he would: the King’s most trusted and valued counsellor, and an able ruler in his own right. Even though he had not been trained to the task of assuming the Stewardship as much as his brother and Denethor’s heir, he had risen to it in a time of darkness, and, even Falastur had to admit and credit him for it, had succeeded in making himself a name that was rather respected and loved than feared. And, just another smart, for apparently some people have all the luck, he had even managed to marry for love. Of course the union of the House of Húrin and the royal family of Rohan was a grand political match as could not have been arranged any better, but there was no doubt of the couple’s true affection for the other. For a long time it had seemed that the union would not be blessed by any offspring, yet sadly this problem had been resolved, too, eventually.

Despite all this, the moments when Falastur indeed envied the Steward and would have liked to exchange his life with the other’s were few. For the man was beset with more problems, dangers and mishaps than what the Lord of Pelargir would have thought possible for a single person. Of course, as soon as one rose into a position of power there would be enemies. The prudent ruler disposed of them discreetly, and made sure he acquired not too many new ones. Not so the Steward, oh no. He let himself get abducted and nearly slain at least once a year, and was wont to accumulate deadly enemies wherever he went. And now he was threatened by this thrice-cursed Al-Jahmîr again? What a surprise.

Walking over to his desk, Falastur took a piece of parchment filled with his narrow, meticulous writing which lay on top a large pile of paperwork. Returning to the window, he reread it. He had only recently returned to Pelargir from the Midsummer celebrations in Minas Tirith, and as usual, had found a mountain of messages, letters and reports waiting for him. He had hardly begun to deal with them when this new matter had been brought to his attention. Luckily, he had penned this report while the memory of the messengers’ account had still been fresh in his mind. For the account had been most extraordinary.

He had of course known of the Steward’s journey to the South, and being aware of the many enemies Denethor’s son had made there over the past years, with mighty Al-Jahmîr foremost, it had not come as a great surprise to Falastur to learn of his opponent’s latest misfortune. Only by chance – or rather, the careful watch he had set on the Ethir Anduin and all traffic on the Great River – he had learned of some rangers seeking a swift passage up Anduin to Harlond. Of course, as a good neighbour, he had assisted them in reaching their destination as swiftly as possible, after the strenuous journey and the many hardships they had taken upon themselves to reach Pelargir in so short a time. But before he had put them aboard one of his personal vessels, he had pressed them for news. The rangers had been reluctant to tell him anything, but Falastur was a shrewd and patient listener, and the prospect of a swift ship had finally loosened their tongues.

So, there had been an ambush, set by the Snake himself? How on earth had he managed to rise to power again, when only a year ago he had been reduced to a miserable worm, slithering away in search of a hole to hide himself lest he be stepped upon by the King’s boot? Elessar and his men had hunted him far and wide in all of Harad, but had failed to catch him. And now he was back, and what a return he had staged! Despite his hatred for the Umbarian who Falastur still blamed for the fall of his second-born son Vinyaran, who, during his stay in Umbar on the staff of the King’s governor had fallen prey to the lure of the Snake, and ended as a traitor to Gondor, so that Falastur himself had been forced to renounce all bonds of kinship with him. Oh yes, he hated the treacherous worm far more than the Steward. After all, Denethor’s son, however unpleasant his company and his mere existence might be, was a Gondorian and no bloody foreigner with high ambitions. And no Umbarian upstart had the right to so upset the Steward of Gondor – this Falastur considered his own privilege, and even if in the past he had, in theory, entertained the thought of disposing of his troublesome neighbour, and even though he was loath to admit it, he knew that the Steward was an able politician, and a good choice for the office he occupied. And his death, especially at the hands of a Southron renegade, would wreak havoc in Gondor, havoc and upheavals Falastur knew he could well do without.

The rangers had not been able to tell what the Steward’s condition was now, but according to their account he had been grievously, if not fatally wounded. Falastur leaned against the window-frame and gazed out over the city again. Gulls were sailing on a stiff south-westerly breeze. Soon, hopefully, more tidings from the South would arrive. He had sent out scouts and informants. What if the Steward died indeed, far from home? He would not actually mourn his demise, but he knew he would miss his favourite target for sharp debates in council. And his wife, she had by all signs been abducted by the enemy. Rohan would take that as a personal insult, and cry out for revenge. So would Gondor. Denethor’s son was popular, and the people would demand that his death be avenged. Falastur could see their point, even though he did not quite share the general opinion. He looked and thought further than they. Surely, King Elessar would send the fleet down to Umbar to finally cast down the upstart, and free the lady, if he could. If he was not careful, this would result in another war, for surely Al-Jahmîr had found new friends who had raised him back to power, and moreover, his vicious yet daring deed had most likely won him new ones. They would strike back, and there would be another war with the South, with those quarrelsome idiots and their queer notions of honour and bravery. And the trade would suffer. No merchant in his right mind would journey south in a time of war. Gone would be the prosperity which had developed after the Dark Lord had been cast down.

Torn between his own desire for getting rid of the outrageous Umbarian once and for all, and the one of preserving the current status of quite peaceful coexistence of Gondor and Umbar, Falastur began pacing the room agitatedly. Today the messengers would report to the King, and what would Elessar do? Wait for his lords to assemble to discuss the realm’s further course in the matter? Or would he decide upon swift and deadly action, all by himself as was his right as king? Still, he would need more information first. Whatever course was going to be taken, Falastur knew he should be present in council. After all, the fleet was based in a port where he was the chief authority. Also, he considered himself an indispensable part of the council and the decisions taken therein.

He was just about to send a servant to inform the captain of his personal transport to make ready to sail to Harlond, when there was a knock on the door. As Falastur had been on his way to the door anyway, he opened himself, quite startling the two men waiting behind it. One was a servant, the other a young naval lieutenant, his dark-blue surcoat embroidered with the device of Pelargir, a golden ship on a blue field. He bowed courteously to the Lord of Pelargir as the servant introduced him as Lieutenant Minalcar.

“My apologies for disturbing you at so early an hour, Lord Falastur,” he said, “but I bear a message from my captain, Ciryon. He said it was very urgent, and important that I delivered it to you in person.”

Falastur studied the young man with a keen gaze that the other weathered without flinching (which made him rise in Falastur’s esteem). With a curt gesture, he invited him into his study and at the same time dismissed the servant.

Closing the door behind him, he turned to the officer. “Very well then, what is it you have to report, lieutenant?”

The young man gathered himself, almost standing to attention under the scrutinising gaze of the lord. “My captain commands one of the light frigates of the royal navy, the Lingwilókë” he explained. “Mostly, we are engaged in accompanying and guarding convoys, or else we watch and protect the costal waters. Last night we were on duty down in the Ethir where we accosted a most remarkable ship. Even though it fairly looks like one of ours in built, it has undergone some modifications, and, more importantly, is under the command of one of the most notorious pirates we know, a certain Azrubâr. Perhaps you have heard of him before.”

Falastur’s eyebrows which had been knitted tight as he had listened to the account lifted ever so slightly. But this was the only sign betraying his surprise. “Indeed I have,” he replied slowly and thoughtfully. “What did you do, give chase and apprehend him?”

“That was the strange part,” said Minalcar with a rather bewildered expression. “We did not have to. At first we thought they had steered their vessel too close to the shoals or gotten entangled in the reed-banks. ‘Tis seldom that a corsair ventures that close to the coast and part way up the river at all, even at night, for the waters are difficult to navigate, and they know they are well watched and protected. So we thought that perhaps they had gotten their bearings wrong and run aground, or else had been chased thither by one of our other ships. It would have been easy for them to hide from us, for there was little moon, and their ship is all black, even the sails. But they had all their lamps burning, and so we found them. They did not even attempt to turn about and escape downriver, for they had sailed up a mile or so already. They simply continued onward and towards us. Our captain beat to quarters, expecting them to try and attack, but this they did not do, either. Instead, once we had drawn nigh, all ready to repel an attempt at boarding us, or even to board them ourselves, their captain, a savage-looking Southron with skin as black as his ship, hailed us, and inquired if we would be so kind as to let them pass, or at least to provide them with safe conduct as far as Pelargir, or even up to Harlond. We could of course not leave these wild folks to their fancies, despite them not engaging in any open hostilities, so Captain Ciryon sent a message up to the Filegeär under Captain Ostoher since she was in signalling distance to inform her that we were forced to leave our post, to indeed accompany the ship.”

“Did you learn anything about their destination, or their reasons for displaying such strange behaviour?”

“The pirate-captain only told us he was on an errand to King Elessar himself, and a most important one, too. Captain Ciryon told him that first he would be answerable to you, lord, and would have to bow to your decision concerning his further passage upriver, beyond Pelargir.”

“That was a wise move,” said Falastur appreciatively, hiding the irritation and slight alarm he felt. The matter was not only strange and unusual, something told him there was far more behind it. And in the light of what he had learned only half a day ago about the events down in Haradwaith ...

“I take it you have made fast in port?” he then inquired of the officer.

“Aye, lord, and so has the corsair. Our crew and the watch down at the quays are guarding the ship now, to prevent anybody from leaving the vessel. Perhaps, if you step over to the window you can see it from up here. It meets the eye at once with its black rigging.”

Slowly, Falastur followed the lieutenant to the window. The young man was shielding his eyes with his hand against the slanting rays of sunlight as he screened the harbour, then suddenly he pointed. “There she lies, my lord, the two-master next to the slightly smaller frigate from which masts fly the colours of Gondor and Pelargir. That is the Lingwilókë, upon which I serve,” he added with obvious pride. “We are awaiting your command as to how to proceed with the corsair and his crew. They are a very ... wild assortment of men, mostly Southrons, but there are others amongst them, too.”

Falastur did not reply at once, gazing down at the ship. The cheek of this corsair, he mused, frowning slightly. To come strutting – for lack of a better term – up the river into the very heart of his greatest enemy’s realm. Falastur was known for his strict policy against piracy and the constant vigilance of his captains, which during the past years had also – or so Falastur liked to convince himself – contributed to the increase in sea-trade from which he profited to no small extend.

“This is a most interesting matter indeed, lieutenant,” he at length said softly, “and one in which decisions should not be rushed, lest they be misguided. Return to your ship now, and convey my commendation and thanks to your captain for his wise and thoughtful conduct. Tell him to continue to watch the ship and her crew, and that as soon as I have come to a decision how to proceed with her, I shall let him know.”


+++


“There the lieutenant returns,” muttered Dorgil to Faramir as they stood in their accustomed place in the forecastle, watching the proceedings on the Gondorian frigate which had accompanied them so far. The rest of the crew was idling about, most were leaning over the gunwale gesturing to the townsfolk which was gathered on the quays to watch the strange ship and its even stranger crew, or to tease the marines and watchmen of the city who had been set to keep an eye on them and to prevent them from leaving the ship. “Do you think he was sent to inform Lord Falastur?”

“Most likely,” replied Faramir. He was again clad like one of Khorazîr’s guards, and again his features were veiled and hidden. Despite his sleep having been interrupted when their ship had been taken into custody by the Pelargirian vessel, he felt well-rested, and ready for a confrontation with Falastur should there be one, which he quite expected. “Where else should he go? And their captain mentioned something about having to report to his lord for further instructions. I only hope Falastur is not going to take too long to come to a decision concerning us. I rue every minute we are delayed here, and if he has been told we are on an urgent mission, I would not put it beyond him to delay his verdict simply to annoy us.”

“But he would want to know more about our mission, would he not?”

“Certainly. His curiosity may speed things up. We must put our hope on that.”


+++


Falastur was indeed torn between a desire to learn more about the corsair and his reasons for embarking on so outrageous and dangerous a mission, and the compelling to punish him for his cheek and sheer courage of sailing so far into enemy’s lands by letting him wait on his ship until it pleased the lord of the haven to deal with him. Those Southron upstarts needed to be put into their rightful place at once, as their heads were already swollen nigh to bursting with their own pride and arrogance. Make them feel that in Gondor they had naught to command, but were subject to the rulers’ verdict like everybody else!

Yet the longer he watched the ship and thought about what he had just learned, the more Falastur had to wonder about it. Which corsair in his right mind would indeed sail to Pelargir of his own free will? It was known for its vigilant navy, and one ship could not hope to either damage or steal much from the city ere it was rounded up and sunk or captured. Even the other rivers of Lebennin were well-guarded now, and corsair-inroads like they had been common years ago had become rare.

And what was more, why on earth had this Azrubâr embarked on a journey this strange? Did he expect some great profit to outweigh the dangers? But what profit could be so high? Did he not know that there was a substantial prize on his head in most costal fiefs of Gondor? A prize Falastur himself had put up in the first place? Was the fellow completely out of his mind? An errand to the King indeed! Falastur snorted with contempt. As if Elessar would receive him at all. He was not wont to deal with corsairs or other objectionable folk from the wild South. Only one of the lords of Gondor would stoop so low.

Falastur’s eyes narrowed suddenly as a most alarming thought flashed through his mind, and he turned from the window abruptly. I would not put it beyond him, he thought grimly as with a few long strides he crossed the room and rang for a servant. “Send word to Captain Valandur to have my horse and an escort ready in half an hour. And get me a runner for a message to Captain Ciryon of the Lingwilókë, down in the harbour,” he commanded the young man sternly.

This is going to be a most interesting encounter, he mused with silent glee as he strode from his study to change into garments fit for riding. I should have them rot in port for the next week for their insolence, or else have them cast in irons and stowed away safely in prison, the whole bloody lot. And I shall, if they do not give me a very good reason for letting them move on.


+++


“How about breakfast while we wait for your special friend?” suggested Khorazîr who had joined Faramir and Dorgil in the forecastle. “Captain Azrubâr has invited us. He does not seem troubled at all by the delay, and the fact that his head is worth a great deal here in Pelargir. Either he is crazy, or braver than I gave him credit for. Anyway, for the meal he has reclaimed his cabin, so that you may join us, too, Dúnadan.”

The two rangers were on deck watching the crew, some of whom were still entertaining the fascinated audience on the quays with mock duels and general skylarking, and knowing they would report to him as soon as there was a change in the crowd, Faramir had no qualms about following Khorazîr below decks. A table and chairs had been set in the midst of the cabin, and the hammocks had been removed and stowed on the berths. Azrubâr stood gazing out of the windows at the frigate anchoring behind them, but turned when his guests arrived. The ship’s cook was busy pouring out wine, before upon a sign from his captain he tipped his forehead and left, closing the door behind him.

Azrubâr gestured to the others to be seated. “Finally we can enjoy a meal together. Cook will not be waiting on us as is his wont, but I hope you won’t mind. So help yourselves. I’m afraid it’s partly fish again, Khorazîr,” he added with a mischievous grin upon seeing the other’s sour expression. “But we’ve got some bread and cheese as well. And quite without weevils, too. Although some of my crew assure me they are very tasty.”

As they filled their plates and began to eat, Azrubâr said, “Well, how do you expect to mollify Lord Falastur, and convince him of letting us pass on? After all, I’m a wanted man round here.”

“Meaning we could earn a fortune handing you over?” inquired Khorazîr, grinning now as well.

“Aye. But you wouldn’t do that, would you, as an honourable man?”

“Unfortunately, you have rendered us great services so far. Otherwise I would be sorely tempted, especially since the food on this ship leaves much to be wished for.”

Azrubâr laughed. “You’re a landlubber like I’ve never seen one, Khorazîr.”

“One thing I have been wondering about ever since I saw your ship, captain,” fell in Faramir, interrupting their amicable quarrel, “is whence you got it. Even though you have changed a thing or two in the design, and, according to Dorgil here who has some experience with ships have quite improved it, ‘tis still plainly recognisable for what it once was: a Gondorian frigate.”

Azrubâr drank from his cup, giving Faramir a long glance over the rim before setting it down again. “I’ve been told by your friends that you’ve quick eyes, and a keen wit to match them. You’re right. The ship was one of yours. I’d like to boast that we captured here in a bloody fight, but truth is, I bought her.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow at that and exchanged a glance with Dorgil who almost choked on his wine. “Who from?” the healer blurted out.

Azrubâr helped himself to one of the small roasted fish that rested on a platter in the midst of the table, covered with onions and olives and red peppers, then smiled as he began to take it apart and fish out the bones with his fork. “Well, someone who needed the money, I reckon,” he said mysteriously, obviously enjoying himself. “It was quite damaged after one of the Umbarian warships had messed with it, but not beyond repair. One of my men told me about it. He comes from Tolfalas. So I had a look at it, and found it suitable, and made a good offer, and here I am, with one of the fastest ships between Umbar and the tark-lands. As for who sold it, well, I don’t recall the fellow’s name.”

Faramir gave him a faint smile. “That I doubt,” he said evenly.

Azrubâr shrugged. “What’d be the name to you? He’s a man who sells anything to anybody. So his identity is not important. Moreover, I doubt the ship was his in the first place. I don’t know whence the money went in the end, but I’m sure he was under orders to sell it. Who owns these ships, I ask you? Your King? Or some lord? Perhaps one of them profited from the transaction. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I have my ship now.”

“Who of our lords would be that corrupt as to sell one of our lesser warships to a corsair?” said Dorgil agitatedly.

Faramir swallowed a bite from his fish. It was excellent, if rather spicy. “I could name a few. But as Azrubâr said, ‘tis of no importance right now. I for one am glad you have got so fast a ship, for otherwise we would not have reached Gondor by now. And you need not fear losing it or your head here or anywhere else in this realm. Even if Falastur tries to inconvenience you, as surely he will, I hope to have sufficient means to persuade him to let you go.”

“I have heard he’s no friend of the Umbarian, either,” Azrubâr mused.

“Definitely not,” replied Faramir. “Al-Jahmîr managed to escape from his prison, making him the laughing stock of Gondor for a while. Falastur is not a man to forget such insults and embarrassment. Moreover, he blames Al-Jahmîr for beguiling his son and making him a traitor to Gondor.”

“How that?” asked Azrubâr in astonishment, but even as Faramir was about to answer, there was a knock on the door. Azrubâr waited until Faramir had hid his face behind the veil again before admitting Khômiyi. “You should come on deck, captain,” the mate crowed, “There’s a mighty press of people down on the quays, and just now a bunch of horsemen arrived with the golden ship all over their livery, and one tall old fellow riding in their midst with a sly face like a fox, and an expression like sour milk.”

“That’d be Falastur, I reckon?” said Azrubâr cheerfully, gazing at Faramir.

“Aye, that would be Falastur.”

+

Falastur’s guard had cleared a space on the quay and banished most onlookers to the sides. The corsairs were in excellent spirits, calling to the stern soldiers to come and join them and have a life of treasure and adventure on sea, but none reacted to their teasing. Falastur had dismounted and was talking to the captain of the Gondorian frigate who apparently was giving him a short account of their nightly encounter with the Southron pirates. He was a stout man of medium height, with the dark hair and grey eyes that marked him as one of Númenórean stock. His face was weather-beaten and strongly tanned, and made him look older than he was. Faramir reckoned him to be not yet forty.

He had followed Khômiyi, Azrubâr, Khorazîr and Dorgil on deck, and since he was a good deal taller than most of the pirates, he had no difficulties watching the Lord of Pelagir over their heads. When the Gondorian captain had finished his report, both came over to the black ship. Falastur studied it with a keen, searching glance, which alighted on Dorgil and the two rangers, but obviously did not find Faramir amongst the crew.

At length, he drew himself up slightly. “I am the Lord of Pelargir, and thus the decision how to proceed with you rests with me. Who is the captain of your vessel? I want him to join me and Captain Ciryon on the Lingwilókë where he can deliver an explanation of his most foolish decision to journey to Gondor like this, where piracy is still considered a crime.”

There were cheers and whistles from the corsairs, and general amusement, but Falastur did not heed it. Azrubâr stepped forward, his crew parting to make way for him. He looked impressive with his fishmail-armour glinting in the sunlight, and his white teeth flashing in his dark face as he smiled. He leaped upon the gunwale, and holding on to the shrouds gave Falastur a courteous bow from his lofty place. “A good morning to you, my lord,” he greeted the other cheerfully, upon which Falastur bent his cold eyes on him and cocked an eyebrow. “I’m Captain Azrubâr of the Ship of Darkness, at your service. I’d be delighted to join you, but would ask permission to have some of my friends accompany me. Some you may know: Lord Khorazîr here is my most exulted passenger, and he it was who asked me to undertake the journey in the first place, for the errand to your king is mostly his. He asks that one of his guards may accompany him.”

Falastur’s expression darkened several shades when his eyes fell on Khorazîr, who he had encountered previously and come to dislike almost as much as the Steward. “He will have no need of a guard,” Falastur remarked coldly, his gaze shifting from the Haradan to the man Azrubâr had indicated. It lingered on the veiled features. Faramir held his gaze, until he thought he detected a flash of recognition.

“I must insist,” said Khorazîr, who had witnessed the silent exchange of glances.

“You have naught to insist here,” said Falastur haughtily, obviously enjoying himself. Faramir felt hot anger rise in him. Did Falastur want to unmask him in front of all these people? He did not put it beyond him, as the Lord of Pelargir was clever enough to assume that he had not donned this disguise out of fancy.

“If that is so, I shall keep my knowledge to myself, and the information you crave about recent events in the South,” Khorazîr replied in the same tone. “And the King will learn of your conduct here. I am on an important mission to him which brooks no delay, as well you know. It would be very unwise of you to try and hinder it.”

Falastur gazed up to him, a slight sneer curling his lips, obviously engaged in some internal struggle. Eventually he shrugged. “Bring your damned man, then. And rest assured that I shall have a word with the King as well about the conduct of certain Southrons in these parts.”

“Excellent,” fell in Azrubâr. “Also, there is Master Dorgil, who hails from your country.” He pointed at the healer, and with a curt nod Falastur allowed his attendance as well. A gangplank was installed, and soon the four men followed one of Ciryon’s lieutenants up another to the deck of the Gondorian frigate. Once they were assembled in the captain’s cabin and the lieutenant had been dismissed, Ciryon looked from one to the other with a rather confused expression. “Would anybody care to explain to me what is going on here?” he asked with some heat.

“I think we should leave the explanation to Lord Khorazîr’s guard,” remarked Falastur coldly. “I should very much like to hear it as well.”

“You can save your pointy comments, Falastur,” the ‘guard’ returned sharply, stepping forward and taking off veil and headdress. Captain Ciryon’s eyes grew wide when he recognised who was standing before him. His anger at Falastur’s behaviour not having abated yet, Faramir took another step towards the Lord of Pelargir. “What was all this about just now? You recognised me despite my disguise. Did you truly believe I dressed like this because I favour these garments? Why this attempt at unmasking me in public?”

“I can only say the southern sun does not become you, Steward,” spat Falastur, now getting angry in his turn. “I had no intention of ‘unmasking’ you. Why should I? ‘Tis not my problem you have gotten yourself into another mess with your Southron friends – or enemies, for there appears to be little difference between them.” Faramir shot Khorazîr a warning glance, since the Haradan had cast aside a fold of his burnous and gripped the hilt of his sword. Falastur went on as if he had not noticed. “Al-Jahmîr again, am I right? I have heard a thing or two over the past few days. What is it about you and this wretched man that he cannot leave you in peace? I heard he tried to murder you this time. Well, you look pretty alive to me.”

“What a pity, you must think,” Faramir fell in viciously.

“You are right, you know. Just now, I do mourn the fact the Umbarian did not kill you. For you are a dreadful nuisance, whatever you do, and your dealings with the South are always a sure way to invite further trouble. You cannot even look after your own wife on the journey, it seems, for how else did the Umbarian manage to capture her?”

Faramir’s eyes narrowed. “How do you know of that?”

“Because I keep my eyes open, and my ears. You have no idea what kind of rumours have been making the round here recently. Some said you had been murdered and had been buried, others claimed you were on the hunt for Al-Jahmîr right now, and still others said your wife ran off on her own accord. But my sources of information are more reliable than this babble. I spoke with your own men.”

Faramir was not surprised. Falastur was always well informed, and most likely the rangers had made their way to Pelargir in order to find a passage up Anduin. Still, the knowledge that apparently they had been questioned by Falastur was disquieting. “What did you do to my messengers to force them into revealing their tidings?”

“I provided them with a ship to speed their journey. Should I have not done so? Should I have let them walk to Minas Tirith? And do you deny me the right to learn about the latest upheavals in the South, when my fief is going to be the first that shall suffer the consequences? I have as much right to know what is passing down there as is King Elessar.”

“Nay, you have not. For from you I cannot expect any support in the matter, nor any constructive ideas how to resolve the situation down there. You never look further than your own purse, and you let your personal likes and dislikes govern your decisions. I would thank you for providing my men with a speedy means of transport, but the price they paid was too high. Do you not think I would have sent word to you had I wanted you to learn of what befell in the first place? I did not, and now ask yourself why. Whenever in the past I have truly needed your help, you either denied it outright, or only rendered it under impossible demands. Remember last year, when you ‘negotiated’ for my release with Al-Jahmîr? How did you put it back then: 'You know I do not care if he survives this or not. In fact, I would prefer if he did not.’ From any other lord, I would have considered this a pretence. But you really meant it.”

“So what? Have I sent assassins after you in the past, or had you ambushed you on your way home? Did I poison or shoot you? No. Even though there were plenty of times when I did long for it. As I do right now, which I admit freely. Trouble follows you wherever you step, Steward, and I demand to at least learn of the latest catastrophe you have brought upon yourself and others ere it descends upon my realm. Nobody but you would be so insolent as to bring a bunch of dirty Southron pirates and a self-proclaimed lord of those brown-skinned barbarians to this port, where they are not welcome.

“You should guard your tongue better, and cease to insult people who stand right in front of you,” snapped Faramir.

“Hah, you are trying to teach me good manners, are you?” sneered Falastur, his eyes blazing. Faramir looked equally furious. The others had, after a silent exchange of glances, mutually decided to take a step out of the way to leave the two at it. “This is the best entertainment I have had in years, including the girl who did the sword-dance down in Ulâd,” Azrubâr remarked to Khorazîr who grinned, as he had witnessed meetings of the council before. “And they have only just begun,” he said.

“I am trying to teach you to guard your vicious tongue. ‘Brown-skinned barbarians’, are they? I doubt you call them similarly when their merchants provide you with silk and amber and precious spices, or pay their taxes like every other citizen, although I daresay you charge them more than others. And do you believe I do not know what remarks you have spread about my wife’s descent? About her being of ‘lesser’ blood and thus no fitting spouse for a lord of Gondor?”

“Well, I stand by that. But she seems to have found a more fitting mate down south now, so I need not complain anymore.”

There was a moment of abrupt silence during which none of the bystanders dared to draw breath. Faramir knew his face had paled. Never before had he been so strongly tempted to strike the Lord of Pelargir, and the Valar knew the other had given him ample reason before. It cost him all the self-control he possessed to fight down that desire. When he spoke again, his voice was no longer raised in anger, but calm and deadly soft. “You are going to apologise for this, Falastur.”

Falastur met his gaze evenly. If in any way he was impressed or even cowed by the other’s expression, he did not show it. “What if I refuse?”

“Then I shall make you,” hissed Khorazîr, his amusement gone and replaced by cold anger and determination. He had drawn the sword now. There was another ring as Captain Ciryon drew his blade as well to forestall the Haradan. “There is going to be no fighting upon this ship,” he declared. He looked from one furious lord to the other. “What has gotten into you, my lords? Surely this is a matter to be resolved peacefully. If I may say so, I do believe ‘tis indeed your turn to apologise, Lord Falastur. And then, I would very much appreciate if we could all sit down, have a cup of tea – or wine – and hear Lord Faramir’s account of what befell, to clear things up, and then to decide about what is to be done.”

“The first sensible word since our arrival,” muttered Dorgil.

All eyes rested on Falastur now. “All right, I apologise,” he said angrily and without conviction. Faramir knew he would get no more from him, and acknowledged the gesture with a curt nod. The men took seats at the table, and the captain fetched pewter cups and a flagon of wine. Falastur seemed in no mood to take up conversation again, sitting in brooding yet alert silence, so that after taking a sip from his cup, Faramir began his account, wondering how often he would be required to repeat it in the days to come.

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“I should like to personally have a word with this foul Umbarian,” commented Captain Ciryon forcefully after Faramir had finished his account, thumping his hand on the table to underline his point. He had listened to the Steward’s report – supplemented by Dorgil and Khorazîr –, with ever increasing heat and anger. Now his eyes were burning fiercely, and his sun-tanned cheeks were flushed scarlet. “This is most outrageous! Nobody should be allowed to do this to a Lord of Gondor, and this bloody upstart the least! You are right, the King must learn of it at once!”

“My messengers will have reached him by now,” Faramir told him, his voice betraying his weariness. The anger about Falastur’s behaviour and insulting words having died down to a faint simmering, his outburst and the long report afterwards had exhausted him, reminding him yet again that despite all improvements in such a short time his body had all but recovered from the injuries. He took another sip from his cup – his wine he had diluted with water as his talk had made him thirsty – then glancing at the others found that Falastur was watching him keenly.

During Faramir’s speech, the Lord of Pelargir had sat listening in brooding silence, only now and again venturing a question. Faramir did not believe that Khorazîr’s outbreak had in any way cowed or frightened the other. Rather, Falastur seemed to be waiting for something, although Faramir could not determine what it was. Or was he just digesting what he had just learned, and trying to fit it into the accounts and rumours he had heard before? For the moment, the Lord of Pelargir appeared to be content to simply watch events unfold, as long as he was part of them and able to interfere at any time suiting him. Also, it was plain to see that he took some silent pleasure in hearing about his chief opponent’s latest misfortunes, and watching him battle grief and exhaustion. He had looked tempted to utter a remark when Faramir had mentioned his dilemma of entering Kadall and aiding the villagers despite knowing that he was leading his men and, worse, his wife into a trap. Faramir was aware he must expect and endure serious criticism in this point, from the King and others, and yet knew that if he could turn back time, he most likely would have decided just the same, despite the dire consequences.

“Nevertheless,” Faramir went on, “there is need to continue our journey without further delay. I hope we will meet with no further obstacles here.” He gazed at Falastur levelly.

“I shall not hinder your departure, Steward,” the other replied evenly. “You will have to endure my presence aboard, however, for I shall accompany you to the City.”

Faramir shrugged. “Naturally.” Tempted to add a stingy remark about Falastur’s unceasing curiosity and desire to interfere with or control events beyond his responsibility or authority, he nevertheless bit his tongue, not wanting to invite another argument. At the moment he lacked the strength to counter the other’s malice fittingly.

“Good,” said Ciryon, rising as if in sign that everything of importance had been said and discussed and decided. “I shall have the ship made ready at once. You will need to transfer your luggage to this vessel, my lords. I shall have accommodation prepared for you, and some food as well. ‘Tis about an hour to noon, and you will be hungry.”

“There will be no need,” fell in Azrubâr who had listened to Faramir’s account with great and obvious interest. “The Steward has got a passage already.”

Ciryon turned to the Southron and gave him a surprised glance which almost immediately changed to a doubtful, indignant one. Looking back to Faramir, he said, “My lord, surely you have no intention to continue your journey on this ... this pirate’s ship?”

Hiding a smile at the captain’s shocked expression, Faramir answered, “Actually, I would prefer it.” Seeing the alarm and only half-veiled insult in the other’s eyes, he swiftly held up a hand. “Captain Ciryon, under different circumstances I would immediately accept your gallant offer,” he went on soothingly. “But remember what I told you: officially, the King’s Steward was (supposedly) slain by the Umbarian, and now lies buried near the village of Kadall, in the hills of Harondor. You must stick to what you promised just now and not reveal the fact I am still alive until you receive orders to do so. I need to remain in disguise until I or King Elessar see fit for me to take up my old identity again. Therefore, I will travel to Minas Tirith as Lord Khorazîr’s guard. It would look strange if he and his retinue arrived in Harlond on a Pelargirian vessel, and raise uncomfortable questions as to how they came by it, when for a journey from Haradwaith they would much rather travel on a Haradaic ship. I would indeed appreciate if you accompanied us with the Lingwilókë – after all, a pirate-ship would need an escort upriver, and also Lord Falastur requires some means of transportation, for surely he considers himself above setting foot on a ship owned and navigated by barbarians.”

Falastur’s eyes flashed at this remark, but he restrained himself from uttering a reply. Faramir knew that he was saving it for later, as was his wont, and when opportunity arose, the Lord of Pelargir would make certain to repay the Steward tenfold.

“And the barbarians wouldn’t have him aboard their ship,” said Azrubâr with a dark glance upon the Lord of Pelargir, who disregarded him with a haughty, aloof expression. “Don’t worry about your Steward, captain. We’ll look after him well. My crew hold him in awe and don’t really wish to learn his true identity, so I daresay he’s safer with us pirates than you inquisitive tarks.” He winked at the captain who looked rather put out still, and at length Ciryon nodded and his expression softened until he gave the corsair a grim smile.

“And if you do not, we will sink your sorry boat.”

“If you catch us, you mean?” Azrubâr asked mischievously.

“You can bet on that. What did you do to her beautiful lines, anyway? All those oars and additional planking? What is all that funny rigging ‘round the bowsprit about? And the extra sheets on the topmast? Did you put up your laundry to dry?” There was an amused glint in his eyes now – a sign for Faramir that he had taken his disappointment in good humour at last, and was prepared to play escort only.

“Let me tell you about that ‘laundry’ and how it makes one’s ship bloody fast, captain,” said Azrubâr, to Ciryon’s surprise clapping his shoulder amicably and steering him back to the table and the still half-full flagon of wine, “while the lords get settled on their various transports again and we have another cup of this rather enjoyable wine. Where did you acquire it, you said?”

+

Whatever the steadfast Gondorian captain and the corsair discussed over their drink Faramir never learned. He, Khorazîr and Dorgil returned to the Balak anDolgu where Khômiyi had finally established some discipline among the crew again and was overseeing them readying the ship for departure. Falastur’s guards’ stern presence in addition to that of the marines had chased away most of the curious folk on the quay, so that the corsairs had lost the audience for their pranks.

Not long, and Azrubâr came back as well, in excellent spirits. “For a tark, he’s quite a reasonable fellow, that Ciryon,” he remarked to Khorazîr and companions as he briefly joined them in their habitual place in the forecastle. “What a pity I’ll have to give him battle next time we meet. Haha, but then I’ll make sure to commandeer his store of wine! Hey, Thatch,” he then bellowed to a fair-haired sailor busy with a coil of rope, “coil that down properly, you hear! Otherwise the next man’s going to fall over it.”

“Aye, sir,” the pirate acknowledged, tipping his forehead before seeing to his task.

Azrubâr shook his head. “Strawheads,” he commented. “They can speak to horses, it’s said, but only few make decent sailors. Thatch’s not bad, considering, although it took him months to find his sea-legs.” He turned to go, but obviously remembering something, he hesitated. “He’s a nasty piece of work, your friend Falastur,” he remarked to Faramir. “I’m impressed how you managed to remain so calm. I would have clapped him round the mouth for his insolence, at least.”

Khorazîr raised his eyebrows. “Calm? For him, that was rage. Although I daresay another remark from that idiot, and he would indeed have a nice black eye now, or a broken nose.”

Faramir glanced at the other vessel where Falastur who had been speaking to the captain of his guard was walking up the gangplank accompanied by a naval lieutenant obviously about to show him to his quarters, and nodded faintly. His readiness to hurt the other had surprised and indeed alarmed him. Not that Falastur did not deserve it for his malicious remarks and his general hostile, insulting attitude, but Faramir had become aware how recently a new side of his was beginning to develop and grow like a poisonous plant, with an uncharacteristic and disturbing desire for revenge and a preparedness to use violence; a side he did not like at all, and – the thought struck him suddenly – a side which Éowyn would surely resent, either. “I sometimes wonder if he is trying to make me lose control and indeed strike him,” he said quietly. “Preferably in front of witnesses, of course, so that afterwards he can sue me for it. He almost had me this time, and I do not wish to grant him this victory.”

“Well said. If I were you,” Khorazîr counselled, “I would save my rage and hatred for when you meet the Snake. Falastur is not worth your anger. Keep it for Al-Jahmîr, who deserves every bit of it.”

+

The bells of the city had not yet rang noon when the two ships sailed from the great haven of Pelargir and began their journey upriver. The wind had held and was still blowing strongly from the South-West, speeding the two vessels northward despite the river’s current, so that Azrubâr did not have to command the slaves to man the oars. There was an substantial amount of traffic on the river, mostly smaller ships engaged in trade between Harlond and Pelargir, as well as ferry- and fishermen. Twice they passed large rafts of timber: the trees had been felled in Ithilien and were being floated down to Pelargir where their wood was needed in the shipyards and elsewhere, and in high demand.

As usual, Faramir regarded them with a mind and heart divided. Timber was an important source of income for his fief as Ithilien and especially the hills of Emyn Arnen where his home was situated were rather densely forested, and the wood was of high quality. Yet for someone who loved the forests for their variety of trees and shrubs and their wild beauty, and not their worth in gold and silver and other goods, he regretted every tree felled, especially if it was one of the grand old oaks or cedars which had graced the woodlands for several centuries. Despite taking great care that there was enough replanting undertaken, and having issued hard laws against the illegal cutting of trees which his rangers enforced, he knew the timber-trade would remain a two-edged sword for him, a grievous necessity. After all, he could not hope to during his lifetime see those saplings planted grow tall and majestic as the trees they were replacing.

Yet at the moment, the mere view of his beloved realm unfolding to starboard in gentle hills rising to steeper and more rugged peaks where the Ephel Dúath mounted in cloud-shadowed ridges grieved him more than the timber-trade and its consequences for Ithilien’s woodlands. All day as they journeyed upriver and the Emyn Arnen grew on the horizon until he could almost distinguish certain hills, his heart grew increasingly heavy. Finally, when after a journey of about ten hours during which he had taken a short nap in the cabin and then returned to the forecastle, they had covered half the distance between Pelargir and Harlond, and the ships were struggling against a treacherous current from larboard where the river Erui joined its swift waters to that of broad Anduin, and the setting sun was gilding the green slopes to the east he knew so well and held so dear, he thought he could not bear the sight anymore. It rent his heart with a force new and strange to him. He had felt the acute longing to return home before, most strongly a year ago during his imprisonment on Tolfalas. But now it was different. He yearned to turn east instead of west whither his journey must take him, to Minas Tirith. He longed for home, more than ever, but at the same time this feeling was tainted with bitterness, even despair. For what was ‘home’ right now? His wife was not in Dol Arandur where they had spent so many happy if not entirely care-free years together. Perhaps she would never wait for him in the courtyard to greet him upon his return from an errand or journey, or join him for a walk in the gardens or a ride through the forests, or an archery contest she always tried to cheat him at. And his boys, they were far away, too, in Rohan, beyond the line of snow-capped mountains now rising to the North, marching ever westward. Did he really wish to return to Dol Arandur, to find the place he cherished so dearly deserted of all who filled it with life and laughter and love? He loved Ithilien and his home there, yet without his family he knew he would not enjoy it anymore.

Even here you can strike at me, Al-Jahmîr, he thought bitterly as he watched the last rays of the sun glow on the rugged peaks of the Ephel Dúath and then fade as it sank below the world and Ithilien was cast in shadow. Your venom reaches so far as to poison the very thought of what I hold dear, and insinuate it with bitterness and despair. And I shall repay you for it. You will lose your home, too, and all you truly cherish, if I have to personally take your castle apart and cast the stones into the sea.

But as he plotted his revenge in his mind, the thought of it did not assuage his grief the way he had hoped it would. It did not alter the way he felt right now. He sighed, resting his head against the railing. Slowly, darkness descended upon Ithilien so that eventually he was no longer able to see his beloved realm floating by, so very close and yet so utterly alien and out of reach of a sudden. Only here and there lights glinted in the hills where settlements had been established, but one after another, they winked out when Ithilien’s inhabitants went to sleep. Did they know what had befallen their lord and lady? And if they did, did they truly care? Faramir was certain that most would. Last year upon his return from Tolfalas he had experienced their devotion and their honest interest in and worry for him and his family. They did not merely consider him a ruler they were answerable to and to whom they paid their tribute and taxes, but actually respected him out of affection, not fear. Not every lord of Gondor could claim that for himself, he knew, and the thought warmed him despite cold sorrow gnawing at his heart.

Equipped with a woollen cloak and blankets against the chill of the wind, and despite Dorgil’s insistence that he must seek out the cabin and try and get some more sleep, Faramir had decided to spend as much time as possible outside. Right now he felt too troubled to find any sleep, anyway. Also, he had come to enjoy the rush of wind and waves, the cries of the gulls as they sailed in the vessel’s wake, the creaking of the ship’s planks and the sounds of sail and rigging, as well as the many-tongued talk and shanties of the crew which accompanied their work, and the regular toll of the ship’s bell to announce the hours.

They were a solace for his fraying nerves. For the closer they drew to Minas Tirith, the more another matter began to weigh on his heart and mind: the thought of his imminent meeting with Elessar. How would the King react, first to the shocking tidings, and then to his Steward standing in front of him, admitting his own fault in the matter, and his despair over the situation? Surely there would be a reprimand, and well earned. And punishment, too? Most likely – as if there was a greater punishment than the uncertainty about Éowyn’s fate, and the images that haunted him about what she might be suffering at the hands of her captor. But worse than the thought of punishment was the knowledge of having disappointed his King, and his friend. Elessar had strongly counselled against the journey to the South. He had not forbidden his Steward to undertake it, but had yielded his leave only hesitantly and with great reluctance. And he had been right. In acting against his wish, Faramir had loaded his superior with a sheer mountain of new work and worry, when actually it was his duty to relief the King of such work.

Who else would be there? Imrahil? Perhaps, if he had attended the Midsummer celebrations and the meeting of the full council that was traditionally held at that time, and had not journeyed home yet. What would his uncle tell him? Would he criticise him or attempt to cheer him? Túrin would be present, of course, and suddenly Faramir longed for his unceasing cheerfulness even in troubled, cheerless times. With Túrin, even serious matters looked less dark. Also, Faramir would have given much to have his other close friend from childhood days at his side. But Maradir had his own realm to look after now, far away to the north, in the Blue Mountains. Although they corresponded regularly, and Maradir had visited some years ago (despite frequent invitations, Faramir so far had not managed to journey north to his friend’s realm, as his duties as Steward and, more recently, those as a father of three young children had kept him in Gondor). Right now, he knew he needed Maradir’s steadfast friendship and his usually wise and thoughtful if not always comfortable counsel, as well as his unerring ability to make practical, working suggestions of how to dispose of a seemingly unsolvable problem.

And, as Faramir often experienced in times of acute grief and worry, he longed for the presence of his brother and father, wondering what they would have counselled him to do. Most likely, he thought with a faint smile, Boromir would have called for swift action against the Umbarian, and would have been the first to demand to fight a duel with the Snake. To see his beloved little brother so hurt and humiliated by an enemy would have been a reason for him to sound to war, and raze Umbar to the ground.

And Denethor, what would he have done? He, too, would have dealt Al-Jahmîr a sore blow, Faramir was certain. But more subtly, and more deadly, preventing him from ever rising to power again. Of course, Denethor would never have allowed the upstart to ascend so high in the first place. The Steward had had his ways of disposing of those uncomfortable and dangerous, and most were never heard of nowadays – the very memory of their names and deeds had been erased with them. Faramir recalled that once Falastur, in his blatant and uncomfortably accurate way, had accused him of lacking ruthlessness in dealing with his foes. Back then, Faramir had rebuked him that he was confusing ruthlessness with cruelty, and that in his opinion there was always another way than to simply kill one’s opponents or send armies against them. As he thought about it now, he had to admit that perhaps Falastur had had a point. Another, more ruthless ruler might have sent an assassin to dispose of Al-Jahmîr and thus spared himself a lot of grief and pain and worry. But another ruler would have to resort to assassins more than once, for with Al-Jahmîr out of the way, another war-lord would have stepped forth to claim the vacancy.

Perhaps he was indeed too soft in the conduct of his office, he mused. But did he really wish to become a hard, merciless prince, who gained obedience from his people only through fear and terror? Was it not better to be respected for one’s justice and graciousness, which of course must not be confused with softness? Suddenly, and unbidden, the words of his father, uttered many years ago during the War came to his mind: Ever your desire is to appear lordly and generous as a king of old, gracious, gentle. That may well befit one of high race, if he sits in power and peace. But in desperate hours, gentleness may be repaid with death. As he recalled them, he thought he could hear his father’s stern voice, and see his dark eyes bent on him sternly and full of criticism. He recalled that back then he had grimly acknowledged the reprimand, for such it had been. So be it, he had replied, calmly but without true conviction, to prevent a further outbreak from the Steward which in his troubled, greatly exhausted state he would not have weathered. The outbreak had come nevertheless, he recalled, and the conflict had never been resolved. The Steward had passed away before they had had an opportunity to talk again, and to this day he rued the cruel fate which had denied him the chance to make amends.

Yet, he had to admit, just like Denethor had foretold things seemed to be developing now. Had his father been right all along, then? Had his second-born son indeed blundered, out of gentleness and lack of ruthlessness? Had he not taken the threat of Umbar seriously enough? Had he sacrificed his and, more importantly, his wife’s safety out of a misguided ambition to resemble a ruler of old, and appear greater and nobler than he truly was? He decided to raise this question to Elessar, in the hope of receiving the King’s honest opinion and much-needed counsel. May be repaid with death, he thought. Whose death, I wonder.

+

The sound of the bell announcing the second change during middle watch, and the fall of approaching footsteps on the foredeck as the sailors took up their positions stirred Faramir out of a light slumber. Dorgil’s tall stature appeared before him, dimly illuminated by the silvery light of a young moon and the small lamp he was carrying. He heard the disapproving click of the healer’s tongue. “I should have checked on you far sooner, but Aralas the fool assured me you were alright out here. ‘Tis bed for you now, and I will hear no word against it,” said the ranger sternly, extending a hand for his captain to help him to his feet.

Faramir followed him to the cabin which strangely was deserted by all other occupants, and soon found himself abed, after the healer had checked his wounds again and announced his satisfaction about their rate of healing. “These past days of relative rest at the fresh air have worked wonders,” he said. “I must admit I am somewhat surprised to find you so well, when only about a week ago we fought for your life.”

“It seems so much longer,” said Faramir softly as Dorgil doused the lamp and climbed into his hammock. “Yes, it does,” came the quiet reply after the ranger had settled in his swinging bed. “Have you considered how long we are going to stay in Gondor?”

Faramir stared at the dark ceiling, its beams only dimly recognisable in the faint light filtering through the windows. “As long as it takes to prepare things,” he replied. “I will return to the Harad as soon as possible, however. The thought of her being held there is unbearable and seems to be getting worse the further I am away. On the other hand ...,” he sighed deeply. “I need to see my boys, and they are in Rohan still, with no sea or river and swift ships to bring me there.” Suddenly, another thought struck him. “You would want to see your family, would you not?”

Now it was Dorgil who sighed softly. “Aye. But I would need to journey to Dol Arandur.”

“Then do so. I will send word when I am about to leave, although I would not begrudge you to remain in Gondor, after what you have done for me and the company recently.”

“Nay lord, as tempting as this offer is, I will accompany you back south. After all, who will stitch you up when I am not around?”

Despite his heavy heart, Faramir had to smile about this remark. “I very much hope they will be no need for any further stitching, at least not on my part. Al-Jahmîr may need your services, however, when I am done with him.”

Dorgil chuckled softly. “Honestly, captain, I doubt he could be saved by stitches once you are done with him. I may give him some for good measure, as surely he loathes them like everybody else, but I am quite certain that stitches will not help him anymore once he has been subject to the Steward’s wrath. Nor anything else, really.”

+

More tired than he had been aware of, Faramir slept soundly through the rest of the night and a good deal of the next morning. He was roused by Khorazîr, who informed him that they were approaching Harlond and about to make fast in about an hour. After washing and dressing swiftly, Faramir joined him and the rest of their small company on deck, where they had a rather frugal breakfast. The Lingwilókë having overtaken them during the night, he watched how the frigate reached the port before them with her banners flying in the wind.

To his slight surprise, he found a reception committee waiting for them on the quay. It consisted of a company of horsemen, obviously set to watch the corsairs. Also, there were some spare horses. He assumed that their approach had been spotted some time ago and that someone had sent word to the City, and received orders to provide transportation. Falastur took up negotiations with the captain of the horsemen, and Faramir found his assumption confirmed. After they had left their ship as well and joined the Lord of Pelargir, the captain announced he had been sent to provide steeds and an escort for them. Azrubâr and his crew were commanded to remain aboard their ship, under the watchful eyes of Captain Ciryon’s marines. “I’ll wait for you here,” the corsair had promised Khorazîr and his company, “for surely you’ll need a fast ship back to the South.”

+

The ride to the City was swift and mostly silent. Faramir hoped that nobody would recognise him. So far his disguise had fooled most people, Falastur aside, but he had had a strong suspicion to find the Steward aboard the pirate-ship all along. Also, he hoped the Lord of Pelargir would keep his knowledge about the true identity of the Haradaic guardsman to himself.

After they had passed the great gate and were ascending the winding road toward the Citadel, he was aware of many a curious glance people were bestowing on the company. Had they heard the disquieting tidings from the South already? Usually, nothing travelled as swiftly as rumours and bad news. And how would they take to a group of Southrons, when their fellow countrymen had supposedly murdered the Steward and abducted his wife? Was there only curiosity in their eyes, and not a trace of hostility as well?

A messenger had been sent ahead to inform King Elessar of the arrival of the Lords Khorazîr and Falastur and their retinue, so that after leaving their horses with the soldiers in front of the stables in the sixth circle, where Khorazîr’s guards apart from Mezlâr, and the rangers except Dorgil remained also, the travellers were admitted into the Citadel without ado. Faramir noted the impressed and admiring glances Mezlâr was sending about the majestic buildings when they reached the court of the White Tree and the fountain, underneath the tall spire of the White Tower in front of Mount Mindolluin’s mighty shoulders. Most likely he had never seen a building of this grandeur and beauty before.

“The King awaits you in his chambers,” said a guard in the black and silver livery of the Tower of Guard who had been sent to attend to them, and they followed him across the courtyard towards the royal quarters. Faramir found his feet slow involuntarily the closer they drew to the building, and once inside and passing down an echoing corridor he felt that every step forward cost him more force of will. He would have given much to not have Falastur accompany him on this errand, for surely there were going to be hard words spoken, and the malicious presence of the Lord of Pelargir would make things worse.

Presently, their guide halted in front of a set of dark oak doors guarded by two more guards in black and silver, wearing winged helmets of bright mithril, and the token of the seven stars, the white tree and the silver crown upon their sable surcoats. Knocking respectfully, he waited until a voice from within admitted him. He went inside to announce who he had brought, and soon after returned. “You may enter,” he said gravely, stepping aside to allow their passage. Khorazîr, Mezlâr and Dorgil went in at once. Faramir hesitated, fighting a strong urge to turn about and walk away.

“After you, Southron,” he heard Falastur’s voice in his ear, and drawing a deep breath, he entered.

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Sun 21 Jan , 2007 2:26 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Éowyn woke early the next morning when the light was still grey and the breeze cool. Stretching, she felt the lingering tightness in her skin from her burns, but it did not seem as intense as the day before. Apparently the almond milk and vera sap were doing their jobs. Listening to the waves crash beyond the window, she realized it had been a full week since she had first woken to their roar. A lifetime seemed to have passed since then. A week – and what did she have to show for it? Nothing, other than the knowledge that she had entertained the snake and made herself miserable. Why hadn’t she taken those wonderful days that Al-Jahmîr had been in Umbar to explore the castle and figure a way out? As she lay there, she realized it wasn’t likely that her guard would have let her roam where she really want to go in the fortress or let her see its weaknesses. She sighed. If it even had any.

Sitting up, she ran a hand through her hair, flinching as some of the more stubborn knots refused to yield. Yesterday evening’s events had been strange, she recalled. Why had Al-Jahmîr told her that people had seen Narejde and Azrahil? Did he just want to see how she would react? Or get her hopes up only to crush them later? Could he be bluffing, perhaps? Surely those two were skilled enough to not let themselves be spotted if they did not want to be. Yet, Al-Jahmîr was cunning and would know that she would be expecting a rescue party. She decided she could not trust him to tell this truth in this matter. But her hopes had been raised nonetheless. Maybe she would not have to spend many more weeks like this, wondering, hoping, waiting. Have you forgotten how long it took to rescue Faramir? she asked herself. That took months, and you don’t have a magic bird to help you this time. Another voice answered, Yes, but we did not want Al-Jahmîr to find out that we knew about his plans then. It is no great secret that I am here, and even he expects some sort of reaction.

She wiped her eyes and shook her head, trying to get rid of those thoughts. They were stirring up the grief she had barely managed to control. Even if there was a valiant rescue and she returned home, her loss would not be lessened. The man she loved above all was gone. She would never see him again except in memory, and even those faded somewhat over time. She would never listen to him whisper his dreams, and his fears, to her in one of their late-night conversations when they should have fallen asleep hours before. She would never wake to find him watching her, propped on one elbow, his smile broadening as he told her good morning.

Stop it! she told herself, brushing more drops from her face. You will go home to your boys, and you will see Faramir again in them. You will see him every time Elboron tries to catch a frog, or when Peregrin comes running to you for a kiss, or when Meriadoc is tickled silly. You will have him three times over when you go home. But she would not have him, and facing that reality surrounded by her familiar home would be harder and more painful than it already was.

Wiping her eyes one final time, she forced herself to concentrate on something else. She would have time to properly grieve later when she had returned home and was surrounded by others who would share the same grief. Be strong, she resolved. Glancing out the window, she saw large, puffy clouds stacked atop one another stretching out to sea. Briefly wondering why she did not have a serving maid this morning, she slipped out of bed and went into the room where her new wardrobe was displayed. After walking down rows of outlandish gowns, she spotted an open trunk and peered inside. “Aha!” she said, pulling out a brown dress made of sturdy cotton. This would do well in the stable.

For that was where she was planning to go this morning. Al-Jahmîr’s gift, or rather, his motive, had puzzled her greatly. Was he trying to tempt her into doing something rash and foolish? She might, if she were not careful and did not keep her senses. Did he expect some sort of cooperation or favor in return? He would not get any, that was for certain. Maybe he was simply trying to buy her affection, which someday he would learn was useless to try. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. He had proven that once he had something stuck in his mind, it was difficult to change it. Even though he was confusing and outrageous, at least now she had something to look forward to. Horses did not tell you what to wear or how to behave.

She changed out of her nightclothes and began braiding her hair in front of the mirror. While fingers worked the golden strands, she scowled at the reflection that greeted her. Purple-yellow bruises had formed along her jaw during the night, outlining the Umbarian’s fingers. For not wanting her appearance to be anything less than perfect, he obviously had not had second thoughts about how much pressure he was using. He would regret that one day.

She had almost finished her braiding when she heard soft footsteps approaching. A new serving girl came into the room, carrying a breakfast tray. The girl gasped when she saw her charge awake and fully dressed. She set the tray on the table and dropped to her knees. “Forgive me, my lady,” she babbled. “I didn’t know you’d rise so early, so I went to get your breakfast so Saredeen’d be ready when she came, and I-- I-- Let me help you with your hair.” She started to rise, but Éowyn shook her head.

“There’s no need. I’m almost done with it,” she said, weaving the last few strands and tying off the end. Going to the table, she chose a fresh pear and slipped it into one of her front pockets. The porridge felt and tasted good on this cool morning. She finished her meal, noting that it was taking a little longer each time to quell her hunger, and told the girl, “I will be at the stables this morning.”

“Yes, my lady,” the girl answered. “Let me get your shoes.” She jumped up and went into the sitting room.

A few moments later, Saredeen appeared with a pair of short boots that looked like they had been shined recently. “Here they are, my lady,” she said, dropping to her knees and pulling off one of Éowyn’s slippers in a single fluid motion.

“Where did you come from?” Éowyn asked, startled.

“It was time for me to come,” the girl said simply, tapping the boot heel into place. “The day’s arrived, so it’s time for me to work. I see you met Karah. She will be with you in the nights now.” She began working on the other foot.

Éowyn’s eyebrows furrowed, partly because she knew she was fully capable of putting her own boots on, and partly because she wanted her other maid back. “When will Miliani be coming back?”

Saredeen paused. Without looking up, she said, “Honestly, I doubt she ever will. Serious mistakes don’t earn favors.”

“She is not in the wrong,” Éowyn said, exasperated. “It was my own fault that I stayed in the sun too long.”

“Others saw it as her fault, and so she’s gone,” Saredeen said meekly.

“I’ll see to it she comes back,” Éowyn muttered.

+++

Éowyn shivered as she drew near the stables. The breeze that had felt cool coming in her window earlier was downright cold once she had gotten outside. More clouds had gathered, and she hoped that the storm that was brewing would move on before it decided to strike. Behind her trailed her guard and Saredeen, the latter insisting that she come along. Éowyn didn’t know what the girl possibly thought she could do in a barn, but if she felt that she had to be there, she was not going to stop her.

A few lamps remained lit as Éowyn walked into the stables and followed the aisles to her horse’s stall. She passed several stableboys mucking out stalls and carrying buckets of water or grain. They glanced at her curiously but did not shy from their chores. Somewhere a horse felt that its breakfast was not coming quickly enough and neighed its impatience, kicking its stall for good measure. Éowyn smiled. Stables were the same everywhere.

Her horse was busy taking a long drink from a water bucket when she arrived and opened the door. The mare snorted as she ran a hand along the soft side toward the withers. Éowyn murmured to the horse, her words not as important as the sound of her voice. The mare lifted her head from the bucket and nudged Éowyn’s chest, dribbling a bit of water on her dress. “Good morning to you too,” she said, brushing away some of the larger drops. She continued rubbing the grey neck, even as the mare turned to the feed trough.

Over the horse’s shoulder, Éowyn saw Saredeen waiting outside the stall door, her nose scrunched up. “Saredeen, find a stableboy and tell him to bring me some brushes.” The girl nodded and darted away toward fresh air. Éowyn grinned at her flight. “I brought something for you,” she told the mare, taking the pear out of her pocket. The horse sniffed the fruit, its ears pricked forward, and finished it in two bites. Even while crunching the last bits, the horse nosed her pocket, searching for more. “You learn quickly,” Éowyn laughed, rubbing the forehead. “Let’s see if you remember still tomorrow.”

Saredeen soon returned with two bristle brushes and a comb. Éowyn took the stiffer of the bristle brushes and began grooming, glad to be back in a familiar routine. True, she at home she did not groom her horses on a daily basis, but here it gave her some sense of control. She needed to have something to do. After several minutes, she finished the first brushing and started with the softer bristles. When she was finished, the mare’s coat seemed to shimmer. She began working on the mane next with the comb and then to the swishing tail.

“Forgive the intrusion, my lady, but you’ll be needing one of these as well.”

Éowyn looked up at the speaker, a bow-legged older man with greying hair and bushy eyebrows of the same color. He held out a hoofpick.

“Thank you,” she said hesitantly, taking the tool.

“I am Hazadai,” he said, bowing slightly, “the keeper of these stables. I was told this mare would be for a great lady, and I see I was told aright. Do you find my stables satisfactory?”

“Yes, yes, they are quite lovely.” She flushed slightly. “I think they may be cleaner than mine at home.”

Hazadai chuckled softly, the gentleness of his voice even more evident in his mirth. “That’s a great compliment indeed,” he said. “Will you be riding today? Shall I find a bridle and saddle for you?”

“Yes, thank you,” Éowyn said, twisting a strand of mane around her finger as she watched him leave. She smiled slightly and turned to clean out hooves. As she picked out the clumps and cleaned off the sole, she studied the shoe itself. At first glance it was similar to the hundreds of horseshoes that she had seen before, but as she looked closer, she noticed at the toe two wide lines crossing the arch. The first time she saw them she frowned, wondering how any competent farrier would have let an error make it onto the hoof. After she had studied the other three shoes, she realized that the mark was intentional. Was it identification? If so, it was not the best. Stolen horses could easily have shoes removed. She did not quite believe that it would be used for tracking either, as hoof prints usually did not hold unique markings well. Then again, the mark would only have to stick occasionally to assure trackers that they were on the right trail. A suspicion tugged at her mind. She wondered if all the horses in this stable carried similar marks, or if hers was the only one.

She was still pondering this when Hazadai returned with a bridle slung over one shoulder and a saddle in his arms, which he set on top of the door.

“I noticed something when I was cleaning the hooves,” she said slowly, absently tracing one of the larger dapples. “A pair of lines on the shoe toe. At first I thought it was an error, but it was on all four.”

“Then obviously it is not an error,” he said with a wink. “I assure you the shoes are as solid as any other.”

Somehow Éowyn knew she would not get any more information out of him. She nodded and patted the mare’s neck. Taking the bridle from him, she checked the bit and straightened the straps before stepping back toward the horse. She had barely lifted her hands when the mare stuck her nose straight up and shied into a corner. “So that’s the game you play!” she exclaimed. Every horse had a bad habit of some kind; the trick was waiting to find out what it was. They alternated between two corners for a few minutes. During a pause, Éowyn caught the forelock in her free hand and held tight. The mare tugged at her hold once, then snorted and stood still. Puffing slightly, Éowyn slipped the headpiece on without further problems. “I hope that’s your only habit,” she muttered.

“Now the saddle,” Hazadai said, bringing it into the stall and fitting it. Éowyn let him adjust the girth and lengthen the stirrup leathers. “Come, we have a schooling ring you can try her out in,” he said when he was satisfied. Éowyn followed him out, her horse’s hoofbeats dulled by the sand in the aisles.

Hazadai touched the left doorframe as he walked out into the open air. Éowyn gasped when she reached the same spot. “All the luck’s running out!” she said, touching the points-down horseshoe.

“Of course,” Hazadai said, grinning. “The luck’d be trapped inside otherwise, and we wouldn’t be able to have any.”

“How can it catch any luck then?” she retorted.

“Luck bounces.”

Éowyn laughed.

They arrived at the schooling ring, a long, oval-shaped pen between the stable they had just left and another at the other tip. A young horse was trotting around the oval, an empty saddle on its back and a long rope tied to the bridle. The trainer in the center of the ring worked the horse up to a canter for a few laps, then back down to a trot and eventually a cooling walk.

As the pair walked toward the gate, Éowyn put a foot in the stirrup and started to mount, except she didn’t quite make it. She stumbled back and half-fell into Hazadai’s arms before regaining her footing. She shook her head in amazement. She knew that carrying a child changed how she moved, but surely she had not gained so much weight and become so clumsy that she could not even mount a horse properly! Refusing Hazadai’s offer to find her a mounting block, she stepped forward and tried again. This time she found herself where she was supposed to be. Letting out a breath, she bent to adjust the stirrup leathers and found that the stablekeeper was a step ahead of her. “I can do that,” she said, a bit annoyed with him.

“Yes, but a lady shouldn’t have to,” he replied, coming around to adjust the other side.

Be glad someone is treating you with dignity, she told herself, even if it is frustrating. When he was satisfied that her feet would not fall out of the stirrups, she nudged her horse to a walk and into the ring.

Whatever else she felt about Al-Jahmîr, she had to credit him with finding a good horse. The mare had a smooth gait and a steady pace. She did not seem to want to fight the bit or take it in her teeth, nor did she need more than average pressure to obey commands. Éowyn pushed her into a trot, which was less bouncy than some other mounts she had known. The stride was not as long as she liked in the canter, but it was not terrible. The ring was far too small for a gallop, so she began working patterns, seeing how the mare responded to various rein commands.

When she paused for a breather in the middle of the ring, she noticed Hazadai was coming back from the stable, leading two saddled horses. As she rode to the fence, she saw him hand the reins of one over to her guard, who swung up easily. He adjusted the bow and quiver on his back, a highly visible reminder of Al-Jahmîr’s promise of what would happen should she try to run off on one of her excursions. As for how competent a rider he was, she could see just from how he used his knees now to direct the horse that using the reins was little more than a suggestion. She doubted that his accuracy with the bow was less skilled.

After Hazadai mounted the other horse, he said, “I thought you might want to see some of the grounds. I know that you have certain, ah,” he paused, searching for the proper word, “restrictions on where you are allowed to ride.”

Éowyn glanced at her guard, his face impassive. She was still trying to figure out what the rules were regarding the masks she saw some of them wearing. In some parts of the castle they wore them up, in other parts down, and from what she had seen, they stayed down outside as well.

Hazadai looked down at Saredeen, who was trying to creep away from the large animals. “If your lady doesn’t need you, you can wait in the stables until we return.” At Éowyn’s nod, the girl all but ran toward the building.

They set out down a lane of hard-packed dirt lined with short bushes. Hazadai pointed out the stallion barn to their right, set several hundred feet from the lane. An errand rider came trotting out from under the eaves as they passed, off to deliver tidings to some lord or another on behalf of his master. The sun still had not come out from behind the dark clouds, though the breeze had settled for a time. Éowyn was glad to be out in the fresh air with a horse beneath her. Being cooped up inside the castle, forced to respond to Al-Jahmîr’s beck and call, had begun to take its toll on her. At least out here she could imagine she had her freedom, even if there was someone watching her back with a quiver of arrows at the ready.

They passed fenced fields with horses grazing on long-stemmed grass that at first look Éowyn thought was blue. On her second glance, she saw it was a rich, deep green. A pair of foals charged the fence as they drew near, then turned on their long, spindly legs and bolted back toward their mothers. Far ahead of them, low mountains stretched upward, their sides green with foliage. “We get our water from those hills,” Hazadai said, noticing her gaze. “Fresh and cool.”

The land sloped upward again gently, and soon Éowyn saw trees in dozens of tidy rows stretching toward the hills. “These are the red apple orchards,” Hazadai explained. “The yellows begin ten rows to the left there.” They followed a path through the trees, occasionally ducking to avoid a stray limb. After several minutes, they came upon an open space divided by another lane. On the other side, Éowyn saw workers busy harvesting fruit into large wagons. The trees were short and round with leaves. “These are the peach orchards,” Hazadai said. “They extend to the cliffs on your right.”

“I doubt there is a path down the cliffs,” Éowyn said wryly.

They turned left and followed this lane to a small fountain that marked one of the entrances to the orchards. A maid with a fish’s tail sat on a rock, pouring a jar of water into the basin. Once they left the cover of the trees, Éowyn realized they had circled back around almost to where they started. Red walls ran to castle proper looming ahead and out of sight into the distance behind.

“How much of this place is walled in?” Éowyn asked.

“Enough so that should this place ever be sieged, we could last for years,” her guide answered. “Parts of the aqueducts in the hills are fortified as well.” He glanced to the sky as the wind picked up again. “We should be returning,” he said. “A storm is moving in.”

+++

An hour later, Éowyn listened to the light rain fall on stone as she soaked in her bath. (Saredeen had insisted she take one as soon as they had returned.) She would smell like almonds again after this, even as her skin had turned to a dark pink as it healed. She had been surprised at how much of the morning had passed while she had been out of doors. The inevitable summons to dine with Al-Jahmîr would be coming soon, and for once, she did not dread it. She had had her fun this morning, and he could not take that from her now. Tomorrow she would do the same, and the day after that, and the day after that. Giving a daughter of horse-lords a steed was a dangerous matter. She would use his wonderful gift against him.

+++

“I hear you’ve been busy this morning,” Al-Jahmîr said, slicing open a roasted chicken. “Doing a little exploring?”

“A bit,” Éowyn answered, skewering a steamed carrot. “The orchards are impressive, at least. I was not allowed to go much farther than that.”

“Of course not,” Al-Jahmîr replied. “I don’t want you finding out all my secrets.”

Éowyn sipped her drink, a mixture of peach and pineapple juices, without answering. She doubted she would ever be able to stumble upon his “secrets” without his intent. Conversation had been quiet more often than not today, though Al-Jahmîr remarkably had not chided her yet, perhaps because he seemed to have other things on his mind as well.

“You appear to be feeling better today,” he continued after the silence stretched. “Your skin isn’t as inflamed as it was.”

“The healers have kept a strict eye on me,” she answered, “and the fresh air helped.”

“I thought it might. Have you come up with a name for your little mare yet?”

“Mitheryn.”

“The grey lady,” Al-Jahmîr mused, leaning back in his seat. “Simple, elegant, though not very imaginative.”

Éowyn sighed and reached for a slice of bread. “I did not realize that was a requirement.”

“It’s not, but I thought you’d take the chance to show some cleverness.”

“Give me another horse, and I shall.”


Al-Jahmîr chuckled. “I think not. You have no need for two.” The quiet resumed as he sliced a peach.

Éowyn decided to try her luck. “You seem distracted today,” she said casually.

He looked up at her sharply, but just as quickly the look relaxed. “Just some news from Umbar and the surrounding countryside,” he said. “Nothing you should worry yourself about.”

“It must be bad news,” she pressed, “otherwise you would not look so concerned.”

Al-Jahmîr chuckled. “I do believe you’re trying to get information out of me. How precocious.” He took a bite of peach, chewing slowly, holding Éowyn’s gaze. “No,” he said thoughtfully, “not bad. Thought-provoking. But as I said, it is nothing that should concern you.”

Éowyn twisted the napkin in her lap and said nothing. If he wanted to mock her, she would give him no more opportunities today. She was ready to tell him this if he asked later why her conversation had ceased. Outside, the rain continued falling.

Al-Jahmîr’s voice brought her gaze back inside. “I have been considering your request and have come to a conclusion.”

Éowyn searched her mind, trying to recall any sort of request.

Al-Jahmîr acknowledged a knock at the door. Bataye entered with a cowering Miliani at her heels. Éowyn could see welts on her legs, and she moved stiffly. “Thank you, Bataye,” Al-Jahmîr said. “You can take the other one with you.” Éowyn glanced to where Saredeen sat on her knees, not able to hide the fury on her face. She glared at Miliani, who now trembled on her own knees before Al-Jahmîr, before jerkily rising to her feet and following the housekeeper.

“I’ve decided you can have her back,” Al-Jahmîr said, gesturing to the girl at his feet, “as long as she remembers to look after you as she should and not shirk her duties like she did.” He lifted the girl’s chin with the toe of his shoe. “You will remember, will you not? I do not give out second chances lightly.”

“Yes, master, yes,” the girl gulped, nodding her head. She sounded as though she were about to weep, either for joy or fear.

+++

They had hardly gotten back to Éowyn’s quarters when Miliani dropped to her knees and threw her arms around the other’s knees. “Thank you, thank you my lady,” she wept, pressing her face into Éowyn’s skirts. She clung there a moment before drawing back as if in horror of what she was doing. She quickly wiped her eyes and tried to calm herself. “Forgive me, my lady,” she said, her voice still quivering, “It wasn’t my place to—”

Éowyn sank to the floor, cupped the girl’s face in her hands, and lifted it. She could see relief in her eyes, mixed with fear and pain. “It was quite all right,” she said gently, brushing back a loose strand of hair. Concerned, she asked, “How badly did they hurt you?”

Miliani sniffled. “Twenty lashes,” she said softly.

Éowyn muttered, “Twenty lashes for a sunburn?” She sighed. “I am not angry with you. I never was angry with you. I should have known better than to fall asleep in the sun. Do you understand?”

The girl bit her lip, then nodded slowly.

Éowyn rose, pulling the girl to her feet as well. “Rest this afternoon,” she said. “Sit in a chair, not on the floor. Your back will hurt less.” Miliani hesitated, then nodded again, wiping her eyes once more.

“Thank you, my lady,” she said meekly.

+++

A slightly-hunched woman walked toward the women’s quarters, her hurried pace pressed on by her nervousness. She did not want to be here in this part of the castle with that small gray bag her hand clutched within her pocket. Hopefully she would be ignored as she was most of the time, as she had been for so many of the thirty years she had worked here. She would run this errand and return to the laundry rooms and put aside any notions about adventure or romantic intrigues or even scandal. She could easily die, or worse, for what she was doing, and this sense of danger had never fully revealed itself in the stories she had heard.

More than once she was tempted to turn around and forgo the entire task. She did not have to go home tonight. She could stay in the castle forever. Of course, her husband and children would not understand, but then they had not been forced into this. Curse that blasted blue-eyes. Curse that Narejde, she told herself over and over as she walked.

She had first thought it was a robber or murderer pulling her into the alley on her way home from the market yesterday. When his partner drew close, the hand across her mouth suppressed her scream as she swore she was looking into the face of a ghost or demon. Narejde was dead, she had to be dead, or the Valar help us all. But no, those cold, resolute eyes were very much alive. Her knees had almost given way when she realized who the man was.

“You want to help me, Izren,” she had said plainly, her tone saying there would be no discussion.

“No, no please,” she had begged – which she would willingly admit. Lately her life had been peaceful, if not entirely carefree. She did not need ghosts from her past coming back to haunt her. “You’re supposed to be dead. Both of you.”

“If I say we are dead, will that make you help us?” Narejde said impatiently. She began explaining what she wanted, all of which sounded insane.

“No, no, please, I can’t… I have a family. I…” Izren pleaded.

“So do I!” She let out a long breath and started over, slowly. “Izren, have I ever asked you to do anything that you ended up in trouble for?”

“Stealing sweetbreads and apple dumplings thirty years ago is a lot different than meddling in Lord Al-Jahmîr’s personal affairs!”

“So you’ll do it?”

“No!”

“It’s too late now, Izren,” Narejde said with a sigh. “I’ve already told you. I can’t very well let you go and find someone else while you rush to find the first city watchman you can. If you don’t agree, I guess I’ll just have to kill you right here. I’d hate to have your children’s sobs on my conscience.”

Izren sank in Azrahil’s grip. “You wretched, horrible woman,” she sobbed. “Why me? I was always good to you.”

“Which was your first mistake,” Narejde said gently. “And who would suspect a shuffling washerwoman smelling of soap to be doing anything more than looking for the next set of clothes to wash? You find things in pockets all the time. You’re just returning this to its owner. You know nothing.”

So now she found herself passing guard after black-masked guard, all of whom she could swear were looking into her very thoughts. She clutched the little pouch tighter. It barely filled her fist, and briefly she wondered what was inside it. No, better not to even imagine what contents were so important that she, she risked death while those two worthless sand lice waited in the town for her report. Waited right across the street from her house. With knives. And no sympathy. She’d do this for them, and no more. She’d tell them that if they ever came poking around asking, no, demanding her help again, she really would run to the first city watchman she could find and tell him everything. Maybe she would even get a reward. A cold chill ran down her back. Or maybe she’d be accused right along with them. No, she had to survive this first. Curse you, Narejde. Curse you!

+++

“Come in,” Éowyn called when a knock sounded on the door. The woman who entered was plainly terrified to be there, though Éowyn could not possibly think why when she first saw her. She saw a startled, confused look cross the woman’s face. “What are—”

“I am one of the laundresses,” the woman said hurriedly, almost running across the room. “You left this in one of your dress pockets, and I’m returning it to you.” She pressed the small pouch into Éowyn’s hand. “B- Be careful… about what you leave in your pockets, I mean. Not everyone here is honest.” She froze, as though she had said too much. “Excuse me, my lady,” she said, dropping a curtsy before rushing out of the room.

Éowyn was still trying to comprehend what had just happened several moments after the doors had shut again. She did not recall ever having pockets on the dresses she had worn, much less putting this tiny bag into one. She turned it over in her hand, studying the knot that held the drawstring fast.

“What is it?” Miliani asked.

“I’m not sure,” Éowyn answered, setting the bag beside her on the couch. “I will look at it later. Hold still again.” She dipped the washrag into the bloodied basin of water and then pressed it to the girl’s back. She heard Miliani gasp for breath, but the girl did hold still. Éowyn had noticed slight stains on the back of the girl’s dress that had grown larger throughout the course of the afternoon. When forced to answer, the girl admitted that her wounds had not been taken care of well, though the healers had done as much as they had been allowed to do (which apparently was not much when it came to treating the wounds of the punished).

Éowyn had her take off her dress, and she gaped at what she saw: wounds with no bandage or stitch, open and still bleeding in some places. How the girl had avoided infection was beyond her guess. She had told the girl to sit while she retrieved a basin, water, and cloth. Aside from the occasional ragged breath or whimper, Miliani had remained quiet while her wounds were properly washed. Some of the lines stretched from shoulder to hip. Almost any movement would aggravate them. When she was satisfied they were clean, she took out a needle and thread and began sewing up the nastier rents. Faramir had often teased her about her stitching skills, but she could do just as well as Dorgil. Generally his remarks came while she was in the middle of repairing his own skin, perhaps in an attempt to get her to stop.

She finished with Miliani, who had not made a sound the entire time, and told the girl to rest, bringing her a pillow and helping her stretch out on the couch. Exhaustion was evident on her face. Staying still and silent had taken much effort. “I’ll be able to take care of myself,” Éowyn told her, as after a moment Miliani propped herself up on her elbows and said that she had to do her duties. “If your back becomes infected you won’t be able to do anything at all.” The girl nodded slowly and sank back onto the cushions.

Éowyn went over to a stuffed chair, taking the pouch with her. She studied it carefully. The woman’s behavior had been just as strange. Was there something dangerous inside? Snake, crossed her mind, and she almost dropped the pouch until her better senses intervened and told her no snake could possibly fit into something that small. Picking at the knot with her fingernails, several frustrating minutes passed before she loosened the strands. Might have been easier to just rip the thing open, she thought. Once she got it open, she pulled out a scrap of paper with two crude drawings, a face mask and a paw print, and a second, smaller pouch. “What?” she asked aloud, completely confused. She set the paper on one knee and began working the knot on the other pouch. She glanced at the paper from time to time, though it did not help move the strands. A mask and a paw print. What was it? A signal? A warning? A code? A… She stopped suddenly, the pouch forgotten in her lap. Of course. They weren’t in Umbar at all. They were here. Were they why Al-Jahmîr had returned so soon? Were they thought-provoking?

She realized her hands were still and began picking at the knot with renewed fervor. Cursing under her breath at the sweat that had formed on her fingers, she wiped them on her skirt. Suddenly she found herself nervous. What was in this little bag that had struck terror into a simple laundress’s heart? Finally, she felt the string loosen. Pulling apart the tufted cloth, she dumped the contents onto her skirt and stared as though seeing them for the first time. Stifling a cry, she lifted the silver chain with violently shaking fingers. Pressing the necklace to her lips, she clearly remembered Faramir’s chuckles as she fumbled with the clasp and then his kisses on her shoulder and neck as he freed it and clasped it for her. Tears pooled in her eyes and she felt as though a weight were pushing down on her chest, making it difficult to breathe. Did this mean… No, she would not be able to bear the crushing blow that would come if she raised those hopes. No, anyone could have had access to those bags once the attack had ended. She paused. Even Al-Jahmîr. Her eyes narrowed. Was this some cruel joke of his? Had one of his men stolen her things once they were done slaughtering her husband and innocent villagers? No, if he had, why include the other note with the drawings?

With questions whirling in her mind, she picked up the tightly-rolled piece of paper that had been in the second pouch. She slipped the blade of grass that held it closed off one end and unrolled it carefully. She stared at the writing for a full minute before her mind told her that the strokes formed words that made sentences that told her something she had barely dared to hope for.

My dearest Éowyn, I fervently hope you are well and unhurt...

She read those words over many times before moving on. She recognized the swirling strokes that formed her name even though they were more unsteady than usual. Her breath caught in her throat while tears spilled down her cheeks. He was alive! Her beloved Faramir, alive! Alive, and well enough to write! She wanted to laugh, to dance. The nightmares would not trouble her dreams, and the nightmare she lived when she woke would be more bearable. Faramir lived!

But I am alive, melda, and I shall come for you and fetch you
and take you home to our boys.

Home. He would take her home. How long? How long must she wait for him? The ache she felt now had nothing to do with burned skin. She wanted to see her sons, to listen to the adventures they had with their uncle and aunt and cousin, to tell them that mami and dadi were home and that no one would ever steal them away again. The child she carried would one day know its father. She would have her baby in the cool of Ithilien with friends to help and comfort. Faramir would be able to cradle his fourth newborn in his arms and whisper and sing his delight as he had with his other sons. Home. Now! She wanted to be gone now. No more meals with Al-Jahmîr and his haughty demands. No more walking shadowed by guards and archers. No more strange people with strange voices and strange customs. Home.

And look out for me. I will find you, I promise.
I love you forever, Faramir.

Did this mean he was close? Was he with Narejde and Azrahil? Could he possibly be well enough to travel? She forced herself to think. A week and a half had passed since the attack. Experience told her that he could not possibly be well enough to have traveled the distance, but her heart said that his determination would carry him farther when his feet faltered. But then why only two drawings on the other scrap of paper? Why not a third? Unless the necklace and note were the obvious third token. Thoughts she did not like started creeping in, suppressing her joy. What if he was still far away? Surely they could not bring too many people, especially northern strangers, into the town without raising suspicion. Then again, it was a harbor town, and sailors came and went with the tides.

She shuddered and sucked in a breath, realizing she had forgotten to breathe. Running her fingers over the aquamarines, she forced herself to rein in her thoughts. If she kept on like this, she would have Elessar and every soldier in Gondor and Ithilien hiding in the orchard trees. She re-read the note, which renewed the flow of tears. He was alive. He was coming for her. He would destroy the Snake for good this time.

“My lady?”

Éowyn nearly shrieked as Miliani’s soft voice broke into her reverie. The girl was up on her elbows, watching her with a bewildered expression. She moved to cover the necklace and note, but the girl had already seen them and frowned, obviously trying to figure out how those items contributed to her mistress’s disheveled manner.

“What’s upset you so terribly, my lady?” Miliani asked, trying to sit up slowly and grimacing as she moved.

“Nothing. I’ve… I’m…” Éowyn knew she would never be able to create a lie that would cover this scene. She took a long breath. “I’ve received a lover’s note and a token of affection.” That was a kind of truth.

Miliani’s eyes widened. “Already?”

Now it was Éowyn’s chance to return the puzzled look. It was not the answer she had expected, and as her heart began to return to its normal beat she asked, “Already?”

“You’ve only been here a week,” Miliani said, finally reaching a sitting position. “It usually takes longer for a lover to gain the courage to tempt one of the master’s consorts. You must have caught the eye of a really bold man.”

“I guess so,” Éowyn said, running her thumb over the necklace and deciding even to ignore the implication about consorting.

“I will not tell,” Miliani said, and Éowyn saw in her eyes that her promise was genuine, “but you must know that it’s very dangerous to take a lover.”

“A little danger makes the romance better,” Éowyn replied. Part of her still could barely believe that Faramir lived. The news seemed too wonderful to be real. But it had to be real. Only he could have known what was said on that walk through the garden on their anniversary. Only he called her melda. Only he could come up with that strange babble of Rohirric words and Sindarin script. He had to be alive. This could not be a lie, a hoax. She knew she would not survive having to mourn him anew. Even the hope and joy of her children would not ease that sorrow.

“We have to hide these,” she said firmly, clasping the necklace and papers in her hands.

Miliani nodded. “I know a place.”

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

Sweet home Indiana
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PostPosted: Sun 21 Jan , 2007 4:41 pm 
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Location: snake-hunting
As he stepped into the room, Faramir saw that the assembly had risen from their seats round a table to greet them. Their attire indicated that this meeting was all but official – nobody had donned the robes they usually wore for council, nor any insignia of rank or status. Elessar was clad in plain garments of brown and grey, looking more like a ranger than the King of Gondor and Arnor. Imrahil was there, wearing a long dark-blue tunic with silver embroidery, but without any ornament displaying the device of his princedom, Dol Amroth. Next to him stood his youngest son, Amrothos, attired similarly as his father. Then there was Faramir’s friend Túrin, and, to Faramir’s great surprise, Túrin’s father Lord Húrin, the warden of the City’s keys.

He looked aged since Faramir had seen him last, his brown hair now turned all grey, and his face leaner and more lined than before, but despite his severe illness which had caused him to pass most of his duties on to his son and stay away from council for the past months, he now stood beside Túrin looking more fit and determined than Faramir had seen him in a long time. Túrin himself had changed, too. Faramir knew that recently he had been forced to shoulder the burden of his father’s illness as well as his political duties and the care of his own family, and had thus been plainly overworked. He looked pale and troubled now, too, but Faramir knew this was due to other reasons. He was relieved to see that his friend’s face was less pinched, and he appeared less stressed and tired. Also, he noted to his surprise, Túrin’s beard in Southron-fashion which he had worn ever since his return from the Harad where he had spent several years as a prisoner of war, was gone and replaced by a short stubble – obviously, the meeting had been called early in the morning, never Túrin’s favourite time of the day, and being late he had had no time to shave properly.

Falastur stepped in behind Faramir, and upon a sign from Aragorn, the guardsman who had been leading them bowed and departed, closing the door behind them. Faramir noted that there were goblets and small plates on the table. Apparently the lords had had their breakfast in this room, and the meeting had extended for several hours already. Also, the table had been set for two more persons than were momentarily present. He was still wondering who that might be, when the King stepped forward.

“Greetings, lords Khorazîr and Falastur,” he said gravely, “and Masters Mezlâr, Dorgil and –” Faramir saw how his eyes narrowed as he studied him, and then how his stern, troubled expression warmed with relief, like sun breaking through dark clouds after a storm. Reaching up, Faramir took off veil and headdress, to gasps of surprise from the assembly and a very small nod accompanied by the faintest of smiles from Aragorn. For a moment nobody spoke. Lord Húrin reached for the back of a chair to steady himself, before slowly sitting down, burying his face in a shaking hand. Imrahil closed his eyes and drew a deep breath of relief, to a sympathetic clap on the shoulder from his son who obviously had been aware of the full measure of concern the Prince of Dol Amroth had harboured for his nephew. Aragorn’s expression betrayed his relief only – whatever else the King felt he did not let show.

Túrin, as usual, was the first to voice his joy about the unexpected turn of events openly. Crossing the room with a few swift strides, he embraced Faramir heartily – almost too much so for his friend’s state. “Welcome back,” he cried, his voice shaky with emotion. Faramir winced slightly because Túrin had been all but heedful of his injuries as he hugged him. “We feared the worst after your message,” Túrin said after releasing his friend and stepping back a little, “and all those horrid rumours making the round. There was word you had been slain, and of a burial down south, and …”

“Perhaps we should let the Steward take a seat first, and provide him and his companions with some nourishment ere they begin with their account,” fell in Elessar calmly. “You are wounded, Faramir, and most of you have been travelling far and fast recently and will be weary.”

Túrin stepped back, giving Faramir an apologetic and rather worried smile upon noticing the sling in which his friend’s right arm rested. Imrahil and Amrothos had drawn up some chairs in the meantime. Just as the newcomers were making their way toward them, there was a knock on the door, and almost immediately afterwards it was opened and Éomer strode in.

“My apologies for the delay,” he began, addressing Aragorn, before his gaze fell on Khorazîr and Dorgil, who stood next to him. His eyes grew wide and his face lit up. “Finally,” he exclaimed, approaching the Southron, his eyes shining excitedly yet not without anxiety, “finally someone to bring us tidings beyond gossip and –”

He froze. From behind the Southron Faramir stepped forth, feeling no less anxious than what his brother-in-law was displaying. He had not reckoned with him being in town, even though it made perfect sense. Surely, he reasoned, the King of Rohan had attended the midsummer celebrations as well. A sudden thought flashed through his mind, accompanied by a deep stab in his chest. Did he come alone? Did he come alone or did he bring my boys with him? Only a brief moment was left to him for these reflections before Éomer spotted and recognised him.

For an instant he simply stared at Faramir, then his surprised expression changed to a deep frown contorting to a scowl. His clear eyes narrowed dangerously. Suddenly they were lit with the same fell glint that during the War the armies of Mordor had come to dread. Before any of the others or Faramir himself thought of hindering him, with a growl like a wolf he closed the distance to his brother-in-law and dealt Faramir a fierce blow to the face. Faramir reacted just in time to bring up his left arm to parry the greatest force of the stroke, nevertheless Éomer’s fist shot past his guard and connected painfully with his jaw and nose, the latter of which started to bleed. Éomer was about to strike a second time when Khorazîr caught his arm and Dorgil his shoulders, restraining him with all the strength they could muster.

“Let go of me,” the King of Rohan snarled angrily, trying to wind out of their grip. “He bloody deserves it, and more besides!” he cried. “How can he let my sister get abducted by this thrice-cursed worm of an Umbarian? How can he lead her into danger and lift no finger to rescue her? He has even got the nerve to come here when she is a captive down South, suffering cruelly at the hands of this foul snake! She was snatched away before his very eyes, and here he stands as if nothing happened, even clad like one of this fell lot! Do you not think you caused her enough grief and worry last year, when you got yourself kidnapped? Did you comfort her when she was heartbroken, thinking you would not return? Nay, you did not! And now, did you shed a single tear for her, now that she has been taken, now that the places are exchanged? I cannot imagine you did, if the first thing you undertake, instead of trying to find and free her, or at least to attempt and comfort her somehow, is to journey to Gondor, as if to get the furthest away from her as possible. Are you afraid of confronting the Snake again? Or is it simply more convenient to leave that to others? I said let go of me!” he then yelled at Khorazîr and Dorgil, who upon a slight nod from Faramir released him. “What say you to that?” the Rohir demanded fiercely, taking another step towards him, looking more than ready to strike again should the answer be unsatisfactory.

Faramir had reached for his veil and was pressing the cloth against his nose to stem the flow of blood. He did not doubt that had he not brought his arm up in defence, the nose would be broken now. His jaw seemed to be swelling already, making speech painful. “What say you, speak up!” Éomer repeated forcefully, his eyes smouldering with anger. Underneath however, Faramir noted, they were burning with a deep fear and worry for his sister, something he could very much relate to.

“You are right, Éomer,” he at length said quietly, his voice muffled by the cloth. “What happened was my fault, and do not believe for an instant that the matter does not trouble me. If you wish to see proof for self-reproach, and indeed a broken heart, I can provide you with plenty of that.”

“Hah, just what I thought. Now you try and –,” Éomer raged, until he realised what the other had said and interrupted himself, scowling at him.

“Remember, she is not only your beloved sister,” Faramir went on, watching the other carefully, ready to parry another blow despite not seeing much hope in that. Éomer was strong and swift and quite skilled at brawling, and he still lacked most of his strength, and due to his injuries and his generally weakened state his reactions were not as he was used to. “She is also my wife,” he therefore continued soothingly, “and you know she means more to me than my own life. You are perfectly right, I did endanger her, her and my men and myself. I was wrong in my judgement, and we all paid dearly for my mistake. I will not apologise to you and say I am sorry, for I am more than that. I daresay I deserved this,” he indicated his nose, “and more besides,” a nod to the sling and his injured shoulder, “but Éomer, do you truly believe any pain or other punishment could be worse than the one I am receiving right now? Do you think there could be a more painful penance than the uncertainty about her fate, and the gruesome images contrived by my own imagination? Strike at me again if you think this will make you feel better. And if you are done, we should sit down and try and find a way to rescue her and get rid of Al-Jahmîr once and for all. For this is why I am here and not in the Harad: I need your help, yours and Elessar’s and everybody else’s who is willing to give it. So have another go if you think you must, and then let us get some work done.”

Éomer stared at Faramir, who for a moment doubted if the other had understood him at all. Then slowly his expression changed to a less furious one, although he still looked more than angry. His first unclenched and his raised arm fell to his side as he drew a deep breath.

“Well said, Faramir,” said Aragorn calmly, stepping forward until standing almost between the two. “There is no use in fighting each other and trying to determine who is to blame. We must stand united in this chaos, otherwise Al-Jahmîr will win. It is as easy as that. I beseech you, Éomer, to keep peace. I know you are greatly upset about what befell your sister, but do not believe we others do not share your anxiety about her fate. And one glance at your brother-in-law should tell you that this matter torments him greatly, much more than yourself. Beating him up will not improve the situation for either of you, and make it worse for him. Usually, I would not tolerate an outbreak like the one we have just witnessed in these chambers, and I believe you owe Faramir an apology. We have not even heard his account, which may render some explanation why he did not interfere with his wife’s captors – although according to what his messages said he was seriously, almost fatally wounded, which is a sound reason for not ‘lifting a finger’, as you put it. Calm down, and take a seat, both of you. Would you, Amrothos, go and fetch some more cups and wine and water, and perhaps some lunch as well? ‘Tis about time for that. I would call for a page to wait on us, but I doubt the fact Faramir arrived here in disguise was without purpose. I would not have the servants spread the tale of the Steward being accommodated in the Citadel when word is out he has been slain in the Harad.”

Amrothos bowed and departed, smiling knowingly. He was only too aware of the servants’ remarkable ability to pick up news and gossip about the Gondorian nobility, which then would course through the City and indeed the entire realm in a matter of hours.

“This is indeed part of our plan,” said Khorazîr, speaking up for the first time while still eyeing the fierce Rohir warily, “as far as we have contrived any yet. We thought it would be easier for him to travel and indeed to go after his lady if Al-Jahmîr believes him slain.”

“And did the ploy work?” asked Éomer coolly, still smouldering with barely suppressed anger. He folded his arms in front of his chest and scowled into the round.

Khorazîr shrugged. “It seems so, although as yet we do not know much about Marek’s doings.”

“But you know if she is still alive?” the Rohir asked fiercely.

Faramir shook his head very slightly, upon which Éomer’s eyes flashed again and his arms slid apart. “We do not know for certain,” he said heavily. “We can only assume, from all we know about Al-Jahmîr, that he wants her alive and unspoilt. But we do not know.”

“Yet,” fell in Khorazîr before Éomer’s fury could flare up again, “my wife and her son and other good, trustworthy people are currently working on obtaining information. Perhaps they have even found out about her whereabouts by now. They already had a good lead when Azrahil reported to us in Kadall, and that was nigh on a week ago.”

“There are other ways of acquiring information about events far away,” Elessar said slowly, giving his Steward a long, thoughtful glance. Faramir understood what he meant and nodded gravely. During his journey to Gondor, he had often wondered, and indeed hoped, that Aragorn would deem the situation serious enough to make use of the Palantír. In the past, Faramir had twice looked into the stone as well. He was not eager to do so a third time, and highly doubted that in his weakened state this was advisable at all, as it constituted an enormous strain on body and mind. But if Elessar was willing to try his luck, despite the great distance to Umbar, he would be the last to gainsay him.

“Perhaps we shall have to employ them indeed,” he said. Raising his eyes to meet Éomer’s, he added softly, “Do not believe for an instant having to journey up here was easy for me. It was not. I would much rather have stayed in the Harad and journeyed on to Umbar, to join Narejde and Azrahil and gather information about Éowyn. But I had to come here first. And my chief reason was not so much asking for help, despite my need of it, but to see my boys.”

Éomer snorted. “Oh, so you do remember them, do you not?” he asked acidly. “I wonder how you are going to explain to them why their mami did not come as well. You know, Peregrin asked about her every evening ere he went to sleep, and so did the other two, at least once a day. And about you, and if you would return soon. And if they had to stay much longer in the City before you took them home with you, to see Beregond and the frogs and Narâk and their little hut inside the hollow oak-tree again. And Lóthiriel and I told them, yes, you would not stay much longer, and that you loved your little boys and parting from them made you sad as well and would come soon to take them home. You know we took them gladly, and I daresay they had a good time with Elfwine and the ponies and everything, and recently with Vorondil and Túrin and Visilya as well, but they would have enjoyed it far more with their parents present, too.”

Faramir had cast down his eyes at Éomer’s heated speech. He was not sure the other knew how much his words hurt. Of course he had been aware that Éowyn and he would be missed, at least as much as they had missed their children. But never would he have assumed that things would become so bad for the little ones, that they would so greatly yearn for their parents and their home despite all the love and care of their relatives and the distraction they provided. He had been away from them before when his duties had called him to the City or elsewhere, and during his long confinement at Tolfalas, but always Éowyn had been there to look after them. This, indeed, was the first time she was gone. He leaned against one of the chairs for support as suddenly his legs felt weak and shaky. How could they have left them in the first place? How could they have been so selfish? And how, how indeed, was he going to explain to them that their beloved mami had not returned with him?

Raising his eyes again and swallowing hard, “They are here now?” Faramir asked hoarsely when Éomer had fallen silent.

“Yes, they are, in our quarters here in the Citadel,” he said curtly, obviously gearing up for adding another hurtful remark, but upon seeing the expression in the eyes of his brother-in-law, finally his anger subsided somewhat. He drew a deep breath. “And I am certain they will be delighted to meet their dadi again at last,” he added quietly and with genuine warmth.

“I hope so,” replied Faramir softly, with a voice that shook slightly. For a moment Éomer looked at him awkwardly, as if considering embracing him in recognition of the grief and extreme anxiety they both shared. But apparently his anger was still governing his behaviour, and he decided against it. Faramir was quite sure, however, that once the King of Rohan had calmed down and overcome this fit of anger and the desire to blame someone in his immediate reach for what had happened to his sister, he would indeed apologise, and even commiserate with him.

There was a moment of silence, until Aragorn said, “Let me have a look at that nose, Faramir, ere you spoil your entire veil with the blood, and the floor besides. You must be weary, too, after your long journey, and considering your still not fully recovered state. In fact, given that you were wounded only what, eleven days ago, it astounds me to find you so well.” He cast a questioning glance at Dorgil who had proceeded to a ewer with water and soaked the edge of a handkerchief in it.

“Aye, he surprised us all,” the healer said while carrying the dripping cloth to his captain. “Shortly after his wounding which was serious enough in itself, he was down with a vile fever. I thought we would lose him there and then, but he saw it through, and ever since his recovery has advanced swiftly.”

“As it must,” said Faramir plainly, turning and bending back his head slightly so that Aragorn could examine what damage Éomer’s fist had worked on his jaw and nose. “I feel I have already wasted far too much time lying abed. In this I wholeheartedly agree with you, Éomer. Had it been in my power, I would have begun to search for Éowyn much sooner.” He drew a sharp breath when Elessar placed the cool wet cloth on his cheek.

“It is going to be nicely coloured tomorrow,” he King commented, not hiding a faint grin. “You have a vile punch there, Éomer.”

“And I apologise for hitting you,” the Rohir said, smiling slightly as well. “Although I still hold you deserved it.”

Meanwhile, Khorazîr and Falastur had taken seats at the table. The Southron had chosen a chair next to Túrin of whose fascination with all things Haradaic he knew, while Falastur, to Faramir’s slight surprise, had lowered himself next to Imrahil. In their youth, those two had been close friends, until their falling out over the matter with Faramir’s mother of whose marriage to the Steward Imrahil had been forced to inform his friend. Their friendship had turned to bitter enmity afterwards, only in recent years a faint warming of their relationship had become recognisable. Húrin had brought his chair next to theirs – all three were of one generation and had known each other for a long time.

When Faramir’s face had been treated, he and the others joined those already seated at the table. A knock on the door announced Amrothos’s arrival, and Túrin went to admit him and help him carry a tray with crockery and food and drink. “The servant who helped me carry up all this stuff was quite irritated when I told him to leave it at the door,” the young man explained. “Word will be out about a secret meeting of you, sire, and your strange outlandish friends in no time.”

“If the rumours do not advance beyond that stage, I shall be content,” Aragorn commented dryly, motioning to the others to take seats. “But I fear they will not stop at this.”

When all were seated again round the table again and had taken some refreshment, Aragorn bent his keen eyes on his Steward and said, “I can only second Túrin’s earlier words: it is good to have you back, and alive, too, Faramir.” His expression darkened slightly as he went on, “Your message and the reports of the events in Kadall have dealt us all a shock, as surely you know. Thus I will not make light of the matter. I need not explain to you how critical and dangerous it is. As you can see, an emergency meeting of all more closely involved (and trustworthy)” – here he sent a quick glance towards Falastur, who understood it well enough but managed to return it evenly – “has been called to discuss what needs to be done now, and what steps are to be taken to deal with the situation in Umbar. Some will claim you brought your recent misfortune upon yourself, and many will agree with them. But you have no use of words of scorn. Nor of wrong sympathy. Therefore I will not overly criticise or reprimand you here and now. You will remember that I counselled against the journey, and the Queen knows how ever since you left I worried about you and Éowyn, but this is neither time nor place to dwell on this. We cannot alter our past decisions, but have to make do with what they led to. If you feel well enough for it, I would ask you to tell us all that befell on your journey home, or even before, if it bears on later events.”

His nose having finally ceased to bleed, Faramir took another sip of water ere he began his account, in far greater detail this time than what he had reported to Falastur and Captain Ciryon. Again Khorazîr and Dorgil supplemented those days he had missed due to his wounding, and in the end even Falastur was asked to add what he had learned about the developments down South, since his fief was closer to the border and Pelargir a favoured destination for Haradaic traders.

Silence ensued the long report. As he glanced across the table toward the King, Faramir saw how he sat deep in thought, his brow creased slightly, and his face stern and unmoving. He was reminded of his father. Often after listening to the troubling tidings of an errand-rider Denethor would have sat like this, silent and deep in thought, as if trying to look further with his mind than what his eyes could see.

“What I don’t understand,” said Túrin suddenly, causing the other lords to stir out of their contemplations, “is how the Snake managed to rise to power again so swiftly, when only last summer we had him run for his very life, and his own sons forbid him to return to his home. Where did he hide all those months, with some of our best trackers on his trail trying to catch him?”

Khorazîr sat down his cup which he had been swirling thoughtfully. “I hate to admit it, but all along we underestimated him. Al-Jahmîr is cunning, and even before the War he built and maintained a net of acquaintances, people of all kinds, warlords, merchants, pirates, you name it. Some he lured onto his side by trading-contracts and the promise of fortune and glory, others he recruited by fuelling their hatred for Gondor, and others still he cowed into obedience by force and cruelty. Some of these contacts turned against him after the fall of the Dark Lord, or more recently, when Gondor attacked Umbar and caused a change of powers there. But most stayed on his side, and after he so boldly dared attack Gondor openly by abducting the second most important man in the realm, he won a considerable number of new allies. Allies ready to aid him even after the less than favourable ending of the affair on Tolfalas. They looked after him when half of Gondor was on his heels, and the longer he managed to evade his captors, the more confirmed they grew in their allegiance. And now he pulled what surely he considers his grandest move: he slew the Steward of Gondor and snatched away his wife before his very eyes. More than half of Umbar hates the tarks, and is going to applaud him for his courage. He will have no lack of friends right now, nor of support of means and arms and men.”

Imrahil shook his head, sighing deeply. “You spoke wisely, Lord Khorazîr, and as one who has lived as a neighbour to Umbar for all his life. What strikes me, however, is how any lord of Umbar – or Gondor, for that matter – can truly wish to start another war. For this is what Al-Jahmîr’s actions will lead to, and he must know it. He, too, if I am not completely mistaken, depends on the trade with the North to some extent – at least so much as to ensure his continued wealth and prosperity. How then can he and his fellow countrymen risk all this out of some whim, out of some strange desire to trouble their northern neighbour?”

“Ah,” said Khorazîr, smiling faintly, “you forget that Umbar never considered itself defeated. They were subdued by Gondor, even cowed, like so often in their past history, but again they only ducked their heads and accepted your sovereignty and your laws and your governor because it seemed the most convenient thing at the time. But in their hearts, they have no love for the tarks, and given the opportunity, they will rise up again against the northern oppressor, as many of them refer to you still, despite all trade.”

“And still they profit from that trade, as do we,” fell in Falastur. “We do not love them either, yet we accept the necessity of our relations with them. I hear no complaints about us evil tarks when they can sell a shipment of silk or spices for a good price in Pelargir. Surely even the most hostile Umbarian would think twice about risking his source of prosperity. And if they see an upstart like Al-Jahmîr trying to ruin what has been developing lately, to the benefit of all involved, it must be in their interest to hinder him.”

“True,” agreed Khorazîr. “The question is if they dare interfere with him. He is powerful, and ruthless. There is no doubt about that. And many of them would rather wait for the trade to re-establish itself after an upheaval than risking to oppose someone like Al-Jahmîr openly, and perhaps lose everything in the process. Do not believe that the Snake has not provided for a time like this. He and his family and allies control more of Umbar than we like.”

“Or so he thinks,” Faramir said quietly. “I agree with you that he we have underestimated him, but I cannot help suspect that he may overestimate his own powers, and the loyalty of his friends. The events last summer showed he is not almighty. He only survived by luck then, and not so much by cunning. Also, I believe he is playing a game of his own, one the rules and goals of which he does not share with his new-found friends. He needs them to guard him and protect him with information and luxury, but he will drop them or sell them to Gondor the very moment they have become useless or dangerous for him. They cling to him in the hopes of rising beyond their current status, not counting on the Snake’s betrayal. But betray them he will, if it suits his purpose. Perhaps this could be a way for us to get at him. We must unsettle his friends, we must cut off his means of receiving information and backup, we must make him feel unsafe even in the safest of his refuges. But as for the true purpose of his actions …,” he drew a deep breath. “Already last year I questioned him about that. If we look at his actions then, honestly there is little prudence to be found. The only sound reason for abducting someone of my status would have been to ransom me for a high price, and even had this been his intention, he must have known that Gondor would never bargain with him over my fate, nor bow to the demands of an upstart.

“But he did not want to ransom me or use me to blackmail Gondor into granting him certain favours. Nor did he wish to kill me outright, and see what upheavals my sudden removal would cause in the realm. No, he captured me to,” he shrugged, “to torture me? To continually taunt me? To humiliate me and my fellow countrymen, not to mention to upset my friends and family? Until today I do not know. And honestly, I am not sure he knows himself. Which makes things difficult for us. ‘Tis better to know of an enemy’s motives in order to fight him.

“And now he has taken Éowyn. Why? Why slaughtering a village to set up a trap, a trap he knew would work because it reached out to our mercy and our desire to help those poor wretches. Why did the archer who shot me not kill me with his arrows? I doubt he would have missed on so short a distance had he been ordered to aim for my heart. Nay, Al-Jahmîr had him wound me only, so that I could see what happened to Éowyn. Over and over again I have asked myself what I have done to this man to make him hate me so much as to continually try and cause me greatest pain and grief and worry. And Éowyn as well. Khorazîr surmised he wishes to keep her as a prize. In the past, before I ever met him in person, he twice sent her precious gifts of clothing and jewellery. He seems obsessed with her, despite never having met her up to now.” He shook his head, running a hand through his hair dejectedly. “I should really like to listen to his explanation for all of this one day.”

“But first we much catch him,” said Éomer fiercely. Faramir could tell from his expression that he had not liked all this talk about Al-Jahmîr being obsessed with his sister at all.

“The question set before us now,” said Elessar gravely, “is how we react. We must rescue Éowyn without her coming to harm, and this must be our chief and foremost aim. Also, we must assure Al-Jahmîr’s downfall, for good this time.”

“His allies must also be taken care of,” Khorazîr added, “for they are certain to cause further havoc in the South if allowed to roam freely. If someone as influential as Al-Jahmîr is removed, many lesser forces are going to strive and struggle for the vacant position, and such a situation is highly dangerous and unhealthy for all decent folk living in these reaches.”

“And this exactly is our great dilemma,” agreed the King. “Looking at some of you, I can see in your eyes how you yearn to muster a force and journey down to Umbar to fell the Snake and subdue the corsairs once and for all. The problem is: they are not going to suffer it without biting the foot about to crush them. The result would be an uprising, and even war. Not only those profiting from the trade with the Harad wish for that. As strange and even uncomfortable our southern neighbours may be to us sometimes, there is no denying we need them and their knowledge and goods. Their friendship, in short. Despite all recent improvements, Gondor still has not recovered fully from the long years of war against Mordor and the South. And neither has Umbar. And there are some of us who ever since the fall of our greatest enemy have worked ceaselessly and under considerable personal sacrifices” – he gave Faramir and Khorazîr a swift glance – “at restoring or rather achieving peace, for the first time, between North and South. I would not have their efforts wasted, only because some upstart sees it fit. Also, I doubt Al-Jahmîr in his obsession to trouble the Steward and his family has looked further beyond his own desires. It would not astound me if he soon finds the situation in Umbar quite out of his control, and developing contrary to his own designs.”

“So,” Éomer interrupted him impatiently, “we cannot simply send the fleet down to Umbar and raze the bloody place to the ground once and for all. I see that as well, although to be honest I do not give a damn about what happens to the Umbarians. I want to see my sister back home, safe and unhurt. And if any Southron tries to hinder me fetching her home, I shall not care about starting another war or whatnot, but cut him down, and good riddance.”

“I wish things were as easy as that,” Aragorn returned. “However, our patience is going to be sorely tried in this matter, I fear. I, too, am in favour of striking hard and fast against Al-Jahmîr and his allies, and so, I am certain, is every one of the lords assembled here. Yet we must be careful lest our fervour ruins our success. I know your decision to journey here instead closer to where your wife is being held cost you much, Faramir, yet I appreciate that you came hither to ask for aid and counsel instead of trying to rescue her on your own. Our first aim must be to gather enough information to ascertain where Éowyn is being held, and what her condition is. We must learn what security measures have been installed to keep her prisoner, and also what Al-Jahmîr employs to protect himself against attack, for surely he will reckon with one. We must know about his allies, and his enemies. I like Faramir’s idea of unsettling him by alienating his friends. Many of those may sway easily when put under pressure, or persuaded with cunning. Your wife and stepson are already working on obtaining information, Lord Khorazîr, and I honestly doubt we have any better spies than these. We must hope they will manage to convey your message on to Éowyn, Faramir, and that she will send a reply speedily. For today, I should like to call the meeting closed. We shall gather here again tomorrow morning, to discuss our further course, but for now those travelled far should try and gain some respite, and we others take time to think about what we have just learned. I need not remind you that no word of Faramir’s presence here must leave these chambers. These days I shall make an official announcement concerning the Steward’s fate. We can talk about the wording of that tomorrow as well.”

“Where are they going to stay, sire?” asked Túrin. “It would look suspicious if Faramir went to his own quarters, wouldn’t it?”

“I do not care where I spend the night, as long as I can be with my boys,” Faramir replied plainly.

Aragorn nodded, giving him a sympathetic glance. “There is still room in the guest-quarters, not far from where Éomer and his family are being accommodated. You can share with Lord Khorazîr and Mezlâr, since officially you belong to his retinue. I shall see you later, as I should like to have a look at your injuries. For now, fare well, all of you, and my thanks for your long attendance here today.”

With bows and words of parting, the assembly dissolved. After they had taken leave of Imrahil, Amrothos and Falastur who were returning to their own quarters outside the Citadel, “Father and I’ll accompany you,” Túrin told Faramir as they were passing down the corridor and were out of earshot of the guards in front of the doors. “Visilya and Voro are visiting Lóthiriel and Elfwine and your little ones. She attended the meeting until lunch, but then she left to look after the children. You’re going to be surprised how much they have grown. And Meriadoc actually talks now, more than the odd word now and again as was his wont. He had it in him all the time, only entertained the opinion we didn’t need to know, it seems. But then Elfwine kept teasing him until he felt he should complain properly. And Elboron, he’s all the big brother. You’ll be so proud of him. He really looked after the twins. They’re going to be so happy to see you again.”

Faramir nodded absently, unconsciously accelerating his pace. Had his state of health permitted, he would have run, so great was his yearning to see his sons. “Hey, do not sprint so, young man,” Lord Húrin called after him, “I can hardly keep up.” Recalling that Túrin’s father was not as well as he used to, and moreover that he had wanted to inquire after his health, he slowed until he was walking next to father and son again. “This is better.”

“My apologies,” Faramir said earnestly. “I must admit I was astonished and very pleased to see you so well again.”

Húrin nodded and smiled gently. “Well, I found I was needed still, with my son spending more time in council and with his duties than his family, to perfectly understandable complaints from Visilya,” he said with a wink that, Faramir was pleased to see, showed much of his spirit of old. “Thus I had to get up and relieve him of some of those duties again. Nay, chest aside, apparently the healers have found something to keep my illness at bay, and the pain, too. It is not going to cure me, but it may give me another year or so. Perhaps, hopefully, long enough to see my next grandchild.”

Faramir slightly raised his eyebrows at that and gave Túrin a questioning glance, who blushed. “Is there anything you would like to tell me, Túrin?”

Túrin turned to him and grinned. “Vis wasn’t sure when you left, so we didn’t want to say anything. But now it’s official. You know we had our differences about having another child, but, well, sometimes these things take care of themselves, it seems. And she’s so happy again now, and so’s mother, and father, and my sister. And I. I truly am.”

Faramir squeezed his shoulder warmly. “And I am happy for you. And so will Éowyn be when she learns of it, because I know she had long talks with Visilya about the subject.”
And with me, he thought, recalling their conversation on the morning of their departure, and the quarrel it had let to. The quarrel that had never been resolved. What I would give for a chance to talk to her again and apologise for my absurd behaviour.

“Is everything alright?” Húrin asked concernedly, his soft words pulling Faramir out of his reverie.

He nodded slightly but sighed at the same time. Knowing that Éomer was walking just in front of him and that most likely what he was about to say would not please the Rohir, yet feeling that he could no longer carry the burden without finally sharing, he said quietly, “On the day we set out from Khorazîr’s, the day of the attack, Éowyn and I … well, we had the same discussion like you and Visilya, Túrin. She told me she wanted another child, and I, fool that I am, was overly reluctant in embracing the idea. I was concerned about her health. Although she is younger than Visilya, the birth of the twins was so difficult and … Anyway, we ended up quarrelling about it, mostly because the words I used to describe my qualms were inappropriate, and she misconstrued them and believed I did not love her anymore and was rejecting her. We quarrelled so much that we avoided each other on the journey. In my stubborn pride I did not apologise to her for my words and behaviour, knowing that I hurt her so. When we reached Kadall, I set a ranger to guard her, when actually I should have been watching over her myself. Then there was the attack, and all the time I kept looking for her. When finally I found her it was too late. We never managed to make amends, and now she must think I am dead.”

“And she’s going to be deeply grieves about that,” Túrin said soothingly, stepping over to his friend and slipping his arm round his shoulders. “She knows you love her, and that you only worried for her health and safety. She’ll be worried sick about you, and when she receives your message, she’ll have forgiven you every folly you ever uttered out of sheer delight that you’re not dead.”

Faramir nodded faintly. “I hope so.”

Túrin squeezed his shoulder. “I’m ready to bet on it.”

The walked on in silence, along echoing corridors speckled by the late afternoon sun, and up and down flights of stairs, until they reached the guest-quarters. Tall guards in green livery bearing the emblem of a rayed, golden sun indicated where the King of Rohan and his family and following were being accommodated. Faramir had upon leaving Elessar’s chamber veiled his face again, and was pleased to note that in his Haradaic attire he drew no suspicious glances from the guards or servants they encountered.

Finally, they halted in front of another set of stout doors. “Ah, here we are,” said Túrin. “I’ll pop in and send out any servants, for surely you’ll want to show your face to your little ones.”
With that he and Éomer entered, leaving Faramir, Lord Húrin, Dorgil and the two Southrons to wait in front of the doors.

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Wed 24 Jan , 2007 5:45 am 
A maiden young and sad
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As the sun burned itself out in the sea, for it had finally come out of the clouds in the early evening, Éowyn sat out on her balcony in one of the long chairs. She had wrapped a shawl around her shoulders to fight off the chill. She had calmed herself since receiving Faramir’s note, though the joy still bubbled up in her whenever she thought of it. Whatever happened to her here would be more bearable now, knowing he was searching for a way to rescue her. But, she told herself, she must not hope for too much too soon. Sound advice, though she would not be able to live by it. He would need time to come up with a workable plan, time that surely would be more than a few days or a week. He would need to learn the patterns of life here, the details. And yet, she wanted him to come tomorrow, tonight. She wanted to see a ship on the horizon or a cloud of dust drifting from the north. Even he cannot come so soon, she tried to convince herself. His task is all the harder because he has to work in secret now. Al-Jahmîr must not find out that he lives, which means you have to hold your tongue when he angers you. She scowled at that thought. Her gloating would have to wait until the Snake was utterly destroyed.

But she could revel in the thought alone. In this she had the upper hand against Al-Jahmîr, clever as he thought he was. His great enemy would come back when he least expected it. She shivered, not just from the temperature. Faramir was slow to wrath, but surely this would kindle the anger of even the gentlest of men. She knew that it would be complete, if not swift. Al-Jahmîr had tortured and teased too much for too long. This insult could not go unanswered. Then, he would be gone. They would not have to worry about taunting letters or deadly poisons or deadlier ambushes. She could finally be rid of the nightmares.

“Forever,” she whispered. “Al-Jahmîr will be ground into dust, and nobody will remember him except for his defeat.” She wondered if she could get a message out to Narejde and Azrahil the same way theirs had come in. All she knew about their messenger was that she was a laundress, or was she that, even? Perhaps that had been part of a story. The woman had seemed nervous, though, as though this was not something she had wanted to do. Most likely it hadn’t been, for who here would want to bring about the destruction of their own livelihoods? Even if she could find the woman again, what power did she have to make sure her message got into the right hands? Those two were beyond these walls, free to do what they willed. Perhaps Miliani knew who the woman was.

While she pondered this means of communication, the glass doors behind her opened, and she turned, startled. Lael stepped onto the balcony, frowning at the sudden change in temperature. She rubbed her arms. “How can you stay out here?” she asked.

“It is not so bad once you get used to it,” Éowyn answered. “Covering up helps, too.” She indicated the green shawl.

“Ugh, I could freeze to death out here.” Lael went on, “Aliah and I are going to play a game of majin, if you’d want to join us. My girl nicked some sweets and coconut milk from the kitchens.”

“What’s majin?”

“It’s a game of tiles and…” A strong breeze tugged at her skirts. “Oh, it’s cold!” she yelped. “Come inside and I’ll tell you.” She grabbed Éowyn’s hand and practically dragged her to her feet.

Once the doors were shut, Lael continued, still rubbing her arms and shifting from foot to foot. “It’s a game of tiles where you try to match one tile with its mate without moving any of the others. They all have pictures and… oh, it’s so much easier to explain when you can see everything. It’s really easy. Even I can win it, sometimes.”

Éowyn hesitated. In her youth she could have played games and enjoyed sweets late into the night, but now she was not so sure that those could trump a long, restful night, especially with the exhaustion that came from forming a child.

“Please?” Lael pleaded. “You’ve hardly done anything since you’ve come here.”

Éowyn sighed. “Alright, but I can’t promise I’ll stay for long.”

Lael beamed. “You won’t have to. Maybe just a game or two.” Miliani trailed behind them as Lael lead her through the common room – where Rashidah was nowhere to be seen, to Éowyn’s relief – and down a short corridor to a set of doors with carved lilies for handles. Lael’s chambers were much smaller than Éowyn’s and decorated with violet and green hues. Aliah was seated on a cushion in front of a low table, arranging piles of thumb-length tiles. Her face lit up when she saw them.

“You came!” she cried, leaping to her feet and coming over to embrace her gently. Éowyn wondered how anyone could go from sitting cross-legged to standing so quickly. “You look better today,” Aliah continued. “Not so red.”

“Thank you,” Éowyn replied. “Your hair is pretty tonight.” Two braids started nearly at the top of her forehead and wove across the top of her head before being tied off somewhere and disappearing into loose waves at the neck.

“We were trying out some styles for her First Night,” Lael said, taking a seat. “We haven’t agreed on any of them yet.”

“I like this one,” Aliah said, returning to her own cushion as Éowyn carefully lowered herself onto hers.

“It makes you look like you have a wagon rut going down your head,” Lael objected. “Anyway, this is the game.” She indicated the stacks of tiles. “There are eight sets of crabs, swordfish, white sharks, gulls, and seahorses, each with a red, blue, yellow, or green dot in the corner. You match the tiles by picture and color of dot,” she explained. “Red to red, blue to blue.” Éowyn nodded. That seemed easy enough. Lael picked up some tiles. “There are four lords and four ladies, and any lord can go to any lady – quite scandalous, really.” She put the tiles back and chose two more with images of ships. “These are the corsairs,” she said. “Matching these two wins the game.”

“Animals with dots, lords and ladies, corsairs win the game,” Éowyn repeated.

“You got it,” Lael said proudly.

Aliah brushed all the tiles off the table into a bag, which she shook vigorously. Then, she took a handful of tiles out and started placing them into stacks, like the foundation of a house but with broken walls. Some tiles overlapped, some were completely hidden underneath others, and a few stuck out on the bottom rows. Fishing the last four pieces out of the bag, she placed them in the center in two rows of two.

Lael continued explaining. “You can only match tiles that have two sides that don’t touch any other tile and aren’t covered up by a tile. I can use the four in the center, but not this gull.” She pointed to a tile half-hidden in one of the rows. “Or this shark.” It was rimmed on three sides by other tiles. Éowyn leaned back and stared at the table. This was harder than it looked. “We take turns until nobody can match a tile and we all agree the game’s lost,” Aliah said. “If I can’t see a match, I pass to Lael, and maybe she sees a match that I didn’t.”

The game went slowly at first, as the girls helped Éowyn find matches or show which tiles were impossible even if they were in plain view. Faramir would like this game, she thought. As more tiles became available, she was able to find matches without help. Once the other two were satisfied she could make it on her own, play turned vicious.

“You didn’t say we could take more than one pair at a time,” Éowyn said when Aliah’s luck earned her four pairs in quick succession.

“Oh, I didn’t?” Lael said with a sly look. “It must have slipped my mind.”

Aliah giggled and hid her pairs under her hands. “My tiles,” she declared.

Éowyn laughed softly and then set a grim smile on her face. If that’s how they were going to play… Despite her determination, she could not find more than two pairings a turn. As the tiles grew fewer, the hunt for the corsairs intensified until Lael swept them up with a gleeful cry and added them to her stacks.

“You’re a good player,” Lael told Éowyn as she cleared the table of the rest of the tiles. “You learned quickly.” The girl’s maid came over with a tray of cups and sweets. Éowyn recognized the honeybread that the kitchens made so well, along with a fruit pudding and jams. There were some other items she did not recognize.

“What are those?” she asked, pointing to the small ball-shaped foods. They were a darker shade of brown than the bread, but they appeared to be smooth.

“Oooh, those are truffles,” Lael said. At Éowyn’s questioning look, her jaw dropped. “You’ve never had truffles? What sort of life have you lived?” She leaned forward. “These are the sweetest things you’ll ever taste. They’re made with milk and sugar and power from koa beans and they taste marvelous. We don’t get them very often, because I think they’re expensive, but they’re, oh… just try one.”

Éowyn did, and bit into it tentatively. She guessed it to be about as firm as banana, but much, much sweeter than the fruit. Too sweet, almost. It melted quickly in her mouth to a creamy mixture, even as the rest melted onto her fingers a bit. It had a sharp taste on top of the sweet, not exactly spicy, slightly earthy, but something she had not come across before. Even after she swallowed, the taste lingered in her entire mouth. She put the other half of the, what was it, truffle, back on the little plate. “It’s so rich,” she gasped, reaching for the cup of coconut milk.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” Aliah asked, popping a whole one into her mouth. Éowyn cringed. That was too much at one time.

“Oi, make them last,” Lael chided her. “We only have six.”

“I don’t think I want a second one,” Éowyn said after nibbling on her remaining half. “It’s too much for me.”

“The first one usually is,” Lael said, licking the residue off her fingers. “And you can make yourself sick if you eat too many,” she said with a pointed glance toward Aliah, who was helping herself to a second sweet. Aliah glared but did eat this one more slowly than the first.

“Where’ve you been lately?” Aliah asked. “We’ve hardly seen you since you came.”

“Lady Inzilbêth asked me to visit her several times, and those visits lasted well into the evening usually,” Éowyn explained. “Then I got sunburned and wasn’t feeling well. Today I was in the stables most of the morning and doing… other things in the afternoon.”

“The stables are disgusting,” Lael stated, her face contorted. “All the flies, and the smell, and the dirt.”

“Actually, the stables here are quite clean and well-ventilated,” Éowyn replied, “with no more flies than what you find in here.”

Lael shrugged. “Even so, I wouldn’t spend my time there.” She yawned. “It can’t be that late already,” she said, shaking her head.

Éowyn bit back the comment that perhaps some work in the stables would do her good. It was an idle comment made by a spoiled girl. Should she really expect anything else?

“How about another game?” Aliah suggested.

The second game started much like the first, with matches coming slowly but soon increasing in number. They had cleared about half the tiles when calls of “pass” began circling. After several minutes of staring at the unchanging tiles, they called the game lost and cleared the table again. Aliah and Éowyn yawned at the same time.

“It’s getting late,” Lael said, stifling a yawn of her own. “Perhaps we should,” she failed to stop another yawn, “call it a night.”

“I like that idea,” Aliah said, putting the tiles back in their bag.

“Thank you for inviting me,” Éowyn said.

Lael waved her hand, her gold rings twinkling in the lamplight. “It was nothing. I’d hate for you to die of boredom.”

They said their goodnights, and Aliah and Éowyn went back to their own chambers, crossing the still-empty common room. Éowyn rolled her shoulders, feeling some tension in them. It was too late for an almond-milk bath, but maybe there was some lotion left. There was some left in the container, and Miliani rubbed it into her arms, shoulders, and face before helping her into her nightclothes and leaving for the night.

Éowyn lay in bed for awhile, watching the shadows dance across the ceiling. Of a sudden, she remembered she had left her shawl in Lael’s room. She debated whether to get it now or wait until morning. It was not likely that the girl was asleep yet, but it also was not that important. Realizing that if she kept this up she wouldn’t get any sleep, she rose and went back to retrieve the shawl. Lael’s maid answered the door and laughed softly, quickly bringing the garment to her. Lael followed with some kind of lotion or cream smoothed thickly all over her face. “I would have sent it over to you,” she said. “You didn’t have to come.”

“I know, but I couldn’t get it off my mind,” Éowyn confessed. They said their goodnights again, and once more Éowyn returned to the common room. She had just opened her own door when she heard a thud against the main doors to the room, followed by muffled laughter. Puzzled, she stepped back to see around the potted plant, then ducked part-way inside her room as the other doors opened and two people staggered in. The light streaming in from the hallway lamps revealed a guard and Rashidah, arms around his neck and legs around his waist, caught in a rather passionate kiss.

Éowyn caught her breath and held still, knowing that being noticed now would be disastrous, though really those two were too focused on each other to notice much of anything else. She heard a few whispers and then another giggle, followed by more kissing. Miliani had said that it was dangerous for a consort to take a lover, but obviously this pair thought they did not need to be too discrete in their affair. Éowyn slipped completely inside her room as the pair broke apart, and shut the door just as the light from the hallway winked out. She let out the breath she had been holding and found herself almost running through the sitting room toward her chambers, running lest Rashidah somehow suspect she had been watching.

Diving into bed, she pulled the sheets around her, her breath coming quickly. While she waited for her heart to resume its normal beat, she thought about what she had just seen and some of the implications it contained. So, I am not the only one with secrets here, she thought. I will have to remember this.

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

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PostPosted: Sun 28 Jan , 2007 1:04 pm 
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Even though they had been waiting in front of the doors for a few minutes only, those seemed like hours to Faramir. The longer he stood there, the greater grew his anxiety. There was still time to turn and walk away and leave the boys to their routine, without troubling them with dark tidings they would not understand and sadden them with their mother’s absence and an all too timely departure. But he knew he would not manage to indeed walk away. He needed to see them, for the sake of his own peace of mind and heart, far more than theirs.

He actually jumped slightly when the door opened and two servants filed out, casting curious glances at Húrin, Dorgil and the Southrons but soon shuffling off down the corridor. The men entered a small parlour from which doors led to various rooms. Those straight ahead were half-open, apparently leading on into some kind of sitting room whence issued the noise of several children at play. In the parlour stood Túrin and his wife Visilya, a tall fair-haired woman whose once so stern features had softened over the years, an outward sign of the change the once so fierce captain of the Secret Guard had undergone in recent years. She was by no means a woman who considered herself restrained to keeping house and child only, but she had lost some of her dangerous rashness – or at least kept it under control now. Obviously Túrin had told her about the visitors, because she was smiling with obvious relief when her eyes fell on Faramir, but before she could step forward to greet him, the dark-haired woman who had been standing next to Éomer rushed forward and embraced him.

“Welcome back, dearest cousin,” she greeted him joyfully, squeezing him so hard that he winced, since she took no heed of his injuries. Carefully, he put one arm round her shoulders and returned the hug.

“Thank you, Lóthiriel,” he replied earnestly, casting a quick glance over her shoulder at Éomer who had folded his arms in front of his chest again and was eyeing them with a slight frown. What a difference between his greeting and his wife’s.

“We heard so many dreadful stories about what happened to you and Éowyn,” Lóthiriel went on, excitedly and pitifully at the same time. “Father was beside himself with worry, and so were we.” She hugged him once again for good measure, then drew back to look at him. Her clear grey eyes, so much like Faramir’s own, darkened upon studying him. Her face took an expression of mixed worry and consternation when she noticed the sling and upon freeing him of veil and headdress the marks on his jaw and nose. Reaching up to carefully run a hand along his cheek and chin, she shook her head. “What have those Southron barbarians done to you?” she said sadly.

Khorazîr cleared his throat. Lóthiriel turned to look at him and blushed slightly, realising that she might just have insulted him. But he did not look troubled by it, on the contrary. “Actually, dear lady,” he said with a small but rather mischievous smile, “what happened to his face was not our doing.”

She gazed at him questioningly. “But who else would –?” She abruptly turned to glare at her husband whose cheeks began to flush. “You did not hit him, did you?” she demanded of Éomer, who for a man so tall and strong in build looked quite small and forlorn as he met her flaming eyes.

“I do not believe it!” Lóthiriel berated him, her voice raised in anger. “You hit him, when you knew he was injured and weary and highly troubled? Are you out of your mind, man? Oh, you horseboys. It’s always the same with you! Like little children, and even they behave better and do not try to settle everything with their fists in the first place. Well, I hope you feel better now, for I daresay you will not get another chance. You have my permission to hit him back for this, Faramir,” she ended, in so stern and serious a tone that Faramir had to smile.

“I thank you for your permission, dear cousin,” he replied courteously, “but I think I shall forgo the opportunity you so graciously bestowed on me – tempting though it be.” Less chestfully and with a long glance at Éomer, he added, “I daresay he had a good reason to do what he did, and it does not look or feel like he worked any permanent damage. He even apologised, and thus I consider the matter settled. Times are hard for all of us, and we should not make them worse by quarrelling.”

“Yes, what happened to you and Éowyn?” fell in Visilya, stepping over to him and clapping his shoulder warmly.

“I shall tell you,” said Lord Húrin, “with the help of Lord Khorazîr and Master Dorgil, if they are willing to repeat it. Do you have a place here where we can sit down comfortably? I daresay Faramir has other priorities right now.”

“Yes, of course,” said Visilya apologetically. “The account can wait. You’ll want to see you boys. They’re next-doors. Rían is looking after them, and Voro and Elfwine. She is a real jewel. The Queen did so well in sending her to Ithilien.”

“I know,” replied Faramir. Rían was one of Queen Arwen’s ladies-in-waiting, and had been assigned to help Éowyn with the boys after their former nurse had been involved in a conspiracy against the Prince and Lady of Ithilien which had been aimed at harming the children, and had been instigated by no other than Al-Jahmîr. Rían had spent over a year with the boys now, and they had grown increasingly fond of her. “I also am glad she is with us, now more than ever,” said Faramir. He saw how Visilya and Lóthiriel cast down their eyes as he gazed at them, and he knew they were thinking the same as he: what if Éowyn does not return? Rían would be needed even more. Drawing a deep breath, he pushed those thoughts from his mind.

“Will you look after our guests, Éomer?” Lóthiriel asked her husband. “There is room for all to sit comfortably in the large sitting room facing south. Visilya and I shall accompany Faramir to see his boys.” With that, he slipped her arm through Faramir’s left and steered him towards the door. “Don’t worry about him,” she told him quietly as they walked, with Visilya trailing after them. “I’ll have a word with him later. He has been very upset ever since we received your message, and highly troubled before. Worse than father and mother, actually. I perfectly understand him, but he should have seen that things must be worse for you, and that hitting you is no solution to the problem. On the contrary.” She halted abruptly in front of the door, just when a high squeal and merry laughter from inside indicated that something funny or remarkable had happened. Lóthiriel glanced up to Faramir, her eyes suddenly wide.

“What are you going to tell them?” she whispered, obviously shocked by her own thoughts. “About Éowyn, I mean, and why she is not here?”

Faramir drew a deep breath. “I do not know,” he replied truthfully, staring at the strip of floor visible through the half-open door. A small horse-doll made of cloth had landed on the smooth wooden floor. He recognised it, even though it had suffered since he had seen it last – its other ear was gone now, too, and one leg had been mended with cloth of a different colour since apparently the first one had not been available anymore. It was Meriadoc’s. It lay there for a short moment only until a small fair-haired boy shot towards it, grabbed it and bit into it with all signs of enjoyment. There was another squeal, and a second boy like a mirror-image of the first, only slightly taller and more sturdy in build joined him, grasping at the doll.

Faramir noticed he was partly leaning on Lóthiriel. His legs felt weak and faint of a sudden, and his heart seemed to have missed several beats. They had indeed grown a lot, his beloved twins, and were more steady on their feet now, too. Also, he was stricken how closely they resembled their mother in features and colour of skin and hair, so much so that it pained him.

Meriadoc now tore on one of his doll’s legs, while Peregrin kept it in his mouth. Faramir wondered what his youngest had done with his own Horsey, since each of the children had one, a gift from their aunt and uncle. Most likely he had left it somewhere he did not remember. “Peri give,” Meriadoc complained, tearing some more at the doll. Peregrin only shook his head, Horsey still in his mouth, which looked so funny that his father had to smile despite the lump in his throat. Faramir knew he could be extremely stubborn, and in those moments he reminded him of his own brother, and of Éowyn, too. “Peri give now,” Meriadoc called again in exasperation, shuffling around to get a better grip on the doll, then glancing over his shoulder to where supposedly Rían or the other boys were situated, in the search of support.

When no reaction came from them, he tugged some more on the leg, but upon hearing a sound from the direction of the door let go in surprise. Visilay had pushed it open, and with a slight nudge Lóthiriel urged Faramir to step into the room. Horsey forgotten, Meriadoc stared at the three, his eyes shifting from one to the other and finally coming to rest on Faramir. He knew he must look strange and perhaps even frightening to the little boy in his Southron garments, and for a moment doubted if Meriadoc would recognise him at all. He was about to be proven wrong. Peregrin had taken Horsey out of his mouth and was gazing at him also out of large blue eyes. “Dadi?” he asked tentatively, taking a step towards Faramir who had lowered himself to one knee and slid his right arm out the sling to be able to embrace them properly.

“Hello, Peregrin,” he said, slightly surprised that he managed to keep his voice as steady as it was, when inside him his emotions were deeply stirred. “And hello, Meriadoc.” The boy’s face split into a grin.

“Dadi,” came another cry from inside the room, and looking up, he saw a dark haired boy run towards him. He, too, bore signs of a partly Rohirric ancestry, but mostly he looked like his father – and indeed many people who had known Faramir as a child remarked how much his firstborn resembled himself. The three year old was beaming from one ear to the other now as he raced towards his father.

“Elboron,” Faramir whispered before his voice failed him, and then the twins had reached him and were hugging him as best they could with their short arms, and when Elboron had joined them, he put his arms around them all and held them close. How could he have even considered to not see them? This moment alone was worth the long journey, and even, he thought, the fact he was farther away from Éowyn because of it. She would understand when he told her, he knew she would.

He held them until they began to stir in his embrace, feeling at peace for the first time ever since that dreadful night at Kadall. Reluctantly, he released them, gazing from one to the other as they stood before him. The twins seemed content to inspect his strange but colourful garments and the embroidered hems of his sleeves, babbling merrily all the time (Peregrin more than his brother, as usual). Elboron, however, had noted the sling, and his expression had darkened. Faramir assumed he remembered that in the previous summer, he had also worn his arm in a sling upon his return from Tolfalas. Elboron put out a hand and carefully touched the linen cloth, then gave his father a questioning glance and reached for his right hand. “Dadi is hurt?” he asked.

Faramir drew a deep breath and nodded slightly. “Yes, dadi is hurt. But ‘tis much better already, Elboron,” he said, reaching out to ruffle the boy’s dark hair. Elboron frowned. “Bad man did that?” he asked. Faramir was taken aback by the question. He had not anticipated that the boy would have remembered so much from last year’s troubles. No child of his age should be bothered by these things. Actually, no child of any age should be exposed to them. And yet they seemed to have graven themselves in his memory, and Faramir both pitied him while at the same time feeling his hatred for Al-Jahmîr increase. Because of his malice his small son was worrying about his father, and constantly saw him return with injuries.

“Yes, Elboron, the bad man did this. And your dadi is very angry with him because of it.” And other, more painful things, he added in thought.

“Elboron is angry, too,” the boy stated grimly, looking as resolved as when he was about to commit some mischief with his brothers. “Will go to bad man and bite him.” He looked deadly serious at this announcement. Peregrin looked up from his inspection of the sleeve and gave him a surprised glance, obviously noticing his brother’s sudden agitation.

Faramir gazed from one to the other, and despite his troubled heart had to smile. Drawing them close, hugged his sons again briefly. “You want to go and bite him, Elboron?” he then asked. Elboron nodded fervently, and his brothers picked up the gesture and repeated it, Meriadoc showing how well he could bite already by trying his teeth on a fold of his father’s sleeve. “Now that would be something,” laughed Faramir. “Tell me, did Aunt Thiri and Uncle Éomer not feed you enough so that you must go about and bite bad men, or me?” Gently, he reached out to pry Meriadoc loose from his sleeve, which the boy seemed to consider funny because he grinned and bit harder, until Faramir tickled his side and laughing, he finally let go. “Did you enjoy your stay with them and Cousin Elfwine?”

Now Elboron face lit up until he was beaming again, and reaching for his father’s hand, he tugged at it in sign Faramir should follow him. Slowly, he got to his feet again and taking Meriadoc’s small hand in his other with Peregrin holding on to his brother, he let Elboron draw him further into the room where Visilya and Lóthiriel had joined a middle-aged woman with a kind face and light-brown hair arranged in a simple braid who had been busy building a tower out of wooden blocks with two other boys. One was about seven years old, with blonde hair and an open, sympathetic face that held some similarity with Imrahil’s, but even more with his Rohirric ancestry. On a cushion on the floor sat a boy of about two years, his brown hair as tousled as his father Túrin’s, with a shy but very taking smile which, according to what Éowyn had once said, would get him into trouble with the ladies when he was older. He gazed up at Faramir and beamed, while Elfwine had risen and was studying him and his outlandish garments with great interest. Faramir greeted Rían, thanked her and exchanged a few sentences with her about the boys’ behaviour which had been no worse than at home, and any problems or illnesses, none of which had occured. Obviously, Rían had been informed about Éowyn’s fate, and tactfully refrained from inquiring after her, although the new lines on her face betrayed her worry. Faramir was touched to notice that she had come to care so much for his family.

He did not have much time to contemplate these matters, because Elboron, apparently eager to make up for the time his father had not been around to play with him or simply to listen to him, began to give him an account of their time in Edoras, and the journey to Minas Tirith. How Meriadoc had eaten a beetle (with all the legs), how Elfwine had let him ride his pony, how best to build a tower from the blocks, how Peregrin’s Horsey had fallen into a puddle and had been taken away to wash and how it had looked and smelled and tasted all strange afterwards. He told Faramir of the small rabbits in their stall at Edoras, and how soft their fur was and that he wanted one for himself – until Faramir reminded him that they had rabbits at home. But not white ones with red eyes, argued his son. He mentioned how Meriadoc had crawled into a chest in their room in Meduseld and how it had taken Rían and Lóthiriel and the servants a long time to find him, while all the time the boys had watched their increasingly frantic search with great amusement. He described the many different horses in Edoras and with Elfwine’s help named them all, and how Éomer had let them ride on his steed, the name of which he could not pronounce properly so that Elfwine had to help out yet again, and how the mighty beast had snorted all over him and licked at his hair so that he had to take a bath afterwards, and how they had found a slowworm on the sun-warm paving-stones before the Golden Hall and Meriadoc had touched it and it had shed its tail, which he had wanted to keep but which had been taken away from him by Rían. He talked and talked, with contributions from Elfwine and his brothers, who from time to time he asked but who mostly beamed and chattered something in their toddler-language – which Elboron seemed to understand quite well, functioning as interpreter.

After his very thorough account, he went on to the more practical things he had picked up. Apparently Elfwine had showed him how to shoot with his small bow, which luckily, Faramir thought, Elboron was still too weak to draw further than a few inches. He did not want to imagine what mischief he could have worked otherwise, blunt arrows or no. Also, Éomer had given him a small wooden sword and shield, and he and his cousin had to fight a mock duel to show Faramir how well they could handle the weapons. He was touched to see that Elfwine let his little cousin win. Elboron, in his turn, made a great show in presenting what his brothers had learned during their father’s absence. Apparently they had picked up a number of new words, mostly Rohirric, especially Peregrin, and Elboron tried to coax him into speaking them. Peregrin obliged, but Meriadoc refused. For him the toys scattered about the floor and Vorondil obviously having much fun stacking them on top of each other to watch them sway and fall down again had much more appeal, so that soon he left his father’s leg – Faramir had lowered himself onto one of the cushions on the floor, with the twins sitting on one leg and Elboron on the other – to join his friend and help him in the erection of curious towers. Not long, and Peregrin decided he preferred to play as well, despite looking rather tired.

“‘Tis time for their nap soon,” said Rían. “They have been playing since lunchtime.”

“No nap!” said Elboron, leaning against his father who had put an arm around him lightly and burying his face in his tunic. Then, quite unexpectedly, he asked what Faramir had almost forgotten to dread. “When comes mami?”

Surprised that this question had not come earlier, and that moreover Elboron had not asked the obvious, namely where Éowyn was, he realised that unwittingly, his son had made the situation for him much easier with the way he had put his question. Nevertheless, Faramir drew a deep breath. “She will come later, Elboron,” he answered quietly, running his hand over the boy’s hair. “Your mami is still far away, and right now she cannot travel to see her boys.”

Again it hurt him to see a frown crease his son’s forehead as he drew back and looked up at him, and his grey eyes darken with uncertainty and many unspoken and perhaps not even fully realised questions. “Why not come with you?” he asked.

“She could not, even though she wanted to. She greatly misses you and Meri and Peri.”

“Why not come?” Elboron asked again. Reaching up to touch the sling again, he bit his lip and looked at his father anxiously. “Mami is hurt, too?”

I hope not. “No, mami is not hurt,” Faramir replied, forcing his voice to sound steady and confident. “But she cannot leave so easily where she is now. She has no horse, and no ship to go by sea. I must go to her and help her.”

“Why mami go there?”

“She did not go there by herself.” He hesitated. Could he really tell his little boy about Al-Jahmîr, troubled as he was already? Would he understand? Or was it not better to invent some gentle lie for him, to soften the blow? He gazed at the women, but they looked as helpless as he felt.

“Why, dadi?” Elboron asked again.

Faramir gazed at him. Forgive me for having to hurt you so, he thought. He drew a ragged breath. “She ... she did not want to go. The bad man brought her where she is now. Do you remember last year when he took me far away? Now he took mami.” The boy’s eyes grew wide, and swiftly Faramir leaned forward and kissed his forehead. Drawing back, he said, “Do not worry, Elboron. The bad man will not hurt her like he hurt dadi. He wants her to laugh and be happy, and to wear fine clothes and eat the best food.”

Elboron shook his head. “Mami not happy without dadi and Meri and Peri and Elboron,” he declared.

“Ah Elboron, you have no idea how truthfully you speak,” said Faramir, touched by the boy’s insight. “Therefore, dadi will go and look for her, and he will find her and bring her back to you and Meri and Peri. I came back as well, do you remember? The bad man could not keep me forever, and he will not keep mami, either.”

Elboron nodded reluctantly, drawing closer to him again and resting his head against his chest. Faramir could see that there were many further questions on his mind. He put his arm around him and held him close. “Why bad man take mami?” Elboron asked sadly.

Faramir sighed. If only I knew. “Because your mami is so very good and lovely and beautiful, and because she is strong and brave and can ride the wildest horses without being thrown,” he said softly. “The bad man has never met a woman like her before, and that is why he wanted her to keep him company.”

“Bad man has no mami?” asked Elboron, with something close to pity in his eyes.

“He has a mami, but she is not like your mami. Your mami is very special, and that is why the bad man took her.”

Elboron thought about his words for a while, before stating rather fiercely, “Bad man is a stealer. Mami is not bad man’s. Mami is dadi’s, and Meri’s and Peri’s and Elboron’s.”

“Yes, the bad man is a thief indeed, to take something which does not belong to him. Do you remember how you always get chided for stealing things? That is what I am going to do to him. Because first of all, mami belongs to herself. But she is also ours, and we want her back. And we shall have her back, that I promise you.”

“Peri sad with mami away,” Elboron said softly.

“I know,” said Faramir, stooping to brush a kiss over his hair. “I know, Elboron. And Meri is sad. And so are you. And so am I. Therefore, I will go and fetch her. I will have to leave you with Aunt Thiri and Uncle Éomer and your friends Elfwine and Vorondil a little while longer.”

Elboron shook his head and hugged his father. “Elboron come, too.”

Faramir shook his head slighty. “You have no idea how much I would like to have you with me, you and your brothers. But Elboron, who would look after Meri and Peri if you came with me? You understand they are still too small for such a long journey, and thus they need you to look after them, like you have done so very well during the past weeks. And here you have your friends.”

“Elboron ride to fetch mami,” the boy said stubbornly.

“But Elboron, I am not going to ride. I will go by ship. I have no horse here, because Narâk is still where mami is. I shall have to fetch him, too.”

“Go by ship, then.”

“You would not like being on the ship. You would have to stay in your small room all the time, and there would be no horses, and no rabbits, and no toys. And Meri and Peri would be far away.”

“And ponies? And doggies?” asked Elboron hopefully, apparently weighing the benefits of such a journey against the disadvantages, and hoping for more of the former.

“No ponies and doggies, either. You see, it would be a very lonely, boring journey for you.”

Elboron looked up at him disappointedly, but soon thoughtfully, obviously considering what he had just been told. “When dadi go?”

“Not right now. I will stay for a few days. Perhaps you and Meri and Peri could make something for your mami which I can bring to her, to show her how much her little boys love and miss her. You could paint her a picture of what you have just told me, of what you and your brothers did with Elfwine and the ponies and the rabbits and the slow-worm. Ask Meri and Peri to help you.”

Elboron considered this as well, and suddenly his grave expression changed and he began to laugh. “Elboron not make a picture,” he stated.

“No?” asked Faramir, wondering why the boy should refuse the idea. But Elboron surprised him yet again when he hid his face with a fold of Faramir’s burnous and peering forth from the garment with an impish grin he announced, “Elboron make many.”

Now Faramir laughed as well as he freed the boy of the garment. “Mami will be delighted. Off you go now, Elboron. It looks like Elfwine needs your assistance.” Kissing his son’s forehead, he released him to let him join the other children who on Elfwine’s suggestions had built a racing track for a number of wooden horses and were now short of another competitor to lead the figures through the track.

“Perhaps you should take a nap, too, lord,” said Rían softly, coming over to Faramir. “You look exhausted.”

“I shall wait until they are having theirs,” he replied. For the next quarter hour he sat in deep contentment watching his children at play, until one by one, they began to yawn. Finally Peregrin started to weep, which Rían and Lóthiriel took this as a sign to convey the three young princes to bed. Elfwine was allowed to stay up if he managed to be quiet. Visilya fetched Vorondil, and taking her leave of Faramir, said she would bring him and her father-in-law home now since most likely Lord Húrin would be weary, too.

“Túrin and I will see you again in council tomorrow,” she said when together they were walking to the sitting room the men had taken over. Apparently they had carried on the discussion begun in the council meeting, but had come to no conclusion. Túrin, his father and Visilya took their leave. Éomer accompanied them to the door where he spoke briefly with a servant who had been waiting outside, then returned. “I was just informed that accommodation has been prepared for you in the rooms just across the corridor.”

Faramir noticed how the Rohir’s mood had calmed, now that he had had time to think properly. “Thank you, Éomer,” he said earnestly. “I appreciate this arrangement, so close to the boys.”

“Not my doing, but Elessar’s,” returned Éomer. “Yet I am convinced they, too, appreciate having their dadi close by.”

Khorazîr and Mezlâr took their leave now as well, to go and inspect their quarters. Dorgil stayed behind. “Shall I arrange for a bath for you, captain?”

“That would be marvellous,” said Faramir. “I shall say farewell to my boys, and then join the Haradrim next door. What about you and your plans to visit your family?”

Dorgil looked a little abashed. “‘Tis a long ride,” he said, “and I should like to speak with the King about your injuries first. He wishes to have a look at them, and I feel I should be present.”

“Your dedication to your profession is laudable. I leave the decision to you, but know that you have my expressed leave to ride to Ithilien.”

Dorgil smiled. “Tomorrow,” he said plainly, and giving his captain a swift salute, followed the two Southrons. Faramir and Éomer went to the boys’ room where the twins were already sleeping soundly. Only Elboron was still awake, but looked very tired. “Please tell story, dadi,” he murmured drowsily. Faramir obliged, but after the first few sentences Elboron dozed off as well. Faramir remained at his sons’ beside for a while, simply watching him, then kissing each of them gently, he rose and went to fetch his veil.

“They should be up again in about two hours, or three,” Lóthiriel told him in the parlour when he was covering his hair again. “I shall come over and fetch you. You and Lord Khorazîr and the others can have dinner with us.”

“I hope your husband will not mind,” said Faramir quietly, casting a glance toward the other room where Éomer was playing with his son. Lóthiriel only shook her head and smiled. “Don’t worry, I will have a word with him. About this here, too,” she added with a glint in her grey eyes, indicating Faramir’s jaw. Then suddenly her face took on an expression of deep concern. “She is alright, is she not? Éowyn, I mean.”

Faramir cast down his eyes, and swallowing hard, shrugged slightly. “I do not know, Lóthiriel,” he replied truthfully. “What I told Elboron just now, that Al-Jahmîr would not hurt her ... it was rather to calm myself than the boy. He might torment her just now, if she is still alive. I do not know.” Looking up, he saw her bite her lip, before stepping to him and embracing him again. For a while they simply stood there, until she drew back, and swiftly wiping her eyes, she said viciously, “I hope you will finish that evil man for good this time!” Then reaching up, she fastened the veil so that it covered his features. “To hide you from the servants,” she said gently.

+

The quarters they had been given were smaller than those the King of Rohan resided in, but large enough so that each had a room to himself. Servants were busy preparing baths and fetching beverages and fruit and small cakes. After they had left, Faramir retired to his room, which was narrow and oblong, with a curtained alcove on the left hand wall, a table, a large chest and two chairs on the right, with towels and some linen underwear hanging over one. In the middle, upon a woven rug, stood a tub with steaming water. Ahead a tall leaded window faced north. It was half open so that he could feel the draft and hear the flapping of the banners on the battlements. During the past days he had increasingly managed to dress and undress (dressing being the more difficult part) without help, so that soon he lay in the tub soaking in the comfortably warm water. Rían had been right. Now that the excitement about seeing his sons again was receding, he was beginning to feel his exhaustion. His chest hurt again, as did his shoulder. In fact he was so weary that he almost fell asleep in the tub, and only with an effort managed to scramble out, dry himself and don fresh drawers and a long shirt. Then he lay down in the alcove and almost immediately fell asleep.

+

He woke from the sound of the window being shut. To his surprise, the room was dark but for the light of a candle standing on the windowsill. The curtains he had not bothered closing were still open, and thus he could see that there was someone sitting on the cushioned chair at his bedside. Realising he had slept far longer than he had intended, and most likely had missed dinner with his sons, he sat up sharply, wincing as a hot pain shot through his shoulder.

“Easy, Faramir,” said a gentle voice, and he recognised Elessar’s.

“My lord?” he asked confusedly, squinting against the light illuminating the King’s figure from behind. His still sleepy mind clearing, he asked, “How late is it?”

“Almost midnight. I daresay you needed the rest.”

“Midnight? I missed an important appointment,” replied Faramir sadly, sitting up straighter and putting a pillow behind his back to be more comfortable.

“I know,” said Aragorn with a warm smile. “But the young gentlemen mostly overslept, too, so I think you need not worry about disappointing them. Elboron asked for you, however, and so Lóthiriel took him to see you. When he realised you were asleep he told her to be very quiet because ‘dadi is hurt’, and after leaving you this he wished you a good night and spent an enjoyable half hour with Khorazîr. He and his brothers expect you at breakfast tomorrow.”

“I shall endeavour not to oversleep a second time,” said Faramir, holding out his hand for Elboron’s gift: a peach. “He is amazing,” he sad softly, gazing at the fruit, feeling warmth course through him like a hot drink. “All of them are. I would not know what to do without them, especially now.”

Elessar nodded gravely. “Yes, you are lucky to have them. Rían told me how you explained to Elboron what befell his mother.”

“How I tried to, you mean,” Faramir replied, rolling the peach from one hand to the other. The grief and despair he had managed to keep in check for so long were beginning to claw at their confinement, fighting to be left out. “No child should be exposed to these things. No child should have to worry about its parents, especially not at this age. And yet he does. What if I do not manage to bring her back? What if she is dead already? What –?” His voice broke and he buried his face in his left hand. “This uncertainty and constant worry is almost too much to bear,” he whispered hoarsely. “And I do not know how much longer I will manage to before ....”

There was a rustle of cloth, and he felt Elessar sit down on the mattress next to him, clasping his trembling shoulder gently. “You have no need of words of pity, Faramir, but know that whatever happens, you will not have to see it through on your own. We will help you, and even if we could never replace the woman you love, know that we share your worries, and your fears, and your grief and despair. And your anger, Faramir. That, too. What I said in the meeting I still hold: if you want me to, I will use the Stone to find out more about her fate. You know my reluctance to have dealings with it, but my offer stands. It may ease your anxiety, at least.”

“Or worsen it,” Faramir replied softly.

Elessar slid his arm round his shoulders. “I have not told you yet what Arwen said when I read to her your message. She had noted my anxiety, ever since you set out, and when I found my fears confirmed, she went to the window and looked out toward the South, and she said, ‘Al-Jahmîr has found his mistress at last. This will be his downfall, and it will be of his own making. He should never have meddled with her who slew the Lord of the Nine.’ She simply stated this, coolly, without anger or hatred in her voice, and without any trace of wishful thinking. She sounded utterly convinced, so much so that I stared at her in surprise, and asked her if she was as certain as she sounded. She affirmed this, and knowing that at times she is gifted with great perception, even foresight, I took heart in her words. And so, Faramir, should you.”

Running his hand over his eyes, Faramir glanced at him. Aragorn’s face was kind, but he noted the lines of worry graven in the King’s features. “‘Tis easier said than done,” he said.

“Try,” said the other, “and consider my advice a royal command.” Patting Faramir’s shoulder, he rose to return to his seat.

“Aye, sire,” Faramir replied, giving his King a very slight but grateful smile. “You show more kindness than I deserve,” he went on, but Elessar shook his head. “Should I have greeted you like your brother-in-law did? Or chided you publicly, in front of Falastur? I am not angry at you, not even disappointed, because you did nothing to earn these sentiments. I hope I was not too hard on you in letting Éomer hit you,” he added with a smile.

Faramir shook his head. “He needed to vent his fear, frustration and anger on someone. And I daresay he picked the right person. He was right with most he accused me of. This time, I truly messed up things.”

“Perhaps. It is plain to see that you blame yourself for what happened. I daresay this is true in parts. I would have preferred you to remain in Gondor, yet how could I forbid you and your wife to visit a dear friend of yours, and an important ally, too? Often in the past weeks, ever since your departure as my anxiety for you and Éowyn was waxing with every passing day I asked myself if I should not have restrained you more forcefully. So if you want, I am to blame as well, of allowing you to travel into danger despite my better counsel. And even more the fact troubles me that I did not manage to catch Al-Jahmîr last year, but drove him into hiding whence he managed to emerge more powerful than ever. I consider myself gravely at fault there.”

“You are not to blame, sire. In fact, the one to bear the blame is the Snake himself. Khorazîr reminded me of this over and over again, until, despite my conscience telling me otherwise, I begin to believe he is right. This trap he set us ... I cannot stop imagining that if I had caused the company to pass Kadall by, none of this might have happened. Éowyn would still be with me and we would almost be home.”

“And more people in the village would have died, perhaps all of them, for surely Al-Jahmîr, realising the failure of his plan would have avenged himself cruelly upon the village. Would you truly be able to have this knowledge weigh on your conscience, Faramir?” he asked shrewdly, and yet with pity and understanding in his eyes.

Faramir shook his head slowly. “Nay. That is why I decided like I did, fully aware of the possible dire consequences.”

“It would have surprised me had you decided otherwise. You are wise, and just, and selfless. Too much so, sometimes. Gracious and gentle like one of the kings of old. Sometimes when I am set before a difficult decision, I try to imagine what you would do in my place.”

Faramir had raised his eyes to that of the other. Aragorn’s words had touched him deeply. His throat felt tight of a sudden, making speech difficult. Nevertheless he tried, “How can you look to me, sire, when I am the lord who causes you the most additional work and worry? Gracious and gentle indeed. The last time I heard these words, they were spoken to me in scorn by my father. I may indeed strive to be like the kings of old, but too much so for my own and my family’s, and indeed my realm’s good, I begin to feel. I have thought long about the way I deal with cases like Al-Jahmîr. A more prudent, more ruthless ruler would have disposed of him long ago, swiftly and silently. Like we dealt with spies and other such folk in Ithilien during the War. But I am not one to send assassins after those uncomfortable for me. I begin to consider this a true fault. How can I keep my princedom safe from enemies when I cannot even protect my own family and myself? When I lack the resolve to do what is needed, though that be cruelty or ruthlessness.”

Elessar gazed at him long and at length sighed deeply. “Ah Faramir, there you touch upon questions I have been trying to answer for myself ever since I accepted the burden and great responsibilty of Kingship. And even before, when I discussed them with your father and grandfather. Needless to say Denethor and I were not exactly of like mind, as seldom we were in those days. For him certain things were better resolved discreetly and with a necessary if regrettable measure of force, lest they develop into real, crushing problems. I could see the wisdom of his words, but still wondered if things could not be resolved differently. And I admit that back then I was praising the fact I was not the Steward’s heir, and thus had less responsibility upon my shoulders. Things have changed now. Against the Dark Lord we had to fight, simply to defend ourselves. And yet the actual battle was not won by the sword or any force of arms, but by two halflings and their selfless journey into the heart of darkness. I daresay there are times when war and even killing is necessary, but I, too, am reluctant to attack. And yet some enemies leave us no choice.”

“Things were easier during the War,” agreed Faramir. “We knew who the enemy was, and mostly we simply tried to defend ourselves against a seemingly over-powerful oppressor. But if we march to Umbar now, who will be the oppressor? I fervently agree with you that Al-Jahmîr must be punished, and finished for good this time. And those of his fellow countrymen who still support him must be taught a lesson, too, and shown the unhealthiness of their allegiance with the Snake. But we must be careful not to act overly aggressive and –”

He interrupted upon seeing Elessar shake his head slightly. “What is it?” asked Faramir.

“Well, to be honest I did not intend to discuss political issues with you this evening, and even less questions of just and conscientious government. We will have to deal with plenty of these matters in council tomorrow. I did not exactly come as your King tonight, but as your friend. And your healer, too. Dorgil gave me a thorough description of how you received your injuries and their rate of healing. I have great trust in his skills, but I should like to have a look at them myself, especially because I know what happened to you last year.”

Faramir nodded, beginning to shed the shirt. “Dorgil is asleep?” he asked from inside the garment.

“Yes, and I do not wish to rouse him,” replied Elessar, walking about the room to light to more candles and a small lamp, which together with a low stool, some bandages and a small earthenware pot he brought over to the bed. Faramir sat on the edge of the mattress as Aragorn removed the bandages. Placing a hand over his heart, for a long time seemed to be doing nothing but feel his heartbeat. Then he checked the healing injuries, and announced himself pleased with the way they had been treated. “The stitches on your chest can be removed as well in a couple of days. What damage the arrow caused to your lung is healing well, but the cracked rib is going to bother you for some more weeks, I fear. Some of the muscles in your chest have been partly severed, and will need more time to heal, which means you will not be able to move your arm properly for some weeks. But you have been doing well in keeping active, and should continue to move about, as long as you do not strain yourself over much. As I have mentioned before, I am surprised to see you so well, considering all that happened, especially your serious poisoning last year. Your heart is still weakened because of it, perhaps permanently – although all in all there appear to be less long-term damages than we feared at first. Your body appears to be recovering still from the venom, even after so long a time. However, you must not treat matters of health lightly. I doubt you would have survived an infection of your wounds, but thankfully you were spared. Take this as a sign that you are needed alive and well.”

“I will have to be more than just well in order to confront Al-Jahmîr,” said Faramir darkly.

“All in good time. You help neither Éowyn nor yourself by overdoing things. In another week things will look much brighter already, you will see. The pain will have receded even more, and you will not have to wear the sling all the time.” He reached for the pot and began to apply some of its contents, a whitish paste, to the wounds. It felt nice and cool, and had a wholesome smell. Faramir was not able to pinpoint what this scent was, but it smelled familiar. He felt his mind clear and his breathing go lighter and without the occasional stab in his lungs.

“The paste contains Athelas,” said Aragorn with a faint smile when Faramir inquired about it. “No wonder you remember it, as it has saved you once before. Apply it every evening now ere you go to sleep. It will help you breathe more deeply, and also keep troubling dreams at bay.”

Faramir thanked him. After bandaging the wounds again, helping him into his shirt and extinguishing all lights except the lamp which he took with him, Elessar bade him try and get some more sleep and left him. Despite their conversation still spinning through his mind, and the fact he had just had several hours of untroubled rest, Faramir soon felt himself grow drowsy as he lay on his side, staring at the faint strip of starlight on the rug where the bathtub had stood.

Had the Queen truly foreseen the future? Could he allow himself to cling to what hope Elessar’s words offered? Was it due to the faint scent of Athelas lingering in his nose that his heart felt lightened, or was there another reason? He sent a glance to the round form of the peach Aragorn had put on the stool, and again felt warmth course through him. For the first time since the dreadful night in Kadall he felt a flutter of conviction that things would indeed turn out well. With this encouraging realisation, he fell asleep.

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PostPosted: Mon 26 Feb , 2007 8:21 am 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
“She didn’t bring your breakfast? Oh, that sulking girl!” Miliani hissed as the stalked out of the room.

Éowyn shook her head and continued brushing her hair. Though she was hungry, waiting a little longer for her meal would do no harm. It was odd that Saredeen had not brought it, though. Perhaps she was sulking, as Miliani guessed, or perhaps she had thought the other would bring it. Éowyn frowned. Now that she thought about it, she could not recall seeing the girl when she came back in last night, despite the late hour. Then again, she had had other things on her mind. Rashidah did not keep her secret well. She wondered who the man was, or if that even mattered. Doubtless he found his forbidden affair thrilling, despite the risks involved. She wondered how long this had been going on and if others knew about it too. Could she use this to her advantage? Of course she could.

She broke out of her thoughts as Miliani came back with her breakfast tray. “The cooks were sure this should’ve been brought to you sooner,” she said, setting the tray on the table, “but they couldn’t understand why nobody had come to get it.”

“Perhaps Saredeen simply forgot,” Éowyn said, sitting down and choosing a muffin.

“You just don’t forget a breakfast tray,” Miliani snorted as she dropped to her knees. “Saredeen’s off sulking somewhere because she has to be a night maid again. I hope she’s whipped as badly as I was.” Then she flushed and said hurriedly, “Forgive me, my lady, it is not my place to say these things.”

Éowyn waved her hand. “You know her duties better than I,” she said, “and the punishments that come with them.” She paused, then continued slowly, “As for punishments, do you remember yesterday when we were talking about lovers? Just how dangerous is it for a consort to take a lover?”

Miliani looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “Well, I’ve heard of consorts being killed for taking lovers. Masters can be very jealous men when it comes to a consort’s attention. Some are just whipped and sent away with nothing. Sometimes the men they’ve taken as lovers face the same punishment, if the masters learn who those are. Are you having second thoughts?”

Éowyn continued with her breakfast, ignoring the question for the time. The severity of the punishments did not surprise her. Men were jealous creatures, and she did not doubt that Al-Jahmî was at least as jealous as any other. What would he do if he found out his favorite was giving her attentions to someone else? “What do you have to do to prove the affair?” she asked. “Is an accusation enough?”

Miliani shook her head. “If that was enough, then rival consorts would barely last a week. No, you need proof, like a shirt left behind or an obvious gift given or catching them together.”

“What if you see the pair together?”

“I don’t think that would be enough, especially if you couldn’t trap them. Saying you saw them is just an accusation that they could deny.” Her eyes grew wide. “Have you seen someone?”

“I was curious,” Éowyn answered.

After breakfast, she went down to the stables and began grooming her horse. The mare twitched her ears as she walked in but went back to looking for the last bits of grain in the corners of the feedbox. Miliani leaned against the stall door as Éowyn began working with the stiff brush.

“She’s pretty,” the girl said.

“Yes, she is,” Éowyn answered, patting the horse’s shoulder. “Saredeen was quite afraid of her yesterday.”

“I don’t know why,” Miliani said. “She seems quiet.”

“You know horses?”

Miliani shrugged. “Enough to know when to get out of their way.”

Éowyn chuckled. “That’s good enough.” She continued with her work, pausing to check that the mare’s eyes were clear and shining, then moved on to pick out the hooves. When that was finished, she put the pick back in the box Hazadai had brought and leaned against the wall to admire her work. The mare’s coat was spotless, and mane and tail hung without tangles. She wiped a few beads of sweat from her forehead. “She looks good,” she said to herself.

Wanting more than a compliment, the mare nudged one of Éowyn’s dress pockets. Éowyn chuckled and pulled out the pear half. “You catch on quickly.”

“You two seem to be getting on well.” Éowyn turned to see Hazadai set the saddle and bridle beside her. “It’s good when a lady and her horse are a good pair. Are you ready to go out?”

“No, not yet,” she answered, turning back to her horse.

“I’ll show your girl where the grooming kit goes, then,” he answered. At her nod, he motioned for Miliani to follow him. Éowyn watched them go, then sank down to sit in the straw.

The mare came over to her and sniffed her hair for a moment, then blew in her face. Éowyn let her fingers drift over the soft muzzle, then dropped her hand as the horse moved away. She leaned her head against the wood paneling and closed her eyes. She should not have stayed up so late last night, for she was feeling the effects of it this morning. Though she was not overly tired, she still felt a bit weary. Teherin would have scolded her for not getting enough rest and told her yet again that carrying a child was tiring enough without making any extra effort. The healer would be right, of course, and she would not be able to deny it. Feeling a soft flutter, she pressed her hand to her middle, trying to find another movement. She let out a long breath. She had worried that she had harmed her child when she burned, but it seemed the child had not taken any ill effects.

Quick footsteps came close, then stopped beside the stall. She opened her eyes and looked up to see her guard peering over the stall’s panel. When he saw her, he grunted and moved away. No, I did not slip past your watch, she thought bitterly, and you can only imagine how greatly I want to. My husband is looking for me, and if I do not manage to escape, then he will rescue me. Faramir was alive – the thought still sent thrills through her. He was alive, and he would find her. She knew he would. This parting was only temporary, and soon they would be reunited, and he would fuss over her and her pregnancy as much as Teherin would. Will he? The doubt nagged at her even as she tried to repress it. He did not eagerly embrace the idea of you bearing another child. She shook her head. He was only worried about her health, he had to be. Surely he would welcome another child into their family. She bit her lip. Yes, his worries were about her health, not because he did not want another baby. But what if…

Éowyn stood suddenly and brushed the straw from her skirts. Sitting there would only give those thoughts a chance to fester. She needed distraction to drive them away. Taking the saddle blanket, she threw it over the mare’s back and began tacking up. Soon she found herself riding through the peach orchards, the fruit’s fragrance saturating the air. The morning was warm but not yet hot, and the sun ducked in and out of puffy white clouds. She glanced at the peaches still hanging from the limbs, but did not see any that looked like they needed to be picked on the spot. Looking over her shoulder, she saw her guard trailing behind her, riding a stocky chestnut. The horse looked as bored as its rider.

She nudged her mare into a light trot and after a moment heard the trailing horse pick up its pace. Glancing over her shoulder again, she saw that the guard’s expression had not changed. Gripping the reins firmly, she wove her horse through the rows of trees, keeping a close watch for low-hanging branches. Those had ways of sneaking up on riders and sweeping them off their mounts. She eased the mare into a canter, still weaving a path through the orchard. Another look over her shoulder showed that her guard had closed some of the distance between them, but he did not appear to press further. Taking several quick breaths, Éowyn urged more speed out of her horse and darted across the lane into an orchard she did not have Al-Jahmîr’s gracious permission to enter.

She heard the horse behind her break into a run as she directed her own around the trunks and drooping, leafy branches. She leaned close to her horse’s neck, wanting to laugh at this game of cat-and-mouse. She knew she would be caught eventually, but for now she was getting away with something, and it was an exciting thought. Her laughter died on her lips as she bit back a cry as an arrow grazed the top of her left shoulder, slicing open cloth and the skin below it, before embedding itself in a tree trunk. She sat up quickly and fiercely reined in the mare. At this close range, she knew better than to think he had missed on accident. Her right hand pressed against the shoulder, finding the bleeding gash. The guard’s horse skidded to a stop beside hers, almost colliding with them, and the rider grabbed the reins from her hand and jerked her horse around without a word.

When they reached the stables, he all but pulled her from her horse and ordered a passing stableboy to return the mounts to their stalls. Miliani gasped when she saw Éowyn was bleeding, but she wisely said nothing and followed. Éowyn assumed they would be going directly to Al-Jahmîr and was surprised when he left her at her apartments.

“That needs to be cleaned,” Miliani said as soon as they were inside. “I’ll see that a bath is drawn, and we can take care of two things at once.”

Éowyn nodded, not really listening to her. The foolishness of her little game was suddenly clear. Sure, she had put her guard through his paces and he had proved competent, but she had already known that. Why had she thought that testing him would be a good idea? All it had proven was that she was willing to test her boundaries and cross them when she could. What would Al-Jahmîr do in response? Watch her more closely, which was the last thing she wanted? Very likely. Take away some of her privileges? Also likely. Were these worth those few moments? Hardly. She felt tears spring into her eyes. How many unknown opportunities had she destroyed with this foolishness?

“It’ll be alright,” Miliani said. “The wound doesn’t look very deep. Did you fall?”

Éowyn shook her head and wiped her eyes. “I tried being clever, and I only ended up looking foolish.”

Her tears continued even after she had sat in her bath several minutes. A healer came to check the wound and agreed that it was not deep enough to need stitches. She put an ointment on it and wrapped it in a bandage. Éowyn sank down into the mass of fluffy bubbles that had formed from a syrup Miliani had poured into the water. She sniffled, still scolding herself on her stupidity. The water was warm and comfortable, and it helped ease the tension in her muscles. She ran her hands over her middle, feeling the rise that was forming there.

A door opening and the sound of footsteps in her sitting room startled her. Miliani had left the door between the rooms open to let the breeze circulate, but they had not been expecting anyone. The girl started to rise, but had barely made it halfway before Al-Jahmîr strode into the room and toward the nook were the bathtub stood. Éowyn froze when she saw him. Anger, but not rage, tightened his features. Surprise flashed through his eyes when he realized where she was. Éowyn stared at him, not entirely believing that he was there. Part of her wanted to scream at him to get out, but that part was overruled by the part of her that could not form a sound. She realized that his eyes were running over her and she found herself trying to slide deeper into the water. He couldn’t possibly see through all those bubbles, could he? Her jaw clenched as she crossed her arms over her chest and drew her legs close to her. She was vividly aware of her vulnerability. With a word he could send Miliani away and… She did not want to think about what could happen after. A smirk began to mingle with the rest of his expression. He was enjoying watching her panic!

He crouched beside the tub to look her in the eye. “You are absolutely terrified right now,” he said, his amusement clear in his voice. He even had the nerve to grin!

“Get out,” she said, her voice deathly calm and quiet.

“You certainly are not in the position to be making demands,” he replied, drawing in the bubbles near the side of the tub with one finger. “Or at least not those demands.” She wanted to slap the wolfish grin from his face.

“Leave.”

“I should be furious with you,” he continued. “You disregard my requests and try to elude your guard. Maybe that scratch will remind you of your place.” He paused, watching her. “He did not have to miss, you know.”

Éowyn pressed her lips together, hawishly eyeing his hand as it moved away from the edge, still swirling the bubblies.

“I knew you would try something, but honestly, I did not expect it so soon. And now I have to come up with some way to punish you. What should I do?”

She glared at him, refusing to answer. There were many things she could suggest for him to do, most of them ending in his violent death, but he would only laugh at those and perhaps… If that hand drew any closer, she was going to snap at it.

“Ah, maybe I am punishing you enough as it is,” he said, noticing her reaction and leaning closer. “Honestly, Éowyn, do you really think you can avoid the day where you do not even have a thin layer of bubbles to hide from me?” She jumped, startled, as she felt his hand touch her knee. She had not even noticed it had moved. Biting her lip, she closed her eyes as he brought his face within inches of hers. “You can try to escape, but you will always be brought back,” he said softly. “You are mine now, and I intend to keep you for my own and have you in every way. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you stop fighting this battle you cannot win, the sooner you can find happiness and pleasure again.” She flinched as his hand caressed her cheek. “I can give you both, greater than you’ve ever known.” She felt his breath on her face, but she refused to look at him.

The silence stretched before she heard him stand and take a step. “I do not want to harm you,” he said, his voice cold, “but if pain is all you will respond to, so be it. Consider that scratch a warning. The next arrow will find its mark. You will not leave the castle until I say you can. Do not try to be clever and claim that the stables are part of the castle. I should just send the beast back to Umbar and be done with it, but I like to think that you can earn your prize back. Consider it an incentive to behave?”

She did not open her eyes until long after his footsteps faded to silence. When she finally did, she drew up her knees and wrapped her arms around them, shaking violently. She could hardly form a coherent thought. Anger surged through her, as did fear, and even shame. The latter surprised her somewhat. It was not as though she had invited him to watch her bathe. Still, he had seen more than she had let any man other than Faramir admire, and he had all but promised that he would see every bit of her one day. She shook harder, trying to deny that he could force his desires at any time. Her shoulders began shaking with sobs, silent at first, then coming in ragged gasps.

She nearly shrieked when Miliani touched her back gently. The girl tried a weak smile, but failed. “Would you like to get out now, my lady?” she asked, voice quivering.

***

Late that evening, Izren the laundress trudged back to her house in the harbor town. The wash had been extra frustrating today. Rashidah had managed to spill red wine on her sheets again, and she did not want to know what the girl had been up to for that to happen. Aliah had gotten nail paint on her skirts, and that was as tricky to get out as wine. Then the master’s new consort had torn and bloodied one of her new dresses. Well, the tear wouldn’t be difficult to handle, but the blood stains were. Yes, it had been a difficult day.

As she passed a butcher’s shop, she noticed two cloaked figures rise from the bench by the door. She grimaced and kept walking. The evening was cool enough for cloaks, and it was not unusual for people to travel in pairs. The pair she was concerned about had not visited her for two days, and she wished they would stay away. However, she heard steps follow hers as she turned onto a street lined with small houses. Perhaps if she reached her home they would not bother her. Perhaps it was too much of a risk for strangers to be seen in this area. Perhaps…

“We want to talk to you, Izren,” Narejde called, her voice pleasant, but with a commanding undertone.

Izren sighed and turned around. “I gave her your message and trinket with my own hands. I want nothing else to do with you.”

“Do not look so flustered,” Narejde said, drawing close. “We are simply strangers asking for directions.” Azrahil nodded, but the way his gaze swept the street said he was doing anything except asking directions.

Izren stared at her, confused, then her eyes narrowed. “I’ll tell you the quickest way out of town, if you’d like.”

“I’d like you to tell us what you saw. Is she well? Is she comfortable?”

“She’s housed with the consorts, as comfortable as you ever were, if not more,” Izren replied. “She has her own large apartments and serving girls. She looks well enough, fat and healthy. The tailor’s been in to create a new wardrobe for her since his lordship’s gotten her with child.”

Azrahil choked back a curse. Narejde’s eyes narrowed. “That can’t be,” she said icily.

Izren shrugged. “The healers say she’s with child, and he’s doing nothing to stop the rumor.”

“Even if he… at Kadall… No! It’s impossible.” Narejde paced, despite the glances she received from the occasional passerby. “Even if he had, there could be no way they could know by now. It’s too soon. Think, Izren. We’ve both borne children. He hasn’t had her even two weeks. The child can’t be his.” Her last words came out as a desperate plea.

Izren shrugged again. “That’s all I know. Maybe he met with her sometime before he brought her here. Some say they’ve been secret lovers for years, which is why the master’s been so keen on killing her husband.”

“Lies,” Narejde spat. Then she shook her head. “But it’s useful to know what’s being said. Pay attention to what you hear. We’ll come back when we need your help again.”

Izren’s eyes widened. “What? No!” she sputtered. “I’m finished with you. If you even come down this street again I’ll set the City Watch on you and—”

“And you’ll be in as much trouble as we are for aiding us,” Azrahil stated quietly. “You know what happens to traitors.”

They turned and left Izren staring after them. They rounded the corner as the laundress shook herself, spun on her heel, and continued her walk home. Her back ached already, and she could feel a headache forming as well. Curse that Narejde!

Narejde and Azrahil returned to the bench outside the butcher’s shop. Azrahil leaned back against the wall. Narejde slumped forward her face in her hands. “What does this change?” he asked softly.

“Everything,” she answered, her voice muffled and sad. “This changes everything.”

***

The next day, Éowyn stayed in her apartments despite invitations from Lael and Aliah to play another tile game. She did not want to see anyone, though she knew that keeping herself isolated would only worsen her mood. Her shoulder hurt some, but mostly it was an annoyance. Whenever she felt like complaining about it, an image of Faramir falling to his knees with an arrow in his shoulder and another in his side flashed across her vision. This was not pain.

One bright spot in the day was that Al-Jahmîr did not ask her to lunch with him. She knew it was too much to hope that her actions had annoyed him enough that he did not want to see her anymore, but the absence was welcomed. She took her meals in her rooms, noticing that she was leaving less on the tray than when she had first arrived. Maybe the child had moved in the night, or maybe she was gaining weight, but the bump in her middle was more pronounced now. She was not big yet, and she doubted that no matter how big she got with this child it would not compare to carrying the twins, but she was pleased to see some evidence for her efforts.

She fell asleep early that night after watching the sun burn out over the sea. Her own burns were healing well, with the redness fading to a pink in most areas, and some places even beginning to peel. The extra hours of sleep made up for the stresses of the previous days and even gave her a little more energy, which she noticed when she woke.

She had nearly finished her breakfast when a serving girl she did not recognize trotted in and knelt beside her. “Forgive the interruption, Lady Éowyn,” the girl said, “but Lady Inzilbêth is having her baby and asks for your presence.”

“I will be there as soon as I am dressed,” Éowyn said, wiping her mouth with a napkin as she rose. While Miliani helped her into a blue dress with slashes of white across the skirt, she went over a list of things they would need – pillows, blankets, hot water – before remembering that Inzilbêth had said a midwife would be there, and that the midwife had likely taken care of all these things already.

Soon she was quickly striding across the castle, overhearing clusters of servants chattering about the birth. If what they were saying could be trusted, apparently Inzilbêth’s labor had begun shortly after midnight and had progressed slowly, not surprising for a first birth. She passed by the sitting rooms where she and Inzilbêth had shared several pleasant conversations and meals and entered more private quarters. She rounded a corner and was surprised to see Adûnakhôr sitting in a pile of blankets off to one side of the doors, still obviously in his night clothes. He sat with his back against the wall, elbows resting on his knees, hands clasped behind his head. When his head jerked up at the sound of her approach, the dark circles under his eyes indicated he had not gotten any sleep since being unceremoniously thrown out of his rooms. Worry and fear mixed on his face, and he wrapped and unwrapped one of his dark curls around his finger.

As she neared the arched doors carved with intricate patterns, he asked suddenly, “Is everything unknotted?”

Éowyn stopped and gave him a puzzled glance. “What?”

His eyes grew wide, and he tensed as though to jump up. “Are all the knots out? Nothing’s knotted?” He almost sounded close to panic.

“I made sure that there were no knots, my lord,” Miliani said soothingly. “We bring nothing to complicate the birth.” He nodded and relaxed somewhat. Miliani explained softly for Éowyn, “It is believed that a knot of any sort in the birthing room will add an hour to the woman’s labor. Some women will even unbraid their hair in case that counts as a knot.”

Éowyn nodded slowly and knocked on the door. That was a strange custom. She heard muffled voices behind the door, then it opened to reveal a short, slender woman with graying hair and stern eyes. “I’ve told you twice this morning—” She paused when she noticed Éowyn. “I suppose I should have been expecting you,” she said, her eyes and voice softening. “Come in.”

“How is she?”

Éowyn looked over her shoulder to see Adûnakhôr standing behind her, his usual confidence shattered.

“I’ve told you twice already this morning, young man,” the woman said sharply. “She is doing well for a first-timer, but she still has a long way to go before this is over. I will not keep any news, good or bad, from you, but I can’t tell you anything until something happens. Eat some food or get some sleep. Both would do you good.” To Éowyn’s even greater surprise, she shut the door in his face. She shook her head. “Men. They enjoy the act that starts a baby, but they fall to pieces when the serious work begins.” She chuckled and said, “I’m sorry you had to see the worst part of me first, but fathers need to be dealt with firmly when their children are born. I am Jehara, Inzilbêth’s midwife.”

“I am Éowyn.” She was still reeling over the midwife’s disregard for Adûnakhôr’s status, though she did not disagree with her at all. There had been times when she had wanted Faramir with her during her labor (and definitely times when she never wanted him near her again), but from what Túrin had told her of how Faramir had handled the situation, she guessed things had been easier with him out of the room.

“I understand that you’ve had children of your own,” Jehara said as they walked across a small antechamber.

Éowyn nodded. “Three, one a set of twins, all boys.”

“I doubt any of those were easy. Boys tend to be harder on their mothers than girls. Is it true you are expecting another now?” At Éowyn’s nod, she clicked her tongue. “You should be resting as well, but then you are not doing the hard part today.” She pushed aside a beaded curtain at the other end of the room and stepped into a bedchamber that was surprisingly warm. Éowyn glanced around and saw a fireplace with a small fire burning with a pot of water sitting just outside the embers. She felt a breeze and looked toward the open window. Inzilbêth stood leaning against a healer, and from the grimace and concentration mixed on her face, she guessed the woman was in the middle of a contraction.

“Breathe through it,” the midwife called to her. “I know you don’t think it helps, but it does.”

Inzilbêth sucked in a long breath as the contraction ended, then gave Éowyn a wobbly smile. “Thank you for coming,” she said, slowly walking over to her, pressing her hands against her back.

“I said I would,” Éowyn replied, crossing the room to meet her. She embraced her gently, discovering that the woman’s long linen shirt was almost soaked with sweat. “How are you?” she asked, brushing back a strand of hair that had plastered itself to the woman’s forehead.

“I could be better,” she replied. “I want this to be over, but Jehara says there’s more yet.” She lowered her voice. “I want to push but she says I shouldn’t even be thinking about it yet.”

“Believe me,” Éowyn said in just as low a tone, “you’ll know when the time comes.”

Inzilbêth chuckled and took a sip of water from a cup one of her maids offered. She had barely finished when she gasped and squeezed her eyes shut tightly. Éowyn murmured soothing words to her, knowing that the woman was likely focusing too much to even hear her.

The morning wore on to noon slowly. Inzilbêth made a good show of keeping her spirits up, trying to joke with the other women and even arguing occasionally with the midwife. Lunch was brought and Jehara encouraged Inzilbêth to eat what she could, which was little. The midwife also told Éowyn to eat, saying that just because one mother-to-be had lost her appetite didn’t mean the other needed to as well. Inzilbêth’s pains grew more frequent and more intense after noon, so much so that she felt she could not stay on her feet much longer, despite Jehara’s claims that walking around would still help. She lay down on her bed and threw one arm over her eyes. “Oh, make it stop,” she murmured.

“It cannot stop until you have a baby in your arms,” Éowyn told her gently, dabbing at the woman’s forehead with a cloth. “Then you will forget about how terrible it was.”

As the afternoon progressed, Inzilbêth went from silent grimaces and gasps to moans and cries of pain. After a particularly hard moment, she fell back against the pillows supporting her and said, “No, no, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Éowyn told her from her seat beside the bed. “You’re doing wonderfully so far. You’re strong, and you’ll make it through.” Inzilbêth started to reply, but her words were cut off in a moan as another contraction worked its way though her. Once more before lunch and twice in the afternoon a maid came to tell Jehara that Adûnakhôr wanted to know what was happening. The last time she went off muttering that if the boy asked again she would see to it he was thrown completely out of the castle.

Soon Inzilbêth began saying that she wanted to push, and Jehara agreed that the time was right. Éowyn let her hold onto her hand as she pushed, and she was surprised at the woman’s tight grip. Had she squeezed Visilya’s hand as hard when the twins were born? The effort began taking its toll, with Inzilbêth growing more tired with every push. Jehara ordered her to keep trying, even when she wept and said she couldn’t. Despite her protests, she found the strength to curl forward and try again.

After a long push, she fell against the pillows as tears trickled down her cheeks. “I can’t do this,” she hiccupped.

“You can and you must,” Jehara told her firmly. “You will not give up now, not when I can see your baby’s head.”

“You can…”

Jehara nodded. “You are almost finished. Give me another good push.”

Éowyn smiled and whispered, “A few more minutes and you’ll be holding your baby.”

Inzilbêth gave a half-smile and began pushing with another contraction. “Good,” Jehara said. “Another.”

The woman groaned and, panting, tried again. This time she ended with a strangled cry of pain and collapsed into the pillows, gasping for air. Soon a tiny wail could be a heard, a new voice being used for the first time. “You did it,” Éowyn whispered, squeezing her hand. Inzilbêth tried propping herself up on trembling elbows, trying to see what was happening at her feet.

“Look who wants to meet you,” Jehara said, lifting the squalling newborn and placing the babe on Inzilbêth’s bare chest, her long shirt having been unbuttoned long ago to ease her movements.

“A daughter,” Inzilbêth murmured, staring in wonder at her child. She laughed weakly but with a smile that shone. “Look at my daughter.”

“She’s beautiful,” Éowyn said. “You were wonderful. What will you name her?”

“That’s Adûn’s duty,” Inzilbêth said, stroking her daughter’s few thin strands of dark hair. “I can’t believe she’s really here.”

“She is,” Jehara said, smiling proudly. “And Éowyn is right. You did wonderfully. You have every reason to be proud. Now, let’s get you and her cleaned up so I can finally give that husband of yours some good news.” Inzilbêth watched as Jehara gave the child a bath, tied a green thread around her left wrist (for luck), and wrapped her up in a soft blanket. She gave her back to her mother, suggesting that she try nursing her. A few mistakes later, the child was nursing, and Inzilbêth sighed and closed her eyes.

“Is this real?” she asked softly, opening her eyes to watch her daughter.

“Yes it is,” Éowyn said. She remembered the wonder and slight disbelief she had felt after each of her children were born, the joy of them being in her arms, and the thought that this could not be happening. The fear and self-doubt would come later, but for these first hours and days after the birth there was happiness.

“I think it’s time to let your husband in,” the midwife said after the child finished nursing. Inzilbêth nodded, her smile stretching across her tired features. As Jehara walked to the door, Inzilbêth said, “Thank you for all your help, Éowyn.”

“You did all the work,” she replied. “I just sat here and told you that you could.”

“Maybe, but it was good to have you here. I—” The sound of running feet reached their ears, and Inzilbêth looked up in time to see Adûnakhôr half-run through the curtain, the beaded strands clicking against each other as they swayed. He stopped in his tracks as he saw his wife and child for the first time, the color draining from his face as though he had not believed there would truly be a child in this room when he entered. Éowyn rose from her seat beside the bed and slipped off to one side. She did not want to intrude on what should be private moments for the new parents. She saw him stare at the pair for a moment longer, then in three long strides he had crossed the room and was kissing his wife gently, stroking her hair, and trying to look at his child all at the same time.

As she washed her hands in a basin, Éowyn caught snatches of the conversation.

“I’m fine… yes… it wasn’t that bad…. Isn’t she beautiful?”

“A daughter… she has your eyes…she’s as beautiful as her mother. Dalariphel?”

“Yes… Dala… yes.”

“I love you.”

Éowyn left the three alone and went out into the antechamber to find the others talking quietly. Jehara looked up as she entered, her eyes sharp. “I want you to go back to your apartments and rest, now,” she said firmly. “You’ve not had as long a day as she has, but you’re still carrying your child.”

“Yes, Jehara,” Éowyn replied, realizing just how tired she actually was. A birth was tiring for everyone involved, not just the mother. It was almost time for supper, and after seeing Éowyn back to her apartments and helping her change into a nightdress, Miliani ran off to the kitchens to fetch her tray.

Éowyn stretched out on her bed for a moment before realizing that if she lay still too long, she would likely fall asleep. Her rumbling stomach said that sleep before eating something would not be wise. She stood and caught her reflection in the mirror. Stepping closer, she turned to the side and pressed the thin cloth tight across her belly. Yes, there definitely was a bump there, maybe even moreso than yesterday. She could clearly see it in her reflection, and she studied it for a moment before loosening the cloth with a sigh. She crossed her arms and went to sit at the small table. Would Faramir come running to see her minutes after this child was born? He had nearly ridden his horse into the ground when he received word in Minas Tirith that she was laboring with the twins in Ithilien. Yet, she had to be realistic. Would she even have this baby in Ithilien? Every day that passed without her rescue or escape meant one day closer to the birth and another day’s worth of obstacle to overcome. How long before she was too uncomfortable or unbalanced to ride easily? How long before a walk down to the stables wore her out as much as a long ride? She did not want to think about the possibility that she might have her baby here, in the snake’s own home, with nobody to truly comfort her, but she had to admit that it was possible. The despair that clutched her stomach made her want to gag.

When Miliani returned with supper, she found Éowyn sitting at the table, her face hidden in her arms, weeping.

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

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PostPosted: Sat 03 Mar , 2007 4:09 pm 
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Location: snake-hunting
He is walking along tall battlements of red rock overlooking the sea whose mighty roar can be heard far below, mingled with the piercing cries of seagulls hovering on the breeze. Again he is looking for something – like so often in his dreams of late –, and he is in great hurry to find it. Not much longer, and it is going to be too late, he knows. The battlements seem to have no end, and he begins to fear that he will have to jump down into the churning, frothing waters in order to finally escape this endless walk, when finally his eyes fall on a group of people awaiting him. One is Al-Jahmîr, looking younger than in reality, Faramir thinks. Nevertheless he knows it is the Umbarian. Behind him, lined up in front of the wall stands a long row of women, their features hidden by veils the wind is tugging and tearing at, trying to remove the colourful silken cloths and reveal their faces. Yet despite its incessant force it does not succeed.

“You may take your wife back with you if you can pick her out from the crowd,” Al-Jahmîr tells him jeeringly when he draws near. “But you have one attempt only. If you fail, she is mine forever, and so are your sons.”

With a gesture, he invites Faramir to walk along the line of women. He hesitates, doubtful if he should sacrifice his boys’ welfare for the faint chance of finding his beloved in the crowd of veiled faces. But at length he accepts the challenge, for what choice does he really have to decline the offer? What he has been looking for all this time is one of these ladies, he remembers now. So he begins to walk along the line, despair rising with each step. They all look alike, without the slightest indication of who Éowyn might be. Nobody moves or speaks, all are more of less of same height and girth, clad in similar garments, only the colours varying. He has reached the end of the row and turns, forcing himself to concentrate on details of their clothing or the way they stand, growing more desperate with each step he takes. He has almost reached Al-Jahmîr again who has been watching him with a triumphant smile, when his ears catch a rustle of cloth. From behind the skirt of one of the woman a pair of bright grey eyes is peering forth, bright eyes in a pale face topped by raven hair. He knows that face, and suddenly a heavy weight is lifted off his heart.

He turns to the Umbarian, drawing himself up. “This is her,” he tells Al-Jahmîr with utter conviction, for he knows he is right in his choice. Of course this is his Éowyn, and he wonders how he could have walked past her the first time he passed along the line. “This is her, and she is mine, and I shall take her home with me.”

Upon this announcement, the disguised figure stirs as if a spell has been lifted, and shaking off the veil so that the sun shines brightly on golden hair she steps out from the row and smiles radiantly and holds out her hand for him to take. The little figure behind her skirts has vanished, but somehow Faramir knows it will come along as well and never leave again. Al-Jahmîr is left behind to stare after them powerlessly as and they turn their backs upon him and hand in hand walk away.


Faramir woke very early the next morning, to the first rays of light slanting through the window from the north-east and playing on the embroidered curtains. He felt well-rested and greatly strengthened after the long hours of unbroken albeit dream-filled sleep. Only after having spent a night in a proper bed and a quiet room again he realised how cramped, crowded and noisy his accommodation on the pirate’s ship had been. With a sigh he turned upon his back, stretching carefully, and watching the painted wooden ceiling of the alcove absently while trying to piece together the images of the last dream.

No nightmare this time nor any of the troubled, confusing visions which had filled his nights of late, but a truly hope-inspiring dream. Had it been due to the wholesome, soothing effect of Athelas? Or was it a vision of the future? He knew it was dangerous to go that far, and put his hopes on nightly images. And yet ... He could not help smiling faintly. The victory over Al-Jahmîr had been complete. He had lost all his power, and had seen himself defeated. And who had wrought this defeat? With a faint sigh, Faramir turned upon his side, watching the peach Elboron had brought him thoughtfully as the early sunlight made its soft skin look like velvet. Had he not seen the small figure before in his dreams? Had it simply been an image of one of his children? There had been a certain semblance with Elboron, no doubt. Or was it a child he had not seen yet, a child about to be born?

He felt himself grow restless and troubled again. What if she truly was with child? What had Túrin said yesterday? Sometimes these things take care of themselves? What if the same thing had happened to Éowyn and him? There was a realistic possibility, after all. What would the Snake do if he found his coveted prize with child? Would he try and kill the babe, in order to have a free rein with Éowyn? Or would he want her to deliver the child, to have yet another trump against Gondor in his hands? Would he claim it as his own, even, and make people believe he fathered it? And how would a pregnancy influence their plans of rescuing her? The longer they delayed, the more strenuous and dangerous a flight would become for her and the child, until a time came when they would have to delay yet longer, and wait for the child to be born. How far along could she be? There had been no signs back at Khorazîr’s, for surely she would have noticed them and mentioned something to him. Or would she?

He sat up, running a hand through his hair. What if she had already known but not told him outright, wishing first to check what his opinion of a possible fourth child would be. And I have given her all the encouragement and support she needed, bloody fool that I am, he thought bitterly. She must have at least suspected something, he then reasoned, thinking back to the morning at Khorazîr’s and their disastrous conversation. But why did she not tell me anything, not even of her suspicions if she was not certain? Have I really given her the impression she cannot trust me with matters of this kind? Have I made her doubt my devotion to her and our family, and the fact that I would love to have another child, but for the possible risks involved for the mother? He sighed. Had he truly objected to another sibling for the boys, he would have told her so. And, he thought with a wry smile, they had not exactly taken precautions against its conception ever since his return from Tolfalas.

A tentative knock on the door startled him out of his musings so that he jumped slightly in surprise. “Enter,” he said, leaning forward to peer round the curtains, to behold Dorgil looking into the room. “Good morning, lord. Do you need help with dressing?”

Faramir shook his head. “I think I can manage, thank you, Dorgil.”

The healer stepped in, sniffing the air briefly. Faramir noted that he was already clad in his travelling garments. “What is this scent?” he asked. “Kingsfoil?”

“Yes. ‘Tis contained in the paste the King treated my wounds with yestereve. To good effect, I daresay. The pain in my chest has lessened, and even my dreams have been rather pleasant for a change.”

Dorgil smiled warmly. “Excellent. It is comforting to leave you in such skilled hands.”

“You are off to Ithilien, then?”

“Unless you would like me to stay, captain,” the rangers fell in quickly.

Faramir gave him a stern glance. “I would like you to get out of the City immediately, Dorgil,” he said, before he grinned. Dorgil saluted. “I shall be back in three days, then.” He turned, but at the door he paused. “What shall I tell Beregond?” he asked. “He will inquire after you, and honestly, captain, I don’t think I could bring it over myself to lie to him.”

“Tell him the truth, then, but only him. Tell him I should have liked to come, but the time is too short. Convey my greetings to him and his family, and thank him in my name for holding the place together during our absence. Tell him ...,” he hesitated briefly, “tell him everything is going to turn out well.”

Dorgil gave Faramir a long glance. “Is it?” he asked very softly.

“It must,” replied his captain, upon which the ranger nodded, saluted once again briefly, and left.

Faramir took to the venture of dressing himself in the Southron garments again which apparently had been cleaned and somewhat mended overnight (the blood-stains from his veil were gone, for one). This went slowly and laboriously, but since Elessar had applied the bandages to his chest and shoulder in a less restricting fashion than Dorgil, he managed to struggle into the garments on his own and even tie his sash and headgear.

+

Breakfast turned out to be a lively event. In addition to the two Southrons and Faramir, Éomer, Lóthiriel, Rían and the four boys, Imrahil, his wife Eiriën and Amrothos were present. Faramir greatly appreciated this opportunity to speak with his aunt and uncle privately, who he knew were worrying greatly about him and Éowyn. When she saw him arrive, quite contrary to her usual restraint and quiet grace, Eiriën sprang up from her seat and dashing toward him embraced him long, only releasing him when Elboron announced he wanted to hug dadi, too.

Obviously Lóthiriel had had some words with her husband about what had befallen in council the previous day, because Éomer remained rather silent throughout the meal, and when finally the Steward’s boys and Rían withdrew to their play-room and Faramir was about to follow them to spend some more time with them ere today’s meeting, he drew him aside.

“Listen, Faramir,” the Rohir said quietly, with the quickest of glances over his shoulder to where his wife was sitting chatting with her parents and the two Haradrim, with Elfwine showing his proud grandparents how well he could read and write already, “I would like to apologise again for my behaviour yesterday. I shouldn’t have struck you.” A faint grin stole over his face. “At least not so hard,” he added.

“And I should have looked after her better,” replied Faramir gravely, patting the other’s shoulder. Nodding toward Lóthiriel, he went on, “I daresay you did your penance already.”

Éomer’s grin broadened. “You can bet on that. She was furious. Then of course all you tarks stick together.”

“Certainly. Just like you strawheads do.”

Éomer laughed. “Well, I’m glad we settled this.”

The ensuing hour Faramir spent sitting on the floor with his three boys, which Peregrin immediately used as an opportunity to reclaim his seat on his father’s lap which he had already occupied throughout the meal. Faramir had noted how the boy had become increasingly clingy, and constantly tried to keep close to his father. Now not even the possibility to play with paints sufficed to lure him to the floor.

Upon Faramir’s bidding, Rían had fetched a number of the thick wax-pencils the children loved to draw with, and several sheets of thick paper. Elboron had remembered yesterday’s idea of creating a pictures for mami, because “Dadi will go and bring her back,” as he explained to his brothers, casting a reassuring glance at Faramir who nodded and smiled, and cast down his eyes with a sigh when the boy had turned back to his picture. With the help of his brothers – now and again even Peregrin crawled from his seat and added a few colourful dots and lines –, he drew a number of pictures for Éowyn telling of their adventures.

After one such foray the boy returned, and looking up to his father from a paint-smeared face he suddenly asked, “Why not come mami?” At the word, Meriadoc looked up from his picture, and drawing himself to his feet on his brother’s shoulder, he came over to them. Apparently the same question had been bothering him as well. Elboron also ceased his work and turned round to the others.

Faramir sighed again. It had been difficult enough to explain the matter to his eldest, who seemed to have accepted his explanation, but the twins would understand less of what he told them. Drawing a deep breath, he said, “Mami is still far away, and dadi must go and fetch her, and bring her back to you. She misses her boys so much, you see, so here you are drawing pictures for her so that she has something to remember you by, until she sees you again. You miss her too, do you not?”

The twins nodded. Peregrin drew closer to him and hid his face in Faramir’s tunic. He stroked the boy’s fair hair gently, then held out his hand for Meriadoc to help him climb onto his legs as well. Elboron came to sit on the edge of Faramir’s pillow, leaning against his father. “When mami comes back?” he asked.

“I do not know, Elboron. I will leave again soon to fetch her, but I cannot tell you how long ‘tis going to take to bring her home again. ‘Tis a far journey, you see. But I will hurry, I promise you. But now you should finish your drawings, and then we shall see to cleaning all of you up again. You are as colourful as your pictures, especially Meriadoc here.” He tickled the boy gently and he beamed up at him, the paint on his lower face indicating that he had tested more than one colour with his mouth before applying it to paper. “You do eat anything, do you not, little man?”

From her seat at the window where she had been knitting, Rían sighed and nodded. “Sadly, yes.”

It turned out there were things Meriadoc would not eat. Before he left for council, Faramir brought forth the peach Elboron had given him the previous evening and divided it up between them. To his surprise, Meriadoc of all people did not eat his piece at once, but set it aside. “For mami,” he said plainly and quite decidedly when his father asked him if he did not want it. Faramir found himself at a loss trying to explain to him that the fruit would not keep for long enough to reach mami. In the end he let the boy have his will.

Each of the three was reluctant to let their father leave when the men got ready to attend council. Peregrin insisted on holding his hand until he was out of the door. “How am I supposed to leave them again in a few days?” Faramir muttered to himself as they set off down the corridor. Imhrahil who was walking next to him only shrugged and sighed, and squeezed his shoulder amicably.

+

When they reached the council chamber, Elessar, Falastur, Túrin and his father and Queen Arwen were already present. Faramir heard Amrothos walking in front of him utter a remark of surprise at her presence. Himself, he was not surprised. Although she attended council only rarely, he knew that she was always well informed about what passed there. Her husband did not only share the proceedings with her but often sought her counsel and listened to her advice. She now greeted the newcomers courteously. Faramir could tell how Mezlâr’s eyes grew wide and his sun-tanned face flushed when she addressed him by name. Obviously he had never before seen one of the Elder Kindred, and was visibly awed by her beauty and the wisdom of many centuries written on her brow. She, like the rest, was attired plainly, which only seemed to underline her natural grace.

“Visilya hasn’t been feeling well this morning,” Túrin told Faramir quietly as he took a seat next to him. “Sickness again. On top of that Vorondil has been fuzzy. But we are to report to her everything that passed today.”

When all had taken seats, Elessar asked Khorazîr to give a short estimation where he believed Al-Jahmîr had hidden himself and his prize. Several maps of Umbar and vicinity, as well as more general maps of the Near and Far Harad and of Harondor had been spread on the table or hung on the walls. One large, new and very detailed map of the Bay of Umbar had been laid in the midst of the table, and here a number of places had been marked in red ink.

“All those forts and castles and other places are known to belong or have belonged to Al-Jahmîr, his family and close associates,” the King explained. “Some we searched last year and left with men to watch them, to prevent him from reclaiming them. Others have been destroyed beyond repair, so we can be fairly certain he is not there. This place you mentioned, and whither your wife and stepson have journeyed, Ihimbra al-Soor, what can you tell us of it? Last year it was still occupied by Marek’s son who had openly distanced himself from his father, and some of my men even managed to gain entry and search it. It is a vast place, with many an possibility to hide.”

“Vast and well-fortified,” agreed Khorazîr, rising from his seat and beginning to pace the room as he tried to recall for all those who had never seen the palace how it was built. Faramir was pleased about the wealth of detail the Haradan remembered of the place he had been imprisoned in so many years ago. Now and again Khorazîr would step up to the table and lean over the map to show a few features of the surrounding coastline and countryside.

“‘Tis not a place to take from sea,” he ended his quite thorough account, returning to his seat, “and from land I see great difficulties, too,” he added with a glance at Éomer who had looked up at the first statement. “They are well provisioned with water and victuals, hence a siege would be folly, and only result in failure. In fact, I doubt there is a way in for a large force as long as there are determined and well-provided defenders inside. The only way, in my opinion, to bring Ihimbra down, is from the inside. If we could get in a small but cunning force to take care of the guards at the gates, and of those looking after the catapults on the battlements that could rain fire on any ship in their range, we could thus clear the way for a greater host to take the place apart, if we wished for that.”

“First we need to be certain she is held at Ihimbra,” fell in Faramir.

“I am quite certain of it,” replied Khorazîr. “After what King Elessar has shown on the maps, most other places he could use as a hiding are either in our hands now or at least well watched, or inhabitable. He would want to house the Lady in luxury as well as putting her behind the most secure walls possible. He is bound to have brought her to Ihimbra, or to Umbar proper, although I doubt it. The City is too unsafe for such a valuable and exclusive prize, and there are too many tarks around for Marek’s taste. At Ihimbra he is his own master, if he has come to an arrangement with his wayward son.”

“So how do we get this small force into the fortress?” asked Éomer, with a trace of impatience. Although he had listened to Khorazîr’s account with great interest, it was plain to see he wished for things to proceed more swiftly, and was looking to some decisions being made. “You have given us a good description of the place, but still I don’t see how to get past the gates. Is there a backdoor, or are we going to have to climb the cliffs to get in?”

The next half hour was spent with Khorazîr drawing a rather concise map of Ihimbra and the harbour-town nestling at its foot. On another sheet of parchment, he added a sketched floor-plan, although here he was forced to leave many areas blank because he did not know or could only surmise what these parts were being used for. “Things may have changed, too, of course,” he cautioned when excitedly, the others bent over his two drawings. “I was imprisoned there over ten years ago, and during the time Marek did not live at Ihimbra and it was in his son’s hands they may have altered the layout, or at least the distribution of rooms. But the main buildings should still be the same. As for a way in, well, so far I have rather concerned myself with finding a way out, but there are bound to be some, other than having to scale the cliffs. There are a great number of people from the town getting in and out on a daily basis: errand-riders, washerwomen, merchants, craftsmen, musicians, stable-boys, you name it. We would need a good disguise and a distraction to smuggle our men in with them. As for secret entrances, there are bound to be some as well. Near the stables, perhaps, or through the aqueducts and water-tunnels which transport the water-supply from these hills here – he pointed to a line of hills to the east of the castle – to an underground cistern. Narejde once used these tunnels to escape the place. We would have to check, though, if they are still passable.”

They discussed the advantages and disadvantages of this route and a number of possible others, until the noon-bell rang and they paused for a short break and a bite of food. Afterwards, they attempted to set up a more concrete plan of how to proceed in the matter.

“It is plain to see,” said Elessar, “that we cannot make any definite plans concerning Lady Éowyn’s rescue or a possible attack on Ihimbra unless we have more information about her and the place she is being kept at. What little we can obtain from here, we shall, but we will need to journey down South and have a good look at the place. Which, if I understand you aright, Faramir, is your intention anyway.”

Faramir nodded. “Aye, sire, Khorazîr and I are going to return to the Harad in a few days’ time. We will meet with Narejde and Azrahil and together devise a plan of how best to get entrance into the fortress, first and foremost to gather information, but also to spy out ways to free Éowyn and to allow a greater force of men to enter, in order to get rid of the Snake once an for all. At first, we will not need many men. My rangers are still stationed in Haradwaith, and Khorazîr has good men at his disposal, too. Since we must work in secret, this should do for the first part of our venture. But we shall need reinforcements ere long, and a powerful distraction, too. For this, I would appreciate if the fleet followed as soon as it is ready, to be at our disposal when we need it. Some land-forces would be helpful, too,” he added with a glance at Éomer. “Journeying down to Umbar overland with an éored or two would take you very long, but perhaps a way can be found to ship you and your men and the horses down south.”

“We will come, and if we have to swim,” the Rohir vowed darkly. “I will not sit here while my sister suffers at the hands of this villain. I will send word to Aldburg today. Elfhelm can muster more than one éored in a day’s time, and he lives just across the border, so there would be no need for the messenger to ride all the way to Edoras.”

“Good,” declared Aragorn. “I will personally command the fleet. Not only Al-Jahmîr needs to be dealt with, but the situation in Umbar, too. It has become highly dangerous and unstable, and needs a firm hand to settle matters again. I am of course aware of the possible dire consequences of a display of Gondorian superiority in this place, yet I am convinced that in this particular case, it is urgently required. Also, the presence of the fleet in Umbar would be a good distraction from the events at Ihimbra while still keeping it within reach should it be needed.”

“Assembling the fleet will take some time,” objected Falastur.

“No longer than assembling Rohan’s cavalry,” said Imrahil. “In a fortnight after Faramir’s departure, the ships could be on their way.” He glanced at Aragorn who nodded. “Sire, do you consider it wise to undertake the journey yourself in these troubled times? I dislike to bring up the matter, but according to the law the King should not leave his realm in war-time if there is no heir.”

Elessar smiled wryly at the other’s reminder. “I am well aware of the law, but in this particular case I shall set my will above it. Already last year when, as you remember, I also left Gondor to find our Steward and subsequently hunt Al-Jahmîr, I caused an article to be added outlining the legal proceedings in the event of my death without an heir born or conceived. I shall show it to you tomorrow. To ease your concerns, I have no intention of getting myself killed on this venture,” he ended with a wink.

“There remains the question of who is to take over the rule of the realm during your and the Steward’s absence,” pointed out Falastur.

Queen Arwen cleared her throat, and all heads turned round to her. “I shall not leave,” she stated simply, causing most of the men to smile rather sheepishly.

“Of course not,” muttered Húrin.

“Still, I have discussed the matter with the King,” she went on, “and he counselled me to choose an advisor, or more than one, to function as an interims-steward until he or Lord Faramir returned. Since I am certain you, Lord Imrahil, would like to journey south as well with your ships to aid your nephew in every way you can to rescue his wife, I shall choose Lord Falastur to be my advisor.”

“What?” gasped Túrin before he could stop himself and clap a hand over his mouth. The others exchanged startled looks (even appalled ones in Amrothos’ case), including Falastur himself, who apparently had firmly reckoned with getting ‘overlooked’, as he liked to put it, yet again.

Only Aragorn did not look surprised. In fact, he appeared no little amused. “I daresay I understand your surprise, Túrin,” he said. “Therefore you shall be the other advisor. Your father assured me he could take over his old office for a while, thus freeing you to assist the Queen.”

Faramir could not help smiling at Túrin’s shocked expression. “I, Steward?” his friend spluttered. “But ...”

“I am sure together we will look after the realm very well,” Queen Arwen said reassuringly.

After a thorough discussion of the next steps to be undertaken during the following days to arrange everything for the departure of Faramir and of the fleet two weeks later, in the early evening the meeting was postponed to the following day. Faramir took his leave from Túrin and his father, and Imrahil and Amrothos and the rest. Khorazîr wanted to show Mezlâr some parts of the City, so Faramir joined Éomer and Lóthiriel and the children for dinner, and afterwards played with the boys until it was time for bed – for him as well, since the long hours in council had tired him more than he had wanted to admit.

+

The next day passed similarly, with a long meeting in the council chamber and some enjoyable hours with his sons, who truly made him feel light of heart and at home, so that for short periods he even forgot to worry about Éowyn. But then one of the twins would come running to him or simply smile at him with their features so reminiscent of their mother’s, and the fear and anxiety would be back. More than once the twins inquired after her, and when he brought them to bed that evening and told them their goodnight-story, Peregrin even shed some tears for his mami, and only fell asleep after Faramir had taken him out of his little bed and carried him in his arms like a baby, singing softly to him like Éowyn had always done when he had been smaller.

+

Since Elessar had hinted during the third meeting that he might try and use the Palantír in order to learn more about Éowyn’s fate and present whereabouts, the following morning everybody awaited his arrival with some anxiety, Faramir and Éomer foremost. Around noon Aragorn arrived, after the others had already spent nigh on two hours in discussion. When finally he came, he bore an expression Faramir knew only too well. Often he had witnessed it on his father, after the old Steward had gazed into the Stone. The King’s face was haggard and grey with exhaustion, and he looked aged by decades – or else now his true age showed. He sank into a chair and ran a hand over his features while the assembly waited for his report with baited breath.

“I looked in the Stone last night,” the King said quietly after he had drunk a draught of wine, to the pitiful and partly horrified glances of the assembled, who apparently had not expected the effects of the Stone being still so clearly visible after a night had passed. Faramir wondered that Elessar should speak of the Palantír so freely, but reasoned that all assembled in this chamber were people the King trusted explicitly, even Falastur. They would not betray the precious secret to outsiders. “I think I saw this place, Ihimbra,” he went on, his voice hoarse and slightly raspy, “but I did not manage to descry an image of Lady Éowyn. The distance is very great, too great, I fear, for the Palantír, at least for one not used to the task of governing it. I bade the warden of the Stone try as well, but I doubt he is going to see more than I. What I did see, however, is that the place is well fortified indeed. There is a small fleet of swift ships in the harbour, ready to strike at anybody to who tries to invade the bay over the sea. Many guards watch from the battlements. I also saw that there are riots on the streets of Umbar, and many people are leaving the city by ship and over land, out of fear that things get worse. Governor Beretar is all but besieged in his house, and there are warlords and a great number of corsairs from all over Harad arriving in port to make sure they acquire a piece of the tasty cake they consider Umbar to be when it falls apart. But the events in Umbar are not our chief concern, of course, despite bearing upon our more pressing task at hand. I should like to give it another attempt tonight, now that I know what to look for in the Stone, and this time I would ask you to accompany me, Faramir.”

The addressed looked up surprisedly. “Me, sire?”

“If you feel up to it, yes. I have long debated with myself if I could allow you to gaze into the Stone in your condition, and admittedly, I am still doubtful. But the thing is, my attempt was only little successful, and I believe you would fare better than I.”

“But sire, you have more experience with the Stone,” objected Faramir, “and your will is stronger than mine.”

Elessar shook his head. “The visions in the Stone are guided by the power of will, yes, and a healthy physique and good constitution is required to withstand the draining effect the constant strong concentration will work on the body. You are still not fully recovered from an almost fatal injury, that is true. We shall be careful not to overstrain you. And even though under normal conditions I might be able to exercise greater control over the Stone than you, in this particular case I think your chances of finding her in the wealth of the Palantír’s visions are greater than mine, because your link with her is so much stronger. She is the woman you love above everything, so I am convinced that if you cannot find her in the Stone, no one can. Will you try?”

Faramir returned his gaze. For an instant an image of two aged hands being consumed in fire flashed before his eyes – the first, the dreaded vision the Stone would inevitably show. He drew a deep breath. “I will,” he answered firmly.

+

The sun was westering when King and Steward ascended the long winding staircase to the chamber where the Palantír was being kept. The Stone’s warden, an old man with white hair contrasting starkly with his dark robes received them in the room underneath the circular chamber of the Palantír. He did not look surprised at Faramir’s Haradaic attire, yet bore an expression of slight worry when he studied the features of King and Steward. “He still looks ill,” he commented, raising his lamp to shed some light on Faramir’s face. “I strongly advise against him looking, and so I do in your case, sire. You endured a long and strenuous session yesterday and are not recovered. At the first sign of exhaustion, you must stop.”

“You have our word, Minardil,” Elessar assured him gravely. They passed through the warden’s room which was furnished plainly, the most prominent piece being a large desk laden with tomes and rolls of parchment, and littered with papers. The old man’s task was to gaze into the Stone at regular intervals and to note down anything of interest. Also, he was concerned with the study of the Palantíri, as well as this could still be conducted with several of them lost. “I had a look yesterday, sire,” he said, fetching several sheets of parchment filled with spidery writing. “I wrote down everything I saw. You may wish to read it later.”

At the rear end of the room was a door, and behind it a steep stair leading up and through the floor of a dark, circular chamber with shuttered windows, where the Palantír rested on a stone pedestal, in a shallow, bowl-like indent. It was covered with a swath of dark cloth. A cushioned chair stood in front of it, next to it a low table with a ewer of water and two cups. Obviously the warden had just brought them up. Now he busied himself with fetching another chair which stood against the wall.

“I will be at my desk, my lords, should you need me. Again I can only counsel you to exercise greatest care with the Stone, and to heed the tiniest indication of exhaustion. Cover the Stone with the cloth again should the strain become too great. It has been wayward again lately, as surely you noticed yesterday, sire. I fear ‘tis getting overcrowded, although I do not understand why. ‘Tis not that it has seen much use in recent years. Anyway, call for me should you need me.

He left his lamp on the table and closed the stone trapdoor behind him. Faramir positioned his chair on the north-western side of the pedestal, in order to gaze in a south-easterly direction. He was anxious, and knew that Elessar was aware of it. “If only I could pass over that first vision it shows,” Faramir muttered darkly. “I fear I shall never get used to it.”

“Nobody would expect you to,” Aragorn replied sympathetically. “It bothers me, too, every time I have to use the Stone. But you will get past it. Think of Éowyn, and how much you want to find her. Do not worry about your father, or what other visions the Stone may show. You have a clear task in front of you.”

Faramir nodded faintly as the King doused the lamp, and in darkness reached out to withdraw the cloth. Placing both hands round the smooth, cold sphere in front of him, he drew a deep breath and bent over it. At first everything was dark. He waited, shifting his hands slightly on the globe. Then suddenly there was a stirring of red in its midst, like a spark igniting dark kindling. It grew, until a flaming, flickering light seemed to be burning inside the stone. Faramir almost expected it to grow hot underneath his hands, yet its surface remained hard and cold. Soon he could recognise flames playing inside the Stone, greedy flames that were feeding on a pair of aged hands that seemed to be holding, gripping the Palantír from within. He recalled his shock upon seeing this dreadful vision of his father’s hands being consumed by fire for the first time. Even though he was familiar with the image now, it was nevertheless difficult to watch. The first barrier, and the first test for his will. This is not what I wish to see, he commanded the Stone fiercely. Show me my wife. Show me Éowyn.

For a long time the Palantír refused to yield to his will, displaying flames and fire, amid brief visions of Denethor and scenes Faramir did not recognise at all. He already felt himself growing weary with the strain of concentration. Flames again. He snorted with frustration. Obviously Elessar had overestimated his powers of will. He did not even get past the first hurdle in trying to command the wayward Stone and subdue it to his will. Flames and fire. But no, this fire was different. It was in a hearth. Their fireplace in Ithilien, and there she was, his Éowyn, combing her hair in her favourite seat, each strand gleaming like gold. Faramir gazed at her, the image dealing him a deep sting in his heart. She was so utterly beautiful. He could have watched her for ages, and the effort of will it took to force himself to concentrate on her present plight was greater than that needed to overcome the first image. Not the past, the presence. I need to see if she is alive now. If she is well, and where she is being kept.

Again there was a jumble of confusing, unconnected scenes. Some showed her, but he was at a loss to determine where and when. Others were totally unrelated to his search. Then suddenly the image cleared again, and he saw a small ship approach a lively harbour-town overshadowed by a mighty castle which seemed to be growing out of red cliffs. Ihimbra. It fit Khorazîr’s description to the latter. Green and silver banners were flying from the battlements. The image wavered somewhat, and Faramir forced his mind to concentrate on details to remain with that scene. It was sundown, and the red cliffs and red walls of the fortress were shining like blood. There was blood on the sheets and in the wide bowl with steaming hot water a woman clad like a servant was carrying as she hastened through a room and through a set of arched doors intricately carved. Outside, a nervous- and exhausted looking young man was springing to his feet, stepping towards the servant. Faramir thought he looked faintly familiar, but decided he could spare no thought on his identity right now.

He felt his heartbeat quicken and his anxiety deepen. What had all this to do with Éowyn? Was she truly kept at Ihimbra? Was she wounded? Was the blood on the sheets hers? Back through the doors, through a room that looked like the antechamber to a bedroom, towards a curtain of beads from behind which firelight issued. There was a bedchamber behind it, he just managed to descry, before the Stone began to play up again, showing him images of guards and horsemen in a thick cloud of dust, of a lion roaring, of a man pacing a dark room incessantly. He did not want to see any of these, but his concentration was waning. The hands grasping the Stone were trembling slightly. His chest and shoulder were hurting painfully. He felt the King’s hand on his shoulder but shook his head firmly. He was not done yet. And if he fainted from the effort, he needed to see who was behind the curtain.

He concentrated on the ornate beads swinging aside. A room illuminated by a fire and many candles. There was a woman on the bed, a woman in pain. He bent even closer. Éowyn? No, this woman was dark-haired, and her skin was darker, too, even though now it was laced with sweat. Was she hurt? No, he realised of a sudden, she was giving birth. Her face was a mask of pain, and she was gasping for breath. There were several people around her. One appeared to be the midwife, a resolute looking lady with greying hair. And who sat next to the bed, half-cast in shadow and difficult to see? She was holding one of the new mother’s hands? Could it be? Faramir’s heart seemed to miss a beat. It was her, no doubt. And she looked well, her face glowing in the firelight, her hair dark gold. It was arrayed differently than she wore it at home, more intricately. He noted other slight changes, too, now that the image was surprisingly clear. Something had been done to her ears. Apparently they had been pierced and were now studded with small gems. Her dress, what he could see of it, was rather elaborate, too. And what was this linen cloth showing underneath the hem on one shoulder? It almost looked like a bandage. Had she been hurt? And her skin, the colour was not just from the fire. It was definitely redder than usual. Sunburn? Or had she been beaten?

His mind was reeling with questions. Why the bandage? Had she been wounded? How had that happened? Had she tried to escape? Why the red-tinged skin? Was she allowed outside and had stayed too long in the sun? She had to be careful in this hot clime with her pale, sensitive skin. Or was the redness Al-Jahmîr’s doing? And why the earrings? Had she agreed to having her ears pierced to be able to wear them? Or had she been forced? He would not put it beyond Al-Jahmîr to indeed pierce her hears and have other changes about her looks brought about against her will, to mark her as his own. You will pay for this, Snake, Faramir thought hatefully.

It seemed as if his anger was fuelling his strength of will and concentration, because he managed to uphold the image for a surprisingly long time, watching how the dark-haired woman delivered a baby girl, quietly thanking whoever had kept him from storming the room when his sons had been born, knowing that he would not have stood watching Éowyn writhe in pain like that. Together with his wife he finally withdrew from the chamber, leaving the new parents greet their baby. Again the vision grew blurry and confusing as he accompanied Éowyn down various corridors, trailed by a young girl clad in the same garments like the other servants, and a tall guardsman. Try as he might, he did not manage to uphold the vision of her when she entered her chambers. He was shaking by now, and his breathing had become laboured and painful.

“Faramir, it is enough!” a calm yet stern voice commanded him, and again he felt Elessar’s hand on his shoulder. He shook his head violently, holding on to the Stone. Just one more look, he thought.

Yet his luck which had caused him to behold the vision of his beloved seemed to have abandoned him now, or else his weary mind forced to cooperate, because try as he might, he did not manage to find her again. Just when he thought he would collapse with the strain, the vision cleared once more. A woman was regarding herself in a mirror. It took him a moment to realise that she, too, was Éowyn. She had changed out of the blue dress she had worn at the birth. Now she was clad in what looked like night-robes. Her one shoulder bore a bandage indeed. So she was injured! But what was she doing? Turning this way and that, and straightening the cloth of her nightdress over her belly – a belly that was more pronounced than what Faramir remembered.

The vision went black of a sudden. Faramir felt the cloth Elessar had covered the Stone with brush over his hands. They slid from the Palantír as he sank back into his chair, his eyes closing of their own accord and his entire body relaxing. He could not recall having ever felt so spent, not even during his previous trials with the Stone. For a long time he just hung there breathing deeply, while obviously Elessar moved about the room, relighting the lamp and pouring some water.

“Drink this carefully,” he told Faramir gently, bringing a cup to his lips, and stroking some strands of hair from his Steward’s sweaty brow. Faramir took a careful sip, but otherwise did not stir. His mind was still spinning with the images he had seen, and the many questions they were provoking.

“I saw her,” he whispered after what seemed an eternity, when finally his ragged breathing had calmed and he was beginning to feel some strength return to his body. “I saw her, and she appears to be fairly unhurt, and at Ihimbra like we thought.” The last vision flashed through his mind. “And I think she is with child.”

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Only a soft intake of breath betrayed Elessar’s surprise. Again Faramir felt the cold rim of the cup at his lips and took another sip of water. “Take it easy, Faramir,” said the King softly. “But when you feel recovered enough, tell me all you have seen. What makes you think she is with child?”

With an effort, Faramir opened his eyes to meet the other’s concerned gaze. Slowly, the acute exhaustion was giving way to a deeper weariness, and the stabbing pain in his chest receded to a dull throbbing, leaving the impression of a heavy weight resting on his lungs, which made breathing laborious and painful. “I have suspected it for some time,” he replied quietly. “And there have been dreams lately. And in the Stone, I saw her check her reflection in a mirror, and there were changes to her figure.”

He straightened in the chair as best he could, and began his account, now and again pausing to drink more water. He recounted all he could remember of his visions in the Stone, and also described the strange dreams, finally telling Aragorn of his quarrel with Éowyn on the morning of their setting out.

“We did not have the opportunity to make amends,” he ended sadly. “Worse, without these unsettled differences, the events at Kadall might have evolved differently, and she might not have been captured at all.”

Elessar nodded gravely, running a hand over his eyes before refilling Faramir’s cup. “That is possible, of course. But also it is vain – and dangerous – to consider the ‘what ifs’, and you know that. This is the situation we have to deal with now, and I daresay your visions helped a great deal in resolving the matter. I was right in my estimation that you would find her in the Stone, yet looking at you now I am doubtful it was a good idea allowing you to use it.”

Faramir shook his head, straightening some more in the chair and reaching for the cup. His hand was still weak and shaky as he lifted it to his lips, yet not as badly as a short while previously. As he drank, he noted that the water contained some strange fragrance now, like a strong liquor tasting of herbs and honey. It seemed to warm him from within, and strengthen him as it coursed in his veins. “I am alright, just weary. And better that, with some surety about her fate, than the constant worry about her possible death. She looked like she had been treated fairly well – clad in finery and with her hair done up, just like Khorazîr suspected she would. There were things I did not like, however. Why the bandage, and the red tinge to her skin? And those pierced ears? I cannot imagine she consented to it being done, recalling her comments about certain ladies at court and their pierced ears. ‘Tis important to know, however, that she is allowed to move about the house fairly freely, with only a maidservant and a guard accompanying her. Also, she appears to have made some friends already. Why else would this woman have asked her to be present at the birth of her child?”

“Yes, this could be important,” Elessar agreed thoughtfully. “You said you recognised the father of the child.”

“He looked familiar,” murmured Faramir, closing his eyes again for a moment. Even though there was only dim, warm light coming from the candles and the lamp, it hurt his weary eyes, bringing on a headache. He rubbed his temples with his fingertips, trying to ignore the dull pain and concentrate on the face of the young man. “I doubt I have ever seen him in person,” he muttered. “His looks just reminded me of someone –” He interrupted himself, and opening his eyes, he gazed at the King, frowning. “In fact, there was a certain semblance between him and Al-Jahmîr,” he said, surprised by his own words.

“One of his sons, perhaps,” mused Elessar, looking worried of a sudden. “Obviously they have settled their differences which prevented Al-Jahmîr from reclaiming and returning to Ihimbra last year. This is vital information indeed. And you think Éowyn has befriended one of Marek’s daughters-in-law?”

“If we can trust the Stone,” said Faramir with a shrug. “Khorazîr would know more about the Snake’s sons and their wives, and also if one of them was with child.”

“Yes, tomorrow in council I shall report to him and the others what you have seen. I have decided against daring another glance myself tonight. I am still too exhausted from last time. And you should try and get some sleep now. Do not worry about council tomorrow, but rest as long as you can. If you sleep the entire day, all the better.”

Faramir drew a somewhat shaky breath. “I doubt I will find sleep at all,” he said softly. “What if she truly is with child? It will gravely affect all our plans of rescuing her. The longer we delay, the more complicated it will be to get her out of there. And the more dangerous for her and the baby. And Al-Jahmîr, what will he do if he finds out? When he finds out,” he corrected himself. “Will he kill the child? Or use it as a means of exerting pressure on her to force her into performing to his will? He must know she miscarried before, and how deeply it affected her – there are signs, even, that he was involved in bringing about this miscarriage. He knows that she would not willingly risk losing that child, especially if she believes I was slain. What if he threatens to poison the babe in order to cow her into obedience? What if –”

He stopped when Elessar placed a hand on his shoulder soothingly. “Stop it, Faramir,” he commanded quite sternly. “Whatever happens, you cannot influence it here and now. Trust her to do what is best for her and the baby. She will not let him harm it, or herself. You of all people should be the last to underestimate her. Leave that to Al-Jahmîr. You know, there is a chance that her pregnancy might be the very best protection against his malice that she could contrive.”

“How that?” asked Faramir incredulously, thinking that perhaps his weary mind had failed to make a connection which had been obvious to the King.

Aragorn gazed at the flickering lamp thoughtfully. “As things look,” he at length replied slowly, “Al-Jahmîr intends to keep Éowyn with him for good. I doubt he would have invested all these risks and effort to simply win another consort for himself. Your wife occupies a special position at his court. And he appears to be convinced that she is going to stay indeed. She cannot easily escape – perhaps she has tried already and so received the injury at her shoulder –, and the longer she delays and her pregnancy advances, the more difficult it is going to get, up to the point where she will not be able to flee by herself. And once the child is born, even if it is taken from her, it is unlikely that she would leave without it. Al-Jahmîr knows this. I do not think he wants to kill the child. He may indeed threaten to do so, but even these threats do not hold much force. The child must be very precious to him. After all, it is of the Steward’s family, conceived by his worst enemy who he believes slain, and related to the royal line of Rohan. It is a powerful hostage, which might add great weight to his future dealings with Gondor and the Mark. Al-Jahmîr is circumspect and cunning enough not to waste what fortune has bestowed on him, as he believes. He would be a complete fool to kill this child, only to be able to force his desires on your wife. And during our past dealings with him he has shown himself to be all but a fool, despite some blunders on his account.”

Faramir laughed humourlessly. “What hinders him from forcing himself upon despite her pregnancy?” he asked grimly. He thought he must be mistaken, or that the flickering light and his waning concentration were playing tricks to his perception, but the King appeared to be smiling.

“I know too little of Al-Jahmîr to be certain, of course,” Elessar said. “I should like Khorazîr’s and your opinion, as you are the ones who have endured his company for a long time. Tell me, does he strike you as a superstitious man?”

Faramir gazed at him questioningly, feeling that the conversation was slipping past his grasp. “Not particularly. At least not to the extent my rangers or the sailors I encountered recently are superstitious. Then again, he has his peculiarities, like most Southrons, and indeed most people. Why?”

“Well, because it is a widespread belief in the Harad that to be intimate with a pregnant woman will bring the worst of luck. And I doubt Al-Jahmîr, with all his overblown confidence, can afford to lose even a snitch of his present good fortune (as he believes), and invite grave misfortune instead.”

“Grave misfortune is already looming on the horizon,” stated Faramir grimly, stressing the first two words, and feeling strangely eased and strengthened by the King’s words. “He just has not spotted it yet.”

Aragorn smiled slightly, his eyes glinting, thus giving his face despite his friendly expression a keen, almost dangerous look. “Aye, he has not spotted it yet. Let us hope he is going to walk deceived by his own overconfidence for some time yet.”

+

Faramir did not recall much of how he managed to return to his quarters. Aragorn must have accompanied him, and Khorazîr, too, who together with Mezlâr had been waiting at the foot of the stairs leading up to the chamber of the Palantír. Most likely they had aided him in reaching his bed without collapsing on the way, as he had barely found the strength to rise from his chair, even with Elessar’s help, so weak and shaky his legs had felt.

Also, somebody must have helped him out of his clothes. When he woke briefly from a deep, dreamless sleep of utter exhaustion, he noticed he lay in his alcove clad only in his shirt and drawers. Sunlight was playing on the walls, but he did not bother to try and determine the time of day. Extending his left hand from under the blankets (he had been covered with two woollen ones, despite the summerly temperatures, and did not mind the warmth as it seemed to lessen the pain in his chest), he reached for a cup standing on the chair next to the bed. It contained cold tea. He dimly recalled the strange taste of the brew from the previous evening, surmising that last night he had been given a potion to ensure untroubled sleep. Thirsty as he was, and feeling he lacked the strength to lift the heavy-looking ewer of water that stood on the floor next to the alcove, he did not bother if the contents of the cup sent him to sleep right again – which in fact they did, only shortly after he had emptied the cup.

+

He woke next from something tickling his neck, gently but persistently, and the sound of half-suppressed giggling. “Éowyn?” he muttered drowsily, smiling as he turned upon his side and reached out as to embrace her. His hand met something soft, which almost immediately was snatched away from under his fingers. Confusedly, he opened his eyes – and gazed into the beaming face of his youngest son who sat on his pillow and was waving his horsey-doll merrily in front of his father’s nose.

For a moment Faramir only gazed at him with some irritation, then, as recognition set in, he smiled warmly. “Hello Peregrin,” he murmured, still somewhat sleepy. Peregrin squealed with delight and leaned forward to embrace his father.

“Dadi,” came from further within the alcove, and raising and turning his head, Faramir beheld his other two boys grinning at him from the shadows, their eyes shining brightly in the light of the candles which illuminated the room, as darkness had fallen outside. Faramir laughed softly as he sat up, after hugging Peregrin briefly. “What are you three doing here?” he asked them, surprisedly yet joyfully.

“They insisted on visiting you,” came Imrahil’s voice from the direction of the window. Peering round the half-drawn curtains, Faramir saw him turn towards the alcove from where he had been looking out over the nightly City. “Since you have been sleeping the entire day. And I thought you might welcome getting roused at last. You must be terribly hungry and thirsty.”

“I am,” said Faramir, not knowing if he should be pleased or annoyed at himself for having slept so long. Elboron and Meriadoc were crawling towards him over the blankets, and he shifted his legs in order to clear the way for them. “What time is it?”

Imrahil came over and lowered himself onto the chair, setting aside the cup. “The second hour after sundown,” he replied. “You slept for almost an entire day. The King counselled us to simply let you rest, in order to improve your condition. He was worried about you, and attributed considerable blame to himself for putting you in danger. How are you?”

Faramir moved his right arm carefully. The shoulder hurt more again than the last days, and he found breathing more painful than before, too. But the acute exhaustion he had felt the previous evening was gone. He was ravenously hungry and very thirsty, though, and his head felt dizzy and achy – most likely because he had drunk virtually nothing throughout the day. “I feel much recovered,” he replied truthfully, “although not fully well. Perhaps I overdid it indeed yestereve, but uncle, I daresay the information I gained was worth the risk. Has Elessar told you of my vision?”

Imrahil nodded. “In great detail.” He smiled warmly. “It seems you are to be congratulated. I am sure these little ones are going to be delighted to receive another playmate soon.” A shadow of sorrow passed over his face, and he added in a low voice, “If all goes well, that is.”

Faramir sighed and nodded, stooping to kiss Meriadoc’s hair since the boy had come up to him and crawled onto his lap, resting against his chest, with Elboron sitting down on the pillow next to his father. “Aye, that bit of news was quite a surprise, although we should be careful with the images the Stone shows. I may have interpreted them wrongly, exhausted and troubled in mind as I was. There is a sound possibility that Éowyn is indeed with child, but ‘tis far too early and the information too scarce and uncertain to issue congratulations, I think. Nevertheless, we have a somewhat sounder foundation for placing our future plans on. How did Éomer react to the tidings?”

Imrahil grinned. “He sat as one struck by lightning, shocked and silent, and then he leapt to his feet and began pacing the chamber, looking like he would storm out of the room any moment, fetch his horse and ride to the Harad to single-handedly rescue his sister. It took Elessar a great deal of patient argumentation to calm him down again.”

“So you think I should be careful and stay out of his reach tomorrow?” asked Faramir with a wry smile. Imrahil laughed. “I do not think he is going to strike you again. Actually, I believe he is quite pleased about the prospect of acquiring another nephew, or a niece for a change. ‘Tis just that he is so very worried about Éowyn. But whom am I telling this?”

Faramir drew a deep breath. “Who indeed,” he muttered softly, before turning to Elboron. The boy was tugging on his sleeve and asked, “Why you sleep all day, dadi?” Faramir reached out to ruffle his son’s hair.
“I was very tired, Elboron, because yesterday I did something which will help us bring your mami back to you and your brothers. You know, the King has something in which you can see things that are very far away. And I looked and searched for your mami. And I found her, so that now when I take the ship I need not search for her any longer, but know where to go and fetch her. But this looking and searching has made me very tired, like you get when you look at the pictures in your books for a long time. And so I had to sleep many hours.”

Elboron gazed at him, his eyes dark in the gloom of the alcove. Faramir could tell that he was trying to piece the information together in his mind. “You see mami?” he asked, and biting his lip, he added very softly, “Mami is hurt?”

Faramir reached out to run a hand down the boy’s cheek. “No Elboron, she is not hurt. She looked fine. She lives in a great house with many people looking after her, and wears fine clothes, and eats good food. She may even have found a friend there, so she is not all alone. She is not happy, though, because she is far away from her boys and me. But imagine how happy she will be when I meet her there and tell her of you and your brothers, and show her the drawings you have made for her. And when I tell her that we are returning home to you.”

“Mami come home?” asked Meriadoc.

Faramir drew him closer, wishing for a third arm to be able to hold all of his boys at the same time. “Yes, she will,” he said, putting what confidence he could muster in his voice, yet aware of Imrahil’s worried, even doubtful glance. “But it will take some time to fetch her. Imagine how delighted she is going to be to hear you speak so much. Then she will realise that you are not a little baby anymore, but a big boy.” Meriadoc grinned.

“Meri is no baby,” stated Elboron, adding, “but dadi sleeps like little baby,” with an impish and decidedly mischievous grin, which turned into a squeal when Faramir caught him round the middle and began to tickle him.

“Hear hear,” called Imrahil, laughing out loud. Elboron was trying to squirm out of his father’s grip, to the giggles of his brothers. “I sleep like a little baby, do I?” repeated Faramir, and gave a gasp of surprise when the twins came to Elboron’s aid. Meriadoc, with his greater strength had simply climbed upon his chest and slung both arms round his neck so that he had sunk down on the pillow again, and Peregrin had taken hold of his left arm and pinned it down by throwing himself upon it. Elboron managed to slip out of Faramir’s grasp, sat down on his father’s other arm and began to tweak his side in his turn. “Yes, like a baby,” he crowed. “Baby must be tickled.”

Obviously his two brothers agreed wholeheartedly. Peregrin set to the task with great enthusiasm, poking Faramir’s side with one little hand and letting Horsey attack his face with the other. Meriadoc resorted to what he was best at, and gently bit into Faramir’s neck. “Ow,” complained his father, not because it really hurt, more out of surprise. “Did you not get any dinner tonight, Meriadoc?” The boy shook his head and giggled. “I could do with some help here, uncle,” called Faramir, but Imrahil only laughed. “Nay nay, leave me out of this. I should not like to invite the wrath of these three.”

“What is this infernal noise?” came a deep voice from the direction of the door, and Khorazîr strode into the room.

“I am under attack,” called Faramir, his voice half muffled by Horsey because Peregrin was brushing the doll over his nose and mouth.

“That I see,” laughed the Haradan. “Hey, you three, make sure to pinch him somewhat thoroughly, to prevent him from falling asleep right away, the lazy tark.”

His injuries and weariness forgotten for the moment, Faramir let his sons tease him, only retaliating gently now and again, until a loud rumble of his stomach reminded him that he was still very hungry. Elboron heard the sound and laughed even more, then declared that the ‘baby’ should also be fed, and the three attackers decided to allow their victim to leave the bed, dress and accompany them to the room next door where a meal had been set. Even though the boys had already had their supper, Faramir allowed them to have some fruit each and another cup of milk. It was already past their normal bedtime, and all three soon grew very tired, with Meriadoc falling asleep on Faramir’s lap and Peregrin in Rían’s arms. He helped her bring them to bed, where even without song or bedtime story they soon were sleeping soundly.

On his way back to his own quarters he met Éomer, who invited him to stay a little, obviously in need of talk. The Rohir had calmed down somewhat – or at least prevented his agitation from showing too much. “I rue every day, nay, every hour we delay here in idle talk,” he admitted to Faramir as they stood on the narrow balcony, enjoying the balmy night-air and gentle breeze and the view of the lights of Minas Tirith twinkling below.

“I would not account our meetings and the discussions in council idle,” said Faramir, leaning against the stone railing. “I, too, rue the delay, yet we need time to plan our next steps as meticulously as possible. Otherwise there is the danger of spoiling everything with a rash act.”

“Yes, yes,” replied Éomer with some impatience, gripping the railing with both hands. “I know. But still ...” He sighed deeply, thumping on the carved stone with a fist. “I wish I had looked into that Stone. Simply to see with my own eyes that she is well.”

Faramir gazed to where a black banner was flapping in the breeze on the nearest battlement just below the balcony, its silver embroidery glinting briefly now and again when the threads caught the light issuing from windows of the watchtower nearby. “Yes, I understand you only too well. I am glad I looked, despite the effort it took. I would not have borne the uncertainty any longer. Still, dealing with the Palantír is no easy matter. Even Elessar dislikes having to handle it.”

Lóthiriel nodded sympathetically as she joined them carrying a tray with three goblets and a flagon of wine and setting it down on the railing. “I admit I was shocked when I saw you just now, Faramir. You look aged by years.”

“Do I?” asked Faramir with a wry smile. “I could not tell. The last time I looked into a mirror is more than a fortnight ago, back at Khorazir’s place.”

“Well, as long as keep wearing that veil ...,” she said mischievously, but then reached out to rub his hale shoulder affectionately. “It’s not that bad, I can assure you. You look a bit wild, though, and right now, much like your father. Are you still determined to leave the day after tomorrow? You should extend your stay, you really should. You need more time to recover properly, from your injuries and what that dreadful Stone did to you. Also, the boys would so appreciate it. They have been talking about their dadi all day today, and were disappointed you were not available to play with them.”

Faramir drew a deep breath, looking out over the City. “I feel torn in two,” he admitted softly at length. “One part of me urges me away South, to find and free her, and that part gives me no rest, and would have left days ago, or not journeyed to Gondor at all. And then there is the part that would not be parted from the little ones anymore, and knows they need me here. I know they are going to take it badly when I have to take leave again, although Elboron seems to understand a little of my motives, and the necessity of my setting out again. But if I extended my stay, there would still come that parting, and more time spent with them and getting used to each other again would only make it more painful.”

“I’d gladly take your place on that ship in two days’ time,” stated Éomer grimly. “I don’t know how I am supposed to bear having to wait for the éoreds to arrive, and then the long, slow journey down South. I yearn to do something now, something beyond sitting around talking and looking at maps and drawings and old records.”

“I doubt the journey is going to take as long as you fear,” said Faramir. “You have never travelled far on a ship, I take it? You are going to be surprised how swift they can be, especially with a favourable wind and a good captain and crew.”

“That may be,” said Éomer. “Nevertheless, I prefer a swift steed, and would much rather travel over land than spending days imprisoned on a wooden monster likely to sink any moment. And why are you smirking like that?” he inquired of his wife.

Lóthiriel grinned. “Wooden monster indeed. To speak thus of our elegant swan-ships and the proud men-o-wars. He hates ships,” she explained to Faramir. “I remember when we spent the summer in Dol Amroth, and father took us on a cruise to show him the coastlands. I thought my dear, brave husband would perish that day, so miserable was he.”

Éomer made a face – obviously his memories of the journey were all but pleasant. “Yes, I do remember. There was a storm that day which nearly turned the ship over and smashed us all on the rocks.”

Lóthiriel laughed brightly. “Don’t believe a word he says, Faramir. There was only a mild, gentle breeze blowing, and yet he felt sick all the time.”

Faramir smiled about the Rohir’s indignant look. “You will find your sea-legs in no time,” he assured the other, silently praising the fact that so far his stomach had never given him much trouble on sea-voyages, storm or no. “After all, you have a strong motivation for enduring the journey. And I wager you would not be seen displaying any weak stomach in front of your men.”

Now Éomer grinned. “No great feat, that,” he said. “I reckon most of my men will be feeding the fish ere we leave port.”

Their talk shifted to matters which for once had nothing to do with their present worries. When the clear ring of a bell announced the first hour after midnight, Faramir took his leave and returned to his own quarters, suddenly tired again. There he found Khorazîr and Mezlâr still up and in the midst of a game of chess. He remained with them for a short while, with a few suggestions helping the guard’s white pieces to beat Khorazîr’s black (thus earning himself a jestful oath of deadly revenge from his friend), before retiring to his chamber.

In a drawer underneath the alcove where fresh linens, towels and some plain night-robes were stored he found a flat wooden box containing soap, some combs and shaving utensils, and also a small mirror of polished metal. He retrieved it and regarded his features for the first time since the day of the attack at Kadall. To his relief he found the face returning his gaze not as drawn and haggard as he had feared. True, the effects of the Stone were still plainly visible in the greyish pallor his features carried, despite the warm illumination from the candle, and also in the deepened lines round eyes and mouth, yet on the whole he quite looked himself still. Certainly, there was some wildness about his appearance, like Lóthiriel had said. The cuts and scrapes he had received during the skirmish at the village were almost healed, yet still some were showing on his cheeks and forehead. His jaw was nicely bruised where Éomer’s fist had struck. His hair was in need of a trim as it was beginning to fall into his eyes, and tickling his neck. He liked to wear it quite short, especially in summer, but decided he would not have it cut ere he set out again, even considering to let it grow until he had recovered his wife, wondering how he would look if her rescue took several months, as was likely. Running a hand through the raven strands, he found they contained more grey than before. Despite being in his fiftieth year, so far his hair and features showed few signs of age. Only during the past year silvery strands had appeared. He blamed them on the hardships he had had to endure on Tolfalas. And the more recent changes were also due to Al-Jahmîr’s evil doings.

How many years of my life have you claimed already, Snake? he mused as he returned the mirror to its box and closed the drawer. [i]You may not manage to kill me outright, but if this continues for much longer you will drain me of life slowly.[i] His eyes fell on the horse-doll Peregrin had forgotten on his pillow, and he smiled. Their mirth and laughter was the best cure against worry, he decided, and suddenly the Umbarian’s baleful influence seemed far away, and bereft of its deadly power.

+++

The following day seemed to pass all too swiftly for Faramir’s liking, as he would have wished for more time with his children. There was another meeting of the council, long and tiring (at least for Faramir, who was feeling the draining effect of the Palantír less after another night of wholesome sleep, but who still was not fully recovered from the arduous experience), yet a very productive one at the same time. Based on the new information Faramir had retrieved from the Stone, most planning was concentrated on the fortress of Ihimbra al-Soor now. Elessar and Éomer had given further thought to the numbers and means of transport for the troops to be dispatched to the South, and Imrahil and Falastur had calculated the requirements of the fleet in terms of ships and men and provisions, taking into account the difficulties of transporting large numbers of men and especially horses by sea. It was agreed that Falastur should accompany the King to Pelargir to oversee preparations, and also gather whatever information from Umbar and vicinity arrived in port. Túrin was to remain in the City to assist the Queen, and due to his many contacts in the Minas Tirith (and his mother’s perfectly honed skill of picking up the latest gossip), it was ordained that he also should keep his eyes and especially his ears open, and gather what tidings he could, as well as determining how the people of the City were taking to the latest developments in politics.

“We will try and delay no more than a fortnight after your departure, Faramir,” said Elessar. “At least for sending a part of the fleet down to Umbar to quell the uprisings there, and establish a base of operations in the city. You are still determined to sail with the corsair again?”

“Aye, sire. He has got an extremely fast ship and knows how to handle it. Also, since officially I am dead or at least lost, I should journey as inconspicuously as possible. Azrubâr is trustworthy, for a pirate, and if you are worrying about an escort for my person, I am already fitted with a most excellent one, and could wish for no better.” He cast an appreciative glance at Khorazîr who smiled proudly, obviously pleased about the compliment.

“As soon as we reach Ihimbra,” said the Southron, “we will be joined by my wife and her son and their informants and listen to their accounts. Surely they have not been idle in the past weeks. If we are lucky, they even managed to convey the Steward’s message to his wife. Then, we shall begin to gather those bits of information they have not managed to gain so far, and try and find a way into the fortress. We shall also send people to Umbar who then can act as messengers between you, lords, and us.”

“Also,” Faramir went on, “I shall send for Mablung and my rangers. They will need only a few days to travel south from Khiblat Pharazôn, thus we will have a tough and experienced company at our disposal in only a short while. We could not employ a greater force of men for our task of gathering information and spying out the land in any case, since the danger of them getting recognised for who they are would increase with their numbers, not to mention the difficulties of provisioning them properly. As soon as we have gained reliable information, we will contact you, so that we can meet and discuss further procedures.”

There were nods and murmurs of agreement. “A sound plan,” said Lord Húrin at length. “And I doubt there is much more we can devise from up here.”

“Indeed,” agreed Imrahil. “Therefore, we should spare some thought on the situation here in the City, and Gondor in general. Most folk is unlikely to care for now, but as soon as word gets out that the King is leaving Gondor with our fleet, accompanied by the King of Rohan and a great force of men, people are going to prick up their ears and open their mouths to demand an explanation. And when they learn that the Steward and his wife are missing, even presumed dead (and learn they will, rest assured), some are inevitably going to cry out for war with the South, and others against it, for various reasons. You have to issue a statement explaining the situation, sire, ere it gets out of hand and the rumours making the round now grow ever wilder.”

Elessar nodded gravely. “I have already given thought to this statement. I am going to set it up in the following days, and would appreciate your suggestions and contributions. You are right, Imrahil, the situation is a very dangerous one, and demands an official explanation. I do not wish to deceive my people. It would be folly to do so, as the truth will always come out one day. Yet also I deem it unwise to reveal too much of our plans and present knowledge. Umbar has been an unstable, wayward province for a long time, despite our more recent attempts of reining it. So dispatching a part of the fleet there as a sign of strength will not raise too many eyebrows, despite some folks unlikely to appreciate it, for reasons of trade and commerce or other. To devise a plausible explanation for the attack on the Steward and his wife is a greater challenge. He is popular, especially in his own fief and in Minas Tirith proper, but also in the rest of the realm. Also, when word spreads to Rohan there are going to be many people crying out, demanding that the injustice done to their beloved lady be avenged. And avenged it shall be, but prudently. For now, I deem it best not to mention anything about Al-Jahmîr. Without telling lies, we can safely state that Faramir and Éowyn have been ambushed on their journey back home, and that we are sending a force to the Harad to investigate the matter.”

There were nods of agreement from all sides. After discussing a few more organisational matters, they parted for that day. Faramir spent the afternoon with Túrin, Visilya (both of whom had been delighted by the news of Éowyn’s possible pregnancy), Vorondil and his boys, with Elfwine and his parents joining them for dinner. He went to bed early, and wisely so, for the next morning he felt well rested and even more recovered. The pain in his chest had passed, and his shoulder hurt only when he put too much strain on his arm. There was another meeting of the council around noon, but it was short, and mainly served the purpose of everybody taking their leave of the Steward and wishing him luck on his journey, as well as counselling him to exert greatest caution. Amrothos brought up the matter of Faramir’s sons, and if they not better be moved elsewhere lest Al-Jahmîr tried to abduct or harm them, as he had done before. He suggested bringing them to Ithilien to have the Elves look after them, but Éomer would hear none of that, and insisted they stay with him and Lóthiriel. Faramir agreed that the children should not be taken out of their familiar surroundings yet again and force them to undertake a strenuous (and also possibly dangerous) journey, and moreover thought it unwise to invite Éomer’s wrath by suggesting that they were not safe in the Rohir’s quarters.

In the late afternoon the councillors parted. Faramir accompanied Túrin and Visilya along the corridor to the doors of the White Tower. “You know I’d give much to accompany you,” said Túrin wistfully.

“Yes, I know,” replied Faramir with a sympathetic smile, recalling only too well his friend’s yearning for the Harad. “But you are needed here. By your wife and son, your parents, and your yet unborn child, and indeed the realm. I do not doubt Queen Arwen is very capable of dealing with Gondor and Falastur by herself, yet I shall be more at ease knowing you are around too, to slap his fingers should he engage in some mischief.”

Túrin smiled wryly. “Who’d have thought I’d end up Steward one day. My brother would have laughed his head off. And imagine what Maradir’s going to say. I think I’ll write to him these days.”

“I owe him a letter, too,” said Faramir. “Greet him from me, will you? When this is over, I will send him a long account, I promise.”

“A cheerful one, hopefully,” said Túrin, stopping at the door to embrace his friend.

“Aye, hopefully,” agreed Faramir, hugging him in return.

+

In the evening, Imrahil and his wife dined with their daughter and grandson and son-in-law, as well as Faramir and the two Southrons. They were almost done when Dorgil arrived. “Beregond was very upset about what happened, as you can imagine,” reported the healer, after having finished third helpings of most dishes since he had ridden almost without pause that day. “I promised him to send regular accounts from the South. He was desperate to try and help, but I told him that for now we have everything we need, and that should we require his assistance, the King or Queen would contact him. I was asked to convey his warmest regards for you and Lady Éowyn and the boys.”

Faramir thanked him, informing him that they would set out ere sunrise the next morning, in order to pass through the City when most people were still asleep and reach Harlond and the ship waiting there as early as possible. Azrubâr had already been informed by Khorazîr and Mezlâr.

The boys’ bedtime-story was longer than usual that evening. Faramir had told them that he would be gone the next morning, which had caused especially Peregrin to refuse going to sleep at all, as if trying to so keep his father at his side. Meriadoc talked more in one hour than Faramir had ever heard him speak before, imploring his father not to leave. Elboron remained very silent, only his troubled expression and the glances he gave his father now and again while Faramir was trying to calm down the twins betraying his true feelings.

When finally his brothers had fallen asleep, both having shed tears in the end which Faramir which tore at Faramir’s heart, he came over to him and climbed on his lap. “Dadi must not be sad,” he said, looking up at his father’s tired, grieved expression as he watched the twins sleep. “Elboron will look them.”

Faramir sighed and put his arms round the boy. “You will look after them?” he asked softly, kissing Elboron’s hair. “That is very comforting to know. Thank you, Elboron. But I am still sad, because I do not want to be parted from you and your brothers.”

“But dadi will come back. And mami.”

Faramir noted that Elboron had not shaped his sentence as a question, but spoken with great conviction – a conviction he wished he shared. “Yes Elboron, we will.” He had to avert his gaze from his son’s, and swallow several times to keep down the lump in his throat.

The boy hugged him, and feeling he could not say anymore without breaking into tears himself, Faramir simply held him, until Elboron demanded to be brought to bed and told a story. Indeed he took a long time to fall asleep, and insisted on one tale after another. Faramir was glad about the distraction, as it kept his mind from dwelling on unpleasant thoughts. Had he just lied to his son about his return? What if he not only failed to rescue Éowyn, but also got himself killed in the process? What if the imminent parting from those he held so dear turned out to be a final one?

He carried these thoughts and doubts to his room with him, where he found Elessar awaiting him. “I am going to accompany you to Harlond tomorrow,” said the King when slowly Faramir discarded veil, headdress and burnous and with a sigh sank down on the bed, “but I wanted a quiet moment with you ere you leave, and also have a last look at your injuries.” He gazed at his Steward, and his face took on a sympathetic albeit worried expression. “You have just been with your sons, have you not?”

Faramir nodded slightly. “Elboron is so amazingly understanding,” he said hoarsely, hanging his head dejectedly and running a hand over his eyes. “He did not cry like his brothers, he even tried to comfort me, noticing how grieved I am. And I cannot help imagining that I may have lied to him about his mother’s return, and perhaps even my own. Al-Jahmîr has almost succeeded in killing me twice, and you know how the saying goes.”

“There is no shame in admitting your fears, Faramir,” said Aragorn gently. “You are afraid you may perish in the South, and perchance leave your children orphaned. I am confident this is not going to happen. Yes, Al-Jahmîr has attempted to slay you repeatedly, and when he finds out you are alive still he is likely to try once more. But is going to fail again, you will see. Third time pays for all, the saying goes. Maybe you should look at it that way: twice you foiled his plans of ending your life already.”

He shrugged and smiled encouragingly. “Third time pays for all.”

Faramir gave him a faint smile in return. “You never cease trying to cheer me up, do you?”

“Well, I daresay you need the cheering. I cannot recall having ever encountered you so distraught, you who is always careful not to let his feelings show too much, especially in front of people like Falastur. But this time you did not care, or indeed lacked the strength to care, and I daresay he witnessed a side of yours he never expected to see.”

“He is going to make certain to remind me of his advantage at a later occasion,” remarked Faramir with a shrug.

“If advantage he has gained,” observed Aragorn. “Personally, I doubt it. Now, let me have a look at your shoulder again, as I would not keep you up much longer. You need the rest, for there are difficult days ahead. I think I can remove the thread today.”

Faramir made a face. “And I thought you came to cheer me up, sire,” he remarked, upon which the King laughed. “If it eases you, I loathe stitches myself.”

+

Elessar stayed longer than apparently he had intended, indeed removing the stitches and covering both wounds with a thick layer of the athelas-paste before applying the bandages again. The wholesome smell helped ease Faramir’s troubled mind and heart. Also, he appreciated the other’s company and the distraction it provided. They talked until the bell struck midnight. Elessar took his leave then, and Faramir soon fell asleep.

+++

It was still dark when he stood at his sons’ beds again, watching them sleep peacefully, before kissing each carefully lest he woke them, and steeling himself to silently withdraw. In the parlour bade farewell to Éomer and Lóthiriel, and left the Citadel accompanied by the two Southrons and Dorgil. In front of the stables in the sixth circle they encountered who first looked like a groom, clad in plain, grey garments, a hood shielding his features, but whose voice betrayed his true identity. Together they passed down the winding road, the hooves of their horses loud on the cobbled street. Obviously the guards at the various gates had been informed, for nobody hindered their passage or even demanded a password, despite their Southron-gear which otherwise might have caused suspicion. Grey light had come into the sky over the mountains in the East when they passed through the Great Gate. A thin layer of mist shrouded the fields of the Pelennor to both sides of the road, like a silvery blanket for the horses and cattle resting on the meadows.

They rode swiftly, and reached Harlond ere dawn began to colour the sky over the Ephel Dúath. The docks were well-lit and lively. The corsair-ship as well as the Gondorian frigate which would accompany them downriver as far as the Ethir Anduin were ready to hoist anchor. Faramir and his companions were greeted cheerfully by his rangers and Captain Azrubâr himself, who could not hide his relief about setting out again – obviously he and his crew had grown increasingly bored and uneasy during their forced stay in port, always watched closely by the crew of the frigate.

Elessar came aboard himself, accompanying the corsair, Khorazîr and Faramir to Azrubâr’s cabin where he revealed his identity to the pirate.
“You so far have earned Gondor’s and my personal thanks, Captain Azrubâr,” he told the utterly surprised man sternly. “I hope you will not waste the favour you have gained with some folly. Look well after my Steward and his friends, and you shall be rewarded. Fail to do so, and bear the consequences.”

Turning to Faramir, he said. “And you be careful. No rash act, however inviting the situation! May the winds of Manwë and the waters of Ulmo speed you, and keep you safe.” Clapping Faramir’s shoulder briefly, and nodding to the others, he left the cabin.

“Well said,” commented Azrubâr, rubbing his hands. “And now, let’s get under way. There is a certain lady waiting for you down south, if I’m not mistaken. And a certain Snake to be trodden upon.”

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PostPosted: Thu 17 May , 2007 8:38 pm 
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Faramir and Khorazîr followed the corsair onto the quarterdeck where Khômiyi was croaking orders at the crew in his raspy voice. The Gondorian frigate had already cast off, its crew busy making sail under the stern eyes of captain and master, to the sharp whistle of the bosun’s pipe. Azrubâr cast a doubtful look at the frigate’s long black and silver pendant as it unfolded and began rippling in the south-western breeze that came wafting up the river. “I hope the wind will turn once we reach the sea,” he said over his shoulder to Faramir and Khorazîr, stepping up to the helmsman to confer with him about the best course to steer clear of the harbour and catch the river’s current. “We have been very lucky on our way up here, but if we have to tack against the southwester all the way down to Umbar, the return-journey’s going to be considerably slower. Let’s hope your king’s wishes for fair wind will be heeded.”

+

Dawn was breaking over the distant Ephel Dúath when both ships had safely reached the deep middle waters of the Great River and were being carried downstream with good speed despite the contrary wind. Faramir had not yet taken up his habitual place in the forecastle, but instead stood at the taffrail gazing back to where the City of Minas Tirith could be seen above the mists shrouding the Pelennor, her white walls tinged with rosy hues, and the tip of the White Tower already catching the first rays of the rising sun. He sighed deeply, clutching the wooden railing with both hands. Would he see it again? And if he returned, would he do so alone, or would he have accomplished what he set out to do, and have his beloved Éowyn at his side again?

He turned at the sound of heavy footsteps approaching. “I’d have liked to explore that splendid city of yours,” said Azrubâr with an admiring smile, coming to stand beside him. “Unfortunately, we were cooped up in port, with a small host of guards and boring marines for company.”

“Surely you understand the reason for this measure,” replied Faramir gently.

The pirate laughed. “Well, I’d have done the same in your stead, I must admit. Some of my lads shouldn’t be left running wild in a place full of wealth and good opportunity. And full of tarks, what’s worse. Yes, I reckon it was for the best. Your king is quite a fellow, though, isn’t he? The cheek to come here all by himself, without guards, and unarmed.”

Faramir smiled slightly. “I would not count on the latter. He is very capable of looking after himself. Certainly you have heard some tale or other about his past.”

“I have,” Azrubâr nodded appreciatively, leaning against the railing. “And believe me, I’m not such a fool as to try and cross him. Unlike other people.”

Faramir nodded grimly. “Aye, some people will never learn, it seems, unless we now teach them a lesson they will not forget, and shall not recover from.”

“What I can do to aid you, I will,” said the corsair with surprising graveness and earnest, very unlike his usual jestful and boisterous manner.

Faramir gazed at him. “Your offer is greatly appreciated,” he replied in the same tone. “Although I daresay it was not given entirely out of selfless goodwill towards me and my people,” he added with a faint smile.

Azrubâr’s eyes narrowed. “You have a shrewd way of perceiving a man’s true mind behind his words and bearing. Khorazîr warned me of that. He said I’d better not try and deceive you, for it was exceedingly difficult, and dangerous, too.”

Faramir’s smile broadened upon recalling that similar things had been said of his father. “Did he indeed? And did you heed his warning?”

Azrubâr laughed. “Looks like I was not careful enough. I should tread more cautiously ‘round you from now on. Then again, you are in my hands.”

“So I am. But you, unlike other people, have learned your lessons, and would think twice about inviting Gondor’s wrath by doing nasty things to the Steward.”

Azrubâr gave him a long glance. “Bloody politicians,” he snorted with mock contempt, and the twinkle of a smile in his dark eyes. “And bloody tarks. Seems we Southrons are not the only ones who excel at blackmail. I wonder if Al-Jahmîr really knows what a mess he’s gotten himself into by annoying you. I wouldn’t want to have you for an enemy. I’m not that crazy, whatever folks may say of me. You seem such a restrained and gentle fellow, but your little chat with this Falastur gave me an idea what you’re capable of. And that was words only. I wouldn’t want to see your wrath fully unleashed, unless I’m on your side, and stand at a safe distance. So rest assured that I’m not going to tip you over the sides or keep you hostage or some such sport – from what one hears, you’re a bloody good swimmer anyway, giving Marek the slip when he had you on his ship last year, and in front of his very nose, too. Haha, I’d have liked to see his face, the slimy snake. Imagine the shame! He must have been the laughing stock on his own boat. Nay, I’m going to help you with this, and get you to Umbar, and then find myself a nice, comfortable spot and watch you deal with Al-Jahmîr. That’d be worth paying money for, I’m sure. Does he know you’re still alive?”

“I hope not. He will learn eventually, I am certain, but the longer he believes me slain the better. What about your crew? Have they noticed anything?”

“Well, Khômiyi knows who you are, and the master has a sound idea, too, from what he told me. Two or three of the hands as well. But they won’t breathe a word, I assure you. They know what is at stake, and all of them hate Al-Jahmîr and his lot to the core. Many of the lads reckon you’re not one of us, a Southron, I mean, yet they don’t really know who you are. In fact, there’s a rumour making the round now that you’re the King of Gondor himself.”

Faramir laughed softly. “But this is highly illogical,” he observed. “After all, I have journeyed to Gondor with you already.”

“Who’re you telling this?” laughed the corsair and shrugged. “That’s sailors for you. Anyway, you should continue to wear that veil and your disguise. I trust my men. But only as long as they’re sober and without money to spend on amusements. Drink and good company has loosened many a tongue, and there are always sharp ears to pick up what’s spoken in the taverns and other such places, where the lads are at ease.”

“I understand,” said Faramir, who had already resigned himself to keeping his face and hair hidden, and to wearing the livery of Khorazîr’s guards all the time. He rued the fact that with weather this fine – for the past days had been sunny but not too hot despite high summer, always with a breeze and high white clouds scattered over the sky – he would feel neither sun nor wind on his skin. But rather this and able to pace the decks freely, than having to remain below and spend the entire journey in the cramped, stuffy cabin.

“How’s your injury, by the way?” inquired Azrubâr suddenly, startling Faramir out of his contemplations. “I noticed you’re not wearing the sling anymore.”

“I could not stand it any longer,” admitted Faramir with a wry smile. “Being right-handed, it was highly inconvenient having my arm thus wrapped up. Now I need to get some strength back into it.”

The corsair nodded knowingly. “To wield a blade, eh?”

“Among other things, yes,” Faramir replied evenly.

“Well, from what I heard you took on Al-Jahmîr left-handed last time, and almost beat him despite carrying an injury.”

Faramir shook his head. “I fear the accounts you listened to somewhat exaggerated my skill as a swordsman. There was no chance of me winning that duel. My right shoulder had been dislocated some days previously, causing me great pain, and moreover I was weakened from poison and other injuries, and lack of food and proper rest. Had he truly wanted to kill me in that fight, he would have succeeded without greater difficulty. Yet, I hope to do much better next time we meet. But ‘tis going to be hard work until then. I still cannot move arm and shoulder without pain, and ‘tis going to be some time until that will be gone. As much as I yearn to get into practise again, I have to be careful not to overstrain myself. Well,” he ended with a grin, “I doubt I will be forced to do so on this ship.”

“What,” exclaimed Azrubâr with mock consternation, “you’re not willing to lend a hand in the rigging when we make sail, or do a bit of rowing or at least scrub the deck to earn your passage? Shame on you, lazy tark.” He clapped a hand over his mouth jestfully. “Oh, pardon me, I just recalled I didn’t want to invite your wrath.”

“And wisely so. Yet I would gladly listen to what you can teach me about sailing and navigation while I am here. I have been on several of our warships, since learning about their ways and how to employ them in battle was part of my military training. Yet this is many years ago, and my education then focused rather on naval warfare and strategy than actually commanding and sailing a ship.”

“Aye, I can teach you a thing or two,” said the corsair beaming, obviously honoured and pleased by the request, “and some bits your Gondorian captains don’t know. All in all they’re a sharp bunch, I must attest you this. Nothing worse than a swift Gondorian frigate on your tail when you’re on the run.” He cast a glance to where the Lingwilókë was sailing peacefully about a ship’s length ahead of them, her captain and first lieutenant visible pacing the quarterdeck in deep conversation. “Yet with this ship and this crew, I daresay I could outrun any of them. And any of the bloody Umbarians, too.”

“I would prefer to avoid any entanglements of this kind,” said Faramir quietly.

“So do I, at the moment. But I doubt our friends from Umbar will be of like mind.”

+++

These words continued to echo in Faramir’s mind throughout the following days, which at first passed calmly and pleasantly enough as they journeyed downriver, past bustling Pelargir where because of their escort they were not molested or even accosted by the river-patrol, and on through the Ethir Anduin with its many winding arms and channels and small reed-grown islands into the Bay of Belfalas.

Due to the contrary wind and the slackening of Anduin’s current near the sea the oarsmen were called into action again, which Faramir took as an opportunity to have Azrubâr show him round the prisoners’ quarters and study how they were being treated while labouring at the oars. He thoroughly shared Dorgil’s opinion that no man should be subjected to slavery, and although the men were faring not much worse in terms of water, provisions and lodgings on the Balak anDolgu than the rest of the crew, the fact they wore chains and the grim, defeated expressions of some of them stirred his pity. He resolved to address the matter with the corsair at a later point. For now, quite opposed to his conscience, he welcomed the fact that these unfortunate prisoners were rowing, for else their journey would have been considerably slower.

They reached the open sea after a journey of two days since their departure from Harlond, in the early morning of the 22nd of Cermië. Here the Lingwilókë signalled them farewell, and returned to her watch of the coastal waters, and the Balak anDolgu began to struggle against the strong, unyielding headwind on her journey to the South. Apparently Elessar’s wishes concerning the wind had not been heeded, because there was no change in its direction, nor a lessening of its force. As soon as they left the shelter of the Ethir, they met with a constant, strong wind from south-south-west, crowning the waves with crests of white foam and garlands of tangled seaweed, and eliciting many an oath from the crew who had been looking to a speedier and less toilsome journey.

+

Having acquired a basic knowledge of the sailors’ work over the past days due to Azrubâr’s tutoring, Faramir was now able to fully understand and appreciate how well the sailors seemed to know their trade, trying to make the most out of the less than favourable conditions they were encountering. Tack upon tack they made their way southwards, far more laboriously and less swift than the journey to Gondor. Yet despite the hard work and frequent complaints the men seemed in good spirits, and discipline and motivation were greater than what Faramir had expected on a pirate-vessel. At times he thought he sensed a grim determination driving the men, and an underlying tension that mounted with each passing day. He felt it take hold of himself, too, as like on the previous journey he spent most of the time in the forecastle gazing out towards their destination over the heaving bowsprit, his garments drenched with spray and the wind tearing at his veil as if trying to rip it off his face.
+

In Faramir and especially Dorgil Azrubâr had found eager pupils. The healer was rarely seen without his diary when on deck, noting down whatever the captain would explain about the special way the ship was rigged, or the little secrets of sailing her to her full advantage. Azrubâr remarked upon the healer spying on them in order to improve the Gondorian navy, and that he was a fool to provide his enemies with information which might harm himself at a later point, but this was just another of his frequent chests. In truth Faramir knew he was pleased to be taken seriously, and find his skills and knowledge in such high esteem.

Although he himself considered Azrubâr’s accounts of various sailing-manoeuvres or detailed descriptions of various kinds of rope or canvas fascinating enough, he was more interested in learning about navigation by sun and stars, and found that the calculations which, according to the corsair, were quite difficult sometimes gave him no trouble at all. Also, Azrubâr owned a precious collection of maps of varying dates and sizes, some even showing the Bay of Soorah in far greater detail than the maps which had been available in Minas Tirith. When Faramir inquired after their former owners, the corsair only shrugged and grinned, waving a hand in the direction of the slaves. “Most were loot,” he said, “and my men wanted to throw them away because they are no gold, but fortunately Khômiyi saved them. I don’t look at them very often nowadays, as I know these waters by heart. So feel free to handle them.”

Gladly, Faramir followed this invitation, and spent hours poring over the maps and charts and old logbooks. Back at his habitual place in the forecastle, he copied those parts which he thought useful for their further ventures. Often Khorazîr would sit by him and comment on the maps, explaining features of the landscape, and now and again Khômiyi who appeared to be very knowledgeable of the Bay and its dangers and peculiarities added a piece of wisdom.

Dorgil spent much time at Azrubâr’s side, even climbing the shrouds to the crow’s nest (jestfully labelled “Khômiyi’s Kingdom” by the crew, but only when he was out of earshot) for a better view of the rigging. The two rangers Turgon and Aralas, together with Khorazîr’s guards had apparently been adopted by the crew and were often seen lending a hand at their daily tasks, even gambling with the sailors of which Faramir did not approve, and told them so. He was most often accompanied by Khorazîr and Mezlâr, the latter standing in the prow leaning against the railing, gazing out abaft over the ship, or forward towards their destination, motionless like a second figure-head

Khorazîr proved a more lively and entertaining companion. Often he would suggest a game of chess. Faramir knew this was supposed to calm both of them, and take their minds off the task at hand for a while. Not only Khorazîr was feeling the impending weight of the uncertain outcome of their venture increase with each day. Faramir’s nights were once again troubled by dark, disturbing dreams which even the wholesome athelas-paste he still used to treat his chest and shoulder with could not wholly keep at bay. Moreover, the parting from his sons still smote at his heart, and at least once a day he would take out the flat parcel he was carrying with him inside his shirt, unwrap oilskin and waxed paper and gaze at the colourful drawings his boys had created for their mami, each time feeling a deep stab in his heart at the memory of their laughter, and their tears.

Khorazîr, too, was growing more tense and ill at ease with each passing day, his conquests on the chessboard betraying his increasingly troubled feelings. While Faramir’s play, according to his friend’s comments, grew ever more aggressive, the moves difficult to anticipate and counter, Khorazîr seemed to be struggling with maintaining his concentration throughout a game, his mind often straying from their match towards their destination.

Thus after a while, realising the futility of trying to quench their anxiety by playing games, they took to simply watch the rough seas and the faint blue lines of the coast of Harondor to lar- and of Tolfalas to starboard. Except when they were regarding and discussing the maps borrowed from Azrubâr their conversations took on great lengths, despite both of them knowing their plans had been laid as well as they might, and that there was no use in imagining what might happen until they had reached their destination and gained the information Narejde and her son would provide.

Faramir could tell that Khorazîr was worried about his wife, and with a stab of pity and bad conscience he recalled that because of his mishap his friend had been parted from his new spouse for weeks now, only a short while after their wedding. At one point he went as far as apologising to the Haradan. They had been gone from Harlond for four days, and to starboard the southernmost tip of Tolfalas could be descried in some detail. They had drawn close to the island on their present tack, generally trying to avoid the waters near the opposite coast of the channel because this was were most of the traffic to and from Gondor and Umbar was moving. Dark clouds were looming on the south-western horizon, and the wind had freshened throughout the day. There was the sharp tang of salt and sea-weed on the air.

Upon his friend’s apology, Khorazîr only waved a hand with that habitual nonchalant gesture of his and smiled. “No need to worry about that, Dúnadan,” he said generously. “Both Narejde and I consider ourselves in your debt for having endangered you and your lady in the first place. It was our invitation that put you into peril, and even before that, our dealings with Al-Jahmîr caused your ways to cross with his, with disastrous results. Moreover, you have done us far greater favours in the past than what we are now doing in return. Without your influence, I would not have another wife now.”

Faramir looked out over the railing and sighed. “Without my influence you might still be married to Dereja,” he said quietly.

Khorazîr ran a hand through his hair to keep the dark and silvery strands out of his face, following Faramir’s gaze to where a large gull was battling the wind in order to keep up with the ship, its white plumage shining eerily against the steel-grey waters. “True. Yet this is past, and it does not do to dwell on it. This I have learned from you. I very much look forward to seeing Narejde again, yet we have been away from each other often before, so perhaps I do not take our parting as badly as others.”

“Others like me, you mean?” asked Faramir, gazing at him. The Southron shrugged. “For you this is no normal parting. But even if it were, I daresay you would fret more than I. But I do not wish to mock you,” he added swiftly. “In fact, I believe there is a special bond between you and your lady. I noticed this on the first day I saw the two of you together. The way you spoke or simply gazed at the other. In a way it was her who saved your life back then, when we fought the duel.”

“You spared me for her sake?” asked Faramir gravely.

Khorazîr laughed softly. “Actually, I spared you for my own sake. I looked into her eyes and saw that she would never rest until she had avenged you, if I slew you before her eyes. I did not really fear her, despite the tales I had heard about her valour and skill at arms, but I pitied her, because I felt she would become like me, devoting her entire life to taking revenge, and be consumed by this desire. And I wanted to spare her this experience.”

“This was very considerate, even selfless of you,” Faramir said quietly. Khorazîr shrugged. “Not so selfless,” he replied. “You have no idea what a nuisance it can be to have someone bent on killing you dogging your every step.”

Faramir laughed grimly. “Well, the past year or so has provided me with a generous taste of that. I do not wish to sample any more of it.”

“That I believe. Al-Jahmîr has dealt with you more cruelly than with any other of his enemies, including myself. I still wonder why. I should really like to ask him, although I doubt he will know the answer.”

“Yes, maybe he does not know indeed,” said Faramir thoughtfully. “I asked him, repeatedly, while his prisoner on Tolfalas. But his answers were evasive, unsatisfactory. Most likely he has forgotten the true reason, which perhaps was no more than a trifle. Some slight annoyance about my interference with you and Narejde, perchance, or my part in the rebellion which stirred up the Harad shortly after the War.”

“Maybe your wife will have more success finding out,” mused Khorazîr. “If she employs her wit and charm cleverly, she is likely to learn things about the Snake we never managed to.”

“Actually, I would prefer if she did not employ her charm with him at all,” said Faramir darkly.

Khorazîr gazed at him and laughed softly. “I never knew you could be that jealous.”

“Neither knew I,” Faramir admitted. “There has never been a situation to invite jealousy before.” He shook his head at himself. “I talk like she is the one desiring his attentions.”

“Is this what you fear?” asked the Haradan shrewdly.

“What do you mean?” asked Faramir, more sharply than he intended.

Khorazîr only shrugged. “You fear to lose her, not to blade or poison or a well-aimed dart, but to him. To his charm, his persuasiveness. Dúnadan, do you really trust her so little? Do you not think her love for you and your children would make her reject utterly everything this slimy Umbarian has to offer?”

Faramir shook his head swiftly, realising that Khorazîr had misunderstood him. “I do not doubt her love for me any moment,” he said with conviction. “What I fear ... I do not know how to describe it. I fear that she may return changed. That in order to survive at his place and indeed return to me and the boys she will have to sacrifice too much of her convictions, too much of herself. I have utmost trust in her inner strength, and her will to see this ordeal through. But what if circumstances impair her? What if she truly is with child? She will think first of the baby, and Al-Jahmîr would never let this opportunity to control her slip through his fingers. And surely he has other means to put pressure on her. You have guessed that he will not want to see her hurt, in order to keep his precious prize unspoilt. But what of the damage he can work himself, should she continue to refuse and fight him? When will his patience reach its end? It must be extremely difficult for her to decide how much to give in to his wishes in order not to be hurt or otherwise molested and endangered. And more difficult still if there is a child to consider. I dare not imagine what might happen if she loses the baby because of some poison or other trick of the Umbarian. She miscarried before, also due to his machinations, as far as we know. I nearly lost her then. What if she cannot bear the pain any longer and despairs? I have seen her at the brink of that dark chasm. What if she cannot, or will not, step back this time? Khorazîr, what if she does return to me, but returns humiliated and broken, unable to take up her old life again? It would break my heart as much as her actual death would. And the boys, what of them? How should I explain to them what ails their mother?” Faramir closed his eyes and hung his head. “I sound utterly selfish now, do I not, thinking first of what might happen to me if things go badly,” he said bitterly.

The Haradan shook his head very slightly as he gazed out over the white-crested waves. Faramir could tell that he was slightly embarrassed by his intimate confession. “I daresay your reaction is quite natural. I had these thoughts as well when Dereja fell ill,” he replied quietly.
Then, as if returning to the present out of some distant memory, Khorazîr drew a deep breath and turned to his friend, his dark eyes glinting, his expression stern and set. “Al-Jahmîr will not break her, Dúnadan,” he said grimly, in a tone that suffered no objection. “He may try, but he will soon find her sterner than steel and adamant, as he discovered when he attempted to break you. In the end he himself will shatter, like a sea-shell dropped upon a rock by a bird. And if I am not mistaken, the first cracks are beginning to show.”

“Sail ho!” a call from above interrupted their conversation. The still figure of Mezlâr sprang alert, and with monkey-like agility he leapt into the foremast shrouds and climbed up to where the lookout, a lean, dark-skinned fellow with strange spiky tattoos running all over his bare arms and legs, was agitatedly pointing towards the west. There, the rocky tip of Tolfalas was catching a stray beam of sunlight breaking from the bank of clouds looming on the horizon. Straining his eyes, Faramir detected a flash of white contrasted against the greyish wall: the topsails of the other vessel.

“Where?” called up Azrubâr from below, leaving the quarterdeck and striding forward, his strong voice carrying over the ship. Most hands stayed their work, watching their captain and the direction the lookout was indicating with apprehension. Obviously there was something remarkable, even disquieting about the ship.

“Off the starboard bow, capt’n,” the lookout replied. “She’s just rounded the cape, heading in our direction. Two-master, gaff-rigged but she hasn’t got all her sheets up despite riding before the wind. She’s approaching somewhat carefully, it looks.”

“Colours?”

“Nay, capt’n, none that I can see.”

Azrubâr had joined Faramir and Khorazîr in the forecastle, frowning up to the lookout who was climbing into the foretopmast in order to gain a better view, while Mezlâr remained in the crow’s nest, shading his eyes with a hand. “I don’t like this,” said the corsair darkly. “The southern tip of the island is dangerous sailing in any weather, that’s why most sensible folk avoid going there. And with this strong wind, it’s even less advisable to dare the cliffs and nasty currents. Also, it’s off the profitable routes, both for traders and pirates. By her rigging this is no ship of the local Tolfalas fishermen, either. So what are they doing there?”

Faramir gazed to where more of the other ship’s sails were coming into sight over the waves. “Waiting for someone, perhaps,” he mused, more to himself, a sense of foreboding taking hold of him. The name of Tolfalas still carried unpleasant connotations for him, which now he extended readily to the strange ship.

“Waiting for us, I daresay,” exclaimed the corsair as more sails appeared on the other ship’s masts and the vessel was gaining speed.

Almost simultaneously, there came a call from above. “The Bawâbugru,” cried Mezlâr, his voice betraying a fierce excitement which startled Faramir. So far he had experienced the guard as a silent, controlled man, ever concentrating on his duty and in his cool aloofness hardly showing any emotion at all.

He was not the only one to be moved by the name. Azrubâr hit the railing with a fist and cursed evilly, then he spun round to where Khômiyi was standing on the railing, watching the western horizon tensely while holding on to a cable. “Beat to quarters,” he cried, and continued with a long list of commands for the sailors. Faramir gathered enough to understand that they were to alter their course to try and intercept the approaching ship, without running the danger of it gaining the weather-gage and thus an advantage in a possible confrontation. But because Azrubâr hurried off he did not manage to inquire of their host why they did not simply try and escape the other ship with the often-praised speed of their vessel, but were obviously deliberately heading into a fight.

For battle was on foot, so much was clear. As the Balak anDolgu tacked to starboard, all those men not busy in the rigging making sail and wearing ship were donning armour and readying their weapons: a colourful assortment of scimitars, cutlasses, short bows, spears and pikes, and nasty-looking harpoons, as well as grappling-hooks and small bottles of oil that could be ignited and thrown. Hastily, they installed two small catapults, one on the quarterdeck and one on the forecastle, to shoot burning missiles at the other ship’s sails and rigging. Despite their seemingly feverish activity, Faramir noted that this was a well-rehearsed and often-repeated exercise. Each men knew his place and his duty, and without doubt all were looking forward to the encounter after the tranquility of the past weeks.

“What is happening? Are we going to fight?” Aralas, who together with Turgon had run to the forecastle, asked excitedly. The two rangers were already equipped with swords and longbows. Turgon had moreover found himself a handy spear. Faramir knew he fancied it above bow and blade. Dorgil landed on deck from another stay in the lookout of the main-mast, arriving in the forecastle together with Mezlâr who had slid down a cable in frantic speed. His eyes were burning with an eager but grim fire. There was a fierce, almost frightening expression on his weathered face. The rest of Khorazîr’s guards were also gathering round to await their lord’s commands.

“What is going on, my lord?” Murâd, the youngest, asked. “The sailors said there was going to be a battle.”

“I hope so,” muttered Mezlâr, checking the assortment of knives he seemed to be wearing all over his body. “I have been waiting for this opportunity for a long time!”

Faramir saw understanding dawn on Khorazîr’s face. Apparently he knew what had so excited his guard. But he did not manage to issue an explanation, for in this moment a fierce cry went up from the crew of the Balak anDolgu. Turning, Faramir beheld the approaching ship, a slender schooner now in full sight, release her colours. And suddenly he understood why Azrubâr decided against turning tail and running, and why Mezlâr was beside himself with fierce elation: a long emerald pendant was unfolding from the mainmast, rippling in the wind like a snake. No device could yet be seen on the cloth. Faramir was certain, however, that once in proper sight, a silver serpent would move on the flag.

Azrubâr appeared at their side. “I didn’t believe the coward would have the sap to try and attack us. This is bloody Balîkzagar’s ship, the Bawâbugru. Your man Mezlâr here knows him, from what I gathered,” he added with a nod towards Khorazîr’s guard, “and has his own account to settle with him. He told me about what happened to his daughter, and how this stranded jelly-fish abducted her and sold her to Al-Jahmîr. For me, I have been his enemy for a long time, after his brother, the thrice-cursed Pânâlo who now rots underneath Ngulu’s waves tried to betray me. Usually, he does not stray so far out from the safe harbours of the Bays of Umbar and Soorah, and generally fears to venture out of the comfortable shadow of his great master. I reckon he was sent here to spy on the tarks, and report back to the Snake. Why he opts for an encounter with us I do not know. But so much the better! We’ll sink his sorry nutshell and send him down to molder beside the remains of his brother, or better, take her a prize, and him prisoner.”

“Not when I get him first,” Mezlâr said grimly. “He is mine, and I shall fight any men trying to get at him before me!”

Azrubâr laughed and slapped the other’s shoulder. “Have him, then, and good riddance. Although I daresay a bit of rowing would do him good. Most likely you will have to search the entire ship for him, for once we have boarded her, he will try and hide, the bloody coward, like the rats in the stinking hold.”

“I will find him!” Mezlâr declared confidently, sliding yet another dagger in his sash.

“Speaking of hiding ...,” Azrubâr turned to Faramir and Khorazîr. “What’s going to happen to him?” he asked, indicating Faramir. “I have no doubt that we’ll win this exchange. Balîk’s crew are a bunch of gutless sea-snails who don’t know which way to point a sword – unless he’s pressed some more able hands recently. Still, there’s going to be some hard handstrokes, and I wouldn’t want you to stand in the middle, and perchance receive yet another dart in your shoulder. It’d be best if you stayed below decks until the fight is over, with some of your men to guard you.”

“I shall stay at your side, sir,” volunteered Dorgil immediately, giving the other two rangers who stood shuffling their feet a stern, disapproving glance. Faramir could tell by their expressions that they would prefer to remain on deck and add their skill with the longbow to the battle. He gave them a short nod of approval, and their faces split into broad, excited grins – obviously they, like the crew of the corsair-ship had become rather bored by the uneventful stay in Harlond, and were yearning for some action. Khorazîr’s men were also eager to give the Umbarians battle, and Khorazîr looked ready to board the other ship all by himself.

“Be careful,” Faramir told him and his rangers when Azrubâr had returned to the quarterdeck to join Khômiyi overseeing the last preparations. “This is not our fight, not yet. Take no unnecessary risks. Remember, we have an account to settle with the Snake himself, not some small henchmen of his.”

Khorazîr only laughed. “Fear not, Dúnadan,” he said, drawing his sword which years ago had been Faramir’s own, and checking its edge. “We will make these vermin curse the wind that brought them so readily into our reach. Look after him, Master Dorgil, although I daresay you will not encounter any danger.”

“Come, sir,” said the healer, tugging at Faramir’s burnous, apparently noting his captain’s reluctance to leave the deck. In fact, Faramir was torn between the desire to see the captain of the other ship, and moreover ensure that he was left alive for questioning, especially if he was indeed out here doing spy-work under Al-Jahmîr’s orders, and the necessity caused by his injury to remain as far from the fight as possible. He even felt affected, and indeed infected, by the fierce battle-lust burning in the pirates and his own men. Finally there was a long-desired opportunity to strike at some of the Snake’s vile underlings. Without his injury, would he have avoided the fight as well, he asked himself. Not likely.

This new readiness for entering into, even provoking a confrontation surprised and alarmed him. Only once before had he actually looked forward to a battle, and mourned the fact he was being left out: during his very first errand with the rangers in Ithilien, as a lad of eighteen. Back then he had got his share of fighting and bloodshed in the end, despite having being left behind on guard-duty. He had slain his first enemy, almost by accident, and watching the man die, not much older than himself, had left its mark, and altered his views about war and killing profoundly. These deep convictions, which had given him a reputation for mercy and strong views against unnecessary bloodshed, even softness among the men under his command, were they now being challenged by what Al-Jahmîr had done to him? Had the Snake found a way to poison his soul with a new lust for revenge, even violence?”

He was so lost in thought that he bumped his head on the low doorframe of the cabin. “I don’t know what’s gotten into Turgon and Aralas,” snorted Dorgil as he closed the door behind them. “Their duty is with you, captain. Give them another week and they will ask leave to remain on this ship. So much for discipline. I shall have a word with them if they survive this fight, the bloody fools, and I will ensure Mablung does likewise.”

“I understand them,” Faramir replied plainly as he lowered himself onto his berth, drawing the veil from his face and rubbing his forehead. “They wish to avenge those who fell at Kadall, and the injustice done to Éowyn and me. Also, I daresay they are better employed above decks than down here. Azrubâr and his crew seem very confident about conquering the enemy, but I do not quite share their convictions. Thus, their longbows may turn the tide, should the fight go badly.”

Dorgil, having swallowed a further remark expressing his disappointment about their companions’ discipline sighed and flopped onto a chair, running both hands through his hair. “Aye, they claim there are only cowardly landlubbers on the other ship, but they must have some courage, at least. Why else would they have headed towards us in the first place? This ship is easily recognisable with its black sails and distinctive rigging, and Azrubâr does appear to have a reputation which should make other pirates think twice about seeking a confrontation. Do you think they have been waiting for us, Captain?”

“Probably,” replied Faramir thoughtfully.
“Do you think the Snake knows about you journeying with the corsair?” asked Dorgil.

“It is possible. There were many opportunities when a skilful sneak might have overheard snatches of our talk, or spotted me without the veil. There could even be a traitor amongst us, or someone in Al-Jahmîr’s pay saw me in Gondor. But I am not convinced this is indeed the case. Unless Marek is even cleverer and better informed than I am ready to give him credit for, he still believes he succeeded in slaying me. But surely he would send someone with a fast ship to have an eye on Gondor’s coast, to issue a warning should any sign appear of our fleet being launched. He knows that Elessar will not let this pass without demanding payment, and the fastest way down south is by ship. My guess, therefore, matches Azrubâr’s. Balîkzagar was commanded to watch the channel from a relatively safe and hidden location – hence his lurking along the rugged coast of Tolfalas where there are many bays to disappear into should he wish to avoid being spotted.”

“But this does not explain why he chose to attack us.”

“Nay, it does not. ‘Tis possible that he is acting against his orders from Al-Jahmîr, and pursuing a personal issue. Maybe he has a blood-feud with Azrubâr, perhaps because he caused his brother’s death. Or else Balîkzagar knows about Khorazîr’s dealings with Azrubâr, and is acting on orders, namely to get rid of our host should an opportunity present itself. From what I gathered about Azrubâr’s relationship with the Snake, they truly hate each other, and each would see the other destroyed. I do hope they will catch this Balîkzagar alive, for questioning. He may offer some explanations, and moreover vital information about Al-Jahmîr.”

Dorgil smiled grimly. “When Mezlâr gets him, I doubt there is going to be much left of him which could be questioned.” A heavy thud send a tremor through the ship. “I only hope our lads are careful out there, along with the rest.”

Faramir nodded. “You will have plenty of work ere long, I fear.”

The healer gazed up at the wooden beams of the ceiling through which the thump of heavy footsteps on deck could be heard. “So do I.”

_________________
Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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PostPosted: Fri 01 Jun , 2007 4:21 pm 
A maiden young and sad
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Location: Friendly quarters... sort of
Cerimë 20th

Éowyn woke to the sound of birds chirping merrily outside her window. Since her banishment from the stables, she had found no other reason to rise early in the morning. She stretched gently and moved a bit to get comfortable again. Over the past several days her sunburn had faded to pink until it finally disappeared entirely. That she was grateful for. Lael and Lahar had visited her the evening before and could not understand how she could have gotten so hard a burn and yet remained as pale as the day she had come to them.

“You don't have any color to show for it,” Lahar said, examining her skin. “All that for nothing.”

“But I bet you won't fall asleep in the sun again anytime soon,” Lael added with a wry grin.

No, she certainly would not fall asleep outdoors again. Éowyn rubbed her eyes and sat up. She could only lie abed for so long before she grew restless, and even being lazy to prove a point was no longer an incentive. Her breakfast was waiting on the table, and she picked at it as Miliani entered and took her place beside the chair.

“I was wondering when you'd finally wake,” she said, adjusting her skirts. “It's not like you to sleep so long.”

“I've not had a reason to visit the stables for almost a week,” Éowyn replied, peeling a peach, “and your master does not send for me in the mornings.”

The girl pursed her lips thoughtfully. “You haven't been down to the gardens for a long time. The morning's still cool, and you would enjoy a walk.”

“Would I?” Éowyn asked, sighing. “It is hard for me to enjoy anything here.” Her mood this morning, though certainly not foul, was not as pleasant as it could be. Her dreams had been troubled again, and unfortunately their dark tone cast a shadow on her present feelings. But no, she would not let those dreams rule the rest of her day, she resolved. She agreed to go, and after finishing the meal and dressing, she let Miliani lead her down to the gardens.

The breeze rustled through the large palm fronds, carrying with it the fresh scent of the sea and fish. These gardens were vastly different from her own, but she had to admit that even being owned by the Snake did not detract from their beauty. As she walked along the carefully leveled path, she stopped to smell some of the blue and white flowers that had fascinated her on her first visit. Their scent was light and sweet, and they dotted several boxes and pots throughout the garden. Nearby, long, leafy ferns sat atop a pair of pillars, their leaves trailing and curling around the stone.

The maze of paths and their hedge walls eventually led her close to the outer wall. She paused for a moment, then took the fork that led to the red stone boundary. Looking up, she could see movement along the top of the wall, many feet above her head. Dropping her gaze, she continued along the path and was surprised to find a small hole, almost like a window, cut into the rock. When she asked Miliani about it, the girl merely shrugged and said, “Maybe it's to help the air move.” Éowyn peered through it and discovered that there was several feet of land between the wall and the cliff's edge. Miliani laughed at her surprise. “Of course,” she said. “It's stupid to build a great castle right on the cliff's edge. Eventually the waves'll cut through the rock, and down comes the house and all.”

They continued to stroll through the garden, stopping to enjoy the sound of a fountain, before returning to the entrance. Éowyn was about to start up the stairs to her apartments when she heard someone call her name. Retracing her steps, she walked into a shaded room, mostly empty except for a long, high table and a few covered woven baskets. When her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she was startled to find Lahar stretched atop the table, clad only in a sheet. One servant was rubbing lavender-scented oil into her shoulders and back, while another applied some sort of cream to her feet. She opened her eyes lazily as Éowyn came closer.

“I should have them set up another table so you can have a go,” she said, smiling at the look of shock on Éowyn's face. “Oh, don't look so scandalized. You northerners are so uptight sometimes.”

“I might consider it if they weren't men,” Éowyn whispered fiercely, her eyes darting from one to the other.

Lahar laughed merrily, propping herself up on her elbows. “Is that what you're worried about? You needn't fear; they know better than to do anything unwanted. The punishment would be quite... unmanly.” She laughed again at the look still on Éowyn's face. “Really, you should try it sometime. It would help you relax, and you've been tense enough these past weeks.”

“Thank you for the offer, but I think not,” Éowyn said dryly. Umbarians seemed to have lost all their sensibilities, as far as she was concerned.

Lahar sighed and sank back down to the table, resting her cheek on the pillow. “You don't know what you're missing out on,” she said with a sigh. “What are you doing today, though? I didn't expect to see you down here at all.”

“Miliani talked me into going for a walk,” Eowyn replied. “But as for the rest of the day, I don't have anything planned yet.”

“You should come find us when you're back inside,” Lahar said somewhat sleepily. She had closed her eyes again and was clearly enjoying the massage. “We'll find something to do.”

“Maybe,” Eowyn said, turning to leave.

“Have you been to the labyrinth yet?” Lahar called after her as she walked back outside. “It's very pretty.”

“I'll show you where it is,” Miliani offered.

Eowyn hesitated. The sun was starting to climb in the sky and the air was getting warmer as well, but a few more minutes out of doors wouldn't do any harm. She let the girl lead her toward an alcove created by large hedges. As soon as it came into sight, Éowyn remembered it. The path veered off into the alcove and turned into an intricate maze that never crossed itself. What was it Miliani had said when they had first come here weeks ago? People came here to think, that was it. She walked the path slowly, and found that indeed her thinking became more focused. She crossed her arms and stared at the path before her.

Home – it was so far away. For a little while it had seemed close when that laundress had brought her Faramir's note and Azrahil and Narejde's tokens, but she had not seen that woman for many days, and neither had she received any other notice, so once again home really was out of her grasp. She remembered every word in Faramir's note, especially those at the end. And look out for me. I will find you, I promise. Well, she was looking out for him, but when and how would he return? He surely could not simply walk into the castle and fetch her with a word. Neither had a buzzard alighted on her windowsill bearing a letter saying how to escape the fortress. Patience... patience, she must have patience. Rescuing Faramir had not happened overnight, and neither would hers. They did have the small advantage of having Al-Jahmîr believe Faramir was dead, but how long would that ruse hold? Al-Jahmîr had spies and informants everywhere, it seemed, and certainly they would have been told to be even more alert now to events in Gondor.

Feeling her baby move, she rested one hand lightly on her middle. This child could not have come at any worse a moment, she thought, but she would not give it up for anything, even her freedom. She would fight the Snake herself before he ever placed a hand on her child, and woe to anyone else who tried. But what about her other children? How were her sons faring? Doubtless even they had noticed their mother and father's long absence. Were they wondering when their parents would come back to them? Éowyn felt a lump rise in her throat when she remembered how Peregrin had not wanted them to leave at all, and even the prospect of spending time with his uncle and aunt and cousin had only somewhat satisfied him. She had promised to come back quickly, but as things stood, it was a promise she would not be able to keep. She sighed deeply. He wouldn't understand. None of them would. Well, Elboron might. He already knew what it was like to wait long months for his dadi to come home, but she had been at his side then. Brushing tears away before they fell, she took a deep breath to calm herself. She would return to them soon, but it would not be the soon they expected. Éomer will take care of them, she told herself.

She continued through the labyrinth, following the curves and lines, until she came to the center. She stopped and stared at the three large colored stones set into the white pathway. “Elboron, Meriadoc, and Peregrin,” she murmured, crouching to touch each stone.

+++

Later that morning, after returning to her apartments, she received an invitation to share lunch with Inzilbêth and Adûnakhôr. She followed the familiar walkways to their quarters and was met at the door by a beaming Inzilbêth. “Oh, it is wonderful to see you again,” her hostess said, reaching out to embrace her. Éowyn noticed that the young woman carried dark circles under her eyes, and the lines on her face also betrayed her weariness. Doubtless these past few nights had given her less sleep than she was accustomed to.

Inzilbêth led her to the dining room, where Adûnakhôr was already seated at the table. In one hand he held a letter that he was perusing, and in the other he cradled his newborn daughter. He glanced up as the two women entered, then resumed his reading. “We would've asked you to come sooner, but today's the first day that I've felt well enough to be out of bed for any stretch of time,” Inzilbêth explained, showing Éowyn to her seat. “I didn't realize how exhausted I would be after the birth.”

“Indeed, it's not something you can estimate,” Eowyn agreed. “I thought I knew what to expect for when the twins were born, but even then, it was so much more than I imagined it could have been.”

“But it's a happy kind of tired. Do you know what I mean?”

Eowyn nodded, leaning forward slightly to see the new baby better. “Yes, I do.” She smiled. “Your little one looks quite content in her dadi's arm.”

Inzilbêth nodded. “He's going to have her spoiled before she can even sit up,” she said.

Adûnakhôr glanced up and smiled slightly at her teasing. “I think her grandfather will have her spoiled long before I have the chance,” he said.

His wife chuckled and looked at Eowyn. “He's already sent out orders to have a doll house built for her, and not just any doll house, oh no. It sounds like it'll be a doll castle, with towers and drawbridges, and as tall as that chair over there.” She pointed to a high-back dining chair. “Dala will be four years old before she'll even be able to reach the top floor!”

Éowyn laughed softly, but she could not imagine Marek Al-Jahmîr sending out orders for a doll house. It was difficult to reconcile the image of the Snake ordering the murder of her children and her husband with the idea of a grandfather doting on his new grandchild.

Lunch was served, and talk continued to center around the baby. Inzilbêth shared her thoughts and worries about being a new mother, and the experiences she had already encountered in these first few days, with Adûnakhôr interjecting a comment occasionally. Éowyn listened patiently and offered advice or assurance when needed.

“I remember, with Elboron, I was always worried that I was going to accidentally drop him,” Éowyn said. Inzilbêth nodded knowingly. “He was so tiny and new that I was sure he would slip out of my arms when I wasn't looking.”

“I'm worried that I won't be able to know what she wants when she starts crying,” Inzilbêth confessed, reaching over to stroke her daughter's hair.

“Well, for the first few weeks, it usually means she's hungry or has a messy diaper,” Éowyn said.

Inzilbêth rolled her eyes and laughed uneasily. “She's had plenty of those.”

They continued with the meal, and after the servants had cleared away the plates and trays, Inzilbêth took her baby from her husband and cuddled her close to herself. A comfortable silence spread throughout the room, though Inzilbêth occasionally glanced at her husband, as if waiting for him to speak.

After a few more moments, Adûnakhôr cleared his throat and said, “I... we would like to thank you for helping with Dala's birth.” Éowyn met his gaze and was surprised at the sincerity in his eyes. “It is customary to give gifts to those who assist,” he continued, “and since you are expecting a little one of your own, we would like to give you a cradle, one similar to Dala's.” He nodded over his shoulder.

Eowyn's gaze followed the movement, and her eyes widened as they landed on a polished wooden cradle decorated with intricate carvings. At this distance she could not tell what kind of wood it was built from, but it looked sturdy and solid. She bit her lip, uncertain of what to say. “I can't even be sure my child will ever use it,” she said, her voice quivering slightly.

Her hosts exchanged glances. “I know your situation is... awkward... at best,” Adunakhor said quietly, “and I know what your question really means.” He paused. “I promise you now your child will use it, and use it often.”

Eowyn looked from his earnest features to Inzilbeth's small but encouraging smile, then said softly, “Thank you.”

“I do not always agree with my father's doings,” Adunakhor continued quietly, “but sometimes I must go along with them because of a son's duty. If it were left to me, you would not be here right now, and this nasty business with Gondor would be finished.” He sighed. “But, I must make sure you remain here, and I must continue to be a thorn in the North's foot.”

“Thank you,” Eowyn said again, truly grateful for his words.

He shrugged. “So it goes. And so I must go.” He stood. “Business calls, unfortunately. I will see you this evening,” he said, stooping to kiss his wife swiftly and brush another over his daughter's forehead. “It was a pleasure to dine with you both.” He nodded to each of them and went on his way.

“He is a good man,” Eowyn said softly after he left.

“Yes, he is,” Inzilbeth replied. The silence grew again as each woman became lost in her thoughts. Soon Inzilbeth said, “Would you like to hold her?”

“Yes, please,” Eowyn said, relieved to have a distraction.

“Let's find some more comfortable seats first. My body still hasn't forgiven me for giving birth.”

They went into another room and found pulled up some of the larger cushioned chairs. Eowyn took the baby from her mother and gently cradled her in her arms. “I'm always amazed at how tiny they are when they're new,” she said, brushing her finger against each of Dala's little, curled up fingers. She unwrapped the girl's yellow blanket to examine her toes, and quickly wrapped her back up again when she started to complain. “I know, cold toes are absolutely awful,” Éowyn teased, rocking the child slightly to soothe her. As she studied the little face, the ache from when she had spent time missing her own children this morning came back as a sharp pang. It wasn't right. She shouldn't be here cooing over and cuddling this baby at all. She should be home now, or close to it, with her sons at her side, listening to them tell of the adventure they were sure to have had in Rohan. She pressed her lips together firmly and blinked quickly, but still a few tears escaped her eyes, and she reached up to wipe them away. Seeing Inzilbêth's concerned look, she said, “I miss my own babies right now.”

The other woman nodded sympathetically. “A week ago I would have said I understood how you feel,” she said quietly, “but I would have been wrong. I know Dala has been with me only four days, but I can't imagine ever being parted from her. I can't imagine how you feel at all, with three little ones.”

“It hurts worse than any wound,” Éowyn said, drawing a shaky breath. “I don't know when I will see them again, either.”

“Let's hope that there's a happy ending for your situation,” Inzilbêth said, reaching out to rub her shoulder.

+++

Cerimë 23rd
Éowyn slowly walked through the shaded hallways toward Al-Jahmîr's quarters. He had requested her presence at lunch again today, as he had the previous two days, and this time he specifically wanted her dressed in her finest. She suspected that he was going to show her off again, but she had no idea who it would be to this time. The Snake had grown increasingly irritable the past few days, she had noticed, but he was reluctant to tell her any more than he he was waiting on a message. Perhaps it had arrived finally, boosting his mood.

A servant met her at the entrance to Al-Jahmîr's quarters and told her to wait for him to meet her. The Snake soon appeared and studied her thoughtfully before breaking into a warm smile. “Lovely, as always,” he said, reaching for her hand. With a glare, she drew it back. His eyes grew cold, and he made a swift move and caught it before she could react again. “I want you on your best behavior today,” he said evenly. “You are a high-born lady, and it is time to act as one.”

Éowyn pressed her lips together firmly, letting her eyes do the speaking. Al-Jahmîr caught her look and returned it. His grip on her hand tightened. “There is a guest here today who is convinced that you are a charming and delightful lady. I would hate to disappoint him.”

“Then perhaps you have trapped the wrong lady,” Éowyn answered. She winced, feeling a bone in her hand shift slightly.

“I think not,” he said softly. “Now, smile. You are having a wonderful day.” With that, he turned and led her to the balcony where she had dined with him previously. Waiting there sat a man in blue robes with black and green trim. His hair had been dark once, but now more gray hairs than black were pulled back and tied off with a band. His short beard also showed flecks of gray, but his eyes were bright and alert as he looked up at the sound of their approaching footsteps. When he stood, Éowyn was shocked to see that he was barely as tall as her shoulder.

“Ah, Marek, I should not have doubted you,” he said quietly, giving Éowyn a delighted smile. His words carried an even deeper drawl than was typical of Umbarians, and there was another quality to the accent that Éowyn could not place. She could not recall having heard it before. He bowed to her slightly.

“I said I would bring her, did I not?” Marek said. “Dear one,” he ignored the sharp look from Éowyn, “may I present Lord Taridûn of Ondosto. Here is a man to whom I owe a thousand favors. To you, old friend, I present the Lady Éowyn, formerly of Ithilien.”

Éowyn felt like a horse at auction as Taridûn looked her up and down several times, nodding and murmuring to himself occasionally. “She is splendid,” he said aloud at last. “A remarkable beauty, hair like spun gold, skin paler than sand. Many a song should be written about her.”

“Send your bards north and put their talents to the test,” Al-Jahmîr said, chuckling. “But come, let us sit and enjoy the fine weather.” They sat at the table, where Taridûn picked up a small wooden box and brushed its lid with one finger.

“I came prepared in either case,” he said. “May I present your lady with a gift?” Éowyn clenched her free hand (Al-Jahmîr had not released her other hand yet, and was running this thumb across her fingers softly) into a fist in her lap. She wanted to speak, but the tension she felt carrying through the Snake's grip warned her that now silence as best. At Al-Jahmîr's nod, Taridûn stood and opened the box, revealing a necklace strung with pearls of varying sizes, largest in the center of the chain and growing smaller toward the clasps. He lifted the necklace from the blue velvet lining and held it out for her to examine. “A token of welcome, my lady. The pearls of Ondosto are reckoned the finest anywhere, and I consider these some of the best in years. May I?” Éowyn nodded as he undid the clasp. Pearl jewelry was not unheard of in Gondor, but it was uncommon enough that such a necklace made her catch her breath. The pearls felt cool on her skin as Taridûn fiddled with the clasp and returned to his seat.

“Have you stolen your voice as well?” he asked.

At that, Al-Jahmîr snorted and looked at her with a raised eyebrow. “Thank you,” Éowyn said after a moment. “It... it is a grand gift.”

Taridûn laughed and plucked a few almonds from a bowl in the center of the table. “That's what I thought as well. Some of them probably look familiar, eh Marek? A few of yours made it through inspection.”

Al-Jahmîr reached for the nuts as well. “It's good to know my efforts weren't an entire waste,” he said. He finally released Éowyn's hand, and she flexed it carefully in her lap, clearly seeing the red marks where his fingers had dug in.

“You were such a diligent diver,” Taridûn mused. “First one waiting at the docks at dawn, last one out of the water at dusk.” He glanced at Éowyn and shook his head at the confusion in her eyes. “I thought you would have at least mentioned your adventures to her, Marek,” he chided.

Al-Jahmîr grimaced. “They aren't entirely pleasant memories,” he said evenly.

“Not for you, no, but I still find them entertaining.” He crunched a couple almonds before explaining to Éowyn. “Last year Marek became my oldest pearl boy. He literally washed up on my beach one morning among the driftwood while the Umbarian governor's ships dotted the horizon. He crawled to my doorstep, begging for refuge, as wet and pathetic as any dog that's fallen overboard –”

“I do not remember it that way,” Al-Jahmîr interjected.

“Ah, but this is my story,” Taridûn replied with a grin. “So there he is, whimpering and begging for a hiding place. What can I do? I do not willingly invite trouble greater than I can put down, and certainly my armada of pearl rafts is no match for a pair or two of Gondorian frigates But then I think, 'My pearl rafts have reformed many a scoundrel!', and so I send him down to the pearlmaster, who puts Marek on the next raft out to sea, right past the watchful eyes of the tarks. Once the tarks had finished searching the wreckage and were satisfied that he was not among the timbers, they set back out for sea in search of a phantom.”

“Without even questioning your men?” Éowyn asked.

Taridûn laughed wildly and slapped his knee. “Ah, forgive me, but your inland ignorance is delightful. No, my lady, a pearl merchant will be the first to alert the authorities to any unsavory characters lurking around his docks, and if the pearlmaster says nothing unusual has happened, it is truth.”

“But there was wreckage--”

“And there are other beaches to search.” He waved away her next protest. “No matter. After the waters had quieted, I sent for Marek, and we came to an agreement. I would consider him as one dead and say so to anyone who asked, as long as he showed up at my docks and dove for pearls without causing a fuss for as long as I deemed my protection necessary. Playing in the water seemed more favorable than the tark blades, so he agreed. How long did we have you diving?”

“Four months, one week, and six days,” Al-Jahmîr said through gritted teeth.

Taridûn would have continued with his tale, but almost as soon as he began several servants entered carrying the lunch trays. Once the food had been served, talk turned to other matters.

“Tell me, what is she like as a consort,” Taridûn asked, cutting into a piece of fish.

Al-Jahmîr sighed, glancing at Éowyn. “I fear I've seen donkeys more compliant. Behind that beautiful face lies a spirit that demands to be broken. I ask her to act like a lady should, and she mocks me. I ask her to be mild and she creates a storm.”

“You have yet to give me a reason to obey you,” Éowyn said under her breath.

“You see?” Al-Jahmîr said. “I don't want to truly harm her, but she is giving me less and less faith in my methods.”

“Throw her in the dungeon for a few days. That's worked before.”

Éowyn looked from one to the other, astounded.

“I've forbidden her from seeing her beloved horse,” Al-Jahmîr continued, “and that seems to have worked some good.”

Taridûn snorted. “Taking a child's pony away will not cure the problem, since the brat knows you're only hiding it away somewhere. Feed the beast to the dogs and watch a willful child shatter.”

Éowyn choked on the piece of fruit in her mouth and coughed until she could breathe freely again. When she had first sat down, she had taken Taridûn for a charming if somewhat obnoxious gentleman. Now he seemed just as horrible a man as the Snake. She kept her eyes focused on her plate, wishing that the meal was finished. Instead, she listened in angry silence as Al-Jahmîr continued to complain about her disregard of his attentions and Taridûn suggested various ways of breaking her spirit.

After dessert (a light, sweet puffed bread with a hint of spices), talk turned yet again, this time to more serious matters.

“Is there enough wealth to be had in the Umbar region alone?” Taridun wondered. “Trade will suffer, or even disappear entirely, if Gondor stops buying. I doubt that everyone will agree that divorcing our great trade partner is a wise move. We've grown accustomed to wealth and comfort. Who else will we trade with? The Haradrim? They have few riches we desire.”

“Does Gondor have a ready supply of pearls? Does Gondor have endless supplies of spices in its kitchens? Does Gondor have our silks at hand?” Al-Jahmîr countered. “Certainly trade will suffer for a few years, but there will always be buyers for our goods. If anything, they'll be willing to pay more for goods that would be increasingly hard to come by.”

“Yes, perhaps those trading north would profit, but what of those who rely on goods coming south? The inland areas have grown fond of Gondorian timber. It's easy to smuggle a silk shirt under a camel's saddle. It's not so easy to smuggle a fifty-foot log.”

“Jabari --”

“Jabari is a fool if he thinks he can transport mountain timber down that mud pit he calls a river,” Taridûn's spat. “I have never seen him a fool, either. Believe me, he will grovel before the tarks should things begin to go ill. He is spineless.”

“Will you tell him that to his face next month?”

Taridûn's eyes narrowed. “I might.”

Eowyn listened to the exchange silently, trying to concentrate on their words, but the rich food combined with the midday sun now beating down on the balcony left her feeling less than well. Thankfully they had stopped talking about her, at least, and creating all sorts of ways to make her miserable. She rested her forehead on her hand, feeling the beginnings of a headache pulsing behind her temples. Names of people and places she had never heard of flew around her as the argument grew more heated. Was someone named Barazôn forming an urban militia within Umbar for his own purposes, or was he working with Al-Jahmîr in order to harass the tark governor? Would Ohtanasîr in Tallin finally agree to help, or would he consider his own interests with the desert tribes first?

“I still say stirring up Kadall was more trouble than it was worth,” Taridûn said, sipping a glass of wine.

“If any trouble does come from it,” Al-Jahmir countered, “the desert rats will go back to their holes as as soon as they meet any sort of resistance. They have before and they will again.”

“Before, yes. But look at how thin you have your own ranks spread. Perhaps if they decided to attack here they would meet significant resistance, but you have men scattered up and down the region and none of any great number in--”

“My men are joining with other allies up and down the region, and these combined forces--”

“You can't trust combined forces! It's getting to where a man can't trust his own forces sometimes, much less those of other lords with other interests.”

Éowyn interjected softly, “May I take my leave now, please?”

Both men turned their attention, Al-Jahmîr looking concerned as he noted her paled features. “You are not looking well,” he said. “I forgot how talk of politics wearies you.” He stood and took her hand, helping her to her feet. “If you would excuse us, Taridûn.”

The other rose to his feet as well and bowed slightly to Éowyn. “It was a pleasure to meet you, lady. I hope we may do so again soon.”

Éowyn smiled weakly and nodded before following Al-Jahmîr indoors. She breathed easier in the shaded room, the coolness refreshing her somewhat. “I trust that was polite enough for you,” she said through gritted teeth.

“An improvement,” he answered evenly. “Though you still have a long way to go before you're a gracious hostess.” At the door, he leaned forward to murmur in her ear, “But I suppose I should reward you for your efforts. You can have your pet back. I paid far too much to simply feed it to the dogs. I will send for you again soon.” With that, he kissed her ear and entrusted her to her guard, and returned to his guest. It was a sign of Éowyn's discomfort that she did not offer a remark in reply, but instead she went quickly back to her rooms and laid down.

She battled nausea and headaches the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening. Miliani brought her cool, damp cloths for her forehead and made sure a basin was close at hand in case her sickness overwhelmed her. Aliyah stopped to visit her, but only stayed a few minutes, realizing how uncomfortable she was.

“Is it the baby?” she asked hesitantly, sitting on the edge of the bed.

Éowyn nodded. “Or something I ate, or both.”

“Is being with child always so troublesome?”

Éowyn smiled slightly. “Not always. Sometimes more, sometimes less. Each day is different. Each child is different.” She could see that there were other questions in the girl's eyes, ones that she seemed to be deciding whether to ask.

Finally, Aliyah said, “I hope you feel better soon.” She gave her shoulder an assuring squeeze and left, her skirts swishing, her slippers making their soft scuffing sounds on the tiles.

Éowyn fell asleep early that night, her nausea settling enough to let her rest. Her dreams, however, refused to let her sleep peacefully. In one, she saw Meriadoc, her sweet, chubby baby, sucking his thumb intently, staring at something she could not see with such a confused and concerned expression on his face that she wanted to reach out and hold him, assuring him that everything would be all right. But every time she drew close, he cried and ran away from her. In another, Peregrin sat among his toys, silently flipping his horsey's legs back and forth. She knelt beside him and tried to interest him in another toy, but he ignored her and scooted around so his back was to her. This dream faded to one of Elboron trying to catch a frog in the ponds in the garden. She was shaken from her twins refusing to acknowledge her, but Elboron, Elboron would know her. When she called to him, he turned to look at her and grinned, which warmed her heart. He stood and started running toward her, but as he drew close, a bee buzzed out of a nearby bush and stung him on the hand. He stood still and began wailing, then ran off in the other direction...

Éowyn woke with a start, feeling tears on her own cheeks. She could not tell what hour of the night it was, but the breeze coming through the windows was cool and fresh. She wiped her eyes though more tears kept coming. Somewhere she knew at least one of her babies was crying for her, and the thought smote her heart. She should never have come south. Witnessing Khorazîr and Narejde's wedding had not been worth the price. Her children were suffering for her absence, and she hated herself for it. All three of them were still frightened of thunderstorms, the twins especially, and came running to her whenever they heard the first rumblings echo in the hills. Summertime always brought the worst storms, and this summer her little ones would be without her comfort.

She gave in to her exhaustion and returned to sleep, though once again she slept fitfully, startling herself awake every other hour. Her nausea returned just before dawn, and she greeted the new day with a basin in her lap and a foul taste in her mouth. Saredeen did little to help her other than bring a glass of water to clean out her mouth and a clean basin in case the need returned.

When Miliani arrived after dawn, she tsked at the circles under her eyes. “Did you sleep at all?” she asked, brushing some loose strands of hair from Éowyn's face.

“Some, but not well,” Éowyn replied softly. She picked at her breakfast, hungry but finding nothing appealing. How she could go from nauseated to famished in a heartbeat was beyond her reckoning. There were fresh strawberries today, but she found them too tart for her liking. She ate part of a muffin and some of the hard boiled eggs, but left the rest as it was. When she said that she wanted to dress for the stables, Miliani glanced at her doubtfully.

“I think you should take it easy today, my lady,” she said. “You haven't been feeling well lately, and you might do better trying to catch up on your sleep.”

Éowyn insisted, however, and soon made her way down to the stables in the golden early morning light. Hazadai greeted her at the entrance, a fleeting concerned glance replaced by a warm smile. “You have been missed,” he said, escorting her to her horse's stall. When they came into view, the gray stuck its head over the stall door and neighed. At the sound, Éowyn felt her spirits rise noticeably. She unhooked the stall door and slipped inside, wrapping her arms around the mare's neck. The mare held still for several moments, then shifted from hoof to hoof nervously before stepping back. Éowyn released her grip and the mare raised her head to sniff at Éowyn's hair and face before moving down her shoulder and arm to investigate the pockets of her dress. When the mare began nibbling on one in particular, Éowyn stepped back, pulled a small pear out of the pocket and offered it to the horse. “You don't forget easily, do you?” she said quietly, stroking the forelock while the horse munched on the fruit.

Taking a bristle brush from the grooming kit, she set to work on the familiar routine. For a little while, at least, she could forget whose stables these were, whose horse this was, whose house she lived in. She found herself humming a nameless song while she worked, and smiled slightly when she noticed the mare's ears flicking back and forth to catch the sounds. “You're listening to me, aren't you?” she said quietly in Rohirric. The mare turned her head and snorted, then went back to whuffling in her feed trough, looking for a few stray grains.

“Will you be riding today?” Hazadai asked, stopping by the stall.

“Yes,” Éowyn replied, looking over the horse's shoulder.

The stablemaster raised an eyebrow. “It may not be my place to ask, but should you be riding? You did not look well when I first saw you.”

“There's nothing better for the inside of a person than the outside of a horse,” Éowyn replied.

Hazadai cocked his head. “You didn't think of that just now.”

At that, Éowyn smiled and shook her head. “An old horseman's proverb we have in Rohan,” she confessed. “I'm feeling better from just being here.”

Hazadai brought her tack and insisted on saddling the mare for her. Éowyn took the opportunity to sit on a bale of straw waiting to be spread out in one stall or another. She ran her hand across her hair, plucking a wisp of hay from her braid.

“How far along are you?” he asked, nodding to her middle.

“Almost five months.”

Hazadai paused and looked thoughtful for a moment, then continued adjusting a strap on the bridle. “How long until the healers forbid you to ride?”

Éowyn chuckled. “At home I would have already been sent to bedrest. The healers there are overly cautious sometimes.”

“They know their business,” he replied. “Perhaps I should forbid you from riding one of these days.”

“That's already happened once,” Éowyn said wryly.

Hazadai nodded. “It was not wise of you,” he said quietly. “If you are going to annoy Marek, you must be more subtle.” He did not meet her gaze, and indeed, to any passerby it would have seemed as though he was talking to the horse.

“How so?” she asked in a low voice.

He smiled and patted the mare's neck. “I will not be the one to make suggestions,” he said. “At least not today.” He handed her the reins as she stood. They went outside, where Éowyn's guard waited with his horse. A groom stood nearby holding the reins to a chestnut horse with a blaze down half its face and a pair of white socks on its forelegs. Éowyn could hear it chewing on the bit. Hazadai held the reins for Éowyn as she swung up into the saddle. She glanced over in surprise as he mounted the chestnut. He shrugged. “This colt needs to learn some manners, and I thought you might appreciate some company. At the least, you might stay out of trouble this way.” Éowyn heard her guard snicker.

They rode through the various orchards again, with Hazadai pointing out different aspects of the growing and harvesting process. He commented on how the shirrikan had not affected the crop as badly as feared and how the rain had replenished the irrigation channels after a bit of a dry spell. The additional runoff from the mountains would be stored in barrels against another drought as well. They passed a gate in the wall where a large group of men and women were waiting with sacks and baskets slung over their shoulders. Each person carried a piece of paper that one of the guards inspected and compared to a sheet in his own hand.

At Éowyn's question, Hazadai explained. “Harvesters, by the looks of them. They're showing their logs now, which states, among other things, who they are, where they come from, and how many bushels they've brought in this harvest. The guards compare this to the list the orchard manager gives them, and allows people in accordingly.” He chuckled. “They've been known to turn people away for not picking enough bushels.”

A yellow bird darted out of a nearby tree and swooped across the path, startling the chestnut colt. It snorted and reared, trying to grab the bit in its teeth. Éowyn's mare danced to one side as Hazadai reined the colt under control again, spinning it in small circles. The animal pinned its ears back and continued snorting but made no other efforts to bolt. They continued on, stopping at a fountain to let the horses drink,before completing their loop and returning to the stables.

Éowyn thanked Hazadai for coming along once the horses had been put away. “A pleasure, as always, my lady,” he replied. “Should we expect you tomorrow as well?”

“Yes,” she said, then hesitated. “Could you... I need five buckets with a tall pole in each. Filling the buckets with sand should keep them upright. Can you do that?”

He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. “I think I see what you want,” he said slowly, then bowed to her. “I will do what I can.”

+++

That evening, Al-Jahmîr requested Éowyn's presence at supper, and afterward he led her outside. “These are my gardens,” he said. Small oil lamps lined the white stone pathways and glimmered in the growing twilight. It was rather similar to the gardens in the women's quarters, Éowyn saw, but the details were much more elaborate. The fountains were finer, the statues more complex, the flowers more abundant. They walked along in silence for several minutes when a loud, shrill cry pierced the stillness. Éowyn jumped slightly at the sound.

“The peacocks,” Al-Jahmîr said simply, nodding to a trail of feathers that led around the corner of a hedge. “Molting again, unfortunately. They can be quite watchful,especially when someone wanders through their territory late at night.” Their path led them to the wall at the garden's edge. Éowyn peered over the side and took in the waves pounding the rocks below, sending up plumes of white spray. She tensed, feeling him move to stand behind her, and grimaced as she felt him slip his arms around her waist.

“This is where your friend Khorazîr jumped to what I was sure would be his death,” he murmured into her ear. “A wonder and a pity that he survived. The same for the whore.”

“A greater pity that they did not slay you as they did your brother all those years ago.” She closed her eyes as she felt his grip tighten.

“You speak dangerous words, lady.”

“As dangerous as building a castle on a cliff, for one day it will fall into the sea.”

“This castle has stood a thousand years, and it will stand another thousand, until long after your name's forgotten.”

“I doubt that, on all accounts.”

He murmured something she did not catch and moved his hands until they rested on her middle. “You're getting rounder,” he commented. “Tis good, though I dearly wish it was my child instead. But,” he sighed, “that day will come soon enough.”

Éowyn felt the bile rise in her throat at the thought of carrying his child. She took a breath to steady herself, then said, “If it were your child, I would have drunk that cursed fûliah tea by now.”

He laughed and kissed her neck. “No, I don't think you would. I don't think you have it in you to destroy a child, not even one of mine.”

“I don't think there will ever be a chance to find out.” The breeze blowing from the sea cooled the heat that rose in her cheeks. The nerve to suggest such things! To assume that he would father a child by her. To believe that she would be here long enough for that to happen. Did he really think that Gondor and Rohan would stand by and allow her to remain his prisoner? Did he believe that he would be able to defeat any attempt at rescuing her?

Her thoughts were broken as she felt him kiss her lightly on the neck and following the curve down to her shoulder. She hated the feel of him on her skin, the scent of the oil in his beard. She tensed, wanting to whirl away, but there was little room to move with the stone wall in front of her and him behind her. He moved his arms up above her waist, pinning her own to her sides. He traced the embroidery on the bodice of her dress with a finger. “Relax, Eowyn,” he whispered. “You really would like it, if you would only let yourself.” She flinched as she felt his hand lightly touch her chin and slide down her throat.

“I will never be your whore.” Taking a breath, she used the opportunity to break out of his grasp. She spun along the wall, but before she could break completely free, he caught her arm again. At the same time, she struck out with her free arm, catching him across the side of his face with the back of her hand. He cursed and took a step back, releasing her arm fully.

She stood there, catching her breath, while he reached up to touch the red mark on his cheek. He chuckled coldly. “Has it come to this again?” he said. “If you insist...” Before Éowyn could react or even anticipate his move, he returned the gesture. The slap echoed across the garden, and nearby one of the peacocks squawked in surprise. The shrill call drowned out Éowyn's cry as she slumped against the wall. Al-Jahmir had not held back any force, and it took a moment for her vision to clear.

Al-Jahmir grabbed her jaw and pulled her to her feet again. “If I want a jar of sand from the desert, you will fetch it,” he said fiercely. “If I want a shell from the bottom of the sea, you will dive for it. And if I call you to my bed, you will join me. I am your master now,” he hissed.

“You are master of nothing, snake,” Eowyn replied, wincing as his fingers tightened on her skin. She saw his other hand move and tried to prepare for the blow, but it was as strong as the first, as was the one which followed it, and she fell to the ground, scraping her hands on the stones. She gasped for breath, shaking, and found herself fearful of another blow.

He cursed and turned to leave, his boots crunching on the stone. When his footsteps faded to silence, Éowyn sat up and leaned against the wall, still trembling. She flexed her hands carefully and flinched, feeling what was likely blood running between her fingers. Her breath came in short gasps. Until now she had not feared him. She had not feared his words, his threats, or his anger. As she listened to the waves rolling and crashing below her, she realized that this time he had shaken her. He had hurt her, but it was not the pain she feared. No, she feared that now he would not hesitate to use what force he wanted. She coughed, tasting blood in her mouth. She ran her tongue over her teeth and found to her relief that none were missing or loose. Perhaps she had cut her cheek slightly or bitten her tongue during the exchange. When her heart finally stopped pounding and her breath came more evenly, she rose to her feet slowly, steadying herself against the wall for a moment. Full darkness had fallen, and tonight there was no light in the gardens save for the lamps burning along the paths. She crept back into the castle, where Miliani waited for her anxiously. Éowyn shook her head when she began to speak, and the girl wisely went silent.

When she was back in her apartments, Éowyn sank into one of the cushioned chairs and stared at her hands. They were indeed scraped and tinted red from blood and white from the dust on the stones. She heard Miliani rushing around in search of a bowl of water and some clothes. Soon the girl was at her side, dabbing at her palms with a cloth. Once they were clean, it was obvious that the scrapes were not serious and would heal by themselves. Miliani helped her into her nightclothes and, after taking seats on the bed, began brushing out her hair.

“I made him angry,” Éowyn whispered after several minutes. “I thought I had seen him angry before, but this...” She shook her head and sighed deeply. More quiet minutes passed with only the sound of the brush passing through her hair breaking the stillness. Miliani divided her hair and began braiding it, tying off the end with a cord when she finished. Éowyn drew up her legs and put her arms around them for a moment before uncurling herself again when she could not get comfortable. “I'm frightened,” she said after a long while. “I'm afraid of what is going to happen now, what is going to happen to my child, to me. He will not let this pass idly.” She looked up as a knock sounded from the sitting room. Miliani went to answer it, and in a moment Lael half-ran into view. She paused a moment at the doorway and gasped, then rushed down the stairs and over to Éowyn.

“What happened?” she asked, sitting beside her and staring wide-eyed at the red splotches on her cheeks.

“I made him angry,” Éowyn said simply, showing Lael her hands, which were beginning to grow stiff.

Lael glanced down at her palms, and her cheeks paled beneath her strong tan. “Oh no,” she said softly. “No, not tonight.” She shook her head and stood. “Out of all the nights to make him angry, why did you have to choose tonight?” she cried.

“I didn't intend to,” Éowyn said sharply, shifting on the mattress.

“But you did,” Lael said, pacing in front of the bed. “Ohhh, this isn't good, not tonight.”

“What's so important about tonight?”

Lael turned to look at her. “It's Aliyah's First Night,” she said simply. “And if you've gone and made him angry, then it's going to be even more difficult for her.”

“I'm sure he'll set aside his anger for awhile when he sees he has a whore to entertain,” Éowyn said icily.

Lael glared, an expression that looked out of place on her features. “He doesn't just stop being angry,” she snapped. She began pacing again, running her fingers through her hair and muttering to herself. “Well, she'll just have to do the best she can,” she said after a few moments to no one in particular. She sighed. “Will you at least come out to wish her luck? She was asking for you earlier.”

Éowyn hesitated, then rose. “All right,” she said, “but only for a few minutes. I'm not in the best of moods either.”

She followed Lael out to the common room where Aliyah stood in front of a tall mirror, fidgeting with her bracelets as Lahar wove the stem of a white flower into her hair. She turned at the sound of the door opening and smiled a wavering smile when she saw Éowyn. Her dress seemed to be made out of little more than white and yellow air, the cloth almost transparent in some places, leaving little to the imagination. Her hair was braided in thin braids in some places, and in others it fell around her shoulders in curls glistening with oil. The braids were looped and drawn up to the back, and white flowers were woven throughout her hair. Gold hoops dangled from her ears, and strung on each hoop were small charms shaped like crescent moons and stars.

Éowyn forced a smile. “You look lovely,” she said, which was true, though she did feel a bit guilty when the girl beamed at her.

“Thank you,” Aliyah said. She turned back to the mirror and a hint of panic crossed her face. “Is it too much?”

“You're just fine,” Lahar said, finishing with the flower and stepping back to view her handiwork.

Aliyah bit her lip (painted red) and continued to study her reflection. Her eyes carried a hint of blue powder, and her cheeks carried hints of a golden tone. She pushed at a braid, and Lahar swatted her hand away.

“Stop that,” she scolded. “You're beautiful.”

As Lael came over to stand beside her, the girl asked, “Any other advice?”

“I've already given you all I can,” she said, squeezing the girl's shoulder gently. She nodded to her sister, and they moved off to one side, talking quietly. At the same time, shrieks of laughter came from one of the other rooms. In a few moments Rashidah and Saribêth appeared, each carrying a glass of wine in one hand, which clearly was not their first of the evening. Éowyn was surprised to see them both. As Rashidah walked toward Aliyah, Éowyn glanced at Lael and Lahar and saw the former speaking rapidly to the latter, who turned to look at Éowyn with an expression of sheer horror. Éowyn grimaced, realizing what was being discussed. I did not intend to make him angry, she told herself.

“I suppose it'll do,” Rashidah said lazily, sipping the wine in her one hand while tilting Aliyah's chin with her other to examine her make-up. She glanced around the room and noticed Éowyn standing off to one side. “Well look who came out of hiding,” she called. “You like this?” She motioned to Aliyah's attire. “At the rate you're going, we'll have to wrap you in a tent before long.” Saribêth's giggles were interrupted by the occasional snort.

“You're drunk, Rashidah,” Lahar stated evenly.

“And you have the face of a... like a... mule,” Rashidah answered. She took another drink and rolled her eyes. “Let's get this over with,” she said, taking Aliyah by the arm. Aliyah gave the others a weak smile before she was whisked away. After the doors shut behind them, Saribêth wandered back to her room unsteadily, giggling over some private joke. Lahar watched the closed doors for a moment, then walked over to Éowyn, the horror on her face replaced now by concern. She touched Éowyn's cheek gently.

“He did hurt you, didn't he,” she said softly.

“I didn't mean to make him angry,” Éowyn said.

“I know,” Lahar said. She sighed and shrugged. “Well, it's not the worst thing to ever happen on a First Night. I hope it goes well, for her sake.” Lael nodded.

“Why didn't either of you go with her? I think that at least would have made it a little easier for her.”

Lael shook her head. “It's the senior consort's duty to escort a new consort to the proper chambers on her First Night. I just hope she doesn't do something foolish. She's drunk enough that she might.”

“As though that would make a difference for her?” Éowyn asked bitterly.

Lael shrugged. “Rashidah can be completely awful sometimes, but even she knows better than to disrupt custom.”

There are things about your custom I could say, Éowyn thought. Instead, she said, “I've had a difficult evening. I'm going to bed.”

Lahar nodded and embraced her gently. “You need to rest. We'll talk tomorrow.”

Eowyn bade them both goodnight and went back to her apartments. Slipping under the sheets, she tried finding a comfortable position. Her back ached from where she had fallen against the wall, and her hands were cut up enough that even the soft sheets felt rough and bothersome on her tender skin. Sleep did not come even after she had settled. The Snake's words echoed in her head. I don't think you have it in you to destroy a child, not even one of mine.

Could you? she asked herself. She wasn't sure. She knew the pain and heartache of losing a child, her very first. After nearly seven long years of waiting, she had finally conceived a child with Faramir, to their mutual surprise and delight. The hope and joy lasted only a few short weeks, though, before being shattered completely as the pains of miscarriage wracked her body. But that was different. That was the child you had longed for, from the man you loved. This would be a child from the man you hate. She turned to one side. But it's not the child's fault that its father is an honorless villain. But it would be a constant reminder of what you went through. Every time you looked at that face, you would see Al-Jahmîr. But... Éowyn shifted again and tried to drown out the argument in her head, desperately hoping that she would never have to make such a choice. She finally drifted off to sleep.

+++

Several hours later, she woke abruptly at the sound of running feet and sobs. She sat up as Aliyah came bursting into her room, stumbling against some of the furniture in the dim light. Saredeen was on her heels with a lamp, hissing under her breath that she should leave. Eowyn shooed the serving girl away as Aliyah fell into her arms, weeping. From what she could see, the girl's dress was haphazardly thrown on her body, her hair in complete disarray. Her earrings were missing, as were most of her bracelets, and what bracelets were left on her wrists clinked together as she shook with sobs.

Bewildered, Éowyn simply stroked the girl's hair gently and murmured to her while trying to make sense of the girl's words. At first it seemed no more than babble, but after listening for several minutes, she picked out words and phrases.

“H-h-he d-didn't like me,” she hiccuped. “H-he said th-that I was ugly and t-too s-small and...” Her voice broke again.

“He is an idiot,” Éowyn said softly. “You were beautiful tonight.”

“L-Lael said he w-would be g-gentle. He w-wasn't g-gentle. He h-hurt m-me.”

Éowyn closed her eyes and shook her head. Sometimes pain couldn't be avoided, but she was certain the snake had found his own ways to add to it. Distressing a nervous, frightened girl was simple. “You should have spent this night with a man who truly desired you,” she murmured, “not someone who thought he could have you just because he paid for you.”

Aliyah wept harder. “I m-miss my m-ami and my s-sisters.”

“I know you do. I know you do.” Éowyn began humming a lullaby, one that had always soothed her children, even in their fussiest moments. The girl sobbing in her arms was hardly more than a child herself.

Éowyn wasn't sure how much time passed before Aliyah's sobs turned to hiccups and sniffles and eventually passed into silence. The moon had finally appeared from behind the clouds and cast a faint glow into the room, enough for Éowyn to clearly see the weariness on the girl's face. She sighed and eased the girl down onto the mattress, pulling part of a blanket over her. “Sleep, child,” she murmured. “Things will look better in the morning.”

The problem was, she didn't believe her own words.

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PostPosted: Sun 03 Jun , 2007 11:50 am 
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“I wish we could see what is going on up there,” complained Dorgil, briefly staying his nervous pacing of the cabin to swat at one of the hammocks in his path, and casting an anxious glance at the low ceiling as if trying to pierce the dark beams with his eyes. Faramir could tell how the healer, usually so calm and controlled, was getting more ill at ease with each passing minute. They only had the stern windows at their disposal, most of which were shuttered anyway against the elements, therefore the only information they could gain about the happenings on deck was by listening to the various sounds from above. Yet due to the fact that the Balak anDolgu was battling a heavy squall many of these sounds were obscured by the creak of planks, the thud of the waves hitting the ship’s hull and the howling of the wind.

Faramir was unable to tell how long they had been listening and waiting when there occurred a change in the noises echoing through the wood. Also, the movement of the floor had changed. Instead of the strong heaving motion the vessel was rolling now with the squall. “They wore ship,” muttered Dorgil, laying a hand to the bulkhead and listening intently. “She is not cutting the waves anymore, but rolling alongside. Most likely–”

There was a heavy blow to the hull, and a loud crash that sent another tremor through the wood, strong enough to unbalance the healer who stumbled with a curse. Faramir silently praised the fact he was seated. A loud clamour arose above them, accompanied by a frantic rush of feet, and the sound of several heavy things being pulled across the deck.

“Seems they have finally engaged the enemy,” commented Dorgil with a grim smile and a glint in his eyes, steadying himself against one of the berths along the wall. There was a dull thud on the planks.

“The catapult?” wondered Faramir aloud.

Dorgil nodded. “Nasty thing. I have seen the missiles they have been preparing. They are drenched in a liquid the fire of which, once ignited, is well-nigh impossible to extinguish. I only hope the other party does not have anything similar to set alight our sails.”

“I would not count on that, if they are indeed in Al-Jahmîr’s pay as their colours indicate,” observed Faramir darkly. “I have read accounts of sea-battles in which the Umbarians employed similar substances. Some scribes even go as far as to speak of sorcery, and claim these weapons were designed in Mordor during the Dark Years.”

Dorgil sat down beside his captain. “It would indeed be evil for us if Al-Jahmîr had access to such things. I recall some of the devices we found in Minas Morgul, and the evil spells we encountered there. And that poison you were administered last year – it must have been modified by some feat of black wizardry, too. No venom designed by men or even orcs could be that cruel.”

“Nay, not likely,” agreed Faramir softly, feeling a shiver run down his spine at the memory of his poisoning, the constant nagging pain it had subjected his body to. On two occasions it had by far exceeded what he had thought possible to endure, once almost claiming his life. “Listen,” he then drew their attention back to the events at hand, “the sounds have changed. There is less noise above.”

“Yes,” said Dorgil, springing to his feet again excitedly. “They must be boarding the other vessel now. The ships must be really close. Too close, perhaps, which caused that awful crash we heard. Oh, I wish we could catch a glimpse.”

“You wish you could join the fray, do you not?” asked Faramir with a slight grin.

Dorgil turned to him with a look of consternation on his face. “My duty is with you, captain, and unlike other people” – he cast a disapproving glance at the rangers’ hammocks – “I am not likely to forget that out of fancy and a desire for some reckless excitement and daring deeds.”

“Commendable. I appreciate your dedication to your duty, Dorgil, but still you cannot hide that you would rather be out there now than down here. Alas, there is no shame in that. Do you believe I enjoy sitting here twirling thumbs instead of –” He fell silent, listening intently. Dorgil gave his superior a questioning glance and opened his mouth to speak, but Faramir held up a hand to silence him. Carefully, he rose to his feet, and steadying himself against the wall with one hand, slowly he walked to larboard, where one of the windows had been left unshuttered to allow some greyish light to filter through the ornamental lattice-work.

As he drew closer, he could see the steel-grey, white-crested waves rush by. Apparently the ship had tacked towards starboard, for the waves were lapping high against the larboard hull, now and again sending cold spray as far up as the windows, which ended as glistening drops in the carved lattice. The wind was hissing loudly through the small holes, almost deadening the noise of distant fighting. The battle seemed to have chiefly moved on to the other ship as it lay alongside to starboard. A strong smell of the sea, of salt and seaweed filled Faramir’s nostrils, accompanied by something else: the sharp stench of burning canvas and cables and tar-coated wood. Now, where did this come from, with the other ship to leeward? Were their own sails and rigging alight? Was there much damage? Also, there was another smell. He sniffed carefully, and tensed. He had come to recognise this stench recently: the smell of men living close-packed on a ship for some time. Here it was mingled with that of wet cloth and leather, and, strangely, of garlic.

“Captain, what –?” asked Dorgil softly, having followed Faramir across the cabin. Faramir shook his head fiercely and indicated total silence, signing to the two shuttered windows to both sides of the open one he was standing close to. There was thud against one of the shutters, followed closely by another. Then a soft curse and a hiss from below. Another thud, further down, close to the waterline. A splash, and another. Something scrabbling against the planks. Faramir signed to the healer to position himself to the other side of the unshuttered window, invisible from the outside. Dorgil understood what was going on, and drawing his sword, stepped close to the wall.

Realising that he was running the danger of engaging an enemy without a weapon, Faramir cast a searching glance round the room. His eyes fell on a sheathed scimitar dangling from a hook next to one of the hammocks. Aralas had won it the previous evening while gambling with the crew, earning himself a stern reprimand from his lord. But right now Faramir was all but wroth with the young ranger. Dorgil shook his head sternly upon seeing his captain move towards the weapon, obviously worried about the other, but Faramir gave him a brief confident nod, signalling he was feeling well enough to try and defend himself. And what choice did he have, anyway? Apparently Azrubâr had not taken into account the cunning of the other captain, for an attempt seemed underfoot to invade the Balak anDolgu from the unprotected, most likely unwatched rear, while everybody else was busy boarding the Umbarian vessel.

Returning to the other side of the window to the sound of more scrabbling feet outside, he silently drew the curved blade. It was a crude weapon, much unlike the light, well-balanced scimitar he had exchanged for his own sword with Khorazîr so long ago, and which he had come to appreciate over the years (and which, he thought darkly, had been stolen by Al-Jahmîr as yet another trophy to boast with). Moreover, he would have to wield it with his left. Nevertheless, it would do. It had to do. Gazing over to Dorgil, he caught the disapproving, warning glance of the other, mixed with a deep worry which touched Faramir. Neither of them had reckoned with him having to fight again so soon, before he was fully recovered. Yet there was no way to avoid it anymore. Dorgil was an able swordsman, yet by the sounds outside there was more than one enemy approaching, and the healer would not manage to hold off a small company all by himself.

There was another thud against the shutter, the swish of a body moving swiftly through the air, followed by the crash of the lattice. A dark-clad, dripping wet body rushed feet-first through the splintered wood. Landing on both feet, and regaining his balance with admirable agility, he spun round to take in his surroundings. Because of the gloom in the cabin, for outside grey twilight was reigning, the dark clouds having finally swallowed up the sun, he did not see the two men next to the window. Instead, he drew a curved sword and began to push aside the hammocks to search for inhabitants, then gave a short whistle, obviously a signal for his comrades to follow.

Another man came swinging through the broken window, but this time the two Gondorians were prepared. With a swift swipe Faramir severed the rope just before the intruder could let go. Because of the sudden, unexpected loss of tension he tumbled on the floor, and before he could regain his balance Dorgil had dealt him a fierce stroke to the neck, nearly beheading him and sending him stumbling backwards where he got entangled in one of the hammocks and crashed to the ground. His comrade had moved further into the room and had not seen what had passed. Upon the crash he turned, however, sword raised and ready to strike – only to receive Dorgil’s sword into his chest.

Before the healer could step out of the way a third boarder had swung into the cabin, unexpectedly crashing through another window, shutter and all: tall, strongly built man who obviously had managed to swim and climb in his heavy leather armour. He spotted Dorgil immediately, yet before he could attack with the scimitar he swept from his dripping sash, Faramir was on him. He praised the fact that ever since his injury the previous year which had left him without proper use of his right arm and shoulder for a considerable time he had practised swordsmanship with his left. Even though the clumsy blade was still unfamiliar and heavy, once he had dealt the first blow, he felt his well-honed reflexes and battle-instinct take over, and his confidence grow.

“Captain, look out!” cried Dorgil suddenly. Out of luck or instinct, Faramir whirled round, feeling a stab in his right shoulder as the still tender muscles and tendons protested at the sudden, fierce movement. But only this way he managed to evade a dagger aimed at his neck. It whistled past him and buried itself in the wall. A forth intruder had crept through the window, more cautiously than his comrades. Rushing past Faramir, even pushing him aside with his elbow so that he stumbled against the wall, Dorgil hewed at the man. The pirate, however, with the speed of a striking serpent managed to evade the blow by dropping to the floor and rolling out of the healer’s reach.

There was a deep growl in the gloom of the cabin, followed by a cry of shock and pain from Dorgil. The tall brute had stabbed at his unprotected side while he had been engaging the other enemy to protect his captain. This smaller but very agile man sprang to his feet again on the other side of the nearest hammock. From the corner of his eye, Faramir caught the flash of a blade being drawn, but his attention was focused on the large man. He swung to deal the healer who had staggered backwards against the splintered remains of the unshuttered window another, deadly stroke, but this time he found his blade parried by Faramir’s. He grunted, shaking long gold-plaited and soaking wet hair out of his eyes, obviously not taking his enemy for full, and attacked again.

He was a dangerous adversary: immensely strong, but still swift and agile at that. Also, since he was some inches less in height than Faramir (although considerably broader in build), he had less trouble with the low ceiling of the cabin with its protruding beams. His armour of overlapping leather scales protected him from lighter blows, turning Faramir’s blade more than once. Even had he been fighting right-handed and with a better weapon, and moreover without the reminder of a near-fatal injury sapping his strength and slowing his reflexes, Faramir doubted he would have had easy play with this one. Worse still, while they were fighting, he saw the other man move over to Dorgil who was holding on to the wall to steady himself, his right arm pressed against his side where a dark stain had begun to spread over his tunic. The healer was stooping to reach the sword he had dropped, but Faramir saw he would not reach it in time before the pirate got at him. Diving under a blow from his opponent, to another wave of pain racing through his chest and shoulder, he aimed a stroke at the second man, grazing his back. He spun round, lunging with his dagger – and hit his large companion who had leapt after Faramir. The big man let out a howl of pain as blood spurted from his leg, then he screamed again when Faramir’s blade buried itself in his back. Ripping the scimitar from the Dúnadan’s grip, he fell forward, forcing his shocked companion to spring aside – to meet an upward thrust from the sword Dorgil had recovered. He, too, slumped to the ground lifelessly.

The healer sank back against the wall between the two broken windows, breathing hard. “There are more coming, captain,” he called hoarsely, and in the same moment two men were entering the cabin, cautiously now, since obviously they had noticed that their attempt at boarding had met with resistance. These two were of medium height and build, and clad alike, as if in uniform. Which most likely they were, flashed through Faramir’s mind as he hastened to find another blade. The dying brute’s scimitar proved a far more handy weapon than the previous one. He wrung it from the unresisting grip of its former owner and swung it experimentally, watching the two men while also keeping an anxious eye on the windows in the case even more were coming.

Even though the two men he was facing now had obviously shed their armour for the swim, he was convinced their usual garb would consist of fishmail-corslets over garments of black and green, and that their surcoats would be emblazoned with the device of a silver serpent on an emerald field: the livery of Al-Jahmîr’s household guards. In well-rehearsed unison, they drew their scimitars and advanced on him.

Cautiously, so as not to trip over the bodies on the floor, Faramir stepped backwards, to draw them away from Dorgil who, by the sound of his laboured breathing was more seriously wounded than Faramir had thought at first. The worry about his companion, and indeed the fear for his own life, since in his current weakened and physically impaired state it was unlikely he would survive a fight with the Snake’s Chosen Men, sent a bout of energy through his body. He gripped his weapon more firmly. Think of Éowyn, he told himself, think of her and your boys, and your unborn baby. They need you. You promised to come for her, you promised to return to them. And these two shall not prevent you from keeping these promises. Drawing a deep breath, he picked who he considered the weaker and slower of the twain, and attacked.

It soon proved the two men had underestimated him. In the way he guarded his right side they had rightly suspected an injury. Neither of them, therefore, had reckoned with an attack of such speed and force and cunning. Faramir launched himself at one, feigning a sweep to the side but instead stabbing at his swordarm, which resulted in dealing the guard a vile cut to his shoulder. The other received a kick to the shin which caused him to loose balance and curse wildly, flailing at the attacker with his sword but missing. Faramir, too, had almost succeeded in unbalancing himself, but gripping a hammock with his right, to hot pain exploding in his chest, he managed to prevent a fall. Instead, he swiped at his foes, parrying the blade the first guard despite his injured shoulder had brought up. What followed was a fierce, fell battle, in which Faramir was forced to use all strength and cunning at his disposal, and try and ignore the mounting pain in his right shoulder which spread out to numb his body. Mere luck, he later reasoned, enabled him to kill one of the men with a back-handed blow originally aimed at his companion. He received a slight graze to the leg in return, but the wound was neither deep nor dangerous, and the pain so he could ignore it.

One man down, the second attacker proved more difficult to dispose of. Enraged by his companion’s death and desiring to avenge him, he hacked at his opponent with a force the other found increasingly hard to counter. Faramir was swiftly nearing the end of his strength. The pain in his chest had become too distracting to concentrate on fighting, dulling his senses and worse, his reflexes. Each ragged breath he drew felt like fire filling his lungs. Even his left arm became increasingly difficult to lift and move, the scimitar feeling like a bar of lead in his hand.

The Umbarian noticed his enemy’s deteriorating strength, and used the knowledge to his advantage, forcing him back across the cabin towards the windows. Just when Faramir reckoned with the next blow swiping the weapon from his hands, leaving him defenceless, fortune on Faramir’s account caused the Umbarian to stumble over one of his slain companions’ feet and get entangled in a hammock. He cursed as he struggled with the cloth. The second he was unheeding of his opponent made him an easy prey for Faramir’s blade. He killed the man with a thrust through the lungs, before the sword slid from his hand. Pressing his right arm to his side and his left hand to his chest-wound, fighting for breath, he sank to his knees. His body, raked by hot pain, was trembling with exhaustion, and the world seemed to spin around him.

“Captain, are you alright?” he heard Dorgil’s hoarse voice as through a thick fog. With a shock that seemed to dull the pain for a moment he recalled that the healer was wounded, and that moreover there was the possibility of more attackers arriving through the windows.

“Dorgil,” he gasped, with an effort pulling himself to his feet again. “Are there any more?”

“There were,” came the laboured reply. “But they are gone. Thy moved on and climbed the taffrail, I think.”

Picking up the scimitar again, Faramir moved over to where the healer sat slumped against the wall. The ship’s movement had changed again, making walking difficult on the heaving, trembling floor. But the fresh air streaming in through the windows cleared Faramir’s mind, and even seemed to restore some of his strength. On his way he checked each of the fallen to ensure they were truly dead or at least unconscious. He would actually have preferred the latter, yet all the attackers had been slain, the floor in places slippery with their blood. When he had reached Dorgil, Faramir lowered himself beside the ranger. The healer’s face was pale and drawn. He had shed his burnous and was pressing the garment against his side to stem the flow of blood. Nevertheless, the white cloth was already soaked, as were his tunic and even his trouser-leg down to his boot.

Slowly raising his eyes and studying his captain, “Are you hurt, sir?” asked the healer. Faramir shook his head swiftly. “Do not worry about me, Dorgil. What about you? This looks bad.”

Dorgil nodded with a grim smile. “I would give much to have young Brandir here now,” he murmured, then winced when Faramir reached for his hand and carefully lifted it and the bale of cloth off the wound. He beheld a nasty long cut almost down to the hip, where fortunately leather belt and pouch had stopped the blade. Nevertheless, if the wound was not closed immediately, the ranger would bleed to death. Already he was shaking slightly, and his speech was slurred due to his waning strength. His own pain and exhaustion forgotten, Faramir replaced the burnous, gripping Dorgil’s clammy, blood-stained hand in his.

“Tell me what to do, Dorgil,” he addressed the healer sternly, trying to maintain the other’s concentration. When words alone appeared to have little effect, for Dorgil’s head sank onto his breast and he closed his eyes, Faramir reached up to slap his cheek gently. This seemed to work better. “You saved my life about a fortnight ago, and I should like to return the favour now. Look at me, Dorgil! Stay awake! Do you have any herbs to staunch the blood-flow? Where do you keep needle and thread? And bandages, where are they? This pouch here?”

Dorgil nodded faintly without opening his eyes. Swiftly, Faramir opened the leather bag at his belt, where he found several small parcels wrapped in waxed paper and marked with runes on their seals, as well as a roll of cloth containing different needles and thread and an assortment of slender scalpels, a scissor and pincers. “There is another bag, captain,” whispered Dorgil, nodding towards one of the berths. “Bandages ...”

Faramir nodded. After using the healer’s dagger to cut open his garments, and freeing him of the belt, he rose again, swaying against the wall as the ship lurched. He recalled that there had been a waterskin next to one of the hammocks, and making sure that Dorgil was again pressing the cloth to the wound, he set out to collect it, and the healer’s bag as well.

“You need to drink some water, Dorgil,” he told the wounded man upon his return, holding the waterskin to his lips. Dorgil took several small draughts, before, “No more water,” he muttered with a shake of his head. “A small bottle with spirits, in the bag ...”

“For disinfection, or do you need a drink?” asked Faramir as he rummaged in the bag, trying to sound lightly and confident despite his shock about the constantly deteriorating state of his companion.

Dorgil smiled faintly. “Both. I hate stitches.”

Faramir found the bottle, as well as an ample supply of bandages. He unstoppered it and allowed the ranger to take a sip, before pouring some of the sharp-smelling liquid over a bandage and began to clean the wound, to a sharp intake of breath from Dorgil. “Hear hear,” he commented. “I always thought you enjoyed administering them to others, especially to your captain.”

“That ... is different,” whispered Dorgil.

“Indeed? I shall remember that,” said Faramir as he put down the cloth and thread a needle. Pulling himself together with an effort, Dorgil squinted down his side. “You need to ... close the vein first, captain. Then the wound. Use ...,” he drew several laboured breaths, his hand clenching into the blood-soaked burnous, “use the smallest needle and the ... finest thread for the vein, and ...,” he sighed and closed his eyes, and his body relaxed.

“And?” Faramir patted his cheeks again. “Dorgil, stay with me.” But the healer had lost consciousness. Closing his eyes briefly and drawing a deep breath to calm himself, Faramir set to work. This was not his first time of sewing up a wound, yet the dim, insufficient illumination of the cabin, the constant motion of the floor and his own exhaustion, the fact his right hand was trembling with it and with the pain flowing from his chest into his right arm did not improve matters. He succeeded in closing the wound, however, cleaned it with the spirits and applied herbs from a parcel marked with the healer’s sign for blood, herbs he had often seen in use during his time with the rangers, when injuries of this kind had been common. Then he dressed and bandaged the cut, all the time listening anxiously for sounds outside the window, Dorgil’s dagger in immediate reach to welcome anybody trying to creep in this way. But no more came. Above, on the quarterdeck there appeared some kind of fight going on, however. Also, the sounds of battle further away on the other ship could be heard: screams and fierce cries, the twang of bowstrings and the clash of blades.

When he was finished, knowing he would not manage to lift Dorgil into one of the berths, he fetched some blankets and a pillow from the nearest hammock and put them on the floor, then moved the healer into a lying position and covered him warmly with more blankets and his own burnous. Dorgil sighed as his captain placed his head on the pillow and stroked back his hair, yet did not wake. Faramir checked his pulse and breathing, and satisfied with the results, he took a draught of water from the waterskin, before rinsing his hands to get rid of the blood. Placing the skin next to Dorgil and picking up a scimitar lying close, he moved over to the window and peered out. The acrid stench of smoke was stronger here, and the sounds of battle from above were louder. Gazing up towards the taffrail, he saw several grappling hooks embedded in the woodwork, with stout ropes dangling from them. Down in the water two bodies were floating – it was impossible to tell if friend or foe. He wondered how well or badly the fight was going for their side, and if there was anything he could do.

Just as he watched, there was a cry to his left and a splash, and another man was swallowed up by the foaming waves. There was a loud cheer from above, but also a howl of fury and disbelief from others. “You pay for this, rats of Umbar!” Faramir recognised Khômiyi’s raspy voice, contorted with rage, followed by a cry of “AnDolgu!” with was taken up by many fell voices. Feet thundered over the deck, and there was the loud ring of steel on steel.

His attention was distracted by a flash of gold from underneath the tossing waves. Training his eyes on the spot, which had been close to the stern, he saw a dark hand shoot out of the waters, followed for an instant by a swarty face which almost immediately sank down underneath the grey floods again. The armour is pulling him down, shot through Faramir’s mind. He reacted almost automatically. Gripping one of the ropes for support, he climbed through the window, his feet finding a good support on the carved ledge underneath the cast-back shutters. There was the man again, trying to swim. Faramir realised he had not been mistaken about his identity. Reaching for another of the ropes, he swiftly coiled it up, then tossed it out into the sea with all might, whither he hoped the other would come up again. He was not sure he would, however, and just when he feared he had missed, or that the other had not seen the rope, or else that his strength had finally failed him and he had drowned, the line began to tense until it was stretched taut. Climbing back through the window, Faramir put one foot against the wall while trying to find a good support for the other on the heaving floor, and gripping the rope with both hands, began to pull, conveying his entire weight onto the line. Pain shot through his chest and shoulder. Gritting his teeth, he tried to ignore it. The man was heavy, and the sea was pulling at him, refusing to release her prey. He knew he would not manage to bring the other within reach of the windowsill with his waning strength alone. He had to rely on the hope he would be able to climb up on his own with what support Faramir could give him.

And again his luck held. There was some scratching and scrabbling against the hull, and several vile curses outside, but then a dark-brown, gold-ringed hand appeared on the windowsill, gripping it tightly, soon followed by another. With a loud flap of wet cloth, a ring of metal scales and the clink of chain-mail a soaking wet Azrubâr crashed onto the floor like an oversized goldfish. For a while he lay gasping just like one of these creatures when taken out of water. Then, slowly and shakily, he pulled himself to his knees and looked around. His eyes fell first on Dorgil lying on the floor, still unconscious, then they found Faramir who likewise had sunk to his knees, the strain and pain having become too much for him to bear. Finally, the corsair spotted the slain pirates strewn across his cabin, and the general mess of blood-splattered and half pulled-down hammocks. His eyes widened. “By Ngulu,” he muttered, still somewhat out of breath, “don’t tell me this was your doing.”

“Mine and Dorgil’s,” confirmed Faramir. “So much for staying out of danger down here. And so much for taking their ship a prize, eh?”

An angry flame shot into the corsair’s black eyes as he struggled to his feet. “He tricked me, the bastard,” he exclaimed violently, brushing his long hair out of his eyes and beginning to walk from one slain enemy to another, obviously checking their identities – and their pockets. “But he’s paid dearly for his ploy. We took his ship, and Mezlâr chased him up the main-mast where they fought in the rigging. Guess who won. Balîk’s fish-food now, and good riddance. But some of his thrice-cursed mates swam over to the Balak like a bunch of flee-infested water-rats while we gave their comrades hell on their boat, and crept like maggots into a ship’s biscuit. Looks like you chopped up some of them, but the rest went up over the taffrail and the larboard railing and came at Khômiyi and those as had remained here on guard at unawares. I think they wanted to set free our oarsmen. Luckily, Khorazîr spotted what was going on, and we returned just in time to prevent them from taking over the Balak. Or tried to, for battle’s still raging up there.”

Returning to the Gondorian, he extended a hand to help the other to his feet. “How did we fare?” Faramir inquired. “Have we lost many men?”

Azrubâr shook his head, sending salty drops flying in every direction. “Nay, we were lucky. Many of the lads are wounded, but only few actually died. There was slaughter among the other crew, though, despite them fighting more bravely than I thought them capable of.” He shook his head again, because water and what looked like blood threatened to run into his eyes.

“You are wounded,” Faramir pointed out. “The cut should be treated.”

The corsair only shrugged and waved a hand. “One of these bloated sea-slugs dealt me a blow to the head with a club” – Azrubâr indicated the vile cut along his scalp whence dark blood was seeping down his brow and cheek, but which did not seem to bother him much, “– and I went over the railing. I almost drowned thanks to my trusty armour here, but for your help. I owe you, not just my life, but also my ship, it seems. Those men” – he pointed at the bodies – “on deck to help the other boarders might have turned the tide in their favour.”

“Dorgil here did most of the fighting,” admitted Faramir. Azrubâr frowned, then winced because his head-wound made that mimic painful. “Your healer,” he said sadly. “Poor fellow. I had reckoned with his service after the battle. Is he wounded badly?”

“He has lost much blood, but I am confident he will make it. He needs to rest, however.”

“So do we all. Look after him. I have to return on deck, to help bring down the last of the mudworms and make sure all’s in order. Thank you, Dúnadan. Khorazîr was right about you – you are a fell swordsman, even with your sword-arm impaired,” he said appreciatively, slapping Faramir’s hale shoulder with such force that the Gondorian swayed and almost lost his balance. Azrubâr laughed, the fact he had nearly drowned apparently forgotten. “I’ll be back soon, or send somebody to relief you so that you can join me on deck, and see what’s passed there.”

With that, he strode towards the door, collecting a scimitar and two knives from the slain men scattered across the floor. After he had left, Faramir went over to Dorgil and sank down against the wall beside the sleeping healer. After drinking long from the waterskin, he rested his head and back against the wall and closed his eyes. A narrow escape, he thought. The frantic energy which had supported him through the fight, the treatment of Dorgil’s wound and Azrubâr’s rescue was well-nigh spent, its last remains ebbing away to leave only pain and cold exhaustion. Yet at the same time he felt a strange exhilaration. A narrow escape, true, a fight survived thanks to luck rather than skill and strength. And yet, he had stood his own against these foes, even the Snake’s personal guards. He knew the next day, he would be paying the price for having put his body through such a strain. Nevertheless, it was good to know that, after all, he could. Al-Jahmîr and his henchmen had not managed to kill him – again. He had defeated them as he would their vile master – and be it left-handed.

+

He must have fallen asleep or even lost consciousness for a brief moment. He woke with a start as someone touched his shoulder. Instinctively, he grabbed the dagger at his side, before recognising Turgon bending over him and releasing the weapon. The ranger’s face was soot-smeared and splattered with blood, which together with his long dark hair having slid out of its queue gave him a fierce, fearsome look. “Captain, ‘tis me,” the man called swiftly. “Azrubâr told me to get down here. He said Dorgil was hurt, and I should stay with him and send you up. They are still fighting up there, so perhaps you should not go.”

“Help me up, Turgon,” replied Faramir, holding out his left hand. “Where is Aralas?”

“Waiting for you on the stairs.” He cast a swift glance over his shoulder, spotted the bodies, then turned a pale face back to Faramir. “What happened here, my lord? Did you have to fight.” He swallowed hard, then cast down his eyes as his face flushed. “We should have stayed here with you.”

“We managed, although I daresay the presence of another man might have spared Dorgil the injury, which he received guarding me. Yet I am convinced you were of even more use up there.”

Turgon nodded eagerly, helping his captain to steady himself against the wall. “I daresay we were, sir. We spent all of our arrows, and most found a mark. The other ship was packed with men, far more than there should have been. Apparently they had been opting for battle all along, which is why they were so eager to attack us. Are you certain you wish to go?”

“Yes. I want to ensure that at least some enemy is left alive, at best somebody of higher rank. There has been enough slaughter, and we need the information they may provide far more than yet another pile of slain Umbarians. Look after Dorgil, and keep an eye on door and windows as well. Check his pulse and breathing, and when he wakes, make sure he drinks plenty of water.”

“Aye, sir,” Turgon acknowledged. He accompanied his captain through the bulkhead, where an exhausted-looking Aralas was waiting. Together, they climbed the stairs onto the deck. Fierce battle was still raging there. Obviously the enemy had also employed catapults or at least flaming arrows, for holes had burned in some of the sails, many of which were still smouldering and giving forth an acrid smell. Luckily, the spray of the windswept waves had put out most of the fires before they had been able to wreak even greater damage. Underneath the heavy clouds, the light was dim and greyish, which in combination with the dark smoke coiling up in several places made for poor illumination.

The other ship, which was riding alongside to starboard, fastened to the Balak anDolgu by many ropes and cables and grappling-hooks, had suffered far more damage. Her fore-topmast had broken and crashed onto her deck in a tangle of canvas, rigging and broken yards. Most of her sails had been severely damaged, and her deck was slippery with blood. Men were swinging or climbing back to the Balak again, to aid Azrubâr and Khômiyi, as well as Khorazîr, Mezlâr and two of Khorazîr’s guards in fighting a considerably large group of enemies, both on the main- and quarterdeck, and some in the forecastle as well. Faramir noticed that several of the enemy were clad in the Snake’s livery, and that they were putting up a far more organised and efficient fight than the crew of the other ship. Observing their actions, Faramir tried to pick out their commander.

A tall man in a corslet of dark fish-mail scales underneath an emerald surcoat was rallying the defence of the forecastle. Faramir noticed that he even had some archers at his disposal, who were raining arrows on Azrubâr’s men fighting the enemy corsairs on the main-deck. “I want this man, Aralas,” Faramir told the ranger at his side. “Alive, if possible. Also, we have to chase these men off the forecastle, or else they will cause great slaughter amongst Azrubâr’s men with their bows.”

“Aye, sir,” acknowledged the man. “But how? We cannot get there without running the danger of being shot, too.”

“Unless we can stay hid. Murâd, get here!” he called to the young Haradan who was rushing past on his way to the quarterdeck.

“Sir,” Murâd gasped. “What is it?”

“I have a special task for you. Find yourself two more men of Azrubâr’s crew to cover you and climb the fore-mast shrouds. Then see if you can cut loose the fore staysail – the triangular sail forward which is still smouldering and has got holes burned all over it. If all goes well, it should fall directly on the men in the forecastle. Get the lookout-man to aid you, he has run out of arrows anyway.”

Murâd’s face split into an excited smile at the prospect of undertaking an important and moreover daring task. “Aye, sir,” he cried, and raced off towards the mast, elegantly avoiding an arrow, a thrown knife and the swipe of an enemy’s sword. Waving to two corsairs who together had just felled another foe, he leapt into the shrouds and began to scramble up fairly nimbly, his scimitar between his teeth, and the seasickness he had been suffering from for most of their journey obviously forgotten.

“What do we do, sir?” asked Aralas.

“We need some more men. Khorazîr and Mezlâr at best, and some of the crew. We need to get across the main-deck in one piece, and once the sail is down, and hopefully has buried the enemy in the forecastle underneath it, we attack.”

So it was done. Khorazîr had spotted Faramir and was moving over on his own accord, impaired by several attackers who, however, gave him little trouble. His looks indicated that he had seen some fierce fighting, but he seemed unwearied still and unwounded, and eager to continue. When he spotted the scimitar in Faramir’s left, he grinned with grim appreciation. Faramir told him in a few words about his plan, to which the Southron agreed readily. After collecting some more men, they advanced across the main deck, trying to use what cover there was so as not to run the danger of falling prey to the bowmen.

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That task proved more difficult than Faramir had anticipated. The deck was packed with fighting men and all kinds of obstacles – uncoiled cables, broken spars, bodies, and the shattered remains of the yawl, the davits of which had apparently been hit by a flaming missile, causing the boat to crash onto the deck. Moreover, fighting was still fierce to both sides of the hold in which the prisoners were stirring restlessly, held at bay by Azrubâr’s towering guards and a number of slightly injured pirates.

Those men that were not fighting were frantically trying to douse the fires lest they devour even more of the sails and worse, begin to eat into the wood. The bowmen in the forecastle had obviously spotted the advance of Faramir and his companions and were raining arrows on the approaching men. Here, the general chaos on the main deck proved an advantage, since smoke and debris provided plenty of cover, so that slowly but steadily, the small company drew closer.

When they had reached the foremast and were crouching behind a locker on deck, suddenly there was a cry from above and one of the corsairs who had accompanied Murâd on his special task vanished in the sea, hit by an arrow. The bowmen had spotted the men in the rigging, and apparently had guessed their plan. The young Southron was frantically sawing at the stay to loose the triangular sail attached to it, leaning out of the crow’s nest as far as he dared, his one leg hooked round the topmast. The lookout-man was trying to steady him by holding on to his belt, while the other pirate, perched precariously in the upper shrouds, was carefully aiming his remaining arrows at the bowmen on the deck below.

“They are not going to make it,” commented Khorazîr grimly when another dart buried itself in the topmast, not far from the lookout-man’s head, causing him to loose his grip on Murâd. The young man swayed, then cursed when the dagger slipped from his hands and thudded into the locker inches from Aralas’ face. The ranger swore, then began to shed his burnous. “I’m going up there,” he announced fiercely.

“You stay, and make ready to attack,” said a calm voice from behind, and turning, Faramir beheld Mezlâr, his brown face blood-splattered, a cut running across his cheek. He nodded to his lord and leapt into the shrouds. Crawling up nimbly, and skilfully avoiding the arrows aimed at him, he soon joined Murâd who had managed to withdraw into the crow’s nest. Meanwhile, Faramir readied the men at his disposal.

There was a loud snap when with a last stroke from his scimitar Mezlâr parted the stay, and the sail came flapping down, trailing smoke. Cries issued from the forecastle, and men came running in order to avoid being buried by the smouldering canvas. Faramir, Khorazîr and the rest of the small company used this confusion for their advantage, leaping at the fugitives from behind their cover and taking them by surprise, before advancing into an attack on the remaining men in the forecastle. As he rushed up the stairs, Faramir saw that the man in the fishmail-corslet who he assumed to be the commander of Al-Jahmîr’s guards had withdrawn as far as the bowsprit in order to escape the sail. He still had a bowman and another guard at his disposal, but their view was greatly impaired by the dark smoke coiling up from the tangle of canvas on the planks before them.

In the wake of a fierce Khorazîr who was rushing over this mess like a shirrikan, Faramir advanced more cautiously, accompanied by Aralas. “I need the captain alive,” he called after the Haradan, who had leapt at the archer and felled him with a cruel blow to the side. The other guard put up a fierce, desperate fight, managing to hold his own against both Khorazîr and Aralas from his slightly elevated position in the furthermost point of the forecastle. His captain, searching for a way of escape, had climbed the railing and was eyeing the churning seas with a grim expression, obviously considering trying his luck swimming. Faramir advanced, scimitar raised. “In this armour you will drown,” he said calmly. “Surrender, and you will be spared.”

The man spun round with a growl, pointing his scimitar at Faramir, about to attack, but froze in his movement when a gust of wind cleared the view for an instant. Faramir saw how his face turned deadly pale. The weapon dropped from his hand and swaying, he reached for another stay to steady himself. Irritated by his strange behaviour, Faramir cast a brief glance over his shoulder, to behold Mezlâr and Murâd leaping down from the shrouds to join the melée. Before him, the Umbarian lowered himself to the deck, leaning against the railing, shaking slightly. Scimitar at the ready, Faramir advanced, still wondering about the reason for the other’s strange behaviour. The man seemed fairly unscathed, but even with his scimitar lying close, he made no attempt at recovering it. Instead, he was staring at Faramir out of eyes widened with shock and disbelief

Only then Faramir realised that the tasselled hem of his veil was flapping round his face – he had uncovered his features for want of air after the fight in the cabin, when he had been tending Dorgil. Afterwards, during Azrubâr’s rescue and the events following, he had entirely forgotten to attach it again. In the heat of the ensuing fight nobody had remarked upon it. And now this Umbarian had seen his face, obviously recognising him. The man was breathing heavily as Faramir advanced, fear written plainly on his features. Upon drawing close, he was revealed as a young man in his mid-thirties, with good-natured, beardless and still rather youthful features despite some recent lines of worry. He looked familiar. Faramir was not able to place him exactly, but was certain he had seen him before – which in return, he reasoned, would account for the man having recognised him as well.

“Command your men to cease fighting and surrender,” he commanded the terrified Umbarian calmly. “There has been enough bloodshed on these ships.” When the man hesitated, he advanced another step, pointing his scimitar at the other’s throat. He saw the Umbarian fight a brief battle with himself, while avoiding looking Faramir in the eyes. Drawing a deep breath, he at length raised his head, and in a clear firm voice used to commanding, cried to his men to lay down their arms. At first it seemed that his call would pass unheeded, drowned by the noise of battle and the howl of the wind. He repeated it, until one by one, scimitars and cutlasses, spears and whatever else the men had used for fighting was clattering on planks and gratings. Only on the quarterdeck, where Azrubâr and Khômiyi and some of their men were battling the remainder of the schooner’s crew, the fight still raged on.

Kicking the scimitar wholly out of the Umbarian’s reach, Faramir advanced another step. “A wise decision, Captain,” he told the other. Slowly, the other raised his eyes to meet his opponent’s stern gaze. Faramir could tell that it cost him a great deal of courage. For some reason, the Umbarian seemed mortally afraid of him – a circumstance which pleased him, as it would improve his chances at a successful interrogation.

“Captain, what shall we do with these Umbarians?” asked Aralas coming up from behind. He had received a cut along his left arm, but did not seem bothered by it.

“Disarm them and round them up on the main deck,” Faramir replied, his eyes still on the Umbarian captain, “and watch them closely, lest they engage in some mischief.”

“That they will not,” boomed Khorazîr’s strong voice. “Mostly, they are spent, those that are neither dead nor injured. Mezlâr and Murâd have joined our captain and his crew on the quarterdeck, and we shall keep those Umbarian maggots in check. What about this one?” he pointed at the captain.

“Leave him to me,” replied Faramir, noticing how the other swallowed hard at this announcement. “Bring him down to the small cabin next to ours and watch him. I wish to question him. Do not harm him, or inconvenience him further than necessary. I shall follow you presently.”

Aralas took to rallying some of the corsairs in order to round up the Umbarians, while Khorazîr gripped their captain by the collar of his surcoat and forced him to climb the stairs down to the main deck in front of him. After commanding some of Azrubâr’s men to clear away the still smouldering wreckage of the fore staysail from the forecastle, Faramir followed behind. The battle on the quarterdeck had finally turned to Azrubâr’s favour, and just as Faramir was approaching the stairs leading below decks, a clatter of metal on the planks announced the surrender of the remaining pirates, followed by great cheer from Azrubâr’s men.

Before joining Khorazîr in the small cabin which for the duration of their stay and their occupation of his quarters had been taken over by Azrubâr, Faramir briefly checked on Turgon and Dorgil. The ranger had not been idle: after searching the slain men thoroughly and relieving them of anything that might shed some light on their identities, with the help of Thatch, the fair-haired corsair who apparently had been sent down by Azrubâr to lend a hand, he had moved the bodies out of the broken windows, and moreover conveyed the still sleeping Dorgil to one of the berths so that he could rest more comfortably.

“He woke very briefly,” Turgon told Faramir upon his inquiry after the healer, “and asked for you. I told him you were alright. I gave him some water, as you told me, and soon after he fell asleep again. How are things going up there, Captain? Did we win?” Faramir nodded, upon which relief stole over the ranger’s face.

“That was a close-run thing,” he commented.

“Indeed it was. And I should have liked to avoid it. Still, we may gain something from it. We captured the leader of the Umbarian soldiers, and I am going to question him now. Should Azrubâr come down here looking for me, tell him I am in his cabin.”

Turgon tipped his forehead. “Aye, sir.” Then his eyes grew wide. “Captain, your face …”

“I know. ‘Tis not to be altered anymore. I forgot about the veil during battle.”

Turgon cast a thoughtful glance at the small heap of weapons. “You said there were Umbarians, Al-Jahmîr’s men on board the other vessel. A strange coincidence, do you not think? Are they the reason we were attacked in the first place?”

“I hope to find the answer to just these questions next door,” said Faramir. “Should our Umbarian guest prove cooperative, that is.”

+

When Faramir entered the cabin, he found the prisoner sitting on the berth with his hands tied securely in front of him. Khorazîr was standing leaning against the bulkhead, watching the other closely, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. “He is a close one, our friend here,” he told Faramir as he closed the door behind the Dúnadan.

“We shall see,” returned Faramir, stepping into the small oblong room and studying the prisoner. With helmet and chain-mail neck-guard gone, with his dark curly hair drawn into a thick queue from a pale, anxious face, the Umbarian looked even younger than before. Younger, and even more familiar. Faramir was certain now he had seen the other before. Most likely on Tolfalas, as one of his guards, he reasoned. The Umbarian was keeping his eyes on the floor, not daring to look at Faramir, his shoulders hanging dejectedly. His terror apparently subsided somewhat, or at least come to terms with, he nevertheless projected a pitiful image, of a man close to despair.

Drawing up a low stool which was virtually the only piece of furniture not fastened to the walls in some way, Faramir sat down opposite the other, fixing him with a keen, stern gaze. “You know who I am, do you not?” he asked calmly. The Umbarian made no move, keeping his eyes averted from the Gondorian. Faramir sighed slightly. During the fight, the other had shown some wisdom in surrendering when the situation had turned against him and his men, and secretly, Faramir had hoped that during the interrogation he would behave likewise. He was exhausted, his chest-wound and the overstrained muscles in his arms and shoulders hurting continuously, and not feeling up to a long and tedious inquiry.

“Let us begin differently, then,” he said. “I know you recognised me, and I know you are afraid of what you saw. You believed me slain, did you not? Look at me! I am neither a spectre nor a ghost. The simple fact is, your master failed to kill me yet again. You have a choice now of either believing my words, and deciding to cooperate to improve matters for you and your men. Or you choose the foolish way, and continue to consider me a wraith or demon come to haunt you. In that case you will keep your silence – and condemn yourself and all those under your command to death. Or to worse: a lifetime of dishonourable servitude on this ship. I leave the decision up to you, but know that my patience has its limits – and narrow limits as it is –, therefore you should decide speedily. What is your name?”

Silence again. If Faramir’s words had moved the other in any way, he did not show it. Faramir cast a swift glance at Khorazîr who only rolled his eyes in exasperation, and gave a short sign of his hand to dispose of the prisoner quickly, instead of wasting more time with him. But Faramir was not inclined to give up so easily. “I repeat: what is your name?” he demanded sternly.

Again there was no reaction. “Shall I tweak him a little with this my sword here?” asked Khorazîr, taking a step towards the man and half drawing his blade.

“Nay, not yet. He showed some wisdom on deck, which means he is not a complete fool. He tried to save his men there, if not himself, which is commendable. I had hoped he would continue on the road of wisdom, although right now it looks rather that he has turned aside. Your name, man! I shall not inquire after it again. If you refuse to cooperate, we shall end this interrogation here and now.”

After waiting for another minute during which the Umbarian continued to sit motionlessly with downcast eyes and a stony expression, Faramir rose. “Tell Azrubâr to lock this one with the other prisoners,” he informed Khorazîr with some finality, “and to provide him with a foremost place at the oars. I am not wasting my time any longer.” Smoothing the folds of his tunic, he turned to leave.

“Aye,” Khorazîr acknowledged grimly, opening the door to let Faramir pass through, when, “Sakalthôr,” came from the Umbarian, in a low, hoarse voice. “My name is Sakalthôr,” he repeated more loudly and steadily, finally raising his head to look at two men. Even though his features were still pale and plainly betrayed his anxiety, he was obviously trying to get a grip on his fear. There was a defiant, almost fierce look in his dark eyes now, and he was sitting upright, his back straight and his shoulders squared.

Faramir turned, giving him another keen, searching glance, which now the other tried to weather as long as he could. “Well, apparently I was not mistaken in you. You are a reasonable man.” With deliberate slowness, he returned to the stool and sat down again. “Neither of us wishes this to take forever, so answer my questions concisely and to the point.”

“What will happen to my men?” asked Sakalthôr.

“I am the one asking questions, and you are the one to answer,” returned Faramir sternly, watching the other closely. In truth he was pleased to notice that the Umbarian, despite his questionable alliance with Al-Jahmîr appeared to be a decent, conscientious fellow who thought first of the men under his command. “But I shall make an exception, to show you that if you do indeed cooperate, things may improve for all involved. The ultimate decision about your fate rests with Captain Azrubâr, since you and the pirates you travelled with attacked his ship and slew some of his crew. Most likely he will convey your men to the oars, or else try and exchange them for a good ransom, or sell them as slaves. If they prove useless or troublesome, they will be slain.” Sakalthôr’s shoulders sagged visibly. “However,” Faramir went on, “I am certain that if I can give the corsair ample reason to spare your men and provide them with a less dishonourable fate, he will listen to my counsel. As for coming up with these reasons, I am going to need help. You can aid me, and so you should, if you really care about your men’s future – and your own. Tell me about yourself.”

The Umbarian shook his head, swallowing hard. “I must not, lest I betray my master.”

Faramir drew a deep breath, and reaching up, freed his head of veil and headdress to run a hand through his hair. “Sakalthôr, we are not getting any further this way. Your master is not your most pressing problem right now. If you fail to satisfy me, my reaction shall be little better than your his. I know you are afraid of me, more than you let show – and you display quite a lot of fear as it is. Which bothers you, as you consider yourself a brave man under normal circumstances. You are still debating if I am alive or not, and are uncertain what to prefer, or to fear more. And now, answer my questions: are you in the service of Marek Al-Jahmîr? Did he send you on this mission? Why? What was the purpose of the venture?

Sakalthôr hung his head again, gazing at his tied, bloodstained hands. Faramir had noted how the young captain’s eyes had grown wide at him describing his innermost fears. If possible, he dreaded the Dúnadan even more now. After what seemed an eternity, the Umbarian drew a shaky breath. “I am – was – captain of Lord Al-Jahmîr’s personal guard, up to the events on Tolfalas last summer.”

Faramir nodded at finding his assumptions confirmed: he had seen him on the island, where Sakalthôr had been one of the soldiers set to watch him. The Umbarian had commanded one of the companies of men who had hunted Faramir along the coast after his escape from Al-Jahmîr’s ship, although they had not been the group to wound and recapture him.

“So this is the reason why you recognised me, is it not? You saw me on the island. I remember you. You teased Azrahil about his lion one day, up on the cliffs.” Sakalthôr cursed under his breath at that name. “The bloody traitor,” he said fiercely.

“Be careful who you call a traitor, Sakalthôr,” cautioned Faramir. “In your master’s eyes, you will be considered one as well as you sit here, despite not having told me anything of import so far. Thus, I strongly advise you to reconsider your loyalty to the Snake, like Azrahil did. He chose the right side in the end, which at first cost him much. But which, in return, may provide him with greater gain than he considered possible.”

“I know where my loyalties lie, and I am not going to switch them out of some fancy, to save my neck.”

“Well, then you should have leapt overboard and kept your silence, Sakalthôr, for the way I know Al-Jahmîr, he would even construe our little conversation here an act of treason on your behalf. Think, captain: you are betraying information, be it only so slight and apparently unimportant, to your master’s greatest foe. Marek is not the man to overlook things like that. And you, the way I read the matter, are one to have lost his favour before. You did not manage to recapture me last summer, and perchance failed the Snake at another event. This is why you were put aboard this pirate-ship, is it not? As a last opportunity to save your honour, and prove to your lord that you are worthy of his trust, and the rank and responsibility he bestowed upon you. And you failed him, yet again. Do you really think you could return to Al-Jahmîr now, even if you managed to escape? Do you not believe he would punish you more severely than any of us ever would, including fierce Azrubâr and his fell crew? Marek does not take kindly to failure in his underlings. Do you truly count on his leniency? In that case, Sakalthôr, you are a fool.”

The way the other hung his head and swallowed several times, Faramir knew he had hit a nerve. When Sakalthôr raised his eyes again, there was look of deep fear close to despair in them. “What choice do I have?” he asked quietly. “I must not fail again, otherwise he will avenge himself cruelly. Not just on myself. I could live with that dread. I am not a coward, even if I may seem like one to you.”

“You fear for others?”

Sakalthôr sighed. “My family. They are in great danger. You speak of leniency – hah! The Snake, he has none.”

“I know,” replied Faramir grimly. “I know that only too well. You have children?”

Sakalthôr nodded faintly. “A son and a daughter, five and two years old. Most likely I shall not see them again. Nor my wife. Al-Jahmîr will see to that. If he finds out I survived this and did not complete my errand, and that moreover I was taken prisoner by you, they all will die.”

“Not if we can protect them. But that depends entirely on you. Naturally, you would do everything possible to keep them from harm, even if that means doing the dirty work for someone as cruel and ruthless as Marek Al-Jahmîr. Even if that means destroying other families on his bidding. Like mine, for example. As a husband and father, you may be able to imagine what it feels like to have your wife abducted by your worst enemy, and to try and explain to your small children who weep for their mother at night why she does not return, nor why their father cannot be with them for long, either. You were on Tolfalas, you know what your master did to me there. How do you think my wife and my boys fared at home during my absence? Do you not think they were greatly distressed about my fate? And only two weeks ago, your master had me shot down before the eyes of my wife, who must believe me slain now, and abducted, perhaps even killed her. There are always two sides to everything.”

“That may be, but what choice did I have? To disobey my master would have resulted in certain death to my family.”

“Yes, the Snake knows how to cow his servants. Now things are different, however. You can choose, and choose wisely. You are a man of conscience and compassion, so much I have learned of you. Do you not believe ‘tis time you questioned your allegiance to the Snake, now that you cannot return to his service?”

Sakalthôr gave him a long, thoughtful glance. Instead of replying, he asked, “You truly are alive, lord?”

Faramir smiled faintly. “You do not really believe in ghosts, do you? I am alive. How do you know I was supposedly slain? You were not involved in the attack on Kadall, were you?”

The Umbarian shook his head. “I spoke with some men who were at Kadall. One Fuiner – he is Al-Jahmîr’s master-archer – he boasted about having shot the Steward of Gondor at short distance, shortly after their return to Ihim—” He fell silent, his face paling again.

“Ihimbra, you would say?” inquired Faramir shrewdly. “Out with it! This is whither they travelled after Kadall? And this is whither Al-Jahmîr brought my wife?”

Sakalthôr’s hands clenched the fabric of his surcoat. “Aye, lord,” he at length confirmed. “They came on a schooner, a ship owned by one Rhudakhôr, a smuggler and a pirate. I was doing guard-duty that evening, and saw the arrival of the master. He was carrying a golden-haired lady in his arms –,” he cast a swift, irritated glance at Khorazîr who had uttered a deep growl at his words. Faramir gave him an encouraging nod, despite feeling disconcerted at the image of his beloved Éowyn resting in the arms of the Snake himself.

“What about the lady?” he inquired, forcing his voice to remain calm. “Was she hurt?”

Sakalthôr shrugged. “I did not see much of her. She appeared unconscious, or asleep. She did not look injured, but her face was very pale. She was brought to the women’s quarters, and I did not see her again. But word went round how some time later she had a row with Bataye – the master’s housekeeper –, and also that she gave hell to Rashidah, one of the master’s favourites, after the former had publicly humiliated her. I cannot imagine her to be very unwell, for otherwise she would not have managed dealing with those ladies the way she did.”

Faramir exchanged a glance with Khorazîr, who smiled knowingly. “Bataye I know,” he said. “She is indeed a tough lady you do not wish to cross,” said the Haradan. “Even Marek respects her, and is even afraid of getting the wrong side of her. Of this Rashidah I have only heard rumours. She is said to be very beautiful, but with a temper as foul as her looks are fair.”

“So she is, lord,” confirmed Sakalthôr. Faramir could tell how slowly he was beginning to relax, having obviously realised that things were not looking quite as dark for him as he had dreaded, or else having accepted his doom. Faramir himself found it difficult to hide both his excitement and his growing exhaustion. He wished for a real chair instead of this low stool in order to rest his head and back against it. Still, the capture of his young Umbarian had proved a stroke of pure luck, as he was able to provide inside information they otherwise never have gained, and fairly willingly, too. At the moment, he was too cowed to lie. Faramir doubted he would attempt to betray them in any case. He seemed an honest person, and moreover not an ardent supporter of the Snake.

“What else can you tell?” asked Faramir, running a hand over his eyes and briefly pinching the bridge of his nose. “Any more rumours, gossip you picked up in the castle? Things the servants enjoy whispering amongst themselves?”

Sakalthôr hesitated. “I did not stay for much longer at Ihimbra after your wife’s arrival, for I was commanded to join these bloody pirates on their ship, to watch the channel for any signs of the tarks and their fleet – and the Balak anDolgu in particular. There is one thing I heard, however, ere I left. It was indeed spread by the servants.” He hesitated again, eyeing Faramir sceptically. “They said the foreign lady was going to be the master’s new wife,” he went on haltingly at length, before falling silent again. His tense, uncomfortable expression indicated there was more information itching to be revealed. Faramir gave him an encouraging nod. The Umbarian sighed, then muttered, “And that she was already carrying his child.”

“What?” exclaimed Khorazîr fiercely, taking a step towards the Umbarian who shrank back.

“I can only repeat what I heard, lord,” he apologised swiftly. “I do not know if it is true or not. Servants like to gossip. But one serving-girl said she had overheard the healers talk amongst themselves, after they had examined the lady, and they had said she was with child.” He gave Faramir who had remained silent a long glance. “The master must know about these rumours, and since he did not contradict them …”

Faramir nodded slowly. “Aye, it would suit his plans to have people believe that his victory is complete,” he mused. “Although, for everybody who can count properly it must appear strange that she is found pregnant after spending only about three weeks with the Snake.”

“That is what my wife said, lord,” agreed Sakalthôr, frowning slightly as he reconsidered what he had heard. “It seems to me that by encouraging these rumours, Al-Jahmîr is implying they had a relationship with your wife even before her abduction, and that therefore his claim on her is … – well, not righteous, but perhaps with some foundation.”

Khorazîr snorted. “That would indeed be his style,” he snarled contemptuously. “And I bet there are plenty folks believing this rubbish. I do not know of any woman who would willingly enter into a relationship with him (unless paid for it), only this Rashidah, perhaps, simply because she is after an influencial, wealthy position at his side. Let me assure you that Lady Éowyn had no love-affair with Al-Jahmîr (I cringe at the very thought), and that the child, should she truly expect one, was fathered by her husband and no one else.”

For the first time during the trial, the Umbarian smiled faintly. “This is what my wife said exactly.” His eyes narrowed as he gazed at Faramir, who thought he could detect a trace of pity in them, and an unspoken question.

“Your words confirm what I have guessed for some time, Sakalthôr,” the Dúnadan said gravely, “and I am grateful for your cooperation. I did not know for certain about this new child – for this is what you would like to ask, is it not? But I had my suspicions, therefore your information is not a complete surprise.”

The Umbarian gazed at the floor. He seemed embarrassed, his conscience bothering him. Silence descended on the cabin, so that the sounds from the quarterdeck above: footsteps and the scraping of heavy things being moved across the planks were plain to hear. Faramir was experiencing a cross between elation about finding his vision in the Palantîr confirmed and the fact that so far Éowyn did not appear to have fared too badly at Ihimbra, and a great weight of anxiety and worry. She was with child, and so far along, it seemed, that changes to her figure were already visible. What did this mean for her rescue? How much time did they have left before it became too dangerous for her and the child to try and escape?

“Lord,” the Umbarian said suddenly into the silence, having raised his head and giving Faramir a stern, defiant look, “you said it was up to me to choose sides. I see how my information has stirred you, and indeed, I begin to understand how deeply Al-Jahmîr insulted and hurt you. He is my master, and I swore allegiance to him – an oath I cannot break without condemning my family and myself, and moreover forfeiting what honour I have. But when I imagine my wife being taken like yours, and myself in your situation … You were right earlier: Al-Jahmîr, when he learns of what passed on these ships and our conversation is going to construe it as treason. And rightly so, because I am breaking my oath, and betraying important information to his enemies. I cannot expect any leniency from him, and neither can my family. I do not know how I will fare at your hands, but I hope you will not avenge yourself on those dear to me.”

“Why should I?” returned Faramir. “Your family has done me no harm. And you, even though you have been involved in great injustice on your master’s behalf, are now displaying great courage in trusting to your own conscience – despite the danger. And I am not one to punish such conduct – on the contrary, I will reward it. You called Azrahil a traitor earlier. Maybe you understand his decision better now.”

“I do, lord. And I admit that ever since the events on Tolfalas last year, which kept me away from my family for a long time (and I knew that by being positioned there I was being punished for an earlier act of disobedience) I have been serving my master with increasing doubt. I cheered his disappearance like many in Umbar and the lands about, hoping that better, more peaceful times were ahead. I do not hate you Northerners like some. I do not love you, either, but I understand that our peoples must try and live peacefully alongside each other for both to prosper. Then the Silver Serpent returned, and my hopes fell. I asked to be relieved of my post, but was told that the only way to quit my service honourably would be a brave death in battle. There was no possibility of a release, because Al-Jahmîr needed every man at his disposal in order to prepare his revenge upon the tarks. I was reminded of my oath, then threatened, and so was my family, and thus grudgingly, I continued doing the dirty work for Al-Jahmîr. Ultimately, this resulted in me being given this disastrous errand. Right now, I am more than prepared to consider it the Snake’s attempt to get rid of me, his troublesome captain, without having to dirty his hands.”

“Probably,” agreed Faramir thoughtfully. “What exactly were your orders concerning this ill-fated mission?”

“Apparently Al-Jahmîr received tidings of this ship travelling northwards and up the River Harnen, and then downriver again to continue its journey north. He assumed that its destination was Gondor, since the Balak anDolgu is famed for her speed and her reckless captain. After the events at Kadall, there were bound to be people there in need of a swift passage to the enemy’s lands. So I and some men under my command were put on that pirate Balîkzagar’s vessel, and told to travel north and look out for the Balak’s return. Also, we were to watch the seas between mainland Harondor and Tolfalas, and to report any sign of the Gondorian fleet being launched.”

“But you did not simply watch, did you?” interrupted Khorazîr.

“In the case of spotting Azrubâr’s ship, we were under orders to attack and try and capture her. The corsair and his men were to be slain, an order embraced with great enthusiasm by Balîkzagar, who was all for giving battle to his long-term enemy Azrubâr – apparently there was a blood-feud involved. Any other passengers were to be arrested and brought to Ihimbra. I was told to look out especially for any ranger-tarks, and for you, Lord Khorazîr.”

“Not for me?” asked Faramir with the slightest of smiles.

Sakalthôr’s pale face blushed. “Nay, lord, not for you. From what I gathered, the master believes you slain. And so did I, especially after listening to Fuiner’s account of how they took the lady, and he shot you. How is it possible you survived two darts from so short a distance, and with Fuiner releasing them? He never misses, and I believe his boasts there, as I have seen him shoot. So do not think me a coward for reacting to your appearance the way I did, up in the forecastle. I truly believed I was being approached by your ghost, come to haunt me for the injustice I had done you earlier, on the island.”

“One could say I was spared because I have a task to do still – rescue my wife and destroy Al-Jahmîr. It looks that try as he might, he will not succeed in slaying me, and I should like to keep it that way.”

Khorazîr laughed softly. “Well put, Dúnadan. Of course, one could also say you were simply lucky that the arrow struck a rib instead of piercing your heart.”

Sakalthôr gazed at the Haradan thoughtfully. “Be it luck or else, it will be a black day for Al-Jahmîr when he learns of his great miscalculation.”

“Indeed,” nodded Faramir. “The blacker, the longer he believes me dead. Therefore, I should like to postpone my return to the living for as long as possible. This means neither you nor your men nor any of the pirates must breathe a word about my presence on this ship. All of you are going to be detained until I see fit (and safe) to release you.”

“What will become of my men?” asked the Umbarian anxiously. “Now, and later?”

“As long as they are my prisoners, they are not going to be harmed, unless their conduct here makes punishment a necessity. I shall speak with Azrubâr. He is going to want to make them work. I do not see any dishonour in them helping repair and refit this vessel and the other, to mend what they helped destroy. I will oppose any mistreatment of them, however, and if I can prevent it, they will not labour at the oars. How many men did you have with you, and how many survived the fight?”

“There were two score men under my command. I do not know for certain who of them made it. Even back on the schooner many were wounded, and at least a handful was slain by those blasted bowmen up in the rigging. In my reckoning, only a quarter survived unscathed, and this is a hopeful calculation.”

“How loyal are your men – to you or Al-Jahmîr?”

“Most have been serving with me for many years, and even volunteered to follow me on this errand despite knowing that it was a dangerous mission, and an act of punishment by the Snake. They will not condemn me for my decision to turn against Al-Jahmîr. In fact, it was for their fate I surrendered in the first place, and they will appreciate that, and support my decision. My lieutenant Yôpharaz is a different matter, however. He has only been with this company for half a year, and I strongly believe he was put there by Al-Jahmîr to have an eye on me. He is young, barely come of age, quick-witted and dangerous, with little compassion to speak of, and a streak of cruelty to make his character worse. Also, he is very ambitious to rise to high rank in the Snake’s service. More than once he has tried to undermine my authority in the company, with little success, thankfully. It was he who urged our attack on your ship foremost, encountering open ears with Balîkzagar. You will recognise him easily: he is golden-haired like your wife.”

“I shall look out for him,” Faramir assured him. “Is there anything else you wish to tell me? If not, I will have you returned to your men now. You will not mention to them anything concerning my identity nor our conversation, but you will listen closely to their talk, to find out who recognised me. Lord Khorazîr will bring you to the other prisoners, and I shall talk to Azrubâr to assure you are treated decently.”

Sakalthôr thought for a moment. “I cannot think of anything I could add for the moment, lord. But should something come to mind, I will tell you, I promise. I hope you will keep your word concerning the treatment of my men, and the protection of my family,” he added, giving Faramir an anxious, almost pleading glance.

Faramir smiled wryly, touched by the Umbarian’s concern for others. “You spent too much time with the likes of Al-Jahmîr, Sakalthôr,” he said. “Not everybody is wont to break his word whenever it suits him. We will talk again tomorrow. For now I thank you for your cooperation. Should you spot this Yôpharaz on your way, point him out to Lord Khorazîr.” He turned to the Haradan who had stepped over to the Umbarian and was pulling him to his feet by his surcoat. “If he is unhurt or slightly wounded and still capable of causing mischief, see to it he is stowed away securely. I shall deal with him tomorrow.”

“Aye,” acknowledged Khorazîr as he led Sakalthôr out of the cabin. Although the Umbarian was looking anxious and worried still, to Faramir’s eyes he seemed relieved, as if a great burden had been taken off his shoulders. When the two men had left, he drew a deep breath, and resting his elbows on his thighs, he buried his face in his hands, rubbing his eyes before simply closing them. He was spent, and the pain in his shoulder and chest had not lessened. His neck hurt, and the pain was seeping into the back of his head. Hungry and thirsty he was, too. Despite being peaked by curiosity concerning Sakalthôr’s notorious lieutenant, he knew he would not manage another interrogation this day. Outside the narrow, latticed window, light was failing. It had begun to rain, and the wind had freshened up. For a while he simply sat there, eyes closed, trying to sift through what he had seen and especially heard today.

Sakalthôr’s capture had been a stroke of pure luck, he decided. Of all of Al-Jahmîr’s soldiers, one with a grudge against his master and a strong conscience had been put on this mission. He had gained important information from the Umbarian, and was certain more was to come. The man knew his way round Ihimbra, had been there only recently. He had seen Éowyn, and knew where most likely she was being kept. He would also know about security measures in the castle and about. And what was best: he was willing to cooperate, and seemed trustworthy enough. Faramir felt excitement creep up in him to battle his weariness. Sakalthôr was exactly the man they had needed to encounter. As yet, he was not wholly on their side, naturally. But with a little more persuasion, and some proofs of their trustworthiness and earnest, Faramir judged him as one willing to face the risk of opposing Al-Jahmîr openly – as long as his family was safe.

“Ah, there you are!” Azrubâr’s strong voice startled him out of his contemplations. Swiftly – too swiftly –, he rose. A wave of dizziness caused him to sway so that he had to hold on to a beam in the low ceiling to steady himself. Turning, he beheld a wet but joyous corsair. The cut on his forehead had been treated with some dark paste which reminded Faramir of something he and his rangers had often found on orcs when they had harried their patrols in Ithilien during the War. “Khorazîr told me to see you concerning the prisoners,” said Azrubâr as he stepped into the cabin, brushing back his long plaited hair to send drops flying. “Hah, this was a most successful day in that regard,” he declared, flopping down on the berth and reaching for a small lamp fastened to the wall above it. He lit it, then pulled an ornate chest from underneath the berth and after rummaging in it for a moment produced a flat silver flask, from which he took a long draught before offering it to Faramir. When the Dúnadan hesitated, because a very sharp smell was coming from the bottle, Azrubâr gave him an encouraging nod and a grin.

“Do you good. You look like to need something to strengthen you. And no wonder. After the mess you and your friends left in my nice cabin, and on my decks. Cutting the fore staysail? I almost choked when I saw that. Bloody hell, how are we to sail on like this?” He laughed when he saw Faramir’s expression.

“Haha, got you there, didn’t I? Don’t worry, nothing has been broken that can’t be mended here on sea. No, honestly, as I said before: I owe you. We’re going to need the night to refit and put on some new sheets. Many of the lads are wounded, but we’re going to recruit some of Balîk’s boys and the Umbarians you captured. Khômiyi is going to take command of the schooner and bring her to a nice little hidden port where they can refit properly. It’s a fine ship, despite Balîk’s rough handling of her, and she will make a welcome addition to my business. And we are going to sail on to Ihimbra. Come on, drink. That stuff isn’t going to kill you.”

Faramir smiled faintly. “I have your word on that?” Azrubâr shrugged, grinning. “Perhaps you should sit down first.”

Faramir did so, then raised the bottle to his nose. The smell alone was eye-watering. Gazing at the corsair who was watching him with obvious amusement, he took a careful sip. It was horrible. Whatever the flask contained, in Faramir’s mouth and throat it felt like liquid fire. He coughed and gasped for air.

Azrubâr burst out laughing. “You tarks are too soft when it comes to food and drink. Try again. It’ll hurt less.”

“Thank you,” replied Faramir hoarsely, handing back the flask. “Once is enough. What is this made of?” Despite his throat hurting now as if he had poured acid down it, he felt his mind clear and his exhaustion decrease, as if with the drink new strength was coursing through his veins. He wondered how long the effect would last.

Azrubâr waggled his finger and shook his head, smiling mysteriously. “You don’t want to know.” He took another swig, then leaned back against the wall comfortably to give Faramir a concise account of the sea-battle. It turned out that the schooner had lost two thirds of its crew, and that Sakalthôr had been right with his estimations considering the survival of his men. According to Azrubâr, who had personally knocked out the fair-haired lieutenant, Yôpharaz was still alive, albeit unconscious. Despite having planned to make especially the Umbarians join their unfortunate predecessors at the oars, after listening to Faramir’s account of Sakalthôr’s conduct, he promised to instruct his men to treat the soldiers fairly, but to watch them closely.

Dark night had fallen outside when finally he rose. The effects of the drink having worn off fairly quickly, during the half hour Faramir had found it increasingly difficult to follow the other’s speech.

“I need to have a look how the lads are faring on deck,” Azrubâr said upon stepping out of the cabin. “Cook has been preparing some supper in the mess. I’ll have some brought to the great cabin. You must be hungry. Ah, and don’t forget to wear the veil again.”

Having covered his features again and following the corsair onto the corridor, Faramir debated briefly whether to accompany him on deck for a breath of fresh air, but decided against it. He sorely needed to rest. If Dorgil had been unhurt, he would be scolding him now for overstraining himself.

In the great cabin he found Khorazîr, Mezlâr, Murâd, the Haradan’s other two guards, and the two rangers assembled at supper. Some of Khorazîr’s men had received minor injuries, cuts and bruises mostly, but nobody was as seriously wounded as Dorgil. The healer was still asleep, but looking better than when Faramir had last checked on him. His face had regained some colour, and his breathing seemed easier. The rest of the men looked weary as they sat on the berths, illuminated by the light of the small lamps on the walls. The broken windows had been mended roughly with some cloth, to keep out the wind which was nevertheless howling through the gaps in the woodwork. The floor had been scrubbed and freed of blood. A faint scent lingered, however.

Uncovering his face and hair again, Faramir sank down on his bedstead. He shed his boots, belt and sash, his fingers fumbling with the knot. Resting his back and head against the wall, he closed his eyes. Wordlessly, Turgon handed him a bowl with stew. He ate a few spoonful, battling an overwhelming desire to sleep. The spoon seemed to be made of lead, and even chewing the carrots or whatever were the vegetables in the stew felt like a great effort. When the ranger asked if he wanted some bread, he only shook his head, handing back the bowl. Then he lay down, and almost immediately fell into a deep sleep.

+

He woke again late the next morning, to a ravenous hunger and thirst. His berth was swaying considerably – apparently the ship was battling high waves or a strong squall. Upon sitting up, still sleepy and not without pain, he found Aralas, Dorgil and Mûrad (who judging from the tinge of his face was battling seasickness again) in conversation over what looked like a late breakfast. The healer sat propped up by several pillows and looked even better than the previous evening. He smiled warmly when his eyes fell on Faramir.

“Good morning, captain,” he greeted him cheerfully. “Murâd here has just been telling me what befell yesterday after I passed out. Needless to say I do not approve of you going out there to battle pirates and Umbarians. How are you?”

“First I should like to know how you are, Dorgil,” returned Faramir, smiling as well. “You dealt me quite a shock yesterday by losing consciousness. I could have done with your counsel concerning your treatment.”

“It looks you did a good job without it. I am prepared to take you on as my apprentice.” His face took on a graver expression. “Nay, honestly, you saved my life,” he went on quietly. “I only hope you did not overstrain yourself.”

“I am quite well, Dorgil, never fear,” Faramir assured him, swinging his legs over the edge of his berth. “Is there some breakfast left?”

+

He had just finished his third helping of bread, cheese, spiced olives and dried fruit when the door opened and Khorazîr stepped through, his long hair tousled by the wind and his garments speckled with spray. “These corsairs never cease to amaze me,” he declared. “Somehow they managed to repair most of the damage over night, despite rain and storm and the fact a considerable number of them is injured. But now the ship is making good speed with her new sails. The schooner was left behind – according to Azrubâr she is going to travel to another port. Even the wind has turned in our favour. Tolfalas is long out of sight. By his reckoning, if all goes well, we shall reach our destination ‘round nightfall of the 26th.”

“Sailing must get more difficult once we reach the Bay,” mused Dorgil. “After all, we do not want to get spotted by Al-Jahmîr’s ships, nor his spies on land.”

“Our captain has given thought to that, I am certain,” said Khorazîr, reaching for an olive. “He is very close about our exact destination. No need to mention we are not making for the port of Ihimbra proper. There are many small bays and fishing-villages nearby. Personally, I think we are headed towards one of those.”

“I only hope your wife and her boy are having the coasts watched properly,” observed the healer. “Time is pressing, and we need to meet them quickly, without having to search far and wide.”

“The way I know them,” fell in Faramir with a slight smile, “they are going to find us. And as for you, Dorgil, in your condition you are not going to search for anybody for some time. You need to rest.”

“Does that mean you wish to leave me behind on this ship, captain?” asked the ranger with obvious displeasure.

“Only until you are recovered. I have a feeling you will like it here. Moreover, I will make sure Azrubâr and his men are not going to stray far from where we are based. We may require his services again ere long.”

“Aye,” laughed Khorazîr. “He would not willingly leave for all the gold of Umbar, what is more. He desires to witness the Snake’s downfall personally. I spoke much with him recently, and he seems to talk of little else. I think we have found ourselves a very useful and moreover trustworthy ally.”

“Speaking of allies, how have the Umbarian prisoners been faring during the night?” inquired Faramir, finally putting away his cup and plate.

Khorazîr shrugged, pacing the cabin. “Better than they deserve, I daresay. Those not wounded were put to work, with much taunting and teasing from the pirates. But they endured it willingly and without making any trouble. I think their captain had a word with them. They appear safe for the moment. I saw to it they are closely watched, however.”

“Good. The capture of Sakalthôr was a stroke of pure luck.”

Khorazîr nodded thoughtfully. “True. He is a decent fellow for one of the Snake’s henchmen. But his lieutenant, this straw-headed fellow, he is a nasty piece of work. He was out cold the entire night, but earlier this morning when I was checking on the prisoners he drew himself up (well, as far as his chains allowed) and haughtily demanded to be brought before the captain of this vessel. Azrubâr is going to have a little chat with him presently, and he asked me to fetch you to witness the interrogation.”

“Yes, I should like to attend. Tell me, did he make the impression he recognised me yesterday?”

“Difficult to say, Dúnadan,” replied Khorazîr, frowning. “Like his captain said, he is a shrewd fellow. If he did, he did not let it show. He did not even display any indication that he knows who I am, although I am rather certain he does.”

“I shall wear the veil in any case,” Faramir decided. “But ere I leave, I need to wash. I was too tired for that yestereve.”

+

He would have liked to don some fresh clothes as well, but found that the spare shirt Khorazîr had provided him with and which had been washed only the day before, due to the rain and the salty air had not dried properly. Together with Khorazîr he entered the small cabin he had interrogated Sakalthôr in the previous evening. It was rather cramped with Azrubâr’s two bodyguards at the bulkhead, the corsair himself sitting on the low stool opposite a young man on the berth. His hands and feet were fettered, and he was clad in a long black tunic over dark trousers and short boots. He had been relieved of his armour – Faramir suspected the corsairs had taken it as loot. He appeared unhurt apart from a cut on his forehead which had been treated with the same black paste as Azrubâr’s injury. The dark smear contrasted starkly with his long fair hair which had been arrayed in a braid, but which during the fight and the rough treatment afterwards had slid out of it. His features were tanned, and his cheeks slightly flushed. He was handsome, and judging from his proud bearing, he knew it, even exerting great caution to maintain his good looks. Perhaps a way to get at him, Faramir noted to himself.

He looked slightly older than the age Sakalthôr had given. Faramir decided this was due to the haughty, aloof expression the prisoner’s face carried. Surely he must have realised the seriousness of his situation, nevertheless he carried himself with enormous self-confidence. Faramir knew that this might win him points with Azrubâr who admired such bearing.

“Ah, there you are, Lord Khorazîr,” the corsair greeted the other cheerfully. Despite not having had much sleep the previous night, he looked full of energy. “Our young friend here has demanded to see me. Good of you to join us.” He motioned to Khorazîr and Faramir to step closer, before turning back to the prisoner. “Well, well, Master Yôpharaz, I take it you wish to tell me a thing or two. Out with it. I’m all ears.”

The young man fixed Khorazîr and his “guard” with a keen gaze from dark eyes. “I did not ask for any others to listen to what I have to tell you.”

Azrubâr frowned, his smile vanishing. “Don’t come me like this, lad. You are my prisoner as well as his, and if on my ship I invite him, my friend, to join me, you’ll accept this or you don’t – in which case we end this conversation here and now.”

Yôpharaz returned his stern gaze haughtily. “So be it, then. What I have to say is for your ears only, captain. I will not have this so-called lord eavesdrop on matters which concern only the two of us.”

Khorazîr made a fierce step towards the prisoner, hand raised to strike him for his insolence, but upon a warning gaze from Faramir calmed down again.

“I can’t think of any reason why you should like to talk to me privately.”

“I can,” said Faramir quietly.

Yôpharaz’s eyes narrowed as he studied the Dúnadan. “Hah, and now I must even endure stupid remarks from a mere guardsman,” he sneered, despite his proud bearing slightly disconcerted by the other’s calm yet penetrating gaze. “Under these circumstances, I refuse any cooperation.”

“I wouldn’t count on that,” said Azrubâr fiercely, signing to his guards. One drew a curved dagger and advanced on the prisoner. Faramir stepped forward. “If you allow me, captain, I should like a quiet word with this man, ere you resign to torture.”

The corsair shrugged. “As you please. But don’t take too long. I want to be rid of this fellow. Here, take my seat.”

“This is a jest, right?” said Yôpharaz when Faramir sat down opposite him. “Why should I talk to you if I refuse to do so to the captain of this ship?”

Faramir gazed at him levelly. “I am sure you will find a reason. ‘Tis true, it might be less easy to try and win me over to your and your master’s side, but did you truly believe Captain Azrubâr here would have fallen to your bribes and offers of everlasting friendship with Marek Al-Jahmîr in exchange for your freedom? Come on, Yôpharaz, even you must have heard about this Captain’s blood-feud with the Snake, and their mutual hatred. Did you truly believe an offer of gold or unlimited freedom to roam the Bay of Umbar would have turned his heart? Corsairs may be corrupt, but only to a degree. One might not expect it in them, but some of them have a strong sense of duty, and honour. And Azrubâr is one of these.”

The corsair who now stood looming in the background with his guards nodded gravely. Faramir only heard the movement, as he did not turn. Holding the young man in his gaze, he could tell by the slight change in the other’s still well-guarded expression that he had struck a chord. Yôpharaz’s composure had received a blow, and he was struggling to maintain his confidence.

“I see you are thinking about my words. Which is a good beginning. You will win nothing here by haughtiness and contempt. You life is in our hands. And not just your life, your reputation as well. Bear that in mind, and behave accordingly!”

He was pleased to note how Yôpharaz swallowed ever so slightly. “Who are you?” he asked quietly.

“Someone you do not wish to cross. Someone to bring about your master’s downfall.”

Some of his former arrogance returned to Yôpharaz’s face. “My master’s downfall?” he sneered. “Many have tried to bring that about, only to fail utterly. For a moment you almost had me there, but now I know you are only a fool. You and your pathetic little friends may have succeeded in cowing my spineless fool of a captain. No great feat, that. You won’t fare as easily with me.”

“We shall see, shall we not?” Faramir replied conversationally.

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Yôpharaz stuck out his chin defiantly, his gaze challenging. Faramir drew a breath, continuing to study the other. He must unsettle him further, he knew, to make him fear his interrogator – or better, to make him believe he was superior to the other in terms of guile and cleverness. Make him bold and cautionless, Faramir advised himself. He is a haughty, self-assured prat. Make him lose that self-confidence.

Several minutes passed during which neither Faramir nor the prisoner had spoke. The Steward simply watched the other, who, after returning his searching gaze for a considerable while, soon began to look elsewhere, to avoid those penetrating grey eyes. At length he grew impatient, and increasingly irritated.

“Well, are you going to ask me anything or not?” he snapped.

“I should prefer you to talk of your own accord,” Faramir replied evenly.

“What if I refuse?”

Faramir shrugged. “We have all day, and I am a man more patient than Captain Azrubâr here. Eventually, you will talk.”

The other snorted. “Never. And why should I tell you anything? I don’t even know what you are interested in. And what is more important, I don’t know in what way I would profit from revealing any information to you and your masters. Most likely you are going to kill me regardless, or put me to the oars.”

Faramir smiled behind his veil, his eyes glinting. “And of course, as a good soldier utterly devoted to your master you fear neither death nor enslavement, nor the pains of torture. Which means the threat of these would not sway you in your steadfast refusal to cooperate. Neither would any promises of fame and fortune tempt your loyalty. A lost cause for the interrogator, it seems.” His eyes narrowed as he bent them on the young Umbarian. “Now, what I keep asking myself is what would sway you, Yôpharaz,” he said softly, as if talking to himself. “Everybody fears something. What do you fear? Or else, what do you desire? Why do you not tell me a little about yourself, simply to befriend the idea of talking to me without contempt?”

Yôpharaz let out a haughty laugh. “You truly are out of your mind, man, if you believe you will get anything out of me with your babble. Tell your henchmen to get to work with their daggers. That at least would be some straightforward torture. I repeat: I won’t tell you anything.”

Faramir folded his arms in front of his chest, unappeased by the insult in the Umbarian’s remarks. “Very well then, have it your way. I shall tell you a little about yourself, then. You see, not only your words tell me a story, but your name, looks and bearing as well. Even your garments do. Let me start with those.”

Yôpharaz gave another snort of cold laughter. “Go ahead. I wonder what kind of a tale you’re going to spin now.”

Faramir did not react to his taunting. He inclined his head as if taking a last good look at the other, then began, “You hail from a fairly wealthy family in Umbar. Cloth- or spice-traders, most like. Your clothes are well-made, even elaborate with their seams embroidered in silk-thread. They were rather new, too, ere you set out on this errand. Also, the fabrics are more expensive than what Al-Jahmîr usually issues for his guards. Which tells me you are a man with good connections, and moreover a man who values precious things that set him apart from others.”

As he spoke, Faramir continued to watch the other closely. Yôpharaz was still smiling haughtily, but the Steward detected a trace of insecurity underneath his self-assured bearing. Apparently he his words had struck near the truth, and what was more, had caused the other to regard him in a different light – as someone to be taken seriously.

Endeavouring to unsettle the Umbarian even further, he went on, “You accent indicates where you were raised, and how. You received a thorough education (although sadly less heed was given to refining your manners than to honing your skill at arms), and had a rather careless childhood. In your family, you were always considered something special and precious, hence your name. Your unusual looks played a part, certainly. Most likely you managed to beguile those you wanted a favour from early on, and thus you grew up rather spoilt. Either, your siblings are much older than you, and have a different mother or father, or you have sisters only, and are the long wished-for son. I assume the former, however. Your brothers have taken over your father’s business, and you were left free to pursue a career in the military. I would guess your father married anew after his first wife died, and the lady he chose was not one he had been dictated to marry by his family, for shipping-contracts and whatnot, but one he truly loved and desired. A foreign lady, too, with fair hair. When she bore him a son who retained her golden hair and fair looks, your father doted on him as he had on her. Through shrewd negotiations with Al-Jahmîr, he provided you, his favourite, with an officer’s rank among the Snake’s personal guards. You did not have to rise through the ranks, oh no. You went directly near the top, with only a captain set above you. And soon you found how this position suited you, for now you were allowed to command and bully others to your heart’s content, and not secretly as you had done with the servants at your father’s house. You are ambitious, desiring to rise to even greater influence under Al-Jahmîr’s patronage, to leave behind your comfortable but not very formidable descent and achieve a position far above the status of your family. Perhaps you desire to make yourself a name to be able to marry into the gentry. Or be given some lands by your master, in recognition of your loyalty and achievements, to then be able to rule a realm of your own. That is what you are interested in, is it not, Yôpharaz: you desire to be admired by others. You wish to acquire power to rule their lives and deaths. You were using (or abusing) your current position to gain Al-Jahmîr’s attention, in the hope of being chosen as one of his most trusted allies, and raised to such lofty status as a peerage by his goodwill.”

He gave the other a faint smile. “Tell me, Yôpharaz – if you have decided I may be worth talking to after all –, do you recognise yourself in what I have just described? Or wait,” he interrupted himself, his smile broadening, “in fact your expression tells me that you do.”

Yôpharaz’ face had paled continuously during his talk, and his eyes widened in disbelief. Now his cheeks flushed angrily. “Who told you all this?” he burst out, having obviously contained his ire during Faramir’s speech. “My fool of a captain, I daresay! He’s only trying to safe his neck, and therefore spread lies about me.”

“Lies, Yôpharaz?” repeated Faramir sternly. “Your captain, who by the way I consider all but a fool, only told me your name and that you were an ambitious man. Nothing beyond that, and certainly no lies, although he confirmed there is little liking between you. The rest, Yôpharaz, I learned from yourself just now. You are only half as clever as you believe.”

“Ah, and you consider yourself oh so wise, don’t you, churl. I don’t know where you got the information about myself, but most of the men of my company could have told you about me.”

“I am certain they could. Yet I did not talk to them. As I said, you yourself betrayed all the information I just laid out for you. And more besides. For example, with your arrogant, impolite manner you are now trying to hide the fact you are quite afraid of me.” He lowered his voice ever so slightly, giving it a sharp, dangerous edge. “Have a care who you insult, Yôpharaz. You seem to forget that your doom rests in my hands. In your great cleverness and self-proclaimed wisdom, you should have realised by now I am no mere guardsman. And when I tell you I am going to bring about the Snake’s downfall, this was spoken neither in fancy nor in jest, but in deadly earnest. As a sworn supporter of Al-Jahmîr, I should dispose of you here and now, because of the liability you might become should I let you live. But I am not one to embrace the slaying of prisoners and to waste what potential lies in those men, and thus am quite willing to spare their lives – if, and only if, they give me a valid reason to do so.” His eyes narrowed as their bore into the dark ones of the young Umbarian, seeing how despite his bold manner the other had to struggle to hold his gaze. “Tell me, what might be your reason, Yôpharaz?” he demanded softly.

The Umbarian’s face had lost colour again: underneath his tan his features had taken on a greyish hue. “Who are you?” he asked tonelessly.

Faramir sighed. “You did not answer my question,” he observed sternly. “And you do not want to hear the answer to yours. Why do you believe I wear this veil? The moment you learn my true identity, your life is forfeit.”

“There is only one man who would not wish his identity become known to me and thus my master. Or rather, the fact he is still alive,” said Yôpharaz, plucking up courage again. Faramir could not help commending him for his quick wit.

“That may be so,” he replied matter-of-factly.

The young Umbarian was studying him with something akin to awe and even respect now, and only half-veiled fear. “I knew Fuiner was lying when he boasted he slew you,” he muttered. “He is an idiot.”

“But nevertheless he seems to be occupying a covetous position at Al-Jahmîr’s court. Master archer. That is something, after all. A position you could well see yourself in, am I not right, Yôpharaz? Come, now that we are properly introduced, do you not think it time to show some cooperation? Your loyalty to your master is commendable, but unfortunately rather foolish. It has no future at all, because he has no future. You may of course die for him. If you insist, we shall oblige. But the way I read you, you are not a man to waste a good opportunity. All your life you have searched for and used those, to rise to your current rank. Continue to follow Al-Jahmîr and refuse to aid us, and you shall die, and I shall see to it personally that your name and honour are going to be destroyed as well. Aid us, and live. No more and no less, for the moment. You will remain our prisoner for the time being, but you will keep your life.”

Yôpharaz gazed from Faramir to the others, looming in the background. Then he did what Faramir had expected and bowed his head. “What do you wish to know, lord?” he asked, with almost sickening humility. Faramir knew that he would have to sieve his every word for the small kernel of truth possibly contained in it. Still, he was somewhat relieved the man was willing to cooperate at last, if only to save his neck and most likely work toward an opportunity to escape.

“Very well, Yôpharaz, I see you are not the fool you pretended at the beginning of our conversation. First, I wish to learn more about you.”

The young man raised his eyes, and there was a flicker of the old contempt in them. “You seem to know pretty much already. Your guesses – if guesses they were – were not far from the truth.” Following, he rendered an account of himself which only in details differed from what Faramir had described. He was indeed the son of a wealthy merchant specialising in silks, amber and spices, and had two elder half-brothers. His mother hailed from the north, his father having met her during one of his travels. His father had good contacts with Al-Jahmîr, and thus had won (bought, Faramir assumed) his son a position among his personal guards, in the hope to advance him to loftier state than what a merchant’s son could normally aspire to. Faramir had also been right about Yôpharaz being his father’s favourite.

“What was the purpose of this particular mission, and more specifically, what was to be your part in it?” Faramir inquired after the young man had fallen silent again. Yôpharaz’ eyes narrowed again. Less readily than before, he rendered an account of their orders which emphasized what his captain had confessed. “I was to have an eye on Sakalthôr, because the master doesn’t trust him anymore – and rightly so, as it now shows. The master has suspected treason for a long time, and is determined to put an end to it.”

“Treason?” fell in Faramir. “How so? Have there been other incidents when Sakalthôr may have committed treason?”

Yôpharaz snorted. “Definitely. Had the master not taken the precaution of keeping a close eye on his beloved family, I don’t doubt he would have gone over to you tarks in no time. He’s too soft and short-sighted, not to mention a coward.”

“Tell me of these incidents.”

Yôpharaz shrugged. “Minor things at first, like disobeying orders during missions. Then, about two years ago, things got worse when the master journeyed to Gondor and ended up in prison in Pelargir. Rumour went round that it was one of his guards who tipped off the tarks, and thus the master’s identity was revealed.”

“I recall things slightly differently, but go on.”

“Al-Jahmîr, after he had escaped, caused a thorough investigation. Several people lost their lives, and worse. Sakalthôr, however, was not convicted of treason, as there were no proofs against him. He has hidden his traitorous actions well. Still, the master, in his great circumspection and caution put him under close supervision, and sent him to Tolfalas in an act of punishment, to keep him away from his beloved family, keeping him in check by threatening their lives. I was not on the island, so I don’t know exactly what befell there, but I heard that Sakalthôr continued to discreetly sabotage the master’s plans, going as far as aiding cursed Zinizigûr’s escape, and wilfully failing to recapture you. The master had to flee after your tark-king arrived to rescue you. As far as I know, Sakalthôr returned to Ihimbra and entered into the service of Minastîr, one of the master’s sons, who had openly denounced his father and allied himself with the tarks – for which he is rotting in prison now, the gutless worm. Then the master took over at Ihimbra again. Knowing me for one of the few who had always supported him, he put me in Sakalthôr’s company as a means of control, to find out about the other’s true loyalties. Sakalthôr was careful, however, and didn’t engage in any traitorous activities, knowing what was at stake if he did and got caught. This errand was to be some kind of final test for the captain, and also an opportunity for me to get rid of him should the chance arise.”

“So Al-Jahmîr commanded you to murder your superior?”

Yôpharaz shrugged, his eyes glinting coldly. “He was to have an accident, yes,” he replied matter-of-factly. “In case you tarks or the pirates didn’t take care of him. The master had grown tired of suspecting him.”

“I see. And you were to ascend to the rank of captain in his stead?”

“Yes.”

Faramir gave the ambitious young man who spoke so coldly and without any sign of guilty conscience about the planned murder of his superior officer, a long level glance. He had to admit to himself that he had underestimated Sakalthôr. Apparently the man was braver and moreover cleverer than he had given him credit for after yesterday’s interrogation. For a brief moment suspicion flickered up in him, however, as the thought occurred to him that the two Umbarians might in fact be working together – one describing the other as an enemy of the Snake’s to make this man a desirable informer and ally for the Northerners. But looking at Yôpharaz and recalling the utter contempt in which he had spoken about his captain, Faramir doubted this to be the case. The young lieutenant truly loathed his superior, and went great lengths to discredit him and bring about his downfall. Faramir wondered if there was a more personal matter involved as well, some family feud or other, as was likely amongst the troublesome Umbarians.

“What was going to happen to Sakalthôr’s family?” he inquired.

Yôpharaz shrugged again. “There are always people in need of slaves,” he said derisively, “and his wife despite having born two brats is a real beauty. Surely she’ll find a high bidder at an auction. She used to work as a tailor at Al-Jahmîrs court, although I don’t know if by now the master has found other employment for her,” he ended with a slight leer.

Hearing Khorazîr and Azrubâr behind him stir with indignation at the insults issuing from the Umbarian, the former even taking a step forward, Faramir gave a tiny shake of his head, warning them not to interfere. “You seem to truly hate your captain and his family,” he remarked evenly. “Why?”

“Why not? He is a traitor, and because of his dealings with you tarks, my master and his plans suffered last year.”

“Well, his plans involved capturing and torturing me,” Faramir said with some sharpness, “thus I imagine you can see me rather approving of your captain’s actions. Still, I thank you for your frankness. You will be returned to the hold now with the other prisoners, unless Captain Azrubâr wishes to question you further. Attempt to escape, and you will die. Have I made myself understood? Your fate will be decided upon once we reach our destination.”

“And what will that be?” Yôpharaz asked shrewdly.

“’Tis not your concern,” Faramir returned coldly, rising from the stool to make room for Azrubâr. “I’d like to have a little chat with our friend here, too,” said the corsair, “before he’s returned to his quarters. About your host on the Bawâbugru.”

“Very well,” said Faramir. “We shall talk later, then.” He took his leave of the captain and together with Khorazîr left the cabin. “Let us go on deck,” he suggested. “I could do with some fresh air ere I speak with Sakalthôr again.”

“Aye,” agreed the Haradan, “I need to breathe some nonpoisonous air, too. This Yôpharaz is pure venom, bloated little peacock that he is. No wonder Al-Jahmîr has taken a liking to him. If you ask me, we do not return him to the hold with the other prisoners but hang him from the yardarm as soon as Azrubâr is through with him. I know you do not approve of the slaying of prisoners, but in his case it would be far safer. He is a liability because he knows about your true identity, and should he escape, he is bound to work all kinds of mischief. Telling the Snake who he met on this ship would be just what he needs to rise in Marek’s esteem again, after failing to sink Azrubâr’s ship and slaying me. And the Snake knowing about you being alive would only be the start of our troubles. Also, you would be doing my nerves a favour by ridding the ship the gold-pheasant.”

“I understand your concerns,” said Faramir, “and agree it would be easiest to dispose of him quickly. But I am loath to kill him without trial – yes, Khorazîr,” he added with a meaningful glance at the Haradan who had heaved a sigh at his words, “even someone as unpleasant and contemptuous as Master Yôpharaz deserves to be dealt with fairly. I daresay he also deserves a harsh punishment. He has shown no repentance whatsoever for his deeds. He even considers them righteous and just. And his abuse of his captain is inexcusable – after all, he is still his superior officer. His insolence and contempt and his inclination for cruelty make matters worse. Still, I have the feeling he might be more useful to us alive, despite putting a strain on our nerves.”

“You are too soft, Dúnadan,” Khorazîr remarked with a shake of his head, but then he smiled. “Yet, I assume you know best, as usual. I was impressed how you dealt with that fair-haired rat. I would have lost patience a long time ago and resounded to the use of blade or fire, yet you endured his insults and tedious answers without complaint.”

“I have conducted even more tedious and difficult interrogations,” said Faramir with a shrug. “Yôpharaz is young and gullible, despite his cleverness and quit wit. He wants to live, and notwithstanding his claims of true allegiance to Al-Jahmîr he is very likely to turn on him should he realise things are not going to well for the Snake, and he runs the danger of getting enmeshed in his downfall. He is one of those scum who always manage to float on top. Or at least, he thinks he will float.”

“Aye,” agreed Khorazîr with a fell smile. “Some of his words are going to weigh like lead and draw him to the bottom, where he can rot with his beloved master.”

They emerged on deck and were greeted by a heavy wind tearing at their clothes, and a strong smell of cold smoke, tar, and the sea. The weather had cleared again and there were patches of bright sunlight between fast-moving clouds. The wind had veered to the North, speeding them on their present southerly course. Gulls were sailing alongside the ship, which from deck to topmasts was busy as a beehive. Men were swarming the rigging, replacing the last of the damaged sails and cables, while others were cleaning the decks and ridding them of debris and the remains of yesterday’s battle. On the gratings a large heap of clothes, armour, weapons and other things had been spread – apparently the belongings of slain enemies. Faramir spotted several emerald surcoats, long dark tunics and blackened hauberks, as well as Sakalthôr’s fishmail-corslet and a number of helmets such as Al-Jahmîr’s guards wore. He exchanged a glance with Khorazîr who apparently had had the same idea.

“What is going to happen to the loot?” Khorazîr inquired of one of the two corsairs guarding the pile.

“Captain Azrubâr is going to divide it up between the crew,” the man replied, with a flicker of greed in his eyes. “Until then, we are going to watch it, to prevent people helping themselves.”

“You are thinking of laying hold of these uniforms, are you not?” the Southron asked as they walked on, passing down the side of the ship towards the forecastle which had been cleared of rubble by now, and above which a new forestaysail was being set.

“Indeed. We may need them. Would you do me the favour of fetching Sakalthôr? I need to talk with him again, and I think we can risk leading him out here. He is not likely to try and jump overboard.”

“Nay, not into these waters,” said Khorazîr with a glance at the tossing, white-crested waves. To larboard, a blue line of coast was visible on the horizon. The Haradan nodded in the direction. “Over there lies the mouth of Harnen, and ahead there is the long headland fencing in the Bay of Umbar to the North, of which the Bay of Soorah is part. There lies Ihimbra al-Soor. You have never been to the place, have you?”

Faramir shook his head, and Khorazîr laughed. “It is an impressive sight, and an exciting place, too. The port is lively, the lands about fertile and fairly wealthy. And the castle itself is beautiful. Were it not for the nasty inhabitants ... Perhaps when all this is over you can take your beloved for a stroll along the battlements and through the hanging gardens overlooking the sea.”

“When all this is over, Khorazîr,” Faramir replied with a wry smile, “the only gardens I shall take Éowyn to shall be our own, back home in Ithilien.” Unbidden, an image of their gardens flashed through his mind, their design having been mostly wrought by Éowyn with the help of the Elf Legolas, King Thranduil’s son. He could see the orchards and groves of various trees – especially the walnut-grove where his beloved wife enjoyed cheating on him during their archery practices, the ponds and waterways so beloved for their frog-population by his sons, the flower-filled meadows where the hay was being brought in at this time of the year, the sun-warmed terraces set on dry stonewalls, grown with an abundance of herbs and sweet-smelling shrubs, where emerald-coloured lizards lay basking in the warmth of the afternoon sun, the vineyards, the shady woodlands near the bottom of the gardens with their multitude of different ferns and mosses. The images dealt him a deep stab in his heart, because he knew that as beautiful as the gardens were, and as much as he loved Ithilien and his home in the green hills of Emyn Arnen, he would never find peace there again should he return alone.

“Dúnadan?” Khorazîr’s soft, worried voice jerked him out of his contemplations.

Faramir drew a deep, somewhat shaky breath. “Just an acute bout of homesickness,” he confessed quietly.

The other gazed at him gravely, before clasping his shoulder briefly and reassuringly. “I go and fetch the captain,” he said, leaving Faramir at the railing to gaze at the distant hills.

+

Faramir had just settled on a locker in the forecastle, resting his back against the railing and uncovering his face to allow some sun to shine on his features, and to be able to breathe more freely when Khorazîr returned, leading Sakalthôr. The Umbarian’s hands were bound again, and his pale, drawn, unshaven face indicated he had gotten little sleep the previous night, and was not accommodated in great comfort. He looked relieved to be out at the fresh air and able to stretch his legs, squinting up toward the black sails and the sunlight playing on them.

He inclined his head to Faramir when Khorazîr brought him close. “You wished to see me, lord?” he asked.

Faramir nodded, motioning for him to sit down on the lately scrubbed planks. “Indeed I do. I have just finished questioning your lieutenant Yôpharaz, who provided me with some interesting information. About yourself, too, captain?”

Sakalthôr’s eyes narrowed as he faced up to the other. “What he told you cannot have been very favourable,” he said darkly. “He hates me, and covets my position.”

“So much I learned from him. What I found more interesting, however, is the fact he condemns you as a traitor. He told me you have secretly been conveying information to your master’s enemies for some time, even sabotaging some of his ventures. Why did you not mention any of this yesterday?”

Sakalthôr’s face took on a wary expression, and he did not reply at once, but studied Faramir for a while. “Would you have believed me then, lord?” he asked at length. “You would have thought I was lying to save my neck.”

“Instead you held back, which was clever, but also dangerous. What if I had decided to dispose of you quickly, without taking the trouble of investigating further.”

“That was the risk I had to take,” Sakalthôr replied gravely.

Faramir cocked his head slightly as he watched the other, who seemed more at ease under his gaze than the previous day. “You are a more complicated man than you let on, Sakalthôr. You seem like a straightforward, and, if you forgive me saying so, not overly bright soldier. Just what is needed for the position you occupy. A man to obey orders without hesitation, and without investing some thought of his own. But underneath you are much more cunning than you have people believe. You even managed to mislead your lieutenant, and he has got quite a sharp mind. No wonder Al-Jahmîr has come to consider you a liability, a danger even. Tell me, Sakalthôr, do you not think it time to drop your pretence and show your true allegiance? Who have you been working for?”

“I did not deceive you, lord, by claiming that Al-Jahmîr is my master. He is the one who pays me, and he is the one I wore allegiance to. Also, he is the one to rule my fate,” he ended darkly.

“That may be. But there were others who counted on your services. Who? Governor Beretar?”

Again the Umbarian hesitated, but at length he nodded. “Aye, him. I forwarded information concerning Al-Jahmîr to him, but not much. And lately this had become too dangerous as I was put under close observation.”

“I understand. Your speech implies there were others apart from Beretar. Who?” A thought struck Faramir, and his eyes narrowed as he studied the Umbarian. “Falastur,” he said softly, seeing recognition flicker in Sakalthôr’s eyes. “You spied for the Lord of Pelargir, did you not? Oh, the fox! No wonder he is always so well informed.”

“I take it you are not very friendly with him, lord,” ventured Sakalthôr cautiously.

Faramir laughed. “A kind way of putting it. But it matters not. Important for the time being is that you are working against Al-Jahmîr – unless you are a double-agent.”

“You may account me as such,” admitted Sakalthôr, “but only out of fear for my loved ones at home. I continued to do his dirty work, but I never betrayed information about his enemies to him. What should I have said, anyway. I never met Beretar or Falastur. I only forwarded information to them, and very little, too, because of the danger of being found out.”

“Does Al-Jahmîr suspect any of this?”

“I do not know. I would not put it beyond him, however,” said Sakalthôr gravely. “Why else should he have put Yôpharaz in my company, and guards near my house.”

“One thing I wonder about,” fell in Khorazîr, “is why you so vehemently condemned Azrahil a traitor yesterday, when in fact you yourself are one.”

The Umbarian looked up at him. “Azrahil did not only betray his master, but his own kin. This is a dishonourable deed.”

“Even if his kin is the Snake himself?” asked Faramir. “Marek abused the thin bond of kinship to force Azrahil into obedience. It cost the young man much to finally sever these ties, but I daresay he did the right thing. In fact, he chose to stay true to those bonds of kinship which truly matter to him – his mother’s kin. And personally, I believe that by denouncing his half-uncle and his vile deeds and following his own conscience despite personal danger and dire consequences, he did the most honourable deed imaginable.” He gave Sakalthôr a faint smile. “I daresay you have set foot on that path, too, captain. You have thought long about our conversation yesterday, have you not? What have you decided? Are you willing to aid us, and face the danger of opposing Al-Jahmîr openly? I shall not blame you if you refuse.”

Sakalthôr gave him a long, steady glance. “I will help you, lords,” he at length said earnestly.

Faramir exchanged a glance with Khorazîr who smiled grimly. Sakalthôr gazed from one to the other. “You wish to free the lady?”

“Yes,” replied Faramir. “This is our most important goal. We are going to need every bit of information you can give us. About Ihimbra: the castle, the guards, the fortifications, the way daily life unfolds at Al-Jahmîr’s court. In addition, all you know about the Snake himself: his friends, his enemies, his family. Tell me about those people you trust and those you do not. And lastly, tell me about your family, so that we can devise a way of keeping them safe.”

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At Faramir’s request, Khorazîr left to fetch the maps of Ihimbra, as well as some writing utensils and paper, to take notes of Sakalthôr’s explanations. Faramir bade him wait for the Haradan’s return before launching his account. Sakalthôr obliged, occupying himself with finding a more comfortable position on the sun-warm deck, and watching the sailors as they worked to extinguish the last traces of yesterday’s fight. His eyes lingered on the pile of arms, armour and clothing, and Faramir watching him closely saw his eyes narrow, and a shadow of sorrow pass over his youthful face.

“I recognise too much of what lies there,” said Sakalthôr softly, as if speaking to himself, but obviously aware of the Dúnadan following his gaze. “Too many of my men lost their lives on this useless, disastrous mission,” the Umbarian went on bitterly.

“Your timely interference prevented the loss of even more lives,” Faramir observed quietly.

Sakalthôr shrugged. “Timely? I should have commanded them to surrender much sooner. Or stopped this cursed pirate from attacking your ship in the first place. All along I knew what a crooked plan it was.” Turning his dark eyes to Faramir, he gave him a long, thoughtful glance. “Why, lord, do you care if we live or die? We, your enemies, who have caused you naught but pain? You may need the information I can provide, but why do you extend your mercy to my men?” He smiled shyly, as if surprised by what he had just discovered. “You are a strange people, you Gondorians. Very different from what we were brought up to believe about you.”

“I do not know what you were brought up to believe about us,” replied Faramir, “but I reckon the tales you were taught as a child do not differ much from what we learned in Gondor about the people of Umbar. You are still young. Too young, perchance, to have fought in the War.”

“I did fight, but I did not journey all the way to Gondor with our fleet,” fell in Sakalthôr, with silent pride and a trace of defiance, as if afraid of being accounted a coward. “But you are right, I was scarce more than a lad then, and I am glad I was not required to join the armies that travelled north.” He gave Faramir a long, searching and slightly irritated glance. “You cannot have been much older than me then. Did you have to fight in the War?”

Faramir nodded gravely. “Indeed I did. But why does that surprise you? How old are you? About thirty, I would reckon, but not much beyond that.”

“I turned thirty-two in the spring.”

“Well, you can add almost a score of years for me,” Faramir said with a smile. “I shall be fifty in Nenimë.”

“Fifty, lord?” Sakalthôr asked in surprise. “You look much younger.”

“Do I?” Faramir smiled wryly. “Right now I believe I feel each and every one of my years. Your master has a way of adding to them.”

Now Sakalthôr smiled as well. “Yes, so he has. But try as he might, he has not managed to kill or break you, and I doubt he will.”

Faramir drew a deep breath and nodded slightly. He did not quite share the Umbarian’s conviction, knowing that this time, Al-Jahmîr had struck at his most vulnerable spot. He was stirred out of his thoughts by Sakalthôr sitting up straighter, and gazing intently towards the main deck. Yôpharaz was being brought up from below and returned to the hold with the other prisoners. He looked unscathed, so apparently Azrubâr had refrained from subjecting him to any force to make him talk (or shut up). Although he was walking with his head held high, to Faramir’s eyes the young lieutenant did not look very pleased. Evidently his conversation with the corsair had not gone to his liking. Azrubâr, Khorazîr and Mezlâr were following behind, and after the prisoner had been stowed away again safely, they joined Faramir and Sakalthôr in the forecastle.

“What an ape!” exclaimed the corsair as he walked about checking the new sails. “You have my full respect for enduring his spite for so long without striking him. I’m all in favour of having him walk the plank, to visit the nice sharks in these waters.”

“Poor creatures,” muttered Khorazîr.

“He must not be killed,” said Faramir. “I dislike him as well, but we may need him lateron. He must be watched day and night, however, by men immune to his taunts and his promises. Otherwise, he is likely to run to his master at the first opportunity, and betray what he has learned here.”

“I will have an eye on him until we leave,” promised Mezlâr.

“And after that I’ll find some fitting guards for him. What about this one?” asked Azrubâr, indicating the sitting Sakalthôr with a boot.

“He was about to tell us what he knows of the Snake.”

Azrubâr surveyed the Umbarian sternly, pacing to and fro. “I wouldn’t trust him if I were you. He’s an Umbarian. They’re a treacherous bunch, the whole lot.”

Faramir saw how Sakalthôr’s breast swelled as he drew breath to defend himself, but upon another dark glance from the corsair, he subsided. “I shall tread cautiously around him,” Faramir replied, “although so far he has rendered the impression of an honourable man who is tired of his master’s policies. Also,” he bent his eyes on Sakalthôr, “he knows perfectly well what is at stake for him should he try and deceive me.”

The Umbarian returned his gaze as long as he could, then lowered his eyes. “I will not deceive you, lord.”

“Good. Aid us, then. Here are maps of Ihimbra al-Soor. Lord Khorazîr was being imprisoned there, about a decade ago. I want you to point out what has been changed in the castle’s layout since. All fortifications and measures of security you know about I want you to describe to us.”

+

Several hours they spent in the forecastle poring over maps, with Faramir taking sheet after sheet of notes. Sakalthôr’s capture was indeed a stroke of pure luck. The captain proved not only knowledgeable of many matters Faramir deemed of great importance, the longer he talked, the more confident he seemed to become in his decision to switch sides. According to his detailed descriptions, they altered the maps and plans where the layout of buildings or passageways had changed. They learned about the strength of Al-Jahmîr’s forces, about the watchmen’s routines, about passwords and the conditions under which servants, craftsmen and merchants were permitted into the castle. In addition, Sakalthôr told what he knew about the Snake’s family, his sons and their wives and children, and the more distant relations, as well as allies and enemies known to him. Often Faramir would look to Khorazîr, Mezlâr and Azrubâr who stayed with them for most of the time, only now and again striding off to see to some matter on his ship to confirm what Sakalthôr recounted, which in most cases they did.

When finally he had given an account of his own family, Sakalthôr glanced at Faramir. “You must take into consideration, lord, that things may have changed since last I was at Ihimbra. With the arrival of the lady, security will have been increased considerably. Perhaps the patterns of guard-duty and the deployment of forces will have been altered, too, for Al-Jahmîr suspects treason all about him.”

“That is true, of course, and we shall take it into consideration,” said Faramir. “Concerning your family – do you know of a place whither they could be evacuated?”

Sakalthôr shook his head. “No safe place out of the Snake’s reach,” he answered miserably. “Otherwise, believe me, I would have fled with them long ago.”

“If they are up to the journey, they could travel to my realm,” said Khorazîr. “I will need to send a messenger thither anyway, to inform my son of what has passed, and to fetch more men – your rangers, too, Dúnadan. They would be provided with an escort, of course. The journey would remain dangerous, certainly, especially with small children, yet you may find this danger more acceptable than knowing them at the Snake’s mercy, which, as we all know, does not exist.”

“This is a generous offer, Lord Khorazîr,” said Sakalthôr, evidently touched. “I shall consider it, definitely.”

+

Sakalthôr was not returned to the prisoners, but brought to the great cabin, to be watched by Khorazîr’s guards and the two rangers. Faramir spent some time there as well, keeping Dorgil company who was already ill at ease.

“He drives me crazy, as much as I like him,” sighed Aralas in exasperation when he and Faramir were returning to the forecastle after supper, because the Steward felt he needed some fresh air and exercise. “He has been complaining about virtually everything ever since he woke again ‘round noon: the berth, the air, the food, the fact he’s not allowed to get up – and we almost had to tie him down, otherwise he would have left the bedstead. Then he had a go at poor Thatch concerning the other wounded, and that they had received no proper treatment. Even Azrubâr got his share when he came visiting. Dorgil berated him about the meagre store of herbs and cures on this ship, while there appeared to be ample supply of strong spirits and pipeweed. Apparently ‘tis true what they say, that healers are the worst patients. At least now he is being entertained for a while. It was a good idea of Lord Khorazîr’s to bring his chess-board. I only hope he is going to let him win, otherwise his humour is going to drop even more.”

Faramir smiled as he watched the distant coast wander by, illuminated by the warm light of the setting sun. “I cannot recall an occasion when Dorgil was injured or ill. ‘Tis strange not to have him about to look after the others. Most likely he himself is not used to the situation, hence his fretting. He will be even more put out when we leave him behind on the ship.”

“Aye. He complained about that, too, for good measure. But what choice do we have? We will have to live rough for a while, will we not, until we find a way into the castle?”

“I suppose so,” confirmed Faramir. “Most like we will move into the hills and hide there, and try to gather information ere we venture into Ihimbra. It all depends on what Narejde and Azrahil have found out by now. Also, we must wait for reinforcements. Khorazîr will send for Mablung and the rangers, as well as more of his own men.”

“It’d be good to have old Mablung and the lads ‘round again. Not that I dislike Khorazîr’s men – they are good company. But ‘tis not the same.”

+

Later that evening the spoils of battle were distributed among the crew. Faramir had spoken with Azrubâr concerning the gear of the Umbarian soldiers. He could tell that the captain was not entirely pleased at the prospect of withholding a considerable amount of fairly precious arms and armour from his men – the hauberks and well-made scimitars and helmets being in high demand. Only after Faramir offered him a generous compensation and, not entirely fairly, dropped a hint about saving the other’s life, he agreed to remove the items in question. They were brought to the great cabin, where Dorgil (who would not be stayed) and Sakalthôr set to cleaning and mending what had been damaged during the fight.

+++

During the night the ship moved closer toward the coast, so that next morning when Faramir stepped on deck they were sailing under the shadow of high steep cliffs of a rocky headland which extended towards the east. The ship was accompanied by clouds of garrulous seabirds and a school of dolphins playing about her prow.

Rounding a wave-battered peninsula, the westernmost point of which was marked by a majestic tower which by its design had been built in Númenorean times, they headed on into the wide Bay of Umbar. Here traffic increased immensely, causing tension in the crew as they were forced to continuously watch out for enemy ships. They kept on sailing close to the coast, ready to hide in one of the numerous bays at the sight of one of Al-Jahmîr’s dreaded green-sailed Narîka n’Azri.

Fortunately, the only other vessels they encountered as close as bow-range were small fishing-boats and once a merchant’s caravel that had not managed to flee the Balak in time. After a brief (but rather fierce) discussion with Faramir, Azrubâr relented not to attack the ship, despite it looking like rich prey. “That’s going to ruin my reputation,” the corsair complained as they stood at the starboard railing, watching caravel speed away with all the canvas she could carry. “You have no idea what you ask of me here, and of my men.”

“Rest assured there will be recompense,” said Faramir soothingly, secretly wondering how the King and other members of the council like Falastur were going to react when he laid out to them how much Gondor was owing a notorious pirate. If they refused to pay, as he was certain at least Falatur would, he would have to see to the compensation himself. Or rather, he thought grimly, Al-Jahmîr would.

Azrubâr seemed to echo his thoughts when he said, “Well, I doubt your fellow lords will be too pleased about learning they’re going to have to pay a pirate for his services and personal sacrifices.”

Faramir raised an eyebrow. “Personal sacrifices? You did see my point in not attacking this merchant, did you not? There were well-armed guards on deck. They would not have surrendered without a fight, and we cannot afford to raise any suspicion in these waters. Also, engaging the caravel would have cost us precious time.”

Azrubâr gazed at him, then of a sudden clapped his shoulder and laughed. “Of course I saw the reason in your words. I was just trying to make fun of you. But it looks like this Al-Jahmîr-business has sorely ruined your sense of humour. Don’t worry about compensation. Yesterday, the lads didn’t complain as much as I thought they would. After all, there was enough for everyone. Just promise me one thing: when you’ve cast down the Snake, do allow us to have a look ‘round his castle. I’d dearly love to examine some of his treasures from up close.”

Now Faramir laughed as well. “You have my word on that. I am interested in one treasure only, which does not even belong to him. The rest you may take for yourself, and good riddance.”

“Excellent. The lads will be pleased to hear it. Now, we should discuss further proceedings. We’re going to reach our destination at sundown, if all goes well. I’ve agreed with Khorazîr to drop you off in a little bay about five leagues over land from Ihimbra. It’s a place difficult to reach with a ship this size because of cliffs and dangerous currents, which is why Al-Jahmîr’s captains don’t go there, the cowards. Moreover, it has the reputation of being haunted, because the rocks have claimed a number of ships in the past, and the ghosts of the drowned sailors are walking about at night. You’re going to have to look after yourselves from there.”

“We shall manage. Whither are you heading afterwards?”

Azrubâr grinned, his teeth glinting in his dark face. “I was thinking about heading out into the Bay again, and teasing the Snake’s captains, causing as much trouble for them and their fell master I can devise. Khômiyi is going to join me with the Bawâbugru once they’ve refitted. We shall have a good time, I think. If you need our services again, or wish to fetch your healer (who I’m sure you’re going to need ere long), light a fire on top of the cliffs above the larboard side of the Haunted Bay. Usually there’s a pile of driftwood left for these purposes, because people of my trade use the hide-out fairly frequently. We’ll look out for it, and come as swiftly as we may.”

“I am obliged,” said Faramir. “If you can, try and find out more about the situation in Umbar. It will not be long until King Elessar arrives with the fleet, and the more information we have then about what awaits us there, the better.”

Azrubâr nodded thoughtfully. “How long ‘til he arrives?”

“I do not know for certain, but I would reckon a fortnight at the most. Likely sooner.”

“Two weeks can be a long time. Much can happen then. We’ll stay in contact, and good luck with annoying the Snake.”

“To you as well.”

Azrubâr turned and glanced over the deck where his men were busy with their daily routine. “What do we do with the prisoners?” he asked.

“For the moment, I would be obliged if you could keep them aboard. Some saw and recognised me. They must not be allowed to set foot on land. In fact, I would appreciate if your men did not stray from the ship, either.”

Azrubâr inclined his head. “I’ve mentioned your request to them. Some are not pleased, as they’re eager to spend what they’ve earned. But I’ll keep them entertained here as long as I may. You are aware that it would be easiest to dispose of these bloody Umbarians swiftly, to save yourself further troubles.”

“Yes, I am. But I would not have them killed just so, to spare myself (and you) some inconvenience. They may turn out useful ere long. Their captain did, after all, and even young Yôpharaz, however unpleasant he may be, may have a greater part to play ere long.”

“I do hope you’re right about the gold-pheasant. He’s a nasty bit of work, and I’d love to be rid of him. And do you really trust his captain? You’re planning to take him with you when you live ship, don’t you? That’s a mighty risk.”

“Not so great as it may seem,” replied Faramir. “I do not trust him entirely – after all, he is still in Al-Jahmîr’s pay. But he has strong motivations for turning against his former master, and has provided us with useful information. Usually, I can rely on my judgement when it comes to sensing if somebody speaks the truth. Sakalthôr is frightened, disenchanted and irritated. He does not know where his loyalties lie at the moment. But he does know that continuing to follow Al-Jahmîr will lead into a dead end, and will get himself and his loved ones killed. So he is ready to put up with the other side. His sole care at the moment is for the welfare of his family, and he is likely to do whatever he can to protect them. Right now that means turning against Al-Jahmîr, but it may also mean turning against us, should circumstances change. As long as I can keep him on my side, I will. The rest time will show.”

Azrubâr gazed at him gravely and appreciatively, apparently somewhat impressed by the other, but then he grinned. “So, you think you’ve got a sound judgement of men and their true motives, eh? I know you’re not a complete fool in that department. Is this why you trust me? Because you’re convinced I’m one of the good guys?” He gave Faramir a challenging glance, but with roguish humour twinkling in his dark eyes.

Faramir decided to play along. Raising another eyebrow, he said, “Azrubâr, who tells you I truly trust you? You are, after all, a pirate.”

The corsair looked taken aback for a moment, before laughing out loud and slapping Faramir’s shoulder. “Haha, well said, Dúnadan. So Al-Jahmîr didn’t destroy your sense of humour entirely. That’s good. That’s splendid. Let’s hope there’s going to be more to laugh about shortly.”

+

The sun was going down behind the rugged headland the ship had rounded in the morning, the southeastern point of which was taken up by the old Númenorean watchtower known as Nindamos Point, gilding the rocky, hilly coastlands that did not yet lie in the shadow of the long peninsula, and turning the spray of the waves breaking against them into molten gold. The Balak anDolgu was steering on a dangerous course towards a deep, already blue-shaded cove, like a knife-cut in the wall of steep cliffs ahead. During the past hour, the coastline they had been following to larboard had grown steadily wilder and more rugged. Settlements which formerly had been frequent had decreased in size and multitude. Orchards, forests, fields and meadows which in flatter and more shielded parts of the Bay had been visible from the ship had given way to rocky hillsides with deep gullies eaten into their shoulders by the elements, grown with hardy shrubs and sometimes groves of low, twisted trees. The rock of the hills had changed, too: from granite to limestone which then had taken on a reddish hue not brought about by the westering sun only.

Since the entrance to the cove was too dangerous for the Balak to dare, the jolly-boat which had been repaired (or rather, rebuilt) was made ready for all those about to depart. Faramir and the others took leave of Dorgil in the great cabin, to discourage him from getting up.

“I will join you as soon as I am able, captain,” the healer promised grimly. “Do me the favour and do not get yourself injured while I am not around. That goes for you others as well.”

“We will look after ourselves, Dorgil, never fear,” Aralas promised him. “And the captain.”

“You be careful, too,” said Faramir. “Consider yourself your own patient. And if you feel well enough, have an eye on the prisoners, especially Yôpharaz.”

Dorgil frowned, then nodded and sighed. “At least this way I can spend more time on the ship.”

+

On deck the crew had assembled to bid the passengers farewell. Faramir could tell how Turgon and Aralas as well as Khorazîr’s guards had become fast friends with the pirates. Mezlâr and Sakalthôr were standing a little to the side, watching the leave-taking. Faramir had bidden the guard to have a special eye on Sakalthôr, to which Mezlâr had obliged immediately. Apparently he did not trust the Umbarian as much as Faramir.

After thanking Azrubâr, and reminding him again to watch the prisoners and especially Yôpharaz well to keep them out of mischief, to the whistling of the bosun’s pipe like a captain of the Gondorian navy, Faramir was the last to climb down the gangway into the heaving jolly-boat. Despite his concerns regarding his shoulder it went surprisingly well and did not pain him as much as he had feared. As he said down in the prow, the four sailors took up their oars.

“Good luck to you,” Azrubâr called down to them. “And do look after Khorazîr, Dúnadan. He’s getting too old for this kind of adventure.”

Khorazîr scowled up at the corsair. “Bloody pirate! Be glad if you reach my age at all, laddie,” he returned. “I doubt it, with your recklessness.”

Azrubâr laughed. “We shall discuss this issue another time, if the Snake doesn’t eat you.”

“Or you get sunk by one of his sea-serpents.”

Azrubâr waved a hand, still laughing, and the jolly-boat was pushed from the hull of the frigate. Manoeuvring it through the surf proved hard work for the oarsmen, but they managed to steer the vessel to a narrow, stony beach between steep cliffs, thickly covered with seaweed and pieces of driftwood, between lines of seashells. It was low tide at the moment, and several rocks otherwise covered by water were visible, their population of mussels, limpets and barnacles exposed to the air.

The corsairs helped unload the luggage (mainly consisting of the looted uniforms and weapons, the maps and notes, some spare clothes and blankets, and enough food and water to last for two days), then returned to the ship, leaving the small company in the twilight of the cove. With a last glance at the silhouette of the stately frigate visible through the gap in the rock, they turned toward the land. Behind the narrow beach, tall cliffs reared up into a sky already studded with stars. The moon had risen, but was hidden behind a layer of clouds in the east. Sea-gulls and smaller, dark birds like jackdaws were circling overhead, crying mournfully.

“What a cheerful place,” muttered Hâmadar, Khorazîr’s tall, competent guard in his sharp desert-accent, looking around with a frown. Not far from where they had landed, wedged between sea-life covered rocks was a mess of broken wood, torn cables and shreds of canvas already grown with tang and inhabited by crabs. Amid this tangle the carven form of a once-proud figure-head in the shape of a mermaid could dimly be descried in the failing light.

“No wonder they call it haunted,” agreed Aralas, listening to the sigh of the wind in crevices of the rock, the strange bird-calls, and the dull thunder of waves in some underground cave. “Those voices could easily be mistaken for some drowned sailors’, calling for their comrades’ spirits.”

“Well, for spirits, anyway,” said Turgon grinning, clapping his shoulder. “I would not decline a drink now, either. How long until we reach some inhabited place, captain?”

Faramir was startled out his contemplations. The place was strongly reminiscent of the lonely beach he had escaped to after jumping overboard Al-Jahmîr’s ship, under the Snake’s very nose. He had hidden in a cave then, soaked and freezing cold, thirsty and hungry and deadly tired, but only too aware of his enemy’s henchmen swarming the beach in search of him. The time he had spent at the deserted coast of Tolfalas he did not remember fondly, for it had been one of great hardship and danger. He cast a brief glance at Sakalthôr who about a year ago had been involved in this very hunt. Judging from the troubled gaze the Umbarian was giving him now, the young captain was thinking of the same events.

Turning to the ranger and suppressing a slight shiver that had nothing to do with the wind, he said, “Actually, you are addressing the wrong person, Turgon. I can only tell you what I learned from the maps. Has either of you been here before, Khorazîr and Sakalthôr?” Both addressed shook their heads.

“I once passed near, on an errand to Târikat,” replied the Umbarian, “the small town we passed about two hours before sunset with the two tall towers near the harbour. I have heard of this bay, for there are many stories about it, some of which my mother-in-law enjoys telling the children, but I have never set foot down here.”

“I too spent some time in the vicinity, while hiding from Zohrân’s hunters with Narejde,” said Khorazîr, gazing around with a dark expression. “But we kept clear off the Haunted Bay because we did not wish to encounter any pirates, who back then were in Al-Jahmîr’s pay mostly. There is another cove not far from here, even narrower, with lots of caves. We hid for two nights there, before moving on. But I would not recommend staying there. We should not tarry here at all but set out immediately. There is a track along these cliffs, leading all the way to Ihimbra. It is no easy road, especially at night, but I think we should dare it. ‘Tis unlikely to be watched, and even if somebody saw us land here, we are likely to escape their notice using that path. There is a fairly good road further inland, where the countryside gets friendlier again – I reckon ‘tis the one you used while on horseback – yet we should steer clear of that.”

“I agree,” said Faramir. “Using the road is too dangerous.”

“Still, climbing along rocky cliffs at night with all our luggage does not sound very prudent, either,” fell in Aralas. “Especially considering your state of health, captain. Perhaps we should rest first.”

“Did Dorgil charge you with taking over his part, now he is absent?” asked Turgon jestfully.

Aralas glared at him. “I am only worried about the captain. But if you’d like to carry his luggage, well, let’s go.”

“There is no need to argue, gentlemen,” said Faramir. “Though I am touched by your concern, Aralas, Khorazîr is right. We cannot risk to tarry here. As long as there is a path and we do not have to climb, I will manage – even with some of the luggage, I think. We will have to advance slowly, anyway, for soon it will be dark but for moon and stars. We should set out now, in order to find the path while there is still some light left. All of us are rested enough to do some walking ere we pause. ‘Tis about five leagues to Ihimbra, and we should try and cover as much of the distance as we can tonight.”

“How do we get up there?” asked Murâd, who alone of the company looked positively cheerful – most likely because he finally had firm ground underneath his feet again. “These cliffs look mighty difficult to climb.”

“There must be a way,” mused Faramir. “The pirates using the cove as a hideout and meeting point are likely to scale the cliffs by some means, too. Look out for a rope or rope-ladder, or even steps hewn in the rock.”

Each shouldering his heavy pack – Faramir was spared apart from a bag which contained the maps and notes, some writing utensils and other small useful items –, the men split up to search the foot of the cliffs for any signs of away upwards. In the process they found plenty more remains of wrecked ships, some human bones, too, and in a nook above the waterline even some crates and a large chest with a rusted lock which sorely tempted Lôkhî, the fourth of Khorazîr’s guards. Finally Mezlâr gave a call. He had come upon a stout rope dangling down the southern side of the cove, where the wall was less steep and rainwater had washed out a gully like a natural stair.

Nevertheless, tohe climb proved more difficult for Faramir than he had anticipated. Even though there were good footholds in the rock, worn by water and many feet, his arms and shoulders were forced to take most of the strain. He was lucky not to have to haul up much weight, nevertheless each pull on the rope sent a stab of pain through his upper torso. When finally he reached the top of the cliff, he sank down upon a rock in exhaustion. Breathing hard and shaking slightly with pain and effort, he tried to ease his right arm by pressing it to his body. Aralas who had climbed up first came to his side, looking worried. “Captain, are you all right?”

“I will manage,” Faramir panted, fighting down pain. Aralas gazed at him doubtfully, handing him a waterskin and remaining at his side while the others attempted the climb.

It took some time for the rest of the company to scale the cliff and bring up the luggage, but at length, when the moon came forth from behind the clouds they were all assembled on the wind-swept cliff-top. Gazing out over the sea, now dark and forbidding, they beheld a small speck of light indicating where the Balak anDolgu was sailing. On the other side, eastward, a tumbled, broken land studded with formations of large rocks and grown with a tangle of gorse and stone oak, tamarisk, arbutus, holly and heather spread out before them, rising into low ridges and falling steeply to where rainwater and small rivers had cut valleys and gorges into the hills. In shielded corners between the rocks grew spiky agaves and opuntias, the pear-like fruits of which Murâd and Lôkhî set out to pick, their hands protected by gloves, to supplement their rather meagre store of food. Further inland, dark groves of pines could be seen, their branches sighing in the wind. There was a faint scent of myrtle, rosemary and lavender on the air, mixed with the smell of the sea.

Khorazîr, Hâmadar and Turgon set out to look for the path, and Faramir was glad for the respite. The rock he was sitting on was still warm from the sun, and the smell of herbs reminded him of the uplands of Ithilien. Without the sea thundering against the cliffs below, this expedition would feel like a journey with his rangers back home, he thought, a hike through familiar and well-beloved countryside. Instead, they had landed on a hostile, dangerous shore, and were heading towards even greater dangers. Steadying himself against the rock he stood, gazing out southwards over the rugged hill-country, always following the line of the coast until it was lost from view. Yonder lay Ihimbra, and yonder, only a few hours’ walk, was his Éowyn. Was she abed yet? Was she awake, plotting how to escape her imprisonment? Was she thinking of their sons, of him, maybe? Had she received his message and knew he was alive and coming to fetch her? Or did she still believe him slain and was mourning him? An unpleasant thought crept into his mind. Was she alone? Or did the Snake insist on keeping her company at night?

“We found the path,” Turgon called softly, interrupting his musings. “It’s narrow and partly overgrown, but should be all right.”

+

They set out in single file, with Turgon and Aralas scouting ahead. Mezlâr who had good eyesight even in twilight walked in front, and Lôkhî, the small, broken-nosed guard who according to his master could pick any lock and organise and procure virtually anything, brought up the rear. The moonlight proved bright enough for them to see their surroundings, nevertheless they advanced slowly and carefully, lest one fail in his footing on the narrow track. Even though it was indeed partly taken over by vegetation again, or obscured by rocks, it showed signs of fairly regular use. Where it descended into a cove or dived into a valley, step-like footholds had been worn out over the years, and one dangerous passage, where the path wound along the steep wall of the outer cliffs with the sea roaring below had been secured with stout ropes as handholds.

They walked on for about three hours, until after midnight they rested in a shallow dingle underneath a group of old, gnarled pines. They had moved away from the coast during the past hour. The ever-blowing wind was less strong here, and the sound of the waves battering the cliffs had given way to the chirping of crickets and other nightly insects, and the rustling of small animals in the underbrush.

They had some food and drink, with Lôkhî carefully peeling and then distributing the cactus-fruits. Faramir had tasted them before – on Tolfalas they had proved a welcome diversion from un-cooked limpets, mussels and other sea-creatures he had been forced to feed on, as he had seldom dared to light a fire. Despite these memories he enjoyed the fruit, wondering briefly if Éowyn would be served them as well.

“How are we going to find your wife and step-son, Lord Khorazîr?” asked Aralas after they had finished the meal. “Surely they are in hiding somewhere.”

Khorazîr shrugged. “I have a rough idea where to look for them, and they are likely to watch out for us as well. I do not doubt that tonight they are going to receive information that Azrubâr’s ship has been spotted in the Bay. Such things do not pass unnoticed here, and they have many people keeping their eyes and ears open for them.”

“Unfortunately, others are likely to do so as well,” said Sakalthôr darkly. “Al-Jahmîr is bound to receive the same intelligence tonight, and will know that something went wrong with his plan to waylay the corsair and kill or capture you, lord.”

“Well, if he suspects I am around, close by even, this will only add to his worries,” said Khorazîr with a grim yet satisfied smile.

+

Even though they continued even slower, the moon now frequently hiding behind clouds, Faramir soon felt weariness catch up with him. The climb and the constant rising and falling of the path took their toll on his strength, and the pain in his shoulder did not lessen since he was forced to use his arms constantly during short climbs or descents.

He was glad when about two hours later – they were climbing out of a narrow, wooded valley again and ascending a long ridge studded with pines and ancient olive-trees –, Aralas suddenly appeared out of the twilight, causing the company to halt.

“We went ahead as far as the ridge,” he reported. “The land falls gently on the other side. There are orchards and vineyards, and plenty other signs of cultivation. Also, we are close to the sea again. The coast must have made a great loop, and we used a shortcut. There is a bay, and a town with a large harbour. I am not sure, but there seems to be a number of warships anchoring. On the other side of that valley the land rises again steeply to new ridges, and the coast is sheer and rocky again. Overlooking the harbour is a castle built right onto the rock, or out of it. Only parts of it are lighted still, but its silhouette alone is magnificent. When you reach the ridge it should be better visible, as the north-eastern sky is lightening.”

As swiftly as the path allowed, the climbed to the ridge where they found Turgon waiting for them on top of a large rock. “Welcome to Ihimbra,” he greeted them with a smile, leaping down from the rock. “It shouldn’t take us more than another hour to get down to the harbour – unless we have got another plan.”

Faramir lowered himself on another rock. Taking off the headdress, he ran a hand through his slightly sweaty hair – the night was quite warm despite the wind from the sea. “It would be foolish to enter the town with so large a company, and you two clearly recognisable as foreigners.” He indicated the rangers, who despite their haradaic attire looked like Northerners with their Gondorian weapons and lighter colour of skin and eyes. “It would be more prudent to send one or two men ahead to have a look round the place. Sakalthôr, do you know if there is a curfew? If so, we must take this into account.”

The captain shook his head. “There was none when I left. Ihimbra is a busy town even at night, and Al-Jahmîr and the authorities know better than to prohibit people from going about their business even in darkness, when for some it is most profitable. I would reckon there are more watchmen about, however, looking out for suspicious folk.” He cast a glance over the company, and there were several grim smiles. Each of the men would look suspicious to someone in Al-Jahmîr’s pay, for various reasons.

“Where do you live?” inquired Faramir of the Umbarian. “Is it far from here?”

“A small house on the south-eastern side of the town, in the hills above the harbour and near the road leading up to the castle,” Sakalthôr replied. “It is too dark still to see it from here.”

“You said it was being watched.”

“Aye. Al-Jahmîr caused guards to be stationed close by. Some molested my wife while I was on duty, but luckily she was on her way to work that day, and her master the tailor came to her aid.” He frowned. “I hope they left her in peace while I was away,” he said darkly, concern etched into his features.

“I would suggest rounding the town by a wide semicircle,” said Khorazîr. “Thus, we can remain in the hills hidden by woodland and orchards, and get closer to the castle, and your house. Your wife is bound to have picked up a thing or two in the palace if she still works there, and thus may have some important information for –”

He interrupted himself when suddenly Mezlâr raised a hand to indicate silence and drew two of his daggers, a brief glint in the moonlight. Silently, the guard moved towards the large rock Turgon had used as a lookout. Faramir, too, thought he had heard a rustle behind it. There was the faint sound of a twig breaking underneath a boot. More weapons were readied in the company. Turgon and Aralas fitted arrows to their bowstrings, waiting for an aim to present itself. There was a tense, expectant silence, interrupted suddenly by another, most unexpected sound: soft laughter.

“Well, what now, gentlemen?” said a soft voice in Adûnaic, from behind the boulder. “May I come out, or are you going to shoot or knife me?”

The men exchanged surprised glances. Khorazîr was the first to lower his sword. “You deserve a good thrashing for creeping up on us like this, madam,” he called, laughing as well. The others relaxed.

Climbing on top of the rock, the moonlight illuminating her hard, stern yet still fair features, Narejde glanced down at them. She was clad like a man, in plain, dark clothes, a scimitar at her side and a short-bow and quiver with arrows slung over her shoulder. She shook her head slightly as she studied the company, before turning to Khorazîr. “In fact, you deserve the thrashing, for not keeping better watch, dear,” she told her husband sweetly. “We could have shot the whole lot of you without you taking any notice.”

Khorazîr smiled as he stepped over to the rock, extending a hand to his wife to gallantly help her climb down. “I am obliged you refrained from that, tempted no doubt you were.”

“No doubt,” she teased, leaning to kiss him. He embraced her and returned the kiss eagerly, which showed how much indeed he had missed his wife during the past weeks. His guards exchanged somewhat embarrassed grins, less because of their lord’s and lady’s display of affection for each other, but rather because Narejde had easily slipped past their watch. Especially young Murâd seemed very affected by their failure, and Turgon and Aralas did not look very happy, either, giving Faramir furtive, guilty glances. Sakalthôr was staring at the woman with a mixture of fear and admiration.

“They said she was dead,” he muttered.

“As dead as myself, eh?” replied Faramir with a faint smile. “I take it you have heard a tale or two about her?”

Sakalthôr nodded. “We are forbidden to even mention her name in public. I knew a man who did once. He did not remain in service long but disappeared. Al-Jahmîr hates her, and punishes all who speak of her.”

Apparently, Narejde had caught his words, for she turned to him. “Oh yes, the Snake hates me, but not as much as I hate him. And he fears me even more.” She studied the Umbarian keenly. “You look like one of his guards,” she said with some sharpness.

“He is our prisoner,” explained Khorazîr. “I will tell you all in a moment. Where is Azrahil? You did not come alone, did you?”

“Azrahil is waiting at our … accommodation, for lack of a better word. I did not want him to come tonight. He is in a dark mood at the moment, poor boy. I shall tell you about that later. I have six men with me, hidden in the underbrush. I had to make sure of you first. Now, who have we assembled here?”

Releasing Khorazîr’s hand which she had held, she walked from one man to the other. Mezlâr and Hâmadar gave her a smart salute, and Lôkhî even a short, but rather mocking, bow upon which she clicked her tongue and laughed. “Always the gentleman, eh, Lôkhî?”

The small, stocky man grinned broadly. “Always, m’lady.”

Murâd bowed as well, his face flushed. Narejde clapped his shoulder. “I see you have been looking well after my dear husband, Murâd.” He flushed even deeper, but looked somewhat pleased and relieved as he nodded.

Greeting the two rangers with a nod to which they saluted like the guards, she came to stand before Faramir who had risen from his seat. She gazed at him silently for a moment, as if searching for words, before reaching for his hand which she clasped briefly but firmly. “You look quite alive for a reportedly dead man.” She smiled grimly. “Al-Jahmîr does not know yet what trouble he has invited by doing what he did to you. But soon he will. I look forward to the days to come, when we pay him back every bit of the malice he used on you and your family.”

_________________
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PostPosted: Sun 23 Sep , 2007 3:31 pm 
A maiden young and sad
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Cerimë 25th
The morning after her argument with Al-Jahmîr, Éowyn woke slowly. Sleep had not returned quickly after Aliah had settled, and now she felt as though she had not slept at all. Her mind felt foggy, and even opening her eyes took effort. She stretched gently, feeling aches in her back and shoulders from where she had fallen against the garden wall the night before. When she flexed her hands, sharp, needle-like pains shot through her palms, indicating that the scrapes there were still fresh. She sighed, supposing that the night could have gone worse had the Snake not left her alone after his first outburst.

Hearing what sounded like soft sniffles, she looked over to see Aliah curled up tightly with her back to her. “Are you awake?” Éowyn asked softly, reaching out to touch the girl's shoulder lightly.

Aliah's dark hair moved slightly as she nodded, and Éowyn heard her give a long, shaky sigh. She rolled over, and in the pale morning light, Éowyn could see bruises forming on her face. Her eyes were red and puffy, and tears had mixed with the colored powder around her eyes and had left long, faint trails down her face. Fear and despair mingled in her expression as she bit her lip and wiped away fresh tears.

“W-what's going to happen t-to me?” she said, hiccuping. “Is he going to send me away?”

“I don't know,” Éowyn replied quietly, brushing back a lock of tangled hair that had fallen across her face. “Who can say for sure what goes on in his mind?”

“I was a bad consort,” she whispered. “I couldn't do anything right. He was angry with me from the start. I spilled the tea, and --”

Éowyn shook her head. “I am almost sure he was never angry with you or about anything you did. He and I had been together in the gardens earlier last night, and I said some things that put him in a foul mood.” She paused. “I'm sure whatever he did to you he wanted to do to me, but since he couldn't, you bore the brunt of his anger. Perhaps it is I who should be offering you an apology.”

“No,” Aliah argued, “he never said a word about you, only how I wasn't doing this or that properly or how any properly trained consort would know the best way to do this or how if I was so-- so miserable at doing even simple things that there was no way I'd be able to please him in--”

“Aliah, you could have done everything perfectly last night and he still would have found something to criticize,” Éowyn told her firmly. “Maybe even Rashidah could not have pleased him. Like I said, he was angry with me and could not give me the punishment he felt I deserved.”

The girl twisted a strand of her hair around her finger, clearly thinking about Éowyn's words. Her eyes darted back and forth before calming and growing misty. “But you do not have to face him again like I do.”

Éowyn opened her mouth to say of course she would have to face the Snake again and that she was his prisoner after all, but the girl shook her head. “No, you...” She rolled her eyes up, trying to stop more tears from forming, even as a lump formed in her throat. “You are his precious prize,” she said almost bitterly. “I am just a consort that can be bought and sold at any time. He went through too much to get you. He won't get rid of you just because of one argument. I failed as a consort. I'm good for nothing, and he'll probably send me away later today, and--”

“Enough of that,” Éowyn said sternly. “You will only make yourself feel worse by talking like this. Wait and see what happens. Perhaps things will not turn out as bad as you imagine them.” She sighed and shifted so she was lying on her back. Her eyes darted over the rough stone ceiling, looking at the pattern in the stone but not really seeing it. She knew Aliah was afraid, but she also knew she could do little to help her. Perhaps if things turned bad, she could speak to al-Jahmîr on the girl's behalf, but could anything she say change his mind once it was set? You convinced him to let Miliani be your maid again, she remembered. So, maybe you can sway him from time to time.

“I want to go home,” Aliah said quietly, the sound of the incoming tide almost drowning out her words. “Right now I'd be helping my mother get breakfast ready, maybe seeing if any of the chickens had laid eggs overnight or getting some pears from the tree we have.” She sniffled. “Then I'd work on embroidering shawls with my sisters, showing them how to do the stitches and the patterns. Or maybe we would go to the market to see if a trader had arrived with new fabric or finer needles or delicate thread.” She laughed mirthlessly. “One time when I was younger, my sister and I met a trader who convinced us to buy thread he promised would never tangle no matter how careless we were with it. Well, we bought several spools of it, and it was so expensive too. When we got home, we discovered his trick. It tangled just as much as any other thread we used. Mother made us go back to the market to get our money back, but he was gone. We never saw him again.”

“If I was home right now,” Éowyn began, “I would probably be getting my boys dressed and going down to breakfast with them. Later we'd go out to the garden so they could play. Elboron would want to go see the frogs and fish in the ponds, Peregrin would want to go poke around in the hedges for rabbits or hedgehogs. Meriadoc would be content just rolling around on the grass or following his brothers around.” She smiled, despite the tears welling in her eyes as she imagined her sons in their favorite playtime places. “After lunch and their naps, we would go down to the stables to visit the horses and give them a treat or brush them. All three of my boys love vising the horses, especially my horses and their dadi's horses. Sometimes Faramir takes them one by one for a ride on his horse, and I can hear the little ones squealing and laughing as they go trotting by. That must seem like such a fast pace to them.”

The silence stretched between them as each continued with her own thoughts of home, of memories, sights, sounds, smells, sensations that could not be expressed in words, only remembered and experienced by the inner self. Éowyn knew that if she really were home at this moment, she would be watching Faramir as he slept, noting by the lines on his face whether his dreams during the past night had been pleasant or troubled. If he appeared troubled, she would drop a light kiss on his hair, hoping to drive away the bad dreams with her touch. Maybe she would also find that one (or more) of her sons had sneaked into the room during the night and crawled between them, curled up with a Horsey-doll or favorite blanket. She and Faramir tried to discourage such intrusions, saying that big boys needed to sleep in their own beds, but it was nice to know that their children wanted to be close to them. Plus, spending the early mornings snuggling and whispering secrets or wondering when dadi would wake up (often she had to convince a little one that jumping on him to wake him up was not an option) were some of her fondest memories.

“Have you finished mourning him?” Aliah asked suddenly, pulling Éowyn from her thoughts. The girl turned to look at her. Upon seeing her puzzled look, Aliah continued. “Your husband. You were talking of him just now, but I haven't heard you weeping for several days.”

Éowyn blinked rapidly as she thought of how much she could, or even should, say. She probably could trust the girl with some information, but doing so was very risky. Aliah was young and still easily frightened, so any pressure from al-Jahmîr could make her tell secrets. But she also did not want to lie to the girl.

“The pain has eased somewhat,” she said after awhile, choosing her words carefully. “I still miss him terribly, and that may never lessen, but the worst of the pain has gone. Part of him will continue to live on in our sons. Already our eldest looks so much like him. He even acts like his father from time to time.” Her smile trembled. “He may not be with me now, but he has not left me alone.” She flinched slightly as the baby gave a surprise kick. No, I am not alone.

Aliah nodded faintly as the silence returned. After several minutes, she shook herself slightly and sat up. “I should return to my rooms before someone starts looking for me.” Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, she screwed up her face and shook her head. “I look terrible,” she murmured. Éowyn nodded in sad agreement. Bruises stood out on her cheeks and arms, and Éowyn could see other marks on her neck and shoulder. There was clear evidence that the girl had gone through quite an ordeal last night.

Aliah stood and wrapped her arms around herself, staring at nothing in particular. “What if he does decide I should stay? What if he calls me again? I dread facing him again.” She buried her face in her hands.”

Éowyn rose and embraced her gently. “Do not worry about that until the time comes. For now, get some rest and have some breakfast. Maybe that will help you feel better.”

Aliah's first glance told her the girl did not believe a word of it, but then she nodded slightly and shrugged. “Maybe. Thanks for letting me stay with you. I couldn't bear to face the others.”

“I don't blame you,” Éowyn said, smoothing back strands of her hair.

Once Aliah left, Éowyn rolled her shoulders gently, noting that several muscles protested the movement. She felt achy all over, especially in her back from where she had fallen against the wall. Her appearance in the mirror startled her. Dark bruises had formed along her jawline where the Snake had gripped her tightly and additional bruises from his slaps covered her cheeks. Her whole face felt swollen and tender. She had Miliani draw a hot bath, which helped soothe some of the aches she felt. Her hands stung as she soaked them in the soapy water.

“It's terrible what he did to you,” Miliani said as she helped Éowyn dry her hair. “It's not like you're a serving girl or someone like that.”

“In his eyes, maybe I'm not much more than that,” Éowyn said. “Who knows how he decides what people are worth? Right now I'm most valuable to him alive, if not entirely unscathed.” Let's hope that I'm never worth more dead. The thought made her shudder. The Snake may control her life for now, but she could not see what could make him decide that her death was most advantageous. Surely he realized that her life would be all that kept Gondor from retaliating instantly and fiercely. She was his defense, his weapon, and always his bargaining chip.

“Will you be going to the stables today?” Miliani asked hesitantly.

Éowyn saw the girl frown slightly when she nodded. “Yes, but I don't know whether I feel up to riding. Yesterday took a lot out of me.” The maid seemed mollified by her answer and went to fetch clothes for the visit. Once Éowyn had finished dressing, Miliani unfolded a delicate veil made from yellow tulle and embroidered with flowers in fine thread. She helped her twist part of it up into her hairstyle while leaving enough of a length for Éowyn to cover her face to hide her bruises. Éowyn hesitated before deciding how to wear the piece. She did not want to appear to be cowering from the Snake, and yet she did not want people asking too many questions about what had happened to her. In the end, she settled on keeping the bottom part of her face covered. Studying her reflection, she noted that the veil hid the bruises enough to make someone think they were just shadows on her face, as long as they didn't look too long at her.

Her guard snickered when she appeared at the entrance to the women's quarters, but otherwise he made no comment about her appearance. She glared at him over the veil and moved on. She was a bit surprised that the Snake had not forbidden her from going to the stables again. It was an ideal way of once again showing that he was in control, but neither her escort nor any of the other guards they passed on the way out to the grounds attempted to stop her passing.

She walked slower today than she had in days past. The warm sun on her shoulders eased some of the aches she felt. At some points during her walk, she was able to see over the main wall surrounding the castle. Once she noted a company of soldiers drilling on one of the outlying grassy fields. They were too far away for her to make out any detailed movements, but their tight movements in formation suggested good training. Sunlight glinted off of silver helmets and kept the men from blending in completely with the grass. Éowyn wondered if this was regular training or if they were preparing for some special mission. The path dipped again, and the soldiers were lost from sight.

Hazadai met her as she arrived at the stables. His concerned look grew deeper as she drew closer, and she knew that her mask hid nothing from him. She was grateful that he did not comment about her attire until after she had begun grooming her horse.

“Rumors are flying that you two had a row,” he started quietly, idly untangling some hairs out of one of the brushes, “but I had hoped that they were just that.”

“I wish they were, too,” Éowyn answered. She took a hoof pick from the bucket and began scraping out clods. How many times today would she have to repeat this story? If rumors were going around as quickly as he said, perhaps she would only have to correct details instead of starting from the beginning every time.

Hazadai continued after a long silence. “I believe I've found something similar to what you were asking for the other day, with the poles. They're set up in the south schooling ring.”

Éowyn leaned against the horse, resting her arms across the mare's back. “Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate your effort, but,” she paused and let out a breath, “I don't think I'll be riding today.”

The stablemaster nodded. “I think staying on the ground is the wiser decision today,” he agreed. He appeared ready to say something else when someone called for his attention and he went to see about the matter. Éowyn finished grooming the mare and stepped back to admire her handiwork. “Mitheryn, when did you become such a good looking girl?” she asked as the horse snuffled around in the feed trough, looking for any stray grains. She rubbed the mare's neck and settled down into some of the clean straw piled in a corner of the stall. The horse finished hunting in the trough and came over to investigate Éowyn, sniffing her hair and blowing gently in her face before nudging her shoulder.

“No, I didn't bring you anything today,” Éowyn said, reaching up to cup the soft muzzle in her hand. “I'm afraid I ate everything you would like for breakfast. Unless you happen to like fried eggs.” The horse snorted and turned away. “That's what I thought.” She leaned her head back against the wood paneling and closed her eyes briefly.

She didn't realize she had fallen asleep until a fly buzzed around her face and landed on her cheek. She twitched awake and shook her head. When she tried raising a hand to shoo the fly away, she found that someone had covered her with a light blanket decorated with thin black and gray stripes. “How long have I been asleep?” she wondered aloud, pushing the blanket aside. She glanced at the horse, which had dozed off as well, its head so low its nose almost touched the ground.

Éowyn figured she could not have slept for too long, otherwise her guard would have surely made some sort of annoyance by now to wake her up. The shadows had not changed much either, so she guessed she had slept much less than an hour. Standing, she brushed the loose straw from her skirts and adjusted part of the veil that had slipped. “Come on,” she said, scratching between the mare's shoulders. “It may be warm, but that doesn't mean we should be lazy.” She tied a lead rope to the halter and led the horse outside. Éowyn was surprised to find the day had gotten considerably warmer since she had first stepped out. The air felt thick and heavy, as though it was just about to rain, but the only clouds in the sky were small and white. She felt sweat begin to trickle down the back of her neck after only a few steps. Ridding herself of the veil would help cool herself down, she knew, but a stubborn streak told her to leave it on. She had seen many other people wearing much heavier clothing in this heat. If they could bear it, so could she.

She followed the lane as it wound through the nearer orchard, finding relief from the sun under the shady trees. The mare frisked beside her, shying away from the occasional moving shadow. The fruit here was nearly ripe, and sometimes a soft thud could be heard when an early-ripened fruit fell from its branch. Éowyn heard the footsteps of her guard following behind her. He had not looked pleased when he found out they would be walking today. Well, he rarely seemed pleased about anything that had to do with her, now that she thought about it. She glanced over her shoulder at him. From time to time she wondered what his specific orders were concerning her. He had not tried to stop her from looking around the grounds or talking to people, but then again, so far she had not pushed the limits too much. Did he give reports to the Snake about her excursions? Did he merely say where they went, or did he comment about her behavior and mood as well? She wondered if he was really as sour as he appeared or if he had acquired those traits through years of service to the Snake.

“What's your name?” she asked suddenly, slowing her pace and turning slightly to him. He grunted and shifted his gaze toward another line of trees. “Shall I make one for you?” she continued. “I'd like to put a name to the face that trails me every day.”

“Roshin,” he said curtly.

“Ah, so you do have a name,” Éowyn replied. “How long have you worked for the Snake, Roshin? How does one rise to the glorious position of a lady's escort?” She had her back to him again now, and she grimaced at her ill-chosen words. She doubted he found much honor and glory in following an injured prisoner around for hours at a time.

“My duty's to guard you and ensure your protection,” Roshin said through gritted teeth. “Not be some serving maid for you to gossip with.” Those were the last words he gave her, even as she pestered him with other questions and speculations.

Éowyn finished her circuit of the orchard and followed the lane back toward the stables. The lane split before it reached the stables, and on a whim, she followed the fork. Short scruffy bushes lined both sides of the lane, some with a few white petals still mingled among the leaves. A yellow lizard peered out from under one bush, then scurried away from the edge of the path as the pair drew closer. The breeze kicked up tiny dust whirls and blew them out just as quickly.

Éowyn was about to turn around and start back for the stables when she noticed what looked like a second set of stables in the distance. Curious, she continued toward them, and soon found out that her guess had been correct. It was smaller than the one she frequented, though it was styled in the same fashion. She figured it probably held fewer than twelve stalls. As with the other stable, this one had a schooling ring nearby where someone was working a horse through a pattern along one side of the ring. Down the center of the ring stood a series of poles several lengths apart. Éowyn guessed this was the south ring Hazadai had spoken of earlier.

While she watched, the rider finished working his horse, dismounted, and led it out of the arena as another rider on a dark brown, nearly black, horse rode in and took several slow laps around the ring. The horse had other ideas about what should be happening, and tried breaking into a canter or shied away from the railing, side-stepping and snorting loudly. When the pair reached the far end of the ring, the rider had the horse stand still, facing the line of poles. Éowyn led her horse up to the railing and rested her arms on the top rail, knowing what was coming. She watched as the rider's horse pricked its ears up fully in anticipation.

With a cry, the rider released the tension he'd held on the reins and sharply nudged the horse into action, though Éowyn could tell that the creature needed little additional encouragement for this exercise. The horse galloped to the first pole and veered to the left, slowing suddenly to make the tight half-turn to go around the pole, then shifted to the right to dodge the next pole, left, right, left right, left, right through the line of eight poles. When the pair reached the last pole, the horse made another tight turn, kicking up a cloud of dust, and broke into a gallop as it raced parallel to the poles, finishing at the same end it had started from. The rider stood in the stirrups and patted the horse's neck, taking it for another lap around the ring to cool down.

Twenty seconds, Éowyn thought. He's good.. An exercise like that required training a horse to respond to the reins well, in addition to great balance and control from the rider. A child could take a pony through the same course at a walk, but increasing speed provided a greater challenge. The weave could provide hours of entertainment at a fair, but it could also be used to train a horse to dodge enemy foot soldiers on the battlefield.

The first rider returned from stabling his horse and leaned against the rails near where the horse and rider stood. Éowyn watched them talk for a few moments and was about to leave when the rider turned his horse and moved it away from the rails. The horse stood still for a moment, then reared up, its forelegs kicking slowly in the air as it worked to keep its balance. Her eyes grew wide as the horse hopped several times, then dropped back onto its front legs, shorting and shaking its head. “How did he do that?” she exclaimed. It was not unheard-of for someone to teach a horse to remain reared for several seconds, but to get it to jump like that?

She started over to where the two men were talking again, and as she did so the rider took his horse for another go. This time the horse worked up a bit of speed before leaping into the air, tucking its forelegs up while kicking out with its hind legs, momentarily a straight line parallel to the ground, before landing and being praised by its pleased rider.

“How did he do that?” Éowyn asked the onlooker.

He glanced her way, then did a double-take. “What the hel--”

“You're not supposed to be here.”

Éowyn looked up, shading her eyes, to see Adûnakhôr looking down at her from atop the sweating horse. He did not appear to be angry or annoyed, merely surprised at her presence. She straightened. “I wasn't told that I couldn't come here,” she said, “and apparently Roshin wasn't told either, for he did not try to stop me.” She saw Adûnakhôr's gaze flicker to her guard and then back to her. She stroked her horse's neck. “How did you get your mount to do those maneuvers?”

He cocked his head. “Perhaps you are allowed down here, but I know you're not allowed to know all our secrets.” Éowyn raised an eyebrow. “Practice,” he said, leaning forward. “Lots and lots of practice.” His companion snickered. “Maybe you picked up on something while you watched, but even if you did, it would take years for your horse to learn, if it ever did. Mares generally don't have the strength that stallions do, and that strength is what's needed for the more complicated exercises.”

At least he's talking about it, even if in riddles and jabs, she told herself. “Do you have any other horses that can do what I just saw?”

He leaned back in the saddle, thinking. “I know thirty horses that can do those tricks, in various stages of training, of course. Some are quite accomplished like Aldazar here,” he slapped his horse's neck lightly, “and others can get off the ground.”

“But why? Such tricks hardly seem practical for anything.” She watched his reaction carefully. He smiled slightly and seemed to be choosing how he was going to answer.

Finally, he said, “Since when has art ever been practical?”

“You're training war horses.”

Adûnakhôr laughed softly. “War horses? Dear lady, these tricks would be near impossible in the heat of battle, as I'm sure you could see. Too much noise, confusion, the horse wouldn't be able to concentrate. But enough of this idle chatter,” he said, swinging his horse around. “I have other things to see to, and you should return to the castle before you sunburn again.”

You really are your father's son, Éowyn thought bitterly as she watched him ride to the center of the ring, between two of the poles. She waited a few more moment, hoping to see some other spectacular feat, but she was disappointed. Clucking softly to the mare, she turned and started back to the other stables. After she put the horse away, she sat on a bale of straw set against the wall and pulled the veil from her face, using it to dab at the sweat on her forehead and neck. She stopped suddenly. He didn't say anything about my face, she realized. He had looked right at her and not even blinked at the difference in her appearance. She wasn't sure if she should feel grateful or angry at his ignorance. She clenched the thin fabric in her hand.

“Easy, lass. What's gotten you so angry?”

Éowyn looked up as Hazadai sat beside her on the bale. “Adûnakhôr! He didn't say a thing even though I'm sure he could see his father's handiwork all over my face.” The words spilled out of her as she watched the dust drift in the sunbeams. “Not an apology, not an attempt at an explanation, not a word.”

“That young man is in a precarious position right now,” Hazadai said slowly. “By remaining loyal to his father, he damns himself to whatever fate awaits the old man, whether that be success or failure. Should Gondor deliver a crushing blow because of you, well, his future is bleak. All of our futures are,” he added quietly.

“Then why not turn against him? Surely he cannot believe that was his father does is right and just?” She shook her head. “How can anyone stand by a man who orders the murder of children, tries to execute their father, and kidnaps their mother?”

“Adûnakhôr has seen what happens when family betrays family. His own brother is rotting in a hole at his father's command because Minastîr thought he could overthrow his father. It's only a matter of time before Marek has him killed. I think Adûnakhôr knows that should he try to imitate his brother, it would be almost an instant death sentence for him.”

Éowyn shuddered. “How can a father do that to his own sons?” she wondered. It tore at her heart to punish her own children if they were disobedient, and how little that was compared to ordering their deaths.

“Sometimes we Umbarians take matters of loyalty to the ultimate end,” Hazadai said sadly. “Perhaps that's a flaw on our part. Sometimes it's easier to go along with a family member than trying to tell them what they're doing is wrong.”

Éowyn nodded slowly. She knew the latter to be true, but that seemed hardly like an excuse for murder and destruction. “I suppose I'll never understand your rules of loyalty,” she said finally.

“As for why I stay,” Hazadai said quietly at the same time, “it's as complicated as Adûnakhôr's situation. Should I have a row with Marek and tell him what I really think about the things he does? Should I survive that and get out of here with all my hairs still in place, where would I go? Gossip spreads faster than a single person can travel. No ship would take my passage, and for miles around people are loyal to Marek out of devotion or fear, and neither of those qualities is quick to harbor someone at odds with an al-Jahmîr. No, I stay because I have been here too long. Starting over would be far harder than giving up the life I lead now.” He paused. “I know that's not the most noble of reasons, but life is not always as simple as black and white, good and bad. Most of us have to stake a place somewhere in between and get by.”

Long after she had gone back into the castle and changed out of her dusty clothes, Éowyn thought about his words. He'd said that life was not always as simple and good and bad, but she had seen good and bad and knew the difference. But even good people have their bad qualities, and a terrible situation can have moments of hope, part of her said. Despite these hints of doubt in her mind, nothing could convince her that al-Jahmîr was capable of goodness. Sure, he could dote on his grandchild or, as Hazadai had mentioned as they walked out of the stables, authorize a widow's harvest through the orchards and fields once the paid workers had gone through the crop. (Hazadai said it was an old practice to let widows and the elderly from the town have a chance to gather up free of charge what crops the harvesters had missed or deliberately left behind.) Éowyn felt certain that such a display of generosity was based more in tradition than in actual goodwill.

Al-Jahmîr did not call her to lunch today, and she was not very surprised at his silence. She had seen enough of him lately as well. As the afternoon wore on, she fell asleep in one of the stuffed chairs in her sitting room while working on the beginnings of a blanket for her baby. The warmth of the sunlight pouring through the windows had lulled her into drowsiness and eventually full sleep. She did not even notice when Miliani tugged a screen into the room and set it up by her chair lest she get sunburned again. When she woke, she had to admit she'd been somewhat startled to look up and see painted hummingbirds and jasmine bushes where a view of the sea had been earlier.

As evening closed in, she half-expected to receive a note from the Snake, if not telling her to come to supper then at least making some snide remark, but none came. She took her meal in her own rooms again, rather pleased that she had gone a whole day without having to see the Snake. Her face and wrists still ached, but the swelling had gone down. Lael visited her after supper, but the conversation was slow, often broken by long silences and diverted gazes. The girl seemed distracted by her own thoughts, but when Éowyn tried to get her to talk about them, she only smiled sadly and changed the subject.

Before she went to bed that night, Miliani brought her some cool, damp cloths to hold against her injuries and smoothed and ointment on them after that. When she looked in the mirror the next morning, though, the marks were still a mix of dark purple and blue. The dark bruises seemed to match the dreary day. A steady rain carried in from the sea was falling, and occasionally a rumble of thunder rattled the glass in the windows.

When Miliani appeared mid-morning carrying a note, she steeled herself, expecting her bliss at having avoided the Snake would come to an end. It was an invitation to lunch. However, it came from Inzilbêth and not her father-in-law. For the first time in a very long time, Éowyn found herself fretting about her looks. She knew Inzilbêth would have questions about her bruises, even if her husband chose to ignore them. Miliani tried to cover the ones on her face with creams and powders, but she could only lighten the color somewhat. After washing her face after a third attempt at concealing the marks, Éowyn said that she'd rather go in her plain face (which brought quiet protests from the maid) than as some overly-painted caricature

Inzilbêth gasped when she saw Éowyn for the first time. “What happened to you?” she asked, carefully looking at Éowyn's face and wrists.

Éowyn glanced over to the table where Adûnakhôr sat reading a letter or some other document. He seemed engrossed, unaware of the ladies' conversation. “Your father-in-law did not appreciate my conversation,” she replied quietly.

Inzilbêth clicked her tongue and whirled to face her husband. “Is this true?” she snapped. “Is he really beating her?”

Adûnakhôr looked up from the papers. “Apparently so,” he said wearily. He seemed to have been anticipating her questions but had been unable to come up with a better answer. Inzilbêth started to ask another series of questions, but a sharp look from him stopped her in mid-sentence, though it did not stop her from clicking her tongue in irritation. “Perhaps we will speak more of this later,” she said under her breath to Éowyn.

As she sat down, Éowyn felt her mouth begin to water at the smell of roast duck coming from one of the covered trays a servant had set on the table. Occasionally her appetite still left her, but more and more often she found herself hungry for a filling meal or even something to keep her satisfied between meals.

At first conversation stayed on neutral subjects, such as the sudden gloomy weather and the variety of spices used on certain dishes in the meal. Inzilbêth still was not satisfied with the answers to her questions, and her irritation showed. She tore into a cut of duck with such a vengeance that her husband remarked softly, “I believe the bird is already dead, love.”

Inzilbêth slammed the flat of her knife onto the table. “He has no reason to hurt her like that,” she stated. “After all he went through to bring her here, you'd think that he--”

“That's enough, Inzilbêth.”

“--wouldn't be the one to beat her as though she were a kitch--”

“I said that's enough,” Adûnakhôr repeated, his dark eyes flashing. His wife glared at him but held her tongue, barely.

“He has tried to kill my husband several times, and ordered the death of my sons, and even my own,” Éowyn said softly. “So what makes you think that just because I am here that I am safe from him?” She saw Adûnakhôr clench his jaw.

Inzilbêth's eyes darted back and forth as she tried to come up with an answer, but the words refused to appear. Finally she shook her head and looked down at her plate. Éowyn glanced at Adûnakhôr. He met her gaze evenly.
“Surely you know that when Gondor comes for me, your father will not be able to stand against them,” she said softly. “Elessar will crush him and all those around him. Do you think there will be any mercy for you or your family?”

“Do you really think that Gondor would deal a crushing blow with you still here? You are our shield,” he said softly. “A thin, flimsy shield.”

Éowyn raised an eyebrow, noting the cynicism in his voice. “If Gondor cannot get me out before striking, then they will strike anyway and hope to reach me in time,” she continued. “You believe this. You are right, I am a thin, flimsy shield. Gondor can survive without me. I have sons who will carry on my house. Long ago, Faramir set the affairs of Ithilien in order should it be without a caretaker. Things would be better if I remained alive, but indeed, 'tis not necessary.”

Adûnakhôr cut into a loaf of bread, no longer meeting her gaze. “You have doubts about your father's success,” Éowyn continued carefully, “and yet you still support him. He could bring all you know and love to ruin, and yet you still support him.”

Adûnakhôr looked up. “He is my father,” he stated. “As his son, it is my duty to support him.”

“Even if what he does is cruel and terrible?” Éowyn felt a chill sweep over her as the man's gaze turned icy. “Why do you help him when you know what he does is evil? Why do you not turn against him, or at least refuse to carry out his schemes?”

“Because to do so unthinkable,” he replied. “It amounts to betrayal. If you can betray your family, your own blood, who else could you be true to? Those who betray their kin cannot have a shred of honor or dignity left. You may not agree with or approve everything that someone in your family does, but you remain by their side because they are an extension of yourself. You would not slice off your own arm, and neither would anyone with a hint of honor cut himself off from his own family.”

“But what if that arm has an infection that leads to gangrene? If the arm is not removed the entire body could die. Sometimes a family member could bring a similar kind of damage to a family by their deeds, and if they are not removed--”

“Enough!” he said coldly. “I will not have this conversation continue. Once I pitied you for those marks on your face, but now I do no longer. It seems you may well have deserved them since you do not know when to stop talking.”

A tense silence followed his words. Éowyn leaned back in her chair, fuming to herself. He knew that his father would not last for long once Gondor unleashed its strength, and yet he refused to save what he could. Fool! Aiding his father would only earn him death, and who could tell what would happen to his wife and child? He was convinced that standing up to the Snake was akin to treason, but this region was subject to Gondor, and Gondor did not look kindly upon traitors to the crown.

A cry from a nearby room broke into her thoughts. Inzilbêth rose and went to see to the baby, her skirts swishing as she went. She had looked to be on the verge of tears herself. Adûnakhôr watched her go, and once she was out of earshot said, “I don't appreciate how you've upset my wife.”

Éowyn stared at him incredulously. “I think she's more upset with your stubbornness and stupidity than with anything I've said.”

“Do you have any idea how hard I've worked to convince her that we could survive this?” he hissed, leaning forward. “We are not stupid. We know that you northerner could obliterate us if not for certain reservations.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Yet somehow I got her to believe that we would make it through all right. Somehow.” He shook his head. “And you had to come in today and remind her of how bleak those chances are. If I have to smuggle her and Dala in a fruit cart to get them out of here alive, believe me, I will.” He looked away.

Éowyn saw the doubts and fears in his eyes before he turned. In many ways he could be like his father, and yet in many others he was drastically different. “Having a child has changed your perspective on things, hasn't it?” she asked suddenly.

She saw him blink as though this was a question he had not anticipated. He ran a finger along the edge of his plate before answering. “Yes, she has,” he said after a long pause.

Éowyn leaned forward. “I know how you can guarantee her safety,” she whispered.

He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can't do that,” he answered just as quietly but with hints of regret.

Éowyn hesitated, trying to find the words to say what she wanted without angering him again. “You would rather risk your daughter's life and future on the slim hope that she and your wife somehow make it out of this castle alive once the tide breaks. If that fails, then you have betrayed them, the family you started, while standing by the old fool who brought their doom upon them.”

Adûnakhôr clenched his jaw, this time while trying to hold himself together instead of in anger. He seemed about to speak again when Inzilbêth's returning footsteps stopped him short. She had Dala, wrapped in a blue and white striped blanket, resting on one shoulder. Éowyn thought she detected slight redness around Inzilbêth's eyes, but otherwise the woman had regained her composure in the many minutes she'd been gone. “Someone decided it was time to wake up,” she said as she sat down, her voice carrying the last remnants of a quiver.

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PostPosted: Sun 30 Sep , 2007 2:19 pm 
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Faramir gave her a weary smile in return. “I understand your desire for revenge, Narejde,” he said gravely, “and there are times when I wholeheartedly share your enthusiasm to dispose of Al-Jahmîr in a swift and most unpleasant way. But right now I simply wish to have my wife back with me.”

Her stern face took on a more sympathetic expression. “Of course,” she said, with a quick, loving glance at her husband. “Of course. And I have tidings for you concerning her – not all pleasant, perhaps, but news nonetheless.”

A frown creased her brow as she gazed over the company. “I shall tell you on the way. We should depart from here. The place is not safe. Hardly any place is for us, at the moment. Moreover, it looks like it is going to rain again soon. We had rain all morning, and I do not like these clouds.”

Indeed, the moonlight had vanished. Looking up, Faramir saw that the silver orb had finally been swallowed by the clouds. The wind had freshened up, causing him to draw his burnous more tightly about himself, as he was beginning to feel cold in his rather sweaty clothes.

Narejde gave a short call like the cry of a fennek, upon which six men stepped out of the underbrush. They were clad darkly, in plain, rather poor attire like farm-hands or low labourers in town, but the way they moved betrayed their firm military training. They greeted Khorazîr and his guards jovially. Faramir surmised they also belonged to his household, men who had been travelling with his wife to serve as her protection – despite her being extremely capable of looking after herself.

“We are going to skip the town by a wide semicircle,” explained Narejde. “When we draw close to our hide-out, this man needs to be blindfolded.” She pointed at Sakalthôr. “I will not take any chances of him running off to his master and betraying our whereabouts, and indeed who he has travelled with.”

Sakalthôr looked like he was about to object, but refrained from it. “If you deem it necessary, lady,” he said submissively.

“I do,” came her curt reply. “Mezlâr, keep him at your side. Rabô, lead the way. Send two men ahead.”

The company set in motion, with Narejde, Khorazîr and Faramir walking at the rear, with Lokhî and another man behind them. “I distrust this man,” she said, giving Sakalthôr’s back a sceptical glance.

“So far he has been very useful,” said Faramir. “I approve of your measures concerning him, but you should be careful to condemn him without having tested him. I may be mistaken in Captain Sakalthôr, certainly, but so far he has made the impression of truly wishing to come over to our side, despite the high risk involved.”

She gave him a long glance. “You always try to see the good in people, do you not?”

“Yes, I do,” he replied with a faint smile. “You of all people should be grateful for that, otherwise you would have been executed as an outlaw all those years ago.”

Narejde laughed, reaching for Khorazîr’s hand. Faramir was touched by this display of affection since previously she had not so obviously sought her husband’s proximity while in company of others. Apparently she had missed her spouse far more than what even Khorazîr had been aware of, who, by his pleased expression, wholeheartedly enjoyed and approved of this change.

“I am truly grateful,” she assured him. “Hopefully you are not mistaken in this man. But you must be eager to hear what we found out. I reckon you know by now that Lady Éowyn is at Ihimbra. I had one of my contacts deliver your message and the bracelet. She did so, grudgingly and in great fear, and met your wife in the women’s quarters. She appears to have very luxurious chambers all to herself, with serving-girls to wait on her. The Snake does treat her as someone special, and she even appears to be enjoying certain liberties, despite being watched very carefully. Anyway, my contact said she personally delivered the items into your wife’s hands. Éowyn looked well – ‘fat and healthy’ is what Izren said. And she reported something else she had picked up.” Narejde hesitated briefly, biting her lip.

“Éowyn is with child,” Faramir forestalled her next words. She blinked surprisedly.

“You know?” she exclaimed, before lowering her voice again. “You know. I am relieved to hear that. It appears that Al-Jahmîr, in not contradicting the rumours that are making the round is trying to imply the child is his own. And I admit that for a moment, when Izren told me what she had heard, I was truly worried. But of course, it was impossible. She had been with him for only a fortnight – too early to detect signs of a pregnancy even if … But this alters things, although it does not improve our situation. How far along is she?”

Faramir shrugged and sighed. “This I do not know. The day we departed from your home, we had a … – well, we quarrelled. She indicated she wanted another child, and I was reluctant to embrace the idea.”

Narejde nodded. “Now I understand why you hardly spoke with the other on the journey.”

“We never made amends before her abduction, and I felt there was something else behind that argument. She must have suspected she was already with child back then. Most likely she did not know for certain, or else I am sure she would have told me. Now, back in Gondor I used the Seeing Stone, and caught a glimpse of her studying her figure in a mirror, and her form seemed somewhat changed already. I do not know how far along she may be. How long can you go without noticing?”

Narejde looked thoughtful. “You were travelling a lot. Then again, she has carried and born children before, so she should have noticed and recognised the signs. And when there is something visible already … some three or four months, I would reckon. Curse it, this only adds to our worries. We have not received any message back from her – most likely she has not yet found a safe way of sending anything out. What got out, however, is plenty of gossip and rumours, as usual. According to the latest ones …,” again she hesitated briefly, not quite meeting Faramir’s eyes which he took as a sign that bad tidings might follow.

Narejde took a breath and gazed at him steadily. “Yestereve one of my informants told me that apparently your wife and the Snake had a bad row in the gardens. He did not know anything for sure about what befell there, but said Éowyn was seen the next day wearing a veil, which she has not done before.”

“You mean he beat her, the rotten coward?” hissed Khorazîr, his eyes flashing – always a sign of great agitation.

“Perhaps,” his wife replied cautiously, all the time watching Faramir with apprehension, as if wondering how much more bad news he would be able to take. “I hope she struck back, and struck hard,” she then added viciously. “She must have given him a good piece of her mind, at least, otherwise I doubt he would have gone that far. Which proves she is still not cowed, and refuses to bow to his foul demands.”

Faramir knew she had added this last bit to try and comfort him. To calm him, too, because if he looked as fell as his felt, he was certain it was a fearsome sight. Despite knowing that there was every possibility of his beloved suffering cruelly at the hands of her captor, so far he had tried to convince himself – for the peace of his own mind –, that surely Al-Jahmîr would wish to keep her unspoilt, as well as taking care not to endanger the child, after going such great lengths to capture her. To now receive information, proof, virtually, for such rumours, as overblown as they were, always had some foundation in truth, shattered the hopes he had set up. Hatred for Al-Jahmîr flared up in him again, sharply and more powerfully than what he had thought possible not long ago, together with an almost overwhelming feeling of absolute powerlessness. Whatever was happening up at the castle, there was no way for him to interfere with it. “What good is that, if it causes him to hurt her?” he returned with some force.

“Would you rather have her submit to his desires, to save her skin?” Narejde asked coldly. “I can tell you a little about that, for I have been through it. And I do not recommend it to anybody.”

“Of course I do not wish her to surrender to his demands,” he snapped sharply – far more sharply than he had intended. Then seeing the look in her eyes, and understanding her last words, he finally subsided, his anger cooling but not dying completely. “Forgive me,” he apologised. “I did not mean to –“

She waved a hand and shook her head curtly, indicating that the topic was closed

There was a tense, uncomfortable silence, until Khorazîr stirred and slightly cleared his throat. “What else have you learned?” he inquired, and Faramir was grateful for the change of subject. “What of Al-Jahmîr and his plans? Have you found out more about his movements? His family, allies, enemies?”

Narejde turned to him, and her features warmed. She squeezed his hand in a gesture of gratitude. Then her face took on a more matter-of-factly expression. “I know he spent some time in Umbar, but returned sooner than he had intended at first. His son Minastir he imprisoned, for siding with the tarks last year. According to what my informants picked up things do not look very bright for him. He might even be executed – yes, Dúnadan,” she added upon Faramir’s surprised expression, “on his own father’s behalf. Why does this shock you? You of all people should be aware of his utter ruthlessness. Why should he treat his sons any better than his other enemies should they become a liability? Anyway, I learned that Khazen, the youngest of his sons is still in Umbar. Not much else was to be learned about him, but I am convinced he is up to some mischief there. As far as I know he is still loyal to his father, so most likely he is responsible for stirring up folk against the tarks in the Great Haven, adding to the worries of your governor. Adûnakhôr, Marek’s middle brat, resides with his father now, despite normally living in Umbar, too. His wife recently delivered a child.” She gave a short snort. “This is why Azrahil is useless as a reliable spy at the moment.”

Recalling what Azrahil had told him the previous year, Faramir understood. “Last summer, Azrahil mentioned he had a sweetheart who was promised to another.”

Narejde nodded darkly, kicking away a stone in frustration – apparently her son’s moods were getting on her nerves. “Her name is Inzilbeth. Some merchant’s daughter. Her father achieved a good match by marrying her off to the Snake’s son last year. Some days ago she bore Adûnakhôr a daughter.”

“Poor Azrahil,” said Faramir, with genuine pity. “It seems after all this time he has not quite given up hope of winning her back. Most likely she was his prime motivation to accompany you to Ihimbra. Did he volunteer for most of the spry-work ‘round the castle, despite the danger of being recognised and caught?”

Narejde nodded, snorting contemptuously. “He is a fool to still pursue her, and I have told him so countless times,” she said curtly. “But he does not listen to me.”

Remembering another of his visions in the Palantír, Faramir whistled softly. “I was not mistaken, then. I saw the birth of the baby in the Stone. I thought the young father looked familiar, but could not place him exactly. Does Adûn resemble his father in looks?”

Both Khorazîr and Narejde nodded. “I have not seen him for several years,” said Khorazîr, “but I recall he has the Snake’s looks. ‘Tis said he remained faithful to him, too, instead of switching sides at the first sign of danger like his brother Minastir.”

“He supports his father’s policies, then?” asked Faramir.

“I am not sure,” said Narejde thoughtfully. “He does value family-bonds, for all that I know. I doubt he would openly oppose his father – especially now when he has a wife and child to look after, and if he values his own life, of course. He rather strikes me as one who tries to stay out of trouble, living comfortably in Umbar. Anyway, Azrahil is convinced Adûn is just as bad as his father, and he is bound on killing him on the next best occasion and winning back his beloved.”

“Idiot boy,” muttered Khorazîr under his breath. “As if that was a solution.”

“I have been trying to restrain him, calm him ever since he heard of the baby,” sighed his wife with a trace of exasperation. “But he is as stubborn and unreasonable as his bloody father. Now I fear he is going to be as reckless, too.”

“This is a dangerous situation,” said Faramir seriously. “A rash, thoughtless act of his might ruin all our plans, which require utmost secrecy. If you wish, I shall have a word with him. I am not sure I will manage to talk some reason into him, but I might as well try. This Inzilbeth, what do you know of her? Has he mentioned what her view of the situation might be? Has he been in contact with her lately?”

“If he has, he has not told me,” replied Narejde with a scowl. “But we have not spoken much since I scolded him for his ridiculous behaviour. He prefers to remain by himself now, avoiding me out of fear of another chiding, or because his stubborn Southron pride forbids it. Only his lion is allowed to come near him. Yes, do have a word with him, and you too, dear,” she said to her husband. “You have more experience with foolish boys of that age.”

Khorazîr chuckled softly. “Are you implying that my son is as foolish as yours?” he asked with mock indignation.

“He is worse,” she returned mischievously. But swiftly her mirth faded again and she sighed, and Faramir noticed how worried about her son she truly was, as well as feeling somewhat embarrassed, helpless and angry at herself that she had not managed to reach through to him.

“As for the girl, there is not much I know about her,” she went on suddenly. “She does not hail from noble stock. Her father is a pottery merchant from Umbar, wealthy and fairly influential in town politics, but nothing beyond that. Al-Jahmîr must have seen something of use in the union, though, otherwise he would not have arranged it. He does nothing without profit to himself. I doubt there was any love involved on either side. Azrahil did not tell me a lot about her, but he seems convinced Inzilbeth loves him still, and needs rescuing from her vile husband. It would be interesting to learn if she believes likewise. You said you saw her give birth in that strange Stone. How come?”

“Éowyn was with her, obviously assisting at childbirth.”

“This is interesting,” mused Narejde. “She must have been invited. It almost looks like she has befriended Inzilbeth. According to my knowledge she only travelled to Ihimbra for the baby’s delivery, so perhaps this is not as strange as it may seem. She is unlikely to have any confidantes among Al-Jahmîr’s consorts (like Éowyn, who, as gossip has it, put the Snake’s favourite in her rightful place shortly after her arrival), and thus would welcome a friendly, sympathetic soul other than these spoiled bitches. And Éowyn has born children before, and is expecting herself … Yes it makes sense.”

Faramir nodded thoughtfully. “You said she had chamber to herself. Does that mean she is kept apart from the other women? What is life in the women’s quarters like?” Then another thought struck him. “Come to think of it, does either of you know what befell Al-Jahmîr’s wife, the mother of his sons – if they have the same mother, that is? I never heard of her. Is she dead, or does she have to share her husband with those consorts?”

Khorazîr let out a short laugh. “Lady Zoraîde had her very own view of consorts and the practice of some of these Umbarian rats of keeping a harem of girls for their pleasure. What I know is based on rumour and gossip mostly, but I can tell you a little about Marek’s wife. She is the mother of all his sons. Unlike his father and half-brother, he seems to have been careful not to sire any illegitimate children, knowing that naught but trouble would arise from it. This has not kept him from entertaining consorts, however, especially after his wife had done her duty and delivered the boys, after which perhaps she was not as nice to look upon as before – although I daresay she was beautiful even then. In fact, she was famed for her looks, as well as her temper. Lady Zoraîde hailed from an old noble family – much nobler, in fact, than the Al-Jahmîrs, that bunch of upstarts who only a century ago were naught but goat-herders in the hills. Her family, the House of Bêlzagar, owned lands south of Umbar, near the city of Azmath: rich lands grown fat with trade and husbandry, but because of their proximity to the desert under constant attack from the fierce tribes. Marek’s father Mahîd had a large host at his disposal, having invested most of his wealth in the raising of a conquering army, and so he lent aid, under the condition that his son and heir (Marek has only two elder sisters, not counting his half-siblings) should marry Zoraîde. ‘Tis said that her dowry exceeded all that had been held customary at the time. It was a very fortunate match indeed, mostly for the Al-Jahmîrs, because now a great portion of the lands went over into their possession. Zoraîde moved to live at Ihimbra. She was proud and wilful, or at least that is how gossip has it, and soon began to alter more than a few things that were not to her liking – mostly having to do with the consorts. ‘Tis said that Mahîd soon began to wish he had not arranged the match, as he found his new daughter-in-law very demanding and difficult to govern. I do not know how Marek got along with his wife, but I would reckon they had a rather interesting relationship. Anyway, I heard that after the birth of their youngest son, Khazen, consorts were again kept at Ihimbra. Zoraîde tried to get rid of them, but failed, and there must have been quite a war raging between her and her husband and father-in-law. She solved the problem in her own style, and took on a lover. This was dangerous, and she knew it, but did not seem to care or take this danger seriously.

“As for her end, the official version spread by Al-Jahmîr is that she was killed by sharks while swimming in the sea one morning, when Khazen was about three or four years of age. Inofficially, ‘tis said Marek had her killed for her adultery and general disobedience. But I believe this to be wrong, also. For another rumour has it that she escaped Ihimbra to live with her lover. As to his identity, again there are several stories. The most persistent rumour puts him among the desert-people. This is the version I like best, given how much the Al-Jahmîr’s have always hated these tribes.”

Narejde had listened to her husband’s account with great interest. “When I arrived at Ihimbra Zoraîde was still mistress there. And you are right: she was a woman you did not want to cross. Even Bataye was sensible enough not to get the wrong side of her. I was gone when her “accident” befell, but I, too, believe she is still alive and was neither killed by sharks nor murdered. In fact, I have sent men south to carefully search for her. If she is still alive, surely soon she will hear of Adûnakhôr’s child. I do not know if she still cares about her sons and their fates, but I would reckon the tidings of her being a grandmother now must be of some interest to her. I am not sure I truly want her as an ally, but on the other hand – I am just trying to imagine what her sudden appearance here would do to Marek’s plans.” She smiled grimly, her eyes glinting in the faint light that was beginning to grow in the East.

“Which plans in particular are you referring to?” inquired Faramir, dark forboding stirring.

She turned to him, and after a long glance said slowly, “Word is making the round that the Snake wants to marry again. And not one of his consorts, as some of them certainly hope. But of course he cannot rightfully do so if we can produce proof he is still legally bound to another woman. According to my knowledge their marriage was never divorced, and if Zoraîde still lives … I wonder what her sons are going to say to her reappearance, either … ”

Faramir snorted angrily. “What if the woman of his choice is still bound to another man? I am not quite as dead as he wants me to be.”

“I doubt he would care,” said Khorazîr, “and would try to bend the laws to his will, or rather, claim that the Gondorian laws that bind your wife to you are not valid here.”

“Could he not simply bend the law in case his wife returns and makes demands?” asked Faramir.

Khorazîr smiled faintly, stroking his beard. “Things are not so easy where our laws are concerned. People are quite conservative in these parts. They like matters like marriages to be arranged and set down properly. And unlike with some of the wild peoples of the South or the East, here a man is only allowed one wedded wife, and a woman only one husband. Also, some of our judges here are very opposed to the Snake and his policies.” He shrugged. “We shall have to wait and see.” Turning to his wife, he said, “I did not know you met Zoraîde. You never mentioned this.”

“There are a lot of things I never mentioned about my time at Ihimbra, to you or anyone,” she said quietly, but with steel in her voice, her gaze fixed on the narrow path before them. “The fullest account of my time there I rendered to you, Dúnadan.”

Faramir nodded slightly, recalling how he had interrogated the captain of a band of fell outlaws years ago, after she had been captured and imprisoned, and was awaiting execution in Gondor. “I doubt I heard the full tale, however,” he said. “Especially the part about Ihimbra and your dealings with the Snake’s half-brother were sketchy at best.”

Her jaw set tight. “And with good reason,” she said, then fell silent again.

Recalling her earlier words concerning bowing to fell masters’ desires for the sake of one’s comfort and safety, Faramir thought he knew why she preferred to keep certain things to herself. All the more he was surprised when, after drawing a deep breath, and letting go of Khorazîr’s hand to walk a little before them, her shoulders tense, she said in a low voice:

“I must have been about fifteen when I entered into Al-Jahmîr’s household. Back then Marek’s father still was master there, and a fell master he was. I had spent about three years in the Harad already, as a slave to several of the noble families of Umbar. In no place I had stayed for very long. Some said I brought bad luck, but fact was that always a point had come when I had had to face demands I was unwilling to perform to. And unlike other slave-girls I had some skill at arms, since I had always tried to pick up things from the guards in order to be able to defend myself, and perhaps to one day find a way of escaping, and returning home. Still there had always been others eager to acquire me, for my foreign looks and my Gondorian accent, so that they could present a slave captured from the great enemy Gondor to their friends.

“Now, in that year bad luck had struck again, and during a feast I had actually wounded my former master’s son with a knife. Al-Jahmîr’s wife was present at this event, and indeed it was her who saved me from a nasty death at my master’s hand, for surely such outrageous behaviour like mine was not to be tolerated in a lowly slave. Zoraîde must have liked my spirit, or else she simply thought that someone like me might stir up things a little at Ihimbra – I doubt that even then, when she was newly wed to Marek, she was ever happy there.

“Well, and so I was moved to Ihimbra, and given the task of attending to one of Mahîd’s consorts (apparently Zoraîde as she moved to live at the castle had tried to get rid of the custom of keeping a harem for good, but had not prevailed against masterful Mahîd). I had been doing only lowly labours, and thus at first enjoyed my new position, with finer clothes and good food. Soon, however, I encountered the downside of it. The scandal at my former “owner” was of course known to the consorts, and they teased me relentlessly whenever they encountered me. I endured their taunting for some time, until my temper again getting the better of me, I struck back, trying to make their life unpleasant with minor things they would not immediately be able to trace back to me. Oh yes, I could be very vicious then.

“Still, since I was treated well by the other servants, even managed to befriend some of them who would look after me, and see that no harm befell me with my straightforward ways, my life was pleasant enough. The thought of returning to Gondor was still present in my mind, but not as much as it had been, and for several years I lived a fairly content life.”

She sighed, apparently lost in memories. Then Faramir saw her tense again, and her hand clench into a fist. “Things changed again when I was about twenty. For in that summer, Zohrân Al-Jahmîr, the Snake’s thrice-cursed half-brother returned from the South. He had been away for military training, it was said, but fact was that he had been away for his own safety, to grow to manhood out of Marek’s reach. Even though he was the bastard son of Mahîd, he was beloved to his father. Marek and he got along after it was certain Zohrân had no interest in the rule of Ihimbra, but they were never close, and I truly doubt the Snake mourned him greatly when he was finally disposed of. Nay, Zohrân certainly had no interest in politics. His passion were feats of arms, and he was accounted a skilled hunter. Not just of beasts and birds, either. He would not only chase his father’s consorts, much to the annoyance of the old man, but enjoy molesting serving girls, either. I was warned not to cross his path, and did my best to stay clear of him, but, well, Azrahil is proof that it did not work out that way.

“I do not remember clearly anymore when we first met. I think it was at some feast he gave for his friends, who were little better than himself. ‘Tis possible it even was at his coming of age, because I seem to recall there were gifts. Anyway, I had been put to waiting on the young men because another girl was ill. At first they did not heed me and the other girls, watching dancers and whatnot. But as the evening advanced and drink flowed more freely, they grew more and more obtrusive, until one of Zohrân’s friends caught another girl as she was walking past, and started molesting her. To aid her, I emptied a cup of wine over his head while walking past, and even cast the cup at him. He let go of the girl, but advanced on me instead. I think I grew rather violent then, which only made matters worse, because his friends came to his aid. In the end it was Zohrân who saved me from their malice, telling them off sharply. I do not know what made him do so, other than desiring me for his own because I had shown some spirit, or simply because I looked different from the other girls he knew.

“I managed to escape that evening, and started plotting my escape in earnest now. But everywhere I went, there was he. For a while he was simply content to watch me at my daily tasks, with this haughty little smile of his, and when I told him, sharply, to leave me in peace, he only stayed on. Once I remember casting a dirty plate at him, but he simply dodged it and remained where he was. I grew more and more irritated by his antics, but also, I have to admit to my shame, a little pleased, that of all the many women in the castle Zohrân Al-Jahmîr, the famous hunter, who despite his birth out of wedlock was one of the most eligible bachelors at that time, now that Marek was married to Zoraîde, should be pursuing me, a lowly slave. He was handsome, too, and not without charm, although even back then he had a cruel and twisted streak to him. Which I should have realised, had I been more attentive, and less … well, less naïve and pleased by his attention. I was such a bloody fool, succumbing slowly to his charm. For he did not stop at watching me. Soon I found little gifts, anonymously placed on my pillow. Small things at first, a fruit, a flower, but after a while they grew more expensive. To this day I do not know why he did that. Wooing a slave girl. He must have been more out of his mind than usual. Or perhaps it was just a twisted little game of his. Or a bet with some of his friends. I do not know, and I do not care. Fact is that even though I continued to treat him with contempt, and kept him at bay when he dared advance as far as to touch me, there is no use denying that finally he won me over. I should like to claim it having been by force, but that would be a lie.

“Oh, I was such an idiot. Of course he did not truly care for me, as later he showed only too clearly. But for a while, I think I believed he did. I was even proud that obviously I, the slave, had become his favourite amongst all the consorts and other girls, at Ihimbra and elsewhere. There was gossip galore, of course, but Zohrân did not seem to care. I got chambers to myself now, in the women’s quarters. I received new clothes and even jewellery. I was allowed to move about more freely, and he even took me riding with him, and knowing that I was interested in hunting because my father had been a hunter, he trained me at arms – which much later he came to regret painfully. I had a very comfortable life, and, again to my shame, I must admit I enjoyed it. I even enjoyed spending time with him. I never loved him, certainly not at much as I hated him later, but … I was attracted to him somehow. There were times when I even considered if he might take me as his wife. What a fool I was! He of course never had such intentions. I was just another of his entertainments, although I daresay he invested a lot of time and effort in me. I am certain he had other women beside me, and was certain even then, but knew that I was special to him, and that he spent more time with me than any of them. More than two years passed like this, until rumours were beginning to spread that Mahîd wanted to marry off his bastard-son to a warlord’s daughter from the South, to gain a larger host. About the same time I found I was pregnant.

“Something told me it would be wise to keep this news from Zohrân, and for a while I managed, but of course not for long. When he found out, and moreover learned that I had withheld the tidings from him for some time, he did not, as I had expected, grow furious with me. He simply saw me less and less frequently. I told myself I did not need him, but truth is that I had grown quite used to him. I hate to admit this now, but thus it was. The thought of not bearing the child never crossed my mind, strange as it may seem. And when at one time he suggested it, since apparently he was still interested in sharing my bed, but out of superstition would not lie with me while I was with child, it was I who grew angry with him. He took that ill, and in his viciousness sought to repay me for daring to oppose his will so. And repay me he did, more evilly than I thought even him capable of.

“The pregnancy was not an easy one. I was lucky to have friends among the women in the palace who looked after me. Zohrân grew ever more coldly towards me, and by doing so encouraged me to oppose him ever more steadfastly. Despite the child having been his, and part of me loathing everything to do with him, I had grown very attached to the little one – as most women would to something accompanying them day and night. Unfortunately, Zohrân learned of it, and devised a cruel plan. The time of birth drew near, and I was confined to the bed. I do not remember much of the actual birth, only the pain. It lasted more than a day, and in the end I lost consciousness. Later I was told I nearly died. When I woke, days later, fevered and utterly exhausted, and asked for my child, I received the crushing tidings that it had been stillborn. Somehow, Zohrân had contrived of taking hold of the babe. Later, when I learned the truth I wondered why none of the healers and midwives attending me told me what really happened, but perhaps they were too frightened of their masters.

“When I had recovered, Zohrân suddenly grew interested in me again, but I hated him with all my heart, suspecting him of having killed my child. Our relationship turned into open war and public battle, so fell that Marek advised his half-brother to dispose of me to have peace again. Which he tried, but without success. He had trained me too well, so that when he set assassins upon me, I managed to evade them. And when he came to kill me with his own hands, I fought and wounded him. With great luck I managed to escape from Ihimbra, hoping to never having to return there.”

+

She fell silent abruptly and raised a hand to brush wet hair out of her face. During her account it had started to rain, softly at first, but by now a steady downpour was soaking their clothes. Despite the heavy clouds having descended on the hills, the light in the East had grown. Soon the sun would be rising behind the clouds. The company had come upon a path that looked like it had been trodden by animals. It wound down towards an even broader road through a forest of pines and stone-oak and little underbrush, where apparently pigs had been put to pasture. Below the forest were groves of olive-trees, and further below orchards and meadows, and vineyards on the steep south-facing slopes. Small huts built out of the red stone of the hills could be seen here and there, apparently used by shepherds and the people working the orchards. The company advanced cautiously, trying to keep screened by vegetation as often as possible, and staying away from any building that looked inhabited.

Faramir and Khorazîr had listened to Narejde’s tale in silence, not daring to interrupt with questions. Casting a glance at the Haradan, Faramir could tell how her account had moved him. He was surprised that she had not even told her husband what she had just recounted. Khorazîr looked torn between anger and pity. At length he muttered softly but quite violently: “’Tis well we disposed of him the way we did.”

She halted to wait for him, and reached for his hand again. Faramir did not see her face as her back was still turned to him, but the hoarse note in her voice as she replied to her husband seemed to indicate that she had not only brushed wet hair out of her eyes. “Even though I swore then I would never return to Ihimbra, I do not rue the fact I did, to get you out of there.”

“Neither do I,” Khorazîr replied, with a gentleness he rarely displayed, and leaned to kiss her, putting his arm round her shoulder and drawing her close.

Feeling like an intruder on the couple’s privacy, Faramir slowed his pace. But Narejde noticed and halted to wait for him again. Her expression was composed again, but stern. “Now you know my tale, Dunadan. And now you know why I hate Al-Jahmîr so much. Still, I daresay the story of my life is of less interest to you right now than what I can tell about life at Ihimbra. You inquired about the women’s quarters and the consorts. Since I shared their quarters for quite some time, I know what it is like there. Things may have changed now – I am certain they did change, after Zoraîde departed –, but since much was founded on tradition, I reckon the customs have been maintained through all these years. According to what we know, Éowyn is not accommodated in the consort’s chambers proper, but has rooms to herself. This is well for her. I doubt the senior consorts are altogether happy about her arrival. There is much competition amongst the girls, and now that Marek seems to be without a wife, some surely hope they are going to be made the new lady of the house. The harem can be worse than a snake-pit, with enough poison spit between the girls to kill off every soul in the castle. I had to endure their malice as well, while Zohrân’s favourite. No doubt Éowyn will have enemies among the girls, although rumours that she gave Marek’s current favourite a good piece of her mind are heartening.”

She smiled slightly. “I would not have expected anything else from her, to be honest. She is a wholly different class from these girls, most of whom can only be pitied. Still, she had better watch her very step, lest they can find anything to use against her. They can be very vicious.”

She went on explaining more about a consort’s life and the customs they were subjected to. Fascinating as this account was, Faramir felt himself grow ever more inattentive. The long walk and the sleepless night, in combination with hunger, cold and the constant rain which by now had soaked his garments to the skin were telling on him. He was in pain, and utterly weary. He was relieved when, at the edge of a rather weedy and untended vineyard they halted, and Narejde announced that Sakalthôr must be blindfolded.

They moved on more slowly, turning away from the town below which had been in constant view, and heading up into the hills, following a narrow, winding path through patchy woodlands until they reached a narrow, gorge-liked valley whence a small stream issued, lined by a once-broad road that now was broken and hardly visible anymore. I was half-blocked by a land-slide already grown with trees and bushes again. Climbing the obstacle was laborious, especially for the men leading blindfolded Sakalthôr, yet behind the tumbled rocks and twisted trees the valley opened again, and Faramir saw that they had reached an old quarry where long ago the red stone of the hills had been broken. For a brief moment he wondered if perchance the stone had been used for building the castle. As he stood gazing at the terraced cliffs rising above them, grown with trees and trailing plants like a dense net, he suddenly became aware that they were being watched. Of course, he reasoned, there would be men guarding the hideout, and keeping it safe from unwanted intruders. He wondered slightly that they had not been challenged – apparently the pickets had recognised them from afar. Nobody could be seen, not even by him who as an experienced ranger knew what to look out for. There were no traces of this quarry being inhabited at all – no smell of fire, no tracks, no camp. Just when he was about to inquire about the place, a low growl in the trees on the slope to his left made him turn and instinctively reach for the scimitar he carried.

“You will not need the sword,” came a voice from the trees. “She has just eaten.” Faramir relaxed, as did the rest of the company, to watch Azrahil step out of the forest, leading his lioness Pharzi on a leash. He was dressed plainly like the rest of Narejde’s men and had a slender composite bow and a quiver of arrows slung across his back. The lioness was trailing after him rather lazily, flicking her ears at the raindrops. Nevertheless the men about Faramir tensed slightly upon seeing the large cat.

After greeting the newcomers with obvious relief, Azrahil cast a glance over the company until his eyes came to rest on Sakalthôr. “What is he doing here?” he inquired rather forcefully, stepping towards the Umbarian who still stood blindfolded, but who appeared to have recognised Azrahil’s voice. He had tensed, and turned towards him, with Mezlâr standing close to him.

“He is my prisoner,” explained Faramir. “And since he has promised his cooperation, he is not to be harmed.”

Azrahil spat. “Cooperation? I would not trust him as far as I could kick him. He is likely to switch his allegiance as readily as the wind turns.”

Sakalthôr stirred at that. “This is a strong accusation, coming from someone generally considered a traitor like yourself, Azrahil,” he returned hotly. With a swift move, Azrahil drew his sword and pointed it at the captain’s throat, who flinched upon feeling the cold metal against his skin.

“Enough!” Faramir called sternly, stepping between the two. “I understand your reservations, Azrahil, but before you attack him you should listen to what he has to tell. I daresay the two of you are in more or less the same situation concerning the Snake’s opinion of you. For him, both of you are traitors. And since apparently both of you are willing to work against him, you should put your differences aside and try and join forces peacefully. Or at least without open hostilities. There is much to discuss and plan, and personally, I should be glad to do so more comfortably, out of the rain.”

Slowly, his eyes still fixed on Sakalthôr with a dark glance, Azrahil lowered his sword. “Of course,” he said. “My apologies for my lack of courtesy. Come on, and I shall show you your new abode.”

He led them along up a short slope to the first level of the quarry. Below, as Faramir could see now, rainwater had gathered to form a round lake whence spilled the brook they had followed to the quarry. On a small greensward not visible from the entrance of the quarry some horses were kept, who stood huddled together. The first level was formed by a broad ledge grown with small pines and evergreen bushes. Large boulders had crashed down from the steep walls rearing up behind them, and between these rocks tents had been pitched, well hidden by the vegetation. Three more men were awaiting them. One was clad as an errand-rider, and was greeted joyfully by Narejde and Khorazîr.

“I have just come from Khîblat Pharazon, lord,” the man said. “All is well there. You son has recovered swiftly, lord, and he has set out to contact your sister and her family in the desert, as well as Lady Melike’s family. They are going to try and rally what desert tribes they can bring to our side. I daresay most will join our cause gladly, as they have been opposed to the Snake for a long time. I am to return to him soon, so if you have any messages for him or your daughter-in-law, I can carry them. Also, if you have word for your rangers, Lord Faramir. Here are the letters I was told to deliver to you.” He handed Khorazîr a parcel wrapped in oilcloth.

The men, except those on watch-duty, had already begun to vanish in the tents. “Breakfast will be ready soon,” one announced, to appreciative comments from his fellows. “Here is a tent for you and your guards,” Narejde told Faramir. “You will find some new clothes for all of you. ‘Tis better to dress like the locals now. Also, I daresay you are going to want to change into something dry.”

+

Feeling he needed to wash properly after the cramped conditions on the ship, and hoping that the cold water would somewhat refresh him and keep him awake, Faramir despite his weariness climbed down to the lake for a short swim, where he was soon joined by several others of the company who apparently had had the same idea. Upon his return to the camp, clad in a plain long tunic held together at the waist by a broad but simple sash, over wide trousers, and covered with a burnous of light wool, he found some of the company gathered in Narejde’s and Khorazîr’s tent. A meal had been set there, and the two together with Azrahil, Lôkhî, Mezlâr and Sakalthôr sat on folded blankets round a brazier of charcoal. Khorazîr was reading his letters, while mother and son and Mezlâr were talking quietly, the guard obviously recounting what had passed in Gondor and aboard ship, with Azrahil now and again casting a dark glance towards the Umbarian.

Indicating that Faramir should take a seat next to her, Narejde said, “You seem to have had quite some adventures on your journey. When you are rested, you can give me a full account. For now you might be interested in what Azrahil has just told me – something he picked up from a shepherd while on patrol yestereve.” Upon Faramir’s alarmed gaze, she waved a hand. “We can trust this man. He lost one of his sons in the Snake’s service some years ago, which has quite influenced his opinion of Al-Jahmîr. And since we buy his sheep for Pharzi (and ourselves) at a much better price than he would receive on the markets, he is willing to aid us, gathering information in town. Anyway, he said that yesterday an official announcement from the castle stated that Widow’s Harvest is about to commence in the days to come. In case you do not know the custom: it means that widows and the poor and elderly are allowed into the Snake’s orchards to gather and pick those fruit left over from the harvest. It is a marvellous opportunity to set foot onto castle grounds and with a little luck get as far as the stables to gather information.”

“This is not all,” said Azrahil, taking a sip of strong peppermint tea from a small cup. “According to the shepherd and others I overheard in town yesterday, a golden-haired lady has been spotted repeatedly riding through the orchards. Some of the harvesters saw her, they claimed, riding a grey horse. Some said the Snake himself was with her, but I doubt that. Fact seems to be, however, that she was accompanied by a guard, or more than one.”

“They would not let her ride on her own, so much is certain,” mused Narejde. “However, it is important that she is allowed to ride out at all. It means she cannot be that far along in her pregnancy, otherwise the healers would forbid it, and it also means the Snakes allows her greater liberties than we thought. Have you found out more about this row they are supposed to have had?” she then inquired of her son. “Has she been spotted in the orchards after this event?”

“The intelligence I received was too unclear to determine that,” replied Azrahil. “I think we will have to do our own spy-work to find an answer to this. I could –”

Narejde shook her head. “Azrahil, I have told you before that it is too dangerous for you to go near the castle. I do not approve of your repeated expeditions into town as it is, but given how few we are I cannot forbid you to go. Al-Jahmîr is likely to suspect or even know that we are in town, and he is going to have people look out for us. Even if you go in disguise we cannot be certain you will not be found out. And if you are captured, what then? The Snake would torture you relentlessly to find out everything you know.”

“And I told you before that I do not fear his torture,” he returned boldly, his dark eyes glinting, displaying a stubbornness Faramir had noted in his mother as well.

“Then you are a fool, Azrahil,” fell Khorazîr in quietly. “You of all people should know what he is capable of. I spent enough time in his dungeons to have an idea of his malice, and I daresay I was never treated as roughly as others. Do you not recall what he did to the Dúnadan here? Do you really believe you could face pain that great?”

Azrahil gave him a long glance, then hung his shoulders. “I cannot just sit around here, either,” he said, with a trace of impatience and frustration.

“You are not sitting around, you are gathering vital information,” Narejde told him soothingly. “You just need to understand that our situation is too precarious as to engage in any recklessness. Do you not think I should like to walk to the castle’s gates all by myself and demand that the Snake should slither out and face me in a duel? Neither Khorazîr nor myself will venture even near the stronghold, since our faces are marked on Marek’s list as prominently as yours. We are not much better off than you are, and this bothers us as greatly as it does yourself. But so is our lot. Others must take over the part of getting into the orchards in the days to come.”

“My lord and lady,” Lôkhî fell in, “if you permit, I’d gladly take over this part.”

Khorazîr smiled and clapped his shoulder. “I would have suggested you go, Lôkhî,” he said appreciatively.

The small man grinned, his eyes twinkling. “I’ll construct a good disguise until tomorrow,” he promised, looking pleased at having been entrusted with this task, but also because he plainly enjoyed an opportunity to work some mischief against their mutual enemy. “But lord,” he said, “as an elderly widow I shall need a strong lad to accompany me to carry my bushels and baskets.”

“Murâd can come along,” said Khorazîr. “He is less conspicuous in looks than you, Mezlâr, or Hâmadar who are easily recognisable as desert folk with your tattoos and weathered features. Also, the lad has developed into a very capable soldier and reliable guard.”

“That may be,” said Narejde, giving Faramir a long glance and a faint smile, “but I should propose someone else to accompany you, Lôkhî. I doubt we would manage to keep him here, anyway, if there is a chance for him to see his wife, if only from a distance. Also, with a little colour to his face and the right disguise, he will make a convincing Southron. I daresay you could act the part, could you not, Dúnadan?”

Khorazîr laughed out loud. “Do not forget, dear, that he is a politician. He can act alright.”

_________________
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PostPosted: Tue 09 Oct , 2007 11:19 pm 
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The prospect of perchance seeing his beloved much sooner than he had dared hope provided Faramir with a bout of feverish energy which banished his exhaustion and prevented him from falling asleep around noon when his weariness reached a peak. Instead, he spend hours with Khorazîr, Lôkhî, Narejde and Azrahil poring over the maps, and listening to another account from Sakalthôr, this time concerning all peculiarities he recalled concerning the Widow’s Harvest and the management of the orchards. Faramir had to constantly caution himself against raising his hopes to high in regards of the outcome of their venture. There was a chance he might indeed see Éowyn, or even talk to her, but this was by no means certain. Not as certain as the peril of the expedition, anyway. More than once Narejde reminded them of the possible dangers resulting from any care- or recklessness.

“I know you yearn to see her,” she said, for the fifth or sixth time during a belated lunch in the early afternoon, when finally the maps had been put away and they were sitting round the brazier again – due to the rain the temperatures had dropped considerably. “But I need not remind you that chances are slight. You might be lucky and espy her from a distance. And what then? She is going to be accompanied by guards, and even though people are given a fairly free rein during Widow’s Harvest, the orchards will be watched nevertheless, if only to prevent folks from quarrelling over the fruit.”

“Security has been increased ever since the events at Kadall,” said Sakalthôr, who during the past hours had become somewhat easier in her and Azrahil’s company, despite obviously still feeling uncomfortable in her masterful presence, and under her son’s suspicious gaze. “And the orchards are no exception. The walls surrounding them are manned doubly at least, and not with the usual lax guardsmen, either, I would reckon. Especially on those days the Lady is allowed to ride there. Even with a good disguise, you will have to expect getting questioned.” He cast a doubtful glance at Faramir and Lôkhî.

The small man smiled. “We’ll manage. I shall do the talking, and I already have an idea for preventing them looking at him too closely. He won’t need to talk, although I daresay he sounds pretty much like one of us by now.”

“Just take care he remains inconspicuous,” warned Narejde. “If somebody recognises him …”

“I will pull myself together, Narejde,” Faramir interjected wearily – by now he could partly understand why Azrahil and his mother had some differences at the moment. “Trust me to be aware of the danger and seriousness of the situation. I do long to see her, but who knows if she will be riding at all. If the weather does not change, or else the Snake has limited her liberties on account of their quarrel, she might not be venturing forth from the castle at all. And in all honesty, what do you expect me to do? Rush towards her, leap onto her horse and ride with her through the gate? As much as I should like to do so, I will not endanger either her or me or you others. I trust you will accompany us, and wait outside the walls?”

“Of course we shall,” said Khorazîr. “If required, and you need to get out of there quickly, we will stage a distraction. Your lion may be useful for that as well, Azrahil,” he addressed the young man who during the past hour had fallen silent, sitting near the flap of the tent watching the rain pouring down, and now and again stroking sleeping Pharzi who had placed herself across the sheltered entry where the ground was still fairly dry. He stirred at the mention of his name and turned towards his stepfather.

“So, I may be entrusted with a task other than sneaking round town after all?” he asked, with obvious bitterness. Narejde rolled her eyes and sighed softly at his moody reply. “Not if you continue to behave as stubbornly and nonsensically as you have these past days,” she returned, rather sharply.

“Erm, if you’ll excuse me, m’ lords, lady,” Lôkhî interrupted them, rising and pulling Sakalthôr to his feet as well. “I’ll take him over to Mezlâr and the lads to watch him, and then see to our disguise. Anything else needed from town?”

“Good tidings,” muttered Khorazîr.

“I’ll see what I can do, lord.” Lôkhî gave a salute, then carefully manoeuvred himself and the prisoner out of the tent without disturbing the sleeping lion.

“Perhaps I should leave as well …,” Faramir suggested tactfully, knowing that another discussion between mother and son was under way, but Narejde shook her head, her swift gaze at him almost imploring him to stay.

“No, stay,” Azrahil invited him too, to his surprise. “I think you have noticed by now that mother and I do not agree on everything concerning this venture. I wish to be more involved. I have as much reason to oppose and annoy the Snake as have you. Even more, perhaps, for the way he has treated me all my life. So why can’t I play my part? I’m good enough for lowly spy-work, but little beyond that, it seems.”

“So far we have not had the chance to do more than ‘lowly spy-work’, as you like to call it,” Narejde returned. “Although in my opinion we have been rather successful. We cannot proceed without proper and sufficient information. We cannot simply storm the castle, although I am sure all of us would like to do so. We have to be patient, and careful, as difficult as this may be.”

“Patience,” Azrahil snorted contemptuously. “How I hate that word. I have been patient all these years, and what good has it done me?”

“Is this about your girl again?” asked Narejde suspiciously. “Azrahil, I have told you before to –”

“Yes, I know,” he interrupted angrily. “You have told me to forget her. Repeatedly. As if that was so easy. All the time we are talking about freeing his beloved from the Snake’s hands. What about my beloved? She has been forced to marry Al-Jahmîr’s thrice-cursed offspring against her will. And now she even has a child by him. Nobody seems to care about her, or me. Yes, I admit I wish to be involved more to get a chance to find out more about her fate. Perhaps even to talk to her, although I know the chances are slight. Is that so difficult to understand? Why should my desire to free her be so very different from his?”

“Nobody said it was different,” Narejde retorted. “I only cautioned against any rash acts on your behalf, and against you endangering yourself. True, I said you should take into account that she may not be entirely unhappy in her new life. She may love you still, but have you considered that she may feel for her husband as well? And if not for him, then surely for her child. People change. And what good will your capture and death to do her, I ask you? If she believes you slain already, and has made her peace with that, ‘tis best for both of you. How do you believe she will react if she learns that you are still alive, but have been caught by her father-in-law. You know what will happen to you if that befalls. Do you truly wish to give her new pain, after she has managed to get to terms with what she has been subjected to, and the fact she may not see you again?”

“Of course not,” he snapped. “But neither do I wish to keep her ignorant of my fate. Just one opportunity to talk to her …” He punched the side of the tent so that a shower of rainwater which had gathered in the folds poured down onto the lioness, who woke with a startled growl, gazing irritatedly at the people gathered inside the tent before rising to stretch and settle down again.

“Azrahil,” Faramir began gently, “all of us are aware of your dilemma, and if we find a way for you to contact her, you surely will not be denied that opportunity. But your mother is right. First we need to acquire more information. Some I have for you already, for I know a little about your sweetheart.” Although he was not entirely certain if it was wise to tell the young man of his vision in the Palantír, for the moment he deemed it best, and thus gave Azrahil a brief account of what he had witnessed. When he had ended, Narejde’s son abruptly stood and strode from the tent, the lioness following him after a moment.

The three remained in silence, gazing after him. “Not sure that was the best way of talking sense into him,” muttered Khorazîr while pouring himself some more tea.

“It was the only way,” Narejde said wearily, holding out her cup for him to refill it as well. “He needs to face reality. She belongs to them now, and what you saw in this Stone about the Snake’s son rushing to her side indicates that apparently he cares for her, and his child. And Marek, for all his viciousness and malice, is bound to dote on his first grandchild. He can be very indulgent – I recall how he fretted over his firstborn.”

“Who now rots in prison,” Khorazîr remarked dryly.

His wife ignored his remark. “Inzilbêth is out of Azrahil’s reach for good, and the sooner he accepts this, the better for him. Oh, don’t look at me like that,” she then told the two men who gazed at her. “Do I seem too hard for you? Too cold-hearted? I know you to be one hopeless romantic, Khorazîr, and I doubt you are any better, Dúnadan. Men!”

She snorted, before taking a sip from her cup. “Do not believe one instant I do not care about him. I pity him, but what use is my pity for him right now? Sentimentality will not improve things for him. On the contrary.”

“I will have another word with him,” Faramir suggested, rising to his feet and reaching for his burnous which he had shed in the warm tent. “I think deep down he knows you are right, although I do not entirely agree with you. Most like I am too sentimental, either,” he added with a faint smile.

“Good luck,” she said, her look betraying her true feelings despite her hard words, and the worry she harboured for her son.

+

The rain had created deep puddles between the rocks and tree-roots, which Faramir navigated carefully, following Azrahil’s and Pharzi’s footprints on the wet ground until he reached a large, twisted pine at the brink of the ledge. In its shelter the young man stood leaning against the trunk, with the lion sitting next to him, rubbing her head against the hand hanging loosely at his side. Down below small rivulets of rainwater could be seen pouring into the lake, and the horses moving about restlessly – apparently they were able to smell the lion and not approving of her presence.

“What do you want?” Azrahil greeted the Gondorian curtly, without turning.

Faramir approached until he stood near the brink, giving Pharzi a watchful glance and noticing she did not wear the leash. She rose and leisurely walked over to him to sniff at his garments, then yawned and returned to her more sheltered spot at her master’s side.

“We need to talk, Azrahil,” he said.

The young man sighed, kicking a pine-cone over the edge. “More talking,” he complained. “I’m sick of it.”

“I daresay you have all reason for that,” said Faramir sympathetically, undeterred by the other’s coldness. “As you pointed out, our situations are not entirely different. I, too, yearn for action instead of having to wait here.”

Azrahil turned to him and gave him a dark gaze. “There is a difference. Your wish to be reunited with your wife the others take seriously. But when it comes to me and Inzilbêth, they believe my love for her to be only a boy’s infatuation. I wooed her in all earnest, you know,” he said bitterly. “I wanted to marry her, and she me. Her father disapproved of the union. I was not good enough for her in his eyes. Thus I tried to rise in his esteem by working ever harder for the Snake, because I knew he respected, even admired Al-Jahmîr greatly. I took errands upon me my conscience cried out against, only to win honour, and the riches he demanded. And for what? For what? In the end she was married off to a man she does not love, and was made part of the most hateful family in all these lands. And I get told to forget about her, and leave her to her fate! How can I, if I still love her? You do not wish to leave your beloved to her fate at the Snake’s hands, do you, only because circumstances speak against your speedy reunion?”

He stooped to pick up another cone, casting it far out so that it was swallowed up by the trees on the other side of the lake. “Mother calls me sentimental, only because she has managed to rid herself of these ‘soft emotions’. For her, they amount to weakness.”

“I think you underestimate her, Azrahil,” Faramir replied gently. “Or you do not know her properly as yet. She is far more sentimental and emotional than she wishes others to realise. The way she acts around Khorazîr is some indication for that. Just watch them when she thinks they are alone. She is not as unfeeling as she pretends. In fact, she cares very deeply for you. This is why she is so worried about you engaging in any recklessness. But hiding her feelings is a way for her to protect herself against hurt. It seems your father did not treat her very kindly, and even though outwardly she displays indifference toward her past, in truth it is troubling her far more than she is ready to admit. And I believe she wishes to spare you the hurt, counselling you to surrender your claim on Inzilbêth and accept what happened, instead of pining away over her, and a matter you can hardly alter anymore. Wait –” he held up a hand when Azrahil was gearing up for a fierce reply.

“I am not finished. What I just described is what your mother believes to be best for you. And for her, were she in your situation, it may indeed be the best solution. But you are not like her in that respect, and I understand your desire to solve this matter differently. It seems to me that you must indeed talk to Inzilbêth, and listen to her opinion. Her husband appears to be supporting his father’s policies, and he must know that if Gondor strikes at the Snake, as it will ere long, the stroke will be that hard and thorough that not only Al-Jahmîr will fall, but all his supporters also. Inzilbêth and her child, if she will or not, will be enmeshed in this, and most likely she will have to decide whether to stick to her husband – which might be seen as prove of her true feelings for him. Or she might refuse, which the knowledge of your presence here, and the fact you still love her could be a motivation for. Thus, I agree with you: she should be told you are not dead, and your feelings for her have not changed. Yet the ultimate decision, the choice between you or Adûnakhôr rests with her, and her alone.”

Azrahil had listened to his speech in silence, yet barely keeping himself from interrupting. His face betrayed his troubled feelings. He saw the truth behind Faramir’s words, but found it difficult to accept. Yet at length he nodded faintly. “But how can I reach her, when I’m not even permitted to go near the castle?” he asked, a trace of true misery in his voice. “Sending her a message does not seem the best way to me – it could easily be intercepted. Also, this is not a matter I’d like to resolve with a short note. I need to talk to her eye to eye. And if she tells me then she does not love me anymore, and wishes to stay with Adûn …” He sighed and pounded the tree-trunk with what Faramir read as a rather desperate gesture.

“You would let her go?” he quietly finished the sentence.

Azrahil did not meet his eyes, staring out over the lake and the cloud-veiled hills. Watching him, Faramir was reminded of a similar situation, when the two of them had stood on the cliffs of Tolfalas overlooking the sea. Azrahil had still been in his half-uncle’s service then, but begun to realise that his prospects for promotion or even survival were small at best. On that day, a dangerous, uneasy alliance had formed between them, and the young man had taken a great step out of the Snake’s shadow. Perhaps Azrahil was recalling the event as well, and how the decision he had made then had profoundly changed his life.

He must have reached a decision in his present plight as well, for suddenly his jaw set tight. “I would,” he said firmly, but then, as if noticing the import of his words, hung his head and reached out to stroke the lioness’ ears, seeking comfort with the animal that began to purr softly.

Faramir gazed at him in a mixture of pity and admiration for his difficult decision, until a dark and unpleasant thought struck him. What if a similar situation should occur to him? What if not only Inzilbêth would be forced to face the choice between two men, but Éowyn also? What if Al-Jahmîr had indeed contrived to win her over, beguiled her with his charm? What if, given the choice, she would prefer to remain at Ihimbra?

Immediately, his mind rallied against the very thought. Surely there was no danger of her succumbing to his charm. She must hate him thoroughly for what he had done to Faramir, proposed to do to their sons, and the hardship she herself had suffered recently. Surely such malice could not be forgiven, or even forgotten. During all the years of their life together, she had not once, even remotely, expressed an interest in another man – not even, he thought painfully, when he had undeniably neglected her. So why should she now choose to remain with a man she could but hate?

But things are not so easy, black and white, love and hate, a small but potent voice persisted. Had not Narejde’s story of her relationship with Zohrân Al-Jahmîr described this only too clearly? People changed all the time. Why should not Éowyn change? Perhaps at first she would only try to protect herself and the unborn child from the Snake’s evil influence. But maybe after a while she would not find his advances too disturbing anymore. She would get used to them, to him, until one day … Had not Khorazîr and Narejde hated each other passionately at first? And now they were married happily.

Stop it! he commanded himself sternly, knowing that if he allowed such thoughts to prevail, they would poison what hope he had for winning back his beloved. Trust her, and her love to you, which she has proven so many times. She would never willingly desert you. She will return to you, and to your children. Still, despite these convictions, a tiny spark of doubt remained.

He stirred in surprise when he felt something touch his leg, and turning, he found himself looking down into the yellow eyes of the lioness. Stepping softly as was her wont, Pharzi had come over again and begun to rub against him. He tensed slightly, only too aware that he was close to a dangerous predator that only chose to be docile for the moment. Cautiously, he began to rub her between the ears. She sat down and submitted to his caress with all signs of enjoyment.

“She likes you, perhaps because you’re not afraid of her like most people,” Azrahil commented, having followed her to where Faramir stood. His dark eyes narrowed slightly as he watched the other. “You’re having doubts as well, are you not?” he then remarked, with an amount of insight Faramir would not have credited him, showing how similar their situations were indeed.

Now it was the Dunadan’s turn to avoid the other’s gaze. “I would be lying if I claimed I did not,” Faramir answered quietly.

For a while they stood in silence, both stroking Pharzi absently, to her deep purring, until Faramir said, “I will try and help you to arrange a meeting with Inzilbêth. It seems Éowyn befriended her, so perhaps if we managed to convey a message to one of them, she could forward it to the other. But you must promise me to remain calm and patient, however hard that is under the circumstances. No recklessness, no thoughtless action on your own. You will stick to what the rest of our group decides. Otherwise you are endangering not just yourself, but all of us, and are playing directly into our enemy’s hands. Do I have your word, Azrahil?”

The young man held his gaze steadily. “You have my word,” he promised, gravely and sincerely. Then of a sudden he smiled slightly. “Perhaps I should demand your word as well. I know you are mostly sensible, and not given to recklessness, but in the current situation …”

“Is this an attempt to make fun of me?” Faramir inquired.

“No,” the other replied hastily. “Well, a little, maybe. You tarks seem to invite that, sometimes.” At this last words, the faintest of smiles began to warm his sun-tanned features.

“Do we? In what way, if I may ask?”

“Well, most of you are so … formal. You think too much before you do something, so much that sometimes you end up not doing it at all, wasting a good opportunity.”

Now Faramir smiled as well. “Whereas you Southrons act first, and think later. Or do not think at all.”

Azrahil gave a short but genuine laugh which made Pharzi prick up her ears and twitch her black-tipped tail. “Aye, this sounds familiar. Although I must admit Marek must have invested some thought before he staged the attack on Kadall, and your wife’s abduction,” he added, his mirth fading. “It was well-staged but for some minor blunders.” He gave Faramir another glance, and his smile returned, but now it was thin and dangerous. “Or not so minor. For here you are, alive and well, while he believes you slain. And even if you were dead, I wonder that he is so naïve to believe he would get away with what he did, without suffering revenge from Gondor and your wife’s country together.”

“Acting without thinking through all possibilities,” said Faramir. “’Tis his great weakness, but he is not aware of it. This is why he will never make more than a fairly decent chess-player.”

“I watched you play, on the island. I always had the impression he was not as good at it as you. Yet he did beat you, at times.”

Faramir smiled grimly, patting the lion. “So he did. When I let him.”

+

The rain lessened somewhat during the late afternoon, yet the day remained wet and unfriendly, as well as surprisingly cold for high summer. Upon his return to his tent, where Turgon and Aralas were busy tending to their weapons and gear, he set to writing a letter to Mablung, to be delivered by Khorazîr’s messenger who was eager to be gone the next morning. He told the captain to move the greater part of the company down to Ihimbra, but to do so carefully and in disguise so as not get spotted by Al-Jahmîr’s spies who surely would watch Khîblat Pharazon for signs of Khorazîr’s and his son’s activities.

Overcome by exhaustion at last, he then slept a few hours until he was roused again by Aralas, at nightfall. Lôkhî and his two companions had returned from their expedition into Ihimbra town, and although they were wet to the skin, hungry and weary, their errand had been successful.

“We even ventured as far as the orchard-walls, to take a look at the security measures there,” recounted Lôkhî round large bites from a flat loaf of bread. “Already folk had gathered before the gate to be let in, but the guards refused them, and told them to return when the weather was better. I spoke with some of the people, and took a good look at what kind of folks they are: mostly little more than beggars. In town, I found everything we are going to need to blend in with that crowd. Should not pose a problem, really. The guards don’t look too sharp. They were rather bored, and annoyed they were on duty in the rain. Still, I don’t think we should try our luck tomorrow already. We’ve yet got to spy out possible routes of escape should things go badly, and we be discovered. Also, we need to give thought to a distraction, and indeed where to hide you others. And the Dúnadan and I need to rehearse our little act, to pull it off convincingly.”

Having also spent some time at the harbour gathering information, they recounted the latest rumours making the round there. “Apparently Captain Azrubâr’s ship has been spotted in the bay,” said Lôkhî, still eating ravenously. “There was quite a bit of excitement down in the harbour, with people running too and fro headlessly, crying out about pirates. Especially the merchants were greatly distraught, those who had been planning to set out that day. They all called for the coast-watch to send out a ship to intercept the corsair, but when word reached them that the ship was black-sailed, they suddenly all had something else to do. Apparently Azrubâr has not boasted about his fearsome reputation in these parts. I think finally word was sent up to the castle, because after a while a troop of soldiers in the Snake’s livery arrived at the quays to drive away folks as had stirred up the people with their gossip, and also to man one of the swift, green-sailed ships of Al-Jahmîr’s own fleet. I’d reckon they are going to patrol the bay now, although I don’t think they’d dare attack the pirate. They were too few for that, and they didn’t even have catapults on their vessel, which was rather small. Seems to me they’re mostly out for gathering information, and for making a show for the people, pretending that something is being done against the pirate.”

“In town, rumours are flying ever more freely,” added Lôkhî’s companion, an older, plain-faced man named Îbal, who despite his inconspicuous looks and bearing had the markings of a fierce warrior, albeit only at second glance. “When we acquired our baskets and other gear for Widow’s Harvest, we chatted a little with the woman who sold them. The common people are complaining, even to outsiders, about the increasing presence of the Snake’s guards in town. It’s bad for business, they say. There are more and more controls. People get taken away for questioning, and some don’t return. The merchants and other towns-folk don’t like it. In previous years Al-Jahmîr has little interfered with the daily business in town, but now he does, to find all who might support his enemies. And fact is, some folks are outraged about what he pulled – inviting mighty Gondor’s wrath with his actions. They are far more ready to aid anybody they consider working against him than he deems. Rumour has it that the town-elders did not cheer his return. Apparently they had been far happier under Minastir’s rule who opened the realm to more trade with the North through his support of the tarks. Also, the Snake’s son left them to their own devices. And he’d lowered the taxes. First thing Marek did when he returned was to raise them again, apparently to finance his exorbitant lifestyle. Understandably that doesn’t go down well with people.”

“Do you reckon they are brave enough to rise up against him?” asked Khorazîr, upon with Îbal, Sakalthôr and Azrahil shook their heads in unison. “I doubt it,” said the captain. “They are merchants, not warriors. As long as trade commences smoothly, and taxes are low enough to ensure profit and prosperity, despite opposing the Snake’s policies they would never rise up against their lord.”

Azrahil nodded in agreement. “This is my estimation also. It is remarkable that some aid us the way they do, secretly and in fear.”

“Their number is bound to increase,” said Khorazîr, “as soon as the first Gondorian warship has been sighted in the bay. For then they know that the Snake is in for trouble for certain. And they with him, should they continue to support him.”

They continued to talk and listen to what the two men could report from their foray into town. It was decreed that Îbal should return there the next day, accompanied by two others to find a good hiding place for those about to accompany Lôkhî and Faramir on their errand. Meanwhile, Khorazîr’s guard and the Dúnadan retired to Faramir’s tent where Lôkhî began unpacking what he had acquired in town.

When Turgon and Aralas returned to the tent from watch-duty some hours later, for an instant both believed that strangers had slipped past their guard. Turgon who entered first froze in surprise, reaching for his sword instinctively.

“Nay nay, m’lad, ‘tis alright,” he was greeted jovially in a cracked voice. “We’re not here to steal anything.”

Turgon stared at the figure blankly. “What –” he began, then his eyes narrowed as he studied the bent old crone grinning at him gap-toothedly from underneath her hood more closely.

“Do sheath that sword again, laddie, ere you hurt y’self,” the old woman cackled with obvious mirth.

“That you, Lôhkî?” asked Turgon as he stared in surprise at the little man in his disguise. He had dressed in long rags of various colours, a hood hiding most of his face which he had dyed with ash and some brown paste, which caused the lines around eyes and mouth to stand out prominently. His long hair he wore loose and dishevelled, and those strands straying from underneath the hood he had also dusted with white ash. Some of his teeth he had covered with dark patches so that they appeared to be missing, and leaning heavily upon a sturdy cane, his bent form was even smaller than usual, almost dwarf-like.

“Aye, that’s me,” he laughed, straightening, his voice back to normal. “Well, lads, I’m pleased to see I managed to fool you with the disguise. I don’t doubt now that it’ll work on those guardsmen just as well.”

“It is quite remarkable,” Aralas said appreciatively. “You look aged by years, and, if you forgive me saying so, remind me of my aged grandmother. She also has a stick like that, and generally uses it to whack everybody round the legs if they are not seeing to their chores as quickly as it pleases her.”

“What a wonderful idea,” exclaimed Lôkhî. “Although I fear my ‘grandson’ will not appreciate me using the stick so freely on him. Ah, and there he is.” He pointed to the tent-flap, where Faramir stooped to enter. After Lôkhî’s treatment, he had stepped outside to regard himself in one of the large puddles behind the tent and so had overheard the other’s conversation. He had been pleased to discover that even the rangers had been fooled by the guard’s disguise. His own was less severe, although he did look quite unlike himself.

Apparently his companions thought so, too. “If I hadn’t known it was you, captain,” said Turgon, walking round Faramir and surveying his new attire critically, “I would not have recognised you. You look like a Southron. And not a very well-kept one, either.”

He had to agree with the ranger. His new garments were even plainer than the ones he had been given by Narejde, and far shabbier, too, his burnous little more than rags like Lôkhî’s. The advantage of this was that the garment swathed his tall figure and broad shoulders, and if he hunched his back a little, made him look considerably smaller and less athletic in build. Also, it was excellent for hiding useful things underneath, like a scimitar. Into his hair Lôkhî had knotted strands of dark horsehair. It made for a tangled, matted mob, which together with his skin dyed brown with some strange-smelling paste he sincerely hoped would come off again with enough water and soap, gave him a wild and rather untended look. The only thing which did not quite fit his new attire were his eyes. They stood in stark contrast to his swarthy features, therefore Lôkhî had advised him to cover his face as best he could, under the pretence that was disfigured by some disease or accident.

“You could pretend to be a leper,” suggested Turgon whose imagination was immediately stirred by this idea.

“Or simply to have been burned by the sun,” said Aralas more practically.

“We shouldn’t have any problems justifying the veil,” said Lôkhî with a shrug. “Many folks wear them when they have to work outside all day. I reckon the weather will have improved by tomorrow, or the day after at the latest. Those rains don’t stay long in these parts in summer.”

+

Later, they presented their disguise to the others, to their general praise for Lôkhî’s inventiveness and skill at procuring all required items. When questioned where he found the strange paste and the fake hair, he only grinned mysteriously, indicating the others should better not ask any further. “I have my sources,” was all he would say, and the others wisely left it at that.

+++

The next day dawned grey and rather cold, yet even though the sky remained clouded over, with mists hanging thickly in the wooded hills, there was no more rain. As one of the few people not leaving the quarry all day, Faramir had plenty of time to get used to his new attire, and indeed his new identity. Under Lôkhî’s rather stern tutoring they rehearsed their parts, while most others ventured forth to gather more information or replenish their provisions. Apart from getting used to walking with his back somewhat bent – not very favourable for his chest-wound which still troubled him at times –, Faramir was taught to speak in the local dialect, which Lôkhî was fluent in.

“Actually, I hail from these parts,” he admitted a little abashedly when the Dúnadan inquired about the reason for his remarkable command of the tongue. “From a little further south, Umbar-way. But it’s not much different from how they talk round here. You’re doing rather well, for a tark. Just give it a little more drawl, and do the consonants less sharply. We’re a lazy bunch down here. Still, it’d be better if you left the talking to me.”

Faramir did not argue this point, knowing that the more he remained in the background without inviting any attention, the better. And Lôkhî did look and act his part very convincingly, having fooled half their company the previous evening. Together, they invented a background story for their characters, to be recounted should one of the guards inquire after their identity, both hoping that it would not be needed.

Even though these preparations kept them rather busy all day, Faramir felt a mounting anxiety. There was not only the danger of their act going terribly awry, with consequences he would rather not imagine, there also was the thought that perhaps, if all went well, he might see his wife. And what then? Would she see him as well? What would her reaction be? Would there be an opportunity to talk, even? And what, if yes, would they say to each other? Would she be pleased to see him, or …? He forced himself not to continue this thought, nevertheless it had the nasty habit of creeping up to him again whenever he thought he had conquered his doubts, leaving him troubled and increasingly worried.

+

The night he passed with little true rest, his sleep fitful and filled with weird, disturbing and not very encouraging dreams. Thus, he was already awake when ere sundown, Lôkhî came to rouse him. Mist hung thickly in the quarry, muffling all sound. Quickly, those set to provide the rear-guard and, if needed, a distraction, got ready. Khorazîr, Murâd, Hâmadar and Narejde had disguised as shepherds, to join their informant and his flocks, and pretend to be looking after them in view of the gates, and on the hillsides overlooking the orchards beyond their walls. The two rangers, Azrahil and Mezlâr went off to hide in the countryside, ready to stage a distraction should it be required. They had taken Pharzi as well. Some of Narejde’s men had joined them, the rest were going to remain behind in the quarry, to guard the camp and to watch Sakalthôr, who, with obvious displeasure at being left behind, watched their departure from his tent.

+

After almost two hours steady but cautious walk, when the sun had risen and begun to eat away at the mists which nevertheless shrouded the meadows underneath the ancient olive-trees, the groves of which they had been passing this half hour, they reached an old stone-building mostly overgrown by wild vines and flowering clematis. Heralded by the strong smell of sheep and goats, and the low barking of dogs, they found the shepherd waiting for them – an elderly, grey-haired man with a weather-beaten face and sharp eyes, which shone from underneath his head-dress. After a last, short but grave conversation, the ‘shepherds’ and ‘harvesters’ parted ways.

Faramir found himself burdened with two large baskets and a pannier slung over his hale shoulder – their weight less severe than the anxiety lying on his heart. Lôkhî, meanwhile, seemed in excellent spirits, walking briskly and without any sign of the age his withered looks suggested, twirling his walking-stick exuberantly.

“But for the fog we could see the orchard-walls from here, and even the castle up on the cliffs,” he explained, waving the cane in the general direction. They were following a broad, rather well-tended road now, which they had come upon from their path at the overgrown hut. “This road leads up from the town yonder,” he pointed again, then suddenly bent over and began to hobble along rather pitifully. Swiftly, Faramir reached up to cover his face more thoroughly and bent his head. Riders could be heard approaching from behind them at a brisk trot, and soon also the jingling of chain-mail was audible.

“Guards,” whispered Lôkhî as they moved closer to the high banks bordering the roard, to clear the way for the horsemen.

“Most likely to relief those on watch right now,” mused Faramir, cautiously raising his head a little in order to catch a glimpse of the riders. The company consisted of a dozen men in the livery of the Snake’s household guard, with another score of men in plainer armour and without the green and silver surcoats behind them.

“City-watch,” muttered Lôkhî.

Bracing himself for getting intercepted and questioned right away, Faramir watched with relief when the guards passed them by without so much as glancing sideways at them. Rounding another bend in the road, they found themselves approaching a sturdy wall of reddish stone, strangely rose-hued and looking all but solid in the soft, diffused light. A two-winged gate large enough for a cart stood partly open, guards issuing forth. The horsemen had just dismounted and their leader was talking to one of these men. The rest of the guards spread out to position themselves next to a gaggle of people standing to one side of the gate. Faramir saw that Lôkhî had chosen their disguise very well when they drew closer to these ramshackle folks: apparently many of the old and poor of Ihimbra town had gathered here. All were equipped with various kinds of baskets, bags and sacks, some even carrying large bottles. One old man had a hand-cart presently filled with three young children, two of whom looked asleep still, sacks draped over them instead of blankets. Three others had brought donkeys laden with panniers, and one a large, old dog, also carrying a sack slung across its back. All were waiting rather impatiently for the guards to step aside and open the way. Complaints were uttered when Faramir and Lôkhî joined the group, trying to stay out of the main crowd.

“I’ve been waiting here since dawn,” an ancient, toothless woman looking very much like Lôkhî called to the guards in a creaking voice. “This fog ain’t good for me bones. Have a pity, masters, and let us in.”

There was a murmur of agreement from the others. The newly arrived guardsman exchanged a few more words with his colleague at the gate, then turned towards the crowd. “Even though most of you know the procedure, before you are allowed in, there are some things you must mind.”

“Aye, aye, we know,” called a one-armed man impatiently. “We mustn’t damage any trees by breaking off branches, and we mustn’t go to the New Orchards because the fruit there is for the masters only.”

“Indeed,” said the guard sternly. “And this year, we will enforce these rules more strictly than previously. Too much damage was wrought then. Therefore, no mules and donkeys and other animals are allowed in, and no ladders. Gather what lies underneath the trees, and have done.”

The people began to mutter disapprovingly amongst themselves, especially those who had brought animals, or carried small ladders all the way from town. “But those fruit as have already fallen are bruised and won’t keep,” complained a middle-aged woman, with a small girl clinging to her skirts. “We were always allowed to take fruit from the trees.”

The guard shook his head. “Not this year, and in your own interest you will obey this new rule. Also, not only the New Orchard is strictly out of bounds this year, but also all trees beyond the boxwood-hedge.”

“But they’ve got the best peaches,” crowed another crone.

“I will suffer no complaints,” returned the guard sharply. “If you cannot abide the rules, you had better returned home again. Remember, you are here because of Lord Al-Jahmîr’s great mercy. He need not allow you to invade his orchards, but because he pities your plight, he consents to it graciously.”

“Great mercy indeed,” a woman standing in front of Faramir muttered viciously under her breath. “Foul snake that he is. Hope he chokes on his precious fruit one day.”

I second that, he thought, before shifting his attention back to the guard. “Heed the rules, therefore,” he reminded the people sternly once more. “As you can see, this year there are more guards and watchmen around to ensure that things proceed in an orderly fashion. We will suffer no quarrels, no theft and no damage this year, without punishing the culprit. Every vessel will be checked upon your departure. So make sure you gather only where it is allowed.”

After a last scowl at the crowd he stepped aside, and the people began arranging themselves in a loose queue, with much squabbling and shuffling around. During the speech more had arrived, so that Faramir and Lôkhî suddenly found themselves in the midst of a chattering mass, in which they blended, to Faramir’s great relief, very well in their disguise. As they approached the gate, he noticed that apparently everybody was briefly questioned by the guards regarding their names, occupation (if any) and justification for partaking in Widow’s Harvest. He felt his heart beat faster when it was their turn. Bending his head and lowering his gaze so as not to have to face the guards, he listened to Lôkhî give their false names in his cracked, cackling voice. “And this here is my poor grandson,” said the ‘crone’, whacking him gently on the back with the walking-stick. “I’m afraid he’s a bit slow, he fell off the cart when he was only a lad and hit his head somewhat seriously, poor boy, and my poor daughter, she wept so upon seeing the child, and with her husband gone away to sea and never returned. The tarks, the evil tarks, they sunk his ship, you see, sunk it in the night, and they drowned man and mouse. Oh, the devils. And my poor daughter, left alone with five children, and the eldest fallen off the cart, and no help at all – although I daresay he’s got wits enough to carry my baskets –, you see, my back, it’s aching me somewhat badly this morn on account of all them rains, and –”

“Yes, yes, I see you’re in need,” the guard sighed, with a rather exasperated glance at his companion who had noted down the names on a list. “Off you go, but have an eye on the lad lest he engages in some mischief.”

“Oh, he’s a decent lad, only a little slow, you see, not right in the head after he’s –”

“Yes, I know, after he’s fallen off the cart. Off you go now, granny. Follow yonder path, and don’t venture further than the dark hedge you see there.”

“Ah, well, young man, if you can see a hedge there, good for you, because I can’t, for my eyes, you know, they were sharp as of an eagle when I was a lass, but now –”

“Next,” the guard called rather sharply, while his fellow stepped forward to usher Lôkhî and Faramir into the orchard. As they passed along the road, Faramir dared a quick glance at the battlements, all of which were well-manned with spear- and bowmen, while other small groups of soldiers could be seen patrolling between the trees. The mists had cleared a little – soon they would have vanished in the sunlight that even now was touching the high grass here and there, gleaming on dew-drops between the flowering stems. The road continued for a little until it reached a small yard between low stone buildings where apparently items for the harvest and maintenance of the orchards and meadows were being stored. Behind these, it split up into various paths winding away between the trees.

“Let us move close to this hedge,” he suggested to Lôkhî who likewise had taken a good look at the security measures, and now was hobbling along next to him. “I have a feeling that what we wish to see is beyond it. Why else would they keep this part out of bounds this year?”

Lôkhî agreed, and so they slowly made their way along the path, down a gentle hill, and towards the green boundary. Guards could be seen patrolling there, and as soon as they had been spotted, two approached them.

“To work,” commanded Lôkhî softly, when they had reached a peach-tree which already had been harvested, for the branches were almost bare of fruit, and the grass underneath trampled. He underlined his command with another rather playful whack of the cane. “There is another,” he cackled aloud, pointing his stick at a fruit in the grass, waiting for Faramir to pick it up and deposit it in the baskets. “And don’t forget to check if they’re rotten. We don’t take the rotten ones. The bruised ones, yes, but not the rotten ones. You wouldn’t take the rotten ones, either, would you, masters?” he then inquired of the guards. The two young men exchanged a rather surprised glance at being addressed so.

“You see,” Lôkhî went on, squinting up at their confused faces, “my sister, she is younger than I, she once ate a rotten one. I told her not to, but she’s very miserly, you see, and wouldn’t want to see it go to waste. So she ate it, silly thing, at it whole, and she had cramps, cramps all night. And the day after. She was so sick, we thought she would die. And I had told her not to eat it, silly thing. There is another,” he then called to Faramir, pointing with the cane again. “And make sure it’s not rotten. We don’t take the rotten ones.”

“The poor lad,” Faramir heard one guardsmen mutter to his companion as they rather hurriedly continued on their way. “She’s worse than my wife’s grandmother – and she’s a true witch.”

“This is going rather well,” muttered Lôkhî good-humouredly as he cumbersomely bent down as if to inspect a fruit more closely.

“We are going to be thrown out if you continue getting on their nerves like this,” Faramir cautioned, despite being amused and indeed rather impressed by his companion’s convincing acting. “So I fell off the cart, right? This was not the story we agreed on.”

“I know,” grinned Lôkhî. “Couldn’t resist poking a little fun at you. You seem like you could do with a good laugh right now, as tense and worried as you look. Relax. So far, this is going splendidly for us, and I don’t see any reason why it should change. We’ll get out of here as easily as we got in, you’ll see.”

“This is not what I am worried about,” Faramir admitted quietly, gazing at the peach in his hand – with a painful stab he was reminded of Meriadoc, who had wanted to keep his share of one such fruit for his mother. Lôkhî gave him a long, grave look, then briefly squeezing his shoulder, withdrew to lean on his cane again. “Let’s have a look over there, closer to the hedge. There are some good trees there, with fallen fruit aplenty, and not out of bounds either, so masters guards won’t have a justification for chasing us away.”

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Approaching novel-length: The Snake's Checkmate


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